Looking back with Fiona McCrae

Fiona McCrae was the executive director and publisher of Graywolf Press for twenty-seven years, from 1994 until 2022. She was Graywolf’s second publisher, after Scott Walker, who founded it as a poetry chapbook letterpress in 1974. 

Graywolf was in a period of cutbacks when Fiona's tenure began; under her direction, it went on to become a publisher with annual sales in the millions, whose books and authors have won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Booker Prize, and other awards. A 2018 article in the Washington Post wrote of Graywolf: “Has any independent press in recent memory punched so far above its weight with such astonishing consistency?” 

When Fiona’s retirement was announced, Graywolf’s editorial director, Ethan Nosowsky, was quoted in Publishers Weekly: “There are many wonderful publishers who are not terrific managers; there are many terrific managers who are not inspiring publishers. There are perhaps some inspiring publishers who are also somehow terrific managers but there is no way they are also brilliant fundraisers. Fiona is so good at all of these things.”

I knew of and had admired Fiona long before I joined Graywolf’s editorial team in 2021, and had the luck of working with her for over a year before she stepped down. One of the first things I noticed about her is that she remembered everything I said, and that she’d often repeat my ideas back to me, somehow improved. I learned a great deal about being an editor and a colleague and a person just from the way she listens. Our conversation was initially conducted over video call and has been transcribed and condensed.

——Yuka Igarashi
The Snowball

Yuka Igarashi (YI): We’re having this conversation a few days after your last day at Graywolf. How has it been so far? 

Fiona McCrae (FMcC): Good. I had a couple of days where I felt rather bereft and daunted, followed by a feeling of lightness from losing the responsibility. I’ll probably be toggling between the two for a while. 

YI: In the attention Graywolf has received around your retirement, there’s been acknowledgment about what it has achieved——its growth over the past twenty-seven years with you. Is there more to say about how it got here? 

FMcC: In these last weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a good word to encapsulate what we have been doing all these years. The best I can come up with is that it’s something to do with snowballing. Using what was already there to see what else and who else could be gathered in, and how. 

YI: I like the circular——you’re doing a circular motion. 
FMcC: We created a self-propelling momentum. Building up the publishing side created a community around Graywolf, and that in turn allowed us to build up the donor base, which helped further the publishing aims. 

YI: An accumulation. 

FMcC: Exactly. I had followed Graywolf, even when I was working at Faber and Faber in London, and admired it even more once I was working at Faber’s US branch in the States. I therefore didn’t arrive feeling that the Graywolf editorial direction needed to be overhauled. I did think it needed more visibility, and that there was room for growth. 

So the team (which has comprised some outstanding individuals over the years) and I were always looking for opportunities to increase our profile, through such activities as visiting New York and other literary centers, book fairs, and writers’ conferences across the country, as well as partnering with other organizations and individuals who were already recognized in the field.

I was interested in the gulf between the largest of the small presses and the smallest of the large presses. Ecco was a bit of a model for me at the beginning. Then in 1999 they were acquired by HarperCollins so it was no longer on the indie landscape. I wanted to see if we could move Graywolf into the territory they had vacated.

YI: Was the gulf you saw between the smallest of the large presses and the largest of the small presses about what they were able to publish? Other things? 

FMcC: Yes, for sure. Also, I wanted to explore how you could create a robust small press——meaning one that was able to pay authors relatively decent advances and could support their books with a dynamic marketing plan.  

YI: Would you say there was one particular moment or moments when Graywolf became robust? When the snowball began to accumulate? 

FMcC: There are many, interdependent components of the snowball. They include the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, which brought Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, and Esmé Weijun Wang to the list; the works in translation: writers like Per Petterson, Dorthe Nors, Nona Fernández, and Eliane Brum. We also strengthened our infrastructure by increasing donations and forming a national council of advisors who amplify the work of our local board. We were able to create new editorial and marketing positions, and in 2002, we switched our distribution to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with whom we formed an enduring relationship. 

I also want to acknowledge that in the mix is some wonderful publishing luck. We had some individual titles really break out, like Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson in 2007, and Citizen by Claudia Rankine in 2014 (and beyond). Both books created wonderful momentum in their way, which helped take the press to new levels. 

But another benchmark has been the breadth of the success across all the genres. In addition to authors mentioned above, I’m thinking of the impact of writers such as Percival Everett, Anna Burns, and Carmen Maria Machado on our fiction list; Maggie Nelson, Kevin Young, and Carmen again on the nonfiction list; as well as the outstanding consistency of the poetry list (assembled so brilliantly by Jeff Shotts) with the (relatively) older poets such as Vijay Seshadri, Tracy K. Smith, and Diane Seuss now joined by the younger stars such as Layli Long Soldier, Danez Smith, Natalie Diaz, and Jenny Xie. 

I would say that the number and the range of awards and year-end lists that our authors have appeared on in the last ten years or so speaks to a fairly powerful snowball. Powering us through has been some really dedicated work on the fundraising side of the organization. It’s a cliché to say, I know, but none of it would have been possible without the generosity of our foundations, individual donors, the NEA and the MN State Arts Board.

That said, you never feel as if you have arrived: each book, each financial year is a new adventure for which there is not a clear map.  

Editing: “You have to tell authors the effect of your choice” 

YI: You started as an editor and, from my perspective at least, you still think like an editor. I’ve had a chance to work with you on manuscripts and have observed your approach, but I haven’t heard you articulate what it is. 

FMcC: I have an image of a sculpture emerging from within a piece of wood, and I ask myself: What’s the shape and scale of the model that’s trying to be realized? If you go in ten inches, you’re going to wound the thing. If you go in a quarter of an inch, you’re not going to make any difference. It’s a question of working out what level of intervention the manuscript needs, by getting your eye as close as possible to the writer’s, to understand their intention and envision the possibilities. 

At the same time, you’re the stand-in reader. Sometimes I think: Oh, this writer is so much smarter than me——who am I to comment? Then I remember that I’m representing all readers. If I don’t understand something, maybe someone else won’t either. 

Perhaps there are two roles for editors. One is giving authors a response, including the things you particularly like line by line, page by page. Second, there is the job of naming the overarching questions. Is the manuscript slow to start? Is the narrative too long? Are the main themes overdone, or underdone?

YI: When Charles Baxter gave some remarks at your retirement party, he told an anecdote about how sometimes in his manuscripts you’ll just write: “Clear?” I think that’s perfect. You’re not being too heavy-handed.  

My constant challenge is balance. On one hand, I overidentify with the author. I think: Everything they’ve done they’ve done for a reason. I start to be with them in their reasoning too much. Then the opposite tendency is that I get too excited about my own ideas, about what I would do if it were me writing. 

I learned from you the method of making a few “example” edits and leaving the rest to the author. Telling them: I’ve put in some edits but you can do this in other places in your own way. Because it’s not like the writers don’t know how to. 

FMcC: That’s right. Sometimes an idea or scene seems overexplained and you take a couple of lines out and think great, nothing seems missing. But then two pages later, there’s a reference back to those two lines, and so if you leave them out, it’s jarring. As a practice, it can therefore make sense to say: Here’s an example of some things to look at, and look at it all the way through. Because I don’t want to litter the manuscript with suggestions. I think that is dispiriting for the writer.  

But it is fun, when you see how you can make a difference. I was just talking with a friend the other day about the connection between gardening and editing. I can have two plants that are perfectly fine, but a third plant is smothering them somehow. I move the third plant and the remaining two shine without any further adjustment. You think you’ve got an area with three problems, but actually it’s only one. 

Ninety percent of the time, the authors will agree with the changes and say something like: Ah, I hoped you wouldn’t notice that. Or: I knew you’d ask that. Or they might tell you that this character you liked had a larger role in a previous version, and the text that you feel is missing has actually already been written. I think that’s fascinating. 

YI: I’ve learned how to ask the question instead of swatting it away. To tell myself: Wait, let’s check to make sure that’s what they wanted. 

FMcC: Yes, and the writer liking something isn’t a justification for keeping it in. I think that often with difficult characters. For example, I would find myself saying: I understand you made an artistic decision to have an off-putting character, but by page fifty, we are seriously put off by your character. That is the effect, so let’s examine that. You have to tell authors the effect of their choice. 

When I was younger, if I got bored when reading a manuscript I would blame myself, and go at it again. But I would keep falling off at the same pages. Over the years, I’ve tried to train myself to trust my own reaction and then share that with the authors. 

YI: This leads to a good question our associate editor Anni Liu wanted to ask. She was curious to what extent you rely on intuition, not just in editing, but also when acquiring manuscripts or making other publishing decisions. 

FMcC: I do think you have to be a little bit careful about being too entranced by your own intuition, in case it’s prejudice or a certain habit of mind. On the other hand, it is inevitably some kind of internal guide.

Like many editors, I would say that early positive “gut” feeling is because of the sentences, the voice. After that I ask myself: Is there some kind of vision? Does the manuscript pass the but-however-so-what test? Or, as our editorial director Ethan Nosowsky puts it: Is there something at stake here? I would also argue that on some level, we are thinking about how the book will strike other readers. 

YI: Familiarity is a big question for me. When I find myself thinking: I know how I would publish this one, how this one would work. I try to ask myself: Do I like it or do I just recognize it?  

FMcC: I find that with lots of publishing decisions, including covers. Do I like this because it reminds me of another cover that I have seen? Do I like this manuscript because it seems like the kind of thing that’s doing well? Or am I drawn to this because it is doing something new? 

I remember discussing Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias when it was shortlisted for our nonfiction prize. I said that I could feel my mind opening while I was reading it. Not just a sense of the manuscript lulling me into accepting it, but of being challenged into accepting it. Perhaps that is intuition-plus.

Publishing: The Long View 

YI: We’ve both worked in independent presses our whole careers. Graywolf is my first experience with nonprofit publishing specifically, and I’m still learning what that means. I’ve wondered how you’ve thought about independent publishing and, within that, nonprofit publishing.

FMcC: I think the biggest division I make between publishers is not necessarily between independent and not independent, nonprofit or for-profit, but between publishers that have a coherent catalog and publishers that don’t. Farrar, Straus, who distribute us, have a very coherent catalog. When you see a debut collection of stories on their list, surrounded by their backlist authors, you know it’s going to be special. Whereas there are other catalogs where Improve Your Golf is page one, a politician’s memoir is page two, and then suddenly on page six is the collection of short stories. The context does not tell you anything about those stories, whether they’re slick commercial ones or whether they’re beautiful literary gems. I have to hastily add that nowadays very few publishers have those physical catalogues, but I stand by my point about editorial coherence. 

I was talking to Paul Yamazaki at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco the other day and he shares this view. He told me that he even tries to create connections on their bookshelves. He’ll put a book close to another book so that when Book A is bought, the buyer sees Book B beside it and understands the relationship between those books. Even if no one buys Book B, it’s sitting there for context. I think that’s incredible. 

Being nonprofit has meant a number of things to me. One big one is the ability to take the long view with a book. I’ve talked before about hares and tortoises: the book that stays in print but is never the bestseller versus a book that’s a bestseller for three years and then goes out of print. Though obviously if you can have one that’s a bestseller year in, year out, that’s fabulous. 

YI: A hare and tortoise hybrid. 

FMcC: The electric tortoise! It’s quite something to have board members who have a stake in the broadest possible measures of your success. If we get an award, such as Minnesota Book Award or a National Book Award, the board applauds that; they feel rewarded. Sure, they want us to balance the budget, but these wonderful people are not looking at our list for personal individual financial gain. That is a gift in and of itself. 

The nonprofit model allows us to be economically successful with a smaller print run, though a larger house, needing a higher return on their investment, would deem the numbers disappointing. I think the for-profit model can be applied too quickly, either to an individual title or to a writer, or actually to an editor. Some books really do need a long runway before they take off. Look at the reception that Percival Everett’s work is receiving now as compared to twenty odd years ago!

YI: How does that work with the fact that we’re in an industry that often has a short-term view? 

FMcC: I just see that industry shortfall as the indie and/or nonprofit strength. There are things that as a nonprofit you can’t do. You can’t pay the top advances, so there are going to be manuscripts you won’t get, and that can feel bad, especially if it’s an author you’ve already published. But I think the reward is constantly being free to go back to the well, to find another new and surprising writer, and to watch that writer grow and find their audience over time.

YI: I also get the sense that you don’t dwell on things that don’t work. You plant a lot of seeds and if some of them grow, great. But if we don’t get a manuscript or if a particular project doesn’t work or this person that was going help us in this way isn’t actually going to help us, you don’t spend too much time focusing on why. That’s something else I’ve tried to learn from you.

FMcC: You could think: Someone else might end up publishing this book; ah, that’s so awful. But is it? It’s going to be in the world. If another small press gets it and has a success with it, then that is good for us all. If we don’t end up publishing somebody, the connection could lead to something else instead. I do think it is important to bear in mind what you can get out of a loss as well as out of a win. 

YI: Maybe it all becomes part of the snowball. 

FMcC: Exactly. Maybe it wasn’t a whole extra layer, but was a flake or two that we can add in. If it doesn’t work out, I can think, of course it doesn’t. Life often doesn’t. So let’s keep going to where there is possibility. We’ll take our snowflakes where we can. And then all of a sudden, holy moly, there’s a snowball rolling down the hill and nobody can stop us. 

Management: The Ironing Board  

YI: I wanted to talk a little about being a boss. One thing I’ve never asked you: Did you set out to, you know, run something? 

FMcC: I didn’t necessarily set out to be a boss and I didn’t really think of my role in terms of that word. 

I do remember even in my first jobs I would look at the people at the top and wonder how they got there. I paid attention, thinking about what I did and did not admire in their approach to publishing and also management in general.

There were a group of us women working in various departments at Faber in London. We would get together and go through everything the (mostly male) bosses were doing wrong and how we could run things better. We had absolutely no power, so we called ourselves the Ironing Board. Looking back, I now see that as a learning experience.

YI: What’s an example of something the Ironing Board discussed that went on to inform your management priorities? 

FMcC: In general, when an editor is hired, they’re given a remit——they’re the nonfiction editor or the fiction editor or whatever. The books are taken on as part of a group decision, but then if the book doesn’t do well, the company can abandon and blame the editor for a bad decision. 

I remember thinking: You’ve asked people to play in these positions. (Now I’m going into a sports metaphor.) You can’t just celebrate the goal scorers or hold it against the defenders that they didn’t score any goals. You didn’t want them to and you needed the defense. I’ve tried to make sure that the people who are raising the money that the editors are spending feel that they as much part of the chain of success as the editor. 

I have also long been interested in the dynamic where a person is hired and then not trusted, or treated as if they don’t know what they’re doing. I think that my best working relationships as director have been when I trust someone, have a sense of where they want to go, and been able to give them the right opportunities to help them get there.

That’s one of the messages that I try to tell the staff. As an individual, you come in and you start reacting and you think your reactions are objective, that anybody would be doing this in your role. But from “the boss’s” point of view, we can often see when someone is leaning more toward editorial, sales, or finance, for example. I love to observe how someone fulfills a job description in their unique way. I want the special qualities that each person brings to their job to be recognized. 

Some of the recent conversations we’ve been having internally have been about how to accommodate or change your own expectations for people who are not like you in all kinds of behavioral ways. I used to feel very self-satisfied about my open-door policy. People would come and ask me questions or tell me a problem, so I felt it was working. It’s only recently that I realized: That person, who’s an extrovert and fearless, came in, but did the person who sits next to them who is more timid come in? No? Why not? 

When I started to say: I will have office hours at nine o’clock on Friday to discuss this, then more people turned up. 

YI: Something you’ve said to the team recently, words of advice as you step down and a new director comes in, is: Try not to “boss the boss.” As the head of an organization you’re aware that to some extent people are saying things you want to hear. You’re encouraging us not to do that. 

FMcC:  I’m fascinated by the clarity with which the senior staff can see the core staff and the clarity with which you are being seen by them also. We are constantly giving ourselves away to each other. Both sides think they are less known and less understood than they are. You think you might be hiding but you’re not. 

YI: Don’t be afraid to be known, because you already are. And then also provide different ways for people to make themselves known, if you can. 

FMcC: Yes. A lot of people who occupy these management positions do not think that they have all the answers. I once asked an art director what they thought of a font that the designer had chosen, and they said: Well, you are the boss, right? Yes, but that does not make me the font expert. 

YI: Sometimes it’s a huge thing to have a colleague share a decision with you. I’m always hungry for feedback, though I understand why some people don’t always want to, or feel in the position to, provide it. It’s generous for somebody to express an opinion, especially when they don’t have to.  

FMcC: That’s right. Maybe a sub-theme of this conversation is the links between editorial work, publishing work, and management work. I sometimes talk to people about the fact that poetry is at the heart of Graywolf. In a certain way, it leads the list. (Not to put the other genres down.) It has taught us to read in a sort of oblique way. We’re used to nonlinear texts. When something turns up that’s not immediately understandable, there’s a lot of willingness in the group to read it. In the same way, we don’t need everybody on staff to fit a particular mold. 

YI: I have a question about your own boundaries. You’re very cool. There’s so much going on every day for you as the center of an organization, but you never bring that to a conversation with me one on one, say. I never feel as if you’re bringing me stress. So, uh, how are you so cool? 

FMcC: I think maybe when I’m worried, I go a little inside myself and get quiet, so it doesn’t necessarily show. I can’t remember if it specifically happened, but I can imagine that if there was something bothering me and then I had a phone call with you, I’d think: Oh good, I can have a break from worrying. 

I would say that during the majority of my time at Graywolf I have experienced underlying enjoyment every day. Even if there was a problem, it did not color the whole day, and I was glad I was there, learning how to solve the issue. I’ve been lucky to work with Katie Dublinski, our associate publisher, for so many years, and she is a genius problem-solver.

I am sure, though, that there are many situations where you wouldn’t experience me as cool, calm, and collected. You wouldn’t want me to drive you across Los Angeles, for example. 

That Was Now, This Is Then

YI: Do you have anything more to say about how publishing has changed over the time you’ve been in it, and where you see it’s going? 

FMcC: If I think right back to the beginning, I’m using carbon paper and a typewriter and none of the men can type. There were a lot of younger women typing for the mostly older male editors. Once, there was a feminist writer whom we were publishing and the sales director says, “Well, only fifty percent of the population will read this.” Awful. And that's before you get to the lack of racial diversity. 

We were publishing Milan Kundera and Kazuo Ishiguro and that was very exciting. But overall, publishing was kind of slow and unsexy in those days. I thought it was sexy, but the majority of people didn’t. There wasn’t the public activity that you see today, in terms of readings and literary festivals and so on. There was a sense that young people were going into television. 

It feels completely different now. For better or worse, the internet has helped publishing. The word can spread between readers online in a new way. Poetry is having something of a renaissance. And there are a host of young writers of color getting published on a scale that we haven't seen before. Paul Yamazaki, to mention him again, and Rick Simonson (of Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle) maintain that we are in a golden era of publishing because of the incredible diversity among authors within the United States, as well as a growing range of authors from oversees, including many in translation. I love the vibrancy in the small press lane, which has spearheaded the publication of so many previously underrepresented voices.

YI: Can you talk a little about why you decided to retire now?  

FMcC: To give myself the experience of a life that doesn’t revolve quite so much around one thing. I didn’t want to overstay, or be taken out feet first. I wanted to have a lively retirement and to leave when Graywolf was in a strong position. I thought it was time to give someone else a chance, and to give Graywolf the experience of being led by someone else. It’s been wonderful to see the excitement around Carmen Giménez and the eagerness with which she has taken the wheel.

YI: Is there anything else we haven’t covered? 

FMcC: One last thing about the snowball, as I reflect on all this. I love how a snowball starts off small, which works very well as a metaphor for Graywolf. Virtually none of the authors with whom we have achieved our recognition were big names when they came to us, and their books were far from being obviously “commercial.” Similarly with the staff: none of the power-wolves on the team, present and past, were major literary stars when they joined Graywolf. We all grew together, with the list. It has been such a satisfying process to be part of. 

I have a deep and abiding sense of gratitude for all the experiences I’ve had in this job. It has been one huge adventure, of bringing new books out into the world, being able to travel far and wide, and meet so many dynamic people. I feel so grateful to everyone, inside and outside Graywolf for their tremendous contributions over the years. We’ve been able to attract wonderful staff such as your good self and the rest of the team at Graywolf. You’re all going to be terrific without me. I know great things lie ahead for you all.