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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Interview with Ben LeRoy of Tyrus Publishing

(This is the extended interview conducted by Geoff Fuller with publisher Ben LeRoy. Mr. LeRoy will be one of our featured guests at the 2011 WV Writers Summer Conference.)

We’re pleased that Benjamin LeRoy, an acclaimed publisher and writer, will be on the faculty this year at the West Virginia Writers annual conference in June, where he will share his experiences with writing and publishing. In 2001, LeRoy founded Bleak House Books, which specialized in crime and dark literary fiction. He sold later sold Bleak House to Big Earth Publishing in 2005 and went on to found Tyrus Books with Alison Janssen. Bleak House continues as an imprint of Big Earth and Tyrus now publishes 15-20 books a year.

LeRoy was cited by Publishers Weekly in 2008 in their “Fifty Under Forty” series for the novels he has published with Bleak House. Together, books published by Bleak House and Tyrus have won or been nominated for many crime fiction awards, the Edgar, the Shamus, the Anthony, and the Barry among them.

On the Publisher’s Marketplace website, LeRoy writes about what he is looking for in novels submitted to Tyrus:

We publish books that usually involve a crime. Most of those books feature protagonists who are pretty much regular folks who get their world turned upside down by the violence of unexpected situations.

More than likely you won't find a kung fu expert, a super intelligent spy, a Mafia boss, a police detective, or a doctor bent on saving the world in any of our books.

We believe the power in books lies in their ability to transfer the human condition from author to reader. An insight into life. A feeling of being less alone in the world. All of that, no doubt, sounds pretentious, but it doesn't change the facts of the matter—that's what we publish.

In his copious free time, LeRoy is working on a novel, and as part of The Bagmen Collective, he is contributing to several media projects that mix words, audio, and video. Despite his busy schedule, LeRoy recently agreed to a brief discussion of his publishing efforts with Geoff Fuller, longtime member of WVW.

At Tyrus Books, you’re looking for crime novels that deal with “crime and its repercussions.” Put aside for a moment the usual potential repercussions of crime in crime fiction—police, lawyers, jails, and so forth. What other types of repercussions that turn up in manuscripts submitted to Tyrus most interest you?

As off point as it may be, I’m rarely interested in the whodunit or the forensics of solving a crime. I care more about the survivors and the peripheral characters at the heart of any jarring crime. We’ve seen so much television, watched so many movies, that by the end of the first act we have a feeling of how things are going to go—the bad guy will be busted, the good guy will triumph, justice will be done. And that’s all well and good from a macro point of view, but what about the fringe characters? What about the family of the perpetrator? The family of the victim? How are those people going to get up in the morning after the fire has burned out and the smoke has cleared? That is the kind of thing I’m fascinated by.

What types of repercussions in stories that have been submitted to Tyrus have most surprised you?

One of the more heartbreaking examples would be in Lynn Kostoff’s novel, Late Rain. The novel’s central crime is the murder of a soft-drink mogul. The reader knows the perpetrator right away because there’s a witness to the crime. Unfortunately, that witness has Alzheimer’s and he’s unable to pull the details together for the cops. What sort of hurt is there when the possibility of closure is right there but thwarted by the ravages of old age—a familiar enough issue that we all have to deal with at some point in life. What happens then? What if it isn’t ever clean?

Tyrus Books is named for Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who played professional baseball from 1905 to 1928. In one of the regular commentaries you write for the Huffington Post, you said that he was one of the “guideposts” you use when you evaluate fiction. How so? Can you elaborate on how Ty Cobb—his life, the way he played baseball—helps you choose fiction?

Cobb casts a large shadow on my life, not simply for his exploits on the baseball diamond (arguably the greatest player of his generation), but for the way he can’t be synthesized into any particular box. Great baseball player? Yes. Societal malcontent? By most accounts, yes. A player like Cobb, no matter how skilled, would never be celebrated in today’s media world based on even a tenth of the things he was accused of doing off the field, and in some cases in the stands.

He played the game and lived his life with great passion and seemingly without apology. Many people are inspired or work hard at their craft, Cobb took that to a different level. I don’t know how much of it is now just the product of apocryphal legend, but the general story is that Cobb lived the way he did because his father told him to “never come home a failure” when the younger Cobb set out to play minor league baseball. Before he could come home a baseball success, Cobb’s mother gunned down his father in either a deliberate murder or because she feared he was a prowler. The one person who could give Cobb validation was dead, and at his own mother’s hands. Can you imagine?

What length would any of us go to in search of validation when we know we can never have it handed to us? Some folks would give up. For others, it would only fuel the obsession. Cobb certainly falls into the second category, and he does so with great force.

So, on the one hand, he fills the role of a tragically damned character to me. The kind of person I’d like to read about—whose head I’d like to try occupying on the page. A person welded to family even under sordid circumstances. A person who can never escape the whispers and the gossip.

On another hand, I like the idea of such fierce determination when it comes to doing the things we love, even to the exclusion of what would otherwise be considered a normal life. You can see that kind of thing in a person’s eyes. It means taking chances. It means that sometimes people might think you’re crazy, but you move forward at full speed.

That being the case, I feel like we take on books that might otherwise get passed over. If I wanted to make it more dramatic than it really is, I’d say that’s part of the parallel. We publish, without apology, books that are great but outside of the conventional commercial lines. The way that makes it sound, it’s terribly more outlaw than it is, but a book, for instance, like Angela S. Choi’s debut, Hello Kitty Must Die, was an obvious choice for us, but it was a book that had been passed on by NYC. When it made Los Angeles Times’ book reviewer Sarah Weinman’s best of 2010 list she said:

Nobody but Tyrus Books could have published Choi’s debut, which has one of the most memorable opening chapters I have ever read. But who cares if the majors didn’t want to touch HELLO KITTY with a hundred-foot pole, this book has its audience - and I am certainly among the enthusiasts. Again from my LAT column: “The real triumph of HELLO KITTY MUST DIE is that it refuses to apologize for Fiona’s behavior and never offers clear-cut explanations for her pole slide down into amoral adventure.”

You have cited the memoir Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore, which is about his family, including his brother Gary, as another one of your guideposts for evaluating fiction. Heart is nonfiction. Can you name three novels that are wrenching in the way that Heart is and best exemplify the type of crime fiction Tyrus is seeking?

I can’t name three novels that are wrenching in the way that Shot in the Heart is. That’s my mission as a publisher—to find fiction that extolls the near physical trauma of a book like Shot in the Heart. It may be that it’s impossible to write fiction that resonates in the same way, but I feel like the quest to find it is the more important takeaway for me. It’s precisely the type of digging and exploration of ourselves and those around us that Mikal Gilmore does in that book that fascinates me about characters in novels. What happens when we are on the sidelines of such profound events, but irrevocably handcuffed to them?

You have said that you can evaluate a book within the first paragraph or two. Maybe not to the point of being able to tell whether the book will be perfect for Tyrus but certainly when a book will be completely wrong for Tyrus. Can you put your finger on some of the qualities that cause you to reject submissions quickly?

I don’t know that I can. Vaguely, I could say things like—getting a sense that the author is more concerned with a pretty sentence than getting the hell on with the story, BUT, there might be a turn of phrase on the first page that tells me, on some level, that the author knows exactly what he/she is doing, and that I’m going to want the book. I know it when I see it. I can point it out every time, but I can’t cite a rule.

If a book starts off feeling like the fade-in of a tv show or a movie, I’ll probably prickle at that. The world building is different. Again, it’s just something I sense that doesn’t work for me. Might still be right for others.

You stress in many places the importance of craft and strong writing to Tyrus, suggesting that good writing might even be more important than marketability. In an industry that often stresses high concept over good writing, that makes Tyrus unusual. First, is it true that you are more interested in the literary than the commercial qualities of a book? And second, have you ever regretted your commitment to craft?

I’ve never regretted commitment to craft, no. For me, I’ve come to peace with the fact that a book might sell in the marketplace or it might not—on some level that’s out of my control. Putting out a quality product is in my control. It’s what is expected of me as a publisher, and it’s what I expect out of myself. I want books that will stand the test of time. I don’t want somebody to be able to point to a shelf of books I’ve published and say, “That might have been good in 2011, but it’s terrible in 2021.”

There are certainly a lot of books that aspire to be “literary” that are little more than gratuitous exercises in authorial self-pleasuring. (Take that last sentence as a prime example.) There isn’t any reason why a book that we might call “literary” can’t also be a bestseller or commercially viable. What is its resonance and do people want that?

If the choice is—do I want a book that makes sense, is written without fat, and is emotionally engaging, OR do I want a book with six car chases, elaborate law enforcement scenes that don’t actually follow real life procedures, and unlikely love connections that result in lots of sex scenes, I’ll choose the first book. Obviously, there is a huge gray area to be considered when answering this question.

What makes Tyrus different than most other publishing houses?

I don’t know that I have an answer for that question—not a good one at least. I’d like to think that publishing houses are the reflections of the people running them and that the values and characteristics of those individuals come out in the books that get published. I know plenty of other publishing houses that are trying to figure out the human connection thing, and inevitably we all end up looking in different places.