Below a pale, hazy sky, along the crowded boulevards bursting with a gathering throng of diversity, LA has a secret. Contrary to what some may believe, our sprawling hometown on the doorstep of the Pacific Ocean sustains a prolific, sophisticated community of poets and novelists, photographers and freelance writers encouraged through independent presses and publishers.
Though known more for its contributions to film, Southern California boasts a vibrant tradition of sponsoring struggling artists who are outside the grating millworks of the Hollywood machine. Iconic novelists Ray Bradbury and Raymond Chandler absorbed the expanding transitory culture of LA and echoed its lonely grandeur with tales of science fantasy and pulp fiction. Of course, no one can forget Mr. Charles Bukowski or John Fante (the man Bukowski called “God”) and their LA-inspired novels and stories.
Published at the behest of Buk, by LA publishing legend John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, Fante’s effusive protagonist, Arturo Bandini, pleads to an indifferent metropolis in the classic LA novel Ask The Dust,
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
The mission statement of the Red Hen Press in Granada Hills begins, “Our purpose is first to create and promote good writers.”
Kate Gale, a poet, novelist, and college professor, moved to LA in1987 and here met her future husband Mark Cull, a former aerospace engineer; and the two passionate entrepreneurs founded Red Hen Press.
“I felt that LA needed more of a literary presence, so I wanted to work on creating that. It just seemed to me that everything was so spread out,” Gale told me. “Red Hen wanted to carry forth that independent spirit of looking at West Coast writers. We started off publishing poetry, then, eventually, fiction and non-fiction, and then we started the Los Angeles Review.”
As with many independent publishers across the nation, such as Graywolf Press in Saint Paul or Copper Canyon Press in Washington State, Red Hen is a non-profit organization. ”It’s the only way we can do what we do; printing hundreds of copies at a time is expensive.” They further enrich the community by donating books to the LA school system and scheduling presentations by poets and authors contributing to the cultural fabric of the city by creating inspirational, thought-provoking opportunities for exchanging ideas.
The editors at Red Hen read thousands of submissions each year. “About 30 percent of what we get is from teachers and academics, but the rest is from writers from all walks of life,” said Gale. “I want to read something that really blows my skirt up, something that’s feisty and different,” she noted. “I’d like to find the next Kafka.”
And poet/author Gale has a great eye for talent. One of their writers, Chris Abani, teaches in the MFA Program at Antioch University in Los Angeles and is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California at Riverside. His collection of poetry, Dog Woman, is a “vision quest into one soul, one poet’s journey into the dark haunting of his own masculinity.” Red Hen’s alums also include California Institute of the Arts poet Douglas Kearney, whose hip-hop style leaps from the page in his collection, Fear Some, and Jane Hilberry, author of the stunning, sensual collection, Body Painting.
Gale and Cull have engendered not only a vehicle where poets and authors can publish their work, but strive to give Los Angeles wordsmiths an opportunity to extend their unique vision to LA. Gale acts as host of Red Hen’s Monday Evenings at the Geffen. Of this experience, she writes, “Given the flowering of literature, music, and theater in this most auspicious city for the arts, we are pleased to give writers a stage to speak their voice.” RH also head up the Poetry at the Ruskin series that combines “unbelievable performances” with complimentary wine and cheese every second Sunday of the month.
Along the way, Red Hen continues to press their agenda of “keeping creative and stimulating literature alive.” Gale went on to say, “We don’t want artists who will never leave their house like Emily Dickinson. We want poets who are willing to get out there and connect with the readership.”
With their eclectic and provocative Los Angeles Review, stunning novels such as David Mason’s Ludlow, and Chandra Prasad’s Death of a Circus, Red Hen continues to represent the wide scope of creative voices radiating from the streets of LA. www.RedHen.org
Douglas Messerli founded Sun and Moon Press in Washington DC while completing his graduate studies in Philadelphia. “When I became a professor, I ran the press in Washington and took the train up to Philadelphia to teach for a few days and then ran back home,” he told me, as he was settling into a new office on Wilshire. “I had a lot of energy in those days!”
In 1988, he moved to Los Angeles and continued to publish a wide variety of works by contemporary and classic authors, critics, and historians. Sun and Moon published high quality contemporary novels such as City of Glass, the first novel of Paul Auster’s highly praised New York Trilogy, and The Relation of My Imprisonment by Russell Banks, author of Affliction.
Messerli has a passion for literature. Djuna Barnes, an early 20th century novelist, penned ground-breaking novels such as the cult classic Nightwood. Sun and Moon published six of her previously unreleased titles. Messerli said, “We did anthologies and numerous other works. In all, Sun and Moon Press published over 300 books.”
In 1997, Messerli traveled to Denmark for a conference on Scandinavian literature and conceived his new venture: Green Integer. “I started it with my own money, not that I had any money,” he joked. “I thought if I just published two or three books, and they support themselves, then I can move forward.” The first two books were a small Gertrude Stein essay and Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer. They both sold very well, “even stronger than the Sun and Moon books which were quite well known,” Messerli said. “Sun and Moon was a really reverent press of serious literary text.”
On also being a non-profit organization, Messerli mentioned of his nascent company, “I just grew tired of dealing with the whole non-profit process, world, and life. I decided I would close Sun and Moon Press and focus entirely on what was fast becoming a successful series: Green Integer.” Messerli kept some of the titles from the former press and began to focus more on being an international publisher of great literature, exposing current poets and authors alongside reprints of classic writers such as Ford Maddox Ford and James Joyce, also printing translations from authors around the globe.
“I guess I publish the most difficult literature,” Messerli said. “You could describe, more than anything else, that my central principle is complexity. I like fiction, drama, and poetry that questions and makes one think.”
According to Messerli, “The focus of Green Integer is publishing the kind of quality writers that would be Nobel Prize winners, and several of them are.” For him, the city is a vibrant metropolis of fine art. From the campus of Otis College in Los Angeles, where he is a senior lecturer for the MFA program, to the LA County Museum of Art where his long time friend, Howard Fox, is the curator of contemporary art, Messerli is connected to a sophisticated, vibrant, creative culture flowing through the City of Angels.
Green Integer rarely accepts unsolicited works; however, Douglas Messerli is always thinking of ways to expand the literary scenery of Southern California. www.GreenInteger.com
But, this is Los Angeles, the home of soaring real estate prices, beachfront properties, BMW’s, fine restaurants, clothing stores, and front row seats. It takes money to hang in LA, so, not surprisingly, there are entrepreneurs; clever, talented artists/businesspeople who make a great living from identifying, nurturing, packaging, and selling creativity and style. If you have a great idea for a slightly off-center how-to book or a brilliant proposal for a twisted travel guide, the Santa Monica Press may turn your idea into LA’s prime vernacular: hard cash.
Jeff Goldman, founder and publisher of Santa Monica Press, is a second generation native of Southern California. He was the arts and entertainment editor for UCLA’s Daily Bruin, and while in college, he interned at Columbia Records, writing reviews and bios. After finishing his graduate degree in theater arts, he wrote music and theater reviews for Sound Magazine and NME in London. His passion for writing led him to publishing. I asked him if he had authored any of the books in the Santa Monica Press catalogue. He joked, “There are a few early ones that I won’t identify, written under a pseudonym, that I had a large hand in, or all of a hand in, but that was a long time ago.”
Their website explains, “The Santa Monica Press is not afraid to cast a wide editorial net.” They publish “offbeat looks at popular culture and modern how-to books.” Goldman says they receive over 2,000 submissions a year, but can publish only 10 to 15. He says he offers an aggressive, focused strategy for his authors. Their books have been featured in the New York Times, LA Times, Newsday, USA Today, and many other national publications. Santa Monica Press’ authors have appeared on programs such as The Late Show with David Letterman, Good Morning America, and The Howard Stern Show.
“We get more press on a national level than any other independent press,” Goldman said. “I think we do better than a lot of the big houses. You name a program, a magazine, a newspaper, and pretty much we’ve been on it or in it.”
The outspoken, albeit, approachable editor has a great sense of how to market the diverse catalogue that includes The Encyclopedia of Sixties Cool by Chris Stodder, which profiles over 250 of “the most intriguing personalities” from the Beatles to Muhammad Ali. The tome contains over 200 vintage photographs and more than 50 sidebars, including “groovy screen cars, legendary concerts, Disneyland rides, cool cartoons,” and other “artyfacts” of the 1960’s.
Another interesting title is the soon to be released Led Zeppelin Crashed Here by Chris Epting. Goldman told me, “This is the fifth book we’ve done with Epting.” Santa Monica Press publishes several books that describe pop-culture landmarks. Goldman says many of them are his best sellers. James Dean Died Here covers 600 different interesting locations; from the bank where Patty Hearst stood brandishing a machine gun, to the garage where the Apple computer was born. The book embraces a wide range of topics and takes the reader to the exact locations where the most significant events in American popular culture took place.
“Remember to look for the shell” is the motto followed by readers seeking interesting titles such as: Things You Can Do While You’re Naked, The Book of Good Habits, and Life is Short Eat Biscuits by Amy Smith, where the “Zen of dogs is captured in inspirational bits of wisdom.” Santa Monica Press is an imaginative LA success. www.SantaMonicaPress.com
Established in1992 and located by the sea in Santa Monica, Angel City Press is dedicated to the publication of high-quality nonfiction books that are “luxuriously illustrated, showcasing modern design concepts of California’s top graphic artists”. I had the pleasure of speaking with the president and co-publisher of Angel City Press, Paddy Calistro, one afternoon, and she told me that they publish books that focus on the cultural history of Southern California.
Calistro is considered one of the leading authorities on Edith Head and is the co-author of Edith Head’s posthumous autobiography, Edith Head’s Hollywood. After writing for the Los Angeles Times for many years, she arrived at the idea of Angel City Press after joining with another writer on a book about Los Angeles. She explained, “We sold it to a major New York publisher and we were not at all happy, because we expected a lot more sales. I said to my husband, ‘we could do better than that.’”
So, they hired writer Betty Goodwin, and published Hollywood Du Jour, a book that profiles Hollywood’s 18 best remembered restaurants, such as the Brown Derby and Romanoff’s, showcasing their best recipes and telling stories of the celebrities who dined there. “The book sold very, very well. We’ve since published about 70 books, and a few years ago, we acquired the distribution rights for the Los Angeles Times Books, so now we have two full catalogues.”
Angel City Press releases around 10 titles each year and will accept unsolicited manuscripts. Veteran writers Charles Phoenix, author of Americana the Beautiful and Southern Californialand, and Betty Goodwin are well-suited for the type of books that Angel City Press publishes. “We’re very selective,” said Calistro. “I’m shocked by the number of proposals we get from people who haven’t taken the time to really look at the kinds of books we produce.” www.AngelCityPress.com
Founded in 2002 by Lord of the Rings actor Viggo Mortensen, Perceval Press releases many politically charged books. They are “a small, independent publisher specializing in art, critical writing, and poetry. The intention of the press is to publish texts, images, and recordings that otherwise might not be presented.” www.PercevalPress.com
Established in 1920, the Huntington Library Press is one of Southern California’s oldest book publishers. Peggy Park Bernal is the director, and their catalogue includes a quarterly journal for scholars and a mixture of scholarly books, conference papers, exhibition catalogs, and facsimiles from its collections. www.Huntington.org
The London Town Press, founded in 1998 by Martin Burton—environmental lawyer and author of Dear Mr. Leprechaun—publishes, amongst other things, a nature series including Jean-Michel Cousteau’s A Raft of Sea Otters. Burton says, “I formed London Town Press in 1998 to publish great children’s books. My first book was The Whale Comedian in 1999, then Dear Mr. Leprechaun in 2003, followed by Fooling the Tooth Fairy in 2005. Mr. Leprechaun and Tooth Fairy are true stories from my own childhood.” www.LondonTownPress.com .