Unbridled Success for a Team of Veteran Independents

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When it comes to Book Sense Picks, Unbridled Books is on a roll: Twelve of its last 21 titles have garnered the necessary support from independent booksellers in the Book Sense program to be selected as Picks -- including, in September, small acts of sex and electricity by Lise Haines and, in October, Goodnight, Texas by William J. Cobb.

Greg Michalson

When BTW asked Publisher Greg Michalson for the magic formula, he denied any sorcery, instead attributing the books' success to a particular set of characteristics: "Our niche is people who care about quality prose and good stories artfully told."

Timeliness is important, too, Michalson added, noting, "We look for books that we have the sense might last, and still be read years from now ... but also books with a current hook that makes them fresh today."

Michalson and co-publisher Fred Ramey have been working together for many years -- since graduate school, in fact, when the two had neighboring desks. "That's where we started having conversations about what we cared about in fiction ... what made it important to us, and what we thought was good," Michalson recalled. "We had plenty of discussions and arguments about that while we were students, and we still do today."

Those discussions typically take place online or over the phone: Unbridled is a virtual company, and its 10 employees work from various locations across the country. He and Ramey have worked that way, Michalson said, since founding MacMurray & Beck; then BlueHen Books at Putnam; and most recently Unbridled, launched in 2004.

He added, "There are some real advantages editorially and for the financial structure of the publishing house. Another advantage of having a virtual company is that we're not limited to hiring people in one small area; we can hire people who do really care about our books. That's what's important to us."

It's also important, said Michalson, to "stick with authors for the long haul ... to nurture a career rather than support a book. We have a lot of returning authors, which I think is wonderful, especially given that we are a small press."

Lise Haines
photo by Jenny Lawton Grass

One of those authors is Lise Haines. Her first novel, In My Sister's Country, was published by BlueHen/Putnam, and September Book Sense Pick small acts of sex and electricity was published by Unbridled last month.

Haines, who lives in the Boston area with her 12-year-old daughter, is a writer-in-residence at Emerson College and a lecturer at Harvard through the Briggs-Copeland fellowship. Both are no small accomplishments, especially for someone who had a rocky start as a reader.

Explained Haines, "I had a difficult time learning to read; I was always behind. It was a strange contradiction, because [as a child] I was making up poems and songs in my head all the time -- when I was nine, I wrote a little novel -- and I felt extremely embarrassed that I wasn't a good reader.... When I was 15, The Catcher in the Rye was the book that turned it around." She added, "To this day, I'm an extremely slow reader, and I love to hear every word in my head."

As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Haines immersed herself in poetry. "I was solely focused on poetry ... every so often, I'd write a prose poem and the teacher would herd me back into poetry." After a certain amount of herding, Haines began to seek out new challenges, and turned to prose.

"Creating a novel is so fascinating," she explained. "I've never played three-dimensional chess, with three boards one on top of the other, trying to get everything to interrelate while simultaneously playing many games ... but that's what writing a novel is like for me." She added, "I love that -- keeping all the threads in my fingers as I move through."

small acts of sex and electricity is a finely wrought novel that cleverly and compellingly explores what might happen if boundaries and social norms were temporarily pushed aside. As the Pacific Ocean crashes in the background, Mattie finds out what it would be like to swap lives with her best friend Jane -- to assume the role of Michael's wife and mother to Mona and Livvy, to live in a gorgeous beach house, to have an entirely different existence.

The drama in small acts is not the loud, crockery-smashing sort; rather, numerous small decisions, unuttered wishes, and pangs of longing slowly build upon one another to a crescendo of uncomfortable questions and unattractive truths that will have the reader squirming -- and yearning to find out what will happen next -- right along with the characters.

Said Haines, "The book removes the social filter for a while, in terms of what people would normally do, or how they would behave." And, she said, "It explores the idea of how quickly one thing leads to the next, until we go outside social boundaries.... Really, if you actually could step inside someone's skin and get the things you think you want, where are you? What does that choice mean? Would you want another person's whole life?"

Haines has been touring in support of small acts of sex and electricity, and one of her favorite events was an author dinner at the New England Booksellers Association fall trade show. "It was such a fabulous way to connect with people -- not only to talk about my book, but to ask booksellers about their trade, the challenges they're facing, and what they love about selling books."

William J. Cobb
photo by Elizabeth May

William J. Cobb has been on the book-tour circuit, too, to promote his October Book Sense Pick, Goodnight, Texas. Like Haines, Cobb is a professor -- he's at Penn State -- and has previously published his work (a novel, The Fire Eaters, and a book of stories, The White Tattoo.)

In his latest novel, the sea is a character rather than a backdrop, an instrument of chaos and change for the people of Goodnight, Texas. Goodnight is a fishing town located on waters that are no longer teeming with shrimp, a place filled with disenchanted residents who must take unfulfilling jobs in an attempt to compensate for their disappearing livelihoods. Impending ecological crises, racial tension, and economic hardship combine to create an unstable social atmosphere that serves as a counterpoint to the region's dramatic weather.

Cobb has created a vivid, memorable ensemble cast, including Gusef, the clever cafe owner with big plans; Falk the lovesick fry-cook-cum-photographer; and Una, a waitress who dreams of escaping the tiny town. Oh, and there's a giant zebra-fish, too -- it washes up on shore, ends up stuffed and mounted atop Gusef's cafe, and serves as a kooky yet ominous emblem of hope and unpredictability.

Cobb divides his time between Pennsylvania and Colorado, but he was born and spent his formative years in Texas, in a town much like the one depicted in his novel (Gusef's Black Tooth Cafe was inspired by Cobb's parents' Tall Tale Cafe). He explained, "The town I lived in was a resort town, and people who came in on weekends were 'winter Texans.' I didn't realize at the time how much trouble and violence and resentment were right below the surface."

Cobb added, "In Goodnight, Texas I was trying to capture the feeling of abandoned America, to look at the people who are left behind, and why they are there. The fishing industry has dwindled on the Texas coast, and the tourist industry has taken its place. [The book] is a vision of a world in change."

Carolyn Turgeon
photo by Miriam Berkley

He added, "I'm excited the book was a Book Sense Pick.... I didn't know the importance of [being selected] at first, but I went to an event in Florida and one of the authors there was saying how his life had been completely changed once his book became a Pick."

It will be interesting, then, to see what happens in the near future for Carolyn Turgeon -- she's the author of Rain Village, the latest Unbridled title to be voted onto the (November) Book Sense Picks list.

Regarding Picks and the independent booksellers who nominate titles for the lists, Michalson said, "That's the niche we're looking for -- more readers like us, so we can share these wonderful voices we find." He'll be talking about those voices at the upcoming Winter Institute, which he'll attend with at least a couple of Unbridled authors in tow.

Michalson added, "I love talking to booksellers. They're in the business because they care about books, not because they're salespeople first. It matters to them what they're selling." And, he said, "The more we can all get out and talk to people about the books we're passionate about, the better everything works -- and the more satisfying the whole adventure." --Linda M. Castellitto

Visit http://www.unbridledbooks.com to listen to podcasts (audio interviews) and get details about author-tour schedules for Haines, Cobb, and Turgeon.