Agents & Editors: Dawn Davis

Michael Szczerban
From the September/October 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The business of books is full of puzzles, and this is one of them: How do you reduce an entire lifetime of interests into a single sound bite? Editors are often asked what kind of books we are looking for by writers we meet at conferences, agents we’re seeing for lunch, distant relatives over the holidays. It’s a simple question that deserves a straightforward response, but I always have trouble answering in a quick sentence or two. As far as I can tell, the books I love best might have only one thing in common: me.

Some editors readily commit to a single genre, such as business or crime fiction or food, but I am most curious about those who hopscotch across the world of books to find readers of all kinds.

Editor and publisher Dawn Davis has that kind of roving interest and range. After attending Stanford University, she worked at an investment bank and won a scholarship to study in Nigeria. A chance meeting at a party upon her return led to a job assisting André Schiffrin at the New Press, followed by stints at Vintage Books and HarperCollins, where she became the publisher of Amistad. While at HarperCollins, Davis edited Edward P. Jones’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Known World; Steve Harvey’s best-selling Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man; Chris Gardner’s The Pursuit of Happyness; and Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, as well as a wide variety of other books.

In 2013, when Davis started a new imprint at Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, she had to decide what to call it. In other words, she had to reduce her entire lifetime of interests into just one name. She settled on 37 INK, drawing inspiration from the line of latitude that connects California, Italy, and Africa.

Before our interview began in earnest, our small talk meandered to a shared interest in food and cooking, and Davis showed me a copy of a book she had written for Penguin fifteen years ago: If You Can Stand the Heat: Tales From Chefs and Restaurateurs.

I was going to ask you about this book!
There’s a story. While I was researching it, my friend Webb Stone said, “If you’re going to write about food, you have to meet this guy named Anthony Bourdain.” This was pre-Kitchen Confidential, so he was not yet famous. I interviewed him, and he said, “You can’t just write about it. You have to do it.” So I worked in his kitchen. Friday nights I would leave work around five o’clock. I’d work with him from five-thirty to ten, and hang out with his crew of crazy people afterward, and I had the time of my life.

I read somewhere that you once thought about becoming a chef. I once thought about it too. How serious were you?
At the time, I had left Wall Street, where I had worked for two years, and gone to work at the New Press, which was a nonprofit. I was making no money, and I couldn’t afford the things I used to be able to afford on an expense account. I had to figure out a lot on my own. I was always interested in food, and had friends who were too. After work we would talk about it, but it was a fleeting notion. The idea of turning a hobby into a career—I was already doing that with publishing.

I thought we might be romanticizing the notion of opening a restaurant—that it had to be a lot harder than we thought. So I talked to people to see what was really involved, and those conversations turned into a book.

Tell me about the name of your imprint, 37 INK.
I’m from Southern California, and I went to school in Northern California, so I claim the whole state from the desert to the wine country. My maternal grandmother is from Italy, and I’ve been many times and I love it—as of course most people do. And I’m African American, so I have Africa in my family heritage as well. The 37th parallel of latitude connects all three of these places that are near and dear to my heart, and mapped who I was without using my name.

Why not call your imprint Dawn Davis Books?
I’ll always want it to be about the authors, and I just wasn’t comfortable with that. But I understand why other people use their names; it’s easier. Once the lawyer tells you for the fifth time, “No, that name is taken,” you think, “Okay, I’ll use my own name.” I initially thought of Studio 37, but that was taken. It’s hard to come up with something original.

Where in southern California did you grow up, and what was it like?
I grew up in Los Angeles. Not Malibu, not the ’hood, not the Valley. Just real Los Angeles. It was a great place to grow up. I have friends now who say they’d never raise children there, because of the pressure to look or act a certain way. But I had a fantastic, almost idyllic childhood. I went to an all-girl high school and loved it.

What did your parents do?
My mom was a hospital administrator and my father managed a store. They were working class parents, but I didn’t know that. I just knew I had great friends and a great family, and went on lots of trips to the library every week with my mother. It was a normal American childhood. But I didn’t have a lot of exposure to people who were in publishing.

What were your aspirations growing up, and how did you make your way to Stanford?
When you’re from California, you’re told to apply to one Cal State school and one UC school, and depending on your GPA, to apply elsewhere. I didn’t want to stay in Los Angeles. I’m an only child, and my mom would’ve loved nothing better, but I was ready to spread my wings. Junior year of high school, I came to New York with three friends. We got rained on at a Diana Ross concert in Central Park, we were pickpocketed, and I left saying, “I can’t wait to move here!” I loved it.

I got into Stanford and UC Berkeley, but also Columbia. I wanted to come to New York, but my mom said, “Do me a favor. Stay in California. If you still love New York it’ll be waiting for you when you finish college.” And I did. I say I graduated on Saturday and had an apartment in New York by Tuesday.

My aspiration was about place, not profession. I didn’t know in college what I wanted to do. I studied international relations; Condoleezza Rice became a bigwig in the department. But to satisfy the requirements, I would take courses like The Russian Novel, because they dealt with something outside of America. I’d take economics, and then Literature of the Caribbean. Later, on Wall Street, I worked in the international division.

This was at Credit Suisse?
It was actually Credit Suisse First Boston—and just First Boston when I started, before they merged. During my two-year program there, I met someone who encouraged me to apply for a Rotary scholarship to study abroad. I wanted to study in Nigeria, where Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and so many of the greats had lived. Three years after college I was living in Nigeria. It was extraordinary, but it wasn’t easy.

What was hard about that time?
I had romanticized Africa. In many ways Nigeria is fantastic. They’ve created some of the most beautiful art, theater, literature. But to be twenty-two or twenty-three there, having arrived without knowing a soul? It was tough. My mom said the most freeing thing: “If you come back, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.” With that, I could take each day as it came and started enjoying myself.

Were you able to make excursions, or were you just studying all the time?
It was a lot of independent study. I would go to the library and assign myself books, and read them. There were often strikes, which is very much part of the African way of protest. There were strikes because the teachers weren’t making enough money, because there was no paper or books. Oftentimes there weren’t even classes. The real education was self-imposed, and being with the friends I made, seeing how they lived, how they often made something out of nothing. I met Soyinka’s brother, which was fascinating.

Not to be grandiose, but did you go to Nigeria and find yourself?
I think that’s right. And I met a publisher on the plane there, who published the African Writers Series with Heinemann. I said, “You get paid to read?” I could not believe it. That meeting triggered the notion that I could aspire to this profession.

When I got back from Africa, I was invited to a party where I met someone who knew André Schiffrin—who had just left Random House to start the New Press. I kept talking and talking to this person about publishing until I was introduced to André. I interviewed with him, and he hired me on the spot. Two editors had come with him from Pantheon: Diane Wachtell and David Sternbach. I was the first non-Pantheon hire, and I was to be his assistant.

What was it like?
It was fantastic, because he would create books on the fly. He would walk through Central Park dictating letters to people like Noam Chomsky, saying, “I know that you want to do X and Y, but I was thinking that we should also think about this other idea.” I would transcribe it all using that old machine, the Dictaphone with the foot pedal. I worked there for about five years. For two to three of those years I was his assistant. He let me acquire early on, so I received a 360-degree education.

What was one of those first books?
The first book I acquired was right after the Korean riots in Los Angeles, when there was tension in the Korean American community and the black community. I went to a discussion about it, and everybody was given exactly six minutes to talk before being cut off by the moderator. But there was one woman who was so spectacularly interesting that if the moderator had cut her off I think he would’ve been attacked. I told André about her, and he said, “You’ll find that there are very few people who can command a room like that, and who have something to say. You should reach out to her.”

That’s the best advice a young editor could have received.
The absolute best. Her name was Elaine Kim, and she was a professor and dean at Berkeley. I went out there, and she picked me up from the airport. She threw a Bob Marley box set into the backseat as I jumped in, and I thought, “I’m going to like her!” Her book was called East to America: Korean American Life Stories, and it was a book of oral histories about the immigration experiences of Korean Americans. They had been portrayed in a uniform way in the media but in fact their stories are very complex, nuanced, and different.

At the New Press I also worked with our freelance production person, so I got to know about that side of the business: paper weight and photos and the cost of adding various bells and whistles to a book. I was also the liaison with our freelance publicist, and learned a little bit about putting a press release together. It was an education that is hard to get in a big publishing house, working in just one department.

Why did you leave the New Press?
Ultimately, I was doing a lot of things. When I became an editor I also started selling our subsidiary rights. I had a lot on my plate, but I was young, and it was fun. I was working with a small, committed group of intellectuals. It felt a little bit like graduate school crossed with a start-up: Every day brought something different and interesting.

I got to know some of the other editors who were buying our paperback rights. One of them was Robin Desser, who suggested that I meet Marty Asher at Vintage when she was promoted to Knopf. One thing led to another, and I got an offer from Vintage. Marty took a chance on me and became a mentor.