It Just Made Perfect Sense: Dorothy, a Publishing Project
By Nathan Scott McNamaraOctober 22, 2018
I sit with Dutton and Martin Riker, her husband and co-publisher of Dorothy, the small feminist press that was the result of Dutton’s craving. We eat pancakes in the couple’s dining room in St. Louis, Missouri, discussing the inspiration behind the project, a small and electric operation that publishes only two books each year. As of this fall, Dorothy has 18 books, each compact, beautiful, and surprising — every one of them spectacular. Riker says, “Our plan initially was to lose money. We set it up as two books a year so we could lose a thousand dollars a year and be able to absorb it. We wanted to do as well as we could with the books, but to never ever have to worry about how they sold because no matter how they did, we could keep going.” They didn't lose money. Within three years, they were able to recoup the $5,000 they had saved up to start the project. Now, because the press is volunteer-run, all proceeds go to the authors or back into the press.
In the fall of 2010, their debut year, Dorothy published Renee Gladman’s Event Factory, a surreal travelogue that became the first in a series of books about the invented city of Ravicka. “From the sky there was no sign of Ravicka,” the narrator says in Event Factory. “Yet, I arrived; I met many people.” Gladman’s Ravicka books practice gestures of traditional storytelling while wonderfully botching the delivery. The physical world is always shifting for the characters of Ravicka and they are often redirected. More than seeking closure, the books are interested in basking in the pleasures of language and the experience of being a body in space. Dutton had read Gladman’s work in graduate school and when she learned about the existence and availability of the first two Ravicka books, it became a driving reason for starting the press, to give a home to this kind of fiction. That first year, Dorothy also reissued Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, a 1954 pastoral horror comedy about the aftermath of a flood in an English village. Not long before the Dorothy reissue, Comyns had nearly disappeared from cultural memory. She has since become a stable cult literary figure, her books being reissued at a fast pace on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, every few years, Gladman’s amorphous city of Ravicka grows larger and, with four Ravicka books, she is so far the only Dorothy who has been published by Dorothy more than once. “As long as she keeps writing them,” Dutton says, “we’ll keep publishing them.”
Whereas Dorothy was once treated among some readers and critics as an unusual novelty, the press is now a fairly known fixture of the literary community — particularly after they published Nell Zink’s debut breakout hit The Wallcreeper in 2014. These days, each Dorothy book arrives like a cultural shockwave, and their writers commonly continue on to wider fame. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi won a Whiting Award on the strength of her first novel, Fra Keeler, which Dorothy debuted in 2012, and went on to publish her second Call Me Zebra with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt earlier this year. Jen George, whose debut, The Babysitter at Rest, Dorothy published in 2016, was one of Granta’s “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017. Another Dorothy author, Amina Cain, has her first novel Indelicacy coming out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2019. The list goes on. In a short time and on a small scale, Dorothy has already created a family of 14 women that pumps adrenaline into the literary bloodstream, as well as a network of devoted readers.
I mention to Dutton a Los Angeles Times piece in which she’s quoted as saying that Dorothy, in terms of its slowness and smallness, “feels sort of contrary to the cultural moment.” I say that, in many ways, I think it is actually pretty related to the cultural moment — Dorothy’s feminine transgressiveness is a coveted trait. Though they started Dorothy before the #MeToo movement and the same year as the VIDA Count, Dutton says those things confirmed her own experiences as a woman and a writer. “I’m not a public activist,” she says, “but I felt like this was a way I could address something important. I saw at Dalkey there were so many fewer books coming in by women and the list was so male-dominated. Why would a woman feel encouraged to submit? I wanted to create a space where women felt welcomed. And frankly, on a personal level, I wanted to be working and creating relationships with women. I’m drawn to the sort of transgressiveness that often seems more available to women. It just made perfect sense.”
Dutton grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, inland central California. Riker grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Harrisburg. They met in Chicago in 2001 when Dutton was doing her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Riker was running a Chicago office for Dalkey. At the time they met, Dutton says she was not thinking about the commercial component of literature. Instead she was more interested in art and poetry scenes and avant-garde feminist writing. After living together in Chicago for a year, Dutton went off to do a PhD at the University of Denver. Riker eventually followed, leaving his job to enter the same PhD program.
I ask them about what books they bonded over early on. “Our reading had almost no overlap. Almost none,” Dutton says. “And we still read almost none of the same books. That first year, we decided we would read each other’s favorite books. I read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien” — Dutton makes a face of leveled acceptance — “and then he was supposed to read Jane Eyre but he never did.”
“I’ve tried several times,” Riker says.
They laugh about how there still isn’t much overlap — except when it comes to the books at Dorothy: “With Dorothy, we almost always agree on everything,” Riker says.
After their time in Denver, Riker returned to Dalkey, which by then was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and this time Dutton followed him, eventually getting a job there too. “Dalkey introduced me to a space where really good writing was happening on a global stage. Yet it also frustrated me — as I became more aware of this larger literary world — that the world I’d known before seemed so divided from it. I thought it would be neat to publish books that were kind of further out there aesthetically alongside books that were more accessible, together as one conversation.” It was in those years that they were both working at Dalkey — Riker as associate director and Dutton as the managing editor and book designer — that ideas for Dorothy began to take shape in their kitchen. Riker says the initial vision of the press was Dutton’s. “We talked about what we could do together, but I was still very much working at Dalkey. So for the first year or two, I was advisory.”
These days, some of the work of running Dorothy is delineated between them — Dutton designs the books, Riker handles most business matters — but they share many of the responsibilities. Dutton says, “We both do editorial but in different ways. Sometimes we’ll take turns. I’ll take a pass and he’ll take a pass. Editorial is basically one long conversation at our house.”
In terms of the editorial process, Dutton and Riker say that it’s different with each book, though in general they describe themselves as “hands on.” While there are exceptions, they find that they often shorten books. One of the notable features of Dorothy books is their compression and the speed with which their writers move in a small space. “I’d say we sometimes push people toward messiness,” Dutton says. “A suggestion might be cutting off final paragraphs or any lines that close down meaning — or cutting a moment that seems to be explaining the energy rather than just having the energy there.” Another word for a Dorothy book’s “messiness” could be precision.
I ask Dutton and Riker if there’s tension between being such a small press and growing, and they say that in order to maintain their vision, there’s no way they would do more than two books a year. “We don’t have time in our lives,” Dutton says. In addition to running the press, they are academics and writers, and each has a book coming out this fall: Dutton’s SPRAWL from Wave Books and Riker’s debut novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return from Coffee House Press. “In terms of committing ourselves to figuring out the most we can possibly do for each book we publish — editorially, marketing-wise, aesthetically, having a relationship with the author — that is what Dorothy is.”
Since 2011, Dorothy has been based in St. Louis, where Dutton and Riker teach writing and literature at Washington University. St. Louis makes sense for a project like Dorothy. Nestled halfway down the Mississippi River, it’s apart from standard American cultural centers, yet it’s also been the home of a lot of culture-shifting writing — by William Gass, Maya Angelou, Tennessee Williams, and others. It’s a city with rich cultural resources — amazing free museums, great restaurants and indie bookstores, a massive city park. With low overhead and low cost of living, it’s easier to focus on new models of writing rather than trying to repeat past success. “What we like about Dorothy books is that each one of them is unique,” Riker says. “If you like something because it’s unique, then it logically follows that you don’t want a bunch more of them.”
During my day in St. Louis with Dutton and Riker, we didn’t just have pancakes; we had fruit salad with mint from the backyard, and veggie bacon and sausage; after our interview, they invited me to stay for grilled cheese. Their eight-year-old taught me about minerals and lizards. The next day, we went out for ice cream and walked down gated streets, eyeing ostentatious mansions with offended pleasure. We went to the City Museum, a massive rambling structure of repurposed industrial objects. Their son gave me a tour through the narrow wire tubes and down the stories-tall slides. There were moments where I thought I might get stuck and die. But that is part of the fun at the City Museum.
Asking Dutton about the impact she sensed Dorothy had on the larger literary community, she seemed stumped. “Some of the gap between your question and my answer is that we’re just here at our house in St. Louis. This is where all the Dorothy work happens.” She gestures at the space between us, at the coffee table. “Being in St. Louis, we’re pretty far away from the conversations that are happening.” Dorothy demonstrates just how much being away from it all can serve as a virtue.
This year’s Dorothy books represent the radical breadth and stabilizing aesthetic of the press. The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, is a hallucinogenic detective story. It’s like a crime novel written by Clarice Lispector, a fairy tale directed by David Lynch. Rivera Garza writes, “I took the case because I have had an all-consuming weakness for forms of writing no longer in use: radiograms, stenography, telegrams. As soon as I placed my hands on the faded paper, I began to dream.” “Rivera Garza is an important writer,” Dutton says, “and we’re excited to be bringing her book to English-language readers.”
The Taiga Syndrome is paired with Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk, a funny and surreal story collection that provokes the anxiety and loveliness of domestic life. “She does a very Barthelme-esque thing but she does it really nicely,” Riker says. “She doesn’t take the melancholic male, navel-gazing aspects. She takes the surrealist energy.” In the title story, a mother ferries her child to and from daycare while being made to worry about her baby’s milk. In a scene with the childcare provider, the conversation between them devolves from self-pleased bliss to existential terror:
“Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a phenomenon.” I blush. “Oh, thank you. We too think he is very special,” I say. I want to ask about the poncho, but Miss Birdy goes on. “I mean, your child is a mana mana,” says Miss Birdy. “What I mean to say is that your child is a real man.” Miss Birdy softly pinches her tongue and pulls off a long white hair. “Oh, that’s better,” she says. “I mean, a ma.” She makes little, tiny spits. “I mean, a no one. Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a real no one. No, no. That’s not it either.” Miss Birdy smoothes her stiff cotton skirt. It’s pink with tiny red cherries on it. “What I mean to say, most of all,” says Miss Birdy, “is that I love not being dead.” “Me too,” I say. “Oh, good!” says Miss Birdy. “Here’s his bottle. He drank all his milk and then cried and cried and cried for more.”
Unexpected comedy is a recurring theme through the Dorothy books. “Surprising humor is interesting to me,” Dutton says when I mention this. “Not like ‘ha-ha.’ Like Azareen’s book is so funny and yet you’re thinking ‘Why am I laughing? This feels wrong.’”
In “The Debutante,” the opening piece from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, which Dorothy published in 2017, a little girl helps a hyena kill her maid so the hyena can sneak into a ball wearing the maid’s face. “I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much,” the little girl says.
Or take George’s The Babysitter at Rest: George’s writing is fast, funny, and unnerving. It finds enormous pleasure and dread in the anxieties of underachievement. In one story, a spiritual guide helps the protagonist plan her 33rd birthday. “But I thought I could maintain certain things,” the woman says to her guide. “Like the belief that my experience is leading somewhere?” The guide puts a hand to their head to indicate a tension headache. “What’s worrisome is your insistence on maintaining anything. You’ve missed many of the lessons you were supposed to have already learned.” George had only published one story — in BOMB Magazine — and when Dutton read it, she says she felt almost nauseated with desire. She wanted to work with this writer, so she wrote an email to Mónica de la Torre, an editor at BOMB, and asked her to please pass it along to George. George wrote back and said she was thinking she might stop writing because she wasn’t doing anything with it. “Maybe she wouldn’t have stopped,” Dutton says, “but even the idea that she might have is upsetting.”
Dutton and Riker admit they wondered about the sameness of publishing surreal and funny story collections three years in a row — George, then Carrington, then Mark — but decided that though they share a tradition, they’re also all doing their own work. Plus they felt the effect would be balanced out by the different nature of The Taiga Syndrome, as well as the other books published over the past few years. They say that on an intuitive level, they always feel a desire to push out in a different direction and that they try to find a balance between debuts, translations, and rediscoveries.
Most commercial presses tend to be front-list oriented; they push seasonal titles, have lead titles within each season, and let books live or die as they move to the backlist. At Dorothy, all the books live, all the time. “We don’t really think of any of our books as ‘backlist,’” Dutton says. In terms of sales, Riker elaborates that they do of course pour most of their energies into building the audience for the new books, and each year there’s significantly higher sales for the two most recent titles, yet once past the initial sales season, Dorothy tries to feature every book equally, even offering a special price on the set of titles purchased together. Though their books are carried by bookstores and wholesalers across the country, they find particular pleasure in the sales that come from the website. “It just comes to my computer upstairs,” Dutton says. She acts out her reaction when the notification arrives. “‘Ahh! Another one!’ We still geek out.”
Dutton and Riker both talk a lot about the community and family they’re focused on building with Dorothy. Dutton says each year there are new and different people coming into the fold. “It keeps feeling new, and nervous, and exciting. Each year there are new community members, and I want to do a good job for them.”
“With how things currently stand,” I ask, “you both feel like you can do this for 10 more years?”
“Yeah!” Dutton says.
Riker says, “It’s something we discussed at the very beginning. When you take on books, you’re responsible to them. We didn’t want to take on Renee’s book and then go out of business and have her book go out of print.” He says that’s another reason they just do two books a year: so they won’t burn out.
“Won’t it be neat when there are 20 years of Dorothy?” Dutton says, animated by the idea of an expanding shelf of singular, compact books. “Thirty?”
Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes to Literary Hub, The Atlantic, The Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more.
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