When the actress Claire Bloom suggested the name "Steerforth" for the newly formed South Royalton, Vt.—based press to cofounder Alan Lelchuk, he was dubious. After all, Steerforth is the cad who drowns in David Copperfield. But, as Bloom reminded him, "You can't do better than Dickens."
Over the intervening nine years, it may have been Dickens's spirit that has brought the company luck, starting with one of its very first books, Dawn Powell at Her Best, a collection of short stories and novels by the writer frequently compared to Dorothy Parker. Almost single-handedly, Steerforth's aggressive program of reissuing Powell's long-out-of-print books contributed to a resurgence of interest in her oeuvre—and to a healthy bottom line.
Now, Lelchuk and cofounders Michael Moore, Thomas Powers and Chip Fleischer are reviving another long-neglected novel, written 40 years ago by self-exiled African-American author Vincent O. Carter (1924—1983), who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., but spent most of his adult life in Switzerland. Publisher Fleischer regards the house's decision to issue Such Sweet Thunder (Apr. 15), Carter's previously unpublished 537-page epic about a young boy growing up black between the two World Wars, as "the most important contribution we've made to the literary record since our publication of Dawn Powell."
Although Fleischer acknowledges that the use of dialect and the jazz-inspired structure make the first 100 pages of the book tough going, he told PW, "its view of the richness of African American society during segregated times fills a hole in 20th century fiction. I connect with Such Sweet Thunder more than any other title we have published, and for me, bottom line, that's what being a publisher is all about."
Fleischer first discovered Carter through a friend, who found Carter's memoir, The Bern Book: A Record of a Voyage of the Mind, completed in 1957 but not published until 1973, in a secondhand store. Haunted by the book, Fleischer contacted Herbert R. Lottman, then PW's European correspondent, whose introductory essay alluded to two unpublished manuscripts. With his help and that of a professor at Penn State, Fleischer tracked down Carter's girlfriend, Liselotte Haas, who still lives in Bern.
Steerforth's decision to publish the long-dead writer's novel is even more surprising given that the house does very little fiction, despite its acquisition of the backlist from literary fiction and poetry publisher Zoland Books. Yet Fleischer is undaunted at the prospect of promoting a novel by an author who is unfamiliar even to those who know African-American literature intimately.
Bookseller James Fugate, owner of Eso Won Bookstore in Los Angeles, admitted, "I had not heard of Carter until I read Darryl Pinckney's essay in Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature [published last June by Basic Civitas Books]. I just don't think people are going to know who Vincent Carter is. It's a literary book, too, and the market today is toward commercial fiction." Even so, Fugate, who is committed to supporting black literary endeavors, has placed a significant initial order for the $29.95 hardcover.
Steerforth is counting on support from other independents and chains, which have come to trust its sometimes maverick editorial decisions. For Virginia Powers, general manager of Olsson's, which has eight stores in the greater Washington, D.C., area, for example, "Steerforth is a publisher we always look to for special gems. They're one of those special publishers; you feel like every choice is personal."
To get the word out on Such Sweet Thunder, Steerforth has distributed 1,200 galleys and plans to give away another 1,000 to booksellers and reviewers. It also hired Phyllis Grann to consult on the publication, and freelance publicist Caitlin Hamilton, formerly with Blue Hen, to get off-the-book-page mentions. Other Kansans besides Fleischer are starting to get behind the novel. Evan Connell blurbed it, noting, "Carter's novel interprets a time and place with singular force.... It should have been published long ago." And the Kansas City Star is planning to devote a two-page spread to Such Sweet Thunder closer to publication, with an excerpt and reviews by several writers.
The house is also releasing its first commercial nonfiction, Street Soldier: My Life as An Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob (May 15) by Edward J. MacKenzie Jr. and Phyllis Karas with Ross A. Muscato. Originally slated to be published by William Morrow several years ago, the book was dropped, allegedly because "Eddie Mac" served as a source for 60 Minutes and for a series of Boston Herald articles well before his book was published, even though his publisher asked him not to.
Fleischer sought Grann's help for that book as well, and hired Newman Communications to line up broadcast interviews. In addition, Steerforth invested in developmental editing. Mackenzie's lawyer, Alfred E. Nugent, not only vetted the book, but also wrote the foreword.
Fleischer is quick to point out that Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob (Public Affairs, 2000; HarperPerennial, 2001), the New York Times bestseller by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, tells only part of the story. Given that James "Whitey" Bulger rose to the top of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List (after Osama Bin Laden) in 1999 and was recently sighted in London, interest in Boston's mob boss remains strong. One anecdotal sign is the enthusiasm of the sales force. "Never before have I had the sense that every PGW rep had read the galleys," said Fleischer.