Publisher Michelle Dotter details upcoming works from Ann Arbor's Dzanc Books
“If you had told me when I started in this business, that one day I would be working for a non-profit that published books based on their merit and not profit, I would not have believed it,” says Michelle Dotter, who serves as publisher and editor in chief of Dzanc Books (pronounced Duh-ZANK).
The nonprofit was co-founded in 2006 by Ann Arbor lawyer turned novelist and 826Michigan creator Steven Gillis and Emerging Writers Network creator Dan Wickett. They had an uncompromising vision for Dzanc.
“The biggest thing for Steve," Dotter says, "was that nothing be constrained by shareholder interest, so we would never sacrifice artistic quality or only support books that could make money … or end up like some presses, where commercial potential is such a factor they send book covers to retailers like Walmart or Costco, giving them the power to reject a cover if they think it won’t sell.”
Dotter took over as publisher and editor in chief of Dzanc in 2017 after working there since 2014.
“I loved what they were doing as far as experimental literature," she says, "taking chances on amazing authors and books that might have been rejected for commercial reasons at other publishers.”
“It got sent to us in January of last year," Dotter says of In Our Midst. "Sometimes we can read really fast and sometimes really slowly. This took me about eight months to get to, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. We got right back to Nancy’s agent and put the book out in April of this year. It was kind of a whirlwind but we wanted to bring out this book at a time when it feels like America is going through the same things reflected in the novel, such as a rise in nationalism and tribalism.”
In Our Midst centers on a family from Germany living in America in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor and their fight to hold on to the ideals that brought them here.
“Just as the Aust family is seen as ‘dangerous’ in those times," Dotter says. "we are now seeing real-life events where people are being sequestered, the Muslim bans … all of these things leading away from our American ideals.”
Dotter says Dzanc is working to get the book into the hands of people “who are thinking seriously about what this country can be … asking if America has ever been what we imagine it to be and how we don’t want to stop making liberty and justice for all a reality.”
The Covid-19 crisis has caused many creators and companies to delay the releases of books and albums, but even before the pandemic, Dzanc had nothing on the release schedule for this fall.
“For totally unrelated reasons, we didn’t schedule any books for publication this fall as we knew that most of the airwaves would be taken up with news of the election and it would be difficult to get press attention," Dotter says. "But we have had author events canceled and we’ve seen independent bookstores close their doors permanently. Fortunately, since we don’t have a big fall list, we can focus on some of our earlier releases almost as if they were new.”
Dzanc books scheduled for publication in 2021 include:
As You Were by David Tromblay in February. The Native writer speaks of the legacy of abuse in his childhood, his grandmother’s experiences in Indian boarding schools, and an alcoholic father grappling with anger and a brain injury. Tromblay also writes of his experiences in the armed forces, which brought a different kind of trauma.
Call It Horses by Jessie van Eerden in the spring. The 2019 winner of Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, van Eerden’s third novel tells the tale of three women from West Virginia who embark on a road trip to see Georgia O’Keefe’s sanctuary in New Mexico. “It’s a new version of the road trip novel,” says Dotter. “And also about the ways in which women both hate and love each other.”
And Then the Gray Heaven by RE Katz in June. “The author is nonbinary, writing about a character who is nonbinary, who has just lost a lover and is dealing with an unimaginable grief and sense of loss,” says Dotter of the book, which is the winner of the first Dzanc Novella prize. “The reader shares in the obstacles Jules encounters as they grieve and the road trip they take to bury their lover’s ashes as they say their own goodbye.”
Like many of Dzanc’s publications, the books are already garnering rave preview notices, and Jensen’s book has received accolades and honors, including glowing reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. Whether those notices from the press drive sales is besides the point.
“Everything starts and ends with the work," Dotter says.
Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.