Photo by Billy Surface

Publisher Will Evans: Dallas’ Literary Culture Needs to Look to Minneapolis

Will Evans has big ideas for his new Deep Vellum Publishing. He has to. He’s only trying to rescue Dallas’ literary history.

Will Evans arrived in Dallas last summer with an impossible dream, infectious energy, and a killer mustache. Since then, he’s launched Deep Vellum Publishing, a publisher of books in translation that is set to make an impressive debut this fall with five titles, including works by Mikhail Shishkin, one of the greatest living Russian writers, and the latest literary memoir from Jón Gnarr, the punkanarchist former mayor of Reykjavík. The ambitious Evans, who’s just 30 years old, has plans to help spark a literary renaissance in this city.

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When you got here, there were no independent book shops in Dallas. Now we have one, Wild Detectives. I suppose that has to speak positively about the state of Dallas’ literary culture.

When you go abroad, they’re like, “How can you live in an area of 6 million people and have one bookstore? I just don’t understand.” And I’m like, “It’s just the way America’s been set up for a long time.” Dallas used to have a thriving book market. Did you know we had the largest bookstore in America for 40 years on Commerce?

I didn’t.

It was called Cokesbury. It closed when everything started consolidating in the 1980s, and then all of the used bookstores started getting run out of town. Larry McMurtry used to come to Deep Ellum to buy books all the time. He talks about them in some of his essays. There’s a literary history here that I’m just trying to tap into, because the readers have always been here, because people are readers, readers are people. There’s no difference.

You’ve only been here a year. I’m impressed with how much you know of this city’s history.

Some people move to cities and they become passive participants in a place, and I’m a little bit the opposite of that. I’ve just been reading and talking to people. Now I’m hoping to become a player that someone will write about in 40 years. “What’s changed in Dallas in the last 40 years?” “That idiot who moved to town and started publishing books.”

So you’re not exactly starting with modest ambitions.

No. Why would I be small-time? I don’t want to be a niche guy. I want to take what I love out of the underground and get people talking about it on this big level. Even though I don’t have any books out, I don’t consider myself a small publisher. I look to what are larger, midsize publishers.

But it’s not like we’re in the midst of a publishing boom. How will you do it?

I blame the way the industry works, the way the market is set up. So nowadays, as an indie publisher, it’s kind of going back to what indie record labels did once upon a time, which was like, “All right, the record stores aren’t set up to carry us. They’re never going to care about us. So what can we do? We’re going to have to forge a direct relationship with readers.” I think the readers are there. I just don’t think they’ve been reached, because if you live in Dallas, where are you going to go buy books?

Well, that’s the problem.

Barnes & Noble, right? And so you go to Barnes & Noble, and what do you see? You see massive best-sellers and classics, and there’s no in between. When in reality there’s been shit published in the last 50 years that was good, but you just never find it. So the whole system was set up against readers for a long time, and that’s changing. I welcome it.

You mentioned Dallas’ forgotten literary history. As a newcomer, what do you make of how the city forgets itself?

I always say that to be in Dallas, the way to get people to actually listen to me is to come up with the craziest idea I can and present it to them professionally. Because the bigger the plan, the more that people take me seriously here. It’s not necessarily like that everywhere. In Dallas, the framework is we’re business first; we’re big, bold ideas; big things happen here. That’s the slogan. What has become apparent to me is it’s a city that every so often completely reinvents itself and in that process forgets what it was. And not to speak negatively of the city, but I think both you and I can agree that a lot of what the problem is here is that our leaders—political, economic, or whatever—look to the wrong places. We’re comparing ourselves to New York City; we’re comparing ourselves to Rio de Janeiro. What? No. Why are you comparing yourself to these cities?

Where should Dallas compare itself to?

A much more realistic city to compare ourselves to, and a place I look for inspiration, is Minneapolis.

It’s funny you say that, because I’ve always seen Minneapolis as sharing in Dallas’ paradigm, but no one ever talks about it.

Exactly. They’re both provincial cities, and they’re both far away from anyone else who cares about them. And yet, people in Minneapolis enjoy a high quality of life, even though the weather is way shittier than here. Their literary scene—outside of New York—is the best in the country. Like, there’s nothing that comes close. They have publishers, they have a literary nonprofit based in the center of the city, which is an actual center, and people hang out there. That city is the model for what I aspire to be. I want to help make Dallas more like Minneapolis.

 

This Q&A appears in the September 2014 issue of D Magazine.

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