Interviews

Making a Book By Hand: Curtis Smith Interviews Erin Dorney

Erin Dorney is a writer and artist based in Pennsylvania. She is the author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems After Shia LaBeouf (Mason Jar Press) and her writing has appeared in various publications including Hobart, HAD, Passages North, and Juked. Erin’s literary artwork and installations have been exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art; Hennepin Theatre Trust; the Minnesota Center for Book Arts; and Susquehanna Art Museum. She is a co-founder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship and Notebooked.

Curtis Smith: What a beautifully packaged collection. I could feel the love behind it. I’m guessing you produced these yourself—can you talk about that process—the physical making of it and the motivation behind it?

Erin Dorney: I made 100 copies of Accept/Reject by hand, all during the month of January 2021. I had been working on these poems for a few years, and I needed a social media break. I planned this project specifically to keep my hands busy and get offline, something that’s been difficult for me to do during the pandemic. I had learned about zines, handmade books, and artist books a few years ago, but this was the first large, editioned project I have tackled.

I think all writers should experience making a book by hand. There’s a self-publishing stigma we’re up against, but zines (and historically, pamphlets) are one of the most accessible forms of publishing. The creator has control of every aspect, from the content to the typography, cover design, number of copies, assembly, and distribution. It can be done cheaply (or expensively), with a lot of forethought or relatively little. To look at a book and know that you did every step yourself—to remember that feeling of pushing a needle through paper—is an incredible thing. I value Accept/Reject just as much as I value my full-length, perfect-bound book of poetry (perhaps more, even).

CS: So not to give too much away, but these are erasure poems—and the structure is a split zine—one half acceptances for your own work and the other half rejections. Each side starts with its own epigraph from Anne Truit—and each ends in the middle where you have an author’s note. Can you tell us about the content? Were you already writing these poems and the idea came to you to bring them together in this way? Or did the idea of the whole project come to you first?

ED: This idea was actually sparked by the Kickstarter Fear No Lit ran back in 2019. We were fundraising for the Submerging Writer Fellowship and one of the rewards we offered was called “Fear No Poem.” For $50, I would write backers an original blackout poem from the source text of their choosing. Two people picked this reward, and one of them asked me to write an erasure poem from an acceptance or rejection email I had received. I loved it and just kept on writing them.

I didn’t know until much later what the final form would be, but I did keep the acceptance poems separate from the rejection poems as I worked. As every writer knows, getting a rejection email feels drastically different than getting an acceptance email—I was curious to see if that energy would carry through into the poems. Accept/Reject really helped me transform that gut-punch of a rejection. I printed them out, re-read them a bunch of times, and tried to find something of value inside them. Some people might consider that masochistic, I guess, but for me it was more motivating than anything.

CS: What about the erasure form intrigues you? In the form you use, there’s a single word on each line—but there are other forms of erasure that use blackout—so it looks like a redacted document. Have you used that form before? If so, what about the form you use in this collection appeals to you more?

ED: I tend to re-write most of my erasure poems, but they always start on paper. My process is to print out the original source text, and then use a pencil to circle words, draw lines, and make notes. If I go right in with a Sharpie to redact, I mess it up right away—going over a word I need or something like that. Retyping the poems after I’ve gotten messy on the page gives me a little more control over the poem—I can add line breaks, punctuation, etc. It also helps get me off of my computer. Once I have the source texts printed, I also bring them places with me to work on, compile them in a folder. It’s very hands-on.

CS: I read this in one sitting—I’m guessing that’s your intention—and then I read it again—and I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but there’s a certain feeling in experiencing it back to front in its totality—almost like I’m overhearing parts of a conversation—or like watching boulders in a stream. I’m not explaining it well, I’m afraid—but I’m wondering if that was in your mind from the start—creating a kind of overall mood when the pieces were read together rather than just reading a piece here and there?

ED: I like the image of boulders in a stream. I’m so glad you said this because it makes me feel better about something I find extremely difficult—ordering pieces in a collection. I had a really hard time ordering in my full-length collection, and ultimately left the final decisions up to my (amazing) editor Michael B. Tager. Since then I’ve been trying to get better at creating that overall mood through ordering. What helped with Accept/Reject was that I had a lot of poems to choose from. I had upwards of 30 poems and ultimately picked 16 that I thought worked best together for this collection.

CS: May I ask about the erasure process? You don’t change word order, correct? As you go through, are you looking for certain kinds of words in a certain sequence, or are you playing it by ear and seeing what strikes you?

ED: Correct—all of the words are still in the same order that they showed up in the original source text. There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules with erasure (beyond the very important ones of citing your source text and considering your privilege when erasing other voices) but I find that many of us adopt certain stylistic choices. This is one of mine. What I’m always looking for when writing erasures are interesting word combinations and unique language. That’s the beauty of using a source text—you never know what you’re going to find.

CS: What’s next?

ED: I’m looking forward to attending some zine fests, where I can share Accept/Reject with other people who make their own books. It’s also available for sale on my website. This summer I’m working on the first draft of a creative nonfiction book about the Goo Goo Dolls and I’ve also got a hybrid project that relates to Adriene Mishler of Yoga By Adriene (some poems from that manuscript can be read at HAD). Ultimately, I’m always accruing more acceptance and rejection emails (usually more rejections than acceptances, as my personal policy is that everything is worth a shot), so maybe there will be another installation of Accept/Reject someday.

An Important Antidote to Stress: Curtis Smith Interviews Carol Sabik-Jaffe

Carol Sabik-Jaffe’s scripts have been recognized in numerous screenwriting competitions and optioned by producers. The International Family Film Festival awarded her three Best Screenplay prizes. #BCarefulWhatUWish4 and The Devil’s Due won Best Comedy honors and Living Again, Best Drama. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts granted Carol a Fellowship in Theatre/Scriptworks in 2008.

Carol holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and a BFA in Communication Design from Kutztown University. Her previous career was in advertising as an Art Director. She has taught Screenwriting at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Screenwriting and Writing for TV at Rowan University in New Jersey. She served on the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Board of Directors from 2009 – 2019.

Carol is currently working with Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) to bring Victory Lane, a 1hr family drama to TV. In addition to seeking homes for several of her scripts, Carol is also at work adapting a few into books. FIRST NIGHT is her debut novel.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on First Night. Can you tell us about the novel’s origins? Did it start with an image? An observed moment? An imagined scenario? Once you had this starting point, how did the narrative unfold?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Thank you! And thanks for the opportunity to discuss this project!

Originally, I wanted to attempt to tell a story that took place, start to finish, in twenty-four hours. (Yikes!) And, for my first pass at writing this concept I decided as an exercise for myself I would try to write this as a screenplay AND a novel at the same time. I probably wrote the first fifteen or so pages of the script and the beginning of the novel, switching between the two forms. But each is such a very different way of writing I found it incredibly hard to do both at the same time! I quickly abandoned that idea and finished the script. The script received some positive feedback from Hollywood folks as I shopped it around. As some stories and characters do, these characters always stayed with me. I came back to this idea and finished adapting it to a book much later. As I was writing the novel, the script became a very helpful “outline.” (Just add words they said!)

The narrative itself came together as I explored the twenty-four-hour restriction I’d given myself. New Year’s Eve for many is usually fraught with grand expectations and some disappointments, and New Year’s Day in Philly is completely unique… so the setting and time frame became especially intriguing to me.

The importance of midnight and the tie in to the Cinderella trope evolved as I explored the relationship Maria had to her family, the family’s tradition of Mummering, and her wanting to live her own life. The Mummers Parade and the chaos that the characters are challenged with, and overcome, gave me the plot to keep them tenuously moving through predicaments. The common goal to save the day propels them through to the resolution of the story…  of course, it’s a ridiculous twenty-four hours filled with dilemmas and madcap moments that (hopefully) keep you laughing as they reach their triumphant conclusion.

In this story I also wanted to explore the idea of two lives colliding — the idea that people are destined to meet at certain times — Maria and Hunter’s paths crossing seems “serendipitous” but what if it was destiny?

Curtis Smith: The Mummers are in here! It doesn’t get much more Philly than that. I talk with my writing students a lot about place—its importance and what it can bring to a story. So why Philadelphia? What unique aspects of the city and its culture made their way into the novel—and what did these things bring?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: Well… I live in the Philly suburbs, worked in Center City for years, and have spent all of my adult life here. Almost all of my stories are set in Philly or the surrounding area. As a screenwriter I was always looking at place as both character and setting. If truth be told, I was also scouting for locations – mostly because I wanted to shoot in my backyard if I could — so the visuals were important!

The idea of incorporating the Mummers into this story was propelled by the NYE/NYDay time frame. FIRST NIGHT is also about family and tradition and is hopefully relatable on those levels to readers. In addition to Mummers, much of the story is very specific to Philadelphia — Broad Street, South Philly, competing cheesesteak joints, restaurants, and bars, etc. — maybe it’s a way to visit the city right now without leaving home. And, as it turned out, the Mummers could not have a parade this year due to Covid, so a bit of Philly New Year’s Day flavor (maybe) served another purpose unbeknownst to me when writing and publishing.

Curtis Smith: I’m all in on the updated Cinderella vibe—and that brings me to a question about structure and form. I admire works that breathe new life into old stories. Was the Cinderella angle there from the beginning—or did it come later, as you got to know Maria? What were the challenges of using and updating this framework?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: The New Year’s Eve setting and the significance of midnight became a way to “loosely” incorporate a reimagined modern “Cinderella” into FIRST NIGHT. So, yes, the Cinderella angle was there from the start. Her life-of-the-party cousins (a twist on the evil step-sisters trope) talk Maria into attending the NYE First Night Ball where she crosses paths (for the second time) with a handsome “Prince” that she dumps at midnight when an emergency arises.

Her overwhelming responsibilities as the team’s solo costume designer (in addition to her real job) and her promise to salvage her family’s Mummer Parade performance further served the “Cinderella” as overworked character. Maria, though reluctant, takes the situation in her own hands without the use of a “fairy godmother” to solve her problems (though there are a few magical moments and people assisting in the background). So admittedly, I was influenced by the parts of fairytale, but did not stay precisely within the original framework. Maria is her own Cinderella.

Curtis Smith: Can I ask about the general vibe here? I admired the humor and the eventual winning of love, but this kind of positivity can be tough, especially given the shape of our nation and the world. Was this a challenge as you wrote First Night? Or was writing it a kind of catharsis?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I began FIRST NIGHT long before Covid-19 and the current challenges we are facing. I believe people always need an escape from their day-to-day and a reason to laugh. Humor is such an important antidote to stress… that said, I especially think it’s crucial right now. We all need a little positivity and an escape once in a while in our lives. I am also happier writing comedy or dramedy in general. Life is dark enough. I don’t necessarily want to swim around in bleak subjects for too long… though I have a psychological thriller I’m shopping around…

Curtis Smith: What’s next?

Carol Sabik-Jaffe: I’m currently working on the sequel to FIRST NIGHT, titled “A SECOND CHANCE at a FIRST DATE.” I want to explore these characters again… and they’ve been telling me that they have more to say and do.

I’m also working on revising a ½ hour tv comedy titled, MERMAIDS OF MEDIA, PA. — that script has gotten a little attention and I’d love to find a team for it. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu… can you hear me? (Haha.) Additionally, I’m in the process of searching for homes for my other TV and film scripts while deciding on the next one to adapt into a book.

As always, I have numerous ideas in various stages of development!

Interview by Curtis Smith

Understanding the Why of Actions: Curtis Smith Interviews Ayesha F. Hamid

100879941_678076676306203_5147643859034963968_nAyesha F. Hamid is a poet and creative nonfiction writer, published in Big Easy ReviewPhilly Flash Inferno, and Rathalla Review. Her full-length memoir, The Borderland Between Worlds, is available through Auctus Publishers at Barnes and Nobles, Amazon, and Target. Ayesha also has a full-length poetry collection called Waiting for Resurrection. Ayesha holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Publishing from Rosemont College. She also holds an M.A. in Sociology from Brooklyn College. She is the Editor-in-Chief at The City Key. Aside from writing, Ayesha also loves travel and photography.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Borderland Between Worlds. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially with an independent press. Can you tell us about your experience?

Ayesha F. Hamid: During my first year at Rosemont’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I took my first creative nonfiction class with writer, Richard Bank. Richard used Socratic Method in his class, and this question and answer format of learning, in addition to writing assignments, showed me that I had a story to tell. The Borderland Between Worlds became my thesis for the MFA program.

A few years after graduation, Richard introduced me to Krish Singh, the founder of Auctus Publishers. I found out that the mission of Auctus Publishers was to encourage writers and their growth and to publish work that doesn’t fit neatly with commercial publishers. I’d interacted with a handful of agents and decided that, for my book, going with an independent publisher was the best fit because I’d be able to tell my story the way I wanted without the need to change the story to appeal to larger audiences. So, Auctus Publishers ended up being the perfect fit for my book.

CS: The book is your story as an immigrant from Pakistan, so there’s a personal story here, but your story is an echo of the larger immigrant experience. As you wrote, were you keeping an eye on both this micro level of your life and the wider, macro level? If so, was this dual lens there from the beginning or was there a moment when you realized this was both your story and a larger story? Can you tell us about the challenges of writing at these two levels?

AFH: Writing a memoir about immigration has been one of the most treasured experiences of my life. In writing a book like this, the writer realizes so much about themselves and the world around them.

In the beginning of the writing process, I was focused on my past and my story, but then, I realized that although the events in my life were unique to me, the struggles I faced were not. I wanted my book to speak to these common struggles and to speak for those who want to be understood and included. My book is also a tribute for those who cling tenaciously to a goal though it may seem impossible to achieve.

During the inception of this book, I proposed that its themes revolved around financial struggle and the struggle to fit in. The more I wrote and read my own story, the more I noticed that the conflicts, in my life, always arose from the struggle of being from two different cultures with varying beliefs and norms. The struggle of living up to the expectations of two cultures places an individual in what I call a borderland. This is a place where many immigrants, among others such as those with religious, racial, or gender differences, inhabit. It is the space where individuals find themselves when presented with myriad demands from disparate worlds, demands that seem too daunting to meet. Those who have to walk this line also have to battle with themselves to understand their place in their cultures and ultimately, their identity and their place in the world. Needless to say, the battle with oneself is the most difficult one.

The difficulty in writing about this topic, whether it be at the micro or macro level, is the subject matter itself. The more I realized that others lived through similar or worst experiences, the more disheartening it was. My struggles made me stronger, but it was a burden to realize that others, who were so similar to me, either gave up their fight or in some cases gave up their lives.

CS: Another duality you explore was witnessed in your day-to-day life. You went to school and worked in a distinctly American culture, but you often ended your days in a very traditional home. We all balance our private and public lives—but the balancing act must be harder when one navigates their way between two different, sometimes clashing, cultures. What was this experience like as a young person? How did it change as you grew?

AFH: This question is an emotional one. To be honest, to be a young person and live in two different cultures, whose goals oftentimes oppose each other, is crushing. In school, I wasn’t able to participate in class trips, school events, or hang out with friends after school like everyone else did. I had some wonderful friends that made adjustments for me, but living so differently from my peers left me, again, with the feeling that I did not belong and that I did not fit in. Friends tried to understand why I couldn’t spend time with them outside of school and tried to reserve judgment on why my parents’ culture made them so strict and concerned with their children’s safety.

One of the groups I want my book to speak for is immigrant children, or any children for that matter, that feel that they do not belong or fit in. Now that I am older, I have the freedom to choose what I want, whereas when I was younger, it felt like I didn’t have a choice. As I’ve grown older, I see that there is much common ground between all cultures in the world. Everyone wants safety and security. Education is a goal that is accepted in both American and South Asian cultures, and learning every day is an activity that I’ve gravitated towards my whole life.

CS: You tackle some very personal issues—bullying, a failed marriage, race, religion. When I speak to memoirists, I’m always interested in where they draw their lines—where does the writer’s story end and another person’s story begin. It’s a hard line to navigate, yet we each have to do it, and there’s no right answer. What boundaries/guidelines did you follow?

AFH: In all that I write about, including issues with bullying, marriage, race, and religion, I try to explain the reason or point of view of the person causing the conflict or the person supporting me. As writers know, we have to understand the why of action, so I try to explain others’ points of view as much as possible. However, I always return to my own vantage point to tell my story.

CS: Part of the book touches on the struggles of the working college student. I think many of my generation don’t fully understand the financial strain many students face these days. I work with students who carry a full schedule and then work twenty, thirty, forty hours a week. Can you tell us about this time of your life? What were your challenges? What did you discover about yourself?

AFH:  Those years were very challenging and uncertain times for me. Like many other students, I worked a lot of hours to make sure that I had enough money for tuition.

Depending on the cost of attending school, scholarships and financial aid oftentimes doesn’t cover all expenses. A student’s bill for tuition may be twenty-five thousand dollars a year. Depending on how much financial aid covers, the student would still have to come up with living expenses and, sometimes, additional money for tuition.

During my college years, an additional challenge I faced was the fact that my family wasn’t familiar with how schooling worked in the United States. In Pakistan, my grandparents could cover my parents’ college expenses out of pocket, but, in America, most families, like my own, could no longer cover college expenses out of pocket. The college I went to, Chestnut Hill College, was heavily invested in students’ success, so the combination of helpful mentors and my own work made paying for attendance at a private college a possibility. My struggles, during that time, helped me to learn independence and how to work towards a goal. The experience made me a more tenacious person because no matter what, I was going to finish college, even though this goal seemed extremely untenable at times.

CS: You’re active in the Philadelphia literary community. I think Philly has great lit scene. Can you tell us about the community you see? What can it offer to writers both new and experienced?

AFH: From what I see, the Philadelphia literary community is very connected and supportive. I have had the benefit of being connected to different parts of the writing community through being a student at Rosemont College as well as having the opportunity to volunteer for Philadelphia Stories (www.philadelphiastories.org), which is a vital organization supporting the work of writers and artists in the Philadelphia area. What I love about our writing community is that we have serious writers who care about the craft and work tirelessly. The focus here is on writing and not on schools or cliques as I have heard it said of writing communities in other cities.

CS: What’s next?

AFH: I am looking forward to mentoring others as they write their own memoirs. I have a poetry collection that I am revising, and after revisions are completed, I’ll be looking for a publisher for the collection. After this work is complete, it will finally be time to embark on the new adventure of writing another book!

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What’s Your Poison? (an interview with Karen Lillis)

Karen Lillis selling books at her pop-up bookstand, Small Press Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Laura Zurowski

Karen Lillis selling books at her pop-up bookstand, Small Press Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Laura Zurowski

Last month I brought news of Small Press Roulette, a new service designed by Karen Lillis to add the element of chance to the business of connecting readers with small press books and journals. Personally, I love the idea. Confronted with the wide range of indie offerings that the 21st-century publishing world has to offer, it’s almost impossible to decide what to read next. Sure, it’s a bit of a gamble, but playing Small Press Roulette means I don’t have choose, which is a big deal for me because I’m the poster-child for indecision. Curious about Small Press Roulette, I placed an order (reviews to come!) and emailed Karen with a few questions…

How would you describe Small Press Pittsburgh?

Small Press Pittsburgh is an evolving small press showcase. It’s a bookstore that started out as a web resource. Right now it is four things: a pop-up street bookstand (in Pittsburgh) selling indie press books, zines, and journals; a curated bookstore service (“Small Press Roulette”) for small press readers everywhere; a web directory for literary Pittsburgh; and a Facebook page for Pittsburgh literary announcements.

The bookstand has a heavy emphasis on Pittsburgh authors and publishers, and browsers so far have been most excited by discovering Pittsburgh authors. With the bookstand, I’m interested in bringing the larger indie lit world to Pittsburgh, while also making Pittsburgh’s emerging authors (and publishers) better known to Pittsburgh readers (especially outside the lit scene). With the bookselling service, Small Press Roulette, I want to introduce the best of the underground small press to readers who aren’t over-familiar with the authors I’m sending them. There are more great writers than the ones who are getting all the hype. Or, sometimes a writer is getting the hype, but not in a wide enough area—they’re some city’s local celebrity while remaining a national secret.

The mission of Small Press Pittsburgh (in any form) has always been to promote small and micro- presses and make them more visible—easier to find for anyone who’s looking. It started with the web directory, creating listings for all the indie publishers of Pittsburgh. Now I guess I’m getting impatient—it’s not enough to passively promote. Now I’m willing to stand on the street with all those indie publishers’ books and talk to people until they buy one. “We’ve got fiction! We’ve got poetry! We’ve got graphic novels! What’s your poison?” I’m like a carnival barker once I smell a passerby who’s genuinely curious about the books.

Small Press Pittsburgh has also been interested in cross-fertilization from the start. One big aim of the website is to help writers and publishers from outside Pittsburgh who are planning book tours and readings—I want to demystify Pittsburgh’s reading venues and bookstores in order to bring outside readers here. Now I get to cross-fertilize readers and writers through the bookstand and the roulette bookselling. I get to sell Baltimore zines to New Orleans, Pittsburgh memoirs to New Jersey, Pittsburgh graphic novels to San Diego, and San Francisco fiction to Pittsburgh. And so on.

How long has it been in operation?

The website started in 2008, and expanded a few times. The Facebook announcement page has been around for a couple of years. The pop-up bookstand started in early July 2013, and Small Press Roulette began in late July 2013.

What gave you the idea to do it?

The website came about because I came to Pittsburgh and saw a small but vibrant, dedicated but balkanized literary scene. It seemed like the academics kept their distance from the underground writers, and the “literary” writers didn’t always associate with the zinesters or the slam poets. I was in library school when I created the website for a cataloging class. Thinking as a librarian, I wanted to show what a healthy literary scene Pittsburgh had by democratizing each facet. To a librarian, each of those literary scenes is equal. Whereas the people inside the scenes can be blinded by concerns of the ego: Worrying whether their scene has enough clout or convinced that their scene is so much better than the others.  As an outsider, I thought it would create a point of strength just to show how much was going on in Pittsburgh, to record it all in one place.

Evolving into the pop-up bookstand happened much more recently. I was inspired by a few different sources. I was following Mellow Pages Library really closely, a new small press library in Brooklyn. And I kept organizing Pittsburgh’s small presses to give me copies of their books, and I’d send them as library donations en masse. I’d label the packages “from Small Press Pittsburgh.” Next the Polish Hill Arts Fest was coming up, a street fair here where I had tabled as an author the previous year. The organizers were asking me to come back, but I wasn’t convinced it was worth it to sit there with my own novels. One of the organizers, Laura Zurowksi, knew about the packages I’d been sending to Mellow Pages. She suggested I could do the same thing—get books together from local publishers and showcase everyone’s, not just my own. I loved the idea, it made me excited about tabling again.

I think sometime after hearing about The Newsstand in Brooklyn, I bought a book/magazine rack, supposedly to augment table space at the arts fest. But as soon as I bought it I felt like I could sell books anywhere. Since then I’ve been popping up at events like gallery crawls—my next event is the grand opening of a library.

What are some challenges you face with the SPP bookstand?

Rain, wind, gravity. Every outdoor event has been under threat of severe thunderstorms. The first time we set up the bookstand, a good gust of wind came through and blew almost every book off the stand and onto the sidewalk. We clipped a trash bag to the back of the stand, which helped that dilemma. The physics of the bookstand itself is something I’m still working out—the “shelves” are very shallow, which is good for face-outs, but it’s easy for a book to start a domino effect. One book leans forward at the wrong angle, and in a few seconds, twenty books have fallen off. This is tedious because the books start to get damaged if they fall two or three times. Not terribly so, but visibly. It reminds me of another challenge—when the books are threatened by damage from falling or rain, it makes me see a very-low overhead operation (a lot of consignment books) as hundreds of dollars of stock I’m suddenly responsible for. Which is fine, as long as I adjust my thinking.

What do you enjoy about it?

I love connecting people to books. Readers love discovering new books, so I love watching people get curious, start to browse. I try to gauge how much book talk they do or don’t want. Some people want to be talked into a book, others feel like that’s condescending. Often it’s more like conversation between book lovers—”I loved X book for Y reason, you should check it out.” Other times it’s just describing the basics so it piques interest without sounding like arm-twisting. “This is a true crime novel about a group of misfits working on an underground newspaper.”

Part of the enjoyable work is behind the scenes—curating a selection of books I know are great reads, or interesting small press items. I want books I can stand up for, and book design that’s bold and eye-catching, books that feel good in your hand. There’s books that are good reads but that have terrible design—they’re too POD, they have terrible font or colors, or they’re way too stuffy looking. Some books have a cover so dull it screams, “I CAN BE SOLD AT A READING OF SYMPATHETIC PEOPLE BUT NOWHERE ELSE.” I don’t always have time to convince people what’s between the covers. There’s a brief window where my potential customers might stay interested in my bookstand or might keep walking on to wherever they were actually headed. I want books whose design suggests in a glance how urgent and interesting the content is. I want books whose design is half the sell.

What gave you the idea for Small Press Roulette?

The Polish Hill Arts Fest was a big event for the bookstand, and I had gathered a lot of books for it. There was a lot of anticipation. I was checking the weather, which was calling for 0% chance of rain—I kept checking all week and that’s what it said, over and over, “0% chance of rain.” We ended up having five excellent hours of selling books—our area was always busy with browsers—and then a deluge came out of nowhere. Hard rain for over an hour. The stands weren’t quite all the way under a tent, and I had overstock sitting on a lawn….It was very stressful getting the books put away quickly and unharmed, and it was really disappointing to be cut off from the best day yet for the bookstand.

The next morning I took the momentum of all the browsers and invented Small Press Roulette. I wanted a rain-proof way for people to have access to the books. But at the same time, I’m not interested in promoting the books individually on the internet. Why are readers going to enjoy my jpeg book cover over Amazon’s jpeg book cover, over Powell’s jpeg book cover? Internet book sales is a cutthroat game. People want the lowest price, or they want their go-to bookstore, or they want to buy direct from the author or the publisher. One bookseller can knock themselves out hyping a book online and the customer will still go to Amazon or Ebay looking for a lower price. I can’t compete with those things. But I knew I could try to harness the excitement that far-flung readers had expressed when the news first came out about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand. I think that the Kickstarter phenomenon has shown us that people want to support ideas they’re excited about, and the people behind those ideas. And publishers Richard Nash of Cursor/Red Lemonade and Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio have both talked about giving customers a chance to support the author or publisher at different price points or different levels of involvement. Readers want to be involved with the writer, but different readers will have different financial capacities. Some people want to be involved for $2 and others want to be involved for much more. Right now Small Press Roulette goes between $2 and $15, but I’m planning to expand it. I already had an order from a bookstore for $75.

What makes it fun?

Connecting people to books I think they would genuinely like thrills me. I sometimes do a lot of research when I get an order. In a way, it means I’m working as a Small Press Librarian for the first time. A lot of people think I am a working librarian because of the title of my blog, but library jobs are scarce in this economy. I’m trying to invent the small press library job I’m built for. This is like Reader’s Advisory meets bookselling.

Helping writers and books I believe in find readers who devour them is another thrill. I hate watching talented writers work hard to languish in obscurity.

Photo Credit: Robert Lee Bailey

Photo Credit: Robert Lee Bailey

Links of interest:

Twenty Four Hours Zine blog interview about the Small Press Pittsurgh bookstand: http://twentyfourhourszine.blogspot.com/2013/07/small-press-go-go-talking-with-karen.html

Gigantic Sequins interview about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand:

http://giganticsequins.com/spotlights-2/spotlight-karen-lillis/

Karen the Small Press Librarian blog:

http://karenslibraryblog.blogspot.com/

Small Press Pittsburgh website:

http://smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com/

Small Press Roulette:

http://smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com/Small+Press+Roulette