Indie Spotlight: Pressgang

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pressgangBegun in 2012 by fiction writer Bryan Furuness, Pressgang is based at Butler University and is affiliated with Butler’s MFA program and the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writer Series. Pressgang’s initial publications have come from its Pressgang Prize, which awards $1,500 and publication to a book-length fiction or memoir manuscript. Its initial two titles show a determination to publish wonderful range of styles, from the quirky and poignant collection of stories by Jacob Appel, Einstein’s Beach House, to Teresa Milbrodt’s delightful collection of vignettes Larissa Takes Flight.

Pressgang’s current Editor-in-Chief is writer Robert Stapleton, and he is the force behind Pressgang’s newest and most ambitious title, just published this month. Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose is a fantastic collection of stories both written and illustrated. Editors Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson recruited several trios of writers and cartoonists to “respond to one another’s work with original pieces of flash fiction,” producing a rich collection of collaborative riffs from an amazing range of writers and artists. Lynda Barry, Aimee Bender, Junot Díaz, Steve Almond, Sherrie Flick, and so many more not only created the stories and comics in the collection, they also discussed the collective creative venture they took part in.

For Ploughshares, Robert Stapleton discusses Pressgang’s latest publication and current status, and shares what the press has in store in the future.

KF: Your submission guidelines request work that blurs boundaries: “Think Lorrie Moore, think Laurie Anderson, think Lemony Snickett,” and your initial publications exhibit that refreshing eclectic flavor. How will Pressgang’s editorial choices evolve now that the press is under your leadership?

RS: Bryan and I have had neighboring offices at Butler since 2010. We share many similar aesthetic and publishing interests, and Booth and Pressgang have naturally risen from our daily conversations. Since Pressgang’s inception, I have been intimately involved with its editorial board and the decisions of what to publish, just like Bryan has always been, and still is, integral to Booth’s editorial curation. The primary distinction is that I tend to champion graphic design whenever possible.

KF: You’re also editor of the online and print journal Booth. Do you see a collaborative future between the journal and press? How do you manage both enterprises?

RS: Yes, the future of Pressgang will likely overlap a bit more with Booth. Of course, they will retain separate editorial teams and decision-making processes. I expect Pressgang, however, to embrace some of the visual flair that Booth’s print journals have always exhibited, à la Flashed. I love graphic design and, as a publisher, am primarily interested in publishing books that are distinctive in their presentation. As for managing both, I struggle mightily. I love to teach and spend most of my time with my students and coursework. Booth and Pressgang are incredibly rewarding, but they are also extra-curricular projects for me.

KF: Your new anthology Flashed is so unique in its approach to the interplay between author and artist. Can you explain how this anthology came about? Do you plan a sequel or perhaps another new take on collaborative storytelling?

RS: The seed of this project was a conversation between Bryan and myself: how to create a book that married fiction and comics. This happened because I love comics and try to publish them, whenever possible, in Booth. From there, I began to think about graphic novelists I admired–and how someone could help edit and curate some kind of collaborative project.  This turned into numerous phone calls between Josh Neufeld and myself. In addition to loving Josh’s graphic novel, A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge, I had some copies of The Vagabonds, a series of comic book collaborations that Josh edits and publishes. Josh has been a leading force in comics and collaborations for the last 15 years.  

Over the phone, Josh vetted me quite a bit, and rightfully so: We talked about cartoonists we loved and the physical aesthetics of books and the need for a final product that was a piece of art in itself. Still, we struggled with how to balance fiction and comics and how to gather material. Our conversations organically wound towards Josh’s wife, the incredible novelist Sari Wilson. From there, all the pieces began to fall into place. Sari has been a sage presence and has kept Josh and me from going over the rails so many times during the four years we’ve been stitching together this project.

We have not discussed a sequel. But the future of Pressgang resides in my interest for beautiful and inventive projects, so in the future there may be a cousin to Flashed.

KF: Flashed is also Pressgang’s first foray into comics/graphic storytelling. Do you see that as a new genre for the press? Why or why not?

RS: I would love to publish graphic novels, though I would likely need a more experienced editor to help negotiate this. I feel very confident editing language. And while I love graphic novels, and teach a course on them at Butler, I have no real experience in editing sequential art for publication. That said, the folks at Butler have always encouraged my publishing visions, while offering incredible support and freedom. And I could name many graphic novelists that I’d love to publish. For instance, the Angoulême Comics Festival in France recently came under fire for a list of all male nominees for its Lifetime Achievement Award. The festival claimed that there had been few female artists in comic book history. This, of course, is incredibly provincial and simply not true. How great would it be to publish a series of graphic novels by women and title the series Bury Angoulême or something like that?

KF: Pressgang is currently not open for submissions. Will the Pressgang Prize continue? What else is in store at Pressgang for readers and writers?

RS: To be completely honest, we are still negotiating things like the Prize and how frequently we will offer new titles. I am unwilling to compromise my teaching and need to strike the right work-life balance. That said, we have an incredibly robust MFA program with awesome students and so much energy. So the issue is creating the right infrastructure for student involvement and experiences without draining anything from the other projects we have going on.