| Don’t Write Alone
Interviews Editor-in-Chief Mensah Demary on Growing Soft Skull Press as a Literary Home for Creative, Risk-Taking Writers
“Sometimes I think this is my only role as an editor: to convince the world, starting with the publisher, that a book should exist.”
Mensah Demary, new editor-in-chief of Soft Skull Press, has been editing books since 2016, rising to the role of executive editor at Catapult Books before being asked to lead the storied Soft Skull Press into its next chapter. Along with former Soft Skull editor-in-chief Yuka Igarashi, who recently departed to become an executive editor at Graywolf, Demary is also a founding editor of Catapult magazine . He chatted with me about Soft Skull’s legacy, what he hopes to build going forward, and his approach to editing and working with authors.
Nicole Chung: How would you describe Soft Skull’s identity as a press?
Mensah Demary: “Weird.” “High literary.” “Punk.” “Cerebral.” These are some of the descriptions of Soft Skull I’ve heard since coming on board as editor-in-chief. It’s all been positive, to be clear, and it’s great to know how people see the press from the outside looking in; as readers mainly, but certainly other professionals whose opinions I respect.
Personally, I think Soft Skull is “cool” and I wouldn’t say much more than that. “Cool” can be inclusive, inviting, and liberating, perhaps. That’s the sensibility I seek to establish, and part of it is attitude: Soft Skull books are cool; to hold them, to read them— Loudermilk, High-Risk Homosexual, Inter State, Future Feeling —to get that sensation you experience when you’re dying to tell your friends and family about what you just read, is coolness itself. That’s our aim.
NC: As its new editor in chief, how are you hoping to build on and expand Soft Skull’s legacy?
MD: To evolve it into a house of diverse literary artists where each writer feels Soft Skull supports and respects their work. I intend to encourage readers to visit Soft Skull’s backlist and spend some time with it. Not every book is to every reader’s taste, and times change, we become a little wiser, more thoughtful, about the art we want to experience. Still, the past is not to be forgotten, buried, or drained of life for nostalgia’s sake. The past is there to find our own place in a continuum of writers and books; it’s good to remember we’re not always pioneers, and we don’t have to be.
So I’m personally spending time with the backlist to help myself plan on how to do my own thing with Soft Skull, in my own way, to define what is a “Soft Skull book” or put my spin on the Soft Skull sensibility. This also means reading more and taking a critical look at what this “Soft Skull book” should be. One way is to simply accept and review unagented submissions, to revive the slush. It’s more work for us as an editorial staff, but it’s necessary. Time will tell if the results will be worth the effort.
NC: Can you talk a little bit about your own start in publishing?
MD: I would point people to my Catapult essay published in 2015, “This is How You Become an Editor,” and leave that as, hopefully, an honest answer to your question. The point is there is a mixture of work, luck, timing, audacity, and a great deal of help from other people that cannot be explained, but I know enough not to take credit for this mixture as something of my own making.
As for publishing, Pat Strahan, editor-in-chief of Catapult Books at the time, trusted me back in 2016 to read a manuscript she was considering, and asked me to provide a reader report. It was my first, and in my report I recommended that Catapult acquire As Lie is to Grin by Simeon Marsalis. From there, I tried to acquire my first book, going after some titles that went to other houses, titles that blew up and sort of kept me up at night for a while—but that was the learning experience, too. The misses, the close calls, they validate you and confirm your “editorial eye” more than the successes. Eventually, I acquired my first book, Riddance , a novel by Shelley Jackson, then Black Card , a novel by Chris L. Terry, and it just kept going from there.
NC: What’s your editorial philosophy? How do you like to work and collaborate with your authors?
MD: I had a notion that “the writer knows what they’re doing” and I had a whole answer based on this thought, but I realized that it’s not true. I mean it is true on some unconscious level, I guess; but in the everyday reality where writing well, and effectively, is extremely difficult, the practical matter is that the writer usually doesn’t know. They hope they know what they’re doing; I know I do every time I write. And when I read a manuscript I want to acquire, my general philosophy is based on “this is good, not perfect, but we can make it better.” Or sometimes, to be honest, the writer doesn’t need me at all to “edit” the book; the writer is looking for someone to invest money and resources into bringing their book to market, to get a shot among the readership.
I provided some line edits for Shelley Jackson, but Shelley is brilliant, a virtuoso in literature; what help could I provide her with my meager Track Changes? But I also saw the vision—this gothic ghost story centering a young Black woman with power, ambition, and a stutter invited to a school for children who, through their stutters, are taught to communicate with the dead—a massive book with illustrations and an entire artistic aesthetic directed by the author. I thought Riddance should be published; I thought it should exist. Sometimes I think this is my only role as an editor: to convince the world, starting with the publisher, that a book should exist. In any case, we’ll see how this works for me now that I have an entire imprint’s list to fill year over year!
NC: What sort of books and authors are you especially eager to publish?
MD: I’d like to continue publishing provocative, experimental fiction, and publish more narrative nonfiction as well—memoirs, essays collections, weird nonfiction hybrids—and we’ll always keep our eyes open for the right poetry titles and works in translation. As for the authors, I am eager to publish people looking for a literary home, people who want creative freedom to do their thing, people who view books as works of art, objects to be held and appreciated, and people who expect their publisher to do everything it takes to find readers for their books.
NC: What advice do you have for hopeful editors?
MD: Sander Hicks, the original founder and editor-in-chief of Soft Skull, said once in an interview (and I’m paraphrasing here), that you need intellectual integrity—to defend freedom and the life of the mind, to care about literature, and to understand. Speaking of editorial philosophy, this is it right there. Develop it and you won’t fail your authors.