Q&A: Forest Ave Small Press and the Main Street Writers Movement
Begun in 2012, Portland’s Forest Avenue Press has created an inviting space for “Literary fiction on a Joyride.” To top it off, the small press has also started something called the Main Street Writers Movement – a means of connecting small presses, local book stores, and literary folk of all kinds.
Forest Ave.’s web site explains, “The Main Street Writers Movement encourages writers to build genuine community on the local level, with a focus on amplifying underrepresented voices and supporting regional literary organizations and businesses.”
In connecting writers across the U.S., the movement aims to “strengthen the literary ecosystem, increase the volume of the literary publishing conversation, and earn more visibility for the writers who invest time and effort in their communities.”
The following Q&A explores the movement, and offers writers useful, inspiring tips in getting involved with and supporting their local writing communities.
Forest Press Q&A
To get to the root of the movement and to learn more about the small press, I spoke with three of the women who have been the backbone of Forest Ave: Founder Laura Stanfill, Editor-at-Large Liz Prato, and Graphics Designer Gigi Little.
What motivated the Main Street Writers Movement?
Stanfill: I wanted to articulate the importance of supporting other writers at the local level in a way that allowed anyone to join in. It was a way to crystallize my beliefs about community over competition in the literary world and spread the importance of indie bookstores.
At the time, I taught about once a month at writing workshops, colleges, universities, and festivals. I had vowed to talk about these cornerstone values of my press—and my life—at each appearance. Turning the concept into a movement seemed like an accessible and empowering way to do that. Not only to say, Here’s what I do, but to offer a template, a series of simple guidelines to help other communities of writers lift each other up.
All you have to do to join the movement is sign a pledge offering support. That’s it! You belong.
When and how was Forest Ave created?
Stanfill: I had the idea in 2012. At the beginning of that year, maybe February, I heard about the Powell’s Espresso Book Machine and the idea of printing a book in a bookstore totally engaged my imagination. I met with the staff there to learn how it worked, and that’s when I started thinking about a collection that would bring lots of local voices together.
I didn’t care if anyone was published or not. I just wanted it to honor writers living in Oregon. That mix of micro essays and interviews from my Seven Questions blog series turned into our first title, “Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life.”
We celebrate our anniversary in June, based on the day Gigi Little agreed to be my designer and we decided to move forward. Our first title—appallingly fast, I now realize—came out in October.
We have 15 titles out right now. The newest, “The Royal Abduls” by Ramiza Shamoun Koya, comes out Tuesday, May 12.
When was the Movement launched?
Stanfill: At AWP* in Washington, DC., spring 2017.
*AWP is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and puts on a huge event every spring somewhere in the U.S. Find out more here.
Little: I’m privileged to have Laura let me in on a lot of the goings on behind the scenes at Forest Avenue Press, and when she first mentioned the idea of the Main Street Writers Movement, I was super excited. It felt like a perfect extension of Forest Avenue Press and what it stands for.
I don’t know anyone in publishing who is more connected to and honoring of community than Laura. She’s always sitting down with writers, talking to students, bringing people together around writing. In a way, she’s been a Main Street Writers Movement of her own since day one.
Who’s behind the start of the Main Street Movement?
Stanfill: I would have never imagined starting a movement or understood how to put the pieces together without my phenomenally brilliant business strategist Nikole Potulsky. She helped me recognize and articulate my primary motivations as a publisher and a writer. That’s what Main Street builds on: my core beliefs. The way I want to be in the world. Nikole encouraged me every step of the way, interrogating my ideas and making sure of accessibility and clarity.
What happened after the launch of Main Street?
Stanfill: So, here’s the thing: I founded a movement about being together in person. Getting out of your houses to support each other and—as I put it in our pledge—have parades for each other. Through Main Street, I urge writers to go out and attend other writers’ events, to take pictures and share links and be present with others doing the same kind of deep creative work.
Word spread, people all over the country signed the pledge and agreed to support their local bookstores, presses, and authors, and I sent out a monthly newsletter celebrating the movement itself. But pretty soon, the idea of running an in-person movement—a get-out-there-and-be-together project—through an online newsletter seemed absurd. Using a networking tool that appeared on other’s computers felt odd and uncomfortable, and I guess you could say I lost my nerve. I stopped sending newsletters.
But I haven’t stopped the movement or sharing it at public appearances, and people have embraced it and continue to follow the pledge in their communities.
One of my favorite stories is filmmaker Jonah Barrett was inspired to create a three-part documentary series, Wordsmiths, about the Northwest literary community. He asked—and it was an unbelievable honor for me—to have his series be part of the movement. It was presented by OLY ARTS as part of the Main Street Writers Movement.
I love the idea of the movement as inclusive and something people can participate in based on their skillsets and visions—instead of a project with a leader. That’s part of why the newsletter felt wrong to me, too. I was always deciding what to include and what to exclude per issue, and I didn’t want to be the only voice in those decisions.
That being said, right now, it’s unsafe to gather in person. The best thing we can do is stay home. And I have no idea how to shift our movement to an online-centric one. Maybe there’s a way, but I haven’t figured it out. Rebooting the newsletter might be a way forward, but I’m not sure. And that’s okay. It’s hard to imagine the future right now. I’m trying to sit with that uncertainty.
Let’s not forget, you started a small press! What led you to begin Forest Ave.?
Stanfill: Liz inspired me to start a press, by talking about how we shouldn’t wait to become published writers and we could actually do things now. That was years ago.
Prato: I started working with Forest Avenue Press in January of 2013. That’s when Laura Stanfill asked me to curate and edit a short story collection – “The Night, and the Rain, and the River.” I also started reading novel submissions that month. A couple of years later, we talked about putting me on the masthead, but weren’t sure what to call my role. My official capacity doesn’t have super strict boundaries… Ultimately, we went with Editor at Large.
Why the name Forest Avenue?
I grew up on Forest Avenue and went to Forest Avenue School. To me, it blends my East Coast upbringing with the sensibilities of the Pacific Northwest. And I love the street word in the brand name because books take you places.
What do you look for in a submission?
Stanfill: We open for submissions about once a year, for a short window, so we can assemble a committee of women and nonbinary readers to help make the decisions. We’re actually finalizing decisions from the 2020 period right now. We have six finalists and only have space for two in our catalog.
Prato: I’m a sucker for voice, this unique sound to the writing that reveals a distinct person with a beating heart is telling the story. The piece also has to be about something. We see a lot of writing that’s very pretty or technically proficient, but we can’t figure out who the protagonist is or what they want. What tortures them, what drives them.
Forest Avenue Press is also super interested in under-represented voices—people of color, GLBTQ, neuro-divergent, disabled, immigrant, etc.
The manuscript needs to start off strong. That can range from a really exciting event, or a voice that immediately sinks us into the world we’re about to enter. In addition to all that, the writing has to have a certain spark, a je ne sais quois. You can’t necessarily define it, but you fully recognize its presence or absence.
What is your philosophy about sending books into the world?
Little: I just want to say that with Laura and with Forest Avenue Press, it’s so much about giving writers, new writers, diverse writers a voice. She and her crew choose what they love, and the press is a business and I know she wants to make a profit and to create something beautiful (it’s super important to Laura that this book, this object she and I and her writers and editors and everyone involved create together be a beautiful, special thing), but I think one of her top priorities is to give people a voice and to create and celebrate community around that.
Stanfill: All of our projects have some connection to the theme of community, which connects back to the movement.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start a small press?
Prato: Really, really look at the finances. People start small presses because they have a passion for literature, but passion doesn’t pay bills. Do profit and loss projections. Margins are razor thin, and profits usually need to be immediately rolled into the next book. Figure out for how long you can afford to exist without making a profit. Have a solid marketing plan. What hole are you filling that exists in the current marketplace? Think long and hard about how the books you publish will get into the world.
Beyond the financial aspect, do your level best every single day to be honest and ethical with your authors. Taking hold of an author’s manuscript and putting it into the world is a huge honor and responsibility. They’re trusting you. Don’t forget that.
Stanfill: Learn as much as you can before putting any money into books. So many presses get started and can’t sustain their growth, and closing can be crushing to the publisher as well as to its authors and readers. I recommend Joe Biel’s book, A People’s Guide to Publishing, as a primer.
What advice would you give someone wanting to start working in the Main Street Writers Movement?
Stanfill: Start local. If we can all put our time and love into local authors, presses, magazines, and bookstores, our literary community will be so strong. One way to do that now, in terms of isolation and social distancing, is buying books from stores that are offering curbside pickup or delivery options. Another way is to continue to read books and essays by local authors and sharing those experiences online so other people will read them too.
Learn more about the Forest Ave. and the Main Street Movement here.