Thursday, April 14, 2016

"Sometimes I Bought Books Instead of Food."

Until my recent visit on the occasion of the 40th annual PEN/Hemingway Awards, it had been eighteen years since I was last in Boston. I’d lived in the region for several intense months at age twenty, having relocated alone from California to begin my writerly life in the neighborhood of the American transcendentalists. 
Skyline from the Boston Common, Tremont Street
I’d wanted to live near Walden Pond and commune daily, in nearby Concord, with the wise ghosts of Thoreau and Emerson. The closest I could get was the city of Lowell, birthplace of the American industrial revolution — a ramshackle town cluttered with eerie decommissioned factories and mills and shrill with sirens day and night. But from Lowell I could get to Concord by train as often as I liked.

At twenty in Boston,
I'd had no proper
coat and couldn't
afford one. Sometimes
I bought books
instead of food.

I set up my new life in a 275 square-foot studio apartment 15 miles from Walden Pond as the crow flies. My sole furnishings were an inflatable mattress, a plastic patio chair, a small lamp, a pile of books, and a radio/cassette player. In a cardboard box I had packed the essential kitchen wares: a can opener, a spatula, two plates, two cups, two forks, two knives, two spoons, and a frying pan. More importantly, I had packed a word processor and a ream of paper. Amid my studio’s “furnishings,” with my plastic chair jammed up against three cardboard boxes stacked to serve as a makeshift desk, I sucked the marrow out of my single-minded days, tapping and tapping at the keys.

The following few months were nothing less than an artistic coming-of-age. If I was not yet exhibiting in my work anything even remotely resembling artistic maturity and I wasn’t I was getting clear, very clear, on what a life dedicated to art would require. The constant sacrifice, the humility, and yes, the fairly constant whiff of humiliation. I see in retrospect that I was meanwhile developing the first foundational aspects of a vision, or, to use an even more outmoded turn of phrase, I was honing a sensibility

I spent a good deal of time in Concord, I haunted the woods of Walden, and I wandered all around the streets and quarters of Boston, occasionally temping in the city or across the river in Cambridge. Beyond the random people of the business world with whom my sporadic office jobs brought me into contact, I spoke to hardly anyone in the course of my several months striving to survive and become a writer. A memorable exception was one gray, bitterly chilly afternoon in Boston. I sought out the offices of Houghton Mifflin on Berkeley Street. As I remember it, the imposing Houghton Mifflin building yes, it’s an entire building still bore the famous dolphin insignia in the pavement before its doorway. I recall traversing the dolphin, riding the elevator upstairs, and walking straight up to a young woman at the front desk to announce that I would like to apply for a position as typist. 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Building, photo courtesy of Wikipedia
 Somehow I’d gotten wind of the job opening and had convinced myself that this would be my entrĂ©e to the mystery and glamour of the larger literary world. From the first rung of typist, I would steadily scale the ladder toward editorial authority. It would be the fabled American climb via bright ambition from obscurity and poverty to having a say in the way things worked — to being a verifiable part of the literary/artistic universe. I came by this fantasy honestly, and approached that front desk with no sense of entitlement; what motivated me was a wishful belief in meritocracy — I would be the best and most loyal goddamned typist they’d ever had, and from there, rung by rung, my dedication and service would be recognized and rewarded with gradually improving status. 

Hey, I was twenty.

Do I need to tell you that I descended in the elevator that day without so much as an application? The receptionist, I recall, was very gracious — but it wasn’t Houghton Mifflin, it was me. The problem, probably, was my immoderate joy at being “inside the fortress,” my unstudied way of carrying a sense of my own destiny so visibly on my shoulders as I showed up for the role. Here I am! 

Who wants to be a typist as badly as that? I probably wouldn’t have hired me either.

Almost twenty years on,
I’m still a believer. I read
and write and edit and publish
because I believe as much as ever in the intangible value of literature

Fast forward eighteen years. With six published volumes to my name as an author, I’ve evolved into the founder, editor, and publisher of the small literary press Atelier26 Books. What brought me back to Boston this month was the news that Margaret Malone’s People Like You, a fantastic story collection I’ve had the privilege to publish through Atelier26, had won finalist for the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. The award ceremony was to be held at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on April 10th, and Ms. Malone would be honored with a citation awarded by Patrick Hemingway, son of Ernest Hemingway, and author Joshua Ferris, one of this year’s judges.
Left to right: PEN Hemingway Award Finalist Margaret Malone, Patrick Hemingway, winner Ottessa Moshfegh, finalist S.M. Hulse. 

The PEN/Hemingway Award, administered by PEN New England, is a prestigious national literary honor (past honorees include a number of writers who went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur grants, etc). Award recognition of this caliber is a big deal — especially so for a very small press like Atelier26. 

To understand the above statement, consider the following: Atelier26 has no offices (a spare bedroom in my small home serves as World Headquarters); since its inception in 2012, Atelier26 has published 8 titles (1 to 2 per year); while mission-driven much like the finest nonprofit publishers, Atelier26 is not officially non-profit and therefore has no funding source beyond book sales and occasional treasured donations by generous literary believers; much as I wish it were possible to do so, Atelier26 does not pay advances (again, a question of funding), and I myself earn zero income from my more than full-time work as editor, publisher, shipping clerk, bookkeeper, webmaster, social media chief, sales rep, and general pavement-pounder. It’s all what they call a labor of love.

Still, there on the list of 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award honorees, alongside 4 other titles all issued by major publishers (Penguin; Little, Brown; Bloomsbury; and, yes, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was a book bearing the Atelier26 colophon. And this was not a fluke. People Like You could not be more deserving of this nod from the literary cosmos — I’ve believed that about Margaret Malone’s work all along, and it’s why I first sent her a letter asking if she had a manuscript, and why I have (so far) devoted more than a year and a half to working on and promoting People Like You (more recently with the invaluable assistance of publicist Diane Prokop). 

Margaret Malone with her PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist citation for People Like You.
Malone is a brilliant writer whose career will be a pleasure to watch, and seeing People Like You lifted up and championed in this way restores my faith a little in that elusive meritocracy that so entranced the twenty-year-old kid who first came to Boston to be a writer all those years ago.

On the first day of my return to Boston, while walking to Copley Square, I happened to turn my head and find myself outside of the Houghton Mifflin building. I stopped on the brick sidewalk (where the dolphin insignia has been replaced by the “HMH” of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and gazed up at the massive fortification. The place is still imposing. And there I was again, eighteen years older and wiser but no less impassioned a reader and literary soul. Almost twenty years on, I’m still a believer. I read and write and edit and publish because I believe as much as ever in the intangible value of literature, from the capacity and nobility of the human imagination all the way down to the pure small pleasure of a well-turned sentence. I’ve tried to infuse everything I do at Atelier26 with a sense of this belief. 

At twenty in Boston I’d had no proper coat and couldn’t afford one. I remember the constant aching chill in my bones. I remember the excessive financial indulgence that a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee seemed. Sometimes I bought books instead of food. Now, well-fed and snugly bundled in a good jacket while the cutting wind whistled around me but never got through, I nodded up at the high office windows. I was still here, still on the outside looking in, but now I was also something like an old familiar, a peer, a friend.

-M. Allen Cunningham, April 2016

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