Stona Fitch is a novelist and the founder of the genuinely revolutionary Concord Free Press. I reviewed his books Give + Take and Printer's Devil a while ago on the blog and I am delighted that Stona was able to take the time to answer some questions for you all to peruse.
SP: Could you tell us a little bit about the Concord Free Press?
SF: Sure. We publish original trade paperback novels and give them away via a network of US independent bookstores and worldwide requests on our website. In exchange, we ask readers to make a voluntary charitable donation to a group or cause they care about, or someone who needs some help. We leave the giving part completely up to the reader.
SP: Do people actually do what you ask them?
SF: Yes. So far, our first book, my novel Give + Take, has generated more than $45,000 in donations throughout the world—including strong support in the UK. Our second novel, Push Comes to Shove by the legendary African-American writer Wesley Brown, is already generating lots of donations. And we have had overwhelming support for the concept from throughout the world—from the UK to Tunisia to Iran.
SP: Who pays for it?
SF: Like any non-profit organization, we pay for it all with money from friends, grants, and our Advisory Board—which includes Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Gregory Maguire, Stephen McCauley, and other writers. If you like the idea, feel free to send us a cheque.
SP: The CFP concept and the storyline of Give + Take complement each other wonderfully. Which came first?
SF: The novel definitely inspired the press. Give + Take is about a jazz pianist who steals, gives the money away, and has to grapple with the limits of generosity. I originally wrote Give + Take for a major US publisher. When my editor left, the novel ended up in limbo. Rather than mourn and/or whine, I decided to start Concord Free Press and use it as our first novel. I should note that Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press is publishing Give + Take in a traditional hardcover edition next year in the US. And Two Ravens Press in the UK will do the UK edition. So having CFP publish a novel doesn’t preclude a second life as a commercial novel—quite the opposite.
SP: Of course, your work is also published traditionally. Two Ravens Press publishes your novels in the UK. I have read Printer’s Devil and have Senseless waiting in my pile. They are both a lot bleaker than G + T, aren’t they?
SF: Senseless has been called the most disturbing novel ever written. Printer's Devil is a dystopian novel that pits two warring guilds of printers against each other, vying for survival. So yes, they’re bleak—and I definitely go between darkness and light in my work. The common thread is I like to engage with readers in ways that go beyond simply trying to entertain them. Reading Senseless is a visceral experience that often triggers the literary equivalent of an epileptic seizure. And Give + Take connects with readers on an economic level, making them question the way they think about money and value.
SP: What sort of reaction have you been getting from other writers and publishers? I’m assuming a mixture of admiration and fear.
SF: The response has been overwhelmingly positive from readers, writers, bookstore owners, publishing gurus, and even traditional publishers. Concord Free Press has been called a grand experiment in subversive altruism, the Robin Hood publishing model, and (our favourite) generosity-based publishing. We’re simply exploring new, innovative ways to think about books and connecting with readers, not trying to figure out what’s wrong with publishing. That’s beyond our scope.
SP: You’re clearly a big supporter of independent publishing. Have you ever been tempted by the lure of the majors?
SF: I admire nimble, smart presses who manage to publish great fiction in shorter press runs and survive—even without a major hit. But my first novel, Strategies for Success, was published by Putnam. So as a writer, I know the good side of large publishers (distribution, the occasional free lunch) and the bad (pretty much everything else). Being a novelist in this era means using absolutely any means necessary to get your book to its readers, even if means going far outside traditional channels.
SP: Tell us about Scruffy the Cat. Was there a chance we may have lost you to music?
SF: Scruffy was a much-loved, widely touring country-punk band that was a seminal part of the Boston rock scene. If you walked into a bar or university somewhere in the US in the 1980s, you probably heard us. Being in a band for five years pretty much cured me of being a musician. I still wake up convinced I’m on the floor of a van, bar, or gaol.
SP: What stuff have you been listening to lately?
SF: When I’m working, I listen to the same CD over and over—Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth—since I’m conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to start writing when I hear the first notes. (I find an autistic delight in sonic repetition.) Occasionally I switch to Stereolab, Iron and Wine, M. Ward, or Pavement. But not often. Lately, I’ve been delving into the Fence Collective roster—plenty of fine work there. King Creosote, Rozi Plain, Found, the Amino People, and Northern Alliance among them.
SP: Can you recommend a good book?
SF: I’ll take this chance to point readers toward the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, who wrote the somewhat well-known Closely Observed Trains, and (my favourites) The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and I Served the King of England. That said, my all-time favorite novel is I'm Not Stiller by Max Frisch, closely followed by Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec. More recent books I’ve been fascinated by are Citizen Vince (Jess Walter), the Mangel Trilogy (Charlie Williams), Remainder (Tom McCarthy), and Bury Me Deep (Megan Abbott).
Lots of reading suggestions to check out there but before you do please visit the Concord Free Press website and check out the amazing stuff Stona is doing there. I think he is a shining beacon of fucking brilliance in an increasingly conservative and scared publishing industry.