by Mary Breaden
Last year, Ooligan Press had the pleasure of attending the Willamette Writers Conference pitch room for a busy Friday. Ooligan Press, for those of you who don't know, is Portland State University's student-run press for students enrolled in the Master's in Publishing program. During the summer months of 2012, I was the co-manager of the press's acquisitions department and managed the press's slush pile.
With slush pile management comes certain tales of woe from both the stand-point of the writer and the acquisitions editor. Writer: Why can't my (unsolicited) manuscript get in the door with any publisher? Slush pile manager: Why does my press never receive any publishable works? Ooligan Press's front-list provides a refutation to this paradigm, for in recent years, all of our increasingly popular titles have come from the slush pile, even Oregon Book Award winning young adult novel, Blue Thread, by Ruth Tenzer Feldman.
The WWC gave our press a chance to get into a more active role; with agents and other publishers, we waited for the conference's dear authors to walk up and pitch their manuscript. The first pitch of the day was a woman named Karelia Stetz-Water, who I didn't meet because I was lost at nearby Portland Airport trying to get to the conference. But lovely Laura received Karelia's pitch and handed me her proposal for her literary fiction novel, As Though Our Beauty Were a War when I arrived. "Read it. I think you'll love her," she told me with a grin. I read in silence and responded, "I want this."
After the conference--where we met heaps of talented authors--I emailed Karelia and solicited a copy of As Though Our Beauty Were a War. She responded with a characteristic good-nature and professionalism that we would later know her for (writerly dramatics, this one has not, outside of her fiction, that is). I read the manuscript and did not want to stop. I fell into the charms of her main character Triinu, a young girl in the Willamette Valley who was trundling along her path to understanding her body and sexuality with great intelligence among less artistically sensitive classmates. The kindness of Triinu, her nostalgia and impatience for the future was something I could relate to. The author's lyrical grace was a technique that I admired/envied.
During the fall and winter months, Karelia very kindly worked with the acquisitions department to developmentally edit As Though Our Beauty Were a War, which would help the new department managers to pitch the novel to the rest of the press later on in the spring of this year. When managers McKenzie Workman, Drew Lazzara, and Whitney Smyth presented the novel to the general assembly of Ooligan Press, they told us, "Here is a heroine that any reader can love." The book was unanimously accepted. And now, almost a full year later from when we first found Karelia at WWC, the real fun begins!
Here at Ooligan Press, we are very grateful to have been present at the Willamette Writers Conference. Our presence at the conference meant that our program's young publishers would have a chance to work with a novel that truly resonated with them.