by Erin Kyle
Atticus Books is the brainchild of New Jersey Creative Imagination Officer, Founder, and Publisher, Dan Cafaro. Conceived in 2010 as a “landscape-altering, genre-busting caper” dedicated to the willful suspension of disbelief, Atticus Books is dedicated to discovering and publishing works by authors with distinct voices. It was a serendipitous antiquing trip to Leesburg, Virginia, on Cafaro’s 43rd birthday that inspired the name, when he stumbled across a sign for ATTICUS BOOKS. Such was the profound impact on him that Cafaro dove into researching ways to open his own publishing company “to produce and disseminate work that transcends literary circles and touches the wider culture.”
Atticus operates several social media outlets, including a monthly e-newsletter, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a variety of associated blogs, and a weekly online journal aptly entitled Atticus Review, which publishes stories, poems, electric literature, and other wisdom and whimsy. In the past six years, Atticus Books has published 21 works, a compendium representing a variety of genres from novels and short stories to literary nonfiction and memoir. Writers are welcome to submit short stories, poems, and literary essays to Atticus Review at any time, while Atticus Books features certain submissions periods. No matter the medium, Atticus is dedicated to delivering a singular reading experience.
Luckily, I was able to contact three particular authors in the course of writing this review. Each was very willing to answer any questions I had about his work and reasons for choosing a small-press publisher. What follows is the exploration into the Atticus-published works of these three talented, genre-bending authors: Christopher DeWan, Nathan Leslie, and Tommy Zurhellen.
Christopher DeWan’s Hoopty Time Machines: fairy tales for grown ups, is Atticus Books’ most recent publication, a collection of flash fiction released late-September 2016. DeWan has published more than 40 short stories in journals including A cappella Zoo, Bartleby Snopes, Jersey Devil Press, JMWW, Juked, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and wigleaf. He has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize.
DeWan embraces a refreshing irreverence in this collection of short and flash fiction that explores a hedonistic, unreasonably optimistic Goldilocks; bullied changeling children; salmon creation mythos; ants who dream of being spiders; a disillusioned Rapunzel; an embittered suburban father escaping into time in the hoopty car he’d been tinkering with for years; and more. This collection was pre-released to amazing reviews, and continues to gain notoriety and momentum, as it invites Anticipation, Ambition, Hilarity, and Unexpected to dinner.
This mosaic collection will open up a hundred little forgotten pockets inside your imagination. Each micro fiction is a rapid journey to a fantastical place, with at least as many origin myths as stories–46 flashes in all springing from the author’s lifelong obsession with fairy tales.
Hoopty Time Machines recreates some of the feelings you may have had as a young reader, where anything’s possible in a story, where anything might be lurking under the bed. A lot of these stories are about disillusioned people desiring escape. People who wish for more magic in their lives. People who actually want to find monsters under their bed.
From Bogeyman reunions and voodoo dolls to an introspective Superman and godly affairs, this mix of wistful domestic fabulism tossed into the daily grind of modern existence is sure to make you reconsider your childhood fables and recast them with an altogether different set of heroes and villains.
I connected with author Christopher DeWan himself, who was very pleased to answer my questions regarding this work. He offered a bit more insight on the creation of this collection and his fortuitous relationship with Atticus Books.
Erin Kyle: How long have you been working on this particular collection of flash fiction?
Christopher DeWan: The oldest stories in there are from about 2008, when I lived in New York City, and the newest ones are literally, well, I was writing new ones right up until the final deadline. But collections are funny: back in 2008, I had no idea I was working on a “collection” — I was just writing stories, all the time. Then for a few years, I also worked on other projects that had nothing to do with this collection — some screenplays, some new media, some false starts. A family. Living life.
EK: Did you have an inspiration for this collection all along or was it an incidental collection of your stories?
CD: I had a lot of stories piling up in my notebooks and on my hard drive, and I was publishing them in journals, but for the longest time I had it in my head that they would never be a book. My stories didn’t really seem to me like the stories in the books I was reading: mine were too short, too weird, too disparate. So I kept doing what I was doing, but I didn’t think much about a book.
But once I had enough stories piled up, it got easier for me to see the patterns and themes that had emerged, and easier for me to imagine someone experiencing them collectively, as a set. Around the same time, I was reading some Latin American writers — Luisa Valenzuela and Augusto Monterroso — both of whom write very short, very strange, very intense stories. So suddenly I felt a little less “weird,” a little less alone in what I was trying to do. And that’s when I decided to start thinking in terms of a book.
From that point on, I wrote most of my stories intending them to be part of this larger collection.
EK: Have you always had an interest in reading and/or writing fairytale elements in fiction?
CD: Absolutely! I mean fairy tales are how most of us get into stories in the first place, right? Most of them are so hard to explain and impossible to understand and I’m sure that’s why they linger so strongly in my mind. But I also read Stephen King at a much-too-young age, and fairy tales and horror stories got a little conflated for me: they employ very similar magic, I think. I have deep, deep respect for the monsters in the closet and the trolls under the bridge.
EK: Have you always celebrated elements of the surreal, absurdist, and fantastic in your own writing?
CD: Yes and no: I love stories that make me say “Wow” out loud, and I’ve always been interested in these sort of strange, fabulist “what-if’s” — but only insofar as they trigger something or reveal something about a person, inside a moment. That’s what these stories are, I think, despite the fabulism: a person inside a moment. The fear and the wonder and the longing and the sadness and the hope, all that stuff is real. The fabulism is just one way to get there.
EK: Was there a particular reason you chose small press publishing as a method of publication for this collection?
CD: Ha — well, the book is a little weird! It’s never going to be an airport bestseller, so I never really considered going to a big publisher. I wanted it to be a small-press book: I wanted to be able to think of it as an art object; I wanted to make sure I had final say on which stories went in the book and what order they were in and what the cover would be. I wanted to try to create a whole experience for the reader and I don’t know that I would ever have gotten that kind of control from a big publishing house. I think my publisher, Dan Cafaro, really got what I was trying to do with the book and bought into the idea of it, so he offered gentle guidance throughout the process, but he also really let me do my thing.
Having said all that, I’d still like to highly recommend the book for anyone going through an airport: it’s lightweight, easy to fit in your carry-on bag, and the stories are short so you can read a few of them while you’re taxiing up the runway.
Nathan Leslie’s The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice is a perfect example of distinction in the Atticus Books repertoire. Released in October 2012, this tale is Leslie’s debut novel after seven short story collections. This novel is a modernized tall tale complete with surprising character and landscape quirks.
Leslie’s The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice features the life and times of Tommy Twice, narrated by the man himself. When Tommy’s parents abandon him as a baby, his grandmother Gaga takes him to her reclusive house at the top of Pike’s Peak. Gaga’s parenting methods are extreme, but Tommy soon learns her eccentricities are nothing compared to the rest of his family. As he’s passed between his outlandish aunts, Tommy’s journey takes him to the country homestead of Aunt Tess (who hides surprising objects in her voluminous hair), the four city houses of Aunt Penny (who prefers to communicate by ESP), and the cave-like desert home of Aunt Chelsea the coyote hunter. As his cross-country romp reveals how bizarrely different families can be, Tommy begins to wonder if the conventional home he’s dreamed of might not be for him after all.
Tommy is a boy forced to grow up very quickly by his enormous presence of a grandmother. Under her watchful eye—and isolated with her on Pike’s Peak—Tommy becomes a man beyond the luxury of nurturing at the ripe old age of two. Gaga ensures Tommy is self-aware and self-sufficient before shipping him away from Pike’s Peak into the wide, wide world. This story revolves around Tommy’s experiences living with one peculiar family member after another. Such is the excellence of Leslie’s writing that each eccentric relative comes to life for readers on the page in surprisingly poignant ways.
Nathan Leslie was very willing to answer my questions about the writing of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice and about his own writing in general.
EK: How long have you been working on this particular novel?
Nathan Leslie: You know, I’m not even sure. I began it around 2006 or 2007 and finished maybe in 2008 then did some further edits and made some changes after 2008. It took me a while to find the right publisher, and I was happy that it landed with Atticus Books. I am really pleased with the way it turned out overall. But back to your initial question—my writing process is pretty methodical, I suppose. So there’s quite a lag between when I initially begin working on something and its subsequent publication. I remember hiking in Idaho with my wife in 2007, running characters and plot ideas through my mind.
EK: What were your inspirations for The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice?
NL: Several things really—I’ve always been intrigued by the outsider figure and in Tommy I had an outsider character and it dovetailed into some things I wanted to do with a growing-up story. Tommy is an orphan and rejected frequently, and my sister and I always joked around that we were adopted. It’s not true, but I think every kid can relate to the feeling. Also, I did a lot of traveling around the continental U.S. in my twenties and I wanted to work some of that into a novel, but through the lens of Tommy.
EK: Are there any characters in this novel inspired by quirky people in your own life?
NL: No, not really. It’s all imagined. This is certainly my “flight of fancy” book. There is something liberating in embracing the imagination that fully. There were no constraints.
EK: Have you always tended toward elements of the absurd in your own reading/writing?
NL: No, not frequently. I have worked on this kind of story in some of my short stories and flash fiction pieces, but nothing to this extent. This novel is very different than my gritty realistic short stories, which tend to be more journalistic and hew more tightly to lived experience.
EK: Was there a particular reason you chose small press publishing as a method of publication for this novel?
NL: I admired what Atticus Books was doing and I found a very supportive publisher in Dan Cafaro. So it was a great fit!
Bio: Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and Shoot, Sibs, and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review. His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016. Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.com.
Tommy Zurhellen is the author of the award-winning Messiah Trilogy, the groundbreaking novel series that reimagines the life of Jesus…set in North Dakota…in the 1980s. Yes, there’s a dragon. Nazareth, North Dakota (2011) , Apostle Islands (2012), and Armageddon, Texas (2014) were all published by Atticus Books.
This trilogy introduces a refreshing and cheeky new voice in Zurhellen, an author debuted by Atticus. Zurhellen navigates the allegorical with deceptive ease, and these works truly are a pleasure to experience. The collection is effortlessly colloquial, with surprising detail and authentic, relatable characters. Each book in this trilogy has earned an IPPY medal: gold medals for Nazareth, North Dakota, and Apostle Islands, and a silver medal for Armageddon, Texas.
Zurhellen generously answered some questions on this wonderful trilogy.
EK: How long have you been working on this particular trilogy?
Tommy Zurhellen: I published a short story in Quarterly West back in 2002 called “Motel de Love No. 3” and it was my best work yet. A few years and a few more story pubs later, I was kicking around different ideas for novel projects. I felt I was ready to try the long form, but I was struggling to find a story arc that could sustain a book-length manuscript. So I went back to the short fiction pieces I had published and tried to figure out ways to grow them into larger projects, give them branches. When I re-read “Motel de Love No. 3,” which is a re-telling of the Nativity scene but set in a North Dakota winter, I became interested in the wider canvas of the New Testament stories. I immediately saw a lot of connections. That was around 2005. After a year or so of research and false starts, I finally started piecing together the first book in the Messiah Trilogy, Nazareth, North Dakota. “Motel de Love No. 3” became the first full chapter of the novel, and I used a lot of the loose ends in that story to create characters and events that happen in other chapters. Once I had that going, the project felt easier, like it was now rolling downhill and all I had to do was catch up. I completed a first draft somewhere in 2009 and after a few rounds of revisions I finally felt it was ready to send off to publishers the year after. The book came out in 2011, so I guess I had been working on the book for nine years total until that point.
EK: What inspired the fantastic premise that grew into these three novels?
TZ: That original short story “Motel de Love No. 3” didn’t have a lot of the biblical context and allusions that I’d later infused into the novel project. It was simply a story about regular folks who happened to follow a similar path that occurred in the Nativity, but this time in a North Dakota motel. I wasn’t thinking a lot about the religious connection at the time. But when I revised it for the first chapter in Nazareth, North Dakota, I started getting interested in the bible stories. I was also interested in the fragmentary nature of the way the New Testament presents each episode. That suited me, since that’s the way I usually write fiction anyway: messy with plenty of rough edges. I’m not religious, but I am religious about character, and I started coming up with backstories on all the updated biblical characters based on any history I could find. King Herod died of a stomach ailment? Then his modern North Dakota counterpart, Sheriff Severo Rodriguez, suffers from horrible ulcers. And so on. It was a lot of fun.
EK: Have you always had a tendency toward the wonderfully absurd and allegorical in your work?
TZ: I grew up reading fantastic stories, everything from H.G. Wells to Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin. I couldn’t get enough of books that created their own worlds, especially when those worlds looked conspicuously like our own, in a cracked mirror image. I think every piece of fiction I’ve written reflects that interest. The first story I ever published was about a mailman who dies one day on a doorstep, and yet no one seems to notice as they go about their daily routine. And I love the research involved with putting together a modern allegory. You feel like you have a new appreciation for the world the original author created, by doing your homework and creating your own.
EK: Was there a particular reason you chose small press publishing as a method of publication for this whole trilogy?
TZ: Literary fiction aimed at adults is a tough sell these days in New York City. You need an agent connected to those houses, and for the most part these agents will decline literary fiction, because they don’t see a lot of money to be made. If you are writing YA or memoir, the market seems to be much more friendly. So when I thought the first book was ready, I queried about a dozen small publishing houses I thought would like this particular kind of story. I did my homework. After some rejections, I heard back from Atticus Books, who loved the book for its weirdness and unique angle. I’m glad I chose a small press like Atticus, because I love the personal relationship you develop with your house. You feel like you have a partner, and that makes your job a lot easier.
In the publication of extraordinary works such as these, Atticus Books has reached its initial goal: to produce distinct, genre-bending work that transcends literary circles and touches the wider culture. Publisher and founder Dan Cafaro has created a space for talented authors like DeWan, Leslie, and Zurhellen to flourish. He has created a home for unique works that defy categorization. The intimate relationship formed between author and small-press publisher was a huge draw for these three Spotlight authors, as was Cafaro’s dedication to excellence in the peculiar. After only six years, Atticus Books is off to an incredible start, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here and who they’ll publish next.
Atticus Books Website and Catalog: http://atticusbooksonline.com/