Indie Spotlight: Leapfrog Press

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Leapfrog Press began in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1993 as the brainchild of writers Marge Piercy and Ira Wood, whose initial goal was providing an outlet for literary fiction overlooked by the big New York houses. While Piercy has served as judge for Leapfrog’s annual fiction contest, the press currently is in the hands of Managing Editor Lisa Graziano and Acquisitions Editor Rebecca Schwab. Now based out of Fredonia, New York—in storied Chautauqua County on the shores of Lake Erie—Leapfrog’s list has moved on as well. In addition to literary fiction by both new and established writers, Leapfrog publishes a smattering of nonfiction and poetry and a diverse list of middle grade and YA fiction.

What makes Leapfrog stand out as an independent press is their refreshing lack of fear when it comes to compartmentalization. Despite publishing a small number of titles per year, they’ve put out everything from mysteries to memoir, science fiction to how-to, hardboiled exposé to tender and poignant story collections. When Leapfrog says they simply want “writing that expands our webs of connection with other humans and the natural world; books that illuminate our complexities,” they really mean it.

For Ploughshares, Lisa Graziano helps readers understand the why and how of their editorial decisions, provides details on Leapfrog’s annual fiction contest (deadline is May 1!) and gives the inside scoop on Leapfrog’s future.

KF: From Mary Malloy’s historical fiction/mysteries, starring adventurous academic Lizzie Manning, whose expertise and mettle could put even Indiana Jones to shame, to Michael Mirolla’s fascinating and frightening sci-fi tale The Facility, where the future is filled with Mussolini clones, to Li Miao Lovett’s powerful novel In the Lap of the Gods, set in China during the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam project, Leapfrog’s list is wonderfully quirky. What qualities do your divergent titles share? What marketing challenges does this wide range of titles bring you?

LG: Good storytelling first, and we do like quirky, as you put it. But our books share a few themes to which we are partial. Many have a grounding in science, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Some are based in important cultural and/or historical questions, whether or not they are “historical.” We don’t perceive these themes as separate. They tend to run together in many our books. You mention Malloy’s novels: Malloy is a professor of history, and she recreates the process of historical research, which involves science, in her novels. Cretaceous Dawn is a time-travel dinosaur adventure—but really a scientific look at what it would be like to hike through late Cretaceous North America.

In other titles, The Ghost Trap shows the reader the culture of Maine lobstermen, in exquisite and often sad detail. In the Lap of the Gods gives us a close-up of the human toll of the world’s greatest engineering project. Dancing at the Gold Monkey shows us the raw hurt of young men back from the Vietnam War. Berlin delves into the philosophical field of logic, twisted up with history. Death My Own Way is a precise psychological allegory about the artist as installation art. We also have a soft spot for dark humor: if you’re into that, check out the authors Vickie Weaver, Michael Graziano, Gregory Hill, Jacob White, Joan Connor, and Dmitri Zlotsky, to name a few. But to us, they are all “Leapfrogian” in their use of history, culture, and science, whatever the plot or the other themes, and whatever the format.

KF: The titles you’ve published as part of Leapfrog’s YA/middle grade fiction list indicate a strong dedication to diversity, both cultural and thematic. What are you most proud of in terms of what Leapfrog provides young readers? What prompted Leapfrog’s foray into the YA arena?

LG: We first published MG in 2008 simply because some wonderful manuscripts came our way, and they are every bit as much “literature” as our adult books. Carlon’s novels about Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong are unique—thus the support of places such as Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the awards they’ve won. They aren’t simply books about musicians. They are about the culture, the historical context, who these great musicians were as ordinary people, how they were impacted by and dealt with racism, and they’re very much about the music itself. Smelcer’s YA novels of Native Alaskans—stay tuned for Stealing Indians in 2016—are wilderness adventures in the sometimes grim context of cultural destruction and racism. B.B. Wurge’s novels have great lessons for kids about family bonds, scientific investigation, acceptance, and most of all, our wonderful imaginations, which make anything possible—even immortality on the moon.

KF: Your fiction contest guidelines are remarkably broad; Leapfrog will consider submissions of adult, young adult, and/or middle grade fiction in the form of a novel, novellas, or a short story collection. It seems your only strict requirement is a minimum of 22,000 words. How does this flexibility work in Leapfrog’s favor? How does your contest differ from your regular reading period?

LG: Regular submissions are judged on a query letter with synopsis and a short sample, with the author’s publication record as part of the decision. The contest is quite different. An entire manuscript is submitted and read by several judges, and the judging is “blind.” We don’t know anything about the manuscript, since there is no synopsis. We simply read and see where it takes us. The author’s publication record is unknown and therefore not a consideration. And knowing nothing about the theme or plot in advance makes it exciting to open each entry. Sometimes we’re hopelessly caught by the first line, such as these from some of our winners: “One day, the wind blew. It lifted the dust and took it away. The next day was Thursday…” (The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles); “This is how bad it’s gotten: I dream about the U.P.S. man.” (How to Stop Loving Someone); “Look. Have you ever tried to right a car you yourself have tumbled?” (Being Dead in South Carolina); “The old family farm is going to drown. . . .You can’t think of anything to do but throw an enormous party.” (And Yet They Were Happy). There are so many more. Others sneak in and quietly grow on us.

The months of reading entries are insanely busy and very special, with a lot of self-inflicted all-nighters. Opening the contest to any book-length work of fiction gives us a huge variety. We don’t want to exclude novellas just because they’re short, or story collections just because they are a harder sell than novels. We simply look for what we think is the best.

KF: What else should writers and readers know about Leapfrog’s future? Upcoming titles? Other contests in the works?

LG: Our next four titles, this summer and fall, are Gregory Hill’s The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles, a darkly hilarious Western unlike any you’ve ever read; John Smelcer’s YA novel Savage Mountain; Michael Gutierrez’s The Trench Angel, a historical Western and WWI; and Girl Singer, an adult novel steeped in the Jazz world from Mick Carlon.