Master’s writing program publishes first book

The English department’s master’s writing program published its first book, en route to the goal of six a year.

Under the imprint of Ooligan Press, the Center for Excellence in Writing has published “Abraham Lincoln, A Novel Life,” a novel by professor of English Tony Wolk.

Dennis Stovall, assistant professor of English and coordinator of the publishing curriculum in the master’s program, recounted how Wolk’s book became a real-life project for students pursuing the MA or MS in writing, with concentration in publishing. In his volume, Wolk included a list of students he thanks for their assistance in editing, publishing and marketing the book.

This is the second official year of the masters writing program developed by Tracy Dillon, chair of the English department; the program began functioning a year prior.

A publishing curriculum as part of its degree writing program establishes a unique status for Portland State. “There is nowhere else in the U.S. that integrates a publishing program with its writing program,” Stovall said. There are some places that offer certificate programs, he said, usually through short, expensive summer sessions.

Wolk’s novel imagines Abraham Lincoln finding himself in Evanston, Ill., in 1955, mysteriously transported from 1865 at the height of the Civil War. In a blend of history and fantasy, he encounters a future society holding idealized images of Lincoln, reminiscences of persons long-dead and gleans rare understanding from a woman significantly different from his troubled wife, Mary Todd. He returns to his own time recharged by his experience and determined as ever to preserve the Union.

This is Wolk’s first novel. He has taught English at Portland State since 1965. The book’s back cover features laudatory endorsements by two prominent Oregon authors, Ursula Le Guin and Molly Gloss. The book had its first public reading Monday night at the Looking Glass bookstore.

It took a year after a half year of talking about the publishing the novel before it actually happened.

“It became our first practical experiment in turning the editing of a book into curriculum,” Stovall said.

He said the PSU publishing curriculum recognizes the existing division of labor in the publishing field. Courses focus on those different divisions. A general course, given every term, provides an overall introduction to book publishing.

More specialized courses emphasize book editing, book design and production, book marketing and promotion and book selling. Allied courses cover intellectual property and copyright law, children’s book publishing and web publishing. At present, there is no course on the literary agency field.

A graduate, Stovall feels, will be equipped to fill a number of roles in book publishing – with large-scale publishers, with mid-sized publishers or even in their own small publishing companies.

The name Ooligan Press was suggested by students.

The name has a romantic history, if an oft-repeated story is true. According to this yarn, coastal Native Americans called the smelt an “ooligan,” a fish valued for its oil. The Cree Indians, among others who traded for the valuable oil, had no “L” in their language and began calling the smelt “oorigan.” European settlers encountered this pronunciation and it was eventually adopted as Oregon.

Stovall lists a personal background in professional publishing. He and his wife, Linny, were once owners of the former Blue Heron Press. He is co-author of a widely-used 1992 text, Classroom Publishing.

In his attempt to mount a book publishing effort at Portland State, Stovall encountered the same problem affecting Oregon universities today: a severe fund shortage. For the first project he sought a book which carried some grant support. By chance, he found in Wolk an author with a grant seeking a publisher.

Within the next six months, Stovall expects to begin work on Ooligan’s next book project, “The Broken Olive Branch” by Harry Anastasiou, a PSU professor of conflict resolution. It is a non-fiction book dealing with the Cyprus problem.

Stovall has a coffee table book in process, the work of Jason Porath, a Portland filmmaker, and Jonas Mohr, a Hollywood photographer. It is called “Mug Shots” and presents photos and stories of people in the arts who hit bottom and rebounded. The PSU foundation is offering assistance to find funding for this book.

The publishing branch of the writing program has attracted graduate students with widely varying backgrounds, Stovall said. About a third of the 60 to 80 students in publishing classes any given term come out of business and technical writing. Another third are writers interested in “demystifying” the publishing aspect of their writing careers. About another third are students who want to start publishing companies or go to work in publishing. There is a smattering of teachers and librarians who want to understand better how a book gets into a library.

The program has so far awarded eight MA degrees, currently enlists 23 students and expects another 25 to 30 to join as the year progresses. In addition to the graduate program, there is an undergraduate minor in English.

The instructors are publishing professionals who teach part-time. Stovall assembles them once a month to make certain the curriculum stays on target. One of his current problems is that, due to budget shortages, he has no administrative staff. Students carry the administrative load part-time. Down the road, Stovall sees publishing laboratories in the program.

Now that PSU is publishing books, will dozens of aspiring Portland State authors be begging Ooligan to publish them? Stovall’s advice: take the introduction to publishing course and learn the problems every ambitious author faces.