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Interview with Margarita Donnelly

We are just serious readers in my family, and I grew up imbued with the love of literature. I am also a feminist and a humanist and believe in equality. So discovering and publishing new and emerging women writers and giving voice to those who haven’t had the chance fits. None of us who does CALYX does it for any other reason than our commitment to women and our love of literature and art. We certainly don’t do it for financial gain.

Jessica Powers: CALYX celebrated its 30th birthday last year. Can you tell me a little bit about how CALYX got started?

Margarita Donnelly: Sure. When we started in 1976, there was a group of us who had been meeting—back then, they weren’t called book clubs—we had this reading group. There were four of us in the group who were reacting to the fact that there were very few publications publishing west coast women. Originally, we named it CALYX, A Northwest Feminist Review but we changed it right away because we weren’t really northwest. We started getting submissions from all over the world immediately.

At the time we got started, if you looked at the amount of work that women were writing or how women were represented, it was always 7%, so we thought we’d make a change. We were so naïve; we thought we wouldn’t have to do this for very long because the world was changing so quickly. Hah! Recently, we did an anniversary issue and it hasn’t improved very much. Representation in anthologies is around 10% now. We did a survey of small press publishers, and the intern that did the survey found that women’s literature currently averages 25% in small press publishing. Ursula LeGuin did a survey of literary prizes in the late ‘90s, I believe ‘98, and she found that 8% of literary prizes went to women. You’d have to look it up. I was shocked. It’s a little hard to believe. And I think the week that the New York Times Book Review published that list of favorite authors by authors, Toni Morrison won the top spot but the number of women [writers] listed was much less than the number of men.

[Jessica Powers’s note: For more information, please refer to Margarita Donnelly’s editorial in CALYX’s 30th anniversary issue.]

What have been a few of the highlights in the history of the journal?

Donnelly: I think one of the big ones was when the Polish poet Wyzlawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. CALYX had been the first to publish her work in English translation in the USA in 1980 in our International Anthology. And we published Julia Alvarez who has gone on to become well known nationally and internationally. You name most women writers, many women writers who are well known today, and we were their early publishers. Jane Hirschfield came up to me at AWP and said how grateful she was that we published her early. We find really good writers and we find them early in their careers. That’s one of our highlights. Another highlight for us has included some of the books we’ve published have gone on to be bought by other publishers: the novel Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, which sold to Bantam for 6 figures and sold foreign rights to about 16 countries and is now under option for a movie. That book is the one that came out in 1996 when the press was having so many financial problems. And it saved the press. We also should mention the anthology The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women Anthology, which received the American Book Award and was the first anthology of Asian American’s women’ s writing published in the USA. We have done a number of special anthologies; the latest is Going Home to a Landscape: Writings by Filipinas, which was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. Oh, and some of the grants we’ve received—the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest grant, for example. But I think the major highlights are the authors we’ve published.

Were there times in the last 30 years that CALYX almost called it quits?

Donnelly: Oh, yeah. The fifth year was a really hard year. That was the year we published a really beautiful international translation edition, the CALYX International Anthology. It was a bilingual edition with work from over 30 countries and included the first color plates of Frida Kahlo’s art published in the USA. We went out on a limb to publish it, and we expected it to do really well, but it didn’t sell well at the time. It has since sold really well—we repackaged it as a book.

During the fifth year, we also lost a lot of the founding editors, but I stayed on. New editors became involved, but we were left with the debt from the International Anthology’s production to pay off, which took a couple of years. We did manage to get new grant support and donor support to keep the organization going, and we produced the Women’s Photography Issue, The Northwest Women’s Art Show & Issue, and then Bearing Witness/Sobreviviendo the Chicana/Latina/Native American Issue.

The year 1996 was also really rough—that was our 20th year. We won the Oregon Governor’s Arts Award, but we had to announce our financial problems at the award ceremony as we had had to make the decision to make staffing cuts that day, just before we attended the ceremony. Many of the state’s private foundation directors were there and came up to us and asked us to apply for support. That was quite wonderful. The final saving grace that year was that we had published Into the Forest by Jean Hegland. Its five-figure sale saved the press. As a non-profit press, we have been lucky to have the support of many generous donors who assist us with financing our projects. It’s been rough the last five years—these are rough times in literary publishing as the independent booksellers are lost—over 75% during the past decade—and the superstores have taken control of bookselling.

What has kept CALYX going? In other words, is there a secret for longevity in this business?

Donnelly: I think part of the secret for longevity is that all the literary work is done by volunteers; we have collectives that decide what we will publish. It means we have a lot of diversity on our editorial boards. The work they are attracted to is diverse. It isn’t one person’s taste that is dominating—that is one of our real strengths. It sets us apart from other journals, too.

But the other thing is that I have stayed with the organization all 30 years. Now I need to start thinking about retiring, and we’re trying to figure out how to transition new and younger staff members into the organization over the next few years. After I retire, I hope it changes a lot—wouldn’t it be wonderful if it just grows better and better? New people who run the organization might have new ways to reach younger readers, new ways of publishing and promoting work, maybe doing more on the web. The feminist of today is very different from my generation. For our 20th anniversary, we did a younger women’s anthology (Present Tense: Writing and Art by Young Women). Those of us who were too old to edit it helped proof it, and we were amazed at how different it was than what we expected. There was work about the bombings of abortion clinics. And these young women loved their mothers! My generation was so angry at their mothers, which I never understood. It was really moving to read that anthology that other women had put together.

CALYX’s mission is to publish fine literature and art by women. In the last 30 years, dozens of journals and presses dedicated to publishing women’s writing have been started. What sets CALYX apart from these other presses/journals?

Donnelly: I think the editorial collective process sets us apart. I was talking to one of the editors at South End Press recently, and she was delighted that we were a collective as well. There are few of us left. It means you have to trust the other readers when you select for publication. We work in a consensus decision-making process, so everybody has to agree that they like the work enough to publish it. There can be a disagreement by one person, but the group can override that person. It’s really intriguing to see when new members come on how they change what we publish and how they don’t change. New members join the collective and the collective still keeps clicking along.

How are people selected for the collective?

Donnelly: People get involved and volunteer here. It’s a lot of work to read for the journal because we receive over a thousand manuscripts per year. The editors self-select themselves in a way. Once they show they have a real grip on literature and are committed to what we’re doing, we will ask them if they will want to join. They get invited; they join the collective. They join first as assistant editors; then will move into regular editorial membership after they have spent some time doing first reads.


I think part of the secret for longevity is that all the literary work is done by volunteers; we have collectives that decide what we will publish. It means we have a lot of diversity on our editorial boards. The work they are attracted to is diverse. It isn’t one person’s taste that is dominating—that is one of our real strengths.

There are two stages to our reading process. There are some people who do first reads when manuscripts first come in before they’re logged and held; two of these first readers have to agree to say “no” to a manuscript so that more than one reader reads everything; one reader can say “hold,” and it automatically gets held. At that point, we send a postcard to an author that their manuscript has been read and held for a final decision. Then the editorial collective—right now it’s five members—starts meeting weekly. They read all the manuscripts carefully. Then they make decisions at each weekly meeting over a period of months. The senior editor contacts the writers whose work is selected for publication. Because we have a commitment to work with emerging and developing writers, at the acceptance stage we may ask the writer to work on their piece and include editorial suggestions to the writer. We provide extensive editorial support for new and emerging writers if it is needed.

I no longer read for CALYX, but I’m involved in the book reviews section and as an art editor for art selections in the journal. I’m still an editor for CALYX Books and help with selecting the book manuscripts. As director of the organization, I’m responsible for overseeing the business side of the organization.

Do you have a similar process for book manuscripts?

Donnelly: Right now, we just have three people reading book manuscripts. We only publish one book per year. We’re so backlogged with that right now that it’s a moot point. There are a lot of books we’d love to do, but we just don’t have the funding anymore to do more than one book a year. We’re working on improving that, but we’d have to have larger staffing and more funding. It’s harder to sell books now than it was ten years ago.

Since there are literally hundreds of new literary magazines (online or print) that start every few years, what advice would you give to people for how to make their literary journal stand out in the crowd?

Donnelly: I think they have to learn a lot more than when we started. They have to go into it knowing more about the business. Distribution has become such a conundrum for literary journals. I would advise people to understand distribution before they start and work around that, and figure out how they get readership for their publication by using email and the web more. In the last ten years, distribution for literary journals has fallen by 300%—or more. We have lost so many journal distributors—everybody has to rely on getting it out themselves or using Ingram Periodicals, and then you’re going into the chains and if they don’t sell through, they get destroyed. So you have to rely more on subscriptions for your readership than bookstore sales. Ten years ago, you could distribute more widely; there was a specific pipeline. This was a list of distributors including Pacific Pipeline, Bookpeople, Inland, Fine Print Distribution, and Koen Distribution. [They] all distributed journals but have since either gone bankrupt or ceased carrying journals. Now we’re down to four distributors for the journal. And that’s distribution into bookstores. So you can’t rely on the same link between booksellers and the public.

What’s the number one most important thing you do to publicize CALYX? What’s the craziest thing you ever did to publicize the journal or a book?

Donnelly: Most important thing we do—I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know what works anymore! We still send out loads of review copies. We also do regular press releases and readings and grants. We’ve developed a web page. But I don’t know what’s the most important thing or what’s working now. I have a lot of questions. You’d think after 30 years, I’d be an expert, but things have changed so much in the last seven years that it’s hard to tell anymore.

When we did the book Into the Forest (by Jean Hegland), our board was upset because we went into debt to do that book. We just developed readings whenever or wherever she would go. She was just such a wonderful author; she went everywhere we could set up. We had a wonderful promotions person, Teri Mae Rutledge, who set things up. The story is that Teri Mae and our shipping person, Melissa Kreutz, took summer jobs with Melissa’s dad in Eastern Oregon—he has the Porta Potty concession for that part of the state—and worked the Porta Potties for him at the Pendleton Roundup that summer. That is one of the biggest rodeos in the world. But she was still working for us. She wrote the funniest piece for our newsletter about working the Porta Potties while trying to promote the book. Jean really did go on all those reading tours, though, and we did a huge word-of-mouth campaign. It became a word-of-mouth book. I had just met a literary agent that year and she called me one day and said, “What the hell is going on, Margarita? Somebody is calling me about a bookseller in Albuquerque who is trying to find an agent for you and I’m your agent. People are getting excited about this book!” We ended up selling that book for a five-figure deal and it got us out of debt. We’d taken such a risk on that book. I’m not sure you could do that now.

Women who are really politically oriented don’t think about literature as being political, even though it is. That’s my theory about it. I don’t know if it’s correct or not. Many Americans don’t see literature and art as political, though they are, and should be.

I heard from another editor of a literary journal that a common practice among literary journals is to sell each other their subscription lists, and that this is a major way of getting new subscribers. Can you comment on this practice?

Donnelly: We were in the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest program for a number of years. Back in the ‘90s, Lila Wallace gave some grants to book publishers and some to literary journals. They gave us something different (for CALYX) than to publishers. We got consultants, and we learned a lot. It costs $37 to get that first subscriber, but you have to keep them, so we learned what it takes to get them to renew. It’s that transition from first subscriber to renewal that’s important. They taught us a lot about getting it out to bookstores and publicity. They helped us in every way. It was a great grant. The consultants were really wonderful. I’m still friends with one of them—we still write each other at Christmas. It was probably one of the best grant programs.

Part of the Lila Wallace grant was also money to print out flashy brochures, and money to pay mailing houses to mail them out, and money to buy the lists, and money for staff to coordinate it and do the shipping. We did a gorgeous brochure; it was so much fun. You know the old New Yorker map with NYC as the center? We did a play off of that and did CALYX at the center of that. And we did all these funny things on the map. It was a gorgeous package.

Because of that grant, we do a lot of direct mail, and we have done a lot of direct mail over the years. We’re concentrating more on the web now. The responses from other literary journals vary widely. The list you buy has to be a list of readers and subscribers who would be interested in what you are publishing. So finding the list is an art in itself. We’ve certainly mailed to a lot of lists. It’s always surprising. The Women’s Review of Books list was really good for us—we could count on a good response, which means anything above 2%. You mail out 10,000 pieces of mail and you get 200 responses. That’s an incredibly high response. Most responses will be around 1 to 1.5%, and that’s still considered a good response. You have to mail out a lot of pieces of mail to get a response, and that’s very costly. That’s why the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest program was so good for us. It tripled our ability to send out mail. There are certain groups, like writers, whose lists are used a lot but the response isn’t great. [For example, context of using political lists like Ms magazine]: Women who are really politically oriented don’t think about literature as being political, even though it is. That’s my theory about it. I don’t know if it’s correct or not. Many Americans don’t see literature and art as political, though they are, and should be.

Another great grant was the NEA Advancement grant. They provided consultants who helped us with the business side of publishing, helped us see how to run a business and improve the CALYX Board.

Since you publish both a journal and books, can you explain the difference in process, philosophy, and publicity between the two?

Donnelly: I don’t think our philosophy changed, but doing a book is different from doing a journal, and we had to learn that. The first couple of books we did—one was the Riverhouse Stories and one was the Women and Aging anthology, which came out as a double issue of the journal. We learned how to release a slightly different version of a journal as a book about six months later. We had to learn how to send out early galleys and all that. The other early book we did was James’s The White Junk of Love, Again and the cloth edition cost us a lot. After that we learned how to do library cloth editions separately. We had to have a slightly larger staff because we had to have somebody working on promoting just the books, especially after we got an exclusive distribution agreement. You have to announce your books a year ahead—it’s a different timeline than journals. I can’t remember what we expected, but we loved what we were doing. Our books and journal got great reviews, won prizes, sold well. Running a press is a different way of operating, but it wasn’t that much of a transition.

We didn’t really have problems until the late ’90s. That’s when the book industry started changing. We lost 75% of the independent book sellers in the early ’90s, that’s the first thing. And the independent bookstores were who sold our books. We were in the chains, but they were hardly noticing our books. So we could do a word-of-mouth campaign in the independents and they would promote our books because they knew we did good books. We reprinted books because they sold really well. When we did The Forbidden Stitch, we did it as a double issue of the journal and as a book. The book went on to win the American Book Award, got reviewed everywhere. Women and Aging got a New York Times book review.

When I was flying to Miami to accept the American Book Award for The Forbidden Stitch, I sat next to an editor at the New York Times and he said, “We almost reviewed that book.” I wanted to punch him, but I found out later that it wasn’t reviewed because some of the works had been published elsewhere. We learned that we had to stress in the promotion for anthologies how much of the work was new in order to get anthologies reviewed. So our books did really well until the bookselling world changed. Now the returns average 40%. That’s just a given. If you don’t have money to pay for position in a chain, your book doesn’t sell really well. This is what’s happened to everybody, to everything. Home Depot is an example for a different product. The world has changed with the superstores not just affecting books but all products and putting the little guys out of business and taking the money out of communities. How does an individual find an unknown or emerging author’s book in a huge warehouse of 8,000 square feet? How are they going to hear about unknown books? That’s why NewPages is so important.

It’s not hard to sell good books if there’s a venue for people to learn about them. But the venue has changed appreciably, and some of us haven’t grasped quickly enough how we should change, how to get the books to the readers. We haven’t made up yet for the loss of the independent booksellers, you know, ways to develop email communication to professors, etc. We just haven’t had time to do it.

Journals are treated differently than books—with books, at least you get it back if they don’t sell it, but with journals, they get destroyed. The independent booksellers sell books in a different way. You don’t pay for position. Everybody has an equal opportunity. You pay for position in Amazon, too. It’s an extensive chain, just on the web. They make me mad, too. They’re set up like the big superstores, only on the internet. The loss of so many independents and the takeover of chain bookstores changed the economics of literary publishing, which is why we’re not able to do so many books per year now.

The difference between journals and books is intriguing, too—you don’t know what’s going to be in a journal way ahead of time like you do with a book, so you work closer to production times. You also have to rely on subscriptions, have a good database to maintain subscriptions, and get renewal letters out. Also, you’re dealing with a lot more authors because each issue has 40-50 authors. We sell ads for the journal as well, so there’s that. We publish books by getting grant support. And then a book lasts longer than a journal, so the other problem with journals is that they’re treated as temporary; they only have a short life out there in the bookstores, whereas a book can have a much longer life. In our anthologies, we’ve developed indexes in some of them—you can’t do that with a journal.

I don’t know if you heard about our last issue, the mailing of our 30th Anniversary issue in August. It took us almost a month to figure it out [why the issue never arrived.] In this day and age, it’s amazing that the postal service didn’t know about a derailment—we told them. Two cars of mail on that train are at the bottom of the Sheyenne River in North Dakota. I’ve had to spend two months tracking down who has and who hasn’t received their subscriptions. It’s going to cost us a fortune.

Also, I didn’t even realize how valuable our archives were until the fifth year. The archives of both journals and books are incredible records. It’s changing now with email, but we print out the email correspondence for archival records. Librarians haven’t yet figured out how to archive files off computers in a way that’s reasonable. We just reissued a book we did in 1993, and we couldn’t open the original files because computers had changed so much. Things have changed. When we started doing books, we were laying out books by hand. We were computerized, but there weren’t programs to break it into individual pages, so we still had to cut the pages apart and lay them out by hand until The Forbidden Stitch, [which was published] in 1989. Much more time consuming, especially when there are mistakes. Oh! Women and Aging—we had a little running header with the page numbers, and the typesetter had made a mistake, and we had to cut every one of the right side of the page numbers apart from the running header and re-lay it. Tedious, tedious, tedious! I know because I had to do it, trying to get it straight.

If you were giving one piece of advice to somebody who wanted to begin a literary journal, what would you say?

Donnelly: Those of us who went into it in the ’60s and ’70s, we were lucky—you didn’t have to know as much then. I think you have to understand about distribution and you have to be innovative and you have to find ways to distribute other than bookstores. Know what you’re getting into so you can cover for yourself. Understand. And also, treat all writers with respect. I’m amazed, on these email lists I’m on through different groups, to hear different editors disparage writers. You have to treat your writers as best as you can.

To end on a personal note, how did you get so interested in literature that you would spend almost your entire career in publishing?

Well, I always loved reading and literature, music and the arts. My whole family does. I grew up with parents who were both musicians and were Irish American. They ended up in Venezuela because of the Depression, and I was born there. My father could always get work with oil companies when things were so bad in the USA, so they moved there and my siblings and I grew up bilingual and bicultural. Our mother played classical music and taught piano during the day, our father had a conjunto—a band called the Bachacos [the giant Venezuelan ants]. He played jazz and Latin music all night. When we lived in the interior, it was like a frontier, and there were no libraries or bookstores, so our family was the one with all the books (as well as musical instruments) and acted as a library in the small town where we lived. I grew up with the complex rhythms of Venezuelan music and the songs of the llaneros and the copleros in the vast plains of the llanos. Latin poetry was all around us. In school, we memorized the epic poetry that commemorates Venezuelan history. Poetry is big in Latin culture, and the Venezuelan ambience and attitude toward music and poetry fit into the Irish oral traditions my parents were imbued with. I can remember my brother in the living room knocking over the furniture while acting out The Scarlet Pimpernel. I read Poe’s short stories when I was eight and was freaked out by “The Telltale Heart” as banana frogs covered my bedroom windows at night, and I could see their hearts beating through their translucent skin on the windows and had nightmares as a result of that story.

When I was an adolescent, we moved to the USA with our mother because of a very sick sister. In Mobile (Alabama), I discovered libraries, which became my treasure house. Once when we moved to a new town and new house and the furniture hadn’t arrived, the first thing our mother did was take us all to the new library and let us take out as many books as we could. We all used the books to sit on and read while we waited for the furniture to arrive. After my mother died and I was visiting with my father in his bachelor digs in Venezuela, I discovered he was living in a house with a piano, stacks of books everywhere (no bookshelves), and almost no furniture. My brother visited this summer on his way North from Mexico, where he lives on his sailboat in the winter. He stayed five days and all he did was read the books and six month’s worth of New Yorkers stacked in my dining room. When my daughter got married back East, my sister (who is a librarian and specialist on children’s Latin literature) and I stayed with her son before the wedding. We had just come from the ALA conference and shared a room at her son’s, where we each had bags of free books we had picked up. We spent the days before the wedding enjoying those new books despite the wedding commotion going on around us.

We are just serious readers in my family, and I grew up imbued with the love of literature. I am also a feminist and a humanist and believe in equality. So discovering and publishing new and emerging women writers and giving voice to those who haven’t had the chance fits. None of us who does CALYX does it for any other reason than our commitment to women and our love of literature and art. We certainly don’t do it for financial gain.

For more information about CALYX, please visit their website at www.calyxpress.org.

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