SFWP Celebrates 20 Years: Part 3

Part 3: Pursuit

By Andrew Gifford

 

Londinium is burning…

 

I have a soft spot for historical fiction set in the Roman era. When I read for pleasure, I’m as eclectic as SFWP’s catalog. Sometimes, I’m reading pulpy b-grade sci-fi; next, I’m reading dense academic nonfiction; then, I’m reading self-published memoirs about people who stepped off the grid for 20 years, all stacked in a strictly regulated to-read pile.

But give me a good story set in the Roman Era, and I might abandon that to-read pile for a moment.

In 2004, I stumbled across an old, dusty book in a used bookstore. A copy of George Shipway’s Imperial Governor. Told in the form of a memoir, Imperial Governor tells the story of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus—a real life figure who was a governor of the then-fledgling province of Britannia during the reign of Nero, just a few years after Britain had finally been partially occupied by Roman troops.

Suetonius is given a simple task: The province must make money. Historically, he did this by burning his way across the west of Britain (the heartland for gold and other metals). His side-mission was to also pursue the last of the druids and exterminate them. He pushed his way through what is now Wales, subduing all of the tribes along the way, and laid brutal siege to the Isle of Anglesey where the last of the druids and British refugees were pinned down.

Suetonius would have dealt the final death blow to the druids then and there if not for a spark of rebellion back east. Pushing against the brutal tactics of Nero’s tax collectors and the bloated, corrupt Roman administration, the warrior queens Boudicca and Cartimandua rose up and united the fractious British tribes in what would become the bloodiest revolt against Roman rule. And they almost won. Suetonius, trapped with an under-manned legion, abandoned by his allies, and outnumbered 10 to 1, was forced to fight a pitched battle across the countryside of Britain.

Imperial Governor was written in 1968. Shipway was a long time veteran, serving in British India. In 1948, he retired and quietly taught at a small school in England. At the age of 60, he decided to become a writer. You know, just for the hell of it. His writing is prolific, but it’s Imperial Governor that stands out as one of the best historical fiction novels set in the Roman Era.

Though, of course, you’ve probably never heard of it. It went out of print and faded away.  If you read my last article, you know that that sort of crap really bothers me. I decided to bring it back, so I started to pursue the rights. Shipway is dead. Some light investigative work told me that the rights went to his wife, Lorna. By the time I caught up with her after various searches in 2005-2006, I just found another gravestone. They were childless, so I went deeper, trying to find her family. Her estate went to her sister, also deceased. By then, it was 2009. The sister’s records were a bit spotty and I was having trouble finding her heirs. So I went all out—bringing in lawyers, a private investigator, interviewing people via email, phone, and during several trips to London. Who owned the rights to Imperial Governor? No one knew. Finally, in 2012, I found Shipway’s last surviving heir, mainly thanks to ancestry sites and genealogists. I eagerly emailed him and probably sounded like a complete lunatic, gushing on and on about Imperial Governor and how I wanted to reprint it. His response?

“Uncle George was a writer?”

It took a while but, by 2015, the Imperial Governor project was greenlit. We had to laboriously scan in the original version of the book, and slowly pick through all the errors that come about using that method. The book spent more than a year in development and, I’m sure, you’ll still find an error or three. But it’s hitting the shelves this September and, there, it will live forever.

As we move into our 20th Anniversary season, the Fall 2018 titles reflect SFWP’s original vision and mission. This wasn’t really intentional. Deadlines, marketing plans, and the randomness that sometimes reigns during a book’s early production brought our four fall releases together by accident. The four books are all very different from one another, but they represent the various pillars, if you will, of SFWP’s focus.

Last time I talked about the anti-war book Crossing Over, releasing this October, which, like Imperial Governor, is a book considered by many to be foundational for the era and genre it represents. Crossing Over speaks out against the Vietnam War in a voice that can be applied to any war, and, all these decades later, feels as fresh and important as when it first hit the shelves.

Crossing Over is also a wildly experimental book. It’s best described as flash fiction, working almost as a sort of hybrid prose-poetry chapbook. Less than 60 pages, and with certain sections that challenge the way you’re used to reading books, Crossing Over not only represents my desire to save great books from vanishing into the past but also my lack of fear when it comes to publishing crazy stuff that would make stick-in-the-mud publicists scream.

Along with those two reprints, we’ll be concluding our best-selling epic fantasy trilogy by Daniel M. Ford this fall with Crusade,  which received a rave starred and boxed review in Publishers Weekly. This is only the second time in 20 years that an SFWP title has received “The Box,” with the last one being Pagan Kennedy’s The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex. So, it’s a big deal.

Crusade and the first two of Ford’s novels in this series represent a new turn for SFWP as I begin to branch out into the various genres. The Paladin Trilogy was a wild gamble and was nothing like what we had released before. The books were expensive to produce and, if they had failed, then we may not have made it to 20 years. I put everything on the line for this series, once again daring fate. It feels like my “damn the torpedoes” approach is how I’ve managed every step of SFWP these last two decades. I follow my instinct and my gut as opposed to what the people who toe the standard marketing line advise.  And the books were a phenomenal success.  Now I’m looking at other genres—in fact, I just signed a crime novel. At every turn, SFWP adapts and continues to fight the mold.

Finally, we have All Roads Lead to Blood by Bonnie Chau, also releasing in September. This collection of short stories comes from my new imprint, 2040 Books, managed by Dr. Allen Gee, author of the essay collection, My Chinese-America. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you when I say that publishing is an old boys club. Most typically, an old, white boys club. Much like the movie industry (where, by the way, nobody of color has the power to greenlight a major studio movie), publishing is ruled by an established old guard. Unlike the movie industry, though, publishing is also entering a period much akin to the Wild West. Minority authors and indie publishers are starting to break down the walls and change how things are done.

It’s a slow process. The #metoo movement is just now catching up with the frightening abuse and excesses that this industry can sometimes breed, the people spending millions to tell you exactly what you should read are still ensconced safely in their penthouses, and you are still reading what they tell you to. But we will witness the final cries of these dinosaurs. At AWP, a few years ago, Gee shared a statistic with me: By the 2040s, the majority of Americans will be from a minority group. The US Census is very strict with the date: They say that the majority-minority will dawn in 2042. And, you know, that’s gonna change some things.

Gee and I decided that we shouldn’t wait till the 2040s. The time is now! We’re all here now. We’re all screaming for change. 2040 Books was founded to champion minority writers. Launching with Bonnie Chau’s edgy and daring collection about living and loving as a second-generation Chinese-American is the perfect way to start this mad snowball rolling. That release represents SFWP’s ongoing mission to recognize and support daring, non-conformist literature at a time when that support is desperately needed. Currently, most of the authors in our catalog—SFWP and our imprints—are women. Now we’ll be adding strong, minority voices to the roll call. The majority-minority exists right now, in 2018, here in publishing.

Four books, embracing the mission and vision of SFWP, and embracing SFWP’s ability to change with the times and attempt to make changes to the times, all hit the shelves when the company officially turns 20.

What started as a dream beneath that big Santa Fe sky still feels as magical. The only real difference is that, now, there are many others who are sharing my dream, and who have come on board with their powerful, new voices.

 

A final note: If you’re in the DC area, come celebrate our 20th Anniversary at The Barking Dog in Bethesda, MD on September 8th.

 

 

Born and raised in Washington, DC, Andrew Gifford is the founder and director of the Santa Fe Writers Project. He is also the author of the memoir We All Scream: The Fall of the Gifford’s Ice Cream Empire.

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