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The Depths of Deep Vellum

When Will Evans appears at Brazos Bookstore with author Carmen Boullosa on October 24, he will have just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he will have no doubt lined up another title for Deep Vellum’s growing list of original, contemporary translations. Frankfurt has been good to Evans, leading to the acquisition of more than one title that will be hitting the shelves in the coming months. In fact, attending the Frankfurt Buchmesse has been a big part of his education as a publisher. But it is not where it started.

Evans studied Russian Literature, and he found himself frustrated by the lack of contemporary Russian titles in English. A professor of his, and a seasoned translator, told him, “If you want to see this book in English, you need to translate it yourself.” That simple statement stayed with him, and while it is not the path that he has chosen--not so far, at least--it led him to start taking a closer look at the world of translation. His search led him to Open Letter, a not-for-profit publisher of literary translations at the University of Rochester, and their blog, Three Percent.

What he learned reading that blog--that a mere 3% of all the books published in the United States in any given year are translations, and that only a couple hundred of those are original translations, including poetry--brought him back to those words from his professor. And when Chad Post, the publisher at Open Letter, wrote about the problem of advocacy in literary publishing, his message resonated. Evans felt moved to take action.

He took a look around the city that he was soon to call home, and realized that Dallas was lacking in literary arts organizations. He took a look at his own bookshelves, and he saw them filled with titles from New Russian, Northwestern University Press, and FSG (which, unfortunately, has moved away from publishing translations as frequently as it once did). Evans concluded there was only one thing to do: start a small, literary translation press and build a community of readers. Dallas has become Deep Vellum’s home, and his community-building efforts will be concentrated there, but Evans doesn’t want to limit himself, either.

Once the decision was made, Evans decided that he needed to learn everything he could about the business of translation. He read everything he could get his hands on, and he reached out to people in the business, like Chad Post. He emailed Post, asking for some general advice about how to run a small non-profit press, and Post responded with the offer of an apprenticeship at Open Letter’s offices in Rochester. That summer, Evans commuted between Dallas and Rochester for his crash-course in publishing. He learned how it works, how it’s structured, and who does what. Just when he thought his apprenticeship was over, Post offered to send Evans to Frankfurt on behalf of Open Letter. That was three years ago, and it the trip has become something of annual tradition.

Now, Deep Vellum is on the verge of releasing its first title, TEXAS: THE GREAT THEFT. It’s the most recent work from Carmen Boullosa, an author that Robert Bolaño once called “Mexico’s greatest woman writer.” Unsurprisingly, Post and Open Letter played an integral part in bring this book to Evans’ attention. They passed on the title, but they made sure that Evans knew about it, thinking it would be a perfect fit for Deep Vellum. They were right. It’s a more than fitting first title for a small press in the Lone Star State.

Cassandra Neace is a recovering educator, a contributing editor for Book Riot, and an unapologetic binge-reader. Her most recent binge-reads have involved short fiction from across the spectrum, science fiction written by women, and all of the books she read under duress in grad school. She figured they deserved a second chance. When she’s not reading books or writing about them, she works for a local graphic design firm.

Independent Together: Profiles of Our Favorite Small Presses

For a serious reader, discovering a new independent publisher is like finding a new friend. You hold the book, study the cover design, inspect the spine and read the author’s bio. Next, you try the first few pages, nod at a turn of phrase, sigh at a great insight (none of this takes more than a minute or two), until something clicks, and you’re overwhelmed by the certainty of people you have never met, living in other parts of the world, who somehow understand you. The word “independent” almost isn’t right, is it? After all, such discoveries teach us that reading is--as readers know--a communal activity.

This month, we’ll profile several independent presses (including A Strange Object, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions). For now, here’s a list of five indie presses that deserve your attention--and it must be said, this list is nowhere near exhaustive. There are dozens of other great indies, both high-profile (Algonquin, Counterpoint, Graywolf, Soho, Tin House) and more obscure (Civil Coping Mechanisms, Featherproof, Lazy Fascist, SF/LD, Tiny Hardcore). So consider this list merely an introduction to some of the wonderful alternatives to “mainstream” publishing, and then continue searching the secret places of American literature for your new friends.


Dalkey Archive is an incredible publisher that brings international and translated works to English readers. Swiss literature? Check. Korean literature? Check. Croatian and Iranian? Check and check (and yes, they do publish American writers). Consider OMEGA MINOR by Paul Verhaegen, an enormous, electrifying novel about cognitive psychology, quantum physics, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. The novel goes back and forth in time and place, visiting Berlin, Boston, and even Los Alamos. It is a stunning and audacious work which Verhaegen himself translated into English from the Dutch. OMEGA MINOR exemplifies the books published by Dalkey: brave, important, and infinitely more concerned with the quality of the work than the chances of being a best-seller.

Melville House is an indie publisher doing a host of exciting things, whether it’s publishing lost classics by forgotten greats, or groundbreaking contemporary authors, or other lines that celebrate literature as a whole--what other publisher has an entire series of books devoted to the wonderful art of the novella? Lars Iyer's thrilling trilogy SPURIOUS, DOGMA and EXODUS will surely leave a lasting impression on you. Vicious in its humor, simple in its style, and revelatory in its philosophy, this trilogy follows two wandering British intellectuals as they banter about the end of the world, the death of academia, and countless other subjects both high- and lowbrow. Think Nietzsche with a laugh track, or Kierkegaard with a whoopie cushion. In style, the writing is reminiscent of Austrian master Thomas Bernhard, but the comic timing and biting dialogue adds a layer of satire rarely experienced in fiction. Herman Melville would be proud of his namesake publisher.

Other Press is among the quintessential indies: they go about quietly publishing marvelous titles, seemingly modest about the virtues of their own books, when suddenly, quite mysteriously, it dawns on you that you’ve read four or five of their books, all which you have loved. Other Press publishes an array of fiction and nonfiction from all over the world. Among the best of these is Simon Mawer’s THE GLASS ROOM. The novel follows the events of the twentieth century through the lens of a single room. A young married couple commissions a German architect to build a house in Czechoslovakia. The house becomes a minimalist masterpiece, with a transparent glass room as its center. When World War II arrives, the couple flees. As the husband and wife struggle abroad, their home passes through several new owners, with each new inhabitant falling under the spell of the glass room. THE GLASS ROOM is a perfect introduction to Other Press--a novel of great beauty and originality, with a deep knowledge of the past.

Sarabande Books started in Louisville, one of those mid-sized American cities that seems to avoid the national spotlight. (They have sluggers there, right? and the band Slint?) Perhaps it makes sense that Sarabande was formed in a city of mystery, of question marks. There’s Ander Monson’s experimental novel OTHER ELECTRICITIES; there’s the bleak, intensely personal drama of Kyle Minor’s PRAYING DRUNK; there’s their varied roster of marvelous poetry; there’s a Lydia Davis chapbook about cows. Sarabande is one of the great shapeshifters of contemporary lit, and each book surprises. The notion of shapeshifting is most notable, perhaps, in Kerry Howley’s THROWN, a work of nonfiction tracing the attempts by the author--at the time a philosophy PhD student--to describe the experience of watching mixed martial arts. In the process, she becomes invested in two MMA fighters, each at a different place in his career. Is THROWN philosophy? poetry? journalism? a comeback story? a coming-of-age story? a satire of academic self-satisfaction? It’s all these things, ripe with ideas, bursting with invention and intelligence. THROWN won’t be out for another week--but brace yourself. (Howley, a former editor at Houstonia Magazine, will read at Brazos on 10/20.)

Sometimes Two Dollar Radio feels like an author, not a publisher. This isn’t to devalue the individual authors of Two Dollar Radio’s books--authors who are distinctive and marvelous--but somehow each release seems to come from the same brain and is instantly identifiable as the work of this trailblazing Columbus-based publisher. This is true not only in terms of design (Two Dollar Radio is one of America’s best branded presses), but also in terms of the prose itself--feverish, irreverent, and so worked up that you worry the words themselves will tear the pages before you get a chance to read them. Two Dollar Radio releases often seem to mine genre for inspiration, taking “low art” and treating it with seriousness (consider the vampires of Grace Krilanovich’s THE ORANGE EATS CREEPS, the zombies of Bennett Sims’s A QUESTIONABLE SHAPE, and the fairy tale inflections of Shane Jones’s CRYSTAL EATERS). But maybe the best place to start is D. Foy’s MADE TO BREAK, a novel of wit, scope, and horror, about a group of friends stranded in a cabin in the middle of a storm. Like the best Two Dollar Radio books, it takes a pulpy premise and makes it human and complex.

Meditative and Less Irritable

Many interesting artists and organizations live and work in Houston, but the sprawling nature of the city makes it difficult to familiarize yourself with everyone and everything. 

Well, don’t worry: We’ll help you meet Houston’s most vibrant creative people. We’re here to make introductions. 

Today, meet Roberto Tejada, the new poetry hire at the University of Houston. Brazos Bookstore’s Annalia sat down to speak with Tejada about his new home, the importance of making connections across artistic communities, and the difficulties of objectivity in writing.


Brazos Bookstore: What do you like about Houston so far?

Roberto Tejada: It's an immense urban environment—a landscape similar to some large cities that I've grown accustomed to, like Los Angeles, Mexico City, and, more recently, São Paulo. Houston is a global city that has an incredible human texture. That’s what great urban cities are about.

BB: Lacy M. Johnson [Houston resident and author of THE OTHER SIDE] views Houston as a series of small towns sort of pocketed together.

RT: That's definitely true. I mean, I've only been here a month, but I used to come down with some regularity for cultural events when I was living in Dallas. But I can tell that, yes, there are pockets—microcosms—here in Houston. Once you start getting a command of those clusters, links to other parts of the city open up.

BB: What is your vision for your career here? Do you have any goals or ideas—things you want to do?

RT: Well, the most immediate goals are to become integrated into the English department, the creative writing program, and the school of art at the University of Houston—its events, and its links to the cultural offerings of the city itself. And in that respect, I also want to get integrated into Houston’s larger literary culture. In terms of my career here, I have a book of poems that I'm currently working on, and also a book of art history that links the cities I mentioned earlier. I'm looking at Los Angeles in the '50s, '60s, and '70s; Mexico City in the '80s and '90s; and São Paulo in the year 2000 to the present.

BB: You write about art, but do you make art?

RT: No, I don't. My dad, who’s now retired, was a physician, but he was also a medical photographer. He was an amateur painter too, so a lot of my interest in art comes from that. I've taken line drawing classes, which I think is essential for any art historian and anybody who writes about art. And I think it's great for writers as well to get a sense of what the hand does on the page in a different mode—when one draws instead of writes.

BB: Yeah, especially since so many writers these days write only electronically.

RT: Only electronically—yes! But drawing is about getting the eye and its sense of perception and observation to resonate with the act of recording or documenting.

BB: What kind of impact do you think growing up around visual arts has had on you as a writer?

RT: Well, in a sense, my training goes back to the years I spent in Mexico City from 1987 to 1997, and that was in my 20s and 30s. In lieu of graduate school, which I did later on in my life, I was immersed in the intellectual and artistic life that was taking place in the '80s and '90s in Mexico City, which was fierce and dynamic. That had the greatest impact on me. And Mexico City was an environment where visual artists and writers, poets and painters intermingled.

BB: Do you have any tips for artists who want to intermingle but don't know anyone from different communities?

RT: Follow the advice given to actors: Just show up. If there's an artist whose work appeals to you in particular, ask to do a studio visit. The studio visit is a way of honing your skills at having a conversation with an actual object or series of objects in a room. And it's a very deep way of interacting with another artist. If you're a writer, it's a particularly deep way of interacting because you're navigating and translating across different materials—language on the one hand, and visual and material forms on the other.

BB: Turning to FULL FOREGROUND [Tejada’s most recent book of poetry], how did the project develop over the many years it took to write?

Full Foreground Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9780816521333
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: University of Arizona Press - September 20th, 2012

RT: The book went through many transmutations. I suppose a first version of it was probably completed around 1999. The initial, skeletal architecture of it was written between 1995 and 1999, when I was still living in Mexico. Many cultural and social brutalities were taking place around me, and those brutalities seeped into the writing. When I moved back to the United States in 1998, I kept working on the manuscript. As time passed, I saw that the historical sweep of FULL FOREGROUND began to grow. For example, the final piece in the book is a kind of coda, written in conversation with the ten-year anniversary of the events of 9/11. I wanted to create this kind of telescopic effect—what Walter Benjamin calls “the telescoping of time.” So you're in the present, but then you begin to see that the present, in incremental ways, is actually looking backward in time.

BB: I kept thinking the title—FULL FOREGROUND—was an attempt to suggest no background, whether or not that’s even possible.

RT: [The title] is meant to ask the question: Is it even possible to separate figure from foreground? And this question of the figure/foreground relation interests me in terms of visual representation as well. But when we think of everything as “full foreground,” it gives a sense of the immediacy of the present—an immersive quality of present tense that doesn't eradicate the past but instead brings the past into that foreground as well. So there becomes very little contrast between past and present.

BB: You said you're working on a book of poems right now. Is it very different from this past one?

RT: There are some poems that build on the kinds of questions I ask in my last two books—poems that look at historic moments, situating themselves in a kind of theatre of history or memory, taking a maximalist approach. But part of me wants to return to the style of my first book of poems, which is much more minimalist. Maybe I'm trying to discover how to reconcile those two approaches. So I've been publishing some of what might end up in this next book, and some of the poems are broad and sweeping, and others are just 140-character, Twitter-like interventions.

BB: Have you thought about working in the long form, like writing a novel or a memoir or anything?

RT: I would love to be able to write a novel because I'm an avid reader of novels and they produce nothing but wonder in me as to the possibilities of that kind of architecture. One of the most recent examples is Roberto Bolaño's 2666, which is just—there are no words to describe the kind of effect it can have on a reader, once you've been through the five different sections, the five different novels within the larger novel. And I just marvel at the kind of page count that involves—the sheer virtuosity of having to sustain that kind of performance. 

So the short answer is: No, I don't think I could write a novel. But it leads me to wonder whether the immersive quality of something like FULL FOREGROUND can be a trap. And how can one create different kinds of music if the immersive quality is so tightly bound? I love the idea of plainsong, for example. Something meditative and less irritable.

In terms of memoir—the kind of art history that interests me is that which can be read allegorically as memoir. I think we in the humanities want to think think that we can disinvest ourselves from [subjectivity] and write in an empirical mode in which the author is this cool, distant, God-like figure looking from above at the object below. But it's an impossible task. I'm very skeptical when, as a reader, you get a sense that there's not a body or a person behind the so-called research.

The kind of art stories I want to tell take the life of the observer of art very seriously. So, in a sense, they’re memoir.


#WritersRead - René Steinke

John Cheever. Rick Moody. Lorrie Moore. Tom Perrotta. John Updike. Richard Yates.

What do these authors all have in common? Why, suburban malaise, of course!

What has made the suburbs such fertile territory for American authors since World War II? Perhaps it has to do with the notion of staid lives governed by good manners—neighbors who cannot retreat into anonymity amongst one another and, as a result, have to suppress all negative feelings—and the oppressive sense that, just a car ride away, there’s a city where people are really living.

Consider, for instance, René Steinke’s Gulf Coast-set third novel, FRIENDSWOOD. In it, an industrial spill has made a section of town unlivable. In the aftermath of this accident, Steinke’s characters—divorced parents, football stars, greedy land developers, and possibly clairvoyant teenagers—cope with grief, fear, gossip, and the threat of hurricanes.

Would these characters be better off if they moved thirty miles up the road to Houston? Perhaps not. But therein lies the subtext of all great suburban novels, FRIENDSWOOD included: the sense that escape from a dreary life of subdivisions lies frustratingly close, but that the path there is an unlit nighttime highway, difficult to see.

I talked to Steinke about life in the suburbs, the power of imagination, and her habits as a writer and reader in this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: At one point in FRIENDSWOOD, you mention some Houston spots that a character named Dani visits—clubs named Sevens and Coastal Club. How well do you know the city of Houston? What kinds of places do you think your other characters would like to visit if they got out of Friendswood and into the big city?

René Steinke: I know Friendswood much better than I know Houston, although we'd visit Houston when I was a kid (mostly to go to the Galleria), and I've spent some time in Houston more recently, visiting my sister and my brother-in-law (who grew up in the Memorial area). 

Those passages in the book are partly inspired by my high school friend, who'd somehow get into the Houston clubs, even at sixteen, and went backstage with The Judy's (a punk band), and partly by a tour of my brother-in-law's Houston haunts when he was a teenager—we went to a lot of places around Westheimer. I invented those club names (and the names of some other things in the novel) because I think it's important to settle the reader into a world that's fictional, even if the story is set in a real place. To some extent, I want the world of the novel to be a world unto itself.  

If I were to send my characters into the real Houston on field trip: Willa and Dani, in a couple of years, would probably like Poison Girl. Dex would like to get dressed up and go to Hugo's restaurant, and so would Hal, though he also might prefer Otto's Barbecue. I'd like to send Lee to the Rothko Chapel.

BB: You grew up in Friendswood, yet you write about it at a contemporary moment. Did you ever consider setting FRIENDSWOOD in the time of your own childhood? Do you work differently as a writer depending on whether a novel has a contemporary or a period setting?

RS: I need to have a certain distance from my subject matter in order to feel free enough to make up characters and scenes, to not get hung up on a "real" incident or street name. I think setting the novel at a contemporary moment (rather than the 1970s and 1980s when I lived in Friendswood) gave me some of that distance. I don't write fiction about myself, so I have to be able to imagine that I'm inside the mind of someone else in order to write a story, and in the case of FRIENDSWOOD, those characters have experiences very different from my own. Whenever I start a novel, I sort of begin to build the characters' perceptions and insights alongside landmarks or facts—details that fascinate me, like the icon of the Mustang that appears everywhere in Friendswood, or the Quaker church, or the abandoned golf course, or the sign for the hardware store that's the shape of a hammer. It was the same way when I was writing HOLY SKIRTS [set in 1917 New York], though obviously those initial touchstones were different for that book. But then as the story takes over, more things get made up or embellished to make the story work the way it should. If I relied too much on the facts, the story would fail. So the Friendswood in the book has some recognizable landmarks, but it's also a fictional creation, partly old Friendswood, partly new, partly made up. More than anything, I wanted to capture the feeling of the place, the houses, the parties, the landscape, the economy, the weather.

BB: What are some of your most memorable experiences in bookstores?

RS: In Dallas, just after I graduated from college, I worked at a bookstore in a shopping mall. People used to ask me for recommendations, and I remember how awesome that responsibility felt, especially when in the scheme of things, even though I was an English major, I'd still read so little of what I wanted to read. But generally, whatever I recommended, people bought. That was an awesome responsibility for a 21-year-old, and it gave me a real sense of people's hunger for books.

Later, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I lived in my early 20s, there used to be a great independent bookstore called Williams' Corner, right along the historic mall. It was in an old building, crowded but in a good way, a little dark in the back, and the owner, Michael Williams, was very tall and very kind. All the writers (famous ones and fledgling ones like me) used to linger there. One afternoon, in the poetry section, I stood next to Sam Shepard, who was incredibly handsome, and I tried to see which collection he was reading, but couldn't make it out. Another time, I ran into my teacher, George Garrett, and he pulled a book by William Goyen off the shelf and handed it to me and said, "Here you go, another Texan." Ever since then, Goyen has been one of my favorite writers. Browsing the shelves of that store, I discovered so many books that have been important to me—Denis Johnson's FISKADORO, Jeanette Winterson's ORANGES AREN’T THE ONLY FRUIT, Robert Walser's MASQUERADE, William Gass's ON BEING BLUE, Barry Hannah's AIRSHIPS. I can still see their covers and remember how it felt to buy a book when I had hardly any money for anything. When Williams' Corner closed, two friends and I drove all the way from Brooklyn to Virginia in one day, just to be at the closing party. I'm still sad that it's not there anymore.

BB: Can you recommend three other books that might interest fans of FRIENDSWOOD, or that might better acquaint readers with your personal canon?

RS: HOME by Marilynne Robinson, WISE BLOOD by Flannery O'Connor, and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG by Norman Mailer.

BB: You have no idea whom I’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind: What would you like me to ask him or her?

RS: What's the craziest thing you've ever seen in Texas?

BB: Speaking of which, Bret Anthony Johnston (author of REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS) wants to know: Where’s that money you owe me, punk?

RS: Bret, I just saw you last week in New York. Are we even now?


All the Things, All the Time

Many interesting artists and organizations live and work in Houston, but the sprawling nature of the city makes it difficult to familiarize yourself with everyone and everything.

 

Well, don’t worry: We’ll help you meet Houston’s most vibrant creative people. We’re here to make introductions.

 

Today, meet Spindletop Design and Workhorse Printmakers.

 

###

 

There’s Jenn, and John, and Joe…but also Josh, which I learn when I greet Joe, whom I have met before, by accidentally calling him Josh, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever met his colleague Josh—not sure whether I knew a Josh worked there at all. (There is also Laura, so not everyone's name begins with "J.") Joe’s correction about his name is friendly (“Lots of 'J's, it’s easy to get confused”) but direct, and I recall a recent moment when somebody called me by the wrong name and I simply nodded, happier to ignore the mistake than to make my world incrementally more awkward in the pursuit of accuracy. But Joe, in correcting me, seems undaunted by awkwardness, wanting only to move toward precision.

 

Spindletop Design (a graphic design firm) and Workhorse Printmakers (a letterpress print studio)—both Houston-based—value precision. The three major players in the firm are the aforementioned Jenn, John, and Joe—or, more formally, Jennifer Blanco, John Earles, and Joe Ross. Through Workhorse, they have dedicated their lives to preserving print, in all its tactile glory, as a viable medium, making beautiful objects on letterpress machines—machines that look ancient (whether or not they are), almost like medieval racks and other torture devices. (They also do branding and website design, including the design of the very website you’re reading right now.)

 

In 2009, Blanco and Earles, the founders, debuted a stationery product line for Workhorse (then only known as Product Superior) at the National Stationery Show in New York (where they lived for many years). Although they met all the right people that year, they didn’t sign any orders—in part, because of 2008’s disintegrating U.S. economy and its effects on America’s largest city. Blanco and Earles felt that it might be time to consider new things, career- and location-wise, and what initially seemed like a failure was ultimately encouragement to discover what another city would have to offer. “When you first get to New York,” Earles says, “you feel exposed to a lot. But after a certain time, those great things can become limitations for you. Instead of being inspired by people and the city, there’s not enough room for you."

 

Earles and Blanco moved back to Houston in fall of 2009, during a time of rebirth for the city, as it began, says Earles, “to think of itself as a destination city” due to its economic opportunities and relatively low cost of living—results of avoiding the recession. “The food scene was expanding, the writing scene was expanding, and there were a lot of young people moving here who wanted to be involved in more things.”

 

Earles, who does not seem like the type of man prone to using car metaphors, says that Houston, for years before 2009, was “the Toyota Camry of big cities: reliable, but not particularly glamorous.” In contrast, “New York’s the Jaguar—it looks great, and it’s exciting, but when it breaks down, you’re left walking for a week.”

 

Now, in 2014, is Houston a Jaguar?

 

“It’s getting there,” Earles says. “It’s a Lexus.”

 

###

 

Soon after returning to Houston, Blanco and Earles met Ross, who was working at PH Design Shop (whose retail storefront recently closed) in Rice Village. “I met John and Jenn because we carried their stationery products,” Ross says. “We hired John to do illustration work for some projects with PH. We all three joined the AIGA board and later became friends.” The AIGA—the professional association for design—gave the trio greater access to the design community of Houston. (Blanco is Vice President, Earles is Director of Operations, and Ross is Director of Impact Programming.)

 

What was the state of the design scene in Houston when these three first got involved with AIGA? Ross, with a smile, is initially shy to say. But Blanco’s words sound like stones hitting the table: “As an outsider, it appeared bleak."

 

“With the AIGA," Earles says, "we have been able to focus on design advocacy—getting designers involved with community, while also showing the outside world that [graphic design] is something that’s here and valuable.”

 

Making connections—both within a community and with the “outside world”—is difficult in Houston, an expanse of sometimes random-seeming urban sprawl without a coherent arts neighborhood. Bridging the city’s geographical gulfs can be the hardest part of trying to forge connections between like-minded individuals. “Nobody was communicating with each other,” Blanco says of the design scene in 2009. “You might get wind of somebody doing cool work, but there was no interaction.”

 

Ross adds, “Houston has been, historically, a city of lack of specialization—especially when it comes to design. Everybody does everything, so everybody else is competition." This has yielded some bad blood between design firms in the city—but how does Spindletop/Workhorse feel? “Let’s just be cool with everybody,” Ross says.

 

As for battling the Houston sprawl? “I think we have a reputation that extends beyond our geographical location,” Earles says, “but it was really hard work.”

 

“Continues to be really hard work,” Blanco says.

 

In this brief exchange, something happens that shows the stubborn success of these people—the fact that they not only recognize how they still have to grow, but that, with Blanco’s word “continues,” they also show a willingness to push each other into more and more precise places.

 

“We’re friendly people,” Earles says, “but deep down, we’re very uncompromising.”

 

Blanco adds, “We need this work to be badass.”

 

###

 

If you visit Fat Cat Creamery in the Heights—a boutique ice cream shop—you’ll see one of Spindletop's earliest projects. 

 

“We were working on [Fat Cat] together,” Earles says, “all three of us, and that was the first project where it all came together.”

 

Ross adds, “It was the culmination of everything we like to do and everything we can do. And it was an awesome client that makes great ice cream. It was something we could genuinely get behind.”

 

“That was a project with very few compromises,” Earles says.

 

The notion of compromises—whether or not they’re made—brings to light another, potentially thorny question: What do Blanco, Earles, and Ross consider themselves? Are they artists?

 

Here, they pause, turning over in their brains the kind of question that maybe has occupied many late nights that this trio has spent together—a question that involves the sort of self-definition that people who spend their days as problem solvers, bouncing from project to project, sometimes want to avoid.

 

“I think we manage that tension,” Earles says, “by only taking on jobs that fulfill our artistic tendencies.”

 

Blanco’s answer is a little different, however. “John [who focuses on the letterpress printing rather than the design] is still more hardcore in the world of ‘fine arts.’ But design is different: There’s no pretense that you’re doing a personal thing. From the beginning, somebody is presenting you with a problem, and you’re trying to solve it.

 

“If I wanted to make art, I’d go make art,” she adds. “I wouldn’t do Spindletop Design.”

 

###

 

In its present incarnation, the firm has settled into a nondescript location across from a church in a residential portion of the Heights. Despite the presence of computers, the inside of the building seems to exist in a different era. Of course, there are the printing machines themselves, hulking things that, when working, call to my mind images of Charlie Chaplin getting stuck between gears in the now ironically-titled MODERN TIMES. But the building itself feels unfinished, even cluttered, in a good way. It seems like the kind of place where things happen, as though the speed of ideas and the desire to finish projects has left the space itself a work-in-progress. At one point, I glance at the ceiling’s wooden beams, behind which, sloping upward, appears to be black construction paper—an imaginative toddler’s approximation of outer space on a ceiling. “Spray insulation,” I’m told. “Painted black.”

 

When I ask them about their plans for future products, Blanco’s answer sums up their mission in the most succinct way yet: “We want to do all the things, all the time.”

 

For them, “all the things, all the time” requires a balance between the personal and the professional. “We do cool, self-authored projects,” Ross says, “which leads to client work, which leads to less time to do cool, self-authored projects.”

 

One of those self-authored projects is the printmaking the trio does for Brazos Bookstore during its banned books celebration, an event that Spindletop/Workhorse has participated in before, bringing a letterpress (whose original function, they tell me, was to proof newspaper) to the store and printing posters on-site. But for this year’s event (on Saturday, September 27), they’re planning something a little different.

 

“We’re trying to make [the poster] into this propaganda-style piece,” Blanco says. The posters will include calls to action—text that, when viewed through a bookmark with a 3D-style monocle (also made by Spindletop/Workhorse), will reveal, as Ross says, “secret messages.”

 

It’s an ambitious project—one that, to me, sounds suspiciously like art.

 

And in its attention to banned books and the obsolescent-seeming medium of print, Spindletop/Workhorse's mission becomes a little clearer: to preserve some piece of marginalized culture—to hold that piece up, to let the sunlight illuminate it, and to say, See? You need this more than you know.

Read Dangerously

Books get banned every day.

Sometimes the reasons are political. Sometimes the reasons are social. Sometimes books are banned unread simply because of dangerous content they supposedly contain. In our free society, banning books should be unacceptable. But it happens all the time.

To support Banned Books Week (September 21-27), Brazos Bookstore invites you to dig into these challenged texts and decide for yourself about their provocative nature. And mark your calendars for September 27, when we’ll be throwing our banned books party, Read Dangerously: A Day with Banned Books.

In the meantime, enjoy the following banned books, each chosen by a member of our staff.

The Sun Also Rises Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780743297332
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Scribner Book Company - October 17th, 2006

This brilliant novel follows journalist and expatriate Jake Barnes during his latest encounter with the twice-divorced Lady Brett Ashley. Book one and part of book two take place in Paris, but the height of the story is the running of the bulls in Spain and the fiesta that surrounds it. Set in the roaring 20s, the Nazis burned all of Hemingway’s writings in 1933 for “being a monument of modern decadence.” The Sun Also Rises was also banned in Boston, MA, in 1930; Ireland in 1953; and Riverside, CA, in 1960 for its language, use of profanity, and central focus on sex.

- Annalia 


Speak Cover Image
$10.99
ISBN: 9780312674397
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Square Fish - May 10th, 2011

Not only is SPEAK my favorite banned book, it's also one of my absolute favorite book books! It cut straight through my teenage angst to impact me in a profound and empowering way. The book is frequently banned and challenged in high schools because it tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl's (mostly silent) emotional recovery in the year following her date rape. Despite the premise, it is one of the most hopeful stories I've ever read, and the lessons Melinda learns about herself are universal, beautiful, and necessary.

- Mary-Catherine 


Lady Chatterley's Lover Cover Image
By D. H. Lawrence, Kathryn Harrison (Introduction by)
$12.00
ISBN: 9780375758003
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Modern Library - September 11th, 2001

First printed privately in Italy in 1928, this novel wasn’t published openly in England until 1960. The book soon became infamous for the physical (and emotional) relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman, its explicit descriptions of sex, and its use of then-unprintable words. The novel is said to have originated from events in Lawrence's own unhappy domestic life, and he took inspiration for the settings from where he grew up. Despite its explicit content, many critics argue that the subject of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is not sexuality but the search for integrity and wholeness.

- Mark 


Howl: And Other Poems Cover Image
$7.95
ISBN: 9780872860179
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: City Lights Books - January 1st, 2001

Originally published in the fall of 1956, the book was subsequently seized by U.S. customs and was the object of a long obscenity trial where it was finally decided the book was not obscene. Brutal, unflinching, heavily inspired by both Jazz music and Walt Whitman, the genius of Ginsberg’s poems still rings true today. 

- Mark 


The Satanic Verses Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780812976717
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Random House Trade - March 11th, 2008

A magical and galvanizing novel, THE SATANIC VERSES brought international fame to Rushdie as well as a fatwā issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran. The novel mixes the real with the imagined, replete with magnificent imagery and symbolism. Sadly, there were numerous killings, attempted killings, and bombings resulting from Muslim anger over the novel. 

- Mark 


Little Brother Cover Image
$12.99
ISBN: 9780765323118
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Tor Books - April 13th, 2010

When its young hacker protagonists are detained by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco, LITTLE BROTHER brings us 1984 for the modern generation (with a more optimistic ending, thankfully). Winston Smith, 1984’s protagonist, might have done better if he could’ve hacked the government with an Xbox like our heroes in this story. Particularly relevant in our era of government surveillance and terrorism paranoia, LITTLE BROTHER is a breakneck-paced, all-nighter kind of read. This June, LITTLE BROTHER was pulled from One Book/One School program in Florida after the school principal worried the book encouraged hacker culture and would teach children to question authority. In response, author Cory Doctorow and his publisher Tor sent 200 free paperback copies of the book to the school.

- Liz 


Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes Cover Image
$19.99
ISBN: 9781401225759
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Vertigo - October 19th, 2010

Neil Gaiman's 75-issue SANDMAN saga is one of the most celebrated and most challenged graphic novel series of all time. The story of Dream of the Endless (also called Morpheus, the lord and personification of Dreaming) spans ten collected volumes and numerous spin-off tales, earned nine Eisner awards and three Harvey awards, and was the first graphic novel to win a literary award (the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story). This sprawling, gorgeous epic is part fantasy, part horror, and all its own brilliant mythology pulled from history, literature, and the collective dreamscapes of the world. SANDMAN has been challenged and removed from libraries across the United States for "anti-family themes," "offensive language," and for being "inappropriate for age group" (most often when it's shelved in the young adult section, despite being released an adult series). Gaiman remains philosophical about SANDMAN's controversies, however, remarking, "I suspect that having a reputation as adult material that’s unsuitable for teens will probably do more to get teens to read Sandman than having the books ready and waiting on the YA shelves would ever do."

- Liz 


The Handmaid's Tale Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9780385490818
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Anchor Books - March 13th, 1998

When Margaret Atwood published THE HANDMAID'S TALE in 1985, she caused a sensation. The novel imagines a world where the society assigns individuals to their place in the world: men are warriors and lawmakers. Women are domestics and babymakers. When one women dares to oppose this order she unbalances and entire society and exposes the flaws and limitations of tradition. Dangerous stuff, indeed.

- Jeremy


Beloved Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781400033416
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage - June 8th, 2004

A vengeful ghost, infanticide, sexual assault (of men and women), and all the unvarnished sadism of slavery. Nobel Prize alum Morrison’s masterpiece is filled with these horrors. And it is because of them that BELOVED has been challenged and banned on numerous occasions. The most recent instance took place in 2011 at a number of Michigan schools. But what are these children supposedly being protected from? Despite its supernatural elements, BELOVED’s power stems from it’s historically accurate portrayal of the dehumanization and brutality inherent in slavery--a system so horrendous a mother would rather kill her daughter than see her reduced to chattel. It is imperative for younger and future generations to understand just how awful this dark chapter of American history was. That is what BELOVED does for its readers. That is the core of its literary value. That is why the freedom to read it is so important. And worth fighting for.

- Keaton 


The Giver Cover Image
$8.99
ISBN: 9780544336261
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Houghton Mifflin - July 1st, 2014

Banning a young adult novel like THE GIVER reminds us that the books deemed “dangerous” are, in fact, often the exact pieces of literature that just might make young people want to read more. Upon first encountering THE GIVER, I didn’t know books were like that--dark, knotty things that told great stories, yes, but also made you think after the reading was done. I was hooked after that and moved onto more and more interesting and fulfilling works of fiction; that was my path. The thing that scares me about banning books like THE GIVER is: What happens to young people not challenged? How else will they move into maturity without that first taste of the unknown?

- Ben 


Magic for Literature Lovers

THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell’s latest tour de force, opens with the narrator, Holly Sykes, experiencing the typical self-involved agonies of being a teenager: fighting with her mother, discovering her boyfriend has been cheating on her, and running away from home. But on her flight away from her hometown, she has some strange interactions--most significantly, an intense fantastical daymare followed by a forced blanking of her memory for a period of time. Soon, Holly faces another dilemma, although one less typical within the teenage experience: the disappearance of Jacko, her beloved and eccentric younger brother, who had gifted her a labyrinth before she ran away from home, insisting she memorize it in case she ever needed to use it. Before the reader can deduce what has happened to Jacko, the novel vaults several years into the future, with a new narrator and new environment, both seemingly unrelated to the previous pages.

However, in typical Mitchell style, these disparate narratives (which eventually total six) are interconnected, with Holly providing continuity and critical linkage between the sections. For instance, remember Holly’s strange interactions--the daymare and blank memory--from the first section? They wind up priming the reader for later paranormal occurrences, which happen with greater frequency as the novel approaches an epic climactic battle between two opposing factions of immortal souls: the Horologists and the Anchorites. Mitchell is known for mixing fantasy and reality, which, when combined with his colorful characters, makes for an enjoyable read. His new book proves ambitious in scope and rich in detail, managing to find a perfect balance between plotty page-turner, humor, and deep philosophical inquiry. With its magical elements and its sensitive coming-of-age story, anchored by the unforgettable Holly Sykes, THE BONE CLOCKS feels like an adult version of Harry Potter.


Tickets for David Mitchell's September 21 Inprint reading at the Wortham Center are on sale now.

#WritersRead - Bret Anthony Johnston

Early in Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS, a teenage boy hides shirts in the back of his closet. He does this as a barrier against parental snooping: he knows his mom will enter his room at some point, unauthorized, searching for young adult contraband. But he hides the shirts not because he shouldn’t have them, but because he doesn’t want his mom to see them. See, the shirts used to belong to his older brother, who disappeared four years earlier. This teenager doesn’t want his mother to see a reminder unexpectedly and break down in tears.

This is a small moment, passed over quickly, but I describe it to demonstrate the remarkable way this novel makes the reader feel, even in the most insignificant-seeming details, the pulse of life in this family--the sly way a young man knows his mother well enough to anticipate an invasion of privacy, and the heartbreaking way he knows to forgive her this trespass and, instead, protect her from harm.

The protagonists in Johnston’s novel--the Campbells--live in south Texas, near Corpus Christi, a sprawling, humid landscape of Whataburgers and HEBs and odd local businesses like a place called Pampered Pets. For years, Eric and Laura have tried to get on with their lives while still searching for their missing son, Justin, but a shocking turn of events--the discovery of the kidnapped boy, alive, living one town over--upends their lives again, delivering a sort of happy ending. Starting with this event, which happens early in the novel, Johnston unpacks the notion of happiness and fulfilled wishes, blending tropes of crime fiction with penetrating psychological realism, showing how the most difficult thing of all might be learning to forgive.

But again, the small moments speak loudly--especially this dialogue between Eric and Laura as they lie together in bed, drawing words with their fingers on each other’s backs:

“He wrote: I’m sorry.

“‘I didn’t get it,’ she said. ‘Write it again.’”

I asked Johnston about his terrific novel and also his habits as a writer and reader in this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: How is REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS specifically a Texas novel? In other words, what about the story could happen only around Corpus Christi?
Bret Anthony Johnston: In many ways, my goal was to write a novel that could only happen in Texas, but for it to be more than a Texas novel. I wanted the unique and uniquely oppressive Texas heat to exert itself on the characters, and I wanted the Gulf to become a kind of character in its own right. I always knew that Justin would have been less than an hour away, and I wanted his family to see the same thing he did on a daily basis: the bay. I wanted that knowledge to serve as a comfort and evolve into a kind of torment. Likewise, I wanted the heat to prove inescapable, just as what the family faces is inescapable. And, of course, I’m fascinated by so many of the Texas oddities that show up in the book—the Shrimporee, a stranded dolphin, the reticence of the people down there. Maybe someone could say the storm that comes ashore is specific to Texas, but I was less interested in the storm than what is left in its wake. As a whole, the novel is concerned with aftermath.

BB: You delve into numerous scenes of highly charged (almost suffocating) emotion--Justin's return early in the novel comes to mind. How do you keep scenes like this from tipping into melodrama?
BAJ: I suspect the first twenty or fifty drafts of those scenes were soaked in melodrama, but I took each moment in the book through countless drafts, and in each one, I was often working to rinse the prose of unearned or overwrought emotion. For me, the antidote to melodrama is empathy. In each of those scenes, and in the whole novel really, I worked hard to experience the moments through the characters’ perspectives. I didn’t want to impose my fears or judgments or emotions on their lives, as I think that kind of distance results in what we’re calling melodrama. With every revision of every sentence, I aimed to collapse the distance between me and the characters. If I was able to fully inhabit each of their perspectives, then I trusted that the only emotions left on the page would be the ones the characters had earned, the one the readers would find authentic and rewarding.

BB: Much of the book focuses on the details of Justin's captivity, including some that might surprise readers accustomed to watching lurid news coverage of these crimes (e.g. the aspects of relative normalcy--friends, a girlfriend, a pet--that, in part, defined his captivity). How much did you pull these details from nonfiction accounts of kidnappings versus from your own imagination?
BAJ: I did a huge amount of research for the book—certainly about kidnapping and family reunification, but also about Texas history, dry-cleaning, dolphins, pawnshops, etc.—but the research was there only to build a foundation that would support my imagination. Each of the details you mention was a revelation to me, and those surprises fueled the book. Every time I discovered something new in a writing session, the detail would beget ten more details, a hundred more. Justin’s snake, for example, was a kind of Russian doll that kept offering new possibilities. What if he’d once been afraid of snakes? How long before the snake started to shed? What if the snake escaped? What would happen if someone recognized him buying mice one month? Each of the details offered that same kind of cascade, and when I landed on one, the whole hideous and debasingly difficult labor of writing fiction seemed worthwhile.

BB: What are some of your most memorable experiences in bookstores?
BAJ: There are so many! When I worked in a used bookstore, I bought some books from a woman named Fancy, a name that I couldn’t shake and eventually put in my first book [the short story collection CORPUS CHRISTI]. Another time, I saw the heavy metal rocker Glenn Danzig browsing a religion section. He was wearing a baseball hat, which didn’t do much for his demon-ness. Years ago, I did a reading, and there was a flatteringly long line to get books signed. I’d noticed a man biding his time, waiting until everyone had gone ahead of him. I thought he wanted to share something with me, maybe talk about how much my book had meant to him or some such, but really he just wanted to know if I would tell him the name of the young woman who’d gotten her book signed near the end of the line. He wasn’t buying a book and seemed pretty sketchy, so I lied and told him I couldn’t remember. Incidentally, her name was Virginia.

BB: Can you recommend three other books that might interest fans of REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS, or that might better acquaint readers with your personal canon?
BAJ: A few books that I’ve loved recently are: STONER by John WilliamsGOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright, and TRACKING THE CHUPACABRA by Benjamin Radford.

BB: You have no idea whom I’ll talk to for the next installment of #WritersRead, but never mind. What would you like me to ask him or her?
BAJ: Where’s that money you owe me, punk?


Bret Anthony Johnston presents REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS on Thursday, September 11 at 7PM. Reserve your copy of the novel by adding it to your cart right now. Choose Pay In Store/Pick up in Store to retrieve your book at the event.

Remember Me Like This Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9781400062126
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - May 13th, 2014

A Modern View of an Ancient Nazarene

With so many writings about Jesus already in existence, one has to wonder why Reza Aslan would want to contribute another. However, from the outset, Aslan makes it clear that ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH is a study of the historical Jesus--not to be confused with Jesus the Christian icon, who has become a celebrity in his own right.

Aslan's hope? “To spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that [he] once applied to spreading the story of Christ.” It’s a big hope, but he is diplomatic in his introduction. He defends the narrative in the book as “the most accurate and reasonable argument” and points readers who are interested in the debate to the back of the book where he has “exhaustively detailed [his] research, and, whenever possible, provided the arguments of those who disagree with [his] interpretation.” (And there is interpretation: Aslan did all Greek translations of the New Testament himself.)

Aside from Aslan's extensive knowledge--which allows him to pivot between time periods, subjects, and perspectives with ease--the main thing that struck me about ZEALOT was Aslan's quest for truth. Take, for instance, a moment in part two when he examines John the Baptist and his role in baptizing Jesus. When Jesus came to John, John was the “superior” figure--a “popular, well-respected, and almost universally acknowledged priest and prophet.” Because John had established himself first, his most loyal followers refused to acknowledge Jesus's legacy, even long after both figures were dead.

So how did the role reversal between John and Jesus come about? Aslan suggests that the gospels “massaged” the story in order to comfort their readers. Mark’s version of John the Baptist is a “wholly independent figure who baptizes Jesus as one among many who come to him seeking repentance,” whereas, in Matthew’s version, John does not baptize Jesus at first, insisting that Jesus should be the one baptizing him; it is not until Jesus gives John permission that John performs his duty. The depictions become more and more conservative until, in the gospel of John (the fourth gospel), John is not a baptist at all. John does not even baptise Jesus. Rather, John simply says, “I have been sent before him...He must increase, as I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).

Aslan uses these discrepancies not only to highlight the contradictions in the Bible but to reinforce that the Bible as a text was never meant to be a factual document. Rather, Aslan argues that writers of the Bible portrayed Jesus to fit the times in which they were writing. Jesus became whatever his audience needed him to be, which is why separating Jesus of Nazareth from Jesus the Christ is so critical--and why Aslan’s work is so necessary.


Tickets for Reza Aslan's September 19 presentation of ZEALOT at Christ Church Cathedral, Episcopal are on sale now. Click here for all the details.

A Love Story Spanning Decades and Continents

Xiaolu Guo's new novel I AM CHINA opens with a cryptic letter from punk rock revolutionary Jian to his “dearest woman” Mu. It is only three pages but contains enough drama for a novel unto itself. Airbound, Jian cannot tell Mu where he is, where he is going, what will happen when the airplane lands, or how long he'll be forced to stay. He recalls the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, regretting that he didn't anticipate his current predicament sooner: captive, alone, seemingly defeated. 

Although this letter, dated December 2011, provides the prelude, the first chapter moves the reader forward one and a half years, jumping into April 2013 in London. There, Scottish-born Iona has been doing freelance translation projects since graduating from SOAS, the world’s leading institution for Asian, African, and Middle Eastern studies. Now in her mid-thirties, she feels unfilled by her translation work. But this changes when she receives her latest assignment: to sift through photocopies of Jian and Mu’s correspondence and diary entries. Their relationship consumes her, and she wants to find out as much as she can about her two new friends (for example, she eats one of Mu’s favorite meals at a local restaurant).

Readers who like unconventional narrative strategies will enjoy I AM CHINA’s epistolary form and its chapters that span decades and continents. However, it is easy to wonder why two characters with such rich history also require a frame story. If this novel is about Jian and Mu and China, who is Iona, and what role does she play?

The answer comes toward the end of part one, when we learn about the day Iona left Scotland to start her college studies. Although she vowed to escape home since she was a child, the experience proves strange and empty when she is finally standing on the boat at seventeen, watching the figures of her parents shrinking in the distance. At the last moment, her father shouts into the wind for her to write home, the only affectionate gesture from him that she can remember. Young Iona puts on a brave smile and watches the waves through her tears until the English coast reveals itself. This is where Jian, Mu, and Iona's stories meet, and where they find the way to discovering one's identity is a journey both public and private, shared and individual.

Xiaolu Guo presents I AM CHINA at Asia Society Texas on Wednesday, September 3. Tickets are available on their website.

Pre-order books to be signed below. Pick your book up at the event or at the bookstore!  

I Am China Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9780385538718
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Nan A. Talese - September 2nd, 2014

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