I moved to Minneapolis just over two years ago. While planning the move, I was also finishing up my undergraduate degree at Temple University and interning with some fantastic people at Temple University Press, where an editor let me in on the fact that Minneapolis is a Midwestern publishing oasis. He urged me to apply for an internship at Milkweed Editions, which I did, and one nerve-wracking cover letter, and one very nasally phone interview during the worst summer cold I’ve ever had, later I had myself an unpaid internship at a well-respected nonprofit publishing house in Minneapolis (where I met the totally amazing Morgan Halaska). The world was my oyster.
Ever since my internship with Milkweed, the people there have been kind enough, time and time again, to open their doors to me for drinks, extra work, advice, and now an interview for Lit Lyfe. About a year and a half ago, when I met Jay Gabler and told him I was a writer interested in writing book reviews, he told me to send him a list of books I wanted to review. My first selection was The Hospital for Bad Poets by J.C. Hallman, which had been nominated for a Minnesota Book Award that year. Unfortunately it didn’t win, and I didn’t write the review—not because it didn’t win, of course, but because I was pretty nervous. I had never written a book review before, and The Hospital for Bad Poets was so fantastic, though rather male-centric, that I was truly at a loss for words. However, there are still stories from the book that creep into my mind at the most unexpected times, reminding me how much I owe to Milkweed Editions.
This is not even-handed journalism, I know. But, oh well. That this state is a paradise for people who want to work in publishing is fantastic, but also a double-edged sword—it’s an intimate setting that can get rather incestuous, so tell all of your college buddies from back home to move here, as I’m sure this city could use a little fresh blood every now and again. Still, the good definitely outweighs the small pool by fostering the strong community found here in the Twin Cities, without which I would have never been able to secure interviews with many of the people I do for this column.
Milkweed, a small non-profit publishing house founded in 1980 by Emilie Buchwald and R.W. Scholes, is located in the Open Book building on Washington Ave, sharing the space with the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and the Loft Literary Center. This year, the Open Book building—which is a beautiful space and a fantastic haven for readers—is where Milkweed’s annual Book Lovers Ball will take place on October 15th.
Over the past couple of years, it’s been really amazing to see the books that I had “worked on” in my limited intern capacity on bookshelves at places like Magers & Quinn. It’s such a fulfilling experience. So, with that feeling in mind I asked Ben Barnhart and Patrick Thomas, both editors at Milkweed Editions, a similar question, one that I find always running through my head when I talk to anyone who has a job I’m jealous of: Does it ever just totally blow your mind that you are an editor at a successful nonprofit publishing house?
As two talented, but very modest men, their answers were very telling about the ways in which we interpret our own successes: “It’s amazing. It’s so magical. I feel so lucky that I’m here. The amount of pieces of fortune that had to pile up for me to be in this chair is truly amazing.”
Ben’s answer, a little fleshier, hinted at a little more experience, and told more of the daily story behind the desk: “It’s funny because it does at really random moments. I think there’s something very normalizing about coming to an office every day and doing, not the same thing every day, but largely the same thing every day, just makes it feel like a job. Like anybody’s job. But there are these moments…and I just think wow, this is incredible that this is what I get paid to do. This is the thing that is my work. And then occasionally, too, I know I have people who, maybe on a monthly basis, remind me how cool my job is, because they see it from a different perspective. And it’s funny because, they don’t see all the things that drag you down, and are monotonous about the job.”
In our conversation, something came up that I guess that I hadn’t ever considered before: in order to be a good editor, one must be fairly adept at dealing with both books and people. To this revelation, Patrick said, very frankly, “I don’t know. I think that makes me a good editor. I’ve met lots of editors and they all seem to be seem to be some kind of sociable beast and yet they also like to spend a lot of time with things that can’t talk back to them, and so I feel like there’s a mixture of the social and anti-social. You have to be a really good reader. You have to love reading, and part of being a good reader is being an overly empathetic person. Which is what makes working in publishing so interesting.”
Ben’s answer opened up the process a little bit, seeming to pick up on what Patrick was saying, even though I interviewed them separately. “The process…whether you’ve never been through the process of publishing a book or you’ve been through it multiple times, it’s still a sort of nerve-wracking experience, bringing this very solitary art into a public setting. As an editor you’re in this position where you’re trying to support and bolster and comfort the author, but also not lead to unrealistic expectations for what the work’s going to do once it gets out in the world. Authors have this sort of bifurcated personality, where on the one hand they’re incredibly confident and almost brazen about their work—and they have to be to have generated a novel or a short story collection or whatever it is they’ve worked on. You have to have that ego. But that’s undercut all the time by this deep reservation about whether anyone out in the world will find this work meaningful, and artistic, and beautiful, and all of the things that the author intends for it. So to try to keep those two things in tension with one another without letting one consume the other—that’s part of what I get to do.”
What was so clear while talking to everyone at Milkweed is how much everyone cares about the books the house publishes, which range from young adult fiction to ruminations on the natural world. With such a wide variety of books, I would have to assume that there must be one or two that haven’t been completely pleasant to work on, let alone market. Luckily for me, Ethan Rutherford, one half of the dynamic marketing team at Milkweed, had an honest, and fair answer for me (and one I should have known all along from writing book reviews): “There are always amazing things to say about a book, even if it isn’t your number one favorite book you’ve read in your entire life.” Between Ethan and Jennifer Harmening (the other half of the team), I came away with some of the most optimistic answers about publishing and book culture that I have ever heard. When asked what she likes about Marketing, Jen heroically remarked that she “really enjoy[s] being able to be an advocate for books and authors and the literary community in general. I just really like the variety that our particular department comes with.” Her penchant for advocacy fits in well with her love of the environmental nonfiction that Milkweed is known for publishing, with a bullet next to her work with the author David Gessner.
Ethan chimed in with a different take, highlighting a broader view of publishing in general, saying, “All the time we’re talking to people who are interested in books, and the life of books, and the future of books. We end up talking to a lot of booksellers. For me, that’s the greatest benefit of this job, is that everybody that you talk to values reading, on one level or another.”
He goes on to speak about how special Minnesota is. And when I suggest that maybe it’s imbued with magical powers that draw readers specifically into its waiting arms, he laughs at me, because that’s not true. It’s not magic. It’s the people. The community.
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.