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Soft Skull Press According to Richard Nash

Susan Chi

On the eighth floor of 55 Washington Street in DUMBO, Richard Eoin Nash, Publisher of Soft Skull Press, fires off an email from his desk. The office is an open, white-walled loft, and Richard’s desk is a cozy four-feet away from the door. Along the walls the bookshelves are overcrowded, but clearly only so because of misused space, and the filing cabinets, drawers open and topped with folders, mix well with several stacked crates to create a picture of ordered chaos.

With or without the messiness, ordered chaos rules the world. I meet Richard, and he’s an example. He’s wearing a green sweater and red shoes and a shirt speckled with brown shapes (not paisley, but something else), and he ushers me to a chair that’s also positioned four feet from the door. When he speaks, I notice Richard has a way of being focused and fidgety all at once, but I think that’s because he’s figured out a plan or at least is in the process of figuring out a plan for navigating all this said chaos.Soft Skull is known for producing extreme leftist books, for instance, J.H. Hatfield’sFortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President (third addition) and David Griffith’s A Good War is Hard to Find, but the Press is also giving rise to a whole new breed of literary prose and poetry. My personal recent favorites: Wayne Koestenbaum’s Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder, and Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell: A Novel of the Bronte Brother. These books are pioneering and one-of-its-kind, and they take a respectable swing at conventional contemporary literature by breaking the bounds of what is considered proper storytelling, as well as challenging what is deemed “sellable material” by publishing industry standards. The works mentioned above (and the three forthcoming SSP books previewed in this issue), examine varying shades of human experience with scientific and poetic precision, traversing a myriad of subjects and themes along the way. But, it’s a particular nuance, a unique psychological and philosophical sensibility, that makes this press extraordinarily special.

There’s also something else that’s extraordinarily special: Soft Skull's focus on “breaking-out” women authors.

“What we’re trying to do with fiction is kind of a three pronged model, the first of which is obviously to find new writers, and the second of which is to breakout lower mid-list writers. There’s essentially two kinds of mid-list writers, the ones the big publishers want to publish and the ones the big publishers don’t want to publish…There’s a whole cohort of writers, tending to be on the younger end, the 35-50 age group, who have published a few books and despite a fair amount of critical appreciation, they’re not selling in numbers that allow the editor to show up at the editorial meeting and say 'this can sell 15,000 copies,' because they’ve only sold 2,000 copies each time round."

“I want to publish these writers and in a sense break them out,” Richard says.

This second prong of his strategy has worked twice, though he reminds me, he’s only tried it twice so far. The first time was with The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe, which received a large amount of attention and was featured on the Today Show. Everything in publishing is a combination of luck and hard work, according to Richard, and with The Sleeping Father it seemed by doing the hard work the ground was laid for luck. The second mid-list breakout came with Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Despite the fact that Millet’s first book received the PEN USA Award, she was not perceived as a writer who could sell. But, Soft Skull was able to get Millet a good paperback deal and a separate sale with HarperCollins Canada. “The Canadians really went for it," Richard says.

Richard’s next “breakout” attempt is aimed at Delia Falconer (The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers) for this spring, Lynne Tillman (American Genius: A Comedy) in the fall, and Cris Mazza in fall 2007.

It’s noted that besides Matthew Sharpe, all the authors mentioned above are women.

“I think it’s somewhat likelier that women are going to fall in this mid-list category because if they’re not writing stuff that’s going to be readily embraced by 500 book clubs around the country… well, yeah, it seems like there are two ways for fiction to get sold in this country - though I’m being very crude here with my description. One way is more 'male' and the other way is more 'female'. The more female way is through book clubs, because they are 85% women, and that is like a really crucial component of how paperback books really are being sold in the United States. It’s through these book clubs.” On the other side of how fiction is sold, Richard refers to it as the more 'male' way. He explains, “Then there’s the traditional side, it comes from how a book is perceived, for example, a new book from so-and-so, the kind of book that will be reviewed in the Times and Newsweek, and will appear on Fresh Air. This is the stuff that’s going to be face out and everyone’s going to be talking about it – the new Philip Roth, the new John Updike or in terms of the younger generation, the new Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, and Myla Goldberg. But there are a lot more male writers in that category."

According to Richard, as things stand now, if a female writer is doing something that’s more than a relationship novel, she could be in trouble.

“Delia Falconer’s book is about men in the 1870s [written from the point of view of General Custer’s sidekick], and though there’s relationship stuff in there - it’s not the kind of book a book club is going to curl up and talk about – i.e. should she leave her husband." The same goes for Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure And Radiant Heart that features three atom bomb scientists suddenly brought back to life in the early 21st century to launch a movement for global nuclear disarmament. Richard points out, the book is also 510 pages. “Typically, women in their late 30s don’t get to write 510-page fabulist political novels.”

Lydia Millet and Delia Falconer are doing something writers in their position are not supposed to do. For various reasons, Richard is not readily fond of using the word “transgressive"--actually it’s mostly because he learned it as an undergraduate, and you know, it’s one of those words--but upon second thought, he recognizes Soft Skull really is transgressive.

This is obviously true with a title such as Derek McCormack’s The Haunted Hillbilly, that is “a historical first-person narrative, told by Nudie...a gay couturier. [Who's] perhaps most famous for dressing Elvis Presley, [but who in this book] also happens to be a vampire." Nudie is also obsessed with Hank Williams' ass.

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But Soft Skull’s transgressive force of change is even truer when it comes to their concerted effort to breakout highly acclaimed mid-list female writers who are overlooked precisely because they are not doing what they are “supposed to be doing.”

As another example, Richard mentions Lynne Tillman’s forthcoming book, which one blurber has described as like Moby Dick and another has described as Jane Austen.

Richard laughs. “This book’s got no fucking hook whatsoever.”

So how will he hook it?

“We’re just going to demand that people pay attention to this book and do whatever we can to use every kind of modicum of cultural and even moral authority that we possess as a publisher – I’d say, you know after six novels, the last of which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and a New York Times Notable, more than 3,000 people need to be reading Lynne Tillman.”

I find Richard’s unabashed attitude of using moral authority pretty badass. Before running the Press, Richard was a performance artist and an experimental theater director doing downtown plays here in New York. At the end of the interview, Richard tells me he stopped theater because it occurred to him one day that he didn’t possess the talent or that special something that made Beckett, Beckett. As he pontificates, he’s naturally focused and fidgety. I find this honestly as refreshing and hopeful as his goals for Soft Skull.

Richard Nash was born to Richard and Vicky in County Limerick in rural southern Ireland. His father is Irish and his mother is American. Richard was raised Catholic, but feels his work ethic is deeply Protestant. He attended the Boys National School in New Castle West Country, Limerick (the school is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year and was founded by the Earl of Devon who paid for catholic children to go to school, Richard tells me). Richard went to Castle Knock College for high school, and then to Harvard College in 1988. He’s been in the U.S. ever since.

(By the way, Richard does mention a third prong in his model, but we speak of it only briefly. The third prong refers to what he describes as “opportunistic or obligation-based” publishing – and, actually someone should interview him about it.)

So where does this Boys National School in New Castle West Country alumnus see Soft Skull Press in the years to come?

“Well,” Richard says, turning away, his chin ducking into his green sweater and the collar of his brown speckled shirt. Now he's the performance artist. The experimental theater director. “I am quite ambitious, you know.”

 

Note:

Homepage photo of Richard Nash, headshot, and horizonal display photographs copyright 2000 and 2002 by Thomas Hopkins. Some of these images were originally published in Flaneur. Used with permission.


Contributors

Richard Nash is the Publisher of Soft Skull Press and does his best to keep the press in business.


Susan Y. Chi was born in Taichung and grew up in East L.A. Her fiction has been published in BOMB, Small Spiral Notebook, Jabberwock Review, and Promethean. She’s received prizes and fellowships from Glimmer Train, Indiana Review, Vermont Studio Center, and SLS -St. Petersburg, Russia. Before co-founding KGB Bar Lit with Denis and Suzanne, Susan was an editorial associate at Fiction Magazine. And, in a previous life, Susan was a researcher in the fields of molecular anthropology and experimental medicine at Columbia University and the Scripps Research Institute. Her scientific publications can be found in the American Journal of Human Genetics and the Journal of Virology.



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