Stay until the end to see Green Writers Press in the credits for “American Fiction”.
Stay until the end to see Green Writers Press in the credits for “American Fiction”.

A brush with Oscar fame

Green Writers Press, a small publisher based in Brattleboro, finds itself in a scene in ‘American Fiction.’ Or, at least that was the plan.

If you're one who likes to be in the know when the Academy Awards roll around, you might be catching American Fiction, a complex satire nominated for several Oscars to be awarded March 10.

If you see the film, you can catch a hometown splash: Green Writers Press (GWP) as part of an "authentic set with real publishers from New England," says Dede Cummings, who founded the press nearly 10 years ago.

She recalls that in 2020, she received an email from Jake Swartz, a Boston-based freelance set decoration coordinator working for the design/production company involved in a film project he called simply "untitled fiction." He wasn't at liberty to name the film.

The filmmakers contacted "about a half dozen" publishers for the scene, Cummings says.

Swartz, Cummings explains, "wrote that they wanted to use actual New England publishers to be part of a book festival scene in the film they were set dressing. Rather than use fake books [and publishing houses], they really wanted to honor the publishers that might be [at such an event]."

The production was seeking "15–20 copies each of different books we can use as set decoration for our book fair scene, as well as any merch/banners/decorations we could dress a booth with," Swartz wrote.

"Of course I said, 'OK!'" Cummings recalls.

They "were very interested in [GWP's] mission and our trying to bring more diversity into publishing," she says. "Jake didn't tell me much about it other than that it was a Black cast, Black themes."

Cummings thought then it would be a literary film about Black fiction writers.

"I didn't know it was like a takedown of the publishing industry!" she says, chortling.

She signed with MRC/T-Street Studios, a contract "for various books provided by Green Writers Press […] to be used as featured set dressing, and/or props in the Picture." The company bought and paid to ship 120 books from GWP's warehouse.

"At the end of the shoot," Cummings adds, "the books were going to be donated to various sites around Boston."

Cummings said that "Jake and his team were so fun to work with," noting that their art director/designer even asked to create a GWP banner with a logo that would work better in the film.

"I liked it a lot," she said.

Cummings was thrilled to hear in the first follow-up talk with Swartz that among the film's stars are two of her favorites, Jeffrey Wright and Tracee Ellis Ross.

It was important to her that a piece of Green Writers Press end up in each of their hands; thus, Swartz said he would contact the producers to make sure that could happen.

From among GWP titles by prominent Black authors, Cummings chose Chicago Heat and Other Stories, by Clarence Major, for Wright.

For Ross - who uses the surname of her mother, Diana Ross, as her stage name - Cummings chose Dancing With Langston, by Sharyn Skeeter.

American Fiction is a film adaptation of Percival L. Everett's Erasure: A Novel (Hyperion, 2002). It described on thusly: "A novelist who's fed up with the establishment profiting from 'Black' entertainment uses a pen name to write a book that propels him into the heart of hypocrisy and the madness he claims to disdain."

Centered on the production of a fabricated memoir of faux suffering, the film is clever in manifesting a funhouse mirror into which privileged whites often seem to look to find comfort with their own views of BiPoC friends and adversaries.

After all that, the book fair scene isn't in the film. Was it ever shot? Is it languishing on a cutting room floor somewhere?

Swartz doesn't know. "Once our work's done," he says, "we don't know what happens next."

"Some of our books were used as props, though," Cummings adds. "I did spot Clarence Major's book on a bookshelf in the girlfriend's house!"

A decade of growth

"When we first started, my focus was on Vermont writers," Cummings recalls. "Initially, it was more of a side project."

Robin MacArthur, who signed on to help Cummings as a freelance editor, brought along Contemporary Vermont Fiction, which Cummings describes as the press' "step toward creating a Vermont ethos."

Cummings says she was aided enthusiastically by Howard Frank Mosher, a prolific and acclaimed author of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction set in the Northeast Kingdom, who was "a guiding light for my press."

In the early days of the press, Mosher, who died in 2017, took Cummings around to all the southern Vermont bookstores. "In one day, we visited them all," she says.

"He drove in his beat up old Dart and he told stories the whole way," Cummings says. "A character!"

"And then we'd go to the bookshop, and he'd say 'Dede's a new publisher: We need to support her, because we don't want books to just come from Amazon or the big four or five publishers in New York,'" says Cummings, calling Mosher "such a champion of the press."

"He kind of launched it," she says.

Green Writers Press is certainly not a side project now. It became national when she signed Dr. M Jackson - "a geographer, glaciologist, and science communicator exploring the intersections of societal transformation, glaciology, and climate change," according to the author's website - as a science writer with her title The Secret Lives of Glaciers in 2019.

A poet, nonfiction writer, book designer, and public radio commentator as well as a publisher, Cummings grew up on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island, where her father was a stockbroker in a long family lineage of men who went to Brown University and then Harvard Business School.

Graduating from The Wheeler School, Cummings was happy to break loose from Providence, she says, to study at Middlebury College, where she became smitten with Vermont.

An English major there, Cummings wended her way into the publishing world, learning letterpress printing; honing her poet's craft, and garnering accolades such as the New England Book Award; earning coveted spots at the Bennington Writers' Workshops and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

As an intern, apprentice, and ultimately as a freelance designer, Cummings has been associated with a number of highly regarded publishing houses, among them David R. Godine, Little, Brown and Company, Shambhala Publications, and Chelsea Green Publishing, where she designed the first edition of Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower.

As a designer, she's worked with a number of authors, rising and canonized, among them Nobel laureate Vicente Aleixandre, novelist Thomas Pynchon, and poet Mary Oliver, who, Cummings recalls, "liked that I was a poet. That I understood her lineation and her indents."

In contrast with the hefty publisher portrayed as handling the protagonist's new book in American Fiction, Cummings is in the world of small presses, which, she notes, are winning ample awards these days.

She talks of the benefits of the small press, noting, for example how "books come into what they call the 'slush pile' - you never know what's in there. The bigger publishers aren't quite as nimble because of overhead, cost, projections - how many books are we going to sell [...]?"

"A small press, though, has a lot of flexibility, and we can take chances," she says.

And the Green Writers Press team can even find a gem in a slush pile.

Howard Frank Mosher was right, Cummings adds, when he said that the small press is "critically important in the struggle to keep good ideas and important literature alive and well."

That, quote, she says, "has been my mantra." She's published it on the GWP website.

"There're a lot of writers in Vermont and a lot of readers in Vermont so we can fill a niche. We've grown; we're more international now, so that's been kind of a surprise," she says.

Emerging from the pandemic when, Cummings recalls, "I thought I would go under," GWP is alive and well. Sales - 54% of which are to brick-and-mortar [not online] outlets - were up 25% last year, she says, beaming.

The press is engaged in collaborations with individuals as well as with several nonprofits, including colleges and universities.

While GWP maintains its focus on social justice, women's issues, environmental issues, and diversity, the press has established an "umbrella imprint" - Green Place Books, which Cummings describes as "a hybrid, author-funded press that allows us to publish books on [...] education, spirituality, caring for elders, childhood education, and memoir."

According to the press's website, in this publishing model, "the author or organization pays for editorial work (editing, copyediting, and proofreading), design of the cover and interior, pagination of the book, and printing."

Green Writers Press, the site says, is "selective in this process, and the books are submissions we would acquire if we had a large budget and a full-time staff."

The press brings to the partnership a "very grassroots and effective" publicity and marketing materials that includes press releases, book launch support and book festival participation.

Cummings expresses optimism for her healthy, dedicated, highly-regarded 10-year-old press.

"The future is bright," she says.

This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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