STILL FEELS LIKE A POLITICAL ACT
A Spotlite on MELVILLE HOUSE with Co-Founder DENNIS JOHNSON as the Publishing Company Enters Its Second Decade
By Tyler Malone
Over a decade ago, in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies to ever take place on American soil, Dennis Johnson and his wife Valerie Merians culled material from Johnson’s MobyLives blog to create an anthology of New York poets responding to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
They weren’t planning on creating a publishing company, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into, they just felt compelled to put together this protest book, Poetry After 9/11, in response to the misinformation that was being pushed upon the American people by the Bush administration. In addition to the book being a protest against the Bush doctrine, and from another angle a response to the now-famous Adorno idea that writing poetry after the Holocaust would be barbaric, it also, somehow, managed to be a surprising success.
And thus, Melville House was born. Labelled “a disaster in the making” by the New York Times when the publishing company first began, Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians have proven the doubters wrong, crafting a model for success in a tough industry going through monumental transitions. A decade later, and the independent publisher retains its independent streak. As Johnson tells me, “it still feels like a political act,” even though Melville House’s repertoire has expanded to include fiction, journalism, biography, philosophy, even cookbooks. It’s a hodgepodge of various texts, and yet it all still feels very connected. There’s a strand running through the catalogue, a point of view. And, though it is hard to define, it has obviously resonated with a sizable readership, because as Melville House enters its second decade, it seems to be doing better than ever.
Tyler Malone: Melville House started now a little over a decade ago with the publication of Poetry After 9/11. Tell me a little bit about how it got started and the transition from MobyLives to Melville House.
Dennis Johnson: Well, it’s a kind of long, complicated saga. But the short version, I guess, is that my wife and I felt that a lot of the stuff we were publishing on MobyLives was telling a truer story than the Bush administration was after 9/11. We started the company out of really an activist impulse. We didn’t really plan to start a company, we just wanted to put together a new protest book. As it turned out, that protest book was shockingly successful in a mainstream way that we never expected. So we just kept going and never looked back.
TM: Did you ever dream at that point, a decade ago, that it’d be as successful as it is? And be what it has become?
DJ: No, I never gave publishing a second thought. I never thought I’d be involved in it. I didn’t know a thing about it. It was all a surprise to us.
TM: Looking back, what are your thoughts on that New York Times article calling Melville House a “disaster in the making”? Need one say anything or does the last decade speak for you? It just seems somewhat laughable now.
DJ: Well, it is and it isn’t. It was absolutely right that it’s a very difficult business that has been going through very dramatic, historic change for the last decade or so. It really is a revolutionary moment. It’s a long moment, but I mean the introduction of digital media and the take-over of really giant conglomerate forces in both publishing and retail. I mean all that stuff was kind of prescient in that article. It was written by a very smart reporter. And you know, we had some lucky breaks–which every successful business needs to get underway. It’s not like we were actually capitalized, so we had to have a few lucky breaks. When I look back at that piece now I think that that piece actually may have been one of those breaks. It really brought us to the attention of a lot of people, and it really made for a great start.
TM: How has the mission of Melville House changed over the years?
DJ: Well, it hasn’t changed all that much. We live in a very conservative culture. A lot of what we’re doing isn’t exactly protest literature, but it still feels like a political act to publish avant garde fiction or work in translation or things like that in this culture. We still feel like we’re going against the grain. We don’t have George Bush to fight any more, but the culture I think is clearly still fairly conservative. And sometimes I don’t think Obama is as different from Bush as we thought he was.
TM: Unfortunately, the news in the last few months is only showing that more and more.
DJ: Yeah, it’s amazing isn’t it?
TM: One of your series at Melville House that I love is the Neversink Library. In fact, I just finished reading William Gerhardie’s Futility, which was phenomenal. Could you tell me a little about that series, how you choose which books will be a part of it, and overall just what the series means to you guys over at Melville House?
DJ: Gerhardie’s a great writer, isn’t he? The series as a whole to some extent is very whimsical. It really is just us publishing books we love. That’s always the first thing. And then it’s just us stepping back and thinking, “Well, can we sell this?” Passion is one thing, but then we have to consider if we’ll be able to put whatever business acumen we have behind it and really properly champion the book. We’re at the place where art meets commerce. We have to really sell the thing because that is how you really champion it, you bring the writer to readers. So there’s a long process of discussing that takes place. We try to bring everybody in on the process. You don’t have to be an editor to have a suggestion for that series. Then we try to analyze it. Can the company get behind it? Can we move that book? And so far, so good.
TM: Another Melville House fan favorite series is the Art of the Novella series. What was it about the form of the novella that interested you? And how did you go about making one of the more definitive collections of the form?
DJ: Well, that is a very good example of what I was just talking about. It grew out of personal passion. I just happen to love the form of the novella. When I was a student, I would write them, and most of my fellow students were also writing them. Unfortunately though it seemed that everyone would write them, and then we’d all just put them in the drawer, because they were hard to sell. Almost impossible to sell. You couldn’t sell them to a literary magazine because they were too long, and no one wanted to publish them as books because they said they were too short. So they were these pure poetic exercises that fiction writers do almost solely out of an impulse to make art and not out of some idea that it might contribute to their rent.
So I always liked the form, and then years later I found myself with a publishing company. I said to my wife that this might be a fun thing to do. A lot of them are really famous writers, but just lesser known titles. I felt really strongly that the form should have a champion. As it turned out, it worked. It worked for a lot of reasons I hadn’t anticipated. Now I think I’d be more apt to recognize it up front, but then I didn’t realize the great commercial possibility.
And we also had a nice break with that series because our designer at the time came up with really brilliant packaging for the books. I think that has had a lot to do with the success of the series. It showed that we’re serious publishers who really care about the content and we put evidence of that care onto the outside of the book.
TM: You pretty much took the words for my next question right out of my mouth. Both of those two series have a simple but beautiful cover design that has almost become iconic in their own right. Can you tell me a little bit about the book design over at Melville House and what you’re going for?
DJ: We have one in house art director who is in charge of not just the books, but is in charge of everything you see about Melville House: the logo, the books, everything, all the design elements related to the company’s appearance. The guy that designed the Novella series was our first designer, Dave Konopka, but he had to leave us and move on because he is in a rather successful band named Battles.
Our new-ish director, who has been with us for four or five years now, is named Christopher King, and he’s the one who created the design for the Neversink series, which I thought was an absolutely brilliant solution to how to make that series stand out. We are a company that has a modernist taste, and we really believe that the look of the book and the quality of the packaging really says a lot about what you can expect from the content. It’s immoral to take a brilliant piece of writing and give it sort of slipshod packaging. You’ve got to give the reader the whole thing.
TM: Do you have a favorite book or two that you’ve published over the last decade?
DJ: That’s like asking me who my favorite child is, but the truth is that some children are better than others. Yeah, I have some favorites. I actually have a lot of favorites, but one that I have to call out was one of our most successful books, a book called Every Man Dies Alone. It is written by Hans Fallada, who was a very brave World War II era German writer who stayed in Berlin during the war even though he was opposed to the Nazis, imprisoned by them, and blacklisted. He wrote this amazing book about living in Berlin under the Nazis and then he died right after the war. We found this thing and translated it, and turned it into a worldwide hit. I’m really proud of that. It’s probably the best anti-fascist novel ever written. I’m glad we were able to find it and revive the memory of this great writer who suffered for his work.
TM: Yeah, that’s certainly something to be proud of. You publish such varying texts over at Melville House. There’s journalism, fiction, poetry, biography, philosophy, even a couple cookbooks. In a few words or a sentence, how would you broadly describe the books you publish?
DJ: How I broadly describe them is: indescribable. It’s true, we really do have a wide variety of books. They all reflect the tastes of my wife and I, to some extent, and the tastes of the team that has now joined us here. We’re really old fashioned in that way. If you look at what Knopf was publishing when it was actually owned by Knopf himself, it was a very different company then than it is today now that it is owned by an international conglomerate, in fact, the biggest publisher in the world: Penguin Random House. We reflect an older kind of private ownership model. We are really publishing to our tastes. We’re not very commercial people. We had a political orientation when starting the company. And we’re not in it for the money. We’re in it to make great art, and support the right kind of politics. That makes for a very unique list. I guess we’re just lucky in that we have wide ranging tastes that seem to resonate with so many readers out there.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Amber de Vos for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Lulu Vottero
Page 1: Dennis Johnson, Melville House, 10th Anniversary Celebration, NYC, September 2012, Photography by Amber de Vos for PatrickMcMullan.com
Page 2: Dennis Johnson, Valerie Merians, Melville House, 10th Anniversary Celebration, NYC, September 2012, Photography by Amber de Vos for PatrickMcMullan.com
Page 3: Kelly Burdick, Dennis Johnson, Valerie Merians, Melville House, 10th Anniversary Celebration, NYC, September 2012, Photography by Amber de Vos for PatrickMcMullan.com
Page 4: Dennis Johnson, Melville House, 10th Anniversary Celebration, NYC, September 2012, Photography by Amber de Vos for PatrickMcMullan.com
Page 5: Steve Stern, Dennis Johnson, James Marcus, Lore Segal, Valerie Merians, Melville House, 10th Anniversary Celebration, NYC, September 2012, Photography by Amber de Vos for PatrickMcMullan.com