Agents & Editors: Jeff Shotts

Michael Szczerban
From the November/December 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

These days, it’s tough for an editor to take a chance on writing that is risky, experimental, or hard to define. That’s why writers everywhere should be heartened by the success of Graywolf Press, an independent publisher in Minneapolis that has been taking chances on new work often overlooked by editors in New York—and reaping big rewards.

Graywolf was founded in 1974 by Scott Walker in Port Townsend, Washington (home to another outstanding indie, Copper Canyon Press). Its headquarters moved to the Twin Cities a decade later. This year the nonprofit publisher celebrates its fortieth anniversary, as well as recent critical and commercial triumphs.

At the heart of Graywolf’s outsize success is executive editor Jeff Shotts, whose poets and essayists rank among the finest writers in the United States. They have also been racking up the accolades: In the past three years, books of poetry by some of his authors—Vijay Seshadri, Tracy K. Smith, Mary Szybist, and D. A. Powell—have collected two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. This past spring, his author Leslie Jamison debuted on the New York Times best-seller list, where her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, remained for four weeks.

That kind of national commercial response is rare for Graywolf, but is the product of years of patience and the relentless pursuit of interesting writing. Shotts’s roster of essayists and poets also includes Elizabeth Alexander, Mary Jo Bang, Eula Biss, Matthea Harvey, Tony Hoagland, Claudia Rankine, Tomas Tranströmer, and Kevin Young, among others.

We spoke this past spring at the Graywolf offices in Minneapolis, a day after I saw Shotts introduce Tracy K. Smith at an event benefiting a local library system.

Let’s start with a little about Graywolf. Do you think this press could exist outside of Minnesota?
It could, in the way that other nonprofit independent presses exist elsewhere, but the Twin Cities is a coveted place because of its support for the arts. The philanthropic support in Minnesota is unparalleled—not just for literature but also visual arts, theater, and music.

Our nonprofit, independent structure creates a culture. We’re absolutely a mission-driven organization. That allows us to make editorial decisions that are often deemed risky, because we have a safety net of support underneath those decisions in a way that other presses don’t.

How does Graywolf’s mission affect what you do?
We bring our mission to every editorial meeting. It’s how we talk about all the decisions we make. We take risks on books that aren’t obvious—in the proposal, the content, the profile of the author. We publish poetry and essays. Our nonfiction prize is defining a new kind of writing that is positioned to the side of most popular notions of what nonfiction is. We publish challenging novels and short stories. Some of those books really do succeed commercially. But we absolutely support the challenging but nonetheless great books that don’t, on their surface, seem likely to hit the best-seller list or win a big award.

We’re a nonprofit so we can take on these books, but we’re also a nonprofit because of the kinds of books we take on. We build our list in ways that would strike neither the publishing industry nor the culture at large as the methods of a commercial enterprise. It’s been extraordinary to see the success we’ve had with books that get passed up, frankly, by larger houses.

If I were to say one word about my role in how our mission operates, it’s patience.

That’s a rare virtue.
Exactly. And it’s the thing that distinguishes us from any other publisher. Leslie Jamison is a case in point. The success of The Empathy Exams began when we started the Graywolf nonfiction prize ten years ago. That prize attracted a number of great writers. Ander Monson’s book Neck Deep and Other Predicaments is a marvelous work that challenges our notion of what nonfiction and personal essay writing is. Not too long after his book, we published Eula Biss’s Notes From No Man’s Land, which has been one of our most successful nonfiction titles. That book won the National Books Critics Circle Award, was adopted in classrooms, and established Eula as one of the foremost essay writers in the country. And Eula’s book, Leslie has been saying, is the reason she sent The Empathy Exams to Graywolf.

We couldn’t have known when we started this prize that we’d have a New York Times best-seller or a National Books Critics Circle Award winner. But the success of the series has been in supporting each of those books so that other writers read them, see them, and want to create books like them. Only a press like Graywolf can be that patient.

How did Graywolf come to select The Empathy Exams for the nonfiction prize?
It was a fast and furious and unanimous choice. Leslie had sent us about a hundred pages—a lot of which is no longer in the book—and a cover letter and proposal for what the book would become. Those pages did contain an earlier version of that title essay, and it’s a remarkable, life-changing kind of essay. It blew us away from the beginning.

Watching that project build was extraordinary. Being the editor as Leslie turned in these new pieces, seeing Harper’s or the Believer pick them up, and building the conversation in the book around that central concept of empathyit’s been one of the most extraordinary editorial relationships I’ve had.

Something similar to the nonfiction program is happening with the poetry list. Some writers have stayed with us over the course of three books now, and in the case of someone like Vijay Seshadri, he puts a decade between each book. We have not only the ability to patiently develop each individual book that we take on, but also the patience to develop an author’s career over a course of several books or, in some cases, several decades. Publishing as a whole has lost its patience with that kind of development. The commercial presses have ceded that ground to us, and we’re glad to take it.

They’ve ceded other ground too. Poetry is a great, fertile genre for us; it’s at the heart of what we do, and it’s territory that we get to inhabit. This new nonfiction writing is really fertile ground. Translations have also been ceded to independent publishing, by and large. With support from the Lannan Foundation, we’ve had extraordinary success with our translation listfiction and poetryand that’s yielded us Nobel Prize winners and Per Peterson, who is one of our absolute star international writers. His book Out Stealing Horses—that was work that had been passed over time and again.

We’re trying to move into these territories where we can be exciting. It’s author-driven territory, not commercial-driven territory. Authors are defining this new nonfiction. Poets are defining what poetry is for us. The way we attune our ears to them, the more that we can listen to them and what they’re writing, even if at first it unsettles us—that is what Graywolf is to me.

But don’t many of the pressures on a commercial publisher act on you, too?
I've been in independent publishing a long time now, and there is a Kool-Aid that you can drink. Even though I’m talking about this ground that’s ceded to independent publishing, I don’t want to make it sound like a shortfall of commercial publishing. They’re dealing with a reality that we’re in too. Of course we want to hit the Times bestseller list. Our mission is also to reach readers. These scrappy, odd Graywolf books sit at Barnes & Noble and everywhere else right alongside books from Simon & Schuster and Knopf and Random House and Farrar, Straus and Norton and so on. We have to exist in that world, and that’s a real challenge.

I want to go back to that sense of patience. It’s a huge part of what we’re able to give a writer. We take on individual books, absolutely, but we really are taking on a writer. We look for writers who give us the sense that their work is the beginning of something that we want to support over a long term. It can't always happen, of course. But that’s the ideal: to get in with an author on the ground floor and build them up to where the third, fourth, fifth, tenth book gets the front-page review or the big interview, and breaks out.

I think you’re underselling yourself with the word “patience.” You’re not just waiting around, are you? You’re identifying writers with talent, and then nurturing it—knowing that it will take time to reach their full power.
No, you’re right. It’s active patience. 

Is it more challenging for you to identify young talent and nurture it today than it was ten years ago? You’re more established as an editor, for one, and you now have a list of continuing authors—take Matthea Harvey, for example.

I remember first encountering her at the Dodge Poetry Festival when I was in college, and thinking that her voice was so fresh, so smart, so funny. She was totally new. But nearly a decade later, she's part of the establishment.
[Laughs.] She would never accept that designation—but yes.

On the one hand that’s fantastic. And on the other hand, every book she publishes with you takes up a slot that you might use to break out a new poet. How do you find the equivalent of Matthea today, when your list is already populated?
There’s truly no equivalent to Matthea. Let’s talk for a moment about her because I delight in her in so many ways. She is both a marvelous person and truly one of the geniuses of her generation. There’s no one who has the vision and imagination that she brings to the page. Her new book, If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, is a hybrid book that is half her visual artwork and half her text, and there's nothing like it. Some of what we’re talking about is supporting authors who can challenge themselves like that. You know what I mean: There are many authors who stop challenging themselves.

I could not have anticipated this new book when we took on Matthea’s second book, Sad Little Breathing Machine. Now I see the connection: Of course there is this giant leap to the visual, a bigger scope that is even more political and more emotional. I had read her first book, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, published by Alice James, and I was blown away. I remember being introduced to that book by Mary Jo Bang, who was then my teacher and is now one of Graywolf’s award-winning poets.

I saw Matthea’s new poems come out in magazines, and I e-mailed her and just said, “I’m coming to New York. Do you want to meet up?” We did, and had a couple of gimlets. I was fascinated by what she was doing and what she was writing, and so thrilled she was willing to meet with me. It wasn’t a big pitch. Of course she knew Graywolf, and there was an understanding of what this meeting meant. Relatively soon after that, she sent what became the second book, Sad Little Breathing Machine, which we’ve done incredibly well with, and then we did Modern Life, which won the Kingsley Tufts Award and was a finalist for the NBCC. And now we have this big, bold, ambitious work.

We don’t publish a lot of work with high-end artwork included in itit’s an expensive book for us. But being able to support a major force in contemporary poetrythat feels essential to me. It does mean we have to be nimble, but I love that we can take a leap alongside her.

How did you come to work with Eula Biss?
I’ve lived my life alongside her, and I adore her as a writer and as a person. In the summer of 2002, I had finished my MFA at Washington University, and was reading an issue of Harper’s. There was this amazing piece called “The Pain Scale” by a writer I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen anything like Eula’s writing before, and I checked out her first book, The Balloonists, a wonderful book about the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. I wrote her to say that I had noticed these amazing things she had been writing and asked what she was working on. At that point she was just going into the University of Iowa nonfiction program. I was twenty-eight and she must have been twenty-four or twenty-five. We started a conversation, and every few months she’d send me some new pieces, and I tried to get her to start cohering some of these pieces around... something. I wasn’t quite sure what. But you can’t read a piece like “The Pain Scale” and not see the greatness and the potential in someone writing like that. I held onto that, even when she sent me pieces that were not up to that standard.  

I kept trying to push her: “These are great individual pieces, but what are you writing about?” You know, I’m the guy who has to write the catalog copy for these books. [Laughs.] I have to stand in a room with our sales reps and say what a book is about. Sometimes that’s hard for poetry and essays.

Several times we got to a point where Eula could have ended the conversation, which would have been the saddest thing. Then, at some point, probably in 2006, she sent me a piece called “Time and Distance Overcome.” It is one of the single most essential pieces of writing I’ve seen.


Active Patience

I like the idea of "active patience."  That is the part of writing I struggle with the most.  Waiting for responses from readers, editors, agents, and critiques is gut wrenching.  But at the same time moving on to a new project, a new baby, with new characters with difference voices and a different story to tell almost feels like cheating.  I think if I can figure out active patience I just might come through this thing in one "peace!"  Janelle

Active Patience

I like the idea of "active patience."  That is the part of writing I struggle with the most.  Waiting for responses from readers, editors, agents, and critiques is gut wrenching.  But at the same time moving on to a new project, a new baby, with new characters with difference voices and a different story to tell almost feels like cheating.  I think if I can figure out active patience I just might come through this thing in one "peace!"  Janelle