The National Book Award (NBA) ceremony is normally a staid, black-tie affair. But when Joanna Scott announced 2010's fiction winner, Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule, a table in the far corner of the Cipriani Ballroom erupted in Beatle-fan shrieks. Kingston-based publisher Bruce McPherson still grins at the memory.
His award-winning press, McPherson & Company, operates out of a modest house in midtown, just a few blocks from Eng's Chop Suey Smorgasbord. The only clue to its identity is several cartons of books, just shipped from the printing press, stacked two deep on the front porch.
These are the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more cartons piled high on the back porch and stacked like cordwood under heavyweight tarps in the yard. Displaying the table surrounded by rolls of bookjackets where he packs orders for shipment, McPherson says, "This will dispel all illusions."
On the contrary, it reinforces the fierce dedication it takes to become a successful literary publishing house with a full-time staff of one. "I'm the whole show," the publisher/editor/distributor confirms cheerfully, though he collaborates with other editors on translation projects, and sometimes takes on summer interns. He offers a seat at the dining table, surrounded by houseplants, children's artwork, and Hanukkah candles; this is clearly a home in which life is lived fully. McPherson's wife, Erica Blumenfeld, is a museum registrar. Their son Aaron is 16, and 10-year-old Alyssa is dancing in UPAC's "The Nutcracker."
McPherson has lived and worked under this roof since 1987, but started his publishing career in Providence, Rhode Island in 1974. The first book he published was by Jaimy Gordon.
The two met in a poetry class at Brown University. McPherson was an undergraduate, planning to study "engineering with a side dish of English." Gordon, a graduate student, was already publishing poems in magazines. "As we became friends, she would share some of her writing in progress," McPherson recalls. This included the MFA thesis that became her first novel, Shamp of the City-Solo.
"I was blown away," McPherson says. "What's immediately striking about it is, it's not your typical autobiographical first novel. It's a satirical bildungsroman, a novel of education. It's Voltairean, but it is manic. To my mind, it encapsulates a lot of the energy and excess of the 1960s that was at large in the culture."
When Gordon couldn't sell Shamp, McPherson stepped in. He'd graduated from Brown, where he helmed its literary imprint, Hellcoal Press, and now worked in the admissions office. "I said, 'Let's publish it and make you famous,'" he laughs. "It was to be a one-off." He named the start-up Treacle Press, honoring Gordon's fondness for treacle oatcakes, and printed 1,000 copies.
"At that time, there was quite a community of small publishers, in Providence and nationwide," McPherson explains. "You could shoot an arrow and kill a poetry press." But few independent publishers released full-length fiction. "So we were embraced perhaps more easily. Embraced and repulsed—there was some negative press as well, but we did get reviewed."
Encouraged, McPherson continued publishing books as a sideline while holding other jobs. After a brief flirtation with graduate school, he met performance artist Carolee Schneeman and moved to Tillson with her. In 1979, he published More Than Meat Joy, a monograph on Schneeman's work that launched a new imprint for art books, Documentext. His "sideline" continued to grow, and in 1984 he dedicated himself to publishing fulltime. "McPherson & Company" became the umbrella for both literary and art publications. ("I asked myself, 'What would Alfred A. Knopf name his press?'" he quips.)
Though he'd published one of Gordon's poems shortly after Shamp, McPherson encouraged her to bring novels to other publishers. "I felt she would achieve a broader audience that way," he says. But they remained close, and in the late 1990s, he read an early draft of Lord of Misrule. Set on the bottom rungs of the horseracing world, red-dirt gritty and linguistically airborne, the novel had garnered a string of rejections, prompting the author to shelve it.
"I think it's safe to say that a book Jaimy thought would easily attract a commercial publisher, compared to some of her others, fell on blind eyes," he says. "She grew, I think, understandably dismayed. At the same time, she felt she wasn't entirely finished; there were parts she wanted to redraft." She was also busy teaching at Western Michigan University and a summer program in Prague, so the manuscript lay neglected for several more years.
McPherson didn't give up. "Six or seven years ago," he offered to publish the book if Gordon hadn't sold it by 2010. When the date came, he mailed unbound galleys of the unrevised draft to her.
"After I recovered from my shock, I read the thing," Gordon reports in a interview on the National Book Awards website. "It took me by surprise how much I liked Lord of Misrule when I read it again, just as if somebody else had written it. I even cried twice—that was when I thought I probably had something."
She started rewriting in earnest. In July, McPherson submitted her revised first draft for the National Book Award. In order to meet eligibility guidelines, the book had to be in print by November. "This made for a very tight schedule—we were still in the editorial process in August and September," says McPherson, who'd submitted another author's book a few years ago, "with no success, which is normal." But he had a bettor's hunch about Lord of Misrule.
"I just thought this was such an American book, and a book for this time. We may not be calling it a depression, but we are in the most serious financial downturn in our nation's history since the Great Depression," he says. "This book is about the resilience of the human spirit and the way we endure suffering and hardship. The people who lived at the bottom of the horse-racing industry 40 years ago lived this kind of life of hopeful desperation daily. That made it feel important. There's plenty of comedy, and also tragedy and violence—these are all elements of the American nightmare."
In early October, McPherson prepared an advance reading copy and left for the Frankfurt Book Fair. "I came home on Sunday. Monday I read proofs, still jet-lagged, making corrections with Jaimy late Monday night over the phone—dozens and dozens of them. On Tuesday I sent in final changes. On Wednesday it was nominated."
He pauses, reliving the memory and the whirlwind that followed. "We had just one month to do everything we could to fulfill the nomination—since you don't expect to win, you want to make the most of it." Holding his breath, he asked his printer to increase the initial print run from 2,000 copies to 8,000. "The printer not only quadrupled the order, but accelerated the schedule, so we had books within two and a half weeks," he marvels. He sent updated books to the NBA judges, hired a publicist, and did "everything we could to make sure the press would pay attention."
The first big break came when Washington Post sportswriter and Racing Form correspondent Andrew Beyer ran a column headlined "Lord of Misrule Beautifully Captures Language of the Racetrack," proclaiming himself "mesmerized" by Gordon's prose. "So we were off to a truly racing start," grins McPherson.
Still, it was a long shot. Gordon's fellow fiction nominees, all more familiar names, were published by Knopf, Norton, Harper, and Coffee House Press. On November 16, an informal Publishers Weekly poll gave Gordon 10 to 1 odds. At the next night's awards ceremony, her name was not called. McPherson recalls, "There was a momentary hesitation. We heard an L sound—Lionel Schriver? No, Lord of Misrule! That accounts for the eruption of screams from our table."
The mainstream press was as stunned as the author. Janet Maslin's December review admits that Gordon's first five novels flew under the New York Times's radar, then goes on to declare, "But this novel is so assured, exotic, and uncategorizable, with such an unlikely provenance, that it arrives as an incontrovertible winner, a bona fide bolt from the blue."
McPherson still seems amazed by his sudden shift into the fast lane. Between calls from Wall Street Journal and New York Times reporters, he's in constant phone contact with Gordon, and just flew to Michigan to introduce her at a university event. "Sooner or later, all this will be over," he says. "And that will be good too."
He already has projects lined up through 2012. McPherson & Company's current catalogue bears eloquent witness to his editorial vision, encompassing the last volume of George Robert Minkoff's trilogy of historical novels, Thomas McEvilley's books on conceptual art provocateur Yves Klein and performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay, "visionary fiction" by Theodore Enslin and Robert Kelly, a Nicaraguan novel translated by Leland H. Chambers, and collected writings of experimental film icons Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren.
Since the beginning, McPherson's books have been visually striking, often including original artwork. "I believe in the beauty of the artifact," he says. "I'm very much interested in making a total experience: the typography, the design of the page, the flow of the book, the bookjacket, the materials that go into the binding. I'm interested in making something that the reader will feel whoever made this cared about. Not to make it precious, but to make it right, to honor the words it protects, to make it as quote-unquote permanent as one can in this world."