Atticus Books is a small publishing company that started in 2010 “Where distinct voices become legend.” It is the perfect niche for charm and quirks in the literary community and is located in Madison, New Jersey. In their mission statement, they state that they aim to “To produce and disseminate work that transcends literary circles and touches the wider culture.” They have altogether published 19 books since 2010, the latest being Armageddon, Texas. Interview with Dan Cafaro at Atticus Books
Conducted by phone by Alexis Gargin, Susquehanna ’16
What inspired you to enter the publishing world? Was there a specific writer or book?
The trade publishing world is a vortex—you don’t really enter it as much as get sucked into it with a forceful pull. I’ve tried the path of least resistance, working a corporate job instead of slumming for the arts. But truth eventually bears out your soul’s intent. Mine is a bottomless addiction to creative writing and the dissemination of books. My dedication to indie literature is driven by the whirlwind of imagination that daily fills my Atticus in-box with queries and manuscripts.
What triggered this desire to join the publishing fray? I can’t really say. It certainly was not one writer or book that introduced me to this galaxy. As a former bookseller, my inoculation came in the form of every book—both large press and small—that passed through my hands into the hands of an eager reader. I was inspired by the sharing of knowledge and the consumption of forbidden fruits, the discovery of diamonds in the rough that no one else in my life seemed to know.
As an aspiring writer I cut my teeth on several chewing toys including the books of New Directions and Black Sparrow Press, the then-upstart literary magazine Glimmer Train, and the bohemian offerings of Evergreen Review, a literary magazine founded by Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press. I remember holding Evergreen in my hands, marveling at its content, and thinking, “how can I make something like this?” I may have wanted my writings to appear in Glimmer Train (although, sadly, I never submitted any work), but I subconsciously knew that if I ever formed a press, it would take on the celestial juices of those underground luminaries from the 1950s and ’60s. And, amazingly, New Directions dates back to the ’30s!
I admire how you created your own press. I think that many people in F.U.S.E. would be interested in learning more about that process. Could you tell me a little bit about how you started the press?
It all started with a blog. I was clueless about blogging and was very late at adapting to the practice or paying much attention to what was happening within the blogosphere of literary websites. I seriously had no idea what I was doing … until I began attending small press book fairs in NYC and asking questions. Lots of questions. And even then as I got my footing I felt like a lost voice in a massive wilderness of people who were way more talented than me. I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted Atticus to be a platform for my own work or for others, but as it began to take shape and hundreds of writers started contacting me about the prospects of Atticus publishing their work, it struck me like a lightning rod to the forehead that these were my sort of people—these were the folks who spoke my language and shared my passions. Somehow someway I needed to figure out how to become their conduit to a larger reading audience. I then did the only thing I knew how to do. I researched the dickens out of what it would take to start a small press. I joined societies, attended conferences, and tried to acquaint myself with as many informed and “connected” people as possible. I essentially attempted to infiltrate an elitist industry that was infamous for keeping out the riff-raff. Little did I know that there was an entire underbelly to this industry that dedicated itself to celebrating and elevating the riff-raff.
Your press and journal have a lot of personality; do you find that a small press allows for more artistic freedom than larger presses?
I’ve never worked in the NYC large press environment, so I cannot honestly speak to how much artistic freedom they permit their creative staff. I know that Atticus is much more receptive to brainstorming, collaboration, and immediate results than a lot of larger presses simply due to the fact that the only red tape that exists lies in the corner of my desk drawer and I very rarely take it out.
The press is partly a reflection of my own personality, I guess. I’ve been toying with the idea of calling Atticus the “house of quirk,” as “quirky” seems to be a word that comes up time and again in book and journal reviews. It’s a half-formed description, of course, but I don’t mind it. I particularly liked when The Masters Review called our collection of writing in Atticus Review “witty and weird in just the right proportions.” That would be a pretty cool gravestone epitaph.
Can you tell me a little about the process of choosing a book and publishing it?
Our selection process has changed—and has continued to evolve—over the years depending on my own workload and how many titles we plan to produce. When Atticus first started in early 2010, I alone chose to read the works that interested me and then decided whether to take it to the next level by reaching out to the writer to express an interest in his or her work and to see if we had enough chemistry to form a working relationship.
For example, when I first contacted Alex Kudera, we were like a couple of territorial junkyard dogs sniffing out the other to see if he could be trusted. Alex gradually came to believe that I wasn’t a huckster out to ruin his reputation (silly, him) and I believed enough in the satirical story of adjunct Cyrus Duffleman (protagonist of Alex’s debut novel, Fight for Your Long Day) to take on a writer who had never been published on American soil.
As time marched on that first summer, Atticus became inundated with manuscript submissions and queries, so I chose to hire a managing editor who had interned as my first line of defense. Eventually, because of the sheer volume of books to be evaluated, we found it necessary to recruit outside help to form opinions about books that we had flagged as worthy of further examination. Nowadays I’ve returned to my original method in that I mostly handpick what I want to read when I want to read it.
I was intrigued by the relationship to film. Why do you prefer to publish books that may be adapted to film? Can you tell me any great examples?
I can’t say we start off with a specific mission of finding novels that achieve X, except that the writing has to distinguish itself as compelling and complex. It must be about something much more than plot. I suppose that’s how I came to call what we produce as “genre-busting.” I may insist that the main character (in the spirit of Atticus Finch) be memorable, but I also understand that with story collections, this sometimes is an unworkable objective, so we’ve come to make exceptions with novellas and linked stories or novels in stories. I love short fiction but I’m not looking to produce books of random stories with no central theme, no matter how well told.
Mostly I’m looking for an unconventional storytelling method and a narrative so gripping that I’m willing to risk my day job to finish reading it. A prime example of this would be Lee Klein’s novel, The Shimmering Go-Between, which forced itself upon me one afternoon with such vigor that I had no choice but to pay it mind.
We’re describing The Shimmering Go-Between as the most unpredictable love story ever told. It’s like Lars and the Real Girl meets Being John Malkovich except the real girl is our protagonist, Dolores, and her love interest is not Ryan Gosling, it’s Wilson Amon and some of the action takes place in Wilson’s beard. I am 99% certain that Charlie Kaufman would make this an amazing film.
I noticed that several of your authors were debuting their first novels. Do you have any advice to give to writers seeking to publish their first novel?
Finish writing your novel. Only contact indie presses whose books you have read (or literary agents whose authors you admire). Flatter them in your cover letter by being intimately familiar with at least one of their titles. Tell them it’s a simultaneous submission. Small publishers understand that no writer should have to wait interminable lengths of time between breaths.
Begin your second novel. Rinse. Repeat.
You also publish an online weekly journal Atticus Review, that is as quirky as your press. What reasons did you have for adding Atticus Review?
Starting up a journal afforded me the opportunity to morally support way more writers, while at the same time publishing great stuff that I didn’t have to market or sell. Publishing for the pure pleasure of it. As the chief imagination officer of a micro-press (I know, such a lofty title!), I need to decline the vast majority of book proposals I receive. I can’t tell you how many gifted writers I’ve had to reject. The journal helps balance the karmic scale and lets me recognize and praise writers who deserve to feel good about their writing.
I enjoyed the Boo’s Hollow section of the magazine. I was immediately intrigued by the name. I saw honest and humorous interviews and a sestina poem about a personified sestina that the speaker wanted to push over the overpass. Each piece of writing I find is unique and intriguing. Could you talk about Boo’s Hollow, and all of the different genres included within it?
Boo’s Hollow really is the brainchild of Associate Poetry Editor Lea Graham. Lea approached me with the idea of having a section dedicated to poets writing about place, both the impact of place on their poetry (described in essay form) and the significance of place in their poetry. I embrace the concept of Boo’s Hollow because it lends itself to building little communities of devout readers and writers who are connected, both physically and spiritually, to their respective geographic regions. It carves out a whole new territory for us too in that it challenges us to dig deep into regional poetry while also taking it global.
Our collective goal is to first conquer the United States one state at a time and then take on the world one country at a time. I always loved the game of Risk so with Lea’s knowhow, passion, and diligence and my penchant for the big picture, I have high hopes for Boo’s Hollow, perhaps even in book form.
If Atticus has an end game, it is to publish instructive material that will be taught in creative writing classes long after I’ve taken my last snorkeling trip and frolicked with the sea turtles. Novels, story collections, anthologies, as long as the writing is stellar, I will leave this earth knowing that Atticus made a small difference in helping to educate and inspire the next few generations of creative arts majors.