JoAnneh Nagler on Coyote Point Press and the Gift of Short Fiction
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
Editors JoAnneh Nagler and Polly Alice McCann, both painters, writers, and excited about short fiction, connected via zoom between San Francisco and Kansas City at the Gladstone, MO, iWerx office to discuss what truly makes short stories an art form to celebrate, in short, a gift to the artistic life.
JoAnneh: Polly, it’s so terrific to be speaking with you today. To jump right in, I know how much you revere the forms of poetry and short fiction, and fine art as well—so much so that you created Flying Ketchup Press four years ago to publish the work of artists, poets, and short story writers. Can you tell us how that passion prompted you to start a publishing company?
Polly: Well, first of all, I’m thrilled to have started something that’s so meaningful to me personally, as well as professionally—something that’s centered on artists and writers. Our culture is so full of messages that technology is meaningful; that money is; or that the acquiring of stuff is what denotes “accomplishment.”
JoAnneh: I feel like it’s about creating a pause in our lives, to stop and remember the delicacy and joy in being human. That’s what fiction, poetry, and art do for me—they make me remember how to be in touch with myself, with my heart and sensations.
Polly: That’s right. It’s not a head thing. It’s a heart thing. It’s a body thing. Maybe even a spirit thing.
JoAnneh: Very well said! So, talk to me a little bit about why you decided to create Flying Ketchup’s new fiction imprint, Coyote Point Press? And, I’m thrilled to say, my book of short stories, Stay with me, Wisconsin will be its first release, come January 2022.
Polly: There’s this thought in the publishing industry that short stories don’t sell well, that poetry doesn’t either. But what I really believe is happening is that the publishing world has gotten eaten up in a certain way by huge online conglomerates which now push the idea that a book has to be a huge seller in order to have value. But that’s not true. There are millions of books that are “evergreens”—they sell a little over time—or, that need to be shared for smaller audiences. Midwest voices, diverse voices, new voices, and changing viewpoints. Story is the playground for seeing our culture change and grow to remind us of our hopes and dreams.
Polly: Celebrating short fiction is why we are launching Flying Ketchup Press, and now our fiction imprint, Coyote Point Press. It gave us our niche.
JoAnneh: About the value of stories, you mean? As something that’s unique in form and valuable to the heart. I like that.
Polly: Yes. I think the unique perspective of short stories, from an artist’s standpoint, is really revolutionary. The writing of short fiction has built up writers, inspired writers, created books, inspired novels, Lots of Netflix movies came from short stories. Some of our culture and our technology emerge from stories, like the word Robotics coined by Asimov when he entered a short story into a sci-fi magazine.
JoAnneh: I know! Stories are the raw material for eveyrhting. I'm thinking of the raw material for films, like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and dozens of others. That’s very true. I used to work in ABC’s Movie of the Week division, and we worked with stories all the time. Sometimes—and you wouldn’t think this was true, but it was—it was the oral storytelling by the writer in front of the producer’s desk that sold the piece. It wasn’t the long-form, but the heart of the short form told in one sitting.
Polly: Yes. The short story form itself has real, intrinsic value—it’s a creative place where things get worked out on a platform that’s unlike anything else in literature. It allows the writer to play with elements that get the reader inside the protagonist very quickly—different from a novel—and then use sharp specificity and imagery to take us to a place we’ve never been. And that’s true of both heart and place: the short story is a mechanism for bright, bold, and delicate strokes, like a painter’s abstractions and figurative shapes, which give us the arc and persona of a character. What if we were only allowed to have mansions and not tiny homes and cabins and lofts and everything in between. Creativity comes in all sizes and sometimes smaller is better. We can allow more room for creativity. I want more room for writers, not less.
JoAnneh: So why Coyote Point Press? I sort of know the answer to this already [laughs], but our readers will want to know.
Polly: I found your stories, JoAnneh, from one of our contests, and I thought, “Hey, these stories are like little novellas—they have a beginning, middle, and end and they take me someplace real and true and compelling. They take me into the modern heart and the trials we all go through. But I feel happy and encouraged at the end. And besides that, they’re really good.”
JoAnneh: Thank you!
Polly: So, we talked at Ketchup about having a dedicated fiction imprint because we realized we’re going to want that—a place for excellent literary fiction that can get recognized for its own contribution and continue to do the hard work of inspiring writers, readers, and our culture. Right now we publish more sci-fi and fantasy and our work is for 14+ but we wanted an arm to reach out to more writers outside of fantasy.
JoAnneh: I think about that anecdote about Ray Carver. How, in the years when he was barely holding a job and had kids and was struggling with alcoholism, he’d go into the laundry room and write on top of the washing machine because that’s the only place he could get some privacy. And since he had so little time, the forms had to be short. And then he invented this short, sharp style of writing fiction that’s totally revered today. Richard Ford, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Doris Lessing, Laurie Colwin.
Polly: Yes. And I love Ray Bradbury. He actually has some 400 short stories published. Why should writers be limited today to what they can share. More creativity the better. And there are all these forms of short stories. There’s not just one way to write them. We’ve talked about this, you and I, and I think that given our busy lives these days, short stories offer an important touchpoint to our emotional experiences. We’re not committing to a whole novel, but we’re getting in there—inside the heart—in a way that fits with our world experiences today in our fast-paced days. Stories are a way to ensure we get inside ourselves.
JoAnneh: I’m impressed with the model you set up for Coyote Point Press. It’s kind of brilliant. That, after my collection is published in January, I’ll get to edit the next collection for Coyote. I love this idea of art building upon itself and creating a community.
Polly: Yes if we just published two books a year we can't help solve the problem of too many writers and too few publishers and those with limited content. There's also the new problem of so much unedited work out there. There's a fine line to walk between, and this allows us more scope. Writers put so much onto the page, but we forget that being in writer’s groups and editing other writers’ work, and being a part of the process of writing, is just one side. Writers who spend their whole life in critique and never get published lose their creative vision. Imagine if we kept doctors in medical school forever but never let them practice. That is what the world is like for writers now but we have a chance to change that, to celebrate sharing good work, not holding people back. Small presses like our and Like Coyote Point Press can answer both issues at once. They can reach more diverse readers, they can inspire and share more writers' work.
JoAnneh: We become part of something bigger than just a solo writer in a room trying to get something down. We start to feel that our work is important spiritually; we’re sharing it with people who say, “Hey. This matters. This is a high calling.” We do that in my group, the Pacific Coast Writer’s Collective. We started it five years ago to help edit each other’s work, and it’s become this huge support for me.
Polly: Right. Exactly. And I want Coyote Point Press and Flying Ketchup to do the same thing for writers and artists.
JoAnneh: You’re doing it! I want to say something about the quality of your work, too. We’re in layout now on my book, and after having three books published by big publishers, I’m humbled and so grateful to see the care and artistry you put into your books.
Polly: It’s an evolving thing. I have a strong art ethic—I’m a painter as well—so composition is important to me. Keeping the eye interested on the page is important to me. And professionalism, of course. That’s central.
JoAnneh: I learned something years ago about professionalism. When we take our work out into the world and professionalize it, that’s when we get the best feedback. We learn whether we’re reaching people, and how we’re reaching them, and where we’re not and need to improve and adjust. We become editable. Meaning, we don’t cringe at the editing process. We know it makes us better.
Polly: I think short stories give writers that opportunity. To work things out in a shorter form. To invent things that don’t exist and play with them, like clay on a slab. We want the chance to shape it. Isaac Sometimes the novel is about posterity and character, but the short story is where we play with ideas. And of course, I want that with the highest possible quality of literature.
JoAnneh: I agree. Not all readers want to read a long-form novel, and if the novel has a sequel, I can sometimes feel like it has too-long of a completion arc.
Polly: Right. Like in a diner, if you never got your dessert or your beverage, you’d be pissed. Sometimes just being able to finish something well-written in one sitting is the value. So Coyote Point Press is devoted to that kind of release. Stories are perfect microcosms, and when the writer has mastered them, they seem effortless—entire mood shifts happen in micro-scenes, in a few sentences—impossibly tight arcs that offer room for the reader’s imagination.
JoAnneh: Sometimes for me, I feel more present and alive because I read the story faster than a novel, and I’m more of a participant. The story enters me more quickly and sticks with me longer. I love novels, and I have favorites—the best, for me, are the interior voice-driven ones, when I walk with what’s happening in the protagonist’s heart, set against what’s happening in the character’s outside world, and it becomes like walking around in my own head. I suppose that’s really why I prefer first-person point of view, too. That’s what stories do for me. I get in them and hear the voice of the person who’s telling it. When I’m writing, it’s really like the characters are talking right to me, as I’m taking down the sentences.
Polly: I feel that, when I’m reading your work. It’s personal, it’s close, it’s real. There’s something else. I think there are so many dark and desperate themes in short fiction now, and each has its place, for sure. But there’s got to be some things that are lovely—complete and finished arcs that may take us through some kind of hardship the character is facing, like in your stories—but then leave us with a feeling of hopefulness at the end of reading them. Yes, there’s questioning and loss and even despair sometimes, but your characters find their way in some compelling arc that lets me walk out into the world and feel uplifted. And that’s no little accomplishment.
JoAnneh: I tried with every ounce of my being to get that on the page, so I’m thrilled to hear you say that. We’ve all had really hard times, and many of us had really rough childhoods or relationships, so as adult readers I want us to feel like what we’re going through leads us someplace truer and stronger and full of compassion.
Polly: You did that in every story.
JoAnneh: Thank you! I put one of poet Charlie Smith’s lines in my last story in the Stay with Me, Wisconsin collection, in the piece called Kewaskum. The character is young, just twenty, and he has been trying for four years to get over his parents’ death in a car crash. He says that the only thing that helped him was a line from Smith’s poem that reads, “The way out is through. "I think short stories have that power. To help us get through and find the beauty in being human, even with all of the crap that life serves up."
JoAnneh: Do you want to say something about the sensual nature of the stories? I took a lot of heat in my writers’ groups for crafting the sensual scenes so vividly!
Polly: I’m billing them on the front cover as “Sensual Short Fiction.” I think it’s important that we don’t block out that part of our adulthood—that what makes us distinct from our childhood selves is that we have the capacity to be intimate, and I think that needs to show up in fiction in a real way. In a way that doesn’t make us cringe, surely, but envelopes us in the feeling of what it is to be skin to skin with another human being and what that engenders in heart, body, mind, and our complex life choices.
JoAnneh: I’m right with you. I read a lot, and contemporary writers do write about sex and sensuality freely, but I’m after something more. I want the reader to be drawn in by the compelling nature of intimacy. The times it’s terr