Amy Schutzer’s lyrical first novel Undertow, tells the story of two women brought together by an accident: one a house painter who falls off a ladder, the other a nurse. They fall in love, but past secrets begin to unravel their relationship. The publication of Undertow tells another story altogether, not only how a press can save a book, but how a book can save a press.
CALYX, a women’s press in Corvallis, Oregon, was launched almost 25 years ago to create a forum for the voices big publishers don’t hear: women of color, lesbians, older and working-class women. Through the pages of its journal, CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, and the three or four books it prints a year, the press has published scores of emerging writers. Schutzer is a recent CALYX discovery. When she isn’t writing, she grows organic vegetables at Wemoon, a women’s commune in Estacada, Oregon.
For a time it looked like CALYX would not be discovering anyone new. It barely survived the mid-1990s devastation of its nonmainstream marketplace, the independent bookstore. Not only did retail outlets disappear, but chains began charging publishers for prominent displays. CALYX couldn’t pay and its books were buried in stacks by clerks who hadn’t read them. Then the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew its grant support. “We thought we were going to go under,” says director Margarita Donnelly.
Fittingly, a simple comment from an independent bookstore holdout turned things around. A manager at Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico, told a giant publishing house rep how much she liked Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest, which CALYX published in 1996. That led to a bidding war, which Bantam Books won. CALYX later sold international rights and film rights, enabling it to continue to publish books like Undertow. As Donnelly says, “It’s that face-to-face, that word of mouth from the independent bookseller, that makes the difference.”