Exclusive Interview with Paul Ruffin of Texas Review Press: A Texas Indie Press Playing for National Attention

Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton--these are the names that instinctively come to mind when university presses are mentioned. But hold on--there's something brewing in Huntsville, Texas, too.

Huntsville, you say? The execution capital of the world? That may be true, but they also have Sam Houston State University, which hosts Texas Review Press, a member of the Texas A&M University Press Consortium, and one of the most successful and dynamic presses around. With some other university presses in the region recently curtailing operations, the burden is all the heavier on Texas Review Press to publish great literature that might otherwise get overlooked by the commercial presses.

I recently chatted over email with Paul Ruffin--poet laureate of Texas in 2009, author of many books of fiction, essays, and poetry, and founder and director of the press--about what makes the press unique, the prospects for independent publishing in an age of economic turmoil, Southern writing in general, and his own arc as a writer coming from a difficult economic background.

Shivani: You are the founder/director of Texas Review Press, a member of the Texas A&M University Press Consortium. How has the press evolved over the years, and what are its present priorities? What is truly distinctive about Texas Review Press? Have you accomplished everything you wanted to accomplish when you founded the press?

Ruffin: When I arrived at SHSU back in 1975, my dean gave me $500 to develop a literary journal, and the next year I came out with the Sam Houston Literary Review, a 64-page stapled publication. It was a modest beginning, but by 1978, when The Texas Quarterly folded at UT-Austin, our regional reputation had grown to the point at which I felt comfortable assuming a little more impressive sounding name, so I renamed the journal The Texas Review and published the first issue under that title in 1979.

That same year I had enough money in my budget to publish our first book under the imprint Texas Review Press. It was a collection of Texas poetry and photographs appropriately called The Texas Anthology. Then I discovered a much cheaper way of producing books: I'd accept a poetry chapbook and imbed it in an issue of The Texas Review, then have the printer run an extra 300 signatures (typically 32 pages, two sigs) and print a cover for the chapbook. All I was paying for the interior pages was the cost of ink and paper, and the covers were all in black ink, so the cost per unit was quite low. I did this for six or seven years, until I finally had a budget large enough to publish full-length books. By this time the administration was giving me enough money to manage at least a book a year in addition to two issues of the journal.

Before Bobby K Marks stepped down as president of SHSU--along about 1996, I would guess--he called me to his office one day and said that he wanted to do a little something to help out my operation: He set up a line-item budget allowance that would permit me to gear up production to the point at which I could publish three or four books a year, allowing me to seriously apply for admission to the Texas A&M University Consortium. The first time I appealed to them, the Consortium turned me down: I just didn't have enough books to prove that TRP was a viable enterprise. Without the Consortium, we simply didn't have any way to promote our books, so I applied again, and in 1997 we joined the University of North Texas, SMU, TCU, A&M, and the Texas State Historical Society as part of the Texas A&M University Press Consortium. From that point on we started producing four to six books a year, and our books were being represented and sold all over the world. By 2009 we were publishing a dozen books a year.

For 2012 I have twenty-three books scheduled for publication, thanks to the generosity of the SHSU administration in maintaining my budget, providing adequate facilities and equipment, and allowing me to use three graduate interns each semester from the English Department.

One thing that is distinctive about TRP is that for many years now we have had our four international book competitions--X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize (best full-length collection), George Garrett Fiction Prize (best novel or collection of short stories), Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, and Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize--and we've had winners from all over: Japan, the Czech Republic, Africa, and probably at least half the states in the Union.

We have also initiated a new breakthrough award for the best collection of Southern poetry by a poet who has never published a full-length book, and we are doing this state by state. The winner from Mississippi, Noel Polk, is our first. Each year we will publish a breakthrough book from another state until all the Southern states are represented in the series. We've also started a Southern Poetry Anthology series in which each year we publish a collection of the best poetry from a Southern state or region. Our first was South Carolina, followed by Mississippi and Contemporary Appalachia; we are bringing out Louisiana this year. Some of these are being used as classroom texts. What we'll do beyond all this to promote Southern literature is uncertain, but I'm thinking about a breakthrough series in Southern fiction (novel or short stories) and fiction anthologies featuring the best short fiction from each of the states.

I try very hard to work three or four Texas writers into our lineup each year, since I feel that one of our highest callings is to promote the literature of our state, and we average, I'd say, at least one book a year that focuses on Huntsville.

So we are a university press dedicated to promoting literature at the local, state, regional, national, and international levels.

If I had to cite the most distinctive feature of Texas Review Press, I would have to say that it is our internship program, through which our graduate students in creative writing are permitted to work as the staff of a university press and an international literary journal. We typically have three to four grad students on staff, along with student interns from our graduate Editing/Publishing Practicum.

That class itself is, I think, one of the strongest attractions to our graduate creative writing program. Each semester that I teach it, the students do research for a book of their own, organize the materials, write and edit the book, and design the cover. It is their book, and they are listed as the editors. The book then becomes just another in our lineup for the year and TRP runs it in the Consortium catalog and publishes it. It's quite exciting for these students to see their books all over the Internet and in bookstores. We had quite a lot of success with these books too: Mascot Mania, a book featuring and cataloging all the Texas high school mascots, was picked up by the Associated Press and reviewed by most major newspapers in the state and featured on several television and radio shows. Likewise we had great success with a collection of nonfiction and art from Texas Death Row. Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days: Voices from Texas Death Row was the subject of a Voice of America story and showed up on television and radio stations and on Internet sites all over the world. One of the finest moments for me, though, is sending out royalty checks to those graduate students--those checks might not seem like much to most people, but the students get a real kick out of them.

We have just instituted an MFA program in creative writing at SHSU, and I am hoping that TRP will be attractive to prospective students. They will be hard-pressed to find anything in the country comparable to our internship program and the Editing/Publishing Practicum, which guarantees them a book of their own. I think that we have a very bright future ahead of us.

Shivani: What is your relationship with the university? Is it a loose relationship, or a tight one? Does the university's financial situation affect you?

Ruffin: I am totally devoted to SHSU, which has been my home for a very long time. I cannot imagine having done better anywhere else. The administration has supported me all the way in every way that it could, and even in these financially troubling times I feel secure that they will go right on supporting the press and journal. They seem to recognize the ambassadorial role we play for Sam Houston State University: Where our journal and books go--and they go all over the globe--the name Sam Houston State goes.

Shivani: These are difficult economic times. Have you been affected by state budget cuts? What steps have you taken to alleviate the situation, and what other things would help to keep the press on a sustainable financial footing?

Ruffin: We are able to grow as a university press because we keep our expenses at a minimum. To this point our budget has not been touched. We derive around 60% of our operating budget from sales, and, though we had a couple of tough years, our increased production has resulted in more total revenues. Face it: University presses are high-profile targets when administrations start looking for places to cut, and many such presses have large, expensive facilities and state-of-the-art equipment, and most of them have several full-time employees plus interns.

I have six hours' reassigned time as editor of The Texas Review and director of Texas Review Press--plus a summer stipend equal to two classes--and I have one half-time assistant, plus three interns each semester, and we are housed in part of the bottom floor of the English building. I am not whining here: I have not asked for more. I believe that my administration recognizes the role we play in ensuring the survival of literature in the state, region, country, and world, and I am confident that they will go on supporting us as long as we represent the university the way we have in the past and as long as we demonstrate our ability to fulfill our role without requiring increased annual budgets.

Shivani: How has the press responded to the advent of new technologies? What more would you like to do in this direction?

Ruffin: New technology has made it much easier for us to increase our production year by year. There was a time when we had to type up manuscripts, often from handwritten submissions, and I laid out the journal and our books on a light table, cutting out paragraphs, lines, words, and even letters with an Exacto knife from a waxed galley sheet, and then the layout boards were photographed with an enormous camera, negatives made, and plates burned. It took forever to get something done. Now, after working things up on the computer, I send PDF files of our text and covers to the printer. Corresponding with authors through email just streamlines everything. I sometimes marvel at how far we have come in so short a length of time.

Shivani: What books have been some of your most important recent successes?

Ruffin: Well, you have to remember that a "success" for a small university press is to earn back more revenues than you put into a project. So defined, we've had a great many successes. Recently, though, I would mention Mascot Mania and Upon This Chessboard of Nights and Days: Voices from Texas Death Row as resounding successes, not because they earned us much more than we put into them but because they were media darlings for a while. As I mentioned earlier, Mascot Mania was picked up by the Associated Press and paraded all over the state, and the Death Row book was featured all over the world through Voice of America. And both these were books that my editing/publishing class produced. Those two books probably brought us more attention than all the others combined over the past decade.

I would certainly mention Richard Burgin's Rivers Last Longer, a novel that has received fine reviews from all over, and Eric Miles Williamson's novel Two-Up, already translated into French and recently accepted by a UK publisher. I have high hopes for Williamson's Say It Hot, which, if taken for what it is and not simply as some sort of personal rant, will force people to reconsider their opinions of some of American literature's presumed icons. Our fairly new Southern Poetry Anthology (collections on Contemporary Appalachia, Mississippi, and Carolina already out, with Louisiana close) is making its way into classrooms across the South, so I have high hopes for it.

Shivani: What titles are you most looking forward to in the near future?

Ruffin: I'm eager to continue with that Southern Poetry Anthology series and also with a new series I've introduced: the Southern Poetry Breakthrough prize. We are publishing the best book of poetry from each Southern state by poets who have never had a first book. One of the finest roles of the university press is to discover and promote exceptional new talent. I believe that these books will result in even more regional recognition. I'm always eager to see what our international competitions will bring each year. I'm always eager to get our Editing/Publishing Practicum books out, since they are usually of local interest. The class is working on a book on Dan Phillips right now that we'll bring out next year. Dan, who has an operation called Phoenix Commotion, builds both spec houses and houses for indigent families in the Huntsville area, and he uses mostly recycled materials: He has built home after home using almost nothing but materials he has salvaged from the county dump and that people have donated to the cause. It will be, I think, a fine book.

Shivani: Recently, some other Texas independent presses have either ceased to exist or cut back on publishing literary work. This should have enhanced your position as almost the lone standard-bearer (shall we say the lone star?) in Texas. Has this unfortunate situation worked to your benefit?

Ruffin: The collapse of SMU Press--though it may be resurrected as an all-electronic press--was especially significant, since they were known for their excellent fiction offerings. The fact is that poetry and literary fiction just do not pay the bills anymore, if they ever did, so more and more independent and university presses are declining to consider manuscripts in those genres. A number of them are still doing a book of poetry or fiction a year, usually through some prize they established long ago and wish to retain. The university press, from the first in America at Cornell in 1869, was never expected to be commercially successful: It is a part of academe, and its highest calling is the dissemination of every sort of art and literature, not the generation of revenues. Far too many university administrations are training their sights on their presses, simply because they are an easy target these days. You don't see many athletic programs being cut significantly or shut down, do you? Whether all this economic turmoil has benefited us or not, I cannot say, though I suspect we'll begin to pick up better and better manuscripts as the years progress. We intend to go on producing the best books that we can as long as we can. Many of those books will end up in electronic editions, but they will be printed books first.

Shivani: What is your opinion of the recent closing of Borders? How does the paucity of bricks-and-mortar stores affect you--or does it? If you could wave a magic wand, what changes would you like to see in the distribution system for the benefit of independent presses emphasizing quality literary work?

Ruffin: The most immediate impact of the closing of Borders on us was to generate some concern about whether the Consortium would ever be able to recover some of the money they owe us. It would be nice if more stores carried the books being produced by small independents and university presses, but they are all swept up in the same commercial frenzy to provide what they think the average American reader is likely to fall for, and that is self-help books, books by and about the rich and famous, etc. I wonder sometimes how Hemingway and Faulkner would fare. Chances are that some university press would have ended up publishing their books. I also wonder who will represent the world of American literature in the textbooks of tomorrow.

Shivani: What are some misconceptions people might have about a press located in Huntsville, Texas that you would like to remove?

Ruffin: It does not matter where a press is located as long as it does its job. Whether you're working on the bottom floor of the English building at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, or in some spacious modern complex high above the streets of Manhattan, you are measured by the work you produce. I'll guarantee you that all those throngs of people lugging around manuscripts out there are not concerned about the location of a potential publisher.

Shivani: You've recently published a novel by Richard Burgin, a major American short story writer, and winner of multiple Pushcart prizes. Does it seem amazing to you that such a novel was not published by a major New York house? Do the New York publishers know what they're doing?

Ruffin: I am both amazed and grateful to be able to lay my hands on these manuscripts. Quite a number of our books would have made it in New York two or three decades ago. Sure, they know what they are doing: They are playing it safe and avoiding economic collapse. They used to be willing to take on promising writers and cultivate them through an initial commercially unsuccessful book or two, realizing that eventually their work might result in a tremendous payoff. Not now: The bean-counters are in charge of the temple up there, and they are far more interested in lucre than in literature.

Shivani: You just published a book of familiar essays--your fourth one--called Travels With George in Search of Ben Hur and Other Meanderings (University of South Carolina Press). Tell us what appeals to you about this form, and how it's different from the more popular "creative nonfiction" genre promoted by MFA programs?

Ruffin: I don't even know what they're doing in the area of creative nonfiction in the workshops these days, so I don't know whether the form as I practice it is very different or not different at all. I have published poetry and fiction (novels and collections of short stories), and I have to say that familiar essays are presently my favorite form. For one thing, the ideas for these pieces clutter my mental attic: They are everywhere I step. I have written a weekly newspaper column for over twenty-five years, and I don't recall a time when I didn't have in mind something to write about. Day-to-day living provides me with a wealth of material. For instance, right now, because of the terrible drought we're enduring, I've been writing about wells I've known: the one my father dug over in Mississippi, the one I once cleaned out for my grandfather, the one in my back yard. Sometimes I'll pull some of my fictitious characters in to help me, as I did this week. I have a guy by the name of Grady Johnson over in Mississippi whom I pull into these pieces strictly for entertainment purposes. He talks just like any of the redneck characters in my stories, and the situations are made up. If I'm writing about West Texas, I'll enlist the help of Mr. and Mrs. Pate: I've learned an awful lot about the world just sitting on their imaginary porch listening to their stories. These things read like familiar essays, but they are in fact fiction. Almost everything in Travels with George is autobiographical.

Shivani: What was your relationship with legendary Southern writer George Garrett?

Ruffin: George and I had a long, wonderful history. I first met him when he visited the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, and we were close friends from that point on. We joined forces on several literary projects, mostly anthologies, and he served as my fiction editor at The Texas Review for many years. We traveled together on reading tours a few times--as a matter of fact, the title piece in Travels with George, is a chronicle of a road trip we took in Texas back in the mid-nineties--and I gotta tell you that he entertained every mile of the way. On a New England tour once he put me and my wife up for a couple of days in their house in York Harbor, Maine, and he prepared two big lobsters for me for dinner one night. Not many people would do that.George has probably been the single most important influence on my writing life. He was a man who excelled in every discipline he put his pen too--poetry, short story, novel, essay, screen play--and that became my aspiration. I've done OK, I think, in everything but the screen play. One final statement on George Garrett: He never got the kind of recognition he deserved for his writing. Never won a Pulitzer, though many of his books were vastly superior to books that did. Southern white male writers seldom do, you will note. George Garrett should be ranked among the eternal Greats in American literature--and maybe eventually he will be.

Shivani: You were the poet laureate of Texas in 2009. How was the experience?

Ruffin: It was a wonderful experience and a great surprise. I've lived in literary obscurity for so damned long, I figured that I was destined to remain there. It was recognition by my adopted state, and it felt good. I've had lots of invitations since then to do readings and workshops and to submit poetry for publication, and I got a book out of it in TCU Press's Poet Laureate series. The high doesn't last long though--soon enough you are living in literary obscurity again.

Shivani: You've written a memoir called Growing Up In Mississippi Poor and White But Not Quite Trash. Tell us about it.

: I've published big chunks of that thing here and there--the last section of Travels with George is about my coming to sexual awareness, and Boulevard has published two large sections of it--but I still haven't wrestled the thing into shape. Every time I think it's ready to go, I write another little section. It's the story of my growing up in poverty on aptly named Sand Road, about five miles from Columbus, Mississippi. I focus on four areas of my evolution: family life, religion, racial issues, and my very slow awakening to sexual knowledge. The problem with writing a memoir is that the more you dredge around in the pit of your mind for memories, the more you find. One thing leads to another...

Shivani: While we're talking about poverty, there's very little American fiction dealing with the realities of the working class. Why is this the case? Who do literary writers really write for?

Ruffin: Oh, there are plenty of writers out there who deal with the working-class world, but nobody's paying a whole lot of attention to them. Everybody wants to read about being poor and black or poor and Hispanic, but it seems to me that there's not a whole lot of interest among the general public in reading about being poor and white. I don't really care: I'm going to go on writing about that world whether anyone reads my work or not.Literary writers apparently write for each other.

Shivani: You are one of the few writers who publish in multiple genres--fiction, poetry, and essays. Why is it that most writers these days stick to a single niche?

Ruffin: I fear that most people get too comfortable with a particular genre and feel that they might jinx themselves by trying something new. The movement for me from lyrical poetry to dramatic poetry to familiar essays and fiction was so seamless that I wonder why I didn't make it sooner. I started writing both poetry and fiction in church when I was a kid to keep from going crazy with boredom, and I've always felt comfortable writing either. I wrote essays in school as "punishment" for getting into trouble--I wrote my way out of many a paddling.

Shivani: Do you think an American writer deserves the Nobel Prize? Who? Which recent Nobel literature choice has been particularly apt, in your opinion?

Ruffin: To my way of thinking, John Steinbeck was the last American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1962) whose work was truly worthy of such recognition. When you examine the winners of that prize since then, you see agendas at work that you know will never permit another American of genuine lasting literary quality to win as long as those agendas are in place. Could Hemingway or Faulkner win today? It is doubtful. As for prospects for Americans right now, I don't know. You see names like Roth, Pynchon, and Oates tossed around, but the only American writer I know who rises in literary excellence to what I regard as the essential level is Cormac McCarthy, but he's a Southern (more or less) white male who doesn't socialize well. I figure that he's a long shot, but he is certainly deserving of the honor.

Shivani: You've built yourself as an influential writer, editor, and teacher from what is proverbially known as a hardscrabble background. What advice do you have for writers coming from similar experiences?

Ruffin: Get up every morning with one realization in mind: If you don't like your life, you can change it. You can do that in this country, in spite of all the petty forces arrayed against you. If you want to write, then write--if you're good enough, someone will publish you. If you are not good enough, then work at it until you are. If you fall short of your dreams in this country--assuming that they are reasonable--it is because you didn't try hard enough to realize them. Take pride in what you do but remain humble in knowing that you can do better.

Anis Shivani's books are Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (forthcoming, Nov. 2011), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (forthcoming, 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming, 2012), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).