Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Dorothy Traver’s wood-paneled station wagon was her bookmobile. She’d pack it full of novels and biographies and poetry and drive all over San Bernardino County, over mountains and through deserts, bringing books to little towns in California without libraries. She started as a children’s librarian, but later in her career, she headed up the whole county library system, a huge deal for a woman in the mid–20th century. She was a spinster who championed animal rights before it was fashionable; who grew roses; who hung midcentury modern art in her house. And every holiday and birthday, she’d wrap up fancy children’s books, the kind with tissue paper over glossy colored plates, and send them to the kids in the family, pasting a bookplate decorated with an owl on the endpapers that read “From Dorothy.”
Traver was novelist and publisher Danielle Dutton’s great-aunt. “Those gifts made me cherish the books as object,” she says. “Today, I’ll read books to my son, and I’ll open up a book, and it will say ‘From Dorothy.’”
Dutton, who joined Washington University’s creative-writing faculty this fall, has published stories in Harper’s Magazine, BOMB, and Noon. She’s also the author of Attempts at a Life and S P R A W L (the latter published by Siglio Press, which usually only does art books; it was shortlisted for The Believer Book Award). Before her son was born, Dutton also designed book covers for Dalkey Archive Press, where her husband, Martin Riker, serves as associate director. Earlier this year, the family relocated to St. Louis from Champaign-Urbana, Ill. Now, Dalkey’s partly based here. The Dorothy project, the press Dutton founded last year and named for her great-aunt, is 100 percent here, because she largely does it single-handedly. Described on the website as a publishing project “dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women,” Dorothy’s logo is, of course, an owl, drawn in a waggish, folksy style by artist Yelena Bryksenkova, who also contributes cover art.
“I guess it is a kind of tiny resistance to the bigness of everything,” Dutton says of the press. “I definitely have an aesthetic of the small.” She also noticed that literary presses, including Flood Editions, Wave Books, and Fence, mainly publish poetry. Though she saw some great small presses dedicated to fiction, she says, “I felt like there was room for more. I felt like I wanted to do something where there was a need or a space, instead of adding more just to be more.”
If Dorothy is about anything, it is about not adding more to be more. The press publishes just two titles a year, which forces Dutton to fiercely curate the texts. It also allows her time to do extensive back-and-forth edits with writers, design covers, and carefully consider each and every page.
“That’s part of what I love about having a press, just the physical making of books,” she says. “It’s so important to me that books be beautiful. I know there are lots of people who think that’s silly. But I love books, moving through them and holding them. For the covers of the Dorothy books, I used this particular printer, because there is this very velvety finish. It’s part of the experience of this
But of course, the object must be not just lovely to hold, but also lovely to read. Last year, the press launched with Renee Gladman’s magical Event Factory (the first book in a trilogy that will all be published through Dorothy) and a reissue of British writer and artist Barbara Comyns’ astonishing 1955 novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. This year, Dutton published part two of Gladman’s trilogy, The Ravickians, and Manuela Draeger’s In the Time of the Blue Ball, translated from French by Brian Evenson.
Now, remember that sly reference to works “mostly by women?” “Manuela Draeger is actually a pseudonym for a male writer,” Dutton says. (He’s a French guy who writes…well, actually, under another pseudonym.) “I loved that gender play. The first paragraph talks about how the man who invented fire was actually a woman, and so from the very first line of the book it’s playing with that.”
This year, Dutton will publish Fra Keeler, the debut of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, a young writer who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and is currently in Spain on a Fulbright grant, finishing another novel and a novella. The other book—which Dutton isn’t at liberty to talk about yet—is another first book by a young woman writer. Dutton says that in Oloomi’s case, she was first contacted by two people who didn’t know each other, who’d each seen the manuscript in drastically different ways. She read the book, loved it, and took it on. That kind of magical coincidence seems, pardon us saying so, very Dorothy-like.
“I don’t want it to be a machine,” Dutton says. “It seems like an odd word to use, maybe, but I want it to be…earnest. Not slick. But at the same time, rigorous. I want to do right by the books.”
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