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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Laurie Hertzel

Literary giant Fiona McCrae moves on from Minnesota's Graywolf Press

Fiona McCrae brought Minnesota's Graywolf Press from a small regional publisher to a worldwide literary powerhouse.

MINNEAPOLIS — It's fitting that as Fiona McCrae prepares to leave Graywolf Press, two more Graywolf poets have been honored — Mai Der Vang for "Yellow Rain," a Pulitzer finalist, and Dianne Seuss for "frank: sonnets," winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize.

Under the sharp, steady and very astute guidance of McCrae — director and publisher for 27 years — Graywolf has grown from a small regional press into a publisher of worldwide renown, its writers receiving honor after honor, year after year. The Pulitzer Prize. The Nobel Prize for Literature. The National Book Award.

McCrae attributes the growth and the remarkable stream of honors — remarkable, especially, for a nonprofit literary press — to excellent editors and a diverse list of fine writers. And those are crucial for sure. But the common denominator is, of course, McCrae herself.

"We accomplish things as a team," said executive editor Jeff Shotts, who has worked with McCrae for 26 years. "None of us at Graywolf can do what we do without Fiona doing what she does."

But Fiona won't be doing what she does much longer — she will retire from the small but mighty Minneapolis press in June.

What will they do without her?

Transforming the world of publishing

In 2013, Mary Szybist's "Incarnadine" was a finalist for a National Book Award and McCrae and Shotts headed to the ceremony on the New York City subway.

"There was something about being the only people in the subway in full-on black-tie wardrobe that just felt very Graywolf, very nonprofit publishing, very scrappy indie press," Shotts said. "Taking the cheapest way we could to get there, and yet still getting an invitation to the ball." And not just an invitation — Szybist's book won the prize for poetry that night, giving Graywolf its first National Book Award.

"The nice thing, the gratifying thing about Graywolf, has been how many different kinds of lists we've been on," McCrae said. "Not that I think prizes are the only thing."

But the attention that big prizes have brought to Graywolf, she said, has helped change what larger publishing houses think of as commercial — demonstrating that books can be experimental and literary and also sell well.

McCrae's leadership, Shotts said, has "transformed literary and independent publishing in Minnesota, across the country, and around the world."

A 'Graywolf book'

Founded in 1974 by Scott Walker, Graywolf began not as a small press, but as a tiny press, publishing chapbooks printed on a letterpress with pages stitched together by hand.

Eleven years later, incorporated as a nonprofit and bolstered by grants, it moved from Washington state to Minnesota.

It is one of three nonprofit literary publishers in the Twin Cities. Milkweed Editions publishes poetry and prose primarily related to nature. Coffee House Press' slogan is slightly tongue-in-cheek — "experimental books about death"; it publishes edgy work.

And Graywolf? Graywolf is a little harder to define. Now a $4 million business, it publishes between 30 and 35 books a year: poetry and prose, as well as a growing number of books in translation. Under McCrae, it entered into partnerships with Cave Canem and the Academy of American Poets to publish work by emerging writers. It has established a nonfiction prize — winners include Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison — and a fiction prize for writers residing in Africa.

"I think the fact that we have not over-defined what a Graywolf book is is important to the range and liveliness of our list," McCrae said.

Hunting for good writers

While Walker was hand-stitching chapbooks, McCrae was in London, learning the ropes at the prestigious publishing house Faber & Faber. Her plan had been to return to school and become a teacher, but publishing captivated her.

"I was very, very happy in lots of ways at Faber in London," she said. "It was quite an exciting time."

The editorial director was working with Kazuo Ishiguro, Milan Kundera and Peter Carey, and "I got to work on those books — a little bit of copy editing with Ishiguro, and I did some jacket copy, things like that."

Observant and independent-minded, McCrae absorbed everything around her, "paying attention to decisions that were made and things that I liked" and salting away lessons learned.

In 1991, she relocated to Faber's Boston office. "I enjoyed having the sort of wide-open spaces to operate in," she said. "I also got to know some of the poets in and around that area, including Seamus Heaney. That was nice to have that connection — some of his Boston friends are people that I subsequently published."

She did some teaching, worked with literary journals, attended readings and publication parties, always on the lookout for new writers.

"That's what gave me the taste for the smaller independent scene of publishing in America," she said. "It felt quite robust to me and it still does."

A sign from the universe

Walking down a Boston street the day before her interview at Graywolf Press, McCrae spotted a Nature Conservancy bookmark that bore the image of a wolf. She picked it up; she has it still. "That it was book-related and wolf-related seemed like a message from the universe," she said.

At the time, Graywolf was in a bit of disarray. Scott Walker had departed after a dispute with the board. The number of staff and new releases had both been cut. Finances were shaky. The board needed someone to right the ship.

McCrae wasn't daunted. "I had confidence in Graywolf and could see that the trouble they were in was potentially temporary," she said. "It was like a stationary vehicle and they needed someone to start it. But it was repairable. It wasn't broken." It had a strong back list of previously published collections, she noted — Tess Gallagher, Jane Kenyon and others — which still sold well and gave her something to build on.

Her first fiction acquisition was David Treuer's novel, "Little."

"I thought it was really good from the beginning," she said. "I always remember the first line of the book: 'The grave we dug for my brother Little remained empty even after we filled it back in.' It wasn't the first sentence of the manuscript, but it became the first line of the novel."

Treuer is one of many writers who started at Graywolf and then moved on to bigger publishers, something that can be "a bit deflating," McCrae said. But others have stayed — Tracy K. Smith still publishes her poetry with Graywolf (and won a Pulitzer Prize for "Life on Mars"). Pulitzer finalist Percival Everett followed McCrae from Faber. ("You didn't poach me, I jumped," she says he told her.)

And as painful as it can be to lose a writer to a bigger house, "it's gratifying to find the new writer," she said. One writer's departure gave McCrae an opening to publish Anna Burns' "Milkman," which later won the Booker Prize.

Last November, McCrae announced her plans to retire.

"People say, 'Are you sure,' and I think, 'Am I sure?' "

But yes, she's sure. "I never was going to stay forever and ever," she said.

Over the years she's not just acquired and edited writers — she's launched capital campaigns, hunted down grants, spoken at anniversary celebrations. Now with Graywolf's 50th anniversary approaching, it will be good, she said, "for Graywolf to have a fresh narrative. I do think it's good to change things. It's nice to move out of the way and let the younger generation come up."

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