Chicago is a city that loves stories, especially those about itself. But Chicago’s story is bigger than what can fit onto the bestseller lists and into gangster flicks. One small, independent publisher in town is building a catalog that tells the stories behind and beyond Chicago’s headlines. Sure, sure, Capone. It’s been done. For Emily Victorson, owner of Allium Press, bringing the everyday lives of people to the fore is the true Chicago way.
The tagline for Allium Press is “Rescuing Chicago from Capone one book at a time.” Can you talk a little about what that motto means to you and how you’re rescuing Chicago from Capone?
So often, when Chicagoans travel to other countries and tell the people they meet where they’re from, the inevitable response is “Capone!” accompanied by the vocal imitation of the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire. I’m hoping, through Allium’s books, to present to readers a view of our city that is both more complex and more nuanced.
I’ve been told by our readers that what they especially appreciate about our books is that they can enjoy a captivating story, while also learning something new about Chicago.
Give us an example of one of your recent titles and how it presents a broader, richer view of Chicago.
Our most recent release (Mary Burns, The Reason for Time, April 2016) takes place in the summer of 1919. During a ten-day period in late July that year, a whole series of dramatic events occurred in Chicago—a blimp crashed into a Loop bank, streetcar conductors went on strike, a little girl was kidnapped, and race riots erupted. The author chose to present the events and their effects using the wonderfully singular voice of a young Irish-American woman. This novel brings in so many things that I love in great historical fiction—the reader experiences turbulent times as an everyday person would have, gets a vivid sense of what the city was like at a particular time, and has an opportunity to understand the motives and emotional life of an individual, while also gaining some knowledge of actual historical events. Seamlessly blending fact with fiction, the author weaves an evocative tale of how an ordinary life can become inextricably linked with history.
What do you look for in a Chicago book? What catches your attention? What makes a great Chicago book a great Chicago book?
An author hoping to be published by Allium once said to me, “Well, my book is set in another city, but I could change the street names and make it take place in Chicago. Would you be interested in it then?” The answer of course was a resounding No.
It’s hard to define what makes a Chicago book, especially one that will appeal to me. From the Allium tagline, one could probably guess that I’m not a big fan of gangsters, but they’ve managed to creep into a few of our books. I think the whole “dark, gritty city streets” theme has been overdone. Chicagoans, or those who love Chicago, probably have an innate sense of what Chicago means to them, but I think few of us would be able to articulate it very well. It’s much more than Da Bears, pizza, the Daley family, etc. Our city has a fascinating history, a story of constant struggle—for the Native American tribes who first lived here and were forced out; the early settlers who somehow figured out how to deal with horrible sanitation issues through technical ingenuity; those who dreamt of buildings that could “scrape the sky;” the working people who fought for better conditions; all of the different ethnic groups who’ve made their mark and contributed to the rich tapestry of this city; and all of the many, varied people who saw Chicago as a place where you could reinvent yourself and your life. Those are the people whose stories I want to tell through Allium’s books.
What are your favorite Chicago books, other than those you’ve published?
I read a lot of Chicago books—fiction, both classic and contemporary, and non-fiction—so it’s hard to pick favorites. But a few standouts that I’ve read recently are Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith (both fiction), and Family Matters by Beryl Satter (non-fiction). For a classic Chicago novel I would pick Jennie Gerhardt, a lesser known work by Theodore Dreiser.
You’re a one-woman show. How did you prepare for the job you have now? What kinds of things have you had to learn or teach yourself to run Allium?
I came to publishing via a very circuitous route, one which I would not recommend anyone purposefully emulate. I have an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in Information Studies. I was originally a librarian (primarily at the Chicago History Museum) and then a historian/book designer for a firm that produces corporate/organization/family histories. I published a number of non-fiction pieces on Chicago and absorbed a great deal about this city’s history along the way. So I always make sure my authors—if they’re writing historical fiction—are historically accurate, avoid anachronisms, etc. I’ve also learned a lot about editing and book design over the years.
In the 2009 recession I was laid off and faced with dismal prospects for a job in any of my areas of expertise. So starting a publishing company seemed like a good way to reinvent myself, basing a new career on the skills I’d developed in various jobs. Because of advances in printing technologies, it’s now possible to be a small press publisher without a big capital investment. But there was a long, steady learning curve about how the whole industry works—design, marketing, finance, networking, editorial, acquisitions, etc.
I love the autonomy I have as the owner of my own business and also thrive on the challenge of learning new things every day—it never ends.
What do you wish readers knew about small presses? What do you wish aspiring authors knew about small presses?
I wish readers knew how to look for, and find, books by small presses. Unfortunately, most of the ways that people use to find out about books—whether it’s reviews, magazines, talk shows, bestseller lists, etc.—tend to only cover books by big publishers, books that will appeal to a huge number of readers. Word of mouth has been proven to be another important way to find out about books but it’s also very difficult for small press books to get into that stream. On the other hand, if you like books that are regional, quirky, defy genres, or are focused on a particular topic, and you do your research, you might find a small press that publishes a whole list of books that will appeal to you.
The same can be true for writers—if your book fits into the niche of a small press, they can probably help you find your best readership even better than a big publisher could. A small press publisher might be more appreciative of a book that doesn’t necessarily have mass appeal, but is well written and a great read and has something to say to a discerning audience. Authors will probably also get more personal attention from a small press and their book will be appreciated for its unique qualities.
What’s on your wish list for a future Allium title?
Allium publishes literary fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, thrillers, young adult fiction—all with a Chicago connection.
What really resonates with me in novels—either that I enjoy reading, or that I’m interested in publishing—is a very strong sense of place and time. I’m not particularly interested in fiction that deals with big political issues or royal intrigue (which explains why I don’t read Tudor historical fiction). Instead, I’m fascinated with how ordinary people experience their particular time and place. I love strong, well-drawn female characters, who have a sense of who they are, and who want to accomplish things. This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in male protagonists, but they must have meaningful interactions and relationships with women.
Some other features that I look for are: characters struggling with some event or issue…Chicago as a character…beautiful language…maturity and depth…a unique voice…psychological insight.
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.