One highlight of my year-long book tour in support of the Southern Reach trilogy was doing a Functionally Literate event in Orlando, Florida. The organizers did perfect pre-event publicity, had their own built-in PR through their own radio show/podcast. They also knew exactly what details to take care of to make my life easier after having been on the road a lot, and the gig itself was impressive as hell. From the venue to the format to the dedicated, extremely large (and enthuastic) audience of regulars–with great back-up from the awesome independent bookstore Bookmark It–Functionally Literate had pretty amazing organization, logistics, and support. (I highly recommend this reading series to all writers and their publicists–I put in a good word for them with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
They also had books they’d published–beautifully designed books, smartly edited, imaginatively conceived, featuring really interesting writers. I got a sampling of them at the hotel they’d put me up at. They all bore the Burrow Press logo. Burrow, you see, is the driving force behind Functionally Literate. And Burrow quickly has become my favorite new independent press.
After only three years and 10 books published, with four more scheduled for 2015, Burrow Press has become a prominent part of the Orlando literary landscape. One recent title, the story collection Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee, blurbed by Laura van den Berg, won an IPPY in addition to being long-listed for the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award and named a Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award Finalist.
Burrow Press seems poised for continued and sustained national attention–especially with its release of the novella on which Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is based. Indeed, you could say that Burrow Press is both reflecting a revitalized Orlando culture scene and helping drive that revitalization. It was energizing to see, and reminded me of ancient days back in Gainesville, Florida, where my cohorts and I founded one of the first significant indies in that city. (Today morphed into Cheeky Frawg.)
With the year coming to the end, and in celebration of the indie press/bookstore renaissance that seems to be sweeping the U.S., I thought I’d interview Ryan Rivas, the publisher and co-founder of Burrow Press. His writing has appeared in decomP, Annalemma, Prick of the Spindle, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and elsewhere.
What distinguishes your press from others?
We’re one of few fiction presses in Florida. I think that’s odd considering the wealth of talented writers who live throughout the state. While I don’t want to limit who we publish in the future, our books are currently written by Florida authors, which is not to say we always publish books about Florida, but rather that we shine a light on talented people who live and write here.
Burrow Press started off hyper-local, publishing Orlando (and Florida) authors in print and online. For a while we could only publish one book per year, so we helped start a monthly prose reading series (there were none prior to this) with another local writer, and which is still going strong. We’ve since started a quarterly reading series that connects authors from all over the world with the best writers in Central Florida. Early on we mostly published anthologies that aimed to paint literary portraits of Florida cities, which are too often portrayed stereotypically. We recently started a radio show that lets us plug other peoples’ lit events. So, out of all these local efforts, a literary community that wasn’t totally connected before started to solidify.
I don’t think many small presses get the same kind of local support we do. That support, for which we are supremely grateful, has helped us grow into a press that can continue to be a community asset while also publishing more books (four per year and growing) and reaching a larger national audience.
While I dislike those “we publish the best” and “books of note” mission statements, I hope Burrow will be known simply as a quality publisher of fiction (and eventually creative nonfiction when we find the right manuscript).
How does Orlando sustain and/or pose challenges to your publishing ventures?
Orlando’s arts community is a huge blessing for Burrow. It feels like we’re a sports team with a hometown crowd cheering us on. If no one else cared what Burrow was up to, I feel like Orlando would continue to embrace us and I’d be perfectly content with that arrangement.
Would it be easier to make “connections” if we were located in New York? Possibly, but it would be a lot more difficult to be noticed at all. I prefer the laid-back feel of operating outside the publishing Mecca, and love visiting small cities to check out their art scenes. I think the slower atmosphere helps me focus more on the work and less on the hype. I like to think that if someone at the New York Times is interested in a Burrow book, it’ll hardly matter that we’re based in Orlando.
Do you have a title that you feel exemplifies what you do? And why?
If I may cheat and offer two titles, because I think the way they compare/contrast exemplifies what BP is trying to do. Vanessa Blakeslee’ Train Shots is a debut story collection of contemporary realism. Songs for the Deaf is a collection of fabulist stories by a mid-career author (John Henry Fleming) who has previously published books with a major publishing house. Published on the same day, these books exemplify Burrow in their diversity, while also showing a similar care for craft, story, and character. They are also really accessible books that any fiction reader might enjoy. Maybe that’s a copout, but quality and diversity is what I’m aiming for—be they books about circus-freak tramps or the quiet drama of Midwestern lives. That said, I do gravitate toward the strange and quirky—75% of our 2015 books are strange and quirky.
How did you come to publish the novella that Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is based on?
I was approached by the author, Pat Rushin, about considering a manuscript of his––short stories plus a novella. I’d read his first collection, Puzzling Through the News, and knew he had this stunning language-driven style. So of course I stifled my excitement and giddiness and said, “Sure, I’ll take a look.”
When I met with Pat to share my thoughts on the manuscript, he’d just returned from Bucharest, where he’d worked on set with Terry Gilliam, who was directing this film, The Zero Theorem, which, oh by the way [Pat said], was inspired by that novella I’d just read. (Pat wrote the script for the film, too.)
Obviously I was thrilled, but also worried about the novella overshadowing the stories. So, The Call: a virtual parable (the novella coming out this February) was torn from the collection Quantum Physics and My Dog Bob (coming out in 2016 with some additional interconnected stories) and I think both books are better for it.
The novella holds its own, and is a different beast than the film. They share most of the main characters and there’s snappy dialogue in both, but the “parable” aspect of the book––the sort of abstract existential aspect––had to be externalized in the film as “solving the Zero Theorem.” The book is driven by that internal desire for meaning, as well as the author’s jealously-inducing prose. The book’s setting is minimal, whereas Gilliam explodes the film’s setting into an amazing imaginative world. The film ends up feeling like a dystopia whereas the book is more of a personal, Kafka-esque hell (but really funny, I swear!).
You’ve done books with teens. Is this an ongoing part of your mandate?
Yes, very much so. We’re part of a larger nonprofit organization, and under that umbrella are two programs: Burrow Press; and Page 15, a children’s literacy initiative that provides free creative writing programs to Orlando kids. Burrow and Page 15 work very closely. We share an office / coffee maker / dart board. The teen writing anthologies we publish are an annual thing, and we generally connect Page 15 with professional writers and editors from the Orlando community year-round.
I used to work full-time for Page 15, before bringing Burrow under the nonprofit. Before that I was a high school language arts teacher, and before that I was in the soul-crushing world of standardized tests. Instilling a love of reading and writing in kids is something I always want to do, so it will always be a part of what Burrow does.
What do you envision doing in future? Where do you want to be in three or four years?
You know, cliché stuff, like teleporting and eating fully nutritional meals in pill form. But as far as the press goes, there are too many ideas to name. I’d like the luxury to explore each one to its logical conclusion but…generally speaking, I want to do bigger events that further establish Florida as a literary hub, publish more books while increasing the promotional budget to expose more people to said books, build out a storefront / workshop space for Page 15 / independent bookstore / craft beer bar / literary event space… but top priority is to get my scattered, overly ambitious ambitions under control.