Literary Luminaries: An Interview with Kyle McCord, Nick Courtright, and Erin Stalcup of Gold Wake Press

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Gold Wake Press is an independent literary press, publishing four to six titles per year. To date, the press has produced over forty books of poetry, memoir, and fiction, including titles such as This is Not About Birds, by Nick Ripatrazone, Robinson Alone, by Kathleen Rooney, Local Extinctions, by Mary Quade, and more. In addition to the press, Gold Wake Live publishes pieces by new and established voices in thrice-yearly online issues In this latest installment of our Small Press Series for MQR Online, we chat with Gold Wake editors Kyle McCord, Nick Courtright, and Erin Stalcup about Gold Wake’s mission, their experimental and bold aesthetic, their collective press model, and upcoming titles from outstanding Gold Wake writers. This interview was conducted over email.

Left to right: Nick Courtright, Kyle McCord, Erin Stalcup

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Gold Wake Press was founded in 2008 by Jared Michael Wahlgren. Kyle and Nick, you are now at the helm of the press, but you both originally started out as Gold Wake authors. How did that opportunity come about, and what was that transition like for you?

NC: After some years of running the press, Jared was ready to move on to other projects, so the opportunity came about for Kyle and me to keep the ship humming along. We initially had no master plan, and were really just interested in making sure the back catalog was secure and that the books would stay in print. We didn’t know we’d ever put out a “new” Gold Wake book under our stewardship. But then we decided that would be fun, so we started opening up for reading, started accepting all genres (under Jared, it was pretty much purely poetry), and it’s grown into something that we’re really proud to call our own.

ES: I met Kyle in grad school, and I still remember meeting you, Nick, when you came to visit and read from Punchline. That gorgeous purple flower is still one of my favorite book covers. That was the first I’d heard of Gold Wake Press—when I realized you both had books there—and I stored it in my mind as a press that treated their books well. When I heard that you and Kyle were taking over, I knew it was in good hands. The ways you’ve built the press are amazing—you’ve grown a good thing into something incredible.

Similarly, Erin, your first book Every Living Species was published by Gold Wake in October 2017. Since then, you now serve as an Assistant Fiction Editor at the press. Can you tell us about your experience with Gold Wake as an author, and walk us through the journey of joining the editorial team?

ES: Working with Gold Wake was dreamy. What these guys produce with just their two hearts, two brains, and four hands is of the same (or higher!) quality as presses with a much larger staff, in my not-humble opinion. Kyle and Nick have established the best possible atmosphere at Gold Wake—professional and personal. They make the aesthetic look of the book as beautiful and strange as the work inside, and they also have rigorous standards for the words inside, which they help authors meet. I got thoughtful and insightful developmental edits from Kyle which made the novel a better book, a brilliant copyedit from Alyssa Bluhm, and a stunning design from Nick. Kyle and Nick care about their authors as artists, and as people. They communicate clearly, meet deadlines (or get the work done earlier than the deadlines—my novel was ready to go five months ahead of schedule, so we launched early! These guys are both meticulous and fast) and they are a hell of a lot of fun.

My novel was their first one—aside from fantastic poetry collections, they’d published fiction collections, a graphic memoir, and hybrid stuff—and I’d hoped that it would bring the press to the attention of other novelists. It did. During their next open reading period, Kyle and Nick wanted to say yes to three books, but felt that they could only guide two of them through the publication process themselves, so they asked if I’d be willing to come on board as an Assistant Editor so they could say yes to a novel, J. Andrew Briseño’s Down and Out. I fell in love with the book, and so of course said yes. It’s an unconventional novel like mine is, so I hope it will bring more wild and wonderful novelists to the press. And now I’m available whenever Kyle and Nick need help, so they can say yes to the books they believe in.

 

How does running Gold Wake influence your own career as a writer?

KM: I’ve taken on more and more responsibility for the editorial work on the fiction and hybrid side of Gold Wake over the past few years. This shift in genre responsibilities has had a deep impact on my aesthetic. As I write poetry and read poetry (they are intertwined processes for me), I spend more time considering interior and exterior conflict, long form development, three-dimensional motifs across poems, and how establishment of speaker is linked to revelation of detail. This change in my editorial brainwaves has given me a new set of questions to ask when interrogating my own work.

NC: I think it’s made me a lot wilder as an author. I do all of the book design for the press, and just being involved in “art” and going crazy about fonts has made me more willing to experiment, and be more brash. Before I felt like I kind of had a “mode,” but reading tons of submissions and intentionally trying to feature hybrid, prose, and other kinds of approaches made it easier to let loose and do different things with my language. I also felt willing to be more vulnerable in my writing—less wise, even—and show the trainwrecky nature of life more brazenly. If I didn’t run Gold Wake, and if my publishing instincts didn’t tend in this direction, I doubt it would have been such a clear route for me as a writer.

You publish books in all genres, ranging from poetry to eco-fiction to graphic memoir. Editorially speaking, what makes a book a Gold Wake book? What are its necessary ingredients?

KM: We shy away from publishing books that are safe. We love work that makes us listen, that crosses genre boundaries in a considered way. We love books where the creative impulse is the driver, not the passenger. We love books that tackle issues with kairos and a measured grace. And, most of all, the work has to move us. Andy Briseño’s prose breaks my heart. Sarah Strickley’s stories shake me. Justin Bigos writes like a surgeon cuts.

NC: I’ll second Kyle on that—if a book doesn’t shake up the room a bit, it probably isn’t for us. We want writing that’s going to stick with people, that they’ll want to share with their friends, that they’ll say “that’s fucking crazy” or cry in their soup about. I hate to use the word “hip” to describe Gold Wake, but in some ways I think that word can help—we’re trying to stay ahead of the game, on the cutting edge, and whatever other cliché can demonstrate a certain aggressiveness about finding something exciting. We don’t have time for boring.

ES: See?! This is why I’m so proud to be part of this collective.

Are the majority of the books you publish solicited or unsolicited?

KM: We solicit nearly nothing, though we do prod writers to submit to our contest from time to time. Many of the authors we publish, we have never met. Or maybe we met them once at AWP and asked them to send us a book. Sometimes a writer will send us a manuscript in 3-4 different forms before it is a winner in our contest. Every year, our pool increases, and it is hyper-competitive. We want to reserve as many spots as possible for the talented writers who send us work through the contest, so we avoid solicitation.

NC: Yeah, it would seem tempting to solicit, but it’s just not our bag. We find so much amazing stuff just sitting in our submissions pile that it’d almost be a crime to go with the known quantity rather than see what stuns us out of nowhere. Most of the time, we’ve never even talked to an author before they answer the phone to hear us tell them that we want to publish their book. I think there’s something beautiful about that.

As a small and independent press, what can you do that bigger publishers can’t?

KM: I can sing “Get into My Car” by Billy Ocean quite well. Also, I could once do the splits. I bet most big publishers can’t do either of those.

But in all seriousness, we design the best books—which I can let Nick address. Also, we provide a personal vision for how to market a book. We spend time discussing the micro-targets for books and help authors establish personal connections for tours, reviews, and AWP readings. We also make sure the work of our authors reaches the aspiring authors who trust us with their manuscripts each year by asking submitters to purchase a book as the cost of entry for our contest.

When it comes to the world of literature, we believe the personal touch is everything.

NC: I will never believe that Kyle could once do the splits, but I do believe his comment about Billy Ocean. After all, years ago as a young writer on book tours, I rode many thousands of miles in cars with Kyle. 

As for what Kyle said about design, this is one of the things we feel sets us apart, in addition to Kyle being a freaking amazing editor and also someone who can tolerate some of the more businessy sides of things. We work collaboratively with authors on both editing and design, and always get a lot of direct time with them. Really, each author we publish will get time working with both of us personally on bringing their work to life, and that’s something that the impersonality of larger publishers can’t offer. We put out fewer than ten books per year, and publishers that put out more than this … how invested in any single book could they possibly be?


Are you ever concerned about staying competitive with the Big Five Publishers? With other small presses?

NC: I don’t think we worry much at all about competition with other presses, whether they be Big Five or small presses in our general echelon. I think our commitment is very simple and straightforward: to find great books, help them become greater, and to get them out into the world. When someone asks me what the best thing I’ve read lately is, I can often confidently answer with a title by Gold Wake. If that’s the case for me, I know it’ll be the case for others, and then competitiveness in the market just takes care of itself.

ES: I think Gold Wake’s collective model is sustainable in the way that both the Big Five and other independent presses might not be. Big publishers and many small presses are often slow, often don’t care whether or not authors like their covers, design boring covers, care about the market more than art, and—I was surprised to learn—often don’t promote all (or any) of their books, so it’s on the author to do that promotion, but without any guidance. Yet there’s also this monetary pressure that if the book doesn’t sell, the press won’t be interested in the author’s next book. Kyle and Nick give a lot of guidance on the excellent editorial direction writers can expect from any press, but also advice on how to get the book in readers’ hands.  

Gold Wake authors are encouraged to buy copies of their book, and go on tour; something Kyle and Nick have tons of experience with, and so have connections all across the country. They also do an amazing job promoting the press and its authors at AWP. I sold all my author copies before my official publication date, and then sold a bunch more at AWP, a bunch more on tour, and a bunch more to novelists who wanted to see what this press publishes so they bought my book as their entry fee to the annual contest. None of us expect to get rich doing this, but books are always being bought, so the press always has money to do the next thing. This feels like a model that can last.  


The press has extended to include an online literary journal called Gold Wake Live. How does the journal work to accomplish or expand the possibilities of Gold Wake’s mission?

NC: We consistently encountered people who had brilliant work they wanted to publish, but who weren’t quite ready to put out a full book. This is why we launched Gold Wake Live, an opportunity for people to be a part of Gold Wake even if the book isn’t quite there, or they are already with another press. We also see this as a great way to get writers on our radar. For example, Brandon Amico, whose freaking awesome Disappearing, Inc. is coming out with us in the spring, was published first through Gold Wake Live. If you are a writer about to shop a book who wants to get your name in our minds, submit to the journal first! And keep Kyle Flak, author of I am Sorry for Everything in the Whole Entire Universe, in mind. He’s a Gold Wake author who is now managing editor of the journal.

Looking ahead, what are your goals for the next five years of Gold Wake?

KM: Our pool of readers and authors aspiring to join the GWP family has grown so rapidly over the past few years that we have turned our attentions to expanding and training staff. We have some incredible folks on our masthead, and we have been training them in our press model so that we can expand our marketing team and increase the number of books we can release in a given year. Nick and I have no interest in becoming absentee landlords at the press, so we keep a hand in each process. But a press dies if it doesn’t spread the secrets of its success. As such, we are training and mentoring some very talented editors, marketers, and literary luminaries to work with us and drive our vision for how to expand.

ES: My intuition is that Gold Wake is about to level up. The wonderful work Kyle and Nick have put into the press is about to get noticed beyond our already amazing circle. I’m excited for more and more people to be like, ‘Hey, what they are doing over there works!’

 Can you recommend a few upcoming Gold Wake titles we should keep on our radar?

NC: We are super excited about our new and upcoming releases! Of late, we have Fall Together, a brutal book of short stories by Sarah Anne Strickley that is just masterful; the captivating novel Down and Out by Andy Briseño, about a crashing factory town which is featured on a reality tv show; and Inheritance, a brilliantly precise book of poems by Talia Bloch. Coming out soon we have Brandon Amico’s Disappearing, Inc., which is full of super topical poems that couldn’t have been written any time but the 21st century, and the stellar short story collection The Classroom by Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich; if you read the first story of that book, you’ll be hooked for the duration.

ES: All of the above! Andy’s book is the novel our world needs right now.

What books are in your personal TBR stack?

KM: Empty Clip by Emilia Phillips, Night Into Night by Martha Rhodes, and I hear Becky Hazelton has a new one coming out too. I also think I will read King Lear this winter. It’s one of those texts that has been buzzing around me for years but I never managed to finish.

NC: We’ve been open this fall for full-length manuscript submissions, so I’ll mostly be looking to find the next amazing gems we can put out through Gold Wake!

ES: During the school year, I mostly read submissions to my two magazines, Hunger Mountain and Waxwing, and student work. But during winter break, I think I’ll prioritize An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Zami by Audre Lorde. Those are two books I can’t believe I haven’t read yet.   

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