For many authors, the pandemic has led to one unexpected silver lining: more time at home can mean more time to focus on writing and publishing. Dallas Athent will emerge from the lockdown with both a newly published novel and a new publishing venture. Pravum launches with the publication of Athent’s Lesser Journeys, written under the pen name Dallie Ago, which follows a female engineer with a chronic illness as she travels throughout Europe.
Though Athent and her cofounders, Jennifer Obidike and Camille Johnston, took action to launch the enterprise at the start of the pandemic, the inspiration for Pravum had long been stirring. Athent spoke with BookLife about her vision for Pravum, breaking away from conventional publishing, and the newfound joy of heralding the books she wants to see in the world.
Tell me about your inspirations for founding Pravum.
I’m a type-1 diabetic, which has always given me some sense of awareness of my impermanence, and often propels me into taking risks. When Covid first hit, I felt a spotlight on this disease [type-1 diabetes], as it’s one of the illnesses in the high-risk category. This didn’t really bother me, as I’m pretty used to discussing my illness by now, and have reconciled to how it’s a risk when it comes to everything. The thing that really surprised me was the way my healthy friends began examining their own mortality! As friends first, Jennifer Obidike, Camille Johnston, and I found ourselves often discussing the concept of death and not wanting to let life pass us by. I think the whole world had to adjust in ways none of us expected, and so the collective consciousness began reevaluating what’s truly important.
For me, it’s always been books. Books pulled me out of the horror of my diagnoses. Books also saved the three of us cofounders during the lockdown. I think this respect of the craft, combined with the rare circumstances of reevaluating our lives, made us all feel confident that starting Pravum was the right thing to do.
How would you describe Pravum’s mission? And how does it stand apart from other indie publishers?
We call the books we publish “degenerate literature.” Degeneration is defined as losing the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable, showing evidence of decline—which, incidentally, we don’t think is a bad thing. We’re specifically looking for novels with themes of mysticism, culture, gender, sex, art, death, and the power of the unconscious. With these themes in mind, we hope to change the ideas of morality as we know it and expand the horizons of our readers.
Jennifer put it well when she said, “Pravum is the brainchild of ambitious daydreamers. We want to publish books that express tenderness or sensitivity as strength. We want to publish books whose worlds are so ridiculous, they’re welcome and needed in this time of utter chaos. In the end, we hope that our readers feel a sense of renewal or transformation through the sexy or the absurd.” I think we hope, most of all, to make people laugh and embrace theatrics.
Why did you decide to publish Lesser Journeys through Pravum rather than with a traditional publishing house?
I originally wrote Lesser Journeys thinking I’d go the traditional route of publishing. Here’s the downside: I notoriously hate bureaucracy when it comes to the arts. The arts provide one of the rare chances we have to be ourselves, both as creators and consumers. When my agent, Natalie Kimber, was discussing publishing schedules, pitching processes, and editing with me, I thought, yeah... no thanks, and that was that. It may not be wise, but that’s just how I am.
As this was happening, the idea came into place to form Pravum. Lesser Journeys sort of acted as the “pilot” for Pravum, allowing us to see how we work together and what it would actually mean to form a publishing house.
Can you talk about the important role independent publishers play in supporting and raising diverse literary voices?
We don’t ever want to do anything performative when it comes to social justice. We can’t speak for independent publishers as a whole, but we aim to engage our readers in difficult subjects, such as race, gender, class, health, or religion, through the guise of pleasure and humor—that’s always helped me with my issues, anyway!
There’re logistical things we’ve pledged to ensure we’re serving a wide range of people, including committing to equal pay for all writers, regardless of notoriety, which will be reviewed on a biannual basis, and not requiring use of an agent for our submissions page.
In what ways do you feel that traditional publishing may not be meeting the moment for today’s aspiring authors?
I hate to say this, and I want to be explicit that this is my personal sentiment and not necessarily the shared statement of my cofounders, but, as an avid reader, I feel somewhat disconnected from the majority of books that are published today. I think the publishing industry—while often well-intentioned—has a bottom line that requires distilling and flattening work so it can appeal to the masses in our simulated environment.
For many of us who are compelled to write, the system has failed us in general—whether it’s health care, housing, or incarceration. Reading books that we feel have been heavily edited by massive companies to sustain the economy can be kind of jarring. It’s a reminder of how commercial media doesn’t necessarily aim to speak to us or for us.
What sort of creative control do authors maintain by publishing with Pravum?
At the moment, that remains to be seen, as we’ll be doing our next set of titles in 2021. However, one thing that will always be important to us is the way we help authors develop the story line. If there’s anything they feel must absolutely remain in the book, even if we find it stylistically off-putting or unusual, we’d aim to respect their wishes as an artist and give them the final authority.