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Interview with Calvert Morgan, Editor of Harper Perennial: Harper Perennial's Role in the Current Resurgence in American Fiction

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About a year ago, I started being impressed by a string of books from Harper Perennial. For me, the standouts have included Christopher Miller's The Cardboard Universe, Torsten Krol's Callisto and The Dolphin People, and Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil, as well as other novels and short story collections which reiterated the idea that there is some sort of resurgence going on in American fiction. I was intrigued about the editorial mind behind the chain of successes, which led to my recent phone conversation with Cal Morgan, vice president and editorial director of Harper Perennial, at his office in New York. We discussed how Harper Perennial maintains a unique sensibility despite the large number of titles, the editorial and marketing strategies that promote such a distinct fictional universe, and the prospects for fiction writing amid the rapid changes in the publishing industry. (Many thanks to Roz Williamson for the expert transcription.)

Shivani: Tell us something about your background and how you came to Harper and Harper Perennial specifically.

Morgan: I've been in publishing since 1988 and I've only ever worked at two publishers. I was at St. Martin's Press for eleven years, and then in 1999 I came to HarperCollins. I worked for quite a while at an imprint here called ReganBooks, which published a lot more nonfiction than fiction, but I've always been personally interested in fiction. One of the things I really treasure about my position at Harper Perennial is the wide range of fiction writers I get to work with.

Shivani: When you were starting out, did you want to be part of the independent publishing, small-press scene?

Morgan: I have always been an admirer of it, but because I went right into a job at a relatively large, well-established, mainstream publishing house, I never felt I had a really easy entrée into the more adventurous world of small press publishing. In the past five years or so, it seems like the small press world has entered a fantastic new era of growth and creativity, which is why I'm excited to be more in touch with it and working with a lot of authors and creative people who are involved with that world.

Shivani: Would you talk about some small presses that you admire these days?

Morgan: One is a press called Featherproof, which published a book last year called Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler. I first came across Blake's work when he submitted a short story to Fifty-Two Stories, a short fiction blog I edit here, and I was so floored by his writing that I ended up signing up a couple of books with him. Blake is an enormously imaginative, experimental writer, and I think Featherproof did a terrific, creative job publishing Scorch Atlas. They also publish a lot of small books online and in chapbook form. Blake is also the editor of a literary blog called HTMLGiant.com, and is involved with a lot of small press publishing himself.

I think everybody's impressed with Melville House, which has really made a name for itself over the past couple of years. And there are so many others. There's a small operation called Hotel St. George Press working out of Brooklyn which published a short fiction project two years ago called Correspondences with Ben Greenman, the New Yorker editor and fiction writer. Correspondences wasn't a book per se, it was a box--a kind of collection of letter-press-printed, accordion-file-folded short stories in detachable form, gorgeously hand-assembled. The fiction in that collection, it turned out, was as exquisite as the package itself, and this summer we're publishing an expanded version of the collection with a new title, What He's Poised to Do.

Shivani: How would you define the Harper Perennial brand?

Morgan: Harper Perennial is one of the major trade paperback lines within HarperCollins, and we're very conscious about making it a branded imprint. Carrie Kania, our publisher, really came up with the vision of the way Harper Perennial could evolve, supported from the start by our president, Michael Morrison. Her inspiration was that if we were very thoughtful about building an imprint with a consistent brand identity, and a certain coherence of sensibility among the authors we published, then we might be able to defy conventional wisdom and begin to lead readers from one author to another of ours simply through a growing awareness of the Harper Perennial brand.

Shivani: How would you define the coherent sensibility that you mentioned?

Morgan: It takes in so much that I'm hesitant to be reductive about it, but one consistent strain is the sheer enthusiasm we're seeing among writers out there--a kind of faith that writing can still change the world. There are a lot of very ambitious writers working in America right now--a lot of writers who are young, smart, inspired, and very positive-minded about the power of fiction and what it can do. This excites me, because it flies in the face of a lot of doomsaying--about the publishing industry, about the death of the written word. I think there's more exciting writing going on now in America than at any time I can remember, and there are also more and more exciting places for writers to get published. Those things go hand in hand. There is an old truism in urban planning that also goes for publishing: If you build larger highways, the highways don't become less crowded, they become more crowded, because more people swarm in to take the opportunity. In urban planning that's bad news, but in publishing it's very good news.

Shivani: What made me interested in talking to you were a number of books--Christopher Miller's The Cardboard Universe last year and also the two Torsten Krol books, Callisto and The Dolphin People, and then Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil this year. These four unusual books seemed to have a common thread. Do they typify what you're trying to do, or are there other books you'd throw into the mix in terms of the sensibility you're trying to establish?

Morgan: It's great to hear that you identified those four books together because I do think that that satirical perspective is one tributary of the river we have in our authors. I think of those books as fiction that tells the truth. Callisto and Kapitoil in particular are both about where America has been in the past ten years. Two other writers who reflect that trend in our fiction right now are Tom Piazza and Jess Walter. Tom's novel City of Refuge, about the people of New Orleans as they grappled with Katrina, was very much the Grapes of Wrath of that disaster. Tom is now a writer for HBO's Treme, which traces similar stories in the months after the storm. And Jess's novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is the most current and moving snapshot of our culture right now that I've read in the past couple of years.

But there are other writers who are writing from very different perspectives, and they're equally important to our list. Short story writers such as Lydia Peelle, whose collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing we published last summer, and Barb Johnson, whose book More of This World or Maybe Another followed in the fall--they're less topical or satirical but extraordinarily vivid, extremely bold and naturalistic writers of the first order. I don't think there's anybody writing better fiction than Lydia Peelle in America today. We're also publishing more experimental writers, such as Blake Butler, who is doing something nobody else is. It will absolutely knock people dead to see the level of invention and creativity and human spirit in his writing. So that's another branch.

Shivani: Yet many of the books you publish are more traditional, domestic fiction. It's not all satire and cutting-edge political stuff. For a larger house, publishing such a range of books, how do you still cohere around a sensibility? Does it come down to audience?

Morgan: When you live with these books, you begin to perceive rhymes and harmonics among them all. I'll give you an unexpected example. Simon van Booy, whose collection called Love Begins in Winter we published last year--Turtle Point Press actually discovered him and published his first book--is one of the most talented and inventive authors we've ever come across. He has a really specific fictional vision, which is rather romantic and wistful, and he's developed a great readership for it. We're publishing his first novel next year. Ben Greenman, on the other hand, is known as something of an experimental writer; a lot of the fiction he's written in the past, most of it with small presses like Melville House and McSweeney's, has been comic, intellectually playful. But as we worked together on Poised, I discovered that, at a deeper level, there is a profoundly romantic vision to Ben's work, too. These are all stories about love and loss and faithfulness and unfaithfulness. And I think I was able to appreciate that better because I sensed the harmonics between Ben's writing and Simon's work, which was fresh in my mind. Ideally, what we want to do is engage with those readers who love Simon's work and lead them to Ben's, which they may respond to just as deeply.

Shivani: I have a copy of The Secret Lives of People in Love. Do you often pick up short story collections from small presses if you like them?

Morgan: We've only done it a couple of times, but we really like the idea of relationships with these presses because in many cases they are finding wonderful talent. We're grateful for their sensibility and we have the same drive to celebrate writers that they do. We're lucky that sometimes we're able to get distribution a little more broadly, or reach reviewers they might not be able to.

Shivani: Harper Perennial is five years old now. Can you point to books early in Harper Perennial's career that really established the brand, breakthrough books that made you confirm your direction? Are there books from earlier in the five years that stand out as landmarks?

Morgan: Just to clarify, the Perennial name has been around a lot longer, but it was relaunched and rebranded about five years ago. One of the signal books, which we published before I got here early in the relaunch, was a work of nonfiction called I Am Not Myself These Days, by Josh Kilmer-Purcell, a memoir of a guy who lived a second life as a drag queen. It was a very funny but heartfelt memoir, and one of our early successes. Another was The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen, which achieved a huge cult status. It was a very edgy, transgressive novel which a lot of people found offensive and a lot more people found really funny and dark and real. That was also one of the big successes of the first couple of years.

Shivani: You have mentioned several short story collections. Are you planning to increase that emphasis?

Morgan: We're in a desperate, possibly foolish love affair with the short story. Last year we had a campaign called Summer of the Short Story, and we published six new collections along with a series of new collections of classic shorts we had in our backlist. The blog I mentioned, www.fiftytwostories.com, is a way of bringing attention to both our own writers and new writers who submit their work to us. I think some of the young writers I've heard from through the blog will go on to have really great careers.

One reason to be interested in the short story is that it's a form many talented authors explore early on--and I always hope they continue to write stories throughout their careers because it's such a rich and challenging form. And I think there's a lot of excitement about the form in the cultural dialogue these days--people debating form versus style, processing influences and exploring new shapes--and I find that exciting.

Shivani: Why would writers want to come to Harper Perennial, before trying to get their books published in hardcover? What would be the advantage in doing that?

Morgan: A lot of writers come to us today because they see that publishing in trade paperback can be an actual virtue, not just a stepping stone to getting published in hardcover. If you ask a lot of younger readers what format they choose to buy their books in, it's trade paperback. A lot of readers don't particularly want to buy a $25 hardcover; they wait for the twelve- or fourteen-dollar paperback. Most of the small presses and the independent presses publish in trade paperback. It's much more a part of the literary, cultural mainstream than it was ten years ago. Certain barriers that used to exist don't exist anymore--chief among them that you could not get trade paperback original books, whether fiction or nonfiction, reviewed. Sadly, there aren't as many books being reviewed overall in newspapers as there used to be, but among the review organs that are still out there, our trade paperback originals are getting reviewed as often as the hardcover books. Everywhere from the New York Times Book Review to Bookforum, which has a great reviewing operation, to places like The Believer, there are a lot of really vibrant reviewers out there reviewing trade paperbacks as important new books.

Shivani: Is one big difference that you pay lower advances?

Morgan: It's probably fair to say that we pay somewhat lower advances than some hardcover publishers, but in many cases we're acquiring projects that might not have been able to get through the door with a hardcover publisher. On the other hand, in some cases we've bought books very aggressively and paid really significant advances for trade paperbacks. We really view what we're doing here as the creation of not just a first year, frontlist publication, but an author's body of work that's going to remain in print and still be active two, three, five years down the line. We're very backlist-minded, so when you start with an author's first or second book, and then that author grows over the course of several books, you've built up a body of work that will continue to sell and grow as the author grows. So viewing the matter purely through the prism of the original advance tells only part of the story. The rest of the story is the team of people that's going to continue working on those books years into the future.

Shivani: The common assumption is that if the publisher hasn't given you a large advance they are less likely to put in the marketing resources behind making the book a success. Would you reject that statement?

Morgan: I don't reject it out of hand, but it's not the way we make decisions about what we do for our books. There's never a moment when Carrie and I and the publishing team look at each other and say, "Well, we didn't pay as much for that book, we shouldn't do as much for it." It's actually the opposite. We are constantly saying to each other, "This book is a big opportunity. We have the chance to take something that might have seemed small at the start, but is getting terrific reviews, or has a fantastic package, and build something new--to take a relatively unknown writer and help him or her grow a really serious following." So a large advance doesn't increase our efforts at all.

Shivani: Is the editorial acquisition process different at Harper Perennial than the industry in general?

Morgan: There's some variation from house to house, but the core process is the same. An editor reads a book and falls in love with it, he or she shares it with other people, and if everybody falls in love with it, then we all hold hands and leap in together. We're a pretty young group, and there's not a lot of formality to the process. We work with each other, and if we fall in love with something we try to act pretty quickly. We have great relationships with some key agents who come back to us over and over again. In some cases we work directly with authors who don't have agents, and we try to build a deal that works for both sides and get to the fun part, which is publishing.

Shivani: Is your editorial process less hierarchical, more decentralized?

Morgan: We're more like a peer group than we are a hierarchy.

Shivani
: Do you look at small presses for strategy in terms of acquisition, marketing, anything where you're conscious of what they're doing and want to follow it?

Morgan: We all try to stay aware of what the others are doing. If we see that some new house has come out with a great package or somebody's advertising in a new magazine or someplace online--and we haven't talked much about online, but that's where some of the most interesting action is--we will notice it. We also notice if a bigger house does something that's creative and clever, and I hope they notice from time to time when we do something cool. Carrie and I and the other parts of the team here, we're all constantly to be found in bookstores. We haunt them helplessly, and as a result we're constantly being inspired. We have a great art team and we're always bringing visual aids to them and new sources of inspiration and shooting emails back and forth at all hours of the morning about it. It's what we love to do. It's a good cross-pollinating industry in that way.

Shivani: What do you think is the further evolution of Harper Perennial in the context of the enormous changes going on in publishing?

Morgan: I think we'll benefit from the changes, because both the top end and the bottom end of our company have tremendous creative energy right now. At the top end Brian Murray, our CEO, is deeply invested in the digital future--he's been leading the charge for years as far as partnerships with companies like Apple, and developing digital platforms and channels for our content so that we'll be able to reach readers in all the ways that will be available in the future. But then at the youngest end of the company, the least senior people here are often the most creative people in the business. There are young editors here who are spectacular and who are involved in a lot of creative work and promotion of writers. One of the young editors at Harper was one of the founding editors of the literary magazine n + 1. She brings us a lot of great authors. One of the young editors at William Morrow acquired Torsten Krol's novels for us. And we have two extremely talented young fiction editors, Jeanette Perez and Michael Signorelli, who are dedicated Harper Perennial staff members. From Brian on down, there's a lot of passion for finding both new writers and new readers.

Shivani: It sounds like you're very hopeful about the future of the publishing industry?

Morgan: I am. In particular, there's an intensity of dialogue about writing online--and about fiction in particular--that was not happening ten years ago. A lot of the writers I work with are finding like-minded peers and readers, having a forum for discussion now that simply wasn't available when the only venues you had to get published were little magazines that were distributed to a handful of shops across the country in physical form. We're passionate proponents of the physical book and we don't think it's ever going to go away, but we also know that these online forums--such as HTMLGiant--are promoting the interest that these writers have in each other and in fiction generally in a way that can only be good for contemporary writing.

Shivani: Do you see an imminent threshold limit for how far the electronic book can go?

Morgan: The growth of e-books is going to foster a growth of interest in writing in general. It'll be a new influx of energy and of different kinds of readers. Ultimately, the most important thing is that they're all reading stories. And the more people we have reading stories and caring about them, the better off we'll all be.

Shivani: You see this as complementary, symbiotic, not a zero-sum game.

Morgan: That's right.

Shivani: Do you feel overwhelmed by the uniformity of short story submissions from MFA writers?

Morgan: Publishers have seen for decades now the kind of polished writing we associate with MFA programs, but these days the MFA programs are no longer the only road to publication. The writing that's coming to us now is sometimes rougher on the surface level, but very often more original and unique and idiosyncratic and eccentric, and that's what interests me. The greatest American voices have always been the most eccentric American voices, and that's a real strength of our literature today.

Shivani: You are an optimist about books, it seems.

Morgan: I think you have to be. If you're in this business, you have to believe that next year is going to bring the discovery of a hundred new wonderful writers and be a great year in the business.

Shivani: I agree. There's so much exciting writing happening now--given all that, it's hard to buy all the talk about the end of the book.

Morgan: The impulse to buy a book and live with it and spend hours and hours with it, and then to keep it around you in physical form, to put it on your shelf, to go back to it--I think one day somebody might prove that that's actually been ingrained in our DNA by this point.

Shivani: It's a very important cultural thing and at this point there's no replacement for it.

Morgan: There is no replacement for it. There may be complementary new additions to it that we can only begin to foresee now, but to me that's only an opportunity. I don't think those new forms are going to replace books, I think they'll just be enhancements.

Shivani: One last question: are you ready to reveal the identity of Torsten Krol?

Morgan: [Laughs] That's a question that should best be put to Torsten Krol. To explain to your readers: The author of Callisto and The Dolphin People writes under the pen name Torsten Krol, and has chosen to reveal nothing else about his identity. If you manage to track him down with your journalistic talents, you can see if you can get him to step up. We respected what he wanted to do and--

Shivani: It's a he, you're giving that away?

Morgan: I think Torsten is generally a man's name, but I don't want to be conclusive about anything.

Shivani: So that won't be my headline.

Morgan: Sorry, no.

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