R.I.P. Alice Munro (1931 – 2024)

“Compared to Anton Chekhov for her peerless short stories for which she won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Alice Munro (left) has died.FULL STORY


Origins of Anvil Press

July 08th, 2011


It is impossible to talk about Anvil Press without first discussing subTerrain magazine, Anvil’s initial foray into publishing, its first raison d’etre. I foresaw that Anvil would one day publish books but I didn’t exactly know how or when that would happen. But for now, its mission would be to issue a small literary magazine into the world. It was the late 1980s, I had a little money from the one property sale I have ever made and was ready to quit my day job and put my money where my mouth was. I’d been to college, I’d read the rebels: Genet, Burroughs, Celine, Pinter, Artaud, Miller, Algren, Bukowski, Orwell, Beckett, Camus, Rimbaud, et al., and I craved a part of the literary life.

Short of running off to New York, San Francisco, Paris, or some perceived mecca of the literary world, I sought to find out if it existed right here, in Vancouver, in my own backyard, and was amazed to discover that it did! Sleepy old Vancouver had, it turned out, its own rather vast network of writers—and even publishers! And not just publishers that were interested in publishing some mainstream pap that might generate some real sales amongst middle-class consumers, but publishers that were intent on publishing serious socio-political work that addressed urgent issues relevant to the average working-class person.

After poking and prodding and scouring through bookstores (so many great ones that no longer exist)—Octopus East and Octopus West, Colophon Books, Duthie’s Cellar, Proprioception, William Hoffer—things started to surface. Odd and intriguing books that didn’t seem like they should be from here, but seemed to be part of that outer world I had been reading. I found a kinship in the works being issued from local houses like Talonbooks, New Star, Harbour, Pulp Press—especially Pulp. Slim volumes with searing titles like The Minimanual of an Urban Guerilla, The Destruction of Vancouver, Class Warfare—titles that oozed rebellion and demanded to be taken seriously. And all the great Canadian plays that Talon was publishing—George Ryga, Betty Lambert, George F. Walker—were landing in my hands. New Star and its lefty politics was also appealing to a young lad who had spent the majority of his years under the bewildering rule of the Social Credit party. Small mags (before they were called ’zines) like 3-Cent Pulp and Raincoast Chronicles embraced, respectively, the city I existed in and rugged coast that surrounded me. Both published a dialect that I recognized as distinctly here and of this region I was born and raised in.

In 1984, I was back at college ensconced in a Library Technician program (after failing at getting an actual job in the publishing industry, this was another attempt at finding a way to make a living in the world of books) while at night I started to write plays and short fiction, and began thinking about putting together a small magazine of varied writing. One evening during this time, while drinking pitchers of beer at The Jolly Alderman pub (which my research had told me writers and publishers do as much as writing and publishing!), Jon Furberg, one of my old profs (and author of several volumes of fine poetry) introduced me to another former student. Jon pointed across the table at Paul Pitre, cigarette in hand, and then pointed at me and said, “You two should meet.” We did. And then we drank more pitchers of sudsy beer, talked about poetry, and how we might go about putting a small literary magazine together.

This is well before the arrival of such professional sounding programs as The SFU Masters in Publishing Program or Douglas College’s Print Futures. This is still a time before personal, affordable layout programs like InDesign, QuarkXpress, or Pagemaker. Typesetting was still being done on large, expensive print-house equipment. Big hulking machines with names like “Compugraphic” spewed forth glossy sheets of type that we then cut into strips and physically “stripped” into place with a hot waxer on 11 x 17 grid-marked layout sheets. And one had to learn how to operate one of these things hands-on—so you had to know someone in a print shop or someone who actually worked for a real publishing company who was willing to engage in late-night covert typesetting jobs. At the time, I knew neither (those guys would come later!).

I was starting to hear about something called “desktop publishing,” which made me think of my dad’s old Gestetner hand-cranked printer that worked off a typewritten paper plate. That sounded like the sort of thing I needed. I investigated this new fangled thing and found myself coming into contact with Stephen Osborne, one of the guys behind Pulp Press. He was branching out into a new venture to provide training and affordable typesetting & layout services to the masses. I bought my first PC (a 286 box and monitor that took up most of my desk surface), signed up for a crash course in typesetting (appropriately called “Strong Sensitive Type”) that utilized the “new technology,” in this case a software package called Ventura Publisher that had been developed by the Xerox Corporation. And after five or six sessions, we were issued our “certificates” and were set loose on the world.

Issue #1 of subTerrain was not far off and appeared twenty-three years ago this August. Failing to have any great cover concepts of our own we slapped a detail from Pieter Brueghel’s Triumph of the Dead on the front panel of our inaugural effort. A story of mine, two from Alban Goulden (another past prof), another from Jennifer Sinclair, short pieces from Dirk Beck and Lawrence McCarthy, along with poems from Beth Jankola and jw curry rounded out the twelve-page debut. And just like that, knowing very little about editing, layout, typesetting, or the printing process, I had become a publisher! Contributors all received a handful of copies as payment. We mailed small bundles around the country to bookstores and magazine stalls with a consignment note, thinking payment would flow back in a few months. Some proprietors were wonderfully supportive, like James McIntosh of Colophon Books—in his wonderful second storey shop on Cordova in Gastown—always paid us outright for our wares. We hoofed copies all around town. Our delivery route started on the eastside, Commercial Drive, then along Venables and into town—Gastown, Granville, Robson Street. Then we headed over the bridge and west on Broadway, eventually to the westside and up Tenth Ave., back down Fourth Ave. towards town again, over the Granville Bridge to end up at The Yale Hotel in time for the Saturday afternoon blues jam session where we spent our proceeds on pints of ale and shooters of whisky. This, it was thought, would help us start envisioning issue #2.

With Issue #2, J. Lawrence McCarthy got more involved and brought to the mag a much needed design sense, and original cover art by Leslie Poole. We were also being forced to learn strange things about publishing a magazine: distribution, reaching a target audience, timelines, editorial calendars!

While putting issue 2 together I was entertaining ideas of publishing books as well as the magazine. I had always wanted to issue books but had no idea how I’d go about it. 1) where to find the authors, the good manuscripts? 2) How in hell to finance the endeavour? I ran into Rachel Mines, a friend from my Library Tech days and found out that she was pursuing her Masters in Linguistics. She told me about her dissertation and wondered if it might be appealing to a general readership. I told her to send it to me and I’d give it a read. It was titled A Toilet Paper: A Treatise On Four Fundamental Words Referring to Gaseous & Solid Wastes Together with Their Point of Origin. It was literary, scholarly, and—and most importantly—it was funny. Rachel’s quirky sense of humour came through on every page. This odd little title became Anvil’s first “book” even though it was only forty pages and didn’t fulfil the UNESCO official definition of a “book” (my how things change! What is the definition of a “book” in 2011?). It was, truly, more of a pamphlet, saddle-stitched with historical illustrations provided by the wonderful world of the Public Domain. We took it along on our next round of mag distribution and local sellers were, for the most part, supportive. They were alternately humoured or aghast by the content of the pamphlet. We moved a goodly number through the independents and managed to break even on our printing and mailing costs.

Around this time I was writing plays and trying to get them produced. Dark Horse Theatre had a call out for one-act plays. The selected plays would receive a professional workshop and a staged reading at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. I submitted a play I was working on, Fragments from the Big Piece, and it was selected as one of four plays to receive development. Another playwright, Dennis E. Bolen, had a play, Wagen, selected as well. It turned out that Dennis was also a writer of fiction, and had a novel that he’d been sending around to publishers and wasn’t having much luck getting it accepted for publication. I said I’d take a look; maybe Anvil could publish it. I showed him the mag, and he loved it; he was excited and became involved immediately. Issue #3 featured an excerpt from Stupid Crimes, his excellent novel-in-waiting.

Lawrence and I were also getting more work doing commercial design work—layout and typesetting mostly—and my kitchen table wasn’t really cutting it as a workspace. We needed a real office and found it in the ’hood at 2414 Main Street (the pie wedge building at the intersection of Kingsway & Main). We paid $300.00 a month and three of us—myself, Dennis & Lawrence—pitched in a hundred bucks each and we were away. We were “legit” and hung out our shingle out: Anvil Press Publishers: Desktop & Graphic Design.

The next book (and first to be perfect-bound) was Stupid Crimes. We had to do a good deal of commercial work (posters, brochures, programs, publications) to bankroll our first trade paperback edition. Even then, we still had to bolster the coffers with our own personal investment. The cover: an evening shot in front of Uptown Barbers (that’s me and Dennis) suggesting a drug deal or a parolee and his parole officer. All noir and urban grit (photo by J. Lawrence), the design employed black, white, and a slash of red. Thank god we didn’t think we could afford a full-colour cover. The image was perfect for the content: a hard-drinking, hopelessly romantic, over-worked parole officer tries to guide his hapless charges toward a life without crime.

We mailed off review copies and worked with our first small distributor (Marginal Distribution) and waited. Now what? Would the stores order more copies as the ones they had flew off the shelves? Would the big cheques start rolling in? Well, not quite. But Stupid Crimes did do well. It had, as they say in the trade, “legs.” It received positive reviews across the country and we even managed to land a rave in the Globe & Mail. And we soon found out that national coverage makes a difference! We noticed a spike in orders and a spike in sales. An upstart crow from B.C. was making some noise. It felt good; it made us think that publishing was easy. Ha! We had much to learn about an industry that was about to be hit by a recession and the arrival of big box corporate retailing. We basked in our naïve optimism, but that wouldn’t last for long.

I couldn’t have started a publishing company at a worse time (unless I was starting right now!). The recession of the early ’90s was in full swing and there was no surplus of funding dollars for new publishers (we published for six years before receiving our first BC Arts Council grant for Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock, and struggled, somehow, through these difficult years. The Canada Council’s “Support for Emerging Publishers Program” didn’t yet exist (I was told later that this program came into being due to cases like Anvil—we were putting out good books but there just wasn’t any money to help) and we didn’t yet meet the criteria for the Block Grant program. We had to proceed on a book-by-book basis, submitting for project assistance when eligible.

Around the same time, the late Bruce Serafin launched the original VR (Vancouver Review), a fresh breath of wonderfully cranky air, which seemed to be in line with our own aesthetic—the politeness of most Canadian literary magazines and journals did not encourage, but rather stifled, creative discourse. Bruce put me onto the work of Grant Buday, said he was writing great stories, kind of a cross between Bukowski and Dickens. We published his Vancouver story collection, Monday Night Man (in their rejection of this title, jurors said: Grant Buday is a good writer but this is not a good book). Monday Night Man went on to be a Finalist in the City of Vancouver Book Awards. We later published Grant’s outstanding Vancouver labour novel, White Lung (also a City of Vancouver Book Award Finalist).

The magazine was attracting more writers and friends willing to help out with the endlessly inexhaustible slush pile, proofing, and writing rejection & acceptance letters. People like Isabella Legosi Mori, Angela Rhodes McIntyre, and Heidi Greco—three fine poets whose work comprised the volume Siren Tattoo: A Triptych. Another writer from this period was Bud Osborn. We published his debut collection, Lonesome Monsters, (unless you count Black Azure, a rarity printed up by a friend who worked at Coach House Books in Toronto). Bud’s work came at us like a scream from the cellar. His stories of addiction, poverty, and family violence were like raw nerve wires snapping and zapping all your senses at once. Publishing Bud would start a long-time commitment to publishing books about and by residents of the Downtown Eastside, work that dealt with the grittier aspects of our city of glass.

Others that would follow in this loose “Vancouver Series” would be Bart Campbell’s The Door Is Open (about his years spent working in a Downtown Eastside soup kitchen), Lincoln Clarkes’ Heroines photographs that documented the plight of hundreds of marginalized and drug addicted women of the DTES from the late ’80s to the mid-1990s, Michael Barnholden’s history of Vancouver riots, Reading the Riot Act; Eve Lazarus’s At Home with History (finalist in the Vancouver Books Awards); Signs of the Times, a print and poetry collaboration between Bud Osborn and Strathcona printmaker & muralist Richard Tetrault, and, most recently, Gabor Gazstonyi’s A Room In the City, intimate and emotionally stirring portraits of residents of five DTES single-room occupancy hotels.

And I think these titles stand to exemplify what Anvil came to be known as, a publisher of works not so much from the academy but from the street. Not to say that our books don’t have much to offer the curriculums of “higher learning” (and many are now on course lists) but that the writers we tend to publish write out of life experience and not so much from schools of thought or theory (less dogma and more of the real meal deal). So the tales they tell tend to be more immediate, palpable, more there in front of you, pulsing and expectant than residing up in your head. Books like Salvage King, Ya! by Mark Anthony Jarman, Stolen by Annette Lapointe (Giller nominee), and Animal, stories by Alexandra Leggat (Trillium Prize Finalist)—and many, many others that I can’t list here—make me proud to have been given the privilege to find a vocation in the world of literary publishing.

Essay Date: 2011

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