'A press should play a leading role in a city's literary life'
One of the things I love about small presses is the opportunity they have to intimately engage in/with a community in a way that big presses can’t. Burrow Press, an independent Florida publisher, doesn’t let that opportunity slip by. In addition to the books they publish (some of which are anthologies that tell the hidden stories of neighborhoods and people in Miami, Tampa, and Orlando), they also curate a reading series, Functionally Literate, which pairs Central Florida writers with visiting authors and run a blog, Fantastic Floridas, which highlights the culture of the Sunshine State outside the theme park trope that it's so often tied to. What I like best, though, about Burrow Press is their work with Page 15, a nonprofit program that encourages young writers in creating, editing, and publishing. It isn’t just the current literary community Burrow Press wants to support, it’s the future of that community.
Tell us a little about the genesis of Burrow Press. Where'd the idea come from? Did you have previous book-publishing experience? What were some of the challenges you faced? And why Orlando, of all places?
Ryan Rivas: I had no previous publishing experience. Nor did the co-founder Jana Waring. Why Orlando? Because both Jana and I were living in Orlando and wanted to meet other writers here. We had the foolish idea to start a press and see what happened. The idea being that the first book would be short stories by Florida authors. We really had no idea what we were doing, but we put out a call for submissions. It turned out out a lot of the people we accepted, which we didn't necessarily realize at the time, lived in Orlando. We held a release party for the book and people really came out. From that event, a lot of other book projects and events were launched. We realized there was potential for a literary community beyond the poetry open mics that had seemed to be the staple in town for long time. Since 2011 we've been stumbling along from project to project, though we have a much more solid idea of our publishing program now, which is about 4 books a year, as well as our community events and outreach.
What role do you think a small press can play in a community? What are some things Burrow Press has done to connect with the local Orlando community?
RR: I've known of some small presses that existed mainly on the internet. They weren't based in a place with a literary community, or enough momentum and people to build one, for whatever reason. But since Burrow crystalized as a kind of response to the community, I've come to believe that, when possible, a press should play a leading role in a city's literary life. This is even more important when a community doesn't have an independent bookstore (Orlando didn't when we first started) or, say, an established books section in the paper... essentially another kind of hub for book-loving people to work in concert with.
Some of the ways Burrow works with the community: back in 2010 we helped start up the There Will Be Words reading series by providing a space and making chapbooks for each event. Once that was off and running (and also it's a lot of work to make a monthly handmade chapbook for more than a year) we looked to see what other gaps in the community we could fill. Around 2012 we created Functionally Literate because there weren't any events outside academia bringing world-class authors to town. And when a big author showed up at a university it was often at 3 pm on a Monday on the other side of town, so we wanted Orlando to be a stop for bigger authors to come through town and for the whole community to have access. We did a community radio show for almost two years, where we interviewed local authors and read a calendar of lit events, but that was difficult to sustain.
We do a lot behind the scenes, connecting people we meet to other writers and resources in the community. Trying to be welcoming in general. Obviously we can only do so much. But essentially a press has a stake in the literary culture of a community. If there is no literary culture in town, then we're going to stay cooped up in our office looking at computer screens.
Could you explain how you engage young writers in the Page 15 programs? What difficulties did you encounter? What are you most proud of?
RR: Page 15's whole approach to writing is through creativity and imagination. Write about anything you want. Don't worry about spelling at first, especially if you're not a strong writer to begin with. No matter what skill level or cultural background of writer we're dealing with we try to get them to get out of the school- / assignment- / grade-based mentality. The difficulties we encounter tend to be related to this. Lots of kids ask permission to write about X, Y, or Z and it takes some time to hammer in the point that this is not school.
Where do you think the book-selling industry is, these days? Is it growing, shrinking? Are there any trends you've noticed, anything that's caused you to rethink your strategy? Where's the industry headed?
RR: It feels like we're sort of emerging from the e-book craze and buying habits have balanced out. It seems clear print is here to stay. And I think independent bookstores are here to stay, too. You see them thriving now, in strong book communities especially, because like a press they also have a stake in all this, and so the good bookstores go the extra mile to assert their value and importance. I have no idea where the industry is headed.
As a small Florida press, what sorts of things do you do to build awareness of Burrow Press (and get people to purchase your books)?
RR: We pretend like we're one of the big five, only on a smaller scale. We've finally got a bit of a budget for sending out catalogs to booksellers and librarians. We print advance copies and target the appropriate media and booksellers for a given book project. But in terms of reaching Florida readers, that is a different beast. Florida isn't a huge literary market, at least in terms of bookstores, so we try to do more events. Of course every year we do a subscription drive and bundle the following year's catalog. We should probably do a better job of directing people to our online bookstore, since I can personally guarantee that I'm getting your order and dropping it in the mail the next day. And the reality is, no matter how much exposure a book gets, people will still go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble dot com or whatever, so we have those links readily available as well.
This is a broad question, but I think an important one: Why should people read? Why shouldn't they just, say, watch some TV or listen to a podcast? What is it that's unique about the experience of reading?
RR: I love this question. I'll do my best to answer it... reading activates a part of your imagination that other art forms aren't able to because you are actively involved by default. You can't passively consume a book, even if it's the trashiest of romance novels. You can also process a book at your own pace, in the quiet of your own mental space, and when you've got a good book in your hands this is a kind of magical experience—time collapses for a while. I feel like language is also the purest expression / distillation of human consciousness and thought – whereas a TV show is limited in its point of view and ability to convey abstract ideas. Metaphors don't work or hit in the same way on TV as they do in prose, and that speaks to the power of language. Also, in terms of humanity and human connection, especially if you're reading a novel told by first-person narrator, language is the best way to connect disparate experiences, and hopefully the reader comes away with increased empathy in his or her real life interactions. Don't get me wrong, TV has enriched our visual language in a way that has helped the written word. But while TV has special effects, you can make almost anything happen with words. Which is why it's all the more important to promote literacy. Because it's not possible to experience what I'm talking about if you can't read. I'm going to stop here before this becomes a public service announcement.
What's on your book stand right now? And lastly, the impossible question: if your house is on fire, and you could save just one book, which one would it be?
RR: I'm not shitting you when I give you my nightstand list. I am always in danger of being crushed by the books on my nightstand: The Guineveres by Sarah Domet, The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson, Eleven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki, Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin, The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty (which I finished a while ago but is still sitting there for some reason), The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu, The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem, and an old-school Kindle which I haven't used in a minute.
If I could save just one book from my burning house... at least that limits it to books in my house... I don't collect rare books or anything... so I'd say Chris Ware's Building Stories. It was a gift from a good friend and would be obnoxiously expensive to replace.
Ryan Rivas is the Publisher of Burrow Press. His writing has appeared in Literary Hub, decomP, Paper Darts, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and elsewhere.