Interviewed by Christopher Linforth
You started Paycock Press in 1976. Can you tell us about that initial decision to begin a small press and the experience of getting it up and running?
We started Gargoyle Magazine and in the beginning the press was strictly an umbrella for the magazine. We had no idea what we were doing but I’d stumbled into a reading in Madison, Wisconsin while hitching around the country during the Bicentennial and encountered some of the first indie mags I’d ever seen. I was aware of the bigger litmags like Evergreen Review, New Directions, City Lights Review, Transatlantic Review, and New American Review, but finding out people my age were slinging words out into the ether was a real discovery for me at the time. A bit of “Hey, we can do this, too.”
Did you base your press on the aesthetic or business concerns of other small presses?
Business concerns? We never thought about it. We did the first three issues without paying the printer and when he asked for the money I didn’t have it. He was p.o. of course but I was never going to welch out. Some friends threw a fundraiser together with a bluegrass band dubbing themselves The Gargoyles and by the end of the night we had enough $ to pay for the first three issues.
There had been a newsprint arts paper in DC called Woodwind back in the early 70s and we admired them for printing artwork, poetry, music reviews and more. So we started Gargoyle as a sort of mirror of that mag and we managed four issues in the first five months. We scattered them all over the city and made something of a splash though we were still naïve and learning the hard way by doing. Did allow us to receive free books and albums though. I got to do an interview with Bill Nelson and Be-Bop Deluxe. Stuff like that.
When we revived in 1997 we met an entrepreneurial DC lawyer who wanted to bankroll our endeavor and it seemed like a good idea at the time. She asked me for a Business Plan and I had no idea what she was talking about. Business Plan? I still don’t know what that means. The relationship lasted for #39/40 only. I only know one publisher in this entire indie world who actually makes $. Most folks I know need grants, gifts, deep pockets to break even. And that’s few and far between. Most of us are so far in the red that it looks like black to us.
What were your first few titles? What drew you to them?
When we received a novella-length story so good I knew it had to be in print we assembled our first book—Michael Brondoli’s The Love Letter Hack. I’d worked on an NEA-funded book van project in the fall of 1977 and encountered magazines and indie book publishers from all over the world. The project itself was a bust but seeing all of that material piled on shelves at our home base was liberating and energizing. Brondoli’s first book had been published by McPherson and Co. (named Treacle Press back in those days) and we liked the design so much we mimicked it in terms of size and look for our volume. The book received great blurbs from Guy Davenport and George Myers Jr., and a fab review from Library Journal, and got a few other reviews. I’m very proud of that book. We sold out our modest run and did a second printing with a better rendition of Mary Beath’s graphics.
We did a volume of the late Tina Fulker’s poetry, followed by an audio cassette of her live in the studio. Saw her in London and she came over and did a small local tour of about four or five gigs in 1984. I’m still very fond of George Myers Jr.’s Natural History, which included his collages as a header running throughout. Harrison Fisher’s Blank Like Me with his hilarious Steven Wright-like flat/no smile delivery included a section of poems with horror movie titles. After our Mondo anthology success in NY we had a bunch of other anthologies rejected and after a spell decided to do them ourselves—The trilogy of Sex & Chocolate (any kind of sex/any kind of chocolate but each work had to have both), Kiss the Sky (poems and stories starring Jimi Hendrix), and Alice Redux (poems and stories about Lewis and Alice).
How does running the literary magazine Gargoyle fit in with your role as book publisher?
Like a lot of my friends in this crazy biz, we began as a magazine and slowly grew into book publishing. Some indie presses decide at some point to bag the mag and continue with the press. Some retain the mag. We’re still doing both. Most of what we’ve done book-wise has been publishing anthologies. Sort of another way to get a mix of established writers and newbies out into the world.
You took a publishing hiatus in 1990. What led you to that and what brought you back?
When I began Garg I visited with two of the best known litmag editors in DC—Bill Claire of Voyages and Merrill Leffler of Dryad. We talked and I asked them why they’d quit. They both did the same thing—laughed and told me one day I’d get it. I was 25 and full of spunk and I couldn’t fathom why anybody would quit. This was my life, my passion. And one day it just turns into work and I laughed and realized what they had meant and bagged it. Not that I quit doing literary projects. Between 1990 and 1997 Lucinda and I co-edited four anthologies for St. Martin’s Press, one for The New Press (the alternative imprint of WW Norton), and I solo edited A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation for Serpent’s Tail/High Risk. I was still writing and editing and teaching, but in 1995 Lucinda bought a bookstore and dragged me along down to the hip happening U Street area of DC. That lasted about four years and was 24/7 all-consuming. At our peak in 1997 Lucinda and Maja Prausnitz talked me into reviving Garg. I hemmed and hawed but the time seemed right. We had a bang-up launch at Atticus Books and the upstairs Ruthless Grip gallery and because the AWP convention was in town we must have had 200 people pouring out into the street. Was a great night.
But when it stops being fun, I’ll stop again.
How has Paycock evolved over the years? How have you coped with the migration to digital books?
Well, I see print and digital as compatible and not competitive. I have a Kindle, an iPad, and so many books in my house that it’s difficult to move. I have room for both in my world. We are finally starting to create digital issues of Gargoyle. They’ll be available one-by-one soon. I also plan to create some ebooks in the next year. One will be a book of anecdotes about the concert scene in DC over the past 50 years. It’ll be fun.
Oh, and now that my gen is dying off or retiring, they’re selling off the old letterpresses. And an entire new gen of 20-30-year-olds is getting into letterpress chapbooks and posters and design. I miss the old guard, sure, but I love that the love of something so hands on will continue. So much for e-books eliminating the printed word.
What titles have you recently released or are forthcoming?
Our recent success story was also a bit of a disaster. We helped publish GQ critic Tom Carson’s Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter and while it made a great splash and was reviewed all over the place and sold like crazy at first, the riff on Gatsby raised the ire of the F. Scott Fitzgerald estate who did some sword rattling and sent us a cease-and-desist order. As I have young kids and a house and an economist wife who warned me not to screw around with this, we had to drop out and let the title go o.p. Breaks my heart because Tom and I both love Scott Fitzgerald and his writing. Damn shame. It’s a real tour de force of a book and well worth seeking out. A new indie press in New Orleans has planned a two-volume version retaining our original cover design [by Glen Arthur] and adding another of his paintings for the cover of Vol. 2. We had urged Tom to reduce the book and our printed version was 628pp. The new publisher is re-inserting all of the excised material. So, hate to let that get away but reality intruded. And the e-version of that title did pretty well.
We’ll launch the 6th volume in our series of fiction collections featuring work by DC-area women. This one is Defying Gravity and contains works by 42 local women writers. The entire six volumes now feature 2,500pp of work by 248 women. Might be the most fun thing I’ve ever accomplished. The launch is set for January 2014 at Politics and Prose indie bookshop in DC.
That said, we have no book plans for 2014. Not even looking at manuscripts right now. Might even take a year off from the mag. I would like to get back to my own writing at some point this year.
Find Paycock Press here.