Penngrove, that tiny rural burg one would miss if happening to blink while driving through, is home to more than its famed Dutch Belt cows. It is, in fact, a literary haven of sorts, thanks to nearly two decades of work quietly conducted in the home office of writer and publisher Cydney Chadwick.
Books she’s written or published through her nonprofit press Avec Books have garnered international attention and critical approbation the world over.
“I just do my work,” Chadwick says demurely. Her first story was published in 1988 in a Midwest literary journal. Later that year, she founded Avec, a literary magazine, the first issue of which featured a “lost chapter” from Beat writer William Burroughs’ seminal text “Naked Lunch.”
The notion of being both a writer and a publisher might at first seem analogous to a producer casting herself in her own film. For the most part, Chadwick has resisted such a facile equation and has striven, instead, to differentiate herself as a writer autonomous from her press. Her efforts have paid off — nearly a dozen publications now bear her byline. She has also received two creative writing fellowships, a handful of awards (including the Gertrude Stein Award in Contemporary American Poetry), and the occasional all-expenses paid trips to Paris and Berlin to participate in literary events. She has also given multiple readings in New York and London.
“As a literary person, I’ve never known anything else but the wearing of those two hats — writer and publisher,” she says. “It has made me more of an iconoclast. There are many independent press communities throughout this country, and the members of these communities seem to write for each other. I’ve never joined one, nor have I tried to foster one. The writing I publish is quite varied — from translations of Russian and French poets to a book of post-postmodern feminist stories that was blurbed by Burroughs,” she says, then adds wryly, “and the Beats weren’t exactly known for embracing feminism.”
On Sunday, Chadwick will read from her works at Zebulon’s Lounge in Petaluma. She will be joined by Sonoma County’s newly appointed poet laureate, Geri Digiorno, and Jordan E. Rosenfeld, a novelist and host of “Word by Word: Conversations with Writers” on local NPR-affiliate, KRCB-FM, which broadcasts in Sonoma County on 91.1 FM and 90.9 FM.
Chadwick will read from “Enemy Clothing” and “Flesh and Bone,” a collection of stories that won the Independent Publisher Book award for the best short story collection of 2002. She will also read from “Cut and Run,” her latest book, that finds its enigmatic narrator conducting a platonic affair with a married art lover, while extricating herself from a lesbian tryst. It was released last summer.
Much of Chadwick’s work deals with the rich interior experience of women, but Chadwick attributes its nuance and verisimilitude to craft rather than the mining of her personal experience.
“I gave a reading in New York City and fooled an NYU professor of literature. Given the question he asked, he thought one of the pieces I read was autobiographical,” says Chadwick, who is quick to add: “The characters are never me. They either come from my imagination or (are) drawn from observation.”
Although Chadwick enjoys the challenges of publishing another author’s work, she says there are pitfalls unique to being a writer that she endeavors to avoid.
“Publishing someone else’s work, spending my energy on the production of another author’s book, is easier than writing new work of my own, and that’s a very insidious danger of being a publisher,” Chadwick says. “If I don’t set boundaries and have the discipline to set aside time for my writing, publishing could easily become a distraction and deterrent to creating new work of my own.
“When I’m ‘in the zone,’ it’s the gravitas, the roll I’m on with a particular piece of work that brings me back to the computer. A particular kind of focus sets in and I am able to do this. It gets easier to find this zone when I’m writing every day,” says Chadwick, who explains she is “obliged to write” given her dedication to her work.
“This is what I chose to do. I either wanted to be a writer or painter. When I was young, I wanted be a professional athlete. I was a competitive figure skater and played tournament tennis. As it is now, I’m a recreational cyclist. I work out a lot of story problems when I’m out riding.”
On more than one occasion, she says, she has used her cell phone to record story revisions on her home voice mail while bicycling.
Chadwick takes pains to differentiate herself from her press, which literary aspirants often conflate as simply an extension of her. She maintains separate voice mail and e-mail addresses, and keeps her personal phone number unlisted to ward off the innumerable calls she used to receive from authors in search of a publisher.
“I had to change my unlisted phone number because writers who had gotten access to it would call me, either while I was working on Avec Books, doing my own writing, or about to go to sleep and would tell me where they were being published,” she laments. “These calls were so intrusive and demanding that I was unable to deal with them and decided to put my time and energy into my own writing, and the work for Avec Books.”
Chadwick’s commitment to her press endures despite dwindling arts funding, which is the life’s blood of small presses.
“Keeping a nonprofit going in these times is extremely difficult. I was going to do a fundraiser around Halloween, but given the fact that so many of us have just given money to help Hurricane Katrina survivors, the timing is bad,” she says. (Avec Books is in need of an Apple computer, circa 2000 or later).
Despite the hardships, after publishing more than 30 titles, Chadwick is game to press on and bring new voices to the fore.
“I’ve published many authors’ first books. It was rewarding to take that risk,” she says. “I still enjoy bringing out other writers’ books.”
Cydney Chadwick reads at 5 p.m. Sunday at Zebulon’s Lounge, 21 Fourth St., Petaluma. Free. (707) 769-7948; www.zebulonslounge.com. Must be 21 years or older. For information about Avec Books, visit www.avecbooks.org.