December 2009

Terry Hong

features

A Quartet of Unsalable Gems: Madras Press Debuts Series One

A modern eco-fable about an almost-royal swan and just-a-common-bluebird couple whose lives intersect with a miner and a logger who turn away from their destructive careers… a contemporary fairy tale about a witch with one heck of a sweet tooth, her vampire boyfriend whom she turns into a chocolate housecat, and her ultimate date with Death who has a shoe fetish worth dying for… a bitingly clever story about a Manhattan dinner party populated by a pregnant couple, a cheating couple, childhood best friends, an editor waiting for the latest Salman Rushdie manuscript, an adventure author -- and the nonpresent presence of the impossibly gorgeous mistress Lakshmi (coincidentally -- or not -- Rushdie’s real-life ex-wife is the impossibly gorgeous Padma Lakshmi)… an eavesdropping session that cryptically reveals a conversation between lovers on opposite sides of the earth with one half eating more than his fair share of the toothsome bread pudding while the other half attempts to tell him of her faraway adventures which has somehow landed her in a hospital bed all because of a hidden, biting caterpillar…

Admit it: Aren’t you intrigued? Wouldn’t you want to read more, more, more?  

Who would have thought such enticing tales -- not quite short stories, not quite long enough to be novels -- would be considered unpublishable? But that’s exactly what Sumanth Prabhaker, the 26-year-old, creative writing degreed publisher of brand-new Madras Press, who moonlights by day as a book production manager at Pearson, realized when he thought about submitting his own pieces for publication. And being energetic, talented, and not-so-ready-to-take no for an answer, Prabhaker began his own press, right out of his Boston living room. Released in sets of four, Prabhaker’s 5”x5” pocket-sized little gems make for perfect reading on the go. Series One, which includes Aimee Bender’s eco-fable The Third Elevator, Trinie Dalton’s witchy Sweet Home, Rebecca Lee’s dining Bobcat, and Prabhaker’s own eavesdropping A Mere Pittance, starts shipping December 1. 

Besides offering such an enjoyably portable new reading experience, Prabhaker is also a socially-conscious 21st-century literary renegade: Madras Press distributes all its net proceeds to a growing list of charitable organizations chosen by its authors. It’s all about the love of literature, nothing about making a fast buck, or even a penny, for that matter. Bender gives to InsideOUT Writers, which offers writing classes to students in Los Angeles’s Juvenile Hall System; Dalton chose the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants, a California native plant nursery; Lee chose Riverkeeper, an environmental neighborhood watch program that defends our waterways; and Prabhaker chose Helping Hands: Monkey Hands for the Disabled, which trains capuchin monkeys to help people with quadriplegia and other severe spinal cord injuries with daily activities. Bookslut interviewed author and publisher Sumanth Prabhaker about the genesis, and future, of Madras Press. 

Hey, wait: If I’m remembering my Shantaram by David Gregory Roberts correctly, doesn’t Prabhaker mean “light”? Could you be more aptly named?

I just looked it up in an online baby name website, and it said it means “one that gives light.” But then I looked up my brother’s name and it said it means “lamp,” and my mom’s name apparently connotes a light shade of yellow, so maybe it’s just a recurring theme in Indian names. 

Or maybe your family is just more enlightened! And since we’re talking names, why Madras Press?

My dad grew up in Madras [now Chennai, India], and my mom’s parents live there for part of the year, so the few times I’ve traveled to India have mostly been there. I've only been there five or six times, but I really love it -- the economy is so much simpler, and someone can support a family selling fruit on the street or making limeade or something. Near my grandmother's house is a little shack on the street where you take any clothes that need alteration, and there's an old lady in the shack who sews them up for you; on the other side of the street there used to be a little lending library, where you give them an empty bottle as a deposit. My first memories of reading are of walking barefoot across the dirt street and exchanging a Coke bottle for a stack of Tintin comics. Despite the transformation of the city into an IT hub, and despite the immense poverty, the Indian economy rewards one’s attention to detail more than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Everything is a little smaller there, and a little more focused, and so it seemed like a fitting name for this project -- tiny books of shorter stories at low prices to help little organizations. 

How did you get the idea to start Madras Press? How did you do it logistically not everyone wakes up one morning, decides to start a new press, and actually makes it happen! Minor miracle, no?

The idea came at a time when I was stuck with a couple of stories that seemed sort of repellant to the fit of most conventional publishing venues, not because they’re horrible, but more because they’re just a little awkward -- awkward in length, awkward because they’re more about animals than people, and maybe a few other reasons. It hasn’t been easy to start a press on a shoestring, but it’s certainly a lot easier than trying to convince some publishing company to change the way they approach acquisitions and design and marketing to suit the needs of an inexperienced writer fresh out of graduate school. And it’s been a lot more fun than trying to pare the stories down to magazine length or stretch them to proper novel length. Maybe a better writer wouldn’t have any trouble doing that, but I like the idea of the format of the book accommodating for the content within the book, rather than the other way around. As soon as I started looking into forming a little publishing company to house these stories, everything else fell into place without much trouble. 

Why do you think publishers find these stories so “unsalable”? And what makes them so appealing to you?

There’s absolutely nothing inherent to these kinds of stories one way or the other; some are very bad and probably wouldn’t perform well in a busy marketplace, some are okay, some are so brilliant they’ll make your head hurt. So it’s a mystery to me why the industry has tended toward arbitrary guidelines about page count, when no individual part of the workflow would be compromised if those guidelines weren’t followed. I have no idea. And I wouldn’t even say there’s something that makes them more appealing to me than any other kind of story. I just think page count is a silly reason to preclude a story, as a writer or as an editor or as a consumer. 

How did you decide that all profits would go to charities of the writers’ choice?

I guess I didn’t write any of my own stories with the idea of financial profit in mind. Recently I’ve done most of my writing on the train in the morning, on my way to work, and it’s just become for me a nice way to start my day, not so different than the other people on the train who sleep or do a crossword puzzle or type things on their cell phones. Additionally, I don’t think my stories would do particularly well as commercial items, but maybe that’s more because I’m not so great at marketing. But mostly it just seemed like a nice way to do things -- keep the sticker price low and reserve a few dollars with each purchase to go toward a good cause. Asking the writers to weigh in on the decision makes less work for me, and they seem to enjoy it.

Most importantly, since all profits go to charities, where does the funding come from?

The answer isn’t terribly interesting because there isn’t really much funding to speak of. Anyone with a little money and time to spare could accomplish much more in much less time. 

How did you pick your first four writers/stories? And you… who did you “beat out” to get to be one of your inaugural four -- even if you are the publisher?

I had one story of mine in mind for one of the first few series -- about a lady who gets stung by a caterpillar, and it kind of ruins her life -- and putting it in the very first one was just a matter of convenience. The other three -- Aimee Bender, Trinie Dalton, and Rebecca Lee -- were all writers I’ve admired for a long time, and they all happened to have something more suitable for this format than for others, and they all also happened to be gracious enough people to not hang up on me when they found out they wouldn’t be paid for this. 

As Madras’s publisher, I’m sure you’re really busy with all those publishing sort of duties, but I’m assuming you also wear a few other hats. Writer is one, obviously. So what’s life like for Sumanth the writer? What are you own hopes and dreams for your writerly life of the future?

I have another novella-length story that will come out as a Madras Press title in a few years, about tree sloths and Tibetan monks, and two more I’m still planning -- one about robot giraffes, and one about elephants in the 19th century. Also working on a superhero novel, but that’s only halfway done after three years. Hopefully I’ll have some more ideas of things to work on after that. I was really moved by this animated short film called The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, and I thought it would be fun to try to do a novelization of that someday. I’ll have to figure out how to do that legally, though. 

So spill your secret: Who does all the design? These four little books are like happy little surprise treasures. They’re so adorably unique -- size, graphics, text, everything.

I’m glad you like them. The authors are involved in the cover design to some extent, which I think only makes sense. Aimee Bender drew the illustrations for her book, and the cover and interior art to Sweet Tomb was made in response to the story. Everything else turns out to actually be pretty easy, partially because the books all share the same specs, and partially because of the minimalist design. We don’t have to worry about where to put blurbs on the back covers, for example, or how to treat text like "a novella" or "by the author of" or "#1 bestseller." Without all that stuff, there turn out to be very few decisions to make. 

How might an interested author submit to Madras?

We have a few guidelines up on our website, but the only really important thing is the page count (25-80 or so pages). Because we’re not in a position to be able to pay our authors, we try to be flexible about most other things. 

Wait, wait: You started Madras Press to get away from ‘arbitrary’ page-counts! So how could that 25-80-page limitation be "the only really important thing"? Not to mention both your Pittance and Dalton’s Sweet are both longer than 80 pages…

Well, there’s a minimum number of pages needed to fill out a paperback spine, but someone with a 10- or 15-page story has no shortage of available venues to consider, so I think that guideline isn’t too awful. The 80-page maximum is probably a little hypocritical of us, and given a little more freedom with our resources, that would be one of the first things to go. But the benefits of being able to keep the sticker price low and to afford to print at our quantities seemed valuable enough to us to have to ignore the poor writers with 80- to 150-page-long stories. So for now I’m happy to focus on our little interval. Maybe if Hachette all of a sudden decides to start a novella imprint, we’ll shift our focus elsewhere. 

So the first quartet starts shipping December 1. When’s the next batch expected?

We’ll produce the second series as soon as we recover the manufacturing costs from the first series, which should be before the end of next year, if not sooner. We have a few stories in the queue, but it’s still to be decided which ones will come out at what time. 

I see you had your first Madras Press public event on November 14. How did that go? How was it seeing all that work come to fruition in such a public way?

It was great -- Aimee Bender was so charming and poised and nice about everything. She asked me to read before her, which was very frightening, and I chose something maybe a little too gloomy, in retrospect, but otherwise a great night. 

Give us a preview of the December 11 reading.

That’s in Brooklyn, at the Outpost Lounge; Trinie Dalton will be reading, and I have something less gloomy I might read, and [poet] Dorothea Lasky will join us, and I think it’s going to be lots of fun. [Editor] Ben Fama from Akashic Books is planning it, as part of his SUPERMACHINE reading series. It’s going to be my first time in New York City, so that’s something to look forward to. 

Oh, can’t let that one go. A New York City virgin now debuting in Bookslut? You should have some great adventures to write about, huh?

At least it’ll be nice to not have to say "I’ve never been to New York" and watch as everyone gasps at me. 

Forthcoming Madras Press events:

§       Friday, December 11, 8 p.m.: Trinie DaltonDorothea Lasky, and Sumanth Prabhaker at Outpost Lounge, 1014 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11238

§       Thursday, January 28, 7:00 p.m.: Aimee Bender and Trinie Dalton at Family Bookstore, 436 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036

 

Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. She writes a Smithsonian book blog at bookdragon.si.edu.