Dawn Major interviews Michelle Dotter, editor-in-chief of Dzanc Books

I became acquainted with Michelle Dotter, editor-in-chief of Dzanc Books, through the Team Gay—a group of scholars, artists, writers, and enthusiasts who have been working on publishing William Gay’s posthumous books. It was a real honor working with Michelle. The team absolutely bombarded her with emails debating what some might think to be trivial points—why did Gay combine two words in this book but not that book, for instance. It truly got down to these nitty-gritty details because the team and Michelle were dedicated to preserving Gay’s voice. It’s not an easy job editing someone like Gay who has a legacy such as his. Plus, he isn’t here to argue transitions, page breaks, or commas. I’ve admired what Michelle and Dzanc Books have done to preserve Gay’s works throughout the years and I am so pleased that Dzanc Books is publishing this final collection, Stories from the Attic.

DM: Dzanc Books has been with William Gay since the early days of his career and now for this last collection and final publication, Stories from the Attic. Will you elaborate about the relationship William Gay has had with your press throughout the years?  

MD: The William Gay deal actually predates my time at Dzanc, but my understanding is that Michael White brought William Gay’s posthumous work to Dzanc, and everyone here was thrilled with the idea of taking it on. In particular, Dzanc’s founder, Steve Gillis, worked extraordinarily hard to make this partnership go through—he’s a great enthusiast for William’s work, and he threw a lot into making this happen. Since then, it’s been our privilege to publish three posthumous works—Little Sister Death, The Lost Country, and now Stories from the Attic—as well as reissuing William’s classics Twilight and The Long Home.

On a more personal note, one of the most gratifying things about working on these books is that I interned with MacAdam/Cage, the original publisher of Twilight and The Long Home, several geologic epochs ago. One of my first jobs was answering the phone and talking to all of the dedicated fans calling to find out when we planned to publish The Lost Country. That book, and thus William, have been legendary for me ever since, and to have been part of the herculean effort to bring these lost works to the world…well, it’s humbling.

DM: What have been some of the main challenges you’ve encountered editing and publishing the posthumous works of the late Southern author William Gay?

MD: Any time you’re working with a manuscript posthumously, your big challenge is that you’re missing the most important voice in the development of the project. Maintaining the authenticity of the work, remaining true to both the work as written and the spirit of William’s oeuvre, had to be the top priority. We debated how to do this pretty seriously, especially with The Lost Country, which maybe could have done with a little more trimming here and there.

Ultimately, I made the decision that I wanted to use a very light touch in editing The Lost Country and Stories from the Attic, so that our focus was strictly getting everything spit-shined, not making major alterations to William’s work as written. Other editors might have gone another way, and I respect that. For me, I didn’t want to presume that I knew what William would cut or keep; I prefer to share the work with his diehard fans and admirers in its purest form, with his vision uncompromised.

I’d also be remiss not to mention that it’s been such an incredible asset to have Team Gay—Michael White, Dawn Major, Susan McDonald, Randy Mackin, Matt Snope, George Dilworth, Paul Nitsche, Lamont Ingalls, Joseph G. Tidwell III, Shelia Kennedy, Greg Hobson, and so many others—working through these manuscripts with us. These are big fans of William’s, old friends, great readers, and folks who have been invaluable in both maintaining William’s style and cleaning up some of the inevitable idiosyncrasies of a posthumous work. So, to all of them, a heartfelt thank you.

 DM: Were there been any surprises you’ve come across since you started working with William Gay’s work? In particular, are there any you care to share about this last collection?

MD: I didn’t realize William wrote nonfiction! He’s such a natural storyteller, and I’d read his novels during my MacAdam/Cage internship, but I hadn’t stumbled on any of his nonfiction until it came time to edit this collection. The essay on Faulkner’s work, in particular, blew me away—it made me want to go back and reread As I Lay Dying through this sharp new lens. Which, I imagine, William would fully approve of.

 DM: What kind of advice would you impart to editors/publishers who undertake working with a legacy such as William Gay’s late works?

MD: Be flexible, and be ready to lean on those who know the writer better than you do. Though I’d read a great deal of William’s published work, there’s a different level of creative intuition that comes from knowing a writer personally, and we’re deeply indebted to all of William’s friends for their insight and support in editing, promoting, and publicizing these posthumous works. It’s not always easy work, but it is deeply rewarding.

 DM: Stories From The Attic contains both unpublished short stories and published memoirs, as well as fragmented pieces of incomplete work. What was Dzanc Books’s consideration behind publishing Gay’s incomplete work? Have you heard any feedback regarding this from readers and fans yet?

MD: Only good things. A few of William’s longtime fans were among the reviewers sent early copies, and so far, what I’ve heard is that this collection honors William’s skill, his eclectic interests, and the heart of his writing: both a culture and a place that he completely brings to life on the page. By necessity, this work is more fragmented than some of the other posthumous projects we’ve undertaken, but to me, that makes it a very intimate portrait of who William was as a writer. You get to see him playing with different forms, longer and shorter; you get to switch between fiction and nonfiction, literary criticism and autobiography. And as you read, you wonder what else he might have done, had he been with us for the editing process—where he might have sanded off a rough edge or a few splinters, planed the final piece down to smooth and shining. In a way, it’s like catching a glimpse over his shoulder at one of those handwritten notebooks for which he was so famous. It’s an experience I wouldn’t pass up.

 DM: In terms of structure, how did Dzanc Books decide to organize this last collection?

MD: We chose a formal organization, keeping short stories, nonfiction, and fragments of unfinished novels delineated. Of course, William was a writer who drew heavily from his own life and experiences, so there’s quite a bit of crossover regardless. I think this structure allows a reader to get a sense of William’s range, and also nudges forward those stories that stand more solidly on their own. I hope readers will make it all the way to the end, though—there are some great zingers in that last fragment from The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train.

DM: The cover art from Stories From The Attic was painted by William Gay—something Gay had always wanted for his books. What did that mean to Dzanc Books to honor his wish?

MD: I didn’t know this was one of William’s long-held wishes until Michael White mentioned it to me; Michael was the driving force behind getting one of William’s paintings onto the cover and finally fulfilling that dream. The only real challenge was choosing between them—William had so many dynamic paintings, and all of them offer a different slant into this world his fiction inhabits. My favorite part of the one we settled on is the suggestion of a house in the distance: something beyond the trees, just past the point of clarity, with who knows what hidden behind the drywall upstairs. Maybe a body. Maybe some scraggly old notebooks, soft with pencil marks, that will one day be something unforgettable.

 DM: What’s your favorite story, fragmented piece, or memoir from this collection and why?

MD: It’s hard to beat “The Ascension of Pepper Yates” for sheer comedy if nothing else. In a lot of ways, it encapsulates what I love about all of William’s fiction: the vivid characters, the effortless voice, and the little part of the world so powerfully evoked you can picture every rusted washer and chewed-up bit of wire in that repair shop parking lot. But actually, the piece I wound up most attached to is “Riding Off Into the Sunset: Starring Gary Cooper.” It’s softer than a lot of William’s stories, and has a romantic suggestion I don’t think he always allowed himself—the notion that two people might end up better off together, and not destroy each other, at least for a time. That’s the one I’ll be rereading, on the dark days.

 DM: As an enthusiast of William Gay’s literature, I want to express my deepest gratitude to you for taking the time to discuss such a critical Southern author and for publishing and advocating for William Gay.

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