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Meet the NCWN 2021 Fall Conference Exhibitors – Part II

The North Carolina Writers’ Network 2021 Fall Conference will offer all the terrific programming you’ve come to expect, including an exhibit hall packed with some of the best and brightest literary lights in the state.

We’ll be introducing our exhibitors over the next week or so, in reverse alphabetical order. (If you missed Part I, click here.) Here are five more friends who’ll be in the exhibit hall, November 19-21 at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham/RTP:

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With more than 375 members from North Carolina and beyond, the Poetry Society holds regular meetings four times a year in Southern Pines at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities. In addition, NCPS sponsors annual contests for adults and students, which offer cash prizes and award certificates; the annual Poet Laureate Award, judged by the state’s poet laureate; the annual Brockman-Campbell Book Award, recognizing the best book published by a North Carolina poet; and the annual Lena M. Shull Book Award, selecting for publication the best full-length unpublished poetry manuscript by a poet living in North Carolina, where the wining manuscript is published by St. Andrews University Press, and the winning poet leads a workshop and gives a reading at Poetry Day Hickory in April. In 2003, the NCPS Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series, where three distinguished North Carolina poets are selected annually to mentor student poets in the eastern, central, and western regions of the state.


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Submissions open for the Doris Betts Fiction Prize (final judge: Monique Truong)! Published since 1992 by East Carolina University and the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, the North Carolina Literary Review facilitates the annual Doris Betts Fiction Prize, which awards $250 and publication in NCLR to a short story under 6,000 words. The deadline is October 31. The theme of the fall, 2021 issue is “Writing Toward Healing,” featuring the winner and finalists of the 2020 James Applewhite Poetry Prize.


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Connecting the lives and creative work of authors to real (and imaginary) geographic locations. The mission of the North Carolina Literary Map is to highlight the literary heritage of the state by connecting the lives and creative work of authors to real (and imaginary) geographic locations. Through the development of a searchable and browseable data-driven online map, users are able to access a database, learning tools, and cultural resources, to deepen their understanding of specific authors as well as the cultural space that shaped these literary works. The NC Literary Map also offers apps for literary walking tours. For exaple, there are two literary walking tours for Greensboro, one for O. Henry and one for Randall Jarrell–inductees of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, both.


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For more than half a century, the NCAC has provided resources for arts programming, education, and leadership across the state. The North Carolina Arts Council delivers resources to arts organizations and artists to support projects and programs of public value that revitalize downtowns, educate and empower North Carolina youths, and fuel a thriving non-profit creative sector that generates over $2 billion annually.


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Memoir magazine’s mission is to be a witness to both factual and emotional truths that resonate with the human heart by supporting writers and artists in sharing their stories—whether personal, social or political– through publication, education, and advocacy. Their goal is to cultivate our collective and individual capacity to recognize truth, while creating greater diversity and empathy, by flooding the world with stories that need to be told. The Annual Memoir Prize awards Memoir and Creative Nonfiction book-length works of exceptional merit in the categories of traditional, self-published, and previously unpublished prose. Deeadline: November 30. Memoir Magazine accepts nonfiction submissions under 3,000 words.

Registration for the North Carolina Writers’ Network 2021 Fall Conference is open.

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Meet the NCWN 2021 Fall Conference Exhibitors – Part I

The North Carolina Writers’ Network 2021 Fall Conference runs November 19-21 at the Sheraton Imperial in Durham/RTP. We’re thrilled to offer a full weekend of classes and programs on the craft and business of writing, including a Keynote Address by NC Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green; a “Community Journalism” panel sponsored by PEN America; and an exhibit hall filled with literary organizations from around the state–all of whom can’t wait to talk to you.

We’ll be highlighting our exhibitors over the next couple of weeks. Here are five, starting in reverse alphabetical order….

Time Treasures Books is a young and innovative publishing company. Founded by Daniel Hill Zafren, retired Director of Legal Research at the Law Library of Congress, it seeks new quality works by contemporary authors, both fiction and nonfiction. It has also launched a reprint series of classic children’s literature, which reflects the true meaning of the publisher’s motto: “Books Treasured for All Time.” New titles include A Storm Within by Zafren and A Treasury of Classic Stories for Young Folks, which collects more than 500 pages of the most endearing and lasting of stories for children.


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Rofhiwa is the official bookseller of the NCWN 2021 Fall Conference. A black-owned independent Bookcafé in Durham, Rofhiwa strives to reflect the expansiveness of the black imagination and values books as repositories for collective knowledge. Rofhiwa’s exhibit table is where you’ll find most books by NCWN 2021 Fall Conference faculty.


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Founded in 2014, Regal House Publishing supports two imprints: Fitzroy Books, which publishes MG, YA, and children’s literature, and Pact Press, which publishes full-length fiction, memoirs, essay collections, anthologies, and creative nonfiction that offers social impact. Their mandate is to seek, support, encourage, and disseminate literary talent that might otherwise remain unread for lack of publishing opportunity. Upcoming titles in their “Sour Mash” Southern fiction series include McMullen Circle by Heather Newton, Indigo Field by Marjorie Hudson, and The Kudzu Queen by Mimi Herman, who will lead the session “Poetry Nap: Relax Your Way to Great” at the NCWN 2021 Fall Conference.


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Press 53 has been finding and sharing remarkable voices in poetry and short fiction since October, 2005, having published more than 200 titles that have earned more than seventy awards. Press 53 has published poetry and short fiction collections by authors from thirty-five states, including six state poets laureate. In 2011, Press 53 established Prime Number Magazine, a free online journal of distinctive poetry and short fiction. The 2022 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction is open for entries through December 31, 2021, awarded annually to an outstanding, unpublished short story collection. New titles include Dark Side of North by the late NC Literary Hall of Fame inductee Anthony S. Abbott; Tales the Devil Told Me by Jen Fawkes, winner of the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction; and the anthology Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 and Its Aftermath.


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PEN America is the sponsor of Saturday’s luncheon “Community Journalism” panel discussion. Formed in 1922, PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Their PEN Across America initiative, launched in 2018, responds to mounting threats to free expression with opportunities for Members and their allies to mobilize locally through public programming, campaigns, literary events, workshops, civic forums, and other projects that expand engagement with PEN America’s mission. PEN America welcomes and celebrates emerging writers whose voices are adding to the literary experience. PEN America’s more than 7,500 Members live in every state. NCWN Membership Coordinator Deonna Kelli Sayed is the PEN America NC Piedmont representative (Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh).

Check back next week to meet five more NCWN 2021 Fall Conference exhibitors!

Registration for the NCWN 2021 Fall Conference is open.

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Visit Us at Bookmarks on Saturday

NCWN trustee Terry L. Kennedy (left) and NCWN Executive Director Ed Southern at Bookmarks in 2018

Best as we can recollect, the last time we exhibited somewhere was October of 2019, so it’s been almost two years since the North Carolina Writers’ Network has been able to interact in-person at a large-scale event.

We always look forward to the Bookmarks Festival of Books & Authors, but even more so this year. It’s a chance for staff to spend time together, soaking in the sun and some amazing literary programming; more importantly, it’s a chance for us to spend time with you, to talk about who you’re seeing, what you’re reading, and what your writing goals are.

This Saturday, September 25, we’ll be at Booth 8 on the corner of Holly and Poplar at the Bookmarks Festival of Books & Authors from about 10 am until close. Someone from the staff will be at the booth all day, and whoever it is will be excited to talk with you, even if we’re a littly rusty at making face-to-face conversation.

For the full list of exhibitors, click here.

NCWN Executive Director Ed Southern will participate in a panel “Ideas of Home” with NCWN Trustee Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle and NY Times Bestselling Author Jason Mott, at 1:00 pm in the Calvary Moravian Church.

The North Carolina Writers’ Network is the sponsor of “Books & Brews” with Wiley Cash and Jason Mott, which happens at 5:30 pm on Friday, September 24, in the 4th Street Breezeway between Bookmarks and Footnote. Tickets required.

For the full conference schedule, click here.

There are many COVID-19 protocols in place, so be sure to read the health and safety guidelines here.

We’re excited to see you on Saturday!

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What a Book Shortage Means for You

This year, consider shopping in-person and ordering ahead from indies like Scuppernong Books in Greensboro!

The pandemic has made most of us armchair experts in fields as diverse as epidemiology and global shipping; we now, casually, toss around terms such as “efficacy” and “supply chain,” words that probably weren’t in most of our everyday vocabularies in February of 2020.

Still, things like supply chains do matter, and one supply chain in particular is in danger of being disrupted and having an adverse effect on the publishing industry.

According to Publishers Weekly, “congestion at the ports, and escalating transportation costs” are putting “putting more pressure on the supply chain…printing capacity continues to shrink and labor shortages have made it difficult for printers, retailers, and wholesalers to fully staff their businesses.”

The New Orleans-based bookstore Tubby & Co, which hosts a helpful Twitter thread on the subject, notes there’s a paper shortage; a cardboard shortage; an increase in printing costs; and a labor shortage. Everyone is affected, from pop-up booksellers to large-scale wholesalers. Many authors have taken to Twitter in a panic.

But should we, the level-headed readers and writers of North Carolina, panic?

Truth is, yes, there is a paper shortage and yes, it will affect availability for the forseeable future. But this mostly affects new releases scheduled between now and the end of the year. Especially in terms of the holidays, if there’s a book coming out that you’re really looking forward to reading, or that you want to give to someone, it’s best to pre-order it now from your local bookstore.

It’s best to be a little ahead of the game in general, anyway, this year, because shipping is taking longer than usual to reach our beloved indies, all over the globe.

“Titles that used to take about two weeks to get to us are now taking a minimum of 3–4 weeks,” writes Carina Pereira on Book Riot, “and sometimes even end up all together cancelled.”

In fact, Pereira recommends taking a different approach entirely to shopping for books this year, including:

  • buying what you see, rather than what you want
  • buying gift cards to indies
  • buying more digital content
  • And of course, ordering ahead

As with any disruption, it’s the indie bookstores and indie publishers—who often commit to smaller print runs and so lack the economic muscle to keep up—who suffer most.

So let’s remember our indies here in Q4. And most importantly, as with most everything these days, let’s remember to have patience with one another…and ourselves!

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Three NCWN Members Long-Listed for National Book Awards

Three members of the North Carolina Writers’ Network have been long-listed for the 2021 National Book Awards.

Threa Almontaser has been nominated in Poetry for her collection, The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press).

Jason Mott has been nominated in Fiction for his new novel, Hell of a Book (Dutton).

NC Literary Hall of Fame inductee Carole Boston Weatherford has been nominated in Young People’s Literature for Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Carolrhoda/Lerner), illustrated by Floyd Cooper.

The National Book Foundation will name five finalists in each of the five categories—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature—on October 5. The winner will be announced during the awards ceremony on November 17, which will once again be held in-person at Cipriani Wall Street in New York.

For the complete long-list, click here.

Threa Almontaser is a N.C.-based Yemeni American writer from New York. She holds a M.F.A. in English Creative Writing and a TESOL Certification from N.C. State. Her first poetry collection, The Wild Fox of Yemen, arrived in April from Graywolf Press. She is the 2020 recipient of the Walt Whitman Award, given by the Academy of American Poets. Almontaser teaches English to immigrants and refugees in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was featured in a long interview in the Spring 2021 NCWN newsletter, The Writers’ Network News.

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jason Mott lives in southeastern North Carolina. He has a BFA in Fiction and an MFA in Poetry, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His poetry and fiction has appeared in various literary journals. He is the author of two poetry collections and multiple novels, including The New York Times and USA Today bestselling The Returned, which was adapted for television under the title. “Resurrection” for the ABC Network. His newest novel, Hell Of A Book came out in June. He has taught at past NCWN conferences and contributed to the Fall 2021 NCWN newsletter, The Writers’ Network News.

New York Times bestselling author Carole Boston Weatherford recently released Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe and R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Baltimore-born and -raised, she composed her first poem in first grade and dictated the verse to her mother on the ride home from school. Her father, a high school printing teacher, printed some of her early poems on index cards. Since her literary debut with Juneteenth Jamboree in 1995, Weatherford’s books have received three Caldecott Honors, two NAACP Image Awards, an SCBWI Golden Kite Award, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and many other honors. Weatherford has received the Ragan-Rubin Award from the North Carolina English Teachers Association and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She is a professor at Fayetteville State University.

Established in 1950, the National Book Awards are American literary prizes administered by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization. A pantheon of writers such as William Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Robert Lowell, Walker Percy, John Updike, Katherine Anne Porter, Norman Mailer, Lillian Hellman, Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Adrienne Rich, Thomas Pynchon, Alice Walker, E. Annie Proulx, Jesmyn Ward, and Ta-Nehisi Coates have all won National Book Awards. Although other categories have been recognized in the past, the Awards currently honor the best Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature, published each year.

For more about the National Book Foundation, click here.

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Bland Simpson Re-Releases Debut Album for Charity

Bland Simpson was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2020. A former past chair of the Department of English & Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill and the former director of its Creative Writing Program, Bland’s books include The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir (UNC Press, 1990), and Little Rivers and Waterway Tales: A Carolinian’s Eastern Streams (UNC Press, 2015). He’s also a Grammy-Award winning musician and Tony-nominated Broadway songwriter.

Scouted and signed by Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, to 4th Floor Music, Bland released his first studio album, Simpson, with Columbia Records in 1971. The album has just been digitally re-released in celebration of its 50th anniversary.

“As we approached the 50th anniversary, I thought about how much work had gone into it,” Simpson says. “I didn’t want it to be completely forgotten because it’s got some songs I really like. And if anybody wants it, they can get it by sending some money to the food bank. Right now any food bank needs any amount of money they can get.”

Proceeds from the sale of the re-released album, Simpson, will be donated to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.

Simpson’s musical, written with Jim Wann, Diamond Studs:  The Life of Jesse James–directed by John Haber and choreographed by Tony Award-winning artist Patricia Birch–ran 10 sold-out performances at Chapel Hill’s Ranch House (October, 1974), was picked up by the New York non-profit Chelsea Theatre Center, and opened at the Chelsea Westside Theatre on West 43rd Street Off-Broadway in mid-January 1975 to universal acclaim and an eight-month run.

In December, 1986, Bland Simpson joined The Red Clay Ramblers as the band’s piano player and began years of extensive touring (North America, France, Denmark, the Middle East and North Africa) and further theatrical work.  As a Red Clay Rambler, he contributed to the film scores of Sam Shepard’s Far North (1988) and Silent Tongue.  He also collaborated on the Ramblers’ show Fool Moon, a three-time Broadway hit (1993, 1995, 1998-99) that won the Ramblers a share in the show’s Special Tony Award (Gershwin Theatre, June 1999).

Buy the album here.

For an in-depth exploration of what Simpson means, five decades later, read Nic Johnson’s post for the Orange County Arts Commission, here.

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The John Hope Franklin Scholars Program Is Thriving

John Hope Franklin was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 1998, one year after celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his literary landmark, From Slavery to Freedom. A longtime professor of history at Duke University, among other academic institutions, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1995.

In 2009, the Duke University Office of Durham and Community Affairs—working with Durham Public Schools—established the John Hope Franklin Scholars Program, where, in honor of the program’s namesake, middle and high school students become “historian adventurers.” The program begins each summer with a one-week intensive and continues with field trips and monthly meetings throughout the school year.

For example, in 2014, students wrote the book Running for Hope about the life of John Hope Franklin. In 2020, UNC University Libraries welcomed a group of young scholars eager to learn more about the history of medicine, with a special focus on medical history in North Carolina.

The program is run by David Stein, Senior Educational and PepsiCo Program Coordinator.

Although From Slavery to Freedom is his best-known work, Franklin was a prolific author. In 1990, a collection of essays covering a teaching and writing career of fifty years was published under the title Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988. In 1993, he published The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century. His most recent book, My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, is an autobiography of his father that he edited with his son, John Whittington Franklin.

For more information about the John Hope Franklin Scholars program, click here. For more information about John Hope Franklin, click here.

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The Boy in the Suitcase: A Collaborative Story

On Thursday, August 12, the NC Writers’ Network hosted our first-ever Online Game Night, a progressive, virtual night of games with a literary bend. During one portion, participants responded to a visual prompt and wrote a collaborative story. Participants took turns contributing lines.

Here is the prompt image, courtesy of moderator Gretchen M. Thomas:


And here is the story. Enjoy!


The invisible man took his son for a walk. The boy cringed inside the briefcase; Daddy had done this before, and it never turned out well. Once they passed the Tabaco shop, there was only one other possibility. And his stomach wrenched at the thought.

Dad should have known better; the boy got motion sickness every time he went out in the suitcase. The boy, Douglas peeked through the opening to see the car speeding by too fast. He wished Sally was here. She always knew what to do. But he hadn’t seen Sally since his father had walked off with her in a suitcase, seven years ago today.

The car waited for him in the “No Parking” spot. The boy saw the curious dog, the one who always barked and sniffed, and yelled for his dad to pick up the suitcase higher. But the car in the No Parking zone honked, drowning the boy out.

At that point, a black and white patrol car drove up; the officer who exited the car said, “We got a call from someone about a car in the nopartking zone. What’sgoing on here, folks?”

“Nothing for you to see, officer.”

“Oh, dear,” Douglas thought. “Mama’s in the back seat of the car and she’s the only one who can see Daddy. Is invisibility genetic?”

“Rowrrr…” said the dog, sniffing the suitcase.

“Shhh!!” whispered Douglas.

Then Douglas heard a voice. The hair on his neck prickled. “Douglas? What are you doing in that suitcase. You know better than that!”

Suddenly, the car started, startling the officer. The dog jumped in the window, the man jumped in the passenger seat with the boy in his lap, and they farted off.

The mother came from the hotel said, “Thank God, they’re gone. Good riddance.”

Douglas learned something important from living through this story: NEVER fart when you’re inside a suitcase!


By Charles Fiore, Jane Gatewood, Jill Jennings, Kathy Julian, Robin Kirk, Ro Mason, A.J. Mayhew, Ruth Moose, Ami Offenbacher, Deonna Kelli Sayed, Gretchen M. Thomas, and Herb Wakeford


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A Teacher in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

Our pandemic blog series continues this week with an interview with Jeremy B. Jones, a professor at Western Carolina University and author of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland (Blair, 2014), which won the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction and was awarded gold in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book (IPPY) Awards in memoir. Gretchen Thomas (GT) caught up with Jeremy (JJ) recently over e-mail.

Jeremy B. Jones

GT: How long have you worked for Western Carolina University and what is your official title?
JJ: Associate Professor, seven years.

GT: What was your schooling like to get to your position today?
JJ: I earned my MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa.

GT: Western Carolina University moved classes online in March of 2020. If you were teaching at that time, please explain how you dealt with the sudden move to teaching in an online setting.
JJ:We survived! My courses last spring moved to a self-paced, online model when the pandemic hit: students completed their work and watched short video lectures from me as they were able. I realized pretty quickly everyone—including me—needed a little grace to try to manage all of the stress and uncertainty. In the fall, I was on scholarly development leave, in theory to finish a book, so I wasn’t teaching. (In practice, I spent most of my time homeschooling my kids and trying to find funding sources for the Spring Literary Festival.) In spring 2021, I taught online only, and by that point everyone had become a pro at navigating the Zoom classroom. I missed seeing students in real life—having them drop by my office to fill me in on their writing and lives—but the classes moved smoothly enough. I learned, in fact, that a writing workshop works surprisingly well online.

GT: How has the pandemic changed the way you teach, if at all?
JJ: I haven’t taught face-to-face since the pandemic began, so I don’t know yet how the experience of teaching online might change my in-person teaching. One lesson that I’m always learning as a teacher is that I never know what’s happening in any one student’s life. So many students are juggling responsibilities—working multiple jobs, caring for children or parents or siblings, navigating mental health issues—and the pandemic made this truth all the more evident. I have always tried to give students the benefit of the doubt, but I believe in this approach even more after the last year.

GT: As the director of WCU’s Literary Festival, how was the event changed to fit COVID-19 restrictions? What struggles had you faced with trying to host events during the pandemic?
JJ: It wasn’t an easy festival to pull of this year, but we did—and had fun doing it. Of course most of the festival took place virtually this year. Rather than simply replicate an in-person festival online, we tried to create something new. In the livestream events, we asked writers to play silly literary games with surprise guests, we asked students—students like the very talented interviewer Gretchen Thomas!—to interview writers during the livestream. We asked, for example, the graphic writer Kristen Radtke to play literary Pictionary with the writer Rachel Yoder. West Virginia novelist Mesha Maren played a West Virginia trivia game with Jessie van Eerden. In short, we tried to make the events dynamic and engaging. We wanted to highlight each writer’s distinctive voice, so we individualized each event instead of asking the writers to read to a screen for 30 minutes. (These videos are all archived and accessible, here.)

The other struggle this year was finding funding. Many of the grants we rely on weren’t awarded amid the pandemic, so I spent a lot of time searching for funding sources to keep the festival alive. And it is alive.

GT: As an educator, what was your biggest challenge teaching in an online setting?
JJ: Keeping my kids off camera. Well, and also, figuring out how to meet students where they are. In a classroom, I have many built-in assessments throughout a class period. I’m putting students in groups or throwing out writing prompts. Students don’t often know these informal assessments are there, but I’m checking in throughout the period to make sure they’re getting the material. It was more difficult to do this online, and I couldn’t naturally chat with students after class or during group work, so I worried about students keeping up.

GT: Western Carolina University has announced the return of in-person classes, do you believe that being in-person will aid students’ education? Why or why not?
JJ: I think for most students it will. One takeaway from this past year, however, is that some students perform better outside of the pressure of the traditional classroom, so I hope those students will continue to find formats that aid their learning. For most students, though, being in a classroom again will make learning easier and more engaging. There’s something about physically entering a classroom space that alerts the brain that something different is happening. And, not to get to woo-woo, but there’s also an energy there, and I think if an instructor is using (or fueling) it well, learning in a classroom can be catalytic.

GT: After surviving a hectic year and a half of teaching online, what is one piece of advice that you would give yourself to survive teaching during a pandemic?
JJ: I know I said it once already, but it’s important enough to say again: everyone—including yourself—needs some grace.

GT: What advice would you give to those interested in teaching at the collegiate level?
JJ: Find opportunities to teach wherever you can: writing workshops at the local library, leading book clubs at a youth center, coaching little league, etc. Don’t limit yourself to a traditional classroom. You can learn about teaching and about learning in any environment, and the more you’re thinking about how to best motivate and educate the people around you, the more you’re growing as a teacher.

GT: This fall, we are asking literary professionals of all kinds to give us one good piece of advice. What is the best advice you ever heard, or what advice would you give your younger self?
JJ: Donald Murray wrote that he wished he’d known this when he was 21 (as a new writer): “all acceptances are as irrational as all rejections.” I carry this advice with me a lot because the literary world is one of near-constant rejection. But these rejections aren’t personal, and they’re often more about that publication’s context (what they’ve recently published, how much space they have in an issue, what that editor ate for breakfast) than they are about the writer’s work. BUT! It’s equally important to remember that the acceptances are as subjective as those rejections. As artists, it’s tempting to equate our worth—both personal and artistic—with acceptance or rejection. But that’s a fool’s errand. Instead, we have to do the work that compels us, and keep moving.

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A Publisher in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

Emily Louise Smith

The North Carolina Writers’ Network has been conducting interviews with people working in different spaces within the literary world to understand how the pandemic has affected our community. Today, we speeak with Emily Louise Smith, publisher of sister imprints Lookout Books and Ecotone magazine, both housed within the Department of Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington.

Gretchen Thomas (GT) caught up with Emily (ELS) recently over email.

GT: Describe your role at Lookout Books.

ELS: I co-founded Lookout in 2009 and currently serve as its publisher, meaning that I’m ultimately responsible the imprint’s daily operations—from planning sales and distribution strategies to negotiating contracts, from executing marketing and publicity campaigns to writing and managing grants, from art directing and designing books to collaborating closely with Lookout’s editor, KaToya Ellis Fleming, on acquisitions and editorial notes toward bringing out complex, engaging titles that both fit and expand Lookout’s mission. Lookout is also a teaching press; in addition to introductory and special-topics courses in publishing, I teach the graduate practicum that supports our work.

GT: What was your schooling like to get to the position you have today? Did you have a focus in publishing?

ELS: After graduating from Davidson College with a BA in English and concentration in gender studies, I worked in advertising and development for several years before returning to grad school to study poetry. As part of my acceptance into UNCW’s MFA program, I was offered a teaching assistantship in the very Publishing Laboratory I now direct, where I worked for twenty hours a week as an editor, designer, copywriter, marketer, book binder, and grant writer; I wore pretty much every hat needed to keep our fledgling in-house imprint humming. I also supported founder Stanley Colbert and then director Barbara Brannon in teaching their publishing courses, helping them with research, lesson planning, grading, and hosting students for open hours in the Pub Lab. The entrepreneurial spirit of the lab in those days—housed in an actual former science lab, complete with a fume hood!—was one of such innovation and creativity. It offered me not only a three-year crash course in publishing but a design playground. Among other projects, I helped publish our department text book, Show & Tell: Writers on Writing, as well as curated and designed the inaugural issues of Ecotone under the leadership of founding editor David Gessner and student editors Kimi Faxon Hemingway and Heather Wilson. Upon graduation, I accepted a fellowship at the Hub City Writers Project in South Carolina, where again I had the opportunity to edit and design, learn and experiment, this time under the incredible mentorship of Hub City Press founder Betsy Teter. So my publishing education was—as it is for so many of us who work in small presses and magazines—a glorious, extended apprenticeship.

GT: Why did you co-found Lookout Books?

ELS: Lookout’s original and enduring mission is twofold: 1) to support the work of debut authors and others whose voices have been misrepresented, erased, or overlooked in publishing, and, with creativity and care, to bring their stories to broad readership. And 2) to offer students in UNCW’s writing programs engaging, hands-on opportunities to learn the art and craft of publishing by working on our critically acclaimed titles.

GT: How has the pandemic disrupted your daily work routine, if at all?

ELS: In almost every way. In March of 2020, my immediate challenge was to reimagine my hands-on publishing practicum within a new virtual environment. Needless to say: the learning curve was steep to transition what was previously a weekly three-hour collaborative meeting and work session into meaningful stand-alone projects that students could do independently at home—but with ongoing virtual support from me and other staff members. I refined my approach again and again over two additional semesters of virtual learning.

Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic, the book industry had to devise new strategies for getting books into the hands of readers. COVID caused delays across the supply chain—from book manufacturing to warehousing to shipping. Reviewers and other members of the media weren’t going into offices to intercept physical galleys. Booksellers closed their doors and became shipping centers while also hosting virtual events. sales soared. National and regional bookseller trade shows, sales meetings, and conferences all moved online, which meant relearning, in many ways, how to promote and talk about books. I had to rethink pitching in virtual spaces, for example, and find new methods for connecting authors with readers and booksellers via online readings and discussions.

GT: Have you seen an increased or decreased number of submissions since the pandemic began?

ELS: For Lookout at least, queries are fairly consistent with what we received before the pandemic. We continue to acquire a single book a year, though, and it has to be a perfect fit for both us and for the author, so we always seem to have a little reading backlog. Also, the pandemic delayed our search for a new lead editor, which in turn led to a temporary pause in our annual publication schedule. Our last book, Cameron Dezen Hammon’s This Is My Body, came out just before the pandemic, in fall 2019. So we’re very excited to have KaToya Ellis Fleming on board and our next book scheduled for release in April 2022.

GT: What has been one major problem you have faced while working during the pandemic, and how did you fix it?

ELS: More than a year before the pandemic, I agreed to direct the creative writing department’s 2020 Writers’ Week under the assumption that it would be a celebration of Lookout’s tenth anniversary. We’d bring back Lookout authors and alumni, and host robust publishing classes and panels; by summer 2020, it was pretty clear that the entire roster of events, nearly twenty separate craft talks, readings, and panels, would need to be held virtually. So with support from the accompanying seminar class, we reinvented Writers’ Week. We researched best practices in hosting online events, participated in Zoom workshops, read articles and books, using Priya Parker’s wonderful The Art of Gathering as our guide, redefined our purpose, and ultimately reimagined the week as “Writing to Transform,” an online festival that better met our community’s needs during the pandemic. We added morning writing sessions, updated our website with titles and descriptions, created a daily newsletter, held run-throughs to orient visiting speakers, thought anew about audience accessibility and safety, crafted participant guidelines, and worked closely with captioners. A symposium that traditionally welcomes about three hundred students and members of the Wilmington community swelled to include more than six hundred guests from around the world.

Meanwhile, Lookout ramped up our social media campaigns and developed a newsletter. We celebrated our tenth anniversary by debuting Lookout Labs, a series of virtual conversations between authors and publishing professionals, designed to demystify the process and prepare participants for their first publication, as well as to support the next generation in learning the art and craft of publishing. It wasn’t what we’d planned, but we harnessed audience familiarity with Zoom and had such a great time talking with two of Lookout’s debut authors, Clare Beams and Cameron Dezen Hammon, about their path to publication, the challenges and magic of bringing their books into the world, as well as to catching up with alumni who now lead Orion magazine, Hub City Press, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. We’ve since produced the first two episodes of the series, which are free to watch on our website.

GT: Will anything about how Lookout Books has gone about publishing in the last year change as we reemerge into “normalcy?”

ELS: In her proposal for Lookout’s next book, Bigger Than Bravery, Black Writers on the Year That Changed the World, editor Valerie Boyd wrote that the collection gives contributors space to “explore the small moments of comfort and joy, of challenge and compromise, that we’ve found, together and alone, during this Great Pause—which, as a result of the national reckoning on race, also has become the Great Call.” Our abiding commitment at Lookout, and in publishing this title as our first after a two-year hiatus and KaToya’s first as editor, is to heed that call as a both a book publisher and as a teaching press, to support authors and books that reflect the diversity of our country and, as KaToya put it, “to be a lighthouse for writers of color, and LGBTQ+ writers, and writers from myriad other groups who have been erased, unheard, or otherwise denied access to publishing.” By making those books centerpieces in our publishing classrooms, we better prepare and empower the next generation of publishers, editors, designers, publicists, and community leaders.

Publishing Bigger Than Bravery well also means reevaluating our post-pandemic approach to reviewers, media, bookstagrammers, and booksellers. Many outlets requested e-galleys throughout the pandemic, and while I can appreciate the convenience and cost savings, not to mention the environmental reprieve, I’ve always loved working with authors, colleagues, and students to tailor our media list and develop physical galley kits that tell the story of a book, contextualize, and bring out the conversation around it. So I’m eager to collaborate with Valerie, KaToya, and our students, when they return this fall, to imagine a digital equivalent of Lookout’s galley kit, or a hybrid approach that allows us to continue doing our best matchmaking and connecting titles with their readers.

GT: What advice would you give to others who are interested in working in publishing?

ELS: While recording our Lookout Labs in April, my brilliant friend and former Pub Lab co-conspirator, Sumanth Prabkaher, who now edits Orion magazine, said something that has stayed with me. “The best thing that I did and continue to do for myself,” he said when asked his advice for aspiring publishers, “is to just surround myself with intelligent people at every possible opportunity. There’s nothing better than being the dumbest person in the room.”

Maybe more than ever, within our increasingly professionalized writing program, my students seem afraid to show up as anything short of proficient, certain, fully formed. But I think we do our best thinking and learning when we’re open, listening, and receiving. My students flourish when I afford them space to make mistakes, and when they grant themselves permission to learn from those mistakes. I remember hanging on Betsy Teter’s every word the year I worked for her at Hub City, not only when she was actively mentoring me, but when she was on the phone, negotiating with a vendor or potential community partner, when someone dropped by to see her new office space, and she set about casually, almost innocuously, illuminating for that person the organization and its mission, until the next thing I knew, he was making a donation to Hub City or buying an armload of books.

Sumanth’s advice also came as a good reminder to me, now in my eighteenth year of publishing, to continue surrounding myself with teachers—colleagues, editors, authors, students—from whom I am always learning.

GT: This fall, we’re asking literary professionals of all kinds to give us one good piece of advice. What advice would you give your younger self?

ELS: This is personal—and it’s something I struggle with still—but if I could go back and say one thing to my younger self, that version of me so anxious to gain a toehold in the male-dominated fields of academia and publishing, it would be that I was already enough. Long before I knew as much as I do now, before I’d published a catalog of award-winning books or had a list of articles and panels to list on my CV. I would say to her, You are smart and capable already. You deserve to be here. Don’t you dare shrink yourself to make others comfortable. I’ll never get back those long hours that turned into years hustling to prove my value to the department and university, years that I sought self-worth in others. If I could rest a hand on her shoulder now, I’d tell her to take a day off, to go for a run, to write her own book, even if it never sees the light of day. I’d whisper to her exactly what I say to my students: Trust your instincts and your courage. Bet on yourself first.

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