In 2010, Danielle Dutton founded Dorothy, a publishing project, with the aim of producing books that appeal both to fiction readers and to poetry fans. Her own writing—she is the author of two novels, Attempts at a Life and S P R A W L—likewise embraces the slipperiness of not quite being one or the other. The covers she designed for Dalkey Archive, meanwhile, were often as minimal and tonal as the writing within. Who better, then, to shepherd formally unconventional, handsomely made little books into being? On the occasion of her third year of books—she produces a pair each year—I spoke with Dutton by phone about her one-woman operation.
How would you describe the aesthetic of the press?
Part of the idea of starting the press was that I felt that I was in two different camps. In working at Dalkey, I felt tapped into American literary fiction and translation. At the same time, my own writing was more small press, experimental, and I felt that, much of the time, there is little crossover between those two communities. The idea, then, was to publish two books each year that are aesthetically different, in order to try to develop a crossover readership.
The fiction community that my own writing was coming out of at the beginning was really loose and close to poetry, and it seemed like that there was no cross-reading going on. So I published Renee Gladman, who started as a poet. The other book I published that first year was a novel by Barbara Comyns that was out-of-print. I offered those two books together at a special discount to encourage people to buy both when they come looking for just one—to get Renee Gladman’s book into the hands of Barbara Comyns’s readers and vice versa. So the aesthetic is open, but it’s all work that is risking something, that is adventurous aesthetically or structurally.
What community did you develop in as a writer?
I did my MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I knew almost nothing about creative writing when I got there. I wasn’t an English major. I didn’t even know other writers. I remember have the realization when I was living in England, working at a Waterstones bookstore right after college, that people were alive and still wrote books!
At the Art Institute, I developed in a space of multimedia and interdisciplinary work, among writers who were performance artists and sound artists. Many of my friends were poets, and when I went to Denver to do a Ph.D., I found a strong poetry community there, with Naropa in Boulder. Renee Gladman talks about writing prose with the nearby presence of poetry, and I felt that that’s what I was coming out of. And for a while I wasn’t sure what I was doing. With my first book, I wasn’t sure if it was poetry, but then I realized I was deeply interested in narrative, even if I wasn’t writing traditional plot.
And you found the poets you knew weren’t reading fiction and vice versa?
I still know a lot of people like that, actually. I don’t want to generalize—there are plenty of poets who read fiction and fiction writers who read poetry—but there was an area of experimental fiction that seemed overlooked by both camps. A lot that gets lost in the middle. Reaching that middle was the hope—but it’s such a utopian hope.
If publishing books that fall into that gap between narrative and poetry is part of your aim, is the other part publishing works by women?
I wanted to create a space where women felt encouraged to submit their work. Working at Dalkey, I saw that the number of submissions were overwhelmingly from men. Right around this time, too, I was talking about a book with a man who said to me, “I really liked it because five pages in I didn’t know it was written by a woman. I couldn’t tell a woman had written it.” And I thought, Are you kidding me? Are we still talking about this nearly a hundred years after A Room of One’s Own?
The exception so far is Draeger.
Right. Manuela Draeger is the pseudonym for Antoine Volodine, which is a pseudonym for an unknown person who I think is a man. But that book has a weird, hermaphroditic quality to it and a funny gender play that I really liked. The very first line is about how the man who invented fire was a actually woman. I liked that we were publishing a secret man.
Your books are so appealing as physical objects—small and pleasingly designed. It seems like a number of small, independent presses—Wave, Ugly Duckling, Two Dollar Radio—are publishing smaller-format books that are nice to hold and that prioritize aesthetics in their books’ production.
I’ve always loved books as objects. The press is named for my great aunt, a mysterious spinster, who was a librarian, and every year on my birthday and on holidays, she would send me editions of children’s books, with rice or onion paper between the prints. So from a young age, I’ve just loved holding books and having beautiful books. And when I began writing and started to think about having my own book, I noticed how many ugly books there are. Then working at Dalkey and doing cover design, I read about the history of book and cover design. I also looked at other small presses that have beautiful books. It became absolutely important to me.
I like working with the writer to make a book they’re happy with, too. It’s a collaborative space—because writing itself is so solitary.
How did you find Yelena Bryksenkova, who did your logo?
When I was working at Dalkey, I did the covers for The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and there was a special issue on George Perec. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers, so I really wanted the cover to be special, and I didn’t know what to do. When I started researching, one of the first images I found was a charming little illustration of that famous photograph of Perec with his cat on his shoulder. You see the photograph over and over, but this was this totally charming, very feminine illustration with flowered wallpaper behind it. I clicked on it, and it took me to Yelena’s blog.
She was in Prague when I wrote to ask permission to use it, and she didn’t have that image with her. So she redid it overnight and scanned it and sent it to me. I knew she was hardworking and excited to work, so when I started Dorothy, I asked her if she wanted to do the logo.
What do you like about her drawings?
There’s something Edward Gorey-esque about them that I find really pleasing. They seem to have a sense of humor and a sense of enthusiasm and joyfulness. In starting the press—I feel like this sounds silly to say—I had such earnest feelings about it, and there’s something very earnest about her work. There’s also something quite feminine about what she does—these burly, creepy, twisted things that I really like.
Why did you settle on an owl for the logo?
In the books my aunt Dorothy sent me, there was a beautiful owl bookplate on the inside covers. And she always wrote “to Danielle” and “from Dorothy.”
What sorts of books did she give you?
All kinds—Caldecott winners, beautiful editions of The Wizard of Oz, which terrified me, Alice in Wonderland, and even Jane Eyre. She was a children’s librarian at first, so she knew all the great children’s books. Jane Eyre became my absolute favorite book, and I have a beautiful, hand-bound copy she sent me with color illustrations. I read that book obsessively when I was a young girl.
I still have them all. Now I read them to my son. The owl stamp is still there.
I love the description you have of her on your site—head librarian, author, gardener, animal and art lover, bookmobile driver, great-aunt Dorothy.
And because I wanted the press to have this, sort of, earnestness, I thought naming it after my aunt would keep it honest somehow. She was such an upstanding citizen.