By Dave Teeuwen
Anyone who has collected Burroughs’ novels eventually finds Port of Saints, the 1971 novel which operated as a kind of sequel to The Wild Boys, although it was not published until 1980 in a widely read edition put out by Blue Wind Press. Your eyes run along the bookshelf and it stands out from the typical Grove Press pastel neons that the novels lived in during the 80s and 90’s for most readers. The book is slightly larger than the Grove editions and opens quite easily in your hand on creamy paper. A line drawing of Burroughs by Mattingly is found on the inner final page with legal information about the cover and the text.
Port of Saints is unlike the thin one-off volumes of Burroughs’ work that intersperse most of his career. It is a major novel instead of the small, slim volumes of usually experimental or odd ephemera which are not poetry, not major novels and not designed to sell by the bundle. As well, the book is a shift in tone that switches from the hardened language of The Wild Boys and the cut-ups of the previous decade, passing into a nostalgic, violet golden sun haze of distant Michigan holidays in the 1930s and fantasies of a possible outside world unlike the world of Cobble Stone Gardens, his parent’s gift shop.
The size of the book and its importance to the overall oeuvre is what has always seemed so odd to me about it: why was this major novel not published by Burroughs’ usual publishers, whichever it was at the time? Why has it not been republished in the years since by one of them — Penguin, for instance? Obviously, the market plays an important part, but this novel is not just ephemera and forms an important part of the Wild Boys Trilogy, which readily leaks over into the Red Night Trilogy of the 1980s. Port of Saints is a significant Burroughs novel.
George Mattingly and his Blue Wind Press published the book — in the form most readers currently know it — in 1980. At the time, Burroughs and his work were at an odd point, as George mentions in the following interview, in that he could not find a publisher who wanted to take on his books. There was the growing sense among some publishers that perhaps Burroughs, who had found fame and world-wide acclaim with a certain readership through the chaos of Naked Lunch and the linguistic deep-dives of the Cut-Up Trilogy, was not likely to have much more to say. Maybe all of the Beats were washed up?
Regardless, George was able to publish Port of Saints, as well as Blade Runner and The Book of Breeething for Burroughs, a brave business move on the part of James Grauerholz and Burroughs, considering the body of work before it. Instead of opting for a publisher that might push for cheap editions and “off-brand” choices for cover illustrations and marketing as a trade-off for wider, indiscriminate exposure, they chose George Mattingly and the artful editions from Blue Wind Press.
So, if I understand correctly, Blue Wind Press began in 1967. Is that correct and what were you doing at the time?
Summer of 1969. I was an undergrad at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. (I was kicked out of Exeter in my senior year, 67–68, and finished high school in my parents’ town of Newton, Iowa.)
At the time, I lived in a big house across from the Johnson County Courthouse, on South Capitol Street, rented by Ted and Sandy Berrigan. I watched their two kids, David (5) and Kate (4) in return for room and board.
In addition to regular U of I undergrad courses, I also took at least one course each semester in the undergrad Writers Workshop.
Why did you decide to start an independent press? What did you hope to be able to do with it?
As a writer, I was curious about publishing, and took a course in typography from Harry Duncan (of Cummington Press) in the School of Journalism. Printing letterpress editions of original work was part of the course. (My friend Allan Kornblum was in the same class, and started his Toothpaste Press — later Coffee House Press — at the same time.)
Like probably every other young person who starts a magazine or a press, I imagined that I had a unique editorial spin & would be able to reach a new, different, larger audience than existing publishers. (As it turns out that’s partly true but mostly aspirational.)
Initial goal was simply to put into print (in the most interesting packages I could create and/or afford) the work of friends and teachers.
Which authors are you most proud of publishing at Blue Wind Press?
Short answer of course, all of them. In order that they come to mind?
Burroughs is in a different category. I loved his work (and very much enjoyed knowing him to the extent that I did) but it was really only after publishing those 3 books that I realized that WSB was having trouble getting published in the mid 70s into the early 80s. (Imagine that.) … If only I had known that another now-famous writer whose work I loved was in that same predicament at the same time … and lived (for awhile) a block away from me in Berkeley. (Philip K. Dick.)
The things we didn’t know.
And, obviously, the Blade Runner title has become a direct connection between Dick’s novel and the Ridley Scott adaptation of it that ultimately used Burroughs’ title.
The film is a long story. Initially it was to be based on Bill’s book. A great title, so they kept that at least.
How did you come to publish Blade Runner for Burroughs?
I got to know Bill through Jan Herman, with whom I worked at Something Else Press. Jan was going to publish The Book of Breeething, under his Nova Broadcast imprint, but then convinced me and Lucy to do so as a Blue Wind Press title (after I had left Vermont and moved to California).
Bill and James Grauerholz liked what we did with The Book of Breeething, and it sold well for us. When we asked if we could do another book, we were offered Blade Runner, which we really liked.
Had you known that WSB was struggling to find a publisher in the 70’s and early 80’s, would you have pushed to publish more of his work? I mean, were his books selling enough to justify the work you had to do as a small press publisher to get them on the market?
In hindsight, yes, we should have asked for more titles. But it was difficult for us to finance and properly promote books in the 70s — even (or almost especially) those that sold really well, as Bill’s did.
Also James was trying to get a big commercial publisher to do the larger books. The right approach, of course.
Was WSB a “hot commodity” at the time you began working with him (late 70’s) or was his name as a writer not fully guaranteed in literary or financial terms? I assume, even if you were a fan, as a publisher you have to ask yourself if the writer who wrote a great book in 1959 is going to write a great book in 1979?
I’d say that some of his TITLES were “hot commodities,” but that he himself was less so. It was difficult to get book buyers and reviewers to pay attention to his other books. Weird, no?
Do publishers even think that way?
I’m sure some do. I never did.
We actually did well with all three of his titles that we published. We were still selling the two that we had kept in print (Port of Saints and Blade Runner) until the [Burroughs] estate asked us to return the publication rights a couple of years ago.
With Port of Saints, it had been originally published in a small number in England. However, it is an important novel in Burroughs’ oeuvre, despite the lack of attention it has had. What was your feeling about publishing that book versus the two others? Obviously, the size of the book must play some part in your consideration of it as a publisher.
Yes, we thought Port of Saints might be taken more seriously (by Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, book reviewers & buyers). That was the case, and it did sell well. Lots of positive reviews.
I know there were some minor changes between the British Port of Saints and Blue Wind’s Port of Saints. In terms of editing, what was Burroughs most concerned with in publishing that book with Blue Wind? Obviously, it is the edition that nearly any reader of Port of Saints is familiar with.
According to James Grauerholz, the main differences between the British original and our edition were matters of copyediting and proofing, not content.
I admit I’ve never compared them line for line.
Something occurred to me when you were talking about how WSB had difficulty finding a publisher in the 70s and early 80s.
I can see going to an independent publisher to put out smaller items like Book of Breeething and Blade Runner, as a larger house might find those less appealing, I’m guessing. But, do you think that a fairly significant novel like Port of Saints went to you because they were finding it difficult to find a new publisher? Or, did WSB not think that the novel would sell as consistently as it has?
The shorter books were definitely hard to pitch to New York publishers.
I heard that while Port of Saints was treated more seriously — they had no idea how to sell a weird book like The Book of Breeething or an unconventional and short book like Blade Runner — readers at the big houses thought it was too “experimental” and/or not a “major” WSB title. Not Naked Lunch but also not Nova Express.
And, yes, Bill’s reputation was at a low point in New York at that time. Group think: his time had passed.
Obviously we never ever thought any of that was true.
When you published Port of Saints, was there a sense in the industry that Burroughs’ time was over, or his “schtick” was played out? Or, did he still have the interest of people in publishing? What was his reputation at that specific time?
Speaking of “schtick,” did you ever hear him read (solo)? Those readings were GREAT! People fell out of their chairs with laughter. The recordings capture some of it, but you really had to have been there. Video recordings are better.
While WSB had fans within the NY publishing world who understood exactly how important he was, as I said before, I think that corporate publishing decisions are made more by the marketing and sales departments than by editors. And they indulge in groupthink to a degree that’s embarrassing (and not something they would ever admit either).
Yes, clearly, the Group had decided that the time for Burroughs, the Beats, Jean Genet, was in the rear view mirror.
It’s always seemed to me that New York publishing decisions are self-fulfilling: they decide they “can’t” sell something, so they don’t try (or don’t bother to research and do it in an effective manner), then it doesn’t sell, and they report back that see we knew what we were talking about when we said it couldn’t be sold.
It’s like Republicans claiming that government doesn’t work. They take power and prove that, yes, government doesn’t work. (Thomas Frank has written brilliantly on this topic.)
After Burroughs went to Henry Holt for Cities of the Red Night and his later books, how did it affect sales of books with Blue Wind?
If anything we sold more copies. Not as if the potential audience for POS abandoned us for Cities of The Red Night.
Obviously in the present, a publisher can interact with the audience they sell to far more directly through the internet. Was there a way to know that the books you decided to publish were making an impact other than just through sales? How could you tell that people were connecting with those texts?
In the late 70s and early 80s there were still print publications which reviewed independent press titles. Publishers Weekly and Library Journal reviewed two of the books we published in 1980: WSB’s Port of Saints and Ted Berrigan’s So Going Around Cities. It was a watershed moment.
We had several distributors, one (The Subterranean Company, which also distributed City Lights Books, Four Seasons, and Gray Fox) had a national sales force, so our books were in retail stores across the country —
— and we heard from booksellers and readers (mostly through the mail).
All points and modes of contact which are more or less gone now.
What did it mean for a smaller publisher to take on a large book by an author like Burroughs? And given that Burroughs appeared to be waning a bit at that moment, did people around you express any hesitation about taking such a large book?
Having a big book by a known author made a lot of difference. It got reviewers to take you seriously (and sometimes to review the lesser-known authors on the list). It got the sales force in the door to sell the list to book buyers. It made a huge difference.
It was certainly no more difficult to market and promote such a “big” book than the many “smaller” ones we published.
No small publishers I knew at the time would have had any hesitation publishing a well-known author (even if “on the wane”) or a large book.
About the cover for Port of Saints: who designed it and what was the idea behind it? Who is the partially visible person on the cover?
I designed the cover of Port of Saints, and the collage is mine. It doesn’t reference anything specifically in the book, and is simply inspired by the idea that our “port” is the planet, the human body, and the cosmos beyond.
This is a cut-and-paste collage (something those who cut their teeth on Photoshop can’t possibly imagine!), and the sources are taken from art and photography books. The model is unknown.
William liked the collage, but both he and James wished the figure were male. (In the age of Photoshop I would have swapped in a male model’s body, but . . . not possible with cut-and-paste art that was already finished.) I agreed with them btw: it would have been better if male.
Ha! I assumed they were male! Did you do the line drawing of Bill on the last page?
Yes, that’s my line drawing of Bill. I was very fond of him & really enjoyed doing that drawing. People have such a wrong idea about Burroughs. He was a moralist — and a real mensch.
Since you’ve been a writer, editor and publisher, in what way would you say each role is an art in its own right? My sense is that in Blue Wind’s case, your approach was like an artist to a piece of work rather than a businessman to a product.
For a small publisher, the three roles usually overlap.
I became a publisher because I was a writer and had friends who wrote in styles that didn’t seem to easily fit into existing publications.
Once I became a publisher I learned that I needed to also be an editor.
But it’s hard to combine roles. Sometimes there needs to be a dialog or debate between editor and publisher, to determine where lines should be drawn, and it can be difficult to have that conversation with oneself.
Yes, the “publisher” should be the “businessperson” on this team. It’s hard to do that when you realize that most of what you want to publish isn’t going to sell well (is in fact “non-commercial”).
I hate to fall back on a cliche, but literary publishing really is “a labor of love.” For most small publishers a point is reached where whatever funds and/or other resources made publishing possible just dry up.
We reached that point in the mid 1980s. While we did issue a few books after that time, we realized our fantasy of creating a self-sustaining publishing house was just that, a fantasy, and any books we did would lose money (a loss we simply had to accept because we loved the work itself).
I think many (probably the vast majority) of small literary publishers always accepted that.