AWP2015: University of Minnesota Press Looks Both to Past and Future

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMA university press: Home for all things obscure, scholarly, and regional.

Right? Not quite, as was clear at the University of Minnesota Press 90th anniversary panel held Friday morning at AWP.

Three UMN Press authors—Karen Babine, Kate Hopper, and Sarah Stonich—read from their widely appealing works and entered into conversation with Erik Anderson, regional trade editor for the Press.

Babine and Hopper represent the strong creative nonfiction works the Press is known for, while Stonich represents the Press’ first foray into fiction. Other genres published by the Press include children’s picture books, YA novels, and historical crime thrillers.

The move into new genres fulfills the Press’ mission, Anderson said: To find new ways to new audiences and keep good books in print. One example is the forthcoming new edition of film director’s Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice. In the book, available in May, Herzog recounts his three-week journey in November-December 1974 walking from Munich to Paris to visit a sick friend.

A book like Herzog’s is much different than some of the first books the Press published when it was founded in 1925. The first book it published was a regional memoir, and it also focused on books about agriculture, food, and science, drawing upon its affiliation with a land-grant research university.

Now, the Press keeps 3,500 books in print. A staff of 30 produces 130 books each year. Half to two-thirds of the books fall into typical university press scholarly categories, with the remainder split between general trade and regional. Friday’s authors represented the trade and regional publications.

Babine’s book of essays, Water and What We Know, came out this spring. She writes about place, which Anderson said reflects the spirits of Paul Gruchow and Holm. According to the Press, “[A]s she searches out the stories that water has written on human consciousness, Babine reveals again and again what their poignancy tells us about our place and what it means to be here.” She read a brief excerpt that all in the upper Midwest will identify with: massive blizzards and the effect (sometimes deadly) they have upon us.

Hopper read from her 2013 memoir, Ready for Air. The book details her journey as a mother of a premature baby. She read a section that reflected the raw honesty of the book. As she looks upon her daughter for the first time, a tiny being in the NICU hooked up to machines, skin translucent, she’s not sure what she’s seeing and doesn’t feel that motherly attachment she thinks she’s supposed to feel. Hopper is almost a robot, gently guided through this first meeting by her husband and a nurse.

Stonich read a story from Vacationland, a 2013 publication of linked short stories set in northern Minnesota. She had the audience laughing as she read the story that featured a young woman, a dog, a severed hand, and a comical 9-1-1 call.

“We had been pushing toward this moment for a long time,” Anderson said of the decision to publish fiction. He said the Press doesn’t easily move into new areas, and such talk often causes concern among staff. But Stonich’s book had full support. “This is as much a portrait of a place as anything we’ve published,” Anderson said, adding that fiction can magnify the elements, even the truth, of what it’s like to live in a particular place.

Stonich, who has worked with big publishers such as Little, Brown, actually sought a move to a university press. “It opens a huge door for me to work with a publisher face-to-face,” she said. “That doesn’t happen with big houses.”

Her previous publicist sent her on a book tour leaving from St. Louis instead of from St. Paul. “That’s how much they knew about the Midwest,” she said.

A university press’s scope is large, but there will always be a home for writers such as Babine, Hopper, and Stonich who poignantly write about place and their experiences there.

“We’re bigger than Lake Woebegon,” Stonich said, referring to Garrison Keillor’s pop culture stereotype of Minnesotans. “We have more reach, we’re more diverse. Not all the children are good looking,” she pauses. “Or is it the men?” she said as the audience laughed.

 -Rachael Hanel

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Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

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