Behind the Scenes with Ooligan Press at the Portland Book Festival

The Portland Book Festival, formerly known as Wordstock, is Oregon’s biggest literary event of the year, featuring panels, vendors, speakers, and lots and lots of books. Every November, the day-long event attracts authors and publishers from near and far, and last fall, Ooligan Press was proud to be included yet again. The festival drew its biggest crowd yet, with authors such as Elizabeth Acevedo, Lauren Groff, Tommy Orange, and Emily Suvada, and featured celebs-turned-authors Tom Hanks (who held a baby on stage at the Schnitz!) and Abbi Jacobson of Broad Cityfame.

In preparation for Ooligan’s role at the festival, the publisher’s assistants (myself and co-assistant, Stephanie Anderson) are responsible for finding and training volunteers from our press to oversee our vendor booth. We then work closely with our publisher to make sure all the books and supplies we’ll need are packed and ready. The day before the event, we set up in the Mark Building at the Portland Art Museum, where the vendors are located. Each vendor is given a specific time slot for setting up to streamline the process and keep things from getting hectic. It’s strange to see how empty the second floor ballroom is before the event. It’s a far cry from what it’ll look like the next day, when the room fills up with vendors and festival-goers. This year, we had a prime spot—a corner end cap right across from Powell’s Books massive set-up.

No other literary event in Portland draws as many readers, writers, and publishing professionals as the Portland Book Festival, which is why it’s one of the most important promotional and networking opportunities for Ooligan. It’s a chance to discuss our frontlist and backlist with potential readers while both are on display, and it’s also a great time for selling books. This year, two of our YA authors joined us at the booth to sign books—Meagan Macvie, who wrote the Kirkus-approved The Ocean in My Ears, and Connie King Leonard, whose Sleeping in My Jeans recently pubbed to great acclaim.

Sometimes people who approach our table aren’t always looking to buy a book. Instead, they want to create one, and we’re always happy to provide them information for how to do so. But one of my favorite parts of tabling at the festival is when I get to talk to prospective students interested in the book publishing program and working for Ooligan Press, which, of course, I highly recommend. And it’s always fun to visit with fellow local indie publishers like Overcup Press and Pomegranate.

After a long day of cementing Ooligan’s place within the Portland literary scene, inventory is taken of the remaining books, the cash box is counted, and the books are packed up and loaded onto the pushcart with the help of some amazing volunteers. Unlike setting up, all of the vendors pack up to leave at the same time, so getting out of there isn’t quite as smooth as getting in, and waiting for the elevator can take awhile, but it’s all worth it to be a part of the fascinating and fun celebration of books that is the Portland Book Festival.

Backlist to the Future: Dreams of the West

With the release date of Ooligan’s upcoming book, tentatively titled Mastersounds, quickly approaching, we prepare to once again look at how our cultural history has shaped this place we call home. Mastersounds will show the rich history of jazz throughout the Pacific Northwest with a specific focus on Seattle and Portland. This new text, written by local jazz legend Lynn Darroch, will be rich with textual and visual pieces of the Pacific Northwest’s musical past. While Mastersounds is still many months away from hitting a bookstore near you, to get a glimpse of what the final text may look like, you need look no further than Ooligan’s 2007 title, Dreams of the West: A History of the Chinese in Oregon 1850-1950.

Like Mastersounds, Dreams of the West is a visual exploration of how the Oregon that we know today came to be. Accompanied by a plethora of informative text in both English and Chinese characters, this book shows us an Oregon that grew out of the blood, sweat, and tears of the Chinese immigrants whose fingerprints can still be seen throughout the architecture, cuisine, and art of the Pacific Northwest. Despite weathering terrible conditions and prevalent (often state-sanctioned) discrimination and harassment upon their arrival to America, the hardy and determined Chinese population that arrived in Oregon during the 19th and early 20th centuries steadily carved out a place for themselves, proving to be arguably the most significant foreign culture to impact what our state would eventually become. With the help and cooperation of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and The Oregon Historical Society, Ooligan was able to produce a title that gives an identity to the often nameless and faceless immigrants who helped to build a community of people that, regardless of race or origin, can simply identify as Oregonians.

Down to the book size and the heavy focus on historical images to accompany the text, Dreams of the West will serve as a sort of bellwether to the design and direction that Mastersounds will adopt. Even more than the physical features of the upcoming Mastersounds, Dreams of the West is the precursor to one of the most important messages that we here at Ooligan aim to deliver: through our unique past and identity, we are like no other place in the world. Whether it be jazz, Chinese immigrants, or anything else that makes the Pacific Northwest what it is today, Ooligan Press will strive to give appreciation to the things that make us who we are.

From Jackie O. to Flower Child

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending a reading for Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s just-released title The Ninth Day at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton. The Ninth Day is Ooligan’s most recent publication and is a companion novel to the Oregon Book Award-winning novel Blue Thread.

As the current project manager for The Ninth Day, I may be just a little bit biased, but I love to see Ruth at literary events. Her readings are always informative and interactive, and they usually involve some sort of costume change and props. To help get her audience in the mood for this event, Ruth came dressed in a 1964-style “Jackie O” costume; over the course of the reading, she gradually transformed from a proper lady into a wild hippie flower child, complete with flowing floral wreath for her head and a tie-dyed dress. During this transformation, Ruth read several different sections of her novel, introducing everyone in attendance to the story and teasing those that haven’t yet read the book with a suspenseful scene from the dramatic climax. At one point while she was reading, I looked back and noticed several Powell’s customers had paused their shopping to hear what was happening onstage. Clearly Ruth had won some new fans.

Ruth Tenzer Feldman reading at Powell's

If you missed this event but still want a chance to meet Ruth and get your book signed, you can catch her on Sunday, December 1st at the Oregon Historical Society’s annual Holiday Cheer Author Celebration, where she will be signing copies of both Blue Thread and The Ninth Day. That event will be held at the Oregon Historical Society at 1200 SW Park from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. You can also see her read again on Monday, December 16th at the official launch party for The Ninth Day. The launch will take place at the historic Koehler house, located at 732 NW 19th Avenue. Although this building currently serves as home to the law firm of Kilmer, Voorhees, & Laurick, readers of the series will better recognize it as the fictional Josephson house, home to Miriam and her family in Blue Thread. Attendees of the event will have the chance to enter a raffle for a full classroom set of The Ninth Day for the teacher of their choice.

For more updates on The Ninth Day, be sure to check out the Start to Finish page, where you can read weekly updates about the production process. To keep in touch with Ruth Tenzer Feldman, visit her website and be sure to sign up for her newsletter to get a free e-book of Florrie’s story, which takes place in the time period between Blue Thread and The Ninth Day.

Tracking Down an Ooligan Alum

Last week, I got a chance to have a conversation with the author of a brand-new YA novel that hit shelves in October. This book comes courtesy of a familiar name in the program—Cory Wheeler Mimms, who graduated last winter, had his first novel released through Craigmore Creations, the Portland-based independent publisher that he has worked with for more than two years.

Trailing Tennessee is the story of Eli Sutton, an adventurous 14-year-old who is determined to follow the path along the Appalachian Trail that his father and grandfather embarked upon before him. I talked with Cory about his history with Craigmore and how Trailing Tennessee came into being, sorting through the details of his process and how he’s promoting the book now that it’s been unleashed into the wild—a campaign that will undoubtedly be helped along by an absolutely striking cover and interior design.

The cover of Trailing Tennessee

The cover of Trailing Tennessee

What’s your history with Craigmore Creations?

I started working with Craigmore Creations in September of 2011 on Urban Wild, a comic strip geared toward teaching kids about wildlife in the city. I worked as a freelance writer on that for about 25 comic strips, produced in two seasons over the course of a year. I just wrote the scripts. They had an artist, another freelancer, doing the illustrations.

How did you go from writing comics to a novel?

After a year, Craigmore Creations decided they had done all they could do with that project and discontinued it. The last script I wrote for them was in September of 2012. But during the same time—actually, I think it was in the lull between season two and season three, so in February or March of 2012, I guess—I emailed Erica Melville, the editor I was working with on Urban Wild, about pitching larger projects. A few weeks went by and she got back to me, asking me to come in and talk about ideas. So I prepped four stories, basically pitch letters that outlined the stories, audiences, etc.

Had you started working on those stories already, or were they just concepts at that point?

None of the stories were written. aThey were just ideas. I don’t think that’s an unusual way for children’s books and graphic novels or comics to get started. Because they require artists to work with writers, because they’re a more collaborative creative process, those types of stories are often brainstormed and created in stages, rather than being written by someone and then pitched to publishers.

So David Shapiro, the owner of Craigmore Creations, and Erica took my four projects that I’d pitched them and said they’d get back to me. A couple weeks after that, they asked me to come back in. During that second meeting, they said they liked my writing and wanted to work with me on a larger project. They didn’t pick up any of the four children’s books and graphic novels I’d pitched them, though.

David said he was looking to publish something different, something other than a graphic novel or children’s book. He thought a wilderness adventure novel would align with Craigmore Creations’ backlist, and he was also interested in the Appalachian Trail and the history of the Tennessee Valley.

What was the initial brainstorming process like?

David basically gave me those two bits of information he was seeking in a novel—a wilderness adventure on the AT—then I took the reins. It wasn’t the traditional way a novel is picked up by a publisher, I suppose.

They just let you run with it.

Exactly. They didn’t dictate plot or characters. They simply said they were interested in a novel set on the AT. Craigmore Creations publishes graphic novels and children’s books mostly, which means Trailing Tennessee had to be appropriate for a younger audience. I thought it sounded fun to write, so I wrote it.

What was your approach for putting the story together?

I spent about six weeks working full-time, just researching the history of the area and the AT, and outlining a basic plot. I followed a three-act structure and created what you might think of as a screenplay beat sheet—just a skeletal structure of the story. I wrote everything on note cards and pinned them to my wall.

Once I had the story arc where I thought it should be, I started fleshing out the story, filling in the skeleton. This was still done on note cards—I wrote almost every scene, or the basic idea of every scene, on note cards; there were maybe 150. I’m just guessing on that number, but I still have them and it’s a stack a few inches high.

As scenes worked or didn’t work, I’d just take them off the wall or move them around as necessary. Creating the story that way, being able to edit the plot by simply plucking a scene out and holding it in my hand, was really helpful. I had written [an unpublished] novel prior to this one, in the way you would imagine someone writing a novel: Sit down at the computer and write chapter one, then chapter two, then three, and so on.

And the problem with that system is that the plot editing is difficult. If you have a problem that you want to scoop out or move, you have to cut and paste it around, and then you have to scroll through the rest of the story looking for all the problems that removing or moving that scene caused in the plot. It takes hours to make a single change through that method. Writing the plot first, on cards, lets you physically take a scene out, and then you can just reach over and pull every other scene out that relied on that plot element in order to work. Then you just fill in the holes with what does work.

By the time I completed the full story outline for Trailing Tennessee, I had color-coded cards that marked the passage of days and other cards that marked miles on the trail, and in between those I had the scene notes scribbled down. I even had chapter breaks worked in, where I thought the most suspenseful points to break would be. Those chapter breaks changed completely as I wrote, though.

After that, I was able to focus just on the writing, because I had front-loaded the entire plot and didn’t have to worry about where I was going. I’d mapped out the story so that I could just have fun writing each scene. It took a lot of pressure off the writing.

It helped to keep the process moving.

Right. There were no days I spent just looking at the computer screen, thinking “Where is this going?” or “How do I get this character from here to where I want him to be?” I knew all the steps along the way, so every day I just took down a couple cards and wrote those scenes, then moved down the line.

I started the research in spring of 2012 and I had a draft submitted to my editor by fall of the same year. Then we went through a few rounds of editing on it. From beginning to end, the writing part of the novel took about a year to finish I guess. Then they passed the manuscript off to their copyeditor and designer.

The design is excellent.

Craigmore Creations’ designer, Brian David Smith, I think he is also an Ooligan graduate. He’s a kick-ass designer, either way. The book’s cover and interior are both really well done. I wish I had his skill set.

Did your research influence the direction of the story?

The story changed drastically from the time I started researching to the time I handed in my first draft, but that’s because there was no story to begin with. There was only a notion of a novel that David thought would fit his house well. But a notion isn’t a story.

I eventually developed a story that I liked, which changed a bit in the first round of editing as well. I got feedback on the characters, where they were lacking, and I rewrote some scenes to strengthen them, which in turn changed the storyline slightly. It wasn’t a developmental edit, though. We mostly worked on cleaning up some of the characters and smoothing out some of the scenes that didn’t read as well as they could.

What are their plans for you now that the book has been released? Will you be actively promoting it?

I’m promoting it and Craigmore Creations is also promoting it. They’ve hired a publicist in North Carolina to work on selling it as well. Craigmore has been at book trade shows all month and they’ve told me Trailing has gotten good responses from book buyers and sellers. It’s gotten good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and other industry magazines. I’ll be at the Oregon Historical Society Holiday Cheer book event on December 1st as well.

Are you working on anything else right now?

I’m always writing. I keep several projects going so that if I get stuck on one, I can just move to another for the day or hour or however long it takes to get the thread back on the other one. I’m actively working on another novel. And I’m working on a collection of short stories. And when I don’t have much time in the day, I write flash fiction in the minutes between.