Dark Sky is a fine new publisher whose books are strange and stunning and uncommonly good. Their most recent release, Ryan Ridge’s kinetic collection of short stories, Hunters & Gamblers, further cements this reputation, while their regularly published literary journal, Dark Sky Magazine, offers an illuminating mix of bold new voices and seasoned ink slingers. Recently, I checked in with Dark Sky’s publisher, Kevin Murphy, to see what life was like on the other side of the printing press.
When I first learned of Dark Sky, you were operating out of an alpaca farm on an island in Puget Sound. You’re not a born alpaca farmer from the Pacific Northwest, correct?
KM: That’s correct. I moved to Seattle from South Carolina.
Is that were Dark Sky got its start?
KM: Yes. Dark Sky began in Charleston in 2007 as an online magazine featuring literature and art. Initially, the project was a simple way for me to mess around with online publishing platforms and meet local authors, artists, etc. Since then, as our output increased and our readership grew, we’ve morphed considerably, which I consider a healthy thing, and is why currently we publish physical books and magazines, as well as the online components we’ve featured since the early days.
What was the spark to all of that?
KM: Been interested a long time in books, in publishing, and in writers, and in writing — when I was a kid I circulated to my neighbors a “newspaper” that contained “stories”, the genesis of which were gathered from discussions my parents had at the dinner table and in the living rooms of our home. Private conversations. The result was an intimate tabloid, written in pencil and copied on sheets of loose paper that I then hawked to the characters comprising my tiny orbit. Must have been horrifying for my parents. In hindsight, though, it was a good business model — many of my neighbors were gossip hounds.
So it’s safe to say you’ve been at this for a while.
KM: In one form or another, yes. But I’m after experience when it comes to literary publishing proper; compound that fact with changes taking place in publishing and it’s even more important to learn quickly. However, being quick means jackshit if you can’t land a punch. Which is to say that while I think DS is getting better, and stronger, we’re definitely still in training. Always will be, probably.
Speaking of getting stronger, some major changes are occurring in the Dark Sky household — new faces at the dinner table, new rooms being built. Could you tell us about them?
KM: We changed things up on the editorial side of things. Brian Carr, who was pulling double duty as fiction editor of the magazine and book arms of the press, now will focus solely on books. Gabe Durham is stepping in as editor of the magazine, and he is bringing a new fiction editor, Christy Crutchfield, with him. We’re all excited about this arrangement. Gabe and Christy are terrific writers and have done superb editorial work with other presses. I’m looking forward to having them with us, and to growing and improving our online and print magazines.
Recently we’ve also become a university-affiliated press. The University of Houston-Victoria was kind enough to welcome us under their publishing umbrella. Joining the ranks of FC2 andsymploke, not to mention the American Book Review, is an exciting opportunity. No doubt we’ll learn much from the experience and we aim to put those lessons to good use.
What kind of changes are you anticipating? Where will the affiliation with University of Houston-Victoria take Dark Sky?
KM: I don’t anticipate too much changing early on. Mainly it’ll be a courting process, wherein we get to know each other, explain our likes and dislikes, and then move forward. Eventually I hope the affiliation allows our books, magazines, and online content to reach more readers.Â
Well, let’s talk about those books. Book design, in particular, which I feel Dark Sky does exceptionally well. Can you talk about what you’re looking for in a cover, what a good cover accomplishes, to what degree design matters to you when putting together a book…
KM: The layout and design components of our press are just that, components. Each component of every book is given equal measure. It just so happens that the design component is the first thing a person usually encounters, and so, obviously, that’s hugely important, which is why I try to ensure that a book’s design and content are programmed to serve one another. To me, a good cover is a visual translation of the text, a piece of art that precedes the words a reader is about to consume. We design our own books, my wife and I and Boo Gilder, a close friend of ours, and so the process is terrific experience of experimentation, banter, frustration, and mutual respect. Yes, designing our books matters immensely.
These tiny mechanics fascinate me. I think it’s easy for a lot readers, myself included, to forget just how much effort goes into creating the book as an object. We simply assume it will be there. As an editor and publisher, however, this is what you do. It’s almost a trade, no? Can you give us a glimpse into that world? The physical process of making a book?
KM: Gladly. Putting books together, despite claims to the contrary, requires time, creativity, persistence, and exactitude. Of course, anyone with a computer and a printer can pump out a book, and that’s an amazing thing to consider. But in an age when more books than ever are published annually, it is even more important for books to be beautiful, and perfect, and to remain relevant even after their moment in the sun passes. I try to be mindful of this when making a book, which places plenty of pressure on DS, the manuscripts we receive and their authors. Not only do I want a manuscript to smack me wicked with its words, its author must possess nearly an undying enthusiasm and commitment to the book’s success. You mentioned a trade and that’s the biggest one.
After accepting a manuscript, I work with the author and outline an initial push. This push includes everything from writing press releases to projecting editing schedules, from cover design options to sending out review copies. This is a good process because it puts people on the same path. Rarely, though, is the initial push the same push that pushes through to the end. Typically both parties finagle, reschedule, and rely on creative collaboration to see the project through. This results in a stressful, wonderful experience.
Beyond that, our time goes into determining the book’s trim and paper, its typography and cover art; much effort is employed on editing the manuscript, and making a book trailer, and setting up a web page. After that, we get busy blowing trumpets and letting flail multicolored streamers. Overall, it’s an arduous process that’s followed, once the book is born, by euphoria and optimism.
As someone who sifts through all of that creative writing, have you noticed any trends in the ways writers are putting together sentences?
Yes, but I try to ignore them. Trends are superficial and, except for a minority, do more to hinder a writer’s voice than facilitate it. Also, the trends I encounter as an editor and publisher of an independent press, keeping in mind our reading demographic, are obviously different than the trends the editors of, say, the Passionate Pen encounter. I could list the trends currently influencing independent literature, and most likely readers of Hobart would recognize them, but I prefer to focus less than more attention on trends. Writers should write their own damn sentences. Fuck trends.
Is it safe to say, then, that there is no sound byte mission statement to the kind of titles Dark Sky likes to publish?
KM: Sure. We don’t have a mission statement because tastes change and evolve and we’re open to new things and our primary concern is publishing books that provide valuable experiences for our readers. If we’re successful in providing that experience, we don’t need a mission statement — it goes without saying what we’re about and what we are trying to do. Contemporary literature is a giant swarming storm of possibility. I want to tap into that possibility and publish books that are fresh, diverse, and meaningful.
What is Dark Sky up to now? What can we expect to see in the future?
This past summer, we released Ryan Ridge’s Hunters & Gamblers, his debut, which contains a novella and a collection of stories. That book is the shit, and so is Ryan. This fall we are releasing a poetry collection written by Kendra Grant Malone and Matthew Savoca. It’s calledMorocco and I’m really excited about it because the poems are unique and fun and racy and they’re the kind of poems that are so intimate and also writ large that you forget you’re reading poetry and instead you just kind of inhabit this space that Kendra and Matthew have created. It’s pretty wild. Look for it in November. 2012 has books by Dave Housley and Jensen Beach and other fine folks. Stay tuned . . .