I first met Leland Cheuk when he read for Dead Rabbits — a reading series I co-host in New York City. Thoughtful, charismatic, and passionate about his work and the work of others, he immediately struck me as someone thinking on multiple planes about art and its role within the world. His writing operates in the same way; The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is at once heartwarming and wrenching, examining heritage, immigrant life, and injustice in America with bite and comedic verve.
After publishing his first two books, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog Books, 2016), he’s now moving into publishing. I talked with Leland over the course of a few days via email, discussing his new endeavor, 7.13 Books, the state of modern publishing, and issues of inclusivity, diversity, and more.
The Millions: So, tell me about the mission of 7.13 Books. As we both know, there’s a wealth of small presses in the world now. What separates 7.13 from them? What unites it with them?
Leland Cheuk: Yes, there are a ton of great small presses out there. In terms of what 7.13 is about, the authors are going to play a big role in determining what the press represents as a brand. The books will be bold, impeccably written. They’ll look great. And there will be no good literary reason why the books aren’t mainstream and award-winning. Their existence as small press titles will be an indictment on the tired traditional publishing model offered by the Big Five publishers, who in reality have been out of the business of publishing literature for years, maybe decades. Three-hundred thousand books each year are published from the Big Five and maybe a few hundred are what any reader would consider literature. An argument can be made that the big houses are really in the business of publishing cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and adult coloring pads.
For authors publishing with 7.13, they’ll be getting no bullshit. I won’t make promises I can’t keep. I’ll set clear expectations about what the press can and can’t do. The books get lots of editorial attention from me, and I give the author tons of control and input over every aspect of the book, from the cover design to the marketing and publicity.
TM: I’m interested in knowing about the final straw in relation to 7.13 Books. What pushed you towards developing the press?
LC: Like most writers who’ve been at it for 10, 15, 20 years, I felt I had done almost everything possible to get a book published. I’d done the work, gone to top residencies, signed with agents, and had close calls at big houses. But nothing happened. And nothing happened because the numbers are so daunting. Tens of thousands of qualified writers for a couple hundred deals. Every year, it seems like everyone is talking about the same two dozen or so titles as the big literary hits. The system is as rigged as the global economy.
My books only exist because of the kindness of a few people willing to lose time and money on my title. The publication offers for both my books came on July 13. A bone marrow transplant successfully engrafted and saved my life on July 13. That’s why the press is named 7.13. Once I made those connections about my life as an author and the acts of radical kindness (from my anonymous stem cell donor to the small press publishers who took a chance on me) that made that life possible, I decided I had to do something to give back.
We all need to do something to keep the business of literature alive. You host a reading series. Some people do podcasts. I read for a literary journal (Newfound) as well. Go to readings. Buy books. Support writers. Not every author understands that. You rarely hear about big-time authors doing stuff like this. Teaching is not enough. Hanging out in your literary echo chamber of fawning critics, editors, agents, and other successful authors is not enough. Tens of thousands of writers are doing great work and they’re getting zero. They need a hand up.
TM: It can be hard, though — what you’re saying. Running a reading series, or editing a small-time journal, whatever you do. How do you keep doing it? And for what? Also, to that end — Kevin Nguyen had a great piece about #booktwitter and the sort of performative white “wokeness” that comes with, say, simply reading a book by a writer of color. There’s a lot to be doing that isn’t just reading, is all. Just reading isn’t enough.
LC: It really isn’t enough! We need to be pushing books on friends, family, and strangers in the same way that we talk about TV shows. We shouldn’t even be keeping books in our private libraries. We should be giving them to others. Your Kindle should encourage you to send the book you just read to 10 other people if you liked it.
Conversely, #booktwitter should be able to say when a book sucks. I know writing books is hard, but when nearly every book is a “OMG, so good!” and every review says “this is a must-read, tour-de-force,” we’ve just become part of this big, corporate book PR machine. I’m of the mind that authors should be banned from doing book reviews, and that the National Book Critics Circle should be an organization of professional book reviewers only. I know newspapers are slashing book reviews altogether, but we need independent-minded folks questioning the literary art form at all times. This “All Books Matter” mentality that Kevin Nguyen wrote about is contributing to a certain amount of stagnation of literature. Imagine if Alan Sepinwall was also a famed TV showrunner or if A.O. Scott was a renowned filmmaker. How would we trust that their reviews weren’t just propping up a friend of a friend? Then aesthetically, all upcoming screenwriters and filmmakers would be rushing to emulate their aesthetic. That’s where we are in the book industry today, where readers just get wave upon wave of what came before.
TM: On another note, your story of fighting myelodysplastic syndrome is harrowing and inspiring, as is your piece in Salon about the process of beating it while trying to get published. How has your story informed your foray into publishing? How does it continue to inform your writing?
LC: I hope I’m beating it. I seem to be okay, knock on wood. I think the experience just made me realize how self-absorbed I was before. More than ever, especially since the recent election, we need to take action and give. I think about the nurses who were collecting my stool samples and feeding me ice chips during chemo. I think about my wife, who stopped her life to become my caretaker. There are all these people lifting you up everyday. It’s the same for your writing and my writing. Think of all those people at your book launch. You and the Dead Rabbits Reading Series were there for me when my novel came out.
I’m writing some nonfiction around this idea. I don’t know where it’s going, but I hope there’s a book in there somewhere.
TM: Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am without dozens of people who have done both the biggest and smallest of things. How are you approaching writing about such a (I can’t imagine) powerful, life-altering event, especially as someone so used to writing fiction?
LC: It’s hard. I guess the simple answer is I try to write about myself like I’m a character in a novel. But the deeper, truer answer is that I just imagine that my audience is my loved ones and the book is the message I would leave them if my health takes a turn for the worse.
TM: That’s a beautiful, sorrowful sentiment. Now, the publishing world, as we both know, is often frustratingly stagnant and, at the same time, ever-changing. It responds to pertinent issues at the same time as it perpetuates certain wrongs. Just when I see one thing that’s worth celebrating, I see another that’s worth calling out. What are your thoughts on the publishing world at large? How has publishing your own work altered or confirmed any views you’ve had on the whole wide mess of it, from the Big Five to the indies?
LC: Oh lord. How long do you have? [Laughs.]
I’ve never been so bored with mainstream literary publishing. There’s an aesthetic sameness to most of the list titles. Naturalism is king. Identity is queen. And the family is the castle. And the castle is, for some reason, often located on the Upper West Side, Upstate New York, Montauk, or the Hamptons. I don’t see risk-taking. I see lots of opportunism. Great work still gets published. This year, I loved Paul Beatty’s hilarious and irreverent The Sellout, Colson Whitehead’s grimly imaginative The Underground Railroad, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s quietly incendiary We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Yaa Gyasi’s expansive, yet concise Homegoing, and Alexander Weinstein’s Black Mirror-esque Children of the New World. But honestly, I read a lot of the fiction that critics and book publicity people fawn over and just shrug.
There’s a lot of meh-ness in the indie world too. But there’s no excuse for Big Five publishing companies dropping huge advances on meh books.
TM: What do you think accounts for both big/indie meh-ness, to use your term? I know we each have our own ideas about what constitutes a good book.
LC: Yeah, I shouldn’t put it in terms of good versus bad or meh versus un-meh. It’s more the lack of boundary-pushing on the form. I’m not a huge consumer of experimental fiction, but when I buy a book or when I’m reading submissions for 7.13, I want to be reading something I haven’t read before. And the older you get, the more you’ve read, so the bar for originality and newness gets higher and higher. I freely admit that I have snobbish tendencies.
The general mediocrity at the big houses comes from what plagues the economy as a whole. It’s this short-term, winner-takes-all economic model that doesn’t allow for more books to be successful. Right now, they’re giving huge advances at the top and making those books successful to carry the business. For that author, it’s wonderful and terrific and we all root for and envy his or her success. For hundreds of other authors, they’re screwed because no one in the house, from editorial on down to sales and marketing, cares about their books. It’s just like Hollywood. Everyone sees Age of Ultron, The Force Awakens, and Superman v. Batman. But are those films for everyone? Not really. They’re being crammed down our throats for the sake of the bottom line. The publishing industry is a billion-dollar industry. If they can’t put out a few hundred successful literary books a year out of 300,000, what good are they?
On the indie side, there are just so many presses and so many books. Of course, there’s going to be meh-ness. There are a lot of indie authors publishing pretty good first books that would’ve gone to big houses 15 years ago when they were more interested in growing an author’s career. Now it’s just churn and burn, up and out, and you get one chance to blow.
TM: The indie world especially has made large strides towards inclusivity. I think of presses like Emily Books and Dorothy and countless others, or some of my favorite journals, like Apogee or Luther Hughes’s new journal, Shade (among like so, so many more) — what is 7.13 Books doing to be an inclusive press? And, further, I’m interested to know your thoughts about the responsibility of presses and journals and readers on this matter.
LC: We’ll only be publishing a couple of books a year, but over time, I hope we’ll have good balance in terms of gender, ethnicity, and aesthetics. When I first opened for submissions, I noticed that the writers submitting were rather…blanco. So I put some feelers out on Twitter and the subs got more diverse. An eclectic list on all levels is the second thing I’m thinking about when I go through the slush. But finding writing that I really like is still the first.
Everyone loves to talk about inequity for women and POCs, but an inequity no one wants to talk about is that 80 percent of mainstream literary fiction deals are sold to women. Eighty-four percent of editors are women. It’s extremely difficult to sell a male perspective right now. Recently, an agent said he brought that up on Twitter and was trolled to death. The authors I grew up enjoying like Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Vonnegut, or Thomas Pynchon, would probably be relegated to small presses today.
It’s a complex issue. Yes, men historically are more frequently reviewed and win more of the big awards. But if you’re a male author trying to break into literary fiction, you’re shooting for one of maybe two dozen deals each year. I’m going to try for a 50/50 gender-balanced list, which, frankly, is radical by today’s standards.
TM: That is a deeply unpopular opinion. Don’t you think that the publishing world needed that shift, to a majority of female editors, among other things? At least to counteract what was once (and still often is, come awards season) a white-male dominated industry? But yes — the complexity of that issue can be difficult to discuss honestly. You don’t fight for fairness with inequity. But, I mean, what’s interesting to me — I’ve been co-running this reading series for almost three years and as we’ve grown older our submission queue and our lineups have by nature become more diverse. Like, we’re in New York City. It’s come to the point where if I see a reading with an all-white bill, it’s like — it’s not that you’re not looking hard enough, it’s just that you’re not looking at all. To me, the issue of “solving the diversity problem” or whatever it’s labeled as can’t be entirely a numbers game. Maybe it has to be, I don’t know. But also, I think about ensuring the inclusivity of spaces — appreciation, generosity, feeling, listening.
LC: Thorny issue, for sure. The numbers don’t lie, though. And there are reasons for them. More women read. But 80/20? Unlikely. I agree with you on not making it a numbers game. It’s helpful to know the numbers, but for me, it comes back to the issue of that aesthetic sameness. For 7.13, I’m hoping every book will be different from what’s out there already. A writer can get to that difference any number of ways. It could be sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and/or form and use of language. Frankly, I get excited as a publisher when it’s all of the above.
I recently read a submission that I just wanted right away. It was written by Farooq Ahmed (remember that name, because he’s going to be huge if he can find a NYC agent and editor with guts). The novel was named Kansastan, and it was set in a dystopic America where Kansas is a Muslim state. The main character was a crippled boy living in the minaret of a mosque and tending to goats. And the Christian Missourians are coming for them. It was absolutely enthralling, written in this Old Testament voice that echoed early Cormac McCarthy with all these allusions to Islamic lore and the Quran. The author hadn’t done an agent search yet, so I let the manuscript go. But that’s the type of book I want to do at 7.13 and that’s the way I want to approach the diversity issue — from all possible angles.
TM: That sounds wonderfully epic. It’s frustrating you had to add that caveat, the whole if he can find an agent and editor thing. That process is just, well, as someone going through it — it has its moments where you feel like you’ve made it and then those moments where you feel so low, so far down.
LC: I know plenty of well-published, acclaimed authors without agents. Both my books were published without one. An agent is a nice-to-have. You can’t make a living wage from your writing without one, but there are, like, 100 American writers total making a living wage from their books alone, and one of them is James Patterson. I tell writers not to sweat the agent search and do their thing. Send out queries like you’re going to the gym.
Structurally, something in the traditional editor-agent-author troika needs to change. The transactional model is just not working. Not enough agents are making decent money and authors aren’t making any money at all. I can see a future where the big houses acquire dozens of small presses at a time to bypass the agent thing completely, leaving agents to add value by providing publicity services and career management.
TM: You’re fairly active on social media. Which is cool. How has social media altered the book world since you started writing? I want the good and bad. And the in-between.
LC: I think social media is great. It’s a way for writers to connect. I’ve often said that writing is not a vocation or avocation, it’s an identification. And social media gives writers a chance to identify themselves so that they can be found by other literature lovers. And social media requires excellent, concise writing.
I do think it’s absolutely ridiculous the way Roxane Gay and other authors (usually female) with big platforms get trolled. I also think it’s absolutely absurd the way aspiring or emerging writers flood famous authors with likes when they tweet that they’ve fed their cat or had a good meal. Mr. or Ms. Famous Author isn’t going to blurb your book because you hearted his/her book tour photo.
Social media tools don’t help users manage their dignity well. Perhaps a Dignity Warning should be the next thing on Mark Zuckerberg’s to-do list.
LM: [Lauhgs.] Yeah. And though the hive mind quality of Twitter is not news, it’s one of those places where there’s this beautiful sense of community, of sharing, juxtaposed with this self-consciousness about what it means to belong, or what it takes to simply belong. I mean, Leland, the amount of times I’ve drafted and re-drafted a basic tweet. It can feel like the curated self at times.
LC: But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? We should always be curating our words for an audience. I’m very much pro-social media. Sometimes it’s tiring and tiresome. Sometimes it’s hard to filter what’s real and true. But I feel like the work to be part of a living literary community is ultimately worth it.
When I think about the books I’ve read in 2016, the greatest have left me cut open, because I believe words are swords. Even hello and goodbye. Especially goodbye. And even curse words. But for my purposes, they’re swords against injustice, a voice to the marginalized — spoken or on a page, a wall, a tattoo.
I fear the silences.
The silence of those who feel unthreatened. That is, the silence of well meaning, “nice people” who want to get along, and who believe a disagreement or protest only means no peace, not a path to get there. I fear the silence of other Christians that I now hear so loud. Those who only pray for the police and not the protestors. We need God all around.
When I was 19 years old, a boy in my college who was offended by the words I used after his assault said, “If you say anything, I will destroy you. I have more friends than you do.”
He was right about having more friends. In other words, he had more power and influence in that space, the same way politics and money have power over us. But at almost 40 years old now, I’ve lived long enough to have been destroyed before, and I can testify that sitting in silence is worse. In shame is worse. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. I would have chosen for myself when and when not to be silent. Back then, his threat chose for me. But today, I’m different.
I believe that love casts out all fear. Including mine. And I believe the world is rigged in the favor of love. It is what will ultimately unify us. And I believe in hope. Active hope. And active love. Not just a feeling, but the kind of love that compels us to do something selflessly for the people we say we love and support. It should compel us to serve others, and if necessary, to stand in the gap for those who can’t. It’s an action word and still a sword.
Preferring love doesn’t mean to ignore other emotions, like this anger I know I carry. And if I’m honest, I try to carry it the same way I do my lust. I have become a container of longing. It’s redirection. It’s discipline. I know we don’t all have it. Not yet. I’ve read the biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I admire the way he carried his passions, but I’ve read about his failings, too. No one’s perfect.
I give these admissions of love and lust and anger to you because we are alive and there is so much to feel right now and to acknowledge and understand about others — there are no “others” — but not all of our emotion is helpful to what must be done in times of “no peace.” To stand in the gap for others, to get us along the road to move forward and help in some way. Whether we feel personally threatened or not, we’ll have to recognize what our cleanest sustainable fuel is — the cleanest emotion. I think it’s love. For all other emotions, we’ll have to make time and a safe place to be reckless.
Books help to inform how I’ll love; where the need is outside of my own personal experience and circle of friends. So I’ve read so many good books in 2016, many are from marginalized groups, but not solely, and include women and people of color, and from the LGBTQIA communities, and from different religious and spiritual groups. But what I want to share with you are the books I’ll be bringing with me into the unknown of 2017.
For spiritual fuel…I’ll be bringing Timothy Keller’s book Prayer in order to pray for this world around me, including our president, the House and Senate and our judiciary, and for every group in our country that is living under extraordinary threat based on ethnicity or religion or sexual preference. For Native Americans. For women. And I pray for those of us who are able to do something, even if it’s one thing or a handful of things, or many things. We can make a difference.
I’ll also be bringing Beth Moore’s book So Long Insecurity to remind myself of the courage we’ll all need to carry on. Beth Moore, a pastor, tirelessly and publicly stands up for women. And I’ll bring Judah Smith’s book Life Is______.
And last but not least, for spiritual fuel, I’ll be reading The Bible. Specifically, the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — books by men about a man who respected women from all walks of life, no matter the mistakes she’d made in her life, years ago or just moments ago. And in this way, I’ll remind myself of the kind of men who possess the love I’d put my faith and hope in, even if they don’t call themselves feminists.
For other strengths, I’ll be rereading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and any of her essays, including one of my favorites called “Acts of Faith.” Ever since I read that essay for the first time last year, and learned of the existence of Jesuit Priests, I’ve considered converting to Catholicism just for them…and for the Pope. I enjoyed his recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy.
I’ll also be reading essays by Rebecca Solnit and finishing her book The Faraway Nearby because it says so much about the nature of us, of women, and our “place” in society and what we hope for. I’ll never forget the term she coined, “Mansplaining.” It sums up my professional life in the last year or so. Fourteen years as a lawyer in my field, and men will still feel compelled to explain the ropes of law practice to me. I let them. It allows me to rest.
To laugh, I will take Ayisha Malik’s new book, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. When I heard her read from it in London this summer, I was crying-laughing. The same as when I was flipping through the pages of Mary Laura Philpott’s book, Penguins with People Problems. I’ve read her book again and again like it was a squishy stress-relief toy. And, of course I’m taking the book Go the F**k to Sleep, which is essential reading for new parents who have protected their senses of humor from sleep deprivation. And I’ll take the book All My Friends Are Dead just to smile, and finally, I’ll finish Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley because it’s worth it. We need laughter. Even if it feels wrong to laugh right now.
I want to bring books about girls and women into 2017 that may not fall into the designation of “women of color” — some of the books I’ve already mentioned do not. I want to remember that we’re all in this together and no one gets out of this life as an adult unwounded. Shared pain (and shared laughter) may be the simplest unifiers. So I will read Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, and Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell. Gina’s book has this opening line: “My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.”
Because I am a sister to four brothers and have always been told growing up that I was a Tomboy — but whatever! — I will call these books my masculine selections that I’m carrying into 2017: Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Matthew Nienow’s chapbook House of Water, and Shooting Elvis by Robert Eversz. Coincidentally, Shooting Elvis has a young female protagonist from the 1980s to whom I can relate. I still imagine myself wearing neon with crimped bangs.
And finally, I’m carrying an early review copy of The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi. It’s gorgeous. In it, Choi writes about painful loss — he’s lost a child, he’s lost his native country, and now, the people he loves are slipping away. The poems in his book have caused me to ponder the state of life, this world we now live in, and to draw enormous conclusions about us: That maybe by 40 years old, every person alive has lost something so germane that it changes her — something about her country, her personal life. But what I’ve discovered is more true is that the love we give is timeless. For everything else, we’ll have to decide how we’ll move forward with what remains.
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I open every year by rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God. There’s something about it that pulls me back, eagerly, to the work. Like many people I know, I open most years hopeful and willing to be seduced by possibility. So much of that book reminds me that the brightness of a welcoming new year is brief, that there is certainly a darkness that we’ll have to survive again.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.
My first book, a book of poems, was released this summer. I’m sure that for some people who do this, it means that they spent a lot of the year agonizing over their own work. I did, but I also hit a point where I didn’t want to look at poems anymore. At least not my own. I fell in love with the poems of my peers: Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Khadijah Queen’s Fearful Beloved. There’s something really refreshing about diving into brilliant poems after spending months picking your own poems apart. The stakes are low, and you can allow yourself to sit back and be overwhelmed. Another poetry book I deeply loved this year is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. Jess is a historian, truly. The book is filled with brilliant black folklore, all centering on the redemption of ragtime performer Scott Joplin. I had fun reading the book, sure, but I was also reminded of why I found myself to poems in the first place: endless possibility.
I’m a music writer who loves reading about music. I keep a copy of Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic with me at all times, sometimes reading bits of it out loud to any willing audiences, in the backseats of cars, around dinner tables. There’s an open letter to Sufjan Stevens in the book, and I am always overwhelmed by it. Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements was really exciting for me. I’m always interested in new stories behind the bands I love, and The Replacements are so incredibly fascinating in that way. There’s always so much more to them than I expect, at every turn. I maybe love Bruce Springsteen too much to indulge in the sprawl of his memoir, though I purchased it in good faith. After a chapter or two, I realized that maybe the book was written to get folks to fall in love with him, and I’m already there.
I was lucky enough to have Angela Flournoy read at my book release party in New York this summer, which pulled me back to a second reading of The Turner House. After that, I was forced to ask myself why I don’t treat myself to new fiction, instead of falling back into the same handful of fiction books I love. I did a panel on politics with Kaitlyn Greenidge, and purchased her book We Love You, Charlie Freeman, thinking that I’d get to it sometime in the winter. But I started it the next day, and finished it within 48 hours. It reminded me of how fiction can slowly and gently surprise, unlike poems, which sometimes have to reveal the surprise early in the work. I won’t spoil anything about Greenidge’s book, but the ending was so perfect, I read over it twice. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is one of those rare things that is actually as good as everyone says it is.
I’m on the road a lot these days, more than I’d like. I’m in small plane seats and in quiet hotel rooms and in corner booths at coffee shops in cities where I know no one. It’s not ideal, but this was the year that I truly felt like I lived the motto of “read more than you write.” I’m hoping 2017 will leave me just as lucky.
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Out this week: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi; Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner; Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta; High Dive by Jonathan Lee; Crazy Blood by T. Jefferson Parker; We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenridge; Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume; and The Best Place on Earth by Ayelet Tsabari. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2016 Book Preview.