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Making the Memoir (Mostly) Respectable

Rhonda Hughes is publisher of Hawthorne Books, based in Portland, Oregon. Now in its thirteenth year, Hawthorne has published literary fiction and nonfiction to consistent critical acclaim.

What is Hawthorne’s book publishing mission? How, when, and where did you begin?

I founded Hawthorne in 2000 with the simple mission to publish well-written literary fiction and nonfiction because, as a voracious reader, I could fathom no better career than to publish books.

Memoir can be a tricky genre in terms of quality. Talk about why you believe in it and also about your selection criteria/method.

I often find myself at parties defending memoir.

Wedlocked book cover
At a Christmas Eve party, I gave one of my friends Jay Ponteri’s upcoming book, Wedlocked, which is about a married man with a young son who falls in love with his local barista. I published this book firstly because it is well written and because it poses questions regarding monogamy and marriage and expectations. How do we deal with these intimacies? What happens when we fail? What happens when we hurt people we love? Memoir shows us that we are all dented avocados, and therein is solace.

Tell us about your upcoming releases.

Historically, Hawthorne has published more fiction than nonfiction, so these last two years we’ve added more of the latter to balance our catalog, with the goal of featuring both equally going forward. This spring is going to be dynamic because we have three memoirs (including Jay Ponteri’s Wedlocked) focused on the themes of love, marriage, and parenthood, Hawthorne style. It may not be what you were expecting, but it’s life.

On love: Short story writer Scott Nadelson pens his first memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress, about his fiancée leaving him a month before their wedding for a woman who dresses in drag in a lesbian revue show. On parenthood: Monica Wesolowska’s Holding Silvan: A Brief Life is about the death of her first son thirty-eight days after he was born. This book will teach you more about love than death. Fans of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking will embrace Monica’s memoir. Erica Jong wrote the introduction and we have blurbs from Michael Cunningham, Abraham Verghese, Julia Scheeres, Ayelet Waldman, and Lidia Yuknavitch. This is a powerful book.

Fall introduces Poe Ballantine’s first memoir, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, with an introduction by Cheryl Strayed, which is about the end of his nomadic life and getting married, having a child, and settling down in Chadron, Nebraska, where his neighbor, a math professor, is discovered tied to a tree and burned to death months after he disappeared. Poe and his friends try to solve the mystery.

And finally, Hawthorne is proud to announce the publication of accomplished writer Anthony McCarten’s novel, Brilliance, the story of Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan and the War of the Currents that pits them against Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. This novel is about American innovation and the birth of the modern era.

What has surprised you about being in the book publishing business?

A publishing catalog consists mostly of books that do not make profit with the occasional few that do. If I could wave my magic publishing wand, I’d financially compensate all writers for their talents regardless of sales.

Hawthorne is now keeping company with moviemakers. How did that happen and what does it mean for you?

Yes, Hawthorne does Hollywood!

Our dramatic rights are represented by ICM and, in addition, I partnered as a creative producer with film producer Mayne Berke on a number of properties, such as Clown Girl by Monica Drake, Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavtich, A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost; and God Clobbers Us All by Poe Ballantine. What it means for me is the transition from a passive role to an active one as I now pitch options as well as stay involved creatively through the facilitation of words to film or television. More importantly, what it means for Hawthorne writers is that they have a shepherd working to increase their visibility and option odds serving as a production voice in Hollywood.

Rhonda Hughes

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