Constant Motion: Unnamed Press and THE PAPER MAN

Article by ben

By Benjamin Rybeck

In the last few years, I’ve learned about new independent literary publishers—a species that seems to breed like Tribbles—in the way that I remember learning about alternative music as a teenager, when a friend once upon a time gave me Ok Computer; from there, my question became a simple yet voracious one: “What else is like this?” So what was my Ok Computer in the world of independent presses? Maybe it was Ander Monson’s OTHER ELECTRICITIES (from Sarabande) or Grace Krillanovich’s THE ORANGE EATS CREEPS (from Two Dollar Radio), books that hit me like something to my veins—something I wanted more of. What else, what else? Learning about new indies is an active process, not a passive one—always old things you haven’t heard of yet, always new things to look out for. It can be tough to sort it out, which is why sometimes I’m happy when I don’t have to do any work: sometimes I’m happy when an editor emails me about their press and says, simply, “You’re going to like this.”

This is how Unnamed Press found me.

To explain: in my pre-Brazos life, I wrote fairly lengthy (talking 1000 words or so) reviews of fiction for places like Electric Literature’s The Outlet and The Rumpus. At one point, I reviewed Shane Jones’ odd and fanciful CRYSTAL EATERS, which maybe Unnamed Press’ marketing director Olivia Smith noticed; she had a book called THE PAPER MAN to promote—a book that Jones had blurbed—and, hey, maybe I’d like to write a review.

I’m not sure this is what happened, by the way—whether or not Smith saw my CRYSTAL EATERS review (or, hell, whether anyone ever saw any of the reviews I wrote)—but she offered to send me a copy of THE PAPER MAN, and I said yes, please send me a copy: see, when a young press actively hunts down reviewers, it usually means they’re doing something right—or are heading in the right direction, anyway. The cover of THE PAPER MAN struck me immediately: a shoulders-up shot of a well dressed man who, nevertheless, looks a little like a paper doll, and also a little like Alfred E. Neuman. The book felt sturdy in my hands; was it wrong for me to be surprised that an indie whose first release had only come out a year earlier already had such nice review copies? Obviously the editors at Unnamed knew what they were doing when it came to marketing. But still, I wondered as I cracked THE PAPER MAN’s spine, what would the writing itself say about this young publisher?

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“You have to be active and immerse yourself immediately,” Smith tells me on the phone when I ask her what she and her fellow editors have done to make a mark in the land of independent presses. This activity shows in a quick glance at Unnamed’s releases: since February 2014, they have published six books (including THE PAPER MAN), and in the next half of 2015, they have five more lined up—practically a book each month. Even some established literary presses—ones that have been at it for years and won prizes and all that good stuff—only publish four or five books each year. But for Unnamed, 2015 will bring eight books total.

Smith talks to me from Los Angeles, where she is one of five editors at Unnamed; along with fellow Unnamed editor CP Heiser, she previously helped found The Los Angeles Review of Books, one of the best magazines for literary criticism in America. There are similarities between Los Angeles and Houston, no doubt—both yawn outward, concrete tangles of freeways leading to sprawling suburbs; both pride themselves on their internationalism; and both, to most outsiders, are not arts destinations but, instead, company towns (Hollywood and energy, respectively). But a lot is happening in Los Angeles these days to change this perception; not only are there world class galleries (of course), but also plentiful reading series, small presses, and even the annual 2014 LA Art Book Fair, organized by Printed Matter. On top of all of this, it has some of the country’s best bookstores, including Skylight Books and The Last Bookstore (which, also, is surely among the nation’s most beautiful).

For Smith, the arts scene and the food scene in Los Angeles are linked. “We probably have the best restaurants and best street food in the country,” she says, “and the arts scene grew as an offshoot of that.” In other words, where young people hang out to eat and drink, young people will make art; it’s that simple. And even though Smith acknowledges the hold of Hollywood—“The high school I went to is shown on every TV show,” she laughs—she also points out that “there have been artists working in this part of the world [for a long time], but a lot of them were of Mexican origin. The Latino and Chicano literature that we have here is very rich, but it gets mostly disregarded.”

So how is Unnamed Press a uniquely Los Angeles institution? “[Los Angeles] is one of the first truly international cities,” Smith says. “Hundreds of language are spoken, and everyone lives in relative peace, which is rare.” Therefore, Unnamed hopes to become something of an international press, using the natural freedom and space of Los Angeles to grow. In fact, Unnamed has a sister publisher, Phoneme Media; they share staff and ideology, even though Phoneme focuses on international works specifically. The editors at these two publishers are not passive about acquiring foreign authors: one editor in particular travels the world, unearthing little known Bulgarian authors and Estonian poets—think of Indiana Jones, but with, you know, books (and maybe a more nebbish wardrobe).

THE PAPER MAN is not a foreign novel: it was written in English, and its author, Gallagher Lawson, is a lifelong Southern Californian. But still, Smith felt drawn toward some of the novel’s more international aspects; it takes place in a mysterious city that teeters on the edge of annexation, and Smith first read the book “right around the time that Russia started getting involved with Ukraine, so it felt timely.” Beyond that, the novel journeys into other unknown spaces, and Smith describes it as “a coming-of-age story about a man made out of paper that deals with gender and sexuality in an exciting way I haven’t seen before.”

Yes, you read that right: THE PAPER MAN is no metaphorical title. The man is literally made from paper.

“I had to trick myself into thinking of it as a fun challenge,” author Gallagher Lawson tells me, also over the phone, also in Los Angeles. “Having a paper man sounded great at first, but then friends read the book and asked, ‘How is that possible?’ It forced me to think of creative ways around the limitation.”

I won’t reveal much about the plot of THE PAPER MAN, except to say that it descends from the best of twentieth century surrealism, which is to say it’s funny, intellectual, and weirdly touching. In it, a young man made of paper moves to a city by the sea in hopes of getting involved with artists and finally finding his people. Apart from the paper conceit and the mystery of the location, it stays anchored in a firm tradition of fiction: the young outsider story. Imagine André Breton and Stephen Chbosky dreaming up a novel over some beers. Imagine THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, but with the characters actually being literal flowers growing out of the walls.

Which isn’t to say, however, that THE PAPER MAN was always so anchored, so concrete. Lawson confesses to a flaw as a writer: the tendency to make things too complicated (although, as flaws go, this is a fairly noble one). He worked with Heiser at Unnamed to edit the book, and through this process, he added, among other things, clarity to the novel’s setting: “Originally, I wanted what was going on in the city to be vague and in the background and unclear, but [Heiser] pushed me to bring that out, all the threats of annexation.” For Lawson, the process was a rewarding one: together, they got “in tune with the voice of the book, feeding off each other’s energy.”

Lawson is a young writer, but like most debut novels, THE PAPER MAN isn’t really a debut. “I wrote two-and-a-half before this one,” he tells me. “The first two I did for National Novel Writing Month,” and hearing this, I confess that I cringe a bit. I tried this once—writing a novel of 50,000 words in one month—and found myself nearly gagging on the adventure, disgusted by what it laid bare about just how badly I write under pressure. But for Lawson, it was a useful exercise to silence his internal editorial voice. No time for that when you’re on a deadline. You just have to scream through it.

Of course, just as I asked Olivia Smith about the Los Angeles art scene, I have to ask Lawson the same. And of course, he talks about diversity too, and places for young authors to read. On Twitter, I’ve seen photos of Lawson’s recent reading at The Last Bookstore, where it was, in events coordinator parlance, a packed house. But more than that, The Last Bookstore looks like a marvelous space for a reading. Seriously, have you seen pictures of this bookstore? They opened it in what used to be a grand old bank (so I hear, anyway, and it’s a notion too romantic to fact check), and if you’re an author lucky enough to read amongst the kind of columns they have there, you must feel important.

Lawson is also a big fan of the LA Art Book Fair, which I mentioned earlier, but as he talks about it, he doesn’t mention any of the books themselves; instead, he talks about the experience, and his voice hushes a bit. “Thousands and thousands of people go to it. I went, thinking there would only be a few people. Instead, it was loud music, and I got caught in the flow of people as soon as I walked in.” The fair takes place at MOCA—but again, Lawson doesn’t say anything about the art. “It was constant motion,” he tells me, mesmerized by his memory. “I couldn’t stop, just so many people flowing…”

What could he do, other than what Olivia Smith mentioned to me before? Sometimes you can only immerse yourself immediately.

The Paper Man Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781939419224
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Unnamed Press - May 19th, 2015

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