(Litsa Dremousis and Matthew Simmons are reading at Cairo this Saturday at 7 pm. The reading is $5.)
Talking with local author Matthew Simmons about Instant Future, his new publishing imprint, reveals exactly how low-drama the process was. Kevin Sampsell, an author and bookseller at Powell's in Portland, runs a micro-press called Future Tense Books. He approached Simmons to establish an e-books-only imprint of Future Tense focusing on works of nonfiction that are longer than a magazine article but shorter than a novella, roughly 10,000 to 12,000 words. In his new role as series editor, Simmons quickly realized that of all the possible expenditures a fledgling e-book publisher would require, time was, "more than anything else," the greatest requirement. Simmons says, "I set up the website and started looking around for writers I wanted to work with." Financially, his only commitment was "the cost of a URL and the cost of a host for the website." He plans to publish about one book every two months for the foreseeable future. "I think like a lot of small press people, I’m an enthusiastic amateur," Simmons says.
Simmons describes the 10,000-to-12,000-word format as "homeless" in the world of narrative nonfiction—it’s too short to merit the financial requirements of a print book, but too long to fit on most periodicals’ runsheets. “It’s an interesting length," Simmons says, basically asking an investment of "a night or two, or just a few hours in a single sitting" from a reader. He asked local author Litsa Dremousis if she had any projects that were within that word count. Dremousis immediately said yes, and pitched the project that would eventually become Instant Future's first release, Altitude Sickness. Simmons says he's very happy with the book. Dremousis "works in a lot of different registers. Altitude Sickness can be really funny, and really angry, and really sad."
Dremousis says the book took two and a half months to write, although she'd been assembling notes for two years. Simmons told her the book took an hour to edit—"He changed a couple commas," Dremousis recalls, "and he turned 'chocolate mocha' to 'mocha'"—and the whole process of transforming Altitude Sickness from a raw manuscript into a fully designed, for-sale e-book took just a month. It's available for purchase on Amazon, on Instant Future's website, and directly from Dremousis. (With a little frustration, Dremousis says she reminds her friends and family that she gets "a higher royalty every time they buy Altitude Sickness off my website or from Instant Future,” but even her "most liberal friends" continue to buy the book from the online giant.)
Altitude Sickness is the true story of Dremousis's friend TJ Langley, whom she calls "Neal" in the book. Langley was an avid outdoorsman who survived a vicious bear attack (she says everyone knows him as "the bear attack guy") only to die in a climbing accident in the North Cascades five years ago. (You can listen to Marcie Sillman's interview with Dremousis about Altitude Sickness on KUOW's website.) The book is a howl of pain, a bellow of grief, and a funny-sad Irish funeral for a lover and friend, combining deep wisdom about mortality with an almost naive sensibility. Dremousis rails at the unfairness of death and the selfishness of people who take up dangerous hobbies like mountain climbing. The length is just about perfect: Any shorter and the thousand opposing facets of her experience wouldn't be fully examined, but any longer might dilute her laser-sharp focus on the subject.
The process of writing the book was, unsurprisingly, difficult. Dremousis reopened "hundreds of e-mails, cards, letters, photos, recordings" Langley had given her that had remained untouched in the years since his death. She started having nightmares again, a process she describes as "all hell breaking loose." When Dremousis was feeling down about her career, Langley would cheer her up by asking, "What are we going to do for the first book?" They would plan parties and readings to celebrate that hypothetical first publication together. "I never anticipated that this first book would be about his death," she says. As if all this weren’t enough, Dremousis's fiancée suffered a serious medical setback. "We thought it was a sinus infection, and," here she laughs sarcastically, "ha-ha, it was a tumor." It was caught early, and found to be benign, but a brain tumor is a brain tumor. The pressure of writing a book about the death of her best friend at the same time that her fiancée was preparing to have brain surgery was enormous.
"I do not recommend doing those two things at the same time," Dremousis says.