Saturday, December 21, 2013

Publisher of the Year: Nouvella Books

It started with the antlers.

When I saw the deer staring at me, nose-level from the bottom of the cover for Panio Gianopoulos' A Familiar Beast, I was a goner.  There was something about that chandelier of a rack, curving like parentheses, which promised a hint of something great which I could not resist.

It was the beginning of a beautiful reader-relationship with Gianopoulos' publisher, Nouvella Books.  Like my favorite literary magazine, One Story, Nouvella is singularly focused in its mission: to produce high-quality, novella-length fiction wrapped in the kind of packaging which I can only describe as luxurious (in fact, Nouvella itself calls the finish on its covers "luxury matte").  Nouvella Books has been my happiest literary discovery this past year and it was an easy decision to pick it as my Publisher of the Year (past honorees include Graywolf Press and Tin House Books).

Getting back to that stag's head: it's the gateway to a first-rate story about a thirtysomething man named Marcus who is suddenly cut adrift from his marriage and job after he cheats on his pregnant wife.  "A lot of little things went wrong," he says.  "Then a big thing went wrong."

There is everything right with Gianopoulos' writing--it's spare, elegant and expert at describing a scene with small, concrete details.  I loved the end of this sentence which described a small-town bar near closing time: "...the patrons who remained had the weary steel of local unhappiness in their eyes."  Gianopoulos is also able to pack a lot of literary clothing into a tight suitcase when getting to the emotional heart of his characters.  Here, on the second page, is this passage:
Recently disgraced, Marcus found it hard not to catch a secret note of disdain in people's voices, an inevitable, humiliating discovery; wherever he turned, people leaked their derision like potted plants overfilled by amateur gardeners. It was the reason that Marcus had begun to spend more and more time online lately, the reason that he would agree to fly to North Carolina to visit a friend he had not seen in fifteen years and, when there, the reason he would consider, for the first time in his life, tramping out into the wilderness with a gun to kill anything that crossed his path.
That "friend" is Edgar, a man who is frightening in his lack of self-control and his overabundance of self-confidence which fuels that forward drive.  When, sitting in the dark of a room, he tells Marcus, "Women love to be hunted," I felt a chill run down my spine.  Uh-oh, I thought, nothing good can come of this.

The two men plan to go deer hunting, though Marcus is reluctant to kill anything--he feels he's already harmed enough things in his life.  The night before the hunt, there's this moment where Marcus, in the driveway of Edgar's home, catches movement in the corner of his eye:
....he turned to see the family of deer standing alert on the hilly banks of the road. The animals were well lit by the moon, exposed yet curious, and as Marcus watched, more and more climbed out of the safety of the bushes until they were ten, then twelve, then fifteen in number. These suburban pests were not the deer they would be hunting, Edgar had told him during dinner, and staring back at them, Marcus felt affronted by the slightness of their status. To him, they looked as vital and untouchable as stars and, mounting and descending the hill, they formed a luminous constellation whose greater shape was shifting and magnificent and all too brief.
This kind of beautiful, boiled-down description is characteristic of every novella which rolls off the Nouvella Books presses.

Most publishers don't know what to do with manuscripts of this length. The novella is like a teenager who lives awkwardly between childhood and adulthood--too big for the playground, too small for the jury box, the voting booth, the barstool.  It is too long for some readers, too brief for others.  It is, in short, fiction with an identity crisis.

Nouvella (and, I might add, the good folks at Melville House) knows exactly what to do with long-short stories: give them the respect they deserve.  Nouvella doesn't have a large catalogue; in fact, it's as slim as the volumes they produce.  Limiting themselves to just four titles per year, Nouvella treats each new release as if it was the shiny-new bronze statue in the town square which the mayor unveils with a grand, ceremonial flourish, the drapery falling away to the oohs and aahs of the gathered crowd.  A new book from Nouvella is an occasion to be feted with applause and the pop of camera flashbulbs.

Their most recent novella, How to Shake the Other Man by Derek Palacio, is the story of a street hustler named Javier who is taken under the wing of Marcel, a charismatic coffee vendor from Cuba who works the streets of New York as boldly and brashly as he does Javier in his bed.  Hoping to keep his new lover from leaving, Marcel convinces his brother Oscar, a former boxer turned trainer, to show Javier the ropes, so to speak.  When Marcel is murdered, Oscar and Javier form an uneasy, unlikely alliance as they prepare for the young boy's first fight.
      Bob and weave, duck and block, bob and weave—like a sinking ship that won’t make up its mind, Javi thinks, and he tries a left jab. But he doesn’t cover up, and his partner finds his ribcage, puts a hurt on his lung. Javi damn near spits out his mouth guard, but grits his teeth instead. He finds a rope and does his best not to fall over. It will throb tomorrow and probably Thursday as well. It will be hard to breathe without grabbing his side. The skin will bruise and he will see it in the mirror. He will come back to this moment in the morning.
      If Marcel could still talk, there would be a way to forget about it. There would be a cold pack next to Javi on the couch. There would be saucers waiting for shots of espresso on the coffee table in the living room. There would be Bebo Valdés on the tape player whipping along some ancient big band. There would be Marcel in the cocina mincing pork with spice and lard, rolling the mixture into silk-thin dough, and shoving the empanadas into the oven for twenty minutes, those minutes spent checking and touching Javi’s bruise, circling it with a cube of ice.
This is a boxing story, yes, but it is also a love story that is as tender as it is tough.

Speaking of tough, Nouvella's earlier release, The Last Repatriate by Matthew Salesses, can be a brutal, hard-to-swallow reading experience, but it's going to be one of the first books I recommend whenever anyone asks me "What's the best book to help me understand what it's like for traumatized war veterans?"  The Last Repatriate opens in 1950 with a soldier, Corporal Theodore Dickerson, sitting on a log at the edge of a forest in Korea.  In his hands is a Dear John letter from the girl to whom he'd been engaged before shipping out.  As Ted reads the letter, Salesses writes one of the finest, most concise descriptions of shock and grief I've ever read: "his face gives out like a torn spider web."  Ted runs into the forest, clutching the letter, determined to kill himself.  Before he can pull the trigger, however, he's struck in the back of the head with the butt of a rifle.  In a matter of sentences, he is taken prisoner by the enemy and for the next seven pages, we spend time with him in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Wait--was it really only seven pages?  I just had to go back and check.  It's a credit to Salesses' skill that I thought the harrowing POW scenes encompassed more of the 69 pages.  No, only seven pages.  Again, there's that narrative compression I was talking about.  Salesses describes Ted's physical condition like this: "bones like poles in a kite of skin."  Not a single word more is needed to sear that image into our imaginations.

The majority of the pages are devoted to Ted's difficulty in assimilating back into life in the United States after the war's end and his eventual release from prison camp.  He moves back to his hometown in Virginia where, yes, the girl who spurned him still lives (and has married Ted's best friend from childhood).  Ted falls in love with another girl named Kate, who carries an equally troubled past with her, and soon they're on the way to the altar.  I won't say anything more, not wanting to spoil the pleasures of Salesses' story.  Let's just say things reach a boil with the heat of a small-town love triangle.

All three of these pocket-sized books have as much depth and breadth of any novel five times their length.  Each of them adheres easily to the Nouvella philosophy stated at the publisher's website: "Conflicted characters. Good dialogue. Moral ambiguity. Make us laugh. Make us feel implicated."

And finally, I want to say a few words about Daniel Torday's masterful Nouvella novella, The Sensualist.  I've already sung its praises earlier this week, listing it among my picks for best books I read this year--and you should go read that review for a full description of what I loved about this short novel--but I thought I'd do just a little more to pique your curiosity.  Here are some of my favorite lines from The Sensualist, the story of 17-year-old Samuel Gerson's often-dangerous relationship with fellow student Dmitri Zilber, a Russian immigrant who is obsessed with the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Of course, there's the engaging, hard-to-resist opening:
The events leading to the beating Dmitri Abramovich Zilber and his friends would administer to Jeremy Goldstein at the end of my junior year of high school--an act that would make them the talk of every household in Pikesville for months after--started before Dmitri and I even met.
And then there's first meeting between narrator Samuel and Yelizaveta, Dmitri's alluring sister, during gym class:
      Dmitri walked along the fence, and he called out to Yelizaveta. She stopped and turned. Yelizaveta was five-feet-seven, and her straight black hair fell to the middle of her shoulder blades, tied up at the base of her head with green elastic. She looked at Dmitiri and shook her head. She said something that sounded firm but loving. Then she turned to me.
      My hands felt like something I'd stolen. My gym shorts had no pockets. I folded my arms across my chest, hands up under my armpits. Yelizaveta cocked her head with no small intimation of coquettishness.
      "Hello," she said. She turned to Dmitri. "Who is it you brings?"
      Dmitri looked at me as if he was as embarrassed by my hands as I was.
      "Samuel from gym class," he said.
I love that line: My hands felt like something I'd stolen.  Who among us, male and female, hasn't felt that same, what-do-I-do-with-myself awkwardness around members of the opposite sex?  This scene is not an isolated example, of course.  The Sensualist is full of gem-precision moments like this.

In browsing the Nouvella website, I came across this testimony from editor Deena Drewis about what attracted her to Torday's manuscript:
      Let it go on record that I do not believe in fate. But I am quick to attribute things to crazy coincidence and uncanny timing. This novella is a result of both of those things. I say this because as an editor (well, as a person) I err toward caution. I am slow to pull the trigger, so to speak, often to a fault. But this was not the case with Dan.
      This past fall, among various other publications, my staff read through the Five Chapters archives and flagged stories that caught their attention. Among them was “Bubi Grynszpan Dreams Assassination Dreams,” which was passed on to me for consideration. The story elicited a response in me that could be described in great length, but to put it simply, to distill it down its core, during the half hour it took me to finish the piece, it became quite clear that I was in the hands of a singular and effortless storyteller (and Dan will surely dispute this, for he is a writer of that endearing-yet-maddeningly-modest variety.) At the risk of exposing too much about my personal preferences, Dan’s writing seemed to me refreshingly unexperimental. Unself-conscious. The prose aimed to serve the task at hand, which was, through and through, to tell a story that would move its reader. To describe how two strangers connect and fail to connect—how they in turn, expose themselves and turn away from what is human.
      In the following days I read what I could of Dan’s work and was struck again and again by Dan’s unfettered approach, by his command of language. By his sense of humor and maybe above all, his empathy. I wrote to him to let him know how much I was enjoying his work and to see if he had, by chance, anything in the 10K-40K word range sitting around. I tried not to think about how unreasonable my disappointment would be if he did not.
      And what do you know.
      It was a few more weeks before he sent it over. The Sensualist (which went by a different title back then) had been a novel once, a manuscript he’d worked on during his MFA at Syracuse. But with this recent prompting, the novel was further shorn of scenes that he had questioned before. It was reconsidered and tightened and distilled down to—well, a novella. A narrative that is lucid and heartbreaking, that insists on being told.
And, I might add, it's a story that insists on being read.  The same goes for all of Nouvella's books.  Read them.  Now (or as soon as you can get your hands on a copy).  Each novella will take less than half-a-day to read, but they'll stick with you (like healthy oatmeal to the ribs) for much, much longer.


Associate Editor Emma Bushnell was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Nouvella via email.  Our conversation follows....

In his essay "The Novella's Long Life," William Giraldi says a novella “combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.”  How do you define "novella"?  Is it strictly word length, or are there plot-construction, character development, and thematic issues at play, as well?  It seems to be a rather slippery term, but I'm sure you've given it plenty of thought.

For technical purposes, we define a novella as being between 10,000 and 40,000 words, though that is, of course, completely arbitrary.  In my personal definition, a novella has transcended the compact world of a short story, and has fewer rules or expectations of it than a short story does.  It is allowed to have subplots, more satisfying character development, and create a more fully realized world, just like any novel.  Unlike in a novel, however, every word in a novella is necessary.  The reader knows there’s no chatty sections or minor characters that could waste her time.  This definition is, of course, as similarly arbitrary as our word count one is.  I think a lot of the difficulty people have when defining the term “novella” comes from the fact that it is a literary form with a particular x-factor.  As Potter Stewart would say, I know it when I see it.

Are there any particular novella-ists who've provided inspiration for what you do?  I'm thinking maybe Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Melville, or--more recently--the work of Josh Weil, Jim Harrison, or Joyce Carol Oates, for instance....

Many contemporary writers are able to sneak a novella into a short story collection without having to call it that--Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Diggings” and many of Karen Russell’s stories spring immediately to mind.  Andre Dubus, Truman Capote, Denis Johnson, Joseph Conrad, J.D. Salinger, and Cynthia Ozick are also among the noteworthy novella-ists.  Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, our reigning Great American Novel, is arguably a novella.  As you pointed out, many of our most celebrated stories in the English and American literary canon are novella-length works that would have a hell of a time getting published as standalone pieces today.  That neglect in the publishing market provides the inspiration for what we do--to give a home to these diverse and excellent stories that happen to be on the wrong side of a word count.

What impact, if any, does electronic publishing have on the novella?  Are readers less cognizant that they're reading a novella if they can't feel and see the length/heft of a book?

Well, I don’t think we’re pulling a fast one on readers or fooling them into thinking they’re buying a longer book than they actually are when they buy digitally.  But I do think e-reading is a natural medium for shorter and cheaper stories.  A lot of readers are “hybrid readers,” who use both e-readers and physical books, and it’s been interesting to see that many prefer to use their e-readers to dabble in authors unproven to them, which is mostly what we publish.  That said, we’ve been surprised by how much of the reading community is resistant to giving up the real thing--our physical copies still do booming business, even at twice the price of the digital editions.  Truthfully, e-publishing is still largely a There Be Dragons area for all publishers, and while we certainly hope it will benefit us, only time will tell if it will.

You limit yourself to four books per year with a unique subscription/marketing strategy.  What's the reasoning behind that?

There’s a bit of boutique feel behind a small press like ours, and we like it that way.  A short frontlist allows us to have unanimous consent on whether or not we publish a novella.  In that way, we can be one hundred percent behind every author we select, but it also means we are a slow and deliberate body.

Each title we publish is kicked off by a “Launch Week,” wherein the reading public is invited to “invest” in a “share package” of the novella.  During Launch Week only, you can buy a limited first edition, signed copy, e-book version, and usually some bonus gift, and receive a personal letter of thanks from the author.  The idea behind Launch Week is to make it clear that we’re not only selecting manuscripts when we publish, but we’re also selecting authors whose future careers we believe in.  Instead of trying to compete with the talent pool for Big Six publishers, we take the medium-length manuscripts they would never touch and get top caliber writers’ work out in the world to be noticed.  Largely so we can have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” when they publish big books down the line, which we’ve enjoyed doing very much so far.

Are you able to give us a hint as to upcoming Nouvella authors we can expect to read?

While the Launch series is still the meat and potatoes of what Nouvella is, we recently decided to expand and include one title a year in our new Enfant Terrible series.  We were finding we had to disqualify many worthy manuscripts because the author was already too successful for the Launch series, and that just seemed silly.  So we will now include novellas written by authors who have established careers already, but whose agents won’t take on their unruly, medium-length novella manuscripts.

The first novella in our Enfant Terrible series will be On an Island at the Center of the Center of the World, by the outrageously talented Elizabeth Kadetsky, to be released in the spring.  Kadetsky’s memoir, First There is a Mountain, was released by Little, Brown in 2004, and her short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best American Short Stories notable stories.  Reading her prose is like walking through a lucid dream--her people and places are vivid and exquisitely described, but she brings a chilling feeling of otherness, like Kafka or Bolaño does.

Also coming up, we’re re-releasing Edan Lepucki’s super-sharp If You’re Not Yet Like Me, with new material and a hilarious new cover.  Lepucki’s novel, California, is out in May 2014 from Little, Brown, so she’s one of our aforementioned I-told-you-so’s.

Out of personal, technical curiosity: what kind of finish is that on the material of the covers? It seems....soft, is the only word I can come up with.  You should know that not only do I hold the words between the covers in high regard, but I am also completely head-over-heels for the care you give each book with the small size, the French flaps, and that tactile perfectness of its packaging.

Thank you for saying so!  Our printer changes the name of that finish weekly, but right now it’s called “luxury matte.”  We’re pretty fond of it--whenever a new shipment comes in, the first thing you’ll find me doing is petting the books.

In an age where physical books have to compete with digital books, it really only made sense to make our physical copies as beautiful as they could possibly be.  For that, we are completely reliant on our designer, who is a wizard, and can take directives like “a cover that’s condemning about failed marriages and deer hunting” and make something beautiful and perfect every time.  The small, 4x6 size of the books was also just a natural fit with the novella form, and was done with people like me in mind who are often compromising the structural integrity of paperbacks in order to fit them into purses.


My Year of Books is the annual backward glance of my literary life.  All this week, I'll be posting lists of the best things I read in 2013.  Be sure to visit the rest of the series (links posted as they're published):

Monday:  By the Numbers
Tuesday:  Best First Lines
Wednesday:  Best Cover Designs
Thursday:  Best of the Backlist
Friday:  Best Fiction of 2013
Saturday:  Publisher of the Year

1 comment:

  1. What pleasure to read about a publisher who isn't apologetic about championing the novella! Wow. And thanks for such a lengthly entry about Nouvella.