Alan Davis on His Time with New Rivers

This year, Alan Davis started the transition from senior editor at New Rivers Press to senior editor emeritus. He has also switched his main focus from teaching at MSUM to writing, which he has done on the side for many years. Intern Anna interviewed Davis in February from his sunny perch in Arizona. The following is their full conversation on Davis’ time with the press and plans for future endeavors.

Q: What made you decide to get involved with bringing the press to a new location?
A: I was a New Rivers Press author, a two-time winner of its MVP competition for Rumors from the Lost World in 1993 and Alone with the Owl in 2000. I had also co-edited four volumes of American Fiction for the press (1996-2000). When Bill Truesdale, its beloved, idiosyncratic founder, died in 2001, NRP went into suspension. My colleague Wayne Gudmundson and I negotiated with MSUM [Minnesota State University Moorhead] and with NRP to relocate it to Moorhead in order to save the press. We agreed to make it a teaching press so that students could learn about the publishing business from the inside out, which pleased MSUM, and to honor Truesdale’s primary mission: to publish the best work we could find by new and emerging writers, especially those residing in Minnesota and the upper Midwest. That commitment convinced the NRP board of directors that the press, once revived, would be in good hands.

Q: What was your previous publishing experience before working with New Rivers?
A: New Rivers published my first two books before I was associated with the press. I had reviewed hundreds of books for the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kirkus Reviews, and elsewhere, co-edited American Fiction for ten years, and published dozens of stories and poems in various literary journals. My colleague, Wayne Gudmundson, had produced books of photography, many of them documentaries that included work by his Mass Communication students.

Q: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced in reinventing the press as a teaching press?
A: Each press has its traditions, its history and, if successful, its unique duende (a distinctive quality of spirit and passion). Our job was to continue to honor NRP’s past while turning the page and incorporating all aspects of operations into a university curriculum while keeping the passion and innovation of an independent press alive. I think we achieved that goal, and I have every reason to believe that the new team, which is in the process of replacing me this semester, will do the same. I’m excited that Kevin Carollo (Senior Editor), Travis Dolence (Director), and Nayt Rundquist (Managing Editor)—the troika—have agreed to band together to run the press, and that President Blackhurst and many other administrators have voiced their support for it to continue, hopefully for many years to come.

Q: What was one unexpected lesson you learned in your time as senior editor?
A: As a leader of a teaching press, I often had to bite my tongue so that others could learn through their mistakes. Without such patience, I might have completed necessary work in solitude and with more precision, but the point of the press is to pass on such work to others so that they can take chances, make mistakes, and learn in the process (and sometimes, of course, do a better job than I would have done). Under supervision, students edit books, design covers, and assist in all the work required to publish and market a book in today’s brave, new world. I always felt blessed to be paid to do such work.

Q: Which of our older titles do you still have a soft spot for?
A: Lisa Gill’s Mortar and Pestle, an astonishing book of poetry written in the aftermath of an MS diagnosis, is a profound work of the imagination that incorporates a great deal of lore and learning. Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, a memoir about many things, but centered on his sexual abuse at the hands of his baseball coach, a serial molester that the book helped bring to justice, is a powerful testament to the ability of literature to witness the world with grace and bravery. Michael Hettich is one of the best poets writing today; it was a pleasure to reach out to him and convince him to work with us to publish Flock and Shadow: New and Selected Poems. When I need a pick-me-up, I often open that book at random and read.

Q: What is the book you most enjoyed working on as senior editor?
A: As a father I do my best not to play favorites between my son and daughter. I feel the same as an editor. There are some books where I worked with the writer on major and substantive revisions; others needed only a minor copy-editing to be proof-ready. The pleasure of seeing the book in print is the same whatever the labor involved. I’m often happiest, perhaps, when we publish a writer’s first book, because I well remember the feeling of seeing my own first collection of stories in print for the first time, followed a week or so later by a wonderful review in the New York Times written by Dorothy Allison.

Q: Is there one aspect of the press that you will miss in switching your focus to your writing?
A: The labor often kept me from my own work, but there’s nothing quite like reading a manuscript after hours or days of bleary-eyed persistence and feeling the hairs on the back of your neck prickle because you’ve happened upon the real thing: a book that matters and that was written with care and grace and rocks your world.

Q: What are your most exciting/ambitious plans after retiring from New Rivers?
A:I think of myself as moving on, not retiring, and will continue to teach in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program in Mystic, Connecticut. I still live in Moorhead, so I’ll haunt the campus on occasion as an Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Editor to attend book launches and readings. My wife (who retired from teaching kindergarten) and I will travel both here in the States and abroad, first to Norway, where my son is engaged to a wonderful Norwegian woman he met when she was an exchange student at Concordia and MSUM.

I’m also still working with the press and with Thom Tammaro as co-editor to select and prepare an anthology of poems that will contain 100 poems by 100 poets who were inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan. I look forward to seeing that anthology published and working hard to promote it.

And, of course, I hope to have much more time for my own work, which includes two novels, a fourth collection of stories, a first collection of poems, and a series of nonfiction pieces. If the god and goddess are kind, I hope to be healthy and productive for many years to come. Knock on wood.