Peg Alford Pursell is the author of the forthcoming book of flash and hybrid prose, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow (ELJ Publications). Her work has been published in VOLT, the Journal of Compressed Arts, and RHINO, among others, and shortlisted for the Flannery O’Connor Award. She produces Why There Are Words, the acclaimed Bay Area reading series she founded six years ago, and is the founding editor of WTAW Press, an independent literary publisher of books. WTAW Press is open to submissions through September 15.
The Rumpus: What spurred you to start WTAW Press?
Peg Alford Pursell: Good writing needs a home. Scratch that: great writing needs a great home. For six years and counting I’ve made that home for writers of all stripes with the San Francisco Bay Area-based reading series Why There Are Words. I’ve seen how frequently mainstream publishing overlooks great writing, and that heartbreak has led me to expand into publishing. We’re producing two books of prose our inaugural year and plan to widen our scope in the years to come.
Rumpus: What do you seek in manuscripts? Conversely, what will turn you away?
Pursell: I’m looking for prose manuscripts that tell me authors had to write them. I have an MFA and I’m well acquainted with what workshop writing is: pretty, perfect, polished—the kind of book the homogenized conglomerate publishing industry prints. I’m looking for work that cuts to the heart of the matter, goes to the bone. That doesn’t mean sloppy or unedited. But work that I know will move readers as it moves me, that makes me think, that makes me see things in a new way; work that I know the world needs to read and would be a lesser place without it.
Rumpus: What do you want submitters to know about WTAW Press?
Pursell: We trust writers to show us what works. We’ll know the real thing when we see it—and when we do, we’ll give it a great home. We’ll do everything possible to get our books in the hands of readers and gain the attention they deserve. Many of my friends are writers, but WTAW Press isn’t about publishing names I know. All submissions are read anonymously.
Rumpus: Name three elements of great writing.
Pursell: A voice you’ll follow anywhere, a story you can’t stop reading, and truth that will rock you to the core. With nonfiction, it’s the ability to shine new light on the familiar and illuminate the less familiar with authenticity and authority. Great writing is the opposite of predictability, pat lessons, and pedantry. (How’s that for a little more alliteration?)
Rumpus: Can you tell us a little about your own writing journey and what brought you to this point?
Pursell: Like many writers, I’ve always written. When I was in third grade I attempted to write a play based on Little Women, and still remember my mother’s excitement when I brought home a handful of classmates to rehearse. While the project didn’t come to fruition, the memory of my mother’s interest and pride never waned. As a single parent and public education teacher, I didn’t have the bandwidth to write as much on my own as I wanted to, so I entered the low-residency Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers for support.
My own book of flash fiction/hybrid prose, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, is forthcoming early in 2017 by—you guessed it—an independent publisher that’s doing great work (ELJ Publications).
Why There Are Words was born upon my move to California. Through the reading series, my experiences with writers, emerging to well-published, unknown and well-known, ultimately spurred the launch of this press.
Rumpus: You’ve run a successful reading series for the better part of a decade. What about this experience inspired you to start a press?
Pursell: Good writing is always in season. Why There Are Words has always been dedicated to making a place for unpublished and bestselling authors alike. We’re not about filling seats; we’re about offering the best work possible. I also launched the series for a personal reason: directly confronting my shyness and nearly paralyzing fear of public speaking.
Through Why There Are Words, I grew more familiar with—and more disturbed by—the fact that writers with such compelling voices were despairing the difficulty of gleaning serious consideration by the corporate publishing industry. That heartbreak isn’t solely for the writers, though; it’s for the larger world, for it too misses out on these stories.
Rumpus: What is the importance of seeking out and giving voice to lesser-known writers?
Pursell: Books serve as a collective soul, a memory bank, for the culture. The stories that constitute both history and contemporary record are not commodities to be bought and sold. Our books must reflect all our culture’s stories—not simply the ones that hit the projected corporate return on investment.
Rumpus: What is the advantage of a smaller press?
Pursell: Intimacy is not simply for the bedroom. Our small size allows us to cultivate a relationship with our writers—a chance to build a foundation and a career as opposed to simply publishing a single project. Those who go with a smaller press will find rewards in a personal touch and responsive nature, as opposed to larger organizations where you may need to jockey for attention… and still not receive it. And, as the small presses Bellevue and Four Way Books have demonstrated in publishing Pulitzer Prize-winning books, very real possibilities of winning major awards are in reach.
Rumpus: How do you propose to support your writers?
Pursell: Our writers will receive hands-on editorial development of their manuscripts, focused publicity and marketing, including reviews, and contracts with royalties. The authors of our two published books will be featured at a special Why There Are Words book launch and feted with a special celebration. Additionally, they will be guaranteed readings at each of the satellite WTAW reading series, also set to launch in 2017, in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Austin, and Pittsburgh.
There’s more, but I don’t want to give away all the surprises!
Rumpus: Why only two books during this first year?
Pursell: A smaller publication list ensures we’re issuing solid titles during this, our freshman year—and getting those titles the attention they deserve. Stay tuned, though, to see what our sophomore year holds in store.
Rumpus: What else does the future hold?
Pursell: Oh, so much! In the very near future, we’ll call on the community to chip in and support WTAW Press via a crowdsourcing campaign. As we expand, we’ll also be hiring more employees. Several other satellites will launch nationwide as well. We’ll publish poetry. Our catalogue of vital, brilliant, risk-taking books will expand. And that’s just the beginning!