Dream Chasing With Book Publisher John Gaterud

March 11, 2011

Editor’s Note: Perhaps you’ve had moments alone — in the car, in the shower, under the covers — when you wonder what you’re doing. These doubts when they come are much deeper than anxiety over how to handle conflicting social invitations or what to do about thinning hair and balding tires. These are the “What am I doing with my life?” questions.

John Gaterud has confronted the doubts for years. He has taken action when the internal alarm bell sounds. In this guest post, Gaterud gives us snapshots from the meandering journey that led to his founding of Blueroad Press, a small literary-arts publisher in Janesville, Minn.

John Gaterud

John Gaterud

Dream Chasing (Slight Return)
By John Gaterud

You lie awake, wait for sleep, dream anyway – conjuring visions, sketching outlines, filling frames. Same during the day: staring out windows for long moments or lingering at lights till the beep behind brings you back. Abstracted, distant, gone. Clearly time to be doing something else. So you quit your day job and jump. Again.

For me, the dream features ink on paper – arcs of type astride striking art and good stories well told – in runs of small magazines, literary journals, alternative papers. And now, with Blueroad Press, in books. Labors of love as communal enterprise.

OtherAmericasFrontCoverRan small-town weeklies in Colorado and Oregon in late 1970s after J school, then on to grad school and college teaching for a while, until pulled back into the news business in mid-’80s to launch The Minnesota Times with Bruce Benidt. Our grand entrepreneurial vision (working title: “The Education of Two Knuckleheads”), accompanied by several hundred-thousand miles of legwork. Project went well until…it didn’t, as expenses eventually outran revenue (an old story). But at least we tried; no what-ifs for us while the rest of world kept staring out windows. And the paper was beautiful – an artful collaboration among some of the state’s best writers, illustrators and photographers – the effort meaningful, substantive, real (“Or: The Best Frickin’ Thing We Ever Did, Even If It Never Quite Worked Out”).

So, for me, back to teaching, back to grading papers, back for another degree (the terminal one, as it’s called – with good reason). Only this time I sought a different route and lucked into The Union Institute in Cincinnati, with its interdisciplinary, self-designed, independent-study programs for mid-career professionals who have little interest in attending one more thumb-twiddling grad seminar. I’ve always traveled (have the bug), so explored notions of American road stories as they appear in art, architecture, history, literature, journalism, music, film, photography, philosophy. Read a bunch, thought some more, then hit the road myself to chase Sherwood Anderson’s ghost across the Depression while wandering through Faulkner’s South, Cather’s Midwest, and Lewis and Clark’s West – looking for and writing about intersections along Least Heat Moon’s blue roads. Meaningful, substantive, real (“The Best Education I Ever Had”).

The blue roads: color of back routes on old gas-station maps (when they used to be free), as Moon notes. Kerouac and Kesey country (“You can trip off to places so wild and wiggy that you don’t know where you are until you get back. And sometimes not even know you’ve tripped off at all because you never know you’ve left – “). Stories of wanderlust, motion, curiosity, escape, adventure, quest – narratives of life – Point A to B, complete with shortcuts, detours, bumps in the road, even dead ends. Wrote a short story once, “Blue Road to Bangor,” about a lovelorn loser stranded overnight on a snowbound Greyhound from Boston to Maine, and knew then the name of my next venture. Thus: Blueroad Press, launched in 2007, now four titles deep (with a fifth this spring), which I edit, design and market with my daughter, Abbey, who teaches book design at Portland (Ore.) State University. Stories about roads, real and imagined. Of movement and discovery, light and dark, there and gone. As postcard, travelogue, metaphor, myth.

OnTheFarm_FrontCoverThe act and art of assembling publications has always been appealing (back to high school days, when I hand-set headlines on a Ludlow Monotype for my New Jersey hometown weekly newspaper) – a marriage of ideas, words and images through mechanical (and now computerized) means to create and offer other worlds for readers. Poet Bill Holm used to say he loved “the bite of type” on paper; who can argue with this? (Recently returned to my letterpress roots through classes at Minnesota Center for Book Arts – terrific place and people – where digital meets old school. Lovely stuff, indeed: the bite sharper than ever.)

Beyond production, however, lies a deeper attraction: assembling a community of collaborators – wonderful writers whose insights and outlooks reflect an array of views across an expanse of experiences – in this case, poets, journalists, fiction writers and essayists, mostly acquaintances and friends of friends, an ever-growing circle of contributors whose talents and abilities provide depth and dimension. As with prior publishing ventures, Blueroad is grounded in the idea that writers and readers would enjoy drinking coffee or beer with any of the others engaged in the enterprise, but given geographic improbabilities the publications serve that purpose instead. Books as klatsch, co-op, community. A Mankato friend calls it The Blueroad School. For me, it’s all about the fun.

Titles include “Stardust and Fate: The Blueroad Reader” (2007), featuring new works by four dozen writers and artists (wood engravers – a soft spot), including Freya Manfred, Jim Lenfestey, John Calvin Rezmerski, Cary Waterman, Joyce Sutphen, Philip Bryant, Robert Bly, Candace Black, Richard Robbins, Terry Davis, Nancy and Joe Paddock, Bruce Benidt, the late great Bill Holm, and (obviously) many others, with terrific cover photo by Jim Brandenburg and support from Scott King, publisher of the lively fine arts Red Dragonfly Press in Northfield. Payoff was rewarding: nice public reception upon release, with a handful of writing and design awards later coming our way.

Three poetry volumes have followed: Philip Bryant’s “Stompin’ at The Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse” (2009), which was excerpted in Utne Reader and later selected for inclusion in “Best Music Writing 2010” (Da Capo); Good Thunder Reading Series director Richard Robbins’ stunning historical exploration of the hidden West, titled “Other Americas” (2010); and Ronald Gower’s evocative “On the Farm, Down the Road: Selected Poems” (also 2010).

Stompin coverAnd shortly off the press this spring, Blueroad’s next: “A Song at Twilight: Of Alzheimer’s and Love,” by Litchfield poet Nancy Paddock, a startling memoir chronicling her parents’ simultaneous descents toward dementia and into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s. Fierce, lyrical, candid, timely – and beautifully rendered – her book serves, among many things, as a mediation on memory and the power of family to endure despite blinding uncertainty amid grave doubt. An unfolding road story about one journey’s ending – and another journey’s start. Tough yet lovely; a book for the bones. An honor to publish, indeed.

And, with luck and legwork, there’s more Blueroad beyond.

“It is an endeavor as old as civilization to set out on a road that is supposed to take you to the very end of things, if you keep going” writes poet Anne Carson. “What do you find there? That is a good question. What would you be if you knew the answer? There is one way to find out. So a pilgrim sets off.”