WhiskeyPaper Press & Don’t Ask Me To Spell It Out by Robert James Russell
My husband Loran and I run a litmag called WhiskeyPaper and we’ve recently started making chapbooks…WhiskeyPaper Press. Our first chapbook is called DON’T ASK ME TO SPELL IT OUT by Robert James Russell. We loved his work already, so jumping off with a collection of his was a real treat and we were stoked. We still are! I asked Robert some questions about how he put the collection together and then afterwards, I discuss our chapbook-making process. (Next up…later this year and early next, we have chapbooks coming from Lindsey Gates-Markel and Robyn Ryle!) —Leesa Cross-Smith
Robert, one of the gifts you give to the reader with these stories is familiarity. Everysingleone of these stories has something in there I think most people can relate to. Whether we’re talking about jealousy or weird little fights or hopeless crushes or adolescent awkwardness. I love finding out whether an author had all of those things intentionally in mind when they began writing or if it was something that bloomed out in the process. How did Don’t Ask Me To Spell It Out come together? Meaning, was it your intent to put together a chapbook when you wrote the first story or was it a happy accident that it came together like this? Were there originally more stories/a different title?
The collection came together on accident, really. I was at this point where I was writing these little stories, things inspired by real life—myself, friends, whoever—and I realized after a while that there was this common thread: an unnamed narrator, this tinge of loss, or hopelessness, but also hopefulness, I think, in a lot of these stories. So the book itself bloomed out of these stories, when I realized they were part of a larger whole. The individual stories, too, I think were freaks, initially—they bloomed out of nothing; they weren’t planned. I just started writing these things for whatever reason—I truly can’t remember what started me on this…although I do remember that the first of these I wrote was “Smoke and Gold”—and I found great joy in writing about these relationships, these vignettes. I’m a huge slice-of-life kind of guy anyway, and this was a way for me to explore relationships and how those change, how we change (and grow), and how both of these things are connected.
So it was all a happy accident, yes. But what you said about there being familiarity…that was something I started thinking about after I had about half of these written. I really started focusing, after the first few were done, on situations that might be painful, might be awkward, but that so many of us know. “Cousins” for instance—I know so many people that had crushes on their cousins when they were kids, and I really wanted to write something about this, not in an overtly sexual way, but an innocent way, the way these crushes tend to be, and how we might not want to admit this out loud, but it is still there, it did still happen. And dating… while so many of these stories are about relationships that don’t work out, I’m such a big believer in looking at the positive—it’s better to know a relationship won’t work and move on, I think, to take what you learned and try again, than to stick with something that is permanently broken. And for me, that’s where the hopefulness comes into play here—there are sour parts to these, and they might seem desperate, but there is that sense that these characters are going to come to their senses, and ultimately, after all of the pain and ache, they will be okay. Because even after the most horrid breakup, we survive. After I read the collection—as a whole—for the first time, that perseverance is what really stuck out to me: how, even in the worst of times, we can, after some time, be okay. I’m an eternal optimist, so this seems to be an extension of just how I see the world, but I think it’s a good message.
And I only ever had this title for it—it came to me from a song, and I loved it the moment I put it together and realized yes, this is it. Don’t ask me to tell you the things out loud you already know, or that are too painful to say, or that I find embarrassing—this mantra fit every story perfectly, I thought. I did/do have other stories that were cut, mostly because I thought they tread on the same ground as others that were stronger that I wanted to keep in here. But what I ended up with, I think, was a concise body that stretches from youth to, let’s say, quarter-life (organized that way on purpose); a collection that tells the story of loss and love and hope and fear and happiness and, well, life.
LEESA CROSS-SMITH: I have to do things in order to figure them out. It’s hard for me to picture things if I don’t see them first. I’m awful with abstract ideas. When Robert James Russell originally sent me his chapbook Don’t Ask Me To Spell It Out it wasn’t for me to publish. It was just for me to read, as a friend, as an editor. My husband Loran and I began WhiskeyPaper a couple of years ago with the intent of someday publishing books if/when we were able. I’d been thinking about chapbooks for awhile, looking at them, buying them, reading them. (I loved: Sam Snoek-Brown’s from SunnyOutside Press, Justin L. Daugherty’s from Passenger Side Books, Vanessa Gabb’s from Dancing Girl Press.) I’d made zines back in the day but never tried to make a chapbook. I read Don’t Ask Me To Spell It Out and Loran and I decided that if we wanted to make chapbooks, we needed to start making chapbooks. The end.
So I asked RJR if he’d be down, even though it was our first one. Even though we were gonna have to do a fundraiser to get the money to do it and even if we failed miserably and he said yes because he’s awesome.
Loran and I think and operate completely differently. We met in high school and have been together for twenty years, married for fifteenish. We have two children and operate our home together and know how to work together but we work in totally different ways. Loran does really well with abstracts. He thrives there. I need solid, practical information. How much will this cost exactly? What size envelopes will we need? How many are we making? Specifics. Loran is the dreamer. He doesn’t need that information. Also I’m a do-er. Tell me exactly what you need and I will go get it done. I’ll get it done quickly. Let’s do it. Loran blooms when he sits on something for awhile…looks at it from all sides and then approaches it in the best way. As a team, we work really well. I do the manuscript editing and Loran makes the chapbooks. He tells me what he needs to get it done and I order it. I give him a specific way I want them to look/not to look and he figures out how to make that happen.
I knew I wanted Robert’s cover to be brownish. I knew I didn’t want an image for the cover…just the words. WhiskeyPaper takes a minimalistic approach to everything down to the fact that we don’t accept stories over 1000 words. I wanted the cover to be clean, plain, even if to a fault. And the seal was Loran’s idea. We live in bourbon country here in Kentucky and visited almost all of the distilleries recently…checking them out and researching styles. It was my idea to make the keyword list on the back. I like thinking that down the line when we have more than one or two chapbooks…if they were all laid out on a table, someone could pick them up, read the keywords on the back easily and decide if it’s for them.
I’d read some of the stories in the collection already and they were really good, simple, sweet, funny, awkward…all the things we were looking for. Robert and I worked together to get it exactly how we wanted it. It can take me a whole day to decide if I wanna go em dash or comma or period. I took the manuscript with me everywhere, I had more than five red pens in my carpool bag at any given time because I was editing Robert’s manuscript and my own novel manuscript at the same time.
In the end, WhiskeyPaper almost met its fundraising goal. We were a bit short of $2500 and we strive to be good stewards of that money, the people who took a chance on us. I wanted to ask for a smallish amount for several reasons and one of those was so I wouldn’t feel stressed out about feeling like we owed people a $10,000 chapbook when we only had the energy to make a $1000 chapbook. $2000ish dollars got us a sweet printer and supplies and we still have some of that money. 100% of it has gone into setting up our shop, making and shipping the chapbooks. We paid Robert in chapbooks that he can take and sell and keep that money, obviously.
We are (so very) grateful to our readers and the people who sent us their money and passed the word around. My main thing with starting WhiskeyPaper is that I wanted us to be in it for the long haul. We get enough stories we wanna publish…we could publish way more than once a week. We could publish a story everyday but I know I couldn’t keep up with it. I would burn out fast and quick and I don’t wanna do that. So we publish one story a week. In addition to WP, Loran has a real-world job he works everyday and I am a homemaker and a writer too. There is always something to do. That leaves only a little time for WP. And same for chapbooks. I know of about five or six I’d publish right now if I could but we don’t have the time or money or resources to do that. So we do what we can. And what we can do is one or two a year. One or two little books we believe in with all of our hearts. Books that are written by kind authors who are easy to work with. We will be opening for chapbook submissions later in the year. Our next two authors are women I have specifically chosen because I am familiar with their work and I am stoked to add them to our chapbook author list. Lord willing, the WhiskeyPaper Press library will keep biggering and biggering with collections, chapbooks, authors, all good things.