Talking with the publishers of new L.A.-based Unnamed Press
Los Angeles needs publishers. Certainly, there are some fine presses here — Red Hen, Prospect Park, Angel City — but the number remains small, especially for a city of this size. That’s one of the challenges embodied by Unnamed Press, a new imprint run by C.P. Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith, who got to know each other while working at the Los Angeles Review of Books. (The former was an editor there and the latter the publicity director.) “Chris and I met at LARB,” Smith observes, “so the press was really born out of L.A.’s literary scene.”
Heiser and Smith (full disclosure: Smith’s father, the novelist Mark Haskell Smith, is a friend) planned to begin publishing last fall as Ricochet Books — until they ran afoul of a poetry press with a similar name. So they regrouped, renaming the company -- “We were destined to be Unnamed,” Heiser jokes -- and relaunching earlier this year.
Their first two titles have just come out: Bangladeshi writer K. Anis Ahmed’s short story collection “Good Night, Mr. Kissinger” (176 pp., $16 paper) and former PEN Freedom to Write fellow Deji Olukotun’s novel “Nigerians in Space” (296 pp., $17.99 paper). Recently, we corresponded via email about the press, Los Angeles and what it means to be a publisher now.
This seems an exciting moment to start an independent press. The old structures are in crisis, which opens up a lot of opportunity.
Olivia Taylor Smith: I think the resurgence of independent publishing is part of a bigger picture. Supporting small businesses and shopping local is important to people now. There are writers, artists and artisans popping up everywhere with new ventures. As you say, the old structures are in crisis, so people who are fortunate enough to have options have created new opportunities.
C.P. Heiser: I walked out of a black tower in downtown L.A. six years ago ready to put my savings into something I believed in. Luckily, I found people like Olivia who believe in the same thing. Maybe more luckily, we found investment capital to take us to the next step.
One of the major reasons Unnamed Press exists is because of David Shook and Brian Hewes, founders of another local press, Phoneme Media, who started bringing me manuscripts one day and telling me I should publish them. To me, they stepped out of a page from “The Savage Detectives” and onto my street in Silver Lake.
Los Angeles can be a difficult publishing environment — but that seems to be changing, with the rise of 826LA, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Rattling Wall …
Heiser: For me, the most telling indicator of L.A.’s growing publishing culture came when we visited New York last month. We were on a sales trip to bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn and these tough, skeptical book buyers were welcoming and interested in us. It was our catalog that was winning them. It wasn’t a novelty to be a publisher from Los Angeles. I think a lot of really important literary boosters have done the heavy lifting to get us to this point. But also, the old publishing structures are largely New York-based, and so we, as a global literary community, no longer have to look only toward them for validation. Even New York is recognizing this to a certain degree.
For all your Los Angeles roots, you have an international focus; your first two books are “Good Night, Mr. Kissinger” and “Nigerians in Space.”
Heiser: For us, characters point the way. We discovered a manuscript about a lunar geologist who gets this unbelievable challenge — steal a chunk of the moon from his lab in Houston. If he can pull it off, he gets a chance to start a space program for Nigeria, his home country. Of course, home is never what we make it and this international crime novel becomes an exploration of national identity and exile. That’s what kick starts “Nigerians in Space.” With “Good Night, Mr. Kissinger,” we were drawn to a waiter in New York who develops a tense dynamic with one of his regular patrons — Henry Kissinger. In both books, these people are less representative of a particular country then of the globalized condition we all live in. Our next books take us to Estonia, Rumsfeld-era Baghdad and art school in the Midwest, but they all transcend borders of one kind or another.
Smith: I don’t think we would be a true L.A. press if we didn’t have international authors and literature. Los Angeles is first and foremost an international city and that’s what drives our literary culture. There are stories from all around the world that haven’t been heard yet, and we want to publish them, not because they are “world literature” but because they are relatable. For me, that’s what it means to be an Angeleno, to be able to relate to someone regardless of what language they speak or where they are from.
You also publish comics and have partnered with David Shook and Phoneme Media.
Heiser: Since the basic definition of a book is changing, I don’t think a publisher can limit itself to one form or another. So graphic novels, film, animation — we want to produce whatever we can get behind. Phoneme Media has been a partner since the beginning, and it is releasing some of the best new poetry and experimental fiction out there: Mario Bellatin’s short novels or Rocio Ceron’s performance poetry.
How do you see Unnamed Press developing?
Smith: We are going to feature more L.A.-based authors. In June, we’re publishing “Walker on Water” by Kristiina Ehin. It’s a collection of modern folk tales but with a feminist edge and elements of horror. We are shooting to put out 20 books a year by 2017.
What makes a book an Unnamed book?
Smith: Think globally, act locally. The Unnamed Press brings international literature to your bookstore. Then, there’s Chris’ “Captain Phillips” analogy …
Heiser: “Captain Phillips” definitely inspired me as we were launching the press. With a film like that you have a clear and obvious notion of the hero, paired with a weak attempt at a “humanized” other. But if I put everybody from that story in a room, Phillips wouldn’t be the one I would want to talk to. What about those pirates? Yes, they are threatening shipping lines, but why? And who’s really the bully? Why are local fishing economies being decimated? Politics aside, it’s about who is the interesting character, you know? And how about the crew that returns home and watches their Captain recast their experience for fame and profit? What is their experience like? So it’s those guys I am preoccupied with and want to follow — the unnamed ones. The Phillipses of the world are just dull.
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