With offices in Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn, Tin House Books isn’t known for publishing children’s books. Instead, it has developed quite a reputation in the small press world for its curated list of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. But though the publisher isn’t intentionally marketing its books to younger readers, some of its titles have nonetheless caught the attention of mature-minded teens and millennials through word of mouth.
And next month, a new book – Sara Jaffe’s coming-of-age debut Dryland, about a 15-year-old girl in search of her sexual identity in the shadow of her estranged older brother during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – is poised to draw attention to Tin House from fans of contemporary, realistic YA once again.
Known first for its literary magazine, which launched in 1999, then for its publishing arm that began in 2002 (as an imprint of Bloomsbury before transforming into an independent press in 2005), Tin House publishes around 12 titles a year. Past titles that have earned critical accolades include Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New and Collected Essays (Nov. 2014) – on NPR’s 2014 Best of the Year list and a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay – and Donna Freed’s Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money (Jan. 2010), a reissue of a guide to frugal living the author wrote in 1978 when she was 18.
The press also specializes in works of literary fiction, some of which have found their way into the hands of a younger audience despite the books’ adult categorization. Pamela Erens’s racy boarding school saga The Virgins (Aug. 2013) and Claire Fuller’s harrowing backwoods thriller Our Endless Numbered Days (Mar. 2015) feature young protagonists and YA-accessible (though dark) themes.
Dryland’s Crossover Appeal
An upcoming addition to the Tin House list, Sara Jaffe’s Dryland is already making waves in the literary world. It was featured in The Millions’ “Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview” and received a starred review from PW. But the book almost didn’t happen – at least not in its current form.
When Jaffe, who lives in Portland, Ore., began early drafts in 2010, she conceived the novel as a long short story. “I sent it to a few places but it was an awkward length and I could tell that it wasn’t getting fully realized in the form of a short story. So I made some forays into it over the next year and decided that it was going to be a novel project,” says Jaffe, whose short fiction has been published in Fence and BOMB, and who co-edited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata. “Then I worked concertedly for three years after that and sent it to some agents and small presses. Masie [Cochran, a Tin House editor] was the first person who got back to me. Tin House felt like the pinnacle and that was really exciting.”
So is Dryland a book geared toward adults or teens? As with The Virgins and Our Endless Numbered Days, a little bit of both.
Before Cochran acquired the book she wasn’t intentionally looking for a book suitable for a YA audience. But during an initial read-through of Jaffe’s manuscript, its crossover appeal became apparent. “One of the reasons the book excited me so much for YA was because I thought, ‘Finally I found somebody that talks to them and not down to them,” Cochran says. “It’s disingenuous to have teen characters who know themselves so well. But one of the great things [about Dryland] is that [if] you’re a teen and you read a teen narrator like Julie who doesn’t have it all figured out, you can see the cracks in her armor. It’s much better to be in those moments because maybe it’s okay not to know, instead of these characters we’ve been given so often who already know what they want for their 30-year life plan.”
But though Cochran and the rest of the Tin House team were on board with positioning Dryland as a crossover title, the author wasn’t completely sold – at least not in the beginning. “I wrote the book with an adult audience in mind,” Jaffe says.” When Masie first read [the manuscript] and suggested the possibility of a YA crossover, I think I was a little defensive about it at first – mostly because it’s strange to have the experience of writing for one audience and then hear that it might also work for another,” she says.
Jaffe also had another reason for feeling skeptical. Growing up in the Internet-free 1990s when the book takes place, she didn’t read much YA. “When I was a teenager, I read adult books. So I think I have a skewed idea of what YA is,” she says. “[Now] I understand that it has really changed over the years and, ultimately, my feelings have come around to the fact that the more people who want to read the book, the better.”
Forging New Ground
Dryland certainly hits a lot of teen-centric themes. Its protagonist, 15-year-old Julie, and her increasingly boy-crazy best friend, Erika, go to parties and smoke cloves. Popular and gorgeous Alexis recruits Julie to join the swim team, a sport perfected by Julie’s older brother who was once an Olympic swimmer hopeful before he left for Germany. Julie’s parents are standoffish to the point of being semi-clueless. And there are boring yearbook meetings and awkward scenes in the girls’ locker room.
But Jaffe, who co-founded New Herring Press and teaches writing at Portland State University and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, also takes the plot to a deeper level – something that the Tin House team hopes will appeal to crossover readers. Like “queer fiction” such as David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy and Two Boys Kissing, Dryland tackles Julie’s exploration of her sexual orientation and burgeoning attraction toward Alexis. But the book also addresses what those pre-coming-out emotions mean within the context of the HIV/AIDS scare – and the palpable loss of a brother who Julie finds out is gay and might be infected. In short, there’s a lot more going on than boys and cigarettes.
“You’re getting Julie in the middle of things, which I think is really nice. [The book] begins and she’s already questioning things. We don’t find her in a sure place and unroot her from that,” Cochran says. “And at the end, we have this wonderful understanding that, with her, there’s a lot more to come.”
In preparation for Dryland’s September release, the marketing team at Tin House has already set in motion a multi-pronged promotional plan – pitching both adult and teen-focused media outlets. In the weeks leading up to and following the book’s publication, they’re staging a blog tour with prominent YA crossover bloggers, promotion across many social media channels, and themed writing contests for teens.
Jaffe will also be doing local signings in Portland, beginning with the launch on September 2 at Powell’s Books, a reading at the University of Portland on October 7, and a workshop at Wordstock, Portland’s Book Festival on November 7. Throughout the rest of November and December, she’ll be on the road to Seattle, San Francisco, and New York City, culminating in an event at New York’s New Museum on December 13.
Whether Dryland finds its audience in teens, adults, or a mix of both remains to be seen. And mum is the word as far as whether Tin House is actively looking to publish another crossover title. As for Jaffe’s intentions? “I think probably my next project is a collection of short stories. I have an idea that I’m not ready to talk about yet for the next novel project... but it’s not teen.”