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In the Name of Fiction: Impetus Press and the Risks They Took

by Olena Jennings

This September, Impetus Press carted their irresistible fiction cross-country from the press’s birthplace, Iowa City, to NYC and KGB Bar. Among the readers was Jennifer Banash who started the press with Willy Blackmore. Their brainchild is a small press that offers what other small presses don’t – literary fiction with a pop edge.

Impetus Press is about challenging the notion that serious readers aren’t concerned with pop culture, and that mainstream readers are mindless. “We’re trying to reach readers that are frustrated with having their fiction spoon-fed to them, who dislike mindless, thoughtless literature," Banash says. "We’re also trying to reach people who have really had it with extreme experimental presses. I don’t think people should need a doctorate in English to be able to understand a narrative–I certainly don’t think it makes you any smarter than anyone else to write a book like that either–it just makes you more pretentious.”

Though Banash does teach full time at the University of Iowa, the press has no affiliation with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Banash comments, “There’s been absolutely no response from the Workshop–but, to be fair, that’s just fine with us. We’re not looking to publish the kinds of work that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is famous for producing. We have nothing against it–it’s just not at all what we’re about. We’re also not trying to push ‘Iowa’ fiction–whatever that is. We like gritty, urban stories that are pop-influenced, and you don’t find a whole hell of a lot of that out here. That being said, it’s no wonder most of our writers are from major cities.”

Blackmore agrees, “Our relationship with the workshop has gone little beyond us asking if they would post a submissions call to their listserve and having our request turned down. I believe we also got in touch with someone on the faculty there about writing a blurb for Hollywoodland–which didn’t pan out either.  So basically, they haven’t given us the time of day.”

The press’s first book is Banash’s HollywoodlandHollywoodland was in fact the “impetus” behind the press. Banash’s literary agent shopped the novel around for a couple of years and found plenty of editors who loved the book, but were unwilling to take the risk with its literary/pop mesh. Banash finally took the risk on her own behalf and on behalf of the growing team of Impetus writers, which Banash reports is the real reason behind the formation of the press. “Ultimately, what’s really satisfying to me is the work I’m doing with our authors–making their dreams come true. Somehow it’s much more fulfilling than publishing my own work–probably because I feel like I’m making a difference. It’s also much less self-involved–which I think is a good experience for any writer. Let’s face it–you sit in a little room writing a book for weeks on end, not really talking to anyone else, and it can make you a little self-obsessed…”

The second Impetus title is Kate Hunter’s The Dream Sequence in which the heroine awakes one morning without a single memory and begins seeing a witch doctor in order to retrieve her memories. When Banash heard about the story from a friend she was already intrigued; after reading the manuscript, she was hooked.

Another title is Nick Antosca’s Fires. The narrator’s childhood neighborhood is devastated by forest fires as he confronts his past. According to Banash and Blackmore, the novel’s startling conclusion takes things one step farther than most modern fiction. Antosca will be sharing an excerpt at a KGB reading on Saturday, December 16

Impetus hasn’t experienced a shortage of eager writers. Banash comments, “Our authors came to us–we really haven’t had to go looking for good authors to sign–we get more queries than we know what to do with.” In her blog Banash writes, “We hate having to say no–we want Impetus to be this alternative space for writers who have no real place in the market. And when we take said writers on and say ‘Welcome home,’ we mean it… That being said, we have to limit what we publish. If I’m going to put my hard-earned dollars into backing a book, I really HAVE to love it. I’m a picky bitch–I don’t naturally love everything I read.”

But when Impetus does find an author they click with, they in turn give that author their full support. “It’s our job to see what they can’t,” Banash says. “They’re too close to their own writing to really have any perspective on it. It’s our job to point out the fussy editorial concerns that they might not notice, and to help them craft and shape the manuscript into a coherent narrative. It’s a process that takes an enormous amount of time and attention, but it’s also a process that I find completely satisfying.”

Blackmore–whose artistic niche within the press lies in designing book jackets and layout–agrees that the press develops close relationships with its authors. “We believe that the author should be involved in every step of the process–from editing to layout to cover design to writing back cover copy–so there is a lot of back and forth between us and the author, sending over mock-ups, discussing fonts, talking about possible edits.” He believes that this is in organic process that includes the metamorphosis of the manuscript into a physical object.

Blackmore’s inspiration for Impetus originates from John Farrar, his great grandfather.  When Blackmore was a kid he was impressed by the story of the publication of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle had shown the book to every publisher around. Finally, she came upon Blackmore’s great grandfather who took a risk on the novel simply because he loved it. Its popularity continues to this day.

Two anthologies on publishing that John Farrar contributed essays to also serve as inspiration for Blackmore. “They were published in the ’50’s, so the ‘how-to’ information is beyond obsolete, but I keep them on my bookshelf along with a copy of Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen, a novel published during The Great Depression which was the book that made a name for my great grandfather in publishing, so they’re always around when I’m working. I can only hope that having them there will make me a quarter as successful as he was.”

So, what do you do after you decide to start a small press?  First, you come up with a name.  Banash and Blackmore looked to the dictionary. "Impetus" seemed to be the best fit: “The energy or motivation to accomplish or undertake something.” Next, you buy the dot com to make it official. Then, you ask the advice of those who have already had a taste of success: Richard Nash at Soft Skull Press, Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press, and Jeffrey Lependorf of the Literary Ventures Fund.

Blackmore comments, “While Jennifer and I are adequately equipped in the literary/artistic/editorial aspects of running a publishing house, there were a lot of things on the business side that we definitely needed some help with. And Richard [Nash] was always more than happy to do so. His attitude has always been, to paraphrase his words, that publishing is an ecology and in some way every press needs the others in order to survive." Running the small press has been nothing short of a challenge. “Under the stress of trying to get distribution for our titles, traveling to do readings, constant emails and phone calls, it's hard to keep everything in perspective and remember just why Willy and I started this press in the first place–we wanted to make a difference,” says Blackmore. “But in a publishing climate that’s uncaring and dismissive at best, it’s becoming harder and harder to convince myself that we’ll be able to make any kind of a change at all.”

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Impetus has provided fodder for both Banash and Blackmore’s own writing. Banash comments, “Editing makes me more aware, sometimes uncomfortably, of my own, somewhat shoddy grammatical structures. Editing, unlike reading, is not a passive act. I’d say that the improvement in my own writing has come from learning to read in a different way. You can read as a reader, you can read as a writer and you can read as an editor–all of which are very different ways of engaging yourself with a text and each yields its own results. Being able to go back with an editor’s eye makes the process of rewriting much easier and more effective as you are staying away from the creative aspects which can suck you in and never let you go. I’d like to think that being able to read my own work on both levels will make it a better experience for people reading as readers.”

Between full-time teaching, a doctoral dissertation, and running a small press, Banash is still finding time to work on novels. So, what do we have to look forward to next? A novel set in the court of Versailles at the time of Louis XIV, and a novel about the JT Leroy hoax.


Contributors

Jennifer Banash was born and raised in New York City. She graduated with a B.A. in Fine Art from Arizona State University and has worked as a copywriter, editor, waitress, television news writer, party promoter, and exotic dancer. She lives, works and writes in Iowa City, Iowa, and is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Iowa. In August 2005, she co-founded Impetus Press with her partner, Willy Blackmore. Her poetry has been published in Black Spring Review, Poetry Motel, and The Colorado Review. Her first novel, Hollywoodland: An American Fairy Tale, is published by Impetus Press.

Willy Blackmore was born and raised and continues to live in South-EasternIowa. In 2004, he co-founded his first publishing venture, an annual, collaborative, hand-made book featuring both visual and literary works of art called Working Journals. The second issue of Working Journals is featured in the special collections at the libraries of The University of Iowa, Maryland Institute College of Art and Yale University. He ventured into commercial publishing in 2005, co-founding Impetus Press with Jennifer Banash. Someday, he may write a novel himself.


Olena Jennings has translated Ukrainian poetry for publication on the web site poetryinternational.org, publication in Chelsea, and the book-length collection A Chapel for Angels by Oleksiy Koshel, published in Ukraine. She is an MFA student in writing fiction at Columbia University and is working on a novel. To contact Olena e-mail: kgbbarlit@kgbbar.com.



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