June Thomas: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
Speaker 2: We small presses, most of which started in the seventies, did a lot of the work ourselves. The whole structure that was being built of lesbian culture outside the mainstream. That’s what made it possible individually. It would have been difficult for any of us to have the success we had.
Isaac Butler: Welcome back to working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler.
June Thomas: And I’m your other host, June Thomas.
Isaac Butler: Hey, June, whose voice was that that we heard right at the top of the show? And why did you want to speak to her this week?
June Thomas: So that was Barbara Wilson, also known as Barbara Sjoholm, and I’ve known Barbara for a very long time. Back in 1990 or thereabouts, she hired me to work at SEAL Press, the feminist publisher that is know. After changing owners a few times parts of the Hachette Group, they’re actually going to publish my book in a couple of years. But Barbara was one of the co-founders back in the seventies in Seattle, and I wanted to speak with her because still another thing that she pioneered was the feminist mystery genre. She wrote six or seven of them back in the eighties and nineties before she made a pivot in her writing career.
June Thomas: But in the last couple of years, she has returned to Cassandra Reilly, who is one of her investigators. She’s a globetrotting translator, investigator, and Barbara has written two new books, Not The Real Jupiter and Love Dies Twice. And I really enjoyed those books, but it was the circling back to a character that she had invented decades ago. That was what really interested me. And also, it’s Pride Month and in Pride Month, my mind always turns to queer history. And I really wanted to talk with Barbara about the early years of SEAL Press and the women in print movement that it was part of.
Isaac Butler: You know, I got to say, Big SEAL Press fan. So they published one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, an Halliday’s travel memoir, No Touch Monkey. And I was wondering, what are some of your favorite SEAL press titles?
June Thomas: Well, so from recent years, I really love. Sometimes You Have To Lie. There’s Leslie Brody’s biography of Louise Fitzhugh, who wrote the Harriet the Spy books. I got that tip from our dear departed Debbie’s deceased, but our former co-host, I guess Ramona LAMB, fantastic book. And from the original SEAL Press titles, Barbara’s books are great. There was one called The Dyke in the Book by Alan Gilford that was fantastic. Sealed published an early Sarah Shulman book, a novel called Girls Visions and Everything. And though it’s now sadly out of print, I absolutely loved a Dutch translation that we did in the non-profit Spin Off Press Women in Translation. It was by Renata da Stein and it was called Unnatural Mothers. So great.
Isaac Butler: Well, maybe we can get the New York Review of Books people on reissuing that. I think those of us who subscribe to Slate Plus will also be hearing a little something extra this week.
June Thomas: They sure will. So earlier I gave two names for Barbara a couple of decades ago. She changed her last name and started publishing under that new name. And, you know, given how important names are for writers, I mean, that’s how people look us up. I was really curious to learn more about that change, and her answer was really fascinating.
Isaac Butler: That’s amazing. Well, I cannot wait to listen to that. And if you are looking forward to listening to that, that’s probably because you’re a member of Slate Plus. And if you are not a member of Slate Plus, you should get on that immediately so that you can inherit the extra powerful name Slate Plus member slate plus members get full access behind the paywall. On the main site, you get access to a really bitchin newsletter written by the Slate staff, and you get bonus segments on shows like this one. You will also get to sleep at night knowing that you’re doing the great work of supporting everything we do right here on working. Go to Slate.com, slash working plus to sign up today.
Isaac Butler: I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to listen to June’s conversation with Barbara Wilson, so let’s get right to it. Enjoy.
June Thomas: Barbara Wilson. Thank you for joining us on working.
Speaker 2: Hi, June. Glad to be here.
June Thomas: So here I should disclose that I worked for you at SEAL Press in the early 1990s. So obviously my first question is about my 1992 annual review. I just don’t know what you were thinking, but you are someone who has worn a lot of hats. Writer, translator, publisher, editor, teacher. But if you had to choose one, I imagine it would be writer. Is that right?
Speaker 2: Yes, absolutely. Especially at this point.
June Thomas: So there are two main things that I want to talk to you about today. One is your creative work and especially your choice to return to a beloved character who I believe start writing about 20 years earlier. And the other is to look back at your time as the co-founder of a feminist publishing company starting back in the 1970s. So let’s begin, though, with your writing. So as I said, in 2021, you revived the character of Cassandra Reilly, and we’ll get to Cassandra shortly. But first, let’s begin by talking about the kinds of books you have written, although I’m not sure it was ever your dream genre. You were one of the pioneers of the feminist mystery or feminist detective genre. Tell me how you came to write those books. You began with Pam Neilson, right?
Speaker 2: Right. And I actually love mysteries. And I had always read them working with Agatha Christie back when I was sick one time in high school, and my dad went to the library and brought me a huge pile of Agatha Christie’s. And I love the genre. And no, I didn’t actually think of myself as a mystery writer to begin with. But having written the first one Murder in the Collective and finding it so popular at the time and, you know, being curious about what more I could do with that genre, I just went on and gradually changed to different kinds of mysteries with Cassandra Reilly. But I think Murder in the Collective came very much out of my life in Seattle at the time, sort of feminist, slightly queer, multicultural, a bit shabby.
Speaker 2: Cele press at that time was in Pioneer Square and we shared our offices with workshop printers, which was a collective. And Rachel de Silva, my partner at Civil Press, was also part of workshop printers, and they printed some of our books. So it’s very natural to kind of look at that collective life and think, what would happen if there were a murder and what would happen if it were a collective. And somehow that struck a chord with people. I think they always laughed at the title or during the collective, especially in Seattle. So with that, I was kind of off and running.
June Thomas: Okay. So the Pam Nielsen books, there were three of those, right?
Speaker 2: Right.
June Thomas: And then you started with Cassandra. So who is Cassandra and where do those books fit in your bibliography?
Speaker 2: Well, Pam was in her thirties. She was just coming out as a lesbian. She had a twin sister, Penny, who was straight. I use them as a way of exploring kind of feminist issues at the time, including pornography and prostitution and street kids and lots of things that we were discussing then. But she was limited in some ways, and by that time I was starting to spend more time in England and I was being published in England and in Germany, and I began to think more about writing an expat character. And I wrote a short story about Cassandra murder at the international feminist book Fair for an anthology called Reader. I murdered him and I really delighted in her.
Speaker 2: I had also been a translator myself of Norwegian mostly, but I met Cassandra, a translator of Spanish and kind of financially insecure freelancer, an Irish American who’d grown up in Michigan but had decamped really quickly to Spanish speaking countries and then ended up sort of being based in London. And I found lots of possibilities in her, a kind of fluidity and freedom, a lot of jokes about language. I took her to Romania in Transylvania. I set stories in Hawaii and Iceland and Uruguay and eventually Venice. So I had a lot of fun with her, and I don’t know if I ever actually planned to set her aside, but certainly when I took her up again 20 years later, after I’d written the last one, I still delighted in her.
Speaker 2: And I think I had been kind of thinking about her all this time. What would she be up to, especially if she was as old as I was, which she still be translating? Would she still be running around with the ladies? Well, what would be happening to her? And I think it was you know, I wrote a couple of short stories and then I started writing novels about her again.
June Thomas: So genre novels typically have a bit of a formula in the Cassandra Reilly Mysteries. That formula was a slice of feminist history, plus some contemporary travel content, plus a few great jokes about translation and publishing and how impossible writers are. And then a little bit of a personal story for Cassandra, and that’s a great mix. Oh, and there’s a mystery, too. Are you, like, offended by my kind of breaking it down that way, or do you see them that way, too?
Speaker 2: No, I think that’s a pretty accurate description. I think the later mysteries and some of the short stories as well, I think about translation more, which kind of ties in to Cassandra’s feeling about translation and investigation being related. They’re both about searching for meaning. So in terms of template, I think in the beginning, yes, they were just kind of fun. I mean, there are lots of sort of metaphors and there were jokes about language, but I think I became more conscious recently that I could actually use translation as part of the platform, as part of the template, if you will, to really make some points about the role of translation in literature.
June Thomas: How many Cassandra Reilly books were there before the recent return?
Speaker 2: There were four. So Gaudi afternoon set in Barcelona and that didn’t actually even have a murder and it had sort of a kidnapping and heist. And it was a lot of jokes about magical realism, right? And that was made into a movie about ten years later with Judy Davis as Cassandra and Marcia Gay Harden and Juliette Lewis. Mm hmm.
June Thomas: A little bit. Juliette Lewis read in there.
Speaker 2: I know great people in it. It’s not actually the greatest movie, though. It has some good points, but I love the actors who play the characters. So after that came kind of an odd book, Trouble in Transylvania, set in a spa in in the Transylvanian Mountains. And then came the case of the orphan business, which was set in Venice and involves the theft of an antique bassoon. Cassandra’s best friend is a woman named Nicky Gibbons, who’s a well-known bassoonist. So lots of jokes about this woman’s music and. They also published a collection of short stories, most of which have been published elsewhere in anthologies or whatnot, called The Death of a Much Traveled Woman. And I think there are about ten stories in there.
June Thomas: So you brought Cassandra back, and I’m really glad to hear that you’d been thinking about it, because as somebody who doesn’t write fiction, I always imagine fiction writers just having all these people who they’ve created running around in their heads, even though I’m sure that would be really maddening had the stories been marinating for 20 years. You know, just kind of the settings or were they completely fresh?
Speaker 2: I’m not really sure. You know, the earlier books all became available through Open Road Media sometime around 2014. So they had approached me about reissuing all of them. Mm hmm. You know, and people had always been saying to me, Oh, you should write some more. But I just kind of ignored that because I didn’t really have time and I was very occupied in my other work, translating Scandinavian literature and writing about the Indigenous army.
Speaker 2: But various things began to happen and I had been going to Scandinavia a lot and I hadn’t gone to England for quite a while. But all of a sudden I just had this urge to start going to Scandinavia or going to London every time I was in Europe, which was almost every year. And I reconnected with a lot of my old friends who were in publishing at the time that I lived there at Virago and Shima and Women’s Press, and we talked about old times and it really brought up a really strong feeling of London, how much I had loved it, how I had thought about becoming an expat myself. And I, I think at that point something started stirring. And I wrote a short story, and I think I had a short story included in an anthology to an old one.
Speaker 2: So yeah, gradually things just started to come together and I enjoyed writing about Cassandra so much in the short stories that I suddenly thought, Oh, I’m going to write about this woman who she translates, who she has translated before. Luis Amanda Flores, who is a Latin American South American writer who is really eccentric and unpleasant. But she and Cassandra are bonded anyway. That’s kind of how it started. And the second one really came about as a result of writing the first one also because it was coban times and I wasn’t traveling, so I could only go places on Google Maps.
June Thomas: And there’s something else to that’s very that I really appreciate about the Cassandra books, which is that she is, you know, she’s a woman who I have known at least inside my head for, you know, what, 40 years. I don’t remember exactly when the first one came out. And she has gotten older, just as I have, and she is now, I guess in her seventies she’s still running around. But a lot of the things that she deals with her friends are, you know, thinking about retiring. They’re thinking about moving out of London. They are maybe women who have been working in feminist projects or indie projects, and they really do not have like big padded, you know, retirement portfolios. I don’t see books like that, certainly not kind of like genre books that, you know, you feel like you can just sit down and, you know, blast through.
Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, that was something that really interested me too. I mean, I think I’ve kind of said she was hovering around 70, so I’ve sort of kept her. It may be 69 or something like that, because it’s got to be a little bit pre-COVID at this point. But I do think, you know, I don’t think she’s poor at all. I think she has worked really hard and has translated a lot of books. And so she has royalties on some of them, but she’s really conscious that she doesn’t have a home of her own. She doesn’t have much savings.
Speaker 2: Her fantasies of retiring to the Costa del Sol or someplace are that just that fantasy? She’s probably not going to be able to afford to do that, but she comes in contact with other people, with women who breezed along through their thirties, forties, whatnot, doing work and charities and nonprofits and working for the movement and who save nothing and who may be hooked up with someone who was better off. But they weren’t married. They didn’t receive anything. I’m fascinated by that. I think money’s really important. And as you say, it just doesn’t get discussed very much. Single women, single lesbians. I know a lot of them. And I wanted to reflect on that somehow.
June Thomas: Let’s pivot a little bit because I want to take a walk down memory lane. Working is a show about getting creative work done. And I think it would be interesting to talk about this almost in a historical context with SEAL Press. Again, I worked at SEAL Press when you and Faith column were in charge. Thank you for hiring me. So how did you come to start a publishing house?
Speaker 2: I had been interested in printing and book design for a long time and I had read a lot about writers who started their own presses, like Virginia Woolf. And and, I mean, I kept trying to think about a way that I could get into printing and publishing.
Speaker 2: And so at the same time, I was taking intensive Russian at the university. I also started taking classes at Seattle Community College in printing. You know how to write a press, how to make the plates, all this stuff. And it was while I was doing that that I heard about a woman who had bought a letter press and was printing small cards and poetry broadsides. And I went to a party where she was introduced myself. The next day, I went over to her house. It was Rachel, the Silver, and she taught me to set type. And we started printing poetry that summer of 1976.
Speaker 2: So from there, kind of very, very slowly, we went on to print more poetry and some shorter pieces by Northwest women mostly, and we weren’t identifying ourselves directly as the feminist press. Maybe the first couple of years, I think we also published a couple of poems by Men on our Broadsides. But we got so interested in the whole women in print movement that we decided to actually expand. And it was in her garage, but it was also in my one bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill. So it’s just the two of us with a few volunteers.
Speaker 2: And around 1980, a woman came up to us at a small press book fair, and she had a book on domestic violence. It was for how women could get away called Getting Free. And Jenny McCarthy was the author and she had had an agent and she had the agent had tried many, many publishers in New York, all of whom refused to take the book, even though they said it was very important. But they said they didn’t think women would buy it because they would be too ashamed to be seen purchasing a book like this.
Speaker 2: So we took it on and edited it, and it was right about that time that Faith Conlin came to join us, and she had worked in New York with, I think, basic books, at any rate. She knew something more about publishing on that scale than we did, and she was very helpful to us. And when the book came out, it was really heralded. We sold a lot to the shelters. It was in the New York Times. We I think we ran out of our first press run probably in a month or two, and we were small and scrappy. And from there, we just kind of went on. But we sold it to our distributors, publishers group West, and that was part of Perseus Avalon. And then Perseus sold it to Hachette.
June Thomas: One thing that you said then just really I want to ask you about, mostly because it’s something that I think outsiders don’t have a sense of. But you mentioned how when Genie’s book Getting Free sold, well, that almost caused problems, because when a book that’s successful sells out and you have to go back to press, suddenly, you know, when the press was really going and there were, you know, two seasons and you’re publishing, what, three, four or five books per season, you know, you need your predictable cash flow in order to print those new books. And if you have to go back to press for a backlist book that can cause so much disruption, even though it’s a sign of success. And I remember that happening over and over with successful books, I mean, really big sellers. And that was great. But that caused like a lot of, you know, business headaches, right?
Speaker 2: Yeah, it was stressful. I mean, it was always exciting to see them getting out into the world and those authors getting recognition was so gratifying. But yeah, you know, you need a line of credit with a bank so that you can, you know, as you know, publishing has so much upfront costs with labor and printers and you don’t see the returns until six months or a year later sometimes. So managing all of that on a small budget was always very challenging.
Isaac Butler: We’ll be back with more of June’s conversation with Barbara Wilson after this. Hi, Isaac here just with a couple of quick reminders. First of all, if you enjoy the show, please remember to subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts. And the second thing is that we really love hearing from our listeners. We’ve been really featuring listener emails and phone calls on our new spin off bonus show, Working Overtime, and we’d love for you to be a part of that.
Isaac Butler: So if you’ve got a request for us, if you have a question for us, if you have advice for us, if you have tips from your own creative practice, please just drop us a line. We’re working at Slate.com or call us, believe it or not, and leave a voicemail like it’s 2000 3304933w0rk.
Isaac Butler: And now back to June’s conversation with Barbara Wilson.
June Thomas: You mentioned the women in print movement. And it does feel just so significant because not only were these presses, you know, feminist presses publishing a different kind of book from authors who for the most part not exclusively, but for the most part hadn’t been published elsewhere, kind of building a new type of literature, a new section of the bookstore. But that wasn’t the only difference. Another thing there were much more geographically diverse. Ciel was in Seattle, eighth Mountain was in Portland, Calyx was in Corvallis. There were also feminist presses in San Francisco, a very big one in Tallahassee, Florida, the great firebrand in court in Ithaca, New York. It was a challenge to the publishing status quo in a lot of ways, right?
Speaker 2: Yeah, I think so. And I think that the larger publishers looked at the books that we were doing and some of them they would have loved to have done or they did those authors later. But I don’t think that we could really compete with the larger publishers because we didn’t have the money for great advances. And I think one of the things that was fascinating is that we small presses, most of which started in the seventies, did a lot of the work ourselves. We did everything, we printed the books, we advertised them, we packed them up, we took them to the post office. We started learning together how to have sales reps, how to have distributors, how to go to New York and meet with Publishers Weekly. We shared a lot of information, even though we were in competition to some degree. But I think that’s what made it possible individually.
Speaker 2: It would have been difficult for any of us to have exactly the success we had without the whole structure of the women in print movement, which was the feminist bookstores, the women’s bookstores, and many, many cities that sold our books, the journals who reviewed the books, the whole structure that was being built of lesbian culture outside the mainstream, which was so crucial because there wasn’t any representation in visual media. There were the music festivals, there were the theater pieces, there was there were the books in the bookstores. And those were very important in creating a sense of feminist and lesbian identity.
June Thomas: Amazingly, I think more than 30 years. Well, certainly since I left, more than 30 years have passed since the days of SEAL Press. But back then it was challenging to set up a publishing house exclusively focused on women’s work and with a good chunk of the list devoted to lesbian writing. Do you recall like getting pushback? Was it hard to secure the funding that you needed?
Speaker 2: Well, we didn’t ever really secure very much funding. We mostly made it on sales. And through being creative and innovative with how we tried to sell the books and we had a very loyal constituency readership who would read anything that we wrote. And we also had this big backlist that kept selling, which were the domestic violence books. I think we had ten because after Jenny’s book we did a book with Evelyn See White’s changing change on Black Women and Violence. We did a book with Myrna Zambrano, and there was bilingual Spanish and English.
June Thomas: Sola came unaccompanied.
Speaker 2: Yes, exactly. We did books on Teen Abuse. We did books on lesbian domestic violence. We did books for younger women, older women, all kinds of things. So those really supported us. I think really the only kind of funding or grants that we got were in the beginning when the National Endowment would still give money to for profit press small presses and some of the translations we did. We also got some funding for those, but otherwise we kind of had to make it on our own, our sales and the push back in the beginning of just sort of a little bit disparaging, which is usual with any women identified endeavor.
Speaker 2: But I think people also were very interested on our books and lots of people read them, not just women. Many of them were popular with teachers in classrooms all over the United States. So I do think that, you know, we were always a women space. We only hired women. But we we did work with sales reps who are men and the distributors. The heads of those companies were often men and they were supportive to us for the most part. Yeah.
June Thomas: What would you say was the biggest challenge back then?
Speaker 2: Probably overwork. You know, I was still trying to work part time because I was writing and also my writing was helping support the press. So those books are very important to seal press as well. You know, Murder in the Collective sold about 10,000 copies. So, you know, half of that was for SEAL Press. So I was trying to write and we were trying to have, you know, a life, social life of some sort. And, you know, there was a certain amount of burnout. I was there 18 years, and then I remained an owner for the whole 25 before we sold it. So it was a big part of my life in every way. And sometimes I, you know, fantasized about getting away, which was probably part of the reason for my travel and flirtation with the idea of maybe just staying in England.
Speaker 2: But, you know, we had we had a wonderful staff always. We had so many interesting women who worked at SEAL Press, but it was very difficult to pay benefits. We tried to do some health care. We tried to give small raises. You know, people would eventually kind of get tired of that and go on to work at Microsoft, for instance.
June Thomas: For example.
Speaker 2: Or marry someone who worked at Microsoft. We did that, too. And I understand that. You know, I mean, I think women loved the idea of the women’s space, you know, all together, women working in a feminist way together, the opportunities and what you could put on your resume as you’ve moved on to. But yeah, it was lots of hard work. You know, it’s sort of hard looking back because when I was younger I just thought, well, this is the way it is. You know, we’re all in this together. It’s the movement. I didn’t think about making money except for SEAL Press, which seems sort of naive, but I think that’s just the way it was. I mean, there are lots and lots of collectives and nonprofits in those days where we were very interested in changing society and not so interested in personal advancement at that point.
June Thomas: No, I know. I keep thinking about that. You know, I know so many people, not me, but, you know, people who, you know, had movement jobs and straight jobs, or rather they had straight jobs that they used to, you know, pay the rent. They could have been anything from a secretary to use an outdated term or a. Bike messenger was fairly common or that kind of thing. And that would be how, you know, your 9 to 5 or whatever to earn the money and then you would do your movement work and the kind of job where you can be a little bit checked out and it’s just, you know, exchanging time for money. There’s just fewer and fewer of those. And cities are so much more expensive to live in now. It’s just very hard to do that kind of combination anymore.
Speaker 2: Yeah, it is. And Rachel and I both had other jobs. I worked at Group Health Hospital for many years, I think. Yeah, from 1976 to 84. So that’s eight years from 4 to 8. And then gradually I worked just every other weekend so I could have health care and have some money coming in and wait. Rachel worked as a printer and you know where she got her skills.
June Thomas: Okay, so you’re effectively, I believe, self-publishing these new books. How are you finding that and why did you take that route? Are there any benefits from your long and illustrious career in publishing?
Speaker 2: Yeah, I think there are some benefits. I think I mostly chose it for convenience. I think one of the interesting things about getting older, because I’m now over 70, is that I don’t really think of a career as a mystery writer, so it doesn’t seem strange that I would just publish some myself. And it’s very straightforward. I mean, compared to all the books that I publish with the university, press this now where, you know, there’s the outside reviewer, there’s the faculty, there are the my editor, there’s a production team, there’s the publicist. I mean, all this great stuff where you get supported and challenged and, you know, it takes two or three years to actually get the book out.
Speaker 2: With self-publishing, there’s something kind of wonderful about just hiring a few people a designer, a copy editor, a typesetter person, maybe a publicist and publishing it yourself soon after you finish writing it. So I kind of enjoyed that. I don’t think it obviously sells as much, but all the money comes directly to you. So, you know, there are benefits both ways.
Speaker 2: And I don’t know, I suppose I like both ways of publishing. I really like working with the University of Minnesota, who’s published my last six books and is so supportive and and kind and sort of has my back in a way. But I’ve also really had fun just self-publishing these two books and yeah, so I suppose that’s what I would continue to do.
June Thomas: I mean, the way that I can tell that you had deep experience in publishing is they look so great. I mean, these are really beautifully designed books like the hardcopy books they like, they’re just gorgeous. The covers are really great, like because it’s very easy to kind of want to say cheap out on that, but just like, you know, good enough, but like, that’s actually something that’s worth investing in, right?
Speaker 2: Yeah. And the technology, you know, printing through Ingram, even printing through Amazon is so great. I mean, compared to, you know, the complications of the years past and all the stages and all the people had to be involved, it’s kind of astounding that someone can turn your words into typeset pages and, you know, you just sort of email it off as a PDF or a formatted PDF, and then it comes back as a book, but it makes it a lot easier.
June Thomas: Barbara Wilson. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today and talking about your work. Thank you.
Speaker 2: Oh, thank you, June.
Isaac Butler: June. What a great interview that spans like so much history and so many ideas in such a short period of time. I want to start with something you asked about towards the beginning about formula. The Cassandra Reilly mysteries, like many mystery series, have a formulaic structure or at least a formulaic series of components. And we tend to use formulaic as an insult, but it isn’t always a bad thing, right? WALLANDER Someone’s going to die in that small town, and somehow that murder is going to make him think about his relationship with his father and maybe his estranged daughter, you know? You’re clearly a fan of the Cassandra Reilly stories. What are some of the good things that the formula allows those books to do?
June Thomas: Yeah, no, totally. I have I embrace and enjoy a good formula. I love knowing that certain things that I enjoy are going to show up in a book and with the Cassandra Reilly stories. There are multiple elements that I enjoy. There’s always good travelogues and I really look forward to the jokes about writers and the publishing industry and language, which is very central to these novels.
June Thomas: As she mentioned, Barbara, like Cassandra, the character is a translator and a polyglot, and there’s always some really good, multilingual wordplay. There’s a Spanish pun in the latest book that turned me into a ghost. It was so good, and I just know I’m going to spend time with a person who’s kind of like me, which, you know, we don’t always want that in novels, but it’s nice knowing again and kind of maybe the person I’d like to be somebody who’s interested in books and ideas and feminism and who has a lot of friends all over the world who can be annoying and weird. But they’re, you know, they’ve been part of your life forever. I just love knowing that that’s just going to be there for me whenever I open a new one or go back to an old one.
Isaac Butler: I mean, I think it’s a good reminder that we go to books or TV or film or whatever for all sorts of different reasons. And sometimes the reason why you’re going to pick up the book is that there’s something comforting about, you know, knowing at least some of what the mechanics and structure are going to be in advance. And just like I can just relax. I just know there’s there’s going to be a, you know, whatever it is. Yeah, it’s a child novel. He’s going to punch someone in the face and then their face is going to explode or oh, and we’re going have a description about how big his hands are, you know, whatever is.
June Thomas: Yeah, no. And I love that on television. I’m a huge fan of procedural, you know, mystery stories, whatever. I love them. And yeah, you could say that’s why you watch them because, you know, in those 50 minutes you’re going to get X, Y and Z and if you like X, Y and Z, well, why wouldn’t you watch? I also am a big fan of another genre that is even more disdained than, you know, the word formulaic. And that’s soap opera. Like, give me any pretty much long running story with familiar characters who are always crossing paths and getting into trouble. And, you know, especially if it’s in a setting that I recognize, I am so there for that.
Isaac Butler: I mean, that’s the thing where that’s sort of we’re sort of letting die here in the States or as I feel like in Britain, the soap opera is still going strong. Right. I mean, Coronation Street is still going and EastEnders is still going. And.
June Thomas: Exactly.
Isaac Butler: I loved how you both talked about problems of success. You know, you might come out with a book and it sells so well and you don’t have any more copies. And you know, the store is going to be angry at you or, you know, even as an author, you might be at the moment where you have, you know, competing bids to adapt something of yours and you don’t know how to manage that. And there’s so few projects or artistic careers or works of art that are truly successful out of them. But Gillian’s being made every year. It can be a difficult subject to talk about. I think people who’ve had any kind of success, they kind of get ashamed of that and they pooh pooh their own problems by saying things like, Oh, yes, well, you know, it’s a very classy problem to have. But the truth is classy problems are still problems. And success brings challenges that are hard to navigate.
June Thomas: Yeah, totally. And seal the issue was so obvious that at least it was unavoidable. You know, you couldn’t, like, put it under the rug. There were, let’s say, between three and five books that we absolutely had to keep in stock because they represented a huge chunk of sales. And because a lot of those sales had to do with college course adoptions, you also had to have them ready at a certain time. They had to be there when the class started. But you also have to keep publishing new books, not only for business reasons, but also because like, that’s the point of why you’re doing this thing right to publish new writers from all kinds of backgrounds.
June Thomas: And that led to real tension. And not just tension, but like, okay, which bill do we pay? And as Barbara said, like. Seele was funded by sales and because of the way the income came in, it just really involved a lot of juggling. And I was going to say that that was a huge waste of energy, but actually that was also part of what the Women Imprint Movement was about.
June Thomas: You know, putting women in positions where they could learn about working with a line of credit or doing book tours with no budget or discovering new writers. And certainly the skills that I learned at SEAL came in very handy working in the media decades later, because, weirdly enough, knowing how to make stuff happen on the smallest possible budget, it’s a really transferable skill.
Isaac Butler: MM Definitely, definitely. And of course I found the conversation about the relationship between being part of a movement and taking care of practical human needs like food, rent, retirement savings. Quite moving, actually. You know, I think a lot of that conversation is relevant if you just swap out the word art or creative practice for movement. You know, people often come to cities because that’s where the action is. And the goal is to get a job that gives you time and space to practice your art. But there’s a housing crisis right now in many cities. Wages have been stagnant for a long time. We’re in the midst of an inflation crisis. You know, how possible is it to really do what Barbara did or even what, you know, people of my generation did in the early aughts today?
June Thomas: I have no idea. I think it’s much harder these days when I think about what I earned. When I first worked at SEAL, it was just such a tiny amount. But at the same time I was able to live in an apartment on my own. It was a tiny studio apartment, but it was in a fun part of town and I didn’t have a second job. You know, that would be impossible in Seattle these days. And I think one of the underappreciated aspects of that period that was so creative that was, you know, really revolutionary, was that starting in the seventies for various reasons, it was a time when city living was unusually cheap. And, you know, women who had very little money could open up and operate a feminist bookstore that yes, they would be severely undercapitalised, but it was possible. And people could set up feminist presses, not in giant deluxe spaces. They might be working out of their garage or their one bedroom apartment.
June Thomas: But it was doable if you had a straight job for, you know, 4 hours a day, 20 hours a week. And again, not to minimize that, that meant you were working probably 60 hours a week. But no, I think you would have to work so many more hours at like a straight job to subsidize the non or severely under enumerated work that you really wanted to do.
Isaac Butler: It’s an ironic aspect of the legacy that things like SEAL Press worked in, that people made that stuff work, that people still try to move to the city, whatever the city is in whatever state, and make that work when it’s not really as possible anymore. You know, I was thinking about I was just reading this book, the most Dangerous Book in the World, which is about the history of James Joyce’s Ulysses. And you know.
June Thomas: What it meant to be reading that. Yeah, we’re recording this on Bloomsday, I should say. You won’t be here and get on Bloomsday.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, exactly. And you know, Sylvia Beach, when she started Shakespeare Company, she had literally no money.
June Thomas: She slept 17 books, right? Yeah.
Isaac Butler: She slept in a cot in the store. In the store was a lending library because people were so poor they couldn’t afford to buy the books themselves because this was before the paperback revolution. You know, you couldn’t move to most cities in America. I’d start a bookstore on that model and have it work out now. But that myth, I think, draws so many of us.
Isaac Butler: So maybe I’m curious, I guess, June, what were the jobs that you had? What were your straight jobs that let you do that? And can I ask, do you remember how much they paid?
June Thomas: I don’t remember what they paid. But, you know, I because I was educated in Britain, I didn’t have student loans. I had very few expenses.
Isaac Butler: Which is a new thing, which is another thing that’s changed dramatically.
June Thomas: Yeah, exactly. It’s yeah, yeah. So I really didn’t have straight jobs. I had movement jobs. So I was the person who all my.
Isaac Butler: Gay jobs for.
June Thomas: Exactly, exactly. I was the person who, you know. So on the Offer Banks collective, there was one person who would go in there, you know, to the office and actually kind of do the administrative work, you know, be there in the day handling logistical tasks like bookkeeping, managing the subs bookstore, billing correspondence with contributors, getting things ready for LEO weekends when the collective and friends would come and actually, you know, type up the stories and lay them out with the waxer.
June Thomas: And it’s interesting though, because during that period I did go back to England for a bit and I worked at a. Very similar feminist publication. It was called Outright. It was based in Bethnal Green in London and it was very, very similar, except they got funding from the local authorities. So everyone there was paid and it wasn’t a term, but they also probably were maybe on the dole. They might have had council housing and so their needs were so much less. And that just made such a big difference. You and I have talked before about how the dole and just generally benefits, you know, led to a lot of great culture being made in Britain. And that was definitely the case in Britain at that time with feminist work. But I know there’s got to be a whole bunch of equivalents for theatre and indie creator work like you did, right?
Isaac Butler: Well, I mean, yeah, I had a bunch of odd jobs, you know. I mean, the two big things I did was I worked in a book court, the now dearly departed indie bookstore on Court Street and Boerum Hill and I temped a lot and a lot at Condé Nast specifically. For whatever reason, my temp agency had had a hook up there. So I mean, it was a little more formalized because you would just go temp. But, you know, it’s not like I could be a bike messenger and then do theatre at night, you know? It’s like even in the arts, real estate in New York City was too expensive to do that, you know, but this is actually I would love to hear from our listeners about that.
June Thomas: Yes. Yes.
Isaac Butler: Same jobs have you taken to support your creative habit and do you think it’s possible to move to the big city, whichever however you define big city and, you know, work your crap day job and still make time for art today. I would love to hear from folks about that. So just drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a call at 304933w0rk.
Isaac Butler: I’m curious, you know, before we wrap up for this week, June, just expanding on this question a little bit more of like what it means for the future of the arts. If, you know, you have to already have money to move to the place where all the artists are, make art.
June Thomas: Yeah, no, I don’t see any hope for that. I have to say, though, I don’t have a huge amount of hope that you don’t need to come to the city. Right. Like I don’t.
Isaac Butler: So stuck in this paradigm of anything else.
June Thomas: Exactly. I don’t know if it is just a failure of imagination and I hope that’s what it is. But I think you do need a certain, you know, critical mass. I know that now we can connect some things like Zoom or whatever the actual method is. There’s obviously on the Internet as as meant that we don’t need to all be in a room discussing, you know, what are we going to publish in the magazine this month? But you do need to kind of find people somehow. So I’m also curious if if our listeners have ideas about that, what do you think?
Isaac Butler: Yeah, I think that, you know, as complicated as they can be and as repulsive as they can sometimes be, seems are really important. And like, you know, great art tends to come out of scenes. It almost never actually comes out of an individual, just like toiling away in obscurity in their basement. You know, there’s there’s very few Henry dancers out there. It’s usually that, you know, you meet people, you know, people you you begin to talk to one another. You know, artists need each other. I could say just from reading this book right now, you know, Joyce needed Ezra Pound. There’s no way that he would have gotten published without Ezra Pound, for example. So I think these scenes become really important and they create new mechanisms for artists to be born into to launch themselves.
Isaac Butler: I guess my question is. You know, the weird thing is, is that it’s only gotten more expensive to live in places like L.A. and New York. Yeah. And the businesses seem to have only gotten more centralized in those cities. So it seems to me that, you know, part of what’s going to have to happen is we’re going to have to find other cities or other places that people can all be in and kind of try to shift the center of gravity a little bit. But it’s hard to imagine that happening. I’m certainly too old and too tired to to make that happen. But youth of today, if you’re listening to this, please save us. Please.
June Thomas: Yeah. As the youth say, youth come through.
Isaac Butler: Exactly. Well, that’s our show for this week. If you enjoy what we do, please don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Butler: And yes, once again, it is time for the slate plus pitch. Members of Slate Plus get full access behind the paywall of Slate. You get bonus segments on shows like this one. You get to support everything that we do right here. On working, you get bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood. You get an adorable newsletter delivered to your inbox that, unlike all the rest of the emails you get, is not from a Democratic congressman asking for money. Go to Slate.com, slash working plus today to sign up.
June Thomas: Thank you to our guests this week, Barbara Wilson and to our astonishingly talented producer, Cameron Drewes. Tune in next week for Karen Hahn’s conversation with Foley artist Joanna Fung. Until then, get back to work.
June Thomas: So for our slate plus members, first of all, thank you for your membership and support sleepless members. I wanted to ask you about something that you did, I believe, around 2000 when you had a lot of books out and you changed your name, which, you know, is something people do. But you also changed the name that you write under, at least for a while. First of all, can you just kind of talk about that process of changing your name and kind of why you went? If I can put it this way, the whole hog.
Speaker 2: Well, I think I had always felt ambivalent about my name, Wilson, because my father had been adopted by the Wilsons. And when he was very small, his mother had died. And his that side of the family was Swedish. And George Wilson, to put it mildly, was very abusive to my father. And my father had horrible memories of growing up as an adopted. He didn’t know he was adopted for a long time. So he finally found the Swedish grandparents and he found other grandparents and other people. But he never really got over the fact that he had been adopted and had had such a miserable childhood.
Speaker 2: So he would always say to my brother and me, you know, Wilson, that’s not my real name. That’s not my real name. So I never had a feeling of great attachment to it. And I always thought, Oh, if I’m going to publish, I should really change my name. But I never really could think of something and I wanted it to be my name. And so it took me a long time. It took me until I was 50 to suddenly think I really would like a name of my own. And it was while I was traveling in the North Atlantic, writing a book that became known as The Pirate Queen that I suddenly had of the name came to me that I would like a Swedish name. And it’s not my family’s name, but it means Sea Island Shithole. And it felt so right to me. It felt just great. And I’ve never been sorry, but I.
Speaker 2: I knew that when I announced this to people, they would think this was very strange. For one thing, people couldn’t easily pronounce it just by looking at it and was like, What is this shadow homo? But I felt so strongly about it that I, I wanted to just switch over. And it happened at a time when I was also sort of deciding that I’d like to try writing more non-fiction. I had written a memoir about my childhood, and I.
June Thomas: Blew.
Speaker 2: Windows Blue and Dos, and I felt that I’d like to go on with that. I’d like to write travel books, I’d like to write essays. I started publishing and literary magazines and doing more journalism. It was really fun and I had such a different sense of who that writer was a little bit different than the mystery writer from before. I mean, I was still the same person and I still used Wilson and answer to that, but I changed it legally. And I think in a way, it was part of my shift to doing more non-fiction research based books. I mean, I’d always liked research, but now I really got into archival research about a Danish woman ethnographer, an artist who lived with the Sami, and that brought me more into contact with the Sami themselves and indigenous issues.
Speaker 2: And so that actually ended up being kind of a second career in a way, or an auxiliary career or a main career, I’m not really sure, but I ended up sort of having at least a couple of writing careers, and now it makes total sense that I would have gone back to writing mysteries under the name Barbara Wilson, because that’s what everyone knows. And that is my name too, you know, and they’re both part of me.
June Thomas: Wow. That’s fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing that. And thank you Slate Post members for once again for your support.