Interview: 11:11 Press Publisher Andrew J. Wilt
Before I ran a small press of my own I was a fan of small presses. The first one I fell in love was Akashic Books. This was about 10 years ago, and you could argue Akashic has grown into a mid-size press by now. I remember going to a party during Brooklyn Book Festival weekend and realizing you could write and publish books outside of corporate publishing. My reading habits became more diverse and I ended up starting CLASH Books with my wife. I've seen a lot of micro and small presses come and go. One I've discovered recently that's really impressed me is 11:11 Press. Focusing on indie/experimental and plain cool-ass books, they are part of a whole new wave of exciting small presses. I wanted to learn more, so I reached out to publisher Andrew J. Wilt.
How did the name for your press come about?
The name is an echo from our collective childhoods. Although Megan (my wife and co-founder of the press) and I grew up in different corners of the Midwest, we both vividly remember playing a game—and like everything in childhood, there was something magical about it. Passed down as folklore from the older kids, we learned to watch the second hand slowly make its way around the old elementary school clocks. Later, running around the neighborhood on those long muggy summer days, a stolen glance of an adult’s wristwatch could turn a group of children into a screaming chaotic mob, yelling: “11:11, make a wish! It’s 11:11! Make a wish, quick!” According to kid legend, if you made a wish before 11:11 turned into 11:12, it would come true. Like many secrets of childhood (underarm farts, the ringing *pop* of a finger snapped against a cheek, shooting a rubber band, and skillfully spinning a pen with your index finger around the middle joint of your thumb) we don’t know exactly how we learned it, but it was for the taking, and 11:11 remains tattooed into our childhood. To this day, when I pass the digital clock in my kitchen on my way to bed, if it’s 11:11 PM I think to myself: “make a wish.” And sometimes I do.
We named our press “11:11” because it reminds us of a time when we were all truer to ourselves, when we had the guts to follow wherever our spirit took us, and we aim to publish writing that follows this ethos. With age, this intrinsic boldness wanes, and our actions conform around what society expects and demands. The tough part about middle school and high school is figuring out which parts of ourselves to give up and which parts to keep. This continues post-school as we grow older. We begin to believe that materialism and accolades are the way to calm an unsettled ego, and with this will come acceptance and respect, or at the least validation from our peers. So many of us are trying to live someone else’s life. I’ll have meetings with clients in my 9-5 job and leave thinking: there’s nothing left of what was once a truly unique and creative human being; they’ve taken on another identity. It’s the same all over, including in the Arts. There’s a half-truth that writers, mostly new writers, take as fact, and this is that publishers only want to publish books that fit their computer-generated model of success, so authors fold themselves accordingly to fit into a box, hoping at least a glimmer of their true selves can shine in published form. At 11:11, we think this limits an author’s true genius. 11:11 is a call back to a time of innocence when the writer was more confident in being themselves. We believe everyone has a story, and you are the only one who can tell it exactly the way it needs to be told. Sometimes this means throwing out the Hero’s Journey because not every poem or story ends with “happily ever after.” Most stories don’t. In real life, there is more life after “happily ever after,” and we want to hear these stories, because they are a true and honest reflection of the soul.
Is there anything specific you look for when publishing a manuscript?
We love manuscripts that challenge what a book can/should do. One of our most popular books is Mike Corrao’s Gut Text, and in the book he plays with the idea: what if the text on the page became conscious? It’s beautifully written and there’s a ton of philosophy and criticism of literary theory, but it’s a hard sell. There’s no traditional plot. It’s more of an essay that uses fiction as the vehicle to explain the philosophical thought experiment, but it’s not an essay because Corrao isn’t making an argument and doesn’t lead the reader to a conclusion. It’s an incredibly frustrating book if you try reading it in a traditional way. The only way I’ve been able to understand it is to not think too hard. Rather, skim the pages and let the words sit in your head for a while—be with the words. There’s not a quick 15 second pitch to someone walking by our booth at a book fair. Maybe: “Reading our books will make you feel like you’re on drugs.” I remember dropping off copies of Gut Text to be reviewed by the Minnesota book awards, and the response from the person who took the books was “oh, that’s interesting.” Can you imagine what they said about the book in private?
Another example is Jinnwoo’s Little Hollywood. It’s a collection of short scripts intended to be acted out by paper dolls (dolls included, and yes, you need to cut them out). It’s a book that places the reader in difficult scenes and tactfully uses humor so the reader stays in the scene longer than they would otherwise. It’s an uneasy type of humor that forces the reader to examine parts of their life we all try to ignore.
What are the positives and struggles of running an indie press?
We are a small press that is completely funded by book sales. We work on slim margins, which forces us to be scrappy and resourceful. I played music in my teens and early 20s, so I grew up pulling things together on a tight budget and timeline. There’s something about that struggle, feeling the squeeze, that gives the music/books/art character.
Being a Minneapolis press, how has your community dealt with the tragedy of George Floyd and the hope that the Black Lives Matter has inspired?
We live about a mile and a half away from where George Floyd was killed. I wrote a quick update on the 11:11 blog on June 1st, so I won’t go into many details here. The good news is our community in south Minneapolis is growing stronger together. We are calling for systemic changes within law enforcement, and the Minneapolis City Council has responded by voting to defund the police. It’s amazing to see the city take action—law makers are listening. Our community isn’t going to let this fade away into just another news cycle. Black Lives Matter and we’re here as allies to help promote their voices.
Do you see a movement forming with indie presses for this new decade?
The publishing industry is about a decade behind the music industry, so looking back to what music went through, right now is a time of big transition. The big publishers are scrambling, and indie presses and self-publishing is filling in the gaps. Writers and readers have collectively picked up their metaphorical pitchforks and dismantled the gatekeepers. The tools that were once only available to bigger publishers can be used by anyone, and we’re thriving as an indie publishing scene because indie culture has more heart and soul than multinational corporations.
When I look at the books that are changing the world, they’re all coming from indie presses, and it’s the full spectrum. It’s Graywolf, Soft Skull, Tyrant Books, CLASH, Coffee House and Two Dollar Radio, but there’s also room for lesser known (and just as important) publishers: Inside the Castle, Equus Press, Amphetamine Sulphate, Apocalypse Party, ExPat, FC2, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Dalkey Archive, Night Boat, Maudlin House, Calamari, Spork, Kiddiepunk, Ugly Duckling Presse, Disorder Press, City Lights, Hexus Press, Action Books, (and so on and so on). There are so many indie presses out there doing great work, and I only see this growing bigger and stronger.
You have written a book yourself, how does being a writer help you wear the hat as a publisher?
Most of the editors I worked with in the past before starting 11:11 were all business. They were from the older generation of publishing, with an agenda of their own. I never felt listened to, and listening is such an important skill to have as an editor. When we accept a manuscript for publication, we believe in the work and the unique voice of the author, so we give the author a lot of freedom. Of course, we also want to make each book the best it can be, so we go through manuscripts and identify places where the book could be stronger. But the final decision is always the author’s since it’s their work and their message to the world. If an author doesn’t agree with one of our suggestions, it gives them an opportunity to think about why they made a particular word or plot choice, and the process makes them more confident in the integrity of their work.
What difficulties have you had as a press during COVID-19?
We try to spin every difficult situation into something positive. When states started shutting down and everyone was in self-quarantine, I emailed all of our authors and they all agreed to putting their books up on our website for pay-what-you-can digital download. We’ve had a lot of downloads, which has been great for spreading the word about 11:11 and the authors we’ve published.
What are some books your press is releasing in the future that you are really excited about?
We recently published Grant Maierhofer’s Works, which is a book that contains four books: two previously published books (Postures and Flamingos, both cleaned up a bit), a short story collection (Bleach) and an experimental work (PX138 3100-2686). On June 27, the day Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery takes place, we are releasing a collectively written novel with 34 authors, representing voices from many small presses. It’s a loosely connected novel with each author writing their own chapter from a shared opening of 11 words. It’s Coffee and Cigarettes meets the theory of eternal return. We’re selling it at-cost for $11.11, and if people like it, we’ll do another collectively written project in the future.
Finally, what is the mission and purpose of 11:11 Press?
11:11 Press is an American independent literary publisher based in Minneapolis, MN. Founded in 2018, 11:11 publishes innovative literature of all forms and varieties. We believe in the freedom of artistic expression, the realization of creative potential, and the transcendental power of stories.
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