Thursday, January 20, 2011

UNC Wilmington's new press strikes gold with its debut book

Just days after UNC Wilmington’s new Lookout Books released its debut book, The New York Times raved about it in a front-page review.

How unusual is it for a small, independent press to land a front-page New York Times review with its first book? It’s probably unprecedented.

“It’s like a rookie stepping up to the plate for the first time and hitting a grand slam,” says Lookout Editorial Director Ben George.

I was lucky to reach Lookout Books folks this morning. After glowing reviews of Edith Pearlman’s “Binocular Vision” from both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, they’ve been swamped, responding to interview requests, queries from interested European publishers and emails from U.S. bookstores eager to host Pearlman for readings.

How did an unknown press get such attention?

For one thing, it had a great writer. Pearlman, who’s 74 and lives in Brookline, Mass., has won many accolades for her work, including three O. Henry Prizes. Three of her stories have also been selected for inclusion in “Best American Short Stories.” But like many good short-story writers, she wasn’t widely known.

One person who did know and love her work, however, was George. Formerly an editor with Tin House, a literary quarterly, George came to UNC Wilmington in 2008. He and Executive Director Emily Smith founded Lookout, a literary press that involves creative writing students in the publishing process.

George thought Pearlman would be a perfect fit for Lookout’s mission: To bring attention to emerging and underrepresented writers, as well as overlooked gems by established authors.
It often takes more than great writing to get a short-story collection noticed.

So the press came up with a savvy marketing plan. Knowing that Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto”) was a fan of Pearlman’s, George asked her to write an introduction to the stories. Patchett replied, George recalls, saying she loved Pearlman so much she’d happily pay for the privilege of writing an introduction.

This book, Patchett predicts in the introduction, “should be the book with which Edith Pearlman casts off her secret-handshake status and takes up her rightful position as a national treasure. Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That’s where they belong.”

Other literary heavyweights, including T.C. Boyle (“The Tortilla Curtain”) and Brock Clarke (“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England”), also contributed glowing blurbs. If those weren’t enough, Smith and George enticed reviewers and booksellers with an appealing narrative.

“The narrative is Edith’s story,” Smith says. “She’s 74 and has been writing remarkable stories for decades with little fanfare. When we wrote to some key people, we invited them to discover Edith Pearlman.”
A few days before Christmas, Smith got word via voicemail that The New York Times Book Review was planning a front-page review. “I could barely hold the phone,” she says. She telephoned George with the news.

“I remember saying, ‘Did you say cover? Are you sure, cover?’” George says.
The review, by Roxana Robinson, begins: “Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman? And why, if you hadn’t, hadn’t you? It certainly isn’t the fault of her writing, which is intelligent, perceptive, funny and quite beautiful.”

Lookout has already ordered a second printing from Winston-Salem’s John F. Blair Publisher and predicts printing about 10,000 books in all.

“Everyone likes the story of a wrong being righted,” George says, “of a writer working out of the limelight for years, finally being recognized.”

Pearlman will visit UNCW in March for the official launch of Lookout Books. She’ll read at 7 p.m., March 3 in Morton Hall Auditorium. A reception and book signing will follow.

Lookout, meanwhile, is planning its next publication. Steve Almond’s “God Bless America,” a story collection, will be out in October.
And George, as he tries to describe his reaction to this unexpected success, says he’s attempting to avoid cliches: “I was talking to a friend and saying I won’t use that cliché that it was beyond my wildest dreams. But it is on par with my wildest dreams.”