In the past twenty years, Red Hen Press has evolved from a small collective formed by L.A.-based writers to a press with international presence, publishing around 20 titles per year. Red Hen also houses the literary magazine Los Angeles Review, and the press has three imprints—Arktoi, which publishes literary fiction and poetry by lesbian writers; Boreal, which publishes Alaskan literature and art; and Xeno, which puts out experimental work. Finally, the press also shares its love for literature with its Writers in the Schools program; authors teach creative writing and contemporary literature to under-served K-12 students in the area, and Red Hen publishes the students’ writing in a yearly anthology.
In this interview, co-founders Mark Cull and Kate Gale, who serve Red Hen as publisher and managing editor respectively, share more about their vision for Red Hen, the kinds of manuscripts they’re acquiring, and what they’re publishing right now.
Q: It’s remarkable how much Red Hen has grown in the past twenty years, both in the diversity of titles and the development of additional imprints. What’s the mission behind this growth? Do you plan to keep creating new lists?
A: There were a few things motivating our growth. The big one was just continually falling in love with new manuscripts, and feeling like we wanted to bring more of them into the world. The list has become more diverse, as you note, and that was important to us too—having the capacity to do all kinds of books. And there’s a practical consideration, which is that it’s harder to stay afloat publishing only five, six, even eleven or twelve books a year. Twenty, despite being a lot more work, is more sustainable. We don’t plan to go beyond the low twenties any time soon, or to add any imprints, at least in the immediate future.
Q: The range of the books published by Red Hen is broad, but on your website you say your titles are common in that they share a “certain wildness.” Could you explain this further? What acquisition, for you, has been the “most wild” so far?
A: Acquisitions for us have become a search for excellent work in a range of aesthetics, but also work that has some substance underneath, that isn’t all craft, that risks something. Maybe it’s easier to say what kind of work we’re not looking for, which is: bloodless. We’re very proud of many of our titles, but in terms of exploring the edges of wild, I think of Douglas Kearney, both his new book Patter and his first book, Fear, Some. I think also of David Mason’s Ludlow, a novel in blank-verse that has its own kind of wildness, and which is our best-selling title of all time. Then there’s Kelly Barth’s My Almost Real Imaginary Jesus, Brynn Saito’s The Palace of Contemplating Departure and Ron Carlson’s Room Service: Poems, Meditations, Outcries & Remarks—so many others.
Q: In addition to discovering new writers, Red Hen is also publishing authors who began their careers with other presses. What is it about Red Hen that’s attractive to these established writers?
A: For a long time we’ve been known for beautifully designed books, which is certainly part of it. I remember Camille Dungy at a reading once, at the Annenberg Beach House, holding up Suck on the Marrow and talking about how grateful she was that we had made the book seven inches wide, which her long lines were really calling out for. We’ve also stepped up our game over the last six years in terms of sales, marketing, publicity, all that stuff. We’re distributed throughout the US by the Chicago Distribution Center at the University of Chicago, we have a national sales force, and we work hard at making our books widely available to readers.
Q: One of your most recent titles, The Meaning of Names by Karen Shoemaker, is a remarkable historical novel set in the Great Plains during WWI. In addition to its compelling personal storyline, the novel also serves to enlighten readers about the intense scrutiny—and sometimes downright harassment—that German immigrants received during the Great War. Could you describe the process through which this rich and engaging story was accepted?
A: I have the good fortune of going to a fair number of readings. Recent Red Hen publications by Karen Shoemaker, Bill Trowbridge, B.H. James, and Pete Fromm all came to Red Hen because I was at a reading and heard them read, and I fell in love with their work. There is an immediate moment when you hear work read and you know that it has to be in print and you want to be the one to bring it to life—that’s what happened with The Meaning of Names.
Q: The Meaning of Names has potential to morph into one of those terrific Oscar-worthy period pics and you’re already in L.A. Is there a Red Hen Hollywood connection?
A: We submit our books to film companies and agents in Los Angeles and we will certainly submit The Meaning of Names which would make a wonderful film. Being in Los Angeles does give us more access to film companies, but making connections is still a lot of work.
Q: What other Red Hen titles can readers look forward to soon?
A: The fall season is shaping up to be really exciting: Pete Fromm’s new novel, If Not For This, a really stunning debut memoir by Elissa Washuta called My Body Is a Book of Rules, flash fiction collections from the two Rons (Ron Koertge’s Sex World and Ron Carlson’s The Blue Box), Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s Ruin: Essays in Exilic Life, about cross-cultural dislocation in New York and Athens, a more experimental novel by America Hart called Into the silence: the fishing story, and two poetry collections, Cynthia Hogue’s Revenance and Leia Penina Wilson’s I built a boat with all the towels in your closet (and will let you drown), which won the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s To the Lighthouse Poetry Publication Prize. Don’t even get me started on 2015.