All the while he had been writing. Slowly, steadily. “I came back to Michigan, practiced law as I wrote, then I finally just said, “Fuck law,” Gillis told me. “I’d gotten lucky in the stock market, and so I decided to roll the dice. I had enough not to starve, if I watched my pennies. So I moved from practicing law full-time at a firm in Birmingham to part-time law and writing the rest of the day. We were living in Ferndale at the time, and when I quit law entirely we moved here, to Ann Arbor, and I began writing full-time.”
In 2003 his first novel, Walter Falls, was published. The book was a finalist for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and reviewed well. But in addition to writing, Gillis was also interested in community development. So that same year he contacted Ninive Calegari, who worked with Dave Eggers, about bringing a satellite of the writing center at 826 Valencia, in San Francisco, to Ann Arbor. “At the time, they were just thinking about having spokes on their wheel, having it in other places,” Steve explained.
Gillis not only went on to establish 826 Michigan, but he also funded the project entirely out of his own pocket. When I asked Gillis why creating a writing center mattered so much to him, he sat back in his chair. “You want me to get philosophical?” he asked.
Up until that point, this had been a standard interview—mapping out the separate paths that had brought two individuals (one a reader, the other a writer) together to create a nonprofit publishing entity: Dzanc Books. One that, in 2006, Publishers Weekly had called “The future of publishing,” despite the fact that they’d only published one title at the time. Yet Publishers Weekly had truly seen the future; in a mere four-year’s time, Dzanc has risen as one of the premier indie houses in this country. In addition to publishing such acclaimed authors as Roy Kesey, Yannick Murphy, Terese Svoboda, Allison Amend, Jeff Parker, and Peter Selgin, they also count Laura van den Berg in their stable of writers. Her 2009 collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was the recipient of a Barnes & Noble Discovery Prize. It also was long-listed for the Story Prize, a finalist for Foreward Magazine’s Book of the Year, and, most recently, short-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Additionally, four of their writers received NEA grants last year, and stories by their authors have received O. Henry and Best American accolades, among other prizes.
Yet while the publishing arm of Dzanc is what most people know them for, in fact, it is only one small aspect of their mission. At the heart of this organization is their charitable work, which is what I had stumbled upon in my casual question to Steve about his commitment to the community. When I answered that I did want to hear the philosophical answer, Gillis’s reply was simple and straightforward. Yet perhaps nothing captures why Dzanc exists, or what it hopes to accomplish as an organization and a publisher, than his response: “There’s really no purpose in life except helping other people. That’s the bottom line. I mean, there really isn’t. That’s how I look at it. I don’t understand when people don’t think that way. You know, I got lucky early on with investments. I live in a comfortable house. I could live in a mansion, but I don’t. I save my pennies and I do charitable work instead.”
How fitting—and natural—then that Gillis and Wickett would work so well together. Because during the five years prior to their initial meeting, the only compensation that Wickett had received from writing hundreds of reviews, interviewing dozens of writers, and creating a Web site to promote the work of these individuals, was the free copies of books he’d received from authors and publishers. What mattered to him was championing good writing. That, and the friendships that had naturally developed along the way.
It was the Emerging Writers Network Web site that eventually caught Gillis’s attention in late January of 2005. In particular, an interview that Wickett had conducted with John Haskell. And when Gillis realized that they both lived in southeast Michigan, he wrote to see when Wickett would be visiting Ann Arbor next. As it turned out, they were both planning to attend an upcoming reading at Shaman Drum the next month.