Book People Have More Fun…

One of my favorite things about being a publisher is having a reason to network with booksellers, librarians, authors, and fellow publishers. My people! Readers!

We had a booth at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow this weekend in Tacoma, Washington, and my authors Dan Berne, Kate Gray, and Ellen Urbani came to speak, sign, and visit with people. Here are some photos.

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Guest Post: Alisha Churbe on “Sometimes Lies Must Be Told”

This is the third guest post on the craft of writing in our series by authors of The Night, and the Rain, and the River, a short story anthology edited by Liz Prato, and published by my press, Forest Avenue Press, following pieces by Trevor Dodge and Steve Denniston.

Alisha Churbe’s story, “All Is Not Lost,” is a remarkable story told in letters by a woman who has found a man’s wallet behind a toilet in the women’s restroom at Darryl’s Pit Stop. It’s one of twenty-two pieces in the short story anthology, featuring writers from all across Oregon, and its aching mix of hope and humor and heartbreak won our hearts.

You can find The Night, and the Rain, and the River at your local bookstore, especially if you live in Oregon, or online as a paperback or ebook.

Welcome, Alisha!

Sometimes Lies Must Be Told

By Alisha Churbe
Alisha Churbe

Alisha Churbe

A friend told me that she forgets fiction doesn’t always have to be 100 percent untrue and inversely non-fiction must be 100 percent true. Black and white. But there are many shades of gray (perhaps fifty). As a writer on either side of the fiction fence, I get to choose my elements and include whatever I decide. If I continue with this metaphor, black could be absolute truth and white as absolute untruth. Fiction may give less boundaries, but there are still rules. Fiction writing will most likely reside in the lighter shades of gray, nearer to white. Nonfiction will fall into the darker shades of gray, closer to black. Know the rules, but also how to break them. Fiction could reside near black by including very true elements (setting, plot, character, etc.) but could have elements of white added (time, character, setting, etc.)

The most successful fiction is true, or at least true enough. Characters can’t be 100 percent lies. Characters need to have mannerisms, flaws, ambitions and speech patterns that are believable and relatable. If the reader can’t relate to the character, they find it tough to care about them. Your character may be blessed with your sister’s style of dress, a co-worker’s voice and your ex-boyfriend’s affection for mayonnaise on everything. Is that character “untrue”? No, but they don’t actually exist. One of my favorite writing exercises begins with, “they are the type of person who ….” I am always amazed at the interesting characters I create in this way. Or I’ll use it as a way to find myself out of or into a new story by getting to know my character better.

TNATRATR Promo Alisha 01Conversely, nonfiction has moments of untruth or grays, despite our best efforts. Put ten people who witnessed an event in a room and ask them to write down what they saw and experienced. You’ll have ten different stories as everyone saw and experienced the event differently; none of the accounts will be all truth, but will vary in shades of darker grays. In writing a story of your grandmother at a specific time, you may mention that your grandmother was wearing a green dress that day. Maybe she wasn’t, but maybe she did have a green dress you particularly remembered. If you said, Nana was in a green dress that day, no one will argue with you. No one was there with you. The only way you’d run into trouble is if you were describing my Gram who happened to hate the color green.  In that case, no one is going to believe you when you say it. I hereby freely admit that I steal things from people I know, meet, and encounter.

When you write non-fiction, they are your memories of your experience.  No one has these same memories–others may share similar memories but not yours specifically.  Even with things like an object or a specific event, others may remember it, but not the same way you do. They may not even have the same feelings you do toward the object or event. They may not even remember it at all. Does that make yours or their story any less true? Nope. In a piece I’m writing about my grandmother, I imagine her telling me about the Great Wall of China and that she wanted to “dance on that wall someday.” I don’t know if she ever truly said that or if I just imagined it as something she would say. I tell my mom and uncle that she said it and it sounds so much like her, they believe it as well.  I don’t remember the time she said it to me, but in my memory, she definitely did so.

As writers, we have certain shades of gray truth that we must follow. There is no rule that says it must be either black or white or else. The beauty resides in the grays. Steal and pillage for character traits, settings, objects, structure, and make it all your own. No one will argue with you.

Thanks so much for this wonderful essay, Alisha!

Alisha Churbe lives in Portland, Oregon, but is always planning her next international escape. If you can pry the pen from her hand, she can be found with her splendid husband, their amusing friends, and a delicious meal with wine. Learn more about her at

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The Handmade Approach to Publishing

When we started talking about making origami cranes for the cover of Kate Gray’s Carry the Sky, our fall release from Forest Avenue Press, I piped up to say I knew how. The designer, Gigi Little, asked me to make some. So I did. And then I made more. And then she crafted them artfully, with lots of time and love and Photoshop effort, into this breathtaking cover:

Carry the Sky Front Cover

An essay I wrote about these cranes, and where the paper came from, is being featured today on Gigi’s blog. Read the whole thing here. Or just read this bit about my beloved paper toilet that met a soggy end, despite how I carefully lined the bowl with Saran Wrap. (I’ve always meant to write an essay about that paper toilet.)

Before that, I made things. At home. An only child, not lonely at all, with popsicle sticks and glitter and pompoms, staples binding my own handwritten books. I made vending machines. I made a paper toilet that one of the neighbor kids used for real. I made cities. It fit that, when offered an array of after-school activities that fifth-grade year, I chose origami over soccer, and began folding neat squares of thin paper into neater, smaller, intricate objects. 

It’s pretty amazing to be involved to this degree in the actual making of a commercial object that is being released on Monday, September 1. I can’t thank Gigi enough for encouraging me to pull out my rusty paper-folding skills and then doing something so lovely with what I made.

And also on the good news front, for this new book that I’ve been working on for fifteen months, and that author Kate worked on for ten years:

hot new release for twitter


It’s a hot new release, according to Amazon, ranked #26 last time I checked, in literary gay and lesbian fiction. It’s about boarding school bullying. Not fitting in. An adult book written with crystalline prose and a mix of heartbreak and humor by an award-winning poet, who I’ve admired for many years from afar and now have the pleasure of publishing.

There’s interior art, too, a series of sixty original illustrations of a crane being folded from a blank piece of paper, illustrations Gigi did based on photographs of mine. Even the ebook features these beautiful pieces thanks to the hard work and patience of our ebook maker Cyrus

Actually, the way the book works matches the process of folding cranes. One chapter builds on the next. There are two teacher protagonists, one female questioning her sexuality and one Asian American male questioning his own sense of ethics, and their stories weave around each other, circling two students who don’t fit in, and taking concepts and phrases and echoing them, embroidering them, always raising the stakes.

We’re also doing a paperback giveaway on Goodreads right nowIf you read it, let me know! 

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Interviews and List Love

I’ve had a big week or two!

Kate Gray’s new novel, Carry the Sky, which I’m publishing Sept. 1 (hint, it’s available online already), tops a recent list of 11 high school books on Bustle.

Read “11 High School Books That Will Take You Back to Your Days in the Schoolyard.”

The article’s author, Melissa Duclos, wrote:

Narrated in alternating chapters by veteran physics teacher Jack Song and first-year rowing coach Taylor Alta, Carry the Sky, which will be released next month by indie publisher Forest Avenue Press (hooray for indies!), offers a gut-wrenching look at life at a prestigious Delaware boarding school from the teachers’ perspectives. At the start of the school year, Song and Alta are both reeling from tragedy: Song’s sister Kim has died of a rare blood disease while Alta’s best friend and fellow rower has recently drowned in the Schuylkill River. But there are more tragedies for them to face from the students they care for, and subsequently let down. The beauty of the language as the novel grapples with layers of grief is one of the best parts of this book — not surprising from an award-winning author of three collections of poetry. Many books about high school deal with bullying, but few explore the ramifications as deeply as Carry the Sky.   

I was interviewed for a piece on the national website Drive the District, by local freelance writer Jon Bell.

Read “Small Shops Keeping Publishing Alive.” Here’s an excerpt:

“As much as Forest Avenue is about innovative publishing and distribution methods, it’s also got one foot planted firmly in the more traditional world of books: real paper books, author events in local bookstores, titles that steer clear of trendy vampires or the next passing craze. Stanfill said she sees the press growing over the next five years, releasing a few titles each year while continuing to support the authors and titles already in its library.”

Finally, I was interviewed by Trista Cornelius for the Writer’s Craft column in VoiceCatcher, a Portland-area women’s literary magazine, about grammar, and I had the chance to talk about whether an apostrophe could show a character’s misogyny. There are great quotes from many other women writers answering these questions from Trista:

When do grammar rules and “correctness” matter in the writing process? Should first drafts be wild and free, or should you craft one sentence at a time letting subject-verb combinations direct your story?




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The Woods, the Words

I spent a week in southern Oregon, with no Internet, no cell phone reception. Just words. And seven other women.

Here are the woods:

DSC09473Here are the women:


Here is a truck that gets moved around the property:


And here is the sign on the door of the cabin I picked:


Here is my workspace:


I made some big changes, made some new friends, and found what I needed most: quiet.


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Quick Update on Being a Publisher

Carry the Sky Front CoverI’ve been absent on and off here, especially this summer, with both kids home and lots of publishing priorities as we gear up to launch Kate Gray’s Carry the Sky, an unblinking look at bullying told from the perspectives of two teachers reeling from their own losses.

It’s been blurbed by a veritable who’s who of impressive authors, including Hannah Tinti, Ron Carlson, Carter Sickels, Christopher Buckley, and Cari Luna, who I featured earlier this year on the Seven Questions Series.

Read all the blurbs, and learn more about the book, at our Carry the Sky catalog page. You’ll hear more as we get closer to our Sept. 1 pub date, but I have another announcement to share.

I fell in love with a book. Okay, another book. This one, in my slush pile, a Hurricane Katrina novel. And today I got to announce that Forest Avenue Press, my press, has acquired it. Today, after lots of reading, and a two-hour walk in the park (literally) with the author, making sure we were on the same so-called page, it’s official.

There are thousands of tiny pieces to putting out a professional trade paperback–miscellaneous decisions, emails to and from the author and reviewers and bookstores, events to plan, blurbs to share–but there are two really big moments in the journey.

One: announcing that a book has been accepted.

And two: the official pub date.

And right now, I’m doing both. We’re less than a month away from the launch of Carry the Sky, with books on their way to my doorstep right this moment, and we’re announcing our 2015 title, Landfall by Ellen Urbani. Ellen’s well-respected memoir, When I Was Elena, came out from The Permanent Press in 2006. I’m so excited to work with her on Landfall.

You can read more about it here.

And psst, I’m going from acquisition straight into looking for potential blurbers, reviewers, and bloggers, so if you have any suggestions about Katrina novels or nonfiction I should read, or New Orleans authors I should reach out to, please let me know! As an Oregon press, with lots of connections here, I’d love any ideas, because I don’t want to miss someone, or some opportunity, that might end up being crucial to this beautiful, heart-wrenching (and yet still funny, in a mannered, polite, southern sort of way) novel.

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Author Interview: Lisa Borders on Point of View, South Jersey, and the Art of the Book Tour

TheFifty-FirstState-LoResLisa Borders’ novel, The Fifty-First State, is a powerful anthem about place, and belonging, and finding a new way to exist in the midst of fresh grief.

Told in alternating point-of-view sections, featuring thirty-something New Yorker Hallie, and teen stepbrother Josh, The Fifty-First State is about rebuilding family after loss has torn it apart. It’s also about southern Jersey, a creek with deformed frogs, the farmland of the Garden State, and the power of love and loyalty. Lisa peoples her novel with a cast of wonderful, and occasionally outlandish, characters, the warmth and humor fully balancing the heartbreak.

The cast of characters is rich, funny, and achingly honest. And for me, The Fifty-First State was also a wonderful introduction to Engine Books, an impressive, women-run small press that pledges at least half of each year’s titles will be written by women.

Lisa’s debut novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was released in 2002 by River City Publishing, which awarded her the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel.

I met Lisa when she stopped by Portland on her West Coast book tour with Ron MacLean, because our mutual friend Liz Prato encouraged me to attend their reading. It’s so wonderful to be able to feature Lisa on the Seven Questions Series today.

  1. Tell us about The Fifty-First State

Lisa Borders Author Photo (Color)The Fifty-First State – the title refers to Southern New Jersey – started with setting. I wanted to write about the part of South Jersey near the Delaware Bay that very few people know about – including many people in the northern half of New Jersey! The oyster industry once thrived in South Jersey, and was decimated when a parasite killed off the oysters in the 1950s, and so I created a family that had once been prosperous but had lost everything. Donald Corson, the tomato farmer who dies in the first two pages of the novel, was a wealthy boy until he was seventeen, when his family’s business went under. After that, life was a struggle for him. I was interested in how this legacy gets passed down in a family, what remnants of that absent prosperity might remain, what is permanently lost.

The book also deals more immediately with loss: that of a teenage boy, Josh, and his 37-year-old half-sister, Hallie, coping with the loss of their parents. Grief is a difficult and complicated emotional state, and its effects are as individual as people are. It’s especially tough, I think, when one doesn’t have a strong belief in an afterlife, which is the case with the characters in my novel. And yet, we survive – sometimes, we can even later thrive – after a loss. The novel is about grief, but it’s also about finding a way to move beyond a devastating loss. Ultimately, the book has an optimistic heart.

  1. We’re both Jersey girls, but I’m from the northern part of the state, and your novel takes place down in south Jersey. Why there? How did you integrate the sense of place so deeply? It really pays off with the tension Hallie feels between her life in New York City and her emotional obligation to Josh and the farm.

I grew up in Central Jersey (the Jersey shore area) until I was 13. My family moved to South Jersey when I started high school, and while I knew it was more rural there, I had no idea of the culture shock I’d experience. It felt more like moving to Alabama than moving to somewhere in the Northeast – and when I say that in South Jersey, people nod in agreement. Parts of South Jersey are, technically, below the Mason Dixon line, and you really feel that Southern influence there. As a teenager who had just moved from a place that was less than an hour from New York City, I was pretty miserable at first.

Eventually I adapted, but it wasn’t until I went away to college, returned and lived at home for a year that I came to really appreciate South Jersey – the natural beauty, the connection to the land that people feel there. Even in my early twenties, when it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I might be a novelist, I knew I wanted to write something that really captured that setting. There was a lot I wrote about the setting that never made it into the novel – lengthy descriptions of the house and the farm, for example – but I think (hope!) a lot of that was conveyed in the book with more economy because I could picture it well.

  1. I read that you spent years working on this book, and had to pare it down quite a bit. Please tell us a bit about your revision process.

My revision process is not for the faint of heart! Both of my novels came out long and needed to be pared down, but this one was a bear – an 800+ page draft that I got down to 324 pages in its published form. With each subsequent draft, I was able to cut 50 – 100 pages until, finally, the draft my agent submitted to editors was about 480 pages. My amazing editor at Engine Books, Victoria Barrett, managed to help me trim another 90 (manuscript) pages from it – something I didn’t think possible until I saw her brilliant edits.

  1. Do you have any advice for writers struggling with multiple protagonist novels? Lately I’ve found a lot of manuscripts in my slush pile that hold the reader at arm’s length, never bringing us close to the characters. Hallie and Josh are right there, living and hurting and being confused and unsure about their decisions. I barely breathed as I read this story because you kept me pulled in so close. I absolutely had to know what happened next. How did you do that?

Seven Questions LogoWow, thank you! I tend not to write with a great deal of narrative distance, or at least, I haven’t yet. My first novel was in first person; The Fifty-First State was two very close third-person narrators (excepting the short prologue, which has a great deal of narrative distance); and the book I’m working on now is in first person again. From what I’ve seen as a writing teacher, the mistakes emerging writers make with multiple POV novels often involve distance, as you mention. Either the writer is trying to pull off a truly omniscient point of view and it’s not working (I think it’s a very difficult thing to master, though it pays off big when it works), or the writer is so distant in her third person limited narrators that the reader feels she’s being told things about a character rather than experiencing what that character experiences. I love the way Jonathan Franzen gets really close to his third person limited narrators – often so close that it’s really just a hair away from first person – and I may have modeled the narrative distance in The Fifty-First State from the way he employs it in his more recent novels.

  1. You teach at Grub Street in Boston. Do you recommend writers seek out educational opportunities in their communities? How has your personal literary community grown since you started teaching at Grub Street?

I think all writers, whatever their level, cannot grow without being exposed to educational opportunities and/or other writers they admire. And with the advent of online classes – we have many fine ones at Grub Street, but I know other organizations have good ones as well – writers have more access than ever to these opportunities, no matter where they live. Still, living in a city with a thriving writing center is a huge boost for a writer, and Grub Street has just been amazing for me personally. When I started teaching there in 2001, I felt rather isolated. I had a few friends from grad school I was still in touch with, but I hadn’t really found my niche in Boston. Through Grub Street I met the writers and students who would become among my closest friends and best readers of my work. We’re all very supportive of each other.

  1. You’ve had two novels out from two small presses—The Fifty-First State and your debut novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land. I am passionate about small-press publishing, but I only know about it as a publisher. What is the small-press experience like from the author’s perspective? What are three things authors should know before submitting to a small press?

I think small press experiences can be amazing, and as the big houses do less to promote their authors, there are fewer reasons for authors to feel they really need a big press to have a great publishing experience, as well as to be taken seriously in the marketplace. As fewer literary novels and short story collections are being published by the big houses, independent presses are becoming the homes of great literature.

But all small presses are not created equal. There are independent presses that have staffing and distribution similar to an imprint at a larger house, and then there are books that emerge riddled with typos from a press operated out of some eccentric booklover’s basement – with lots of variation between those two extremes. It’s important to enter into any publishing contract knowing what your goals are as a writer, and then evaluating how realistic those goals are. Is critical acclaim more important to you than the number of copies sold? Is your main goal to connect with readers and build a fan base? Understanding what you want out of your publishing experience can help you to make the choices that will lead to a positive outcome.

I would also recommend doing a lot of research into any small press you’re considering signing a contract with. Have their titles been well-reviewed? Does your local bookstore carry any titles by the press? How do the books look physically – are they professional-looking, visually appealing, with no glaring proofreading errors? Contact some of the publisher’s authors and ask about their experiences. People are usually quite honest about their publishing experiences, both good and bad, as long as they are talking one-on-one and not speaking publicly.

  1. You and Ron MacLean had an epic West Coast road trip last fall to promote The Fifty-First State and Ron’s novel, Headlong,which is how we met. What prompted the adventure? Would you recommend touring to other small-press authors?

Ron and I have been friends for many years, and it just happened that we had books coming out within two weeks of each other last fall, so the timing seemed auspicious. We decided early on that we would plan a West Coast tour, because we both felt we knew enough people in a variety of cities out there to bring in at least modest crowds for our readings. We also knew a few other things in advance: that we would make good travel companions; that we could set up places to stay with a variety of friends; and that we were doing it largely for the experience itself, as well as for connecting with others in the literary world. We hoped to sell books, of course, but we were well aware that there would be nights we might not sell more than a handful. My advice to other small press authors would be: go for the experience, go to personally connect with booksellers and others who are passionate about books, but don’t expect an indie book tour to translate to huge book sales. (Of course, who wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised by the outcome?)

Thanks for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Lisa!

You can learn more about Lisa Borders at her website. Find The Fifty-First State at your local bookstore, or Powell’s, or Amazon. Engine Books is here, and check out the current Indiegogo “Big Dream Campaign.” You can see other interviews in the Seven Questions Series here. 

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