Have you met Indy Reads Books' guardian angel? A copper statue of a girl with braids of vaguely Native American descent, she hovers on a perch above the children's section, protecting fertile, fragile minds. She was donated to the bookstore by another protectress of the arts, the late philanthropist Margot Lacy Eccles. "A lot of people don't notice her," says Travis DiNicola, the executive director of Indy Reads, the non-profit organization offering literacy tutoring to adults that opened Indy Reads Books in July 2012 as an outreach and fundraising arm.
The girl also watches over every copy of Indy Reads' new anthology of recent work by Indiana writers, Indy Writes Books. We'll keep mum as to her exact location. The collection features authors who have some sort of relationship with the bookstore, as guests, customers, socializers or all of the above. They were asked to submit work somehow related to literacy, reading, books or bookstores. John Green's is perhaps the biggest name on the list, at least when it comes to mainstream readers and moviegoers of a certain age, but Dan Wakefield, who wrote the introduction, comes in a close second, and several more authors have picked up award after award in their respective genres (Ben Winters and Larry Sweazy come to mind).
We've excerpted from both Wakefield's intro and one of three of Green's non-fiction pieces in the book. Green's essays, written for broadcast on Chicago Public Radio, are being published in print for the first time in the collection. Indy Writes Books will be available exclusively from Indy Reads Books or indyreads.org through January, when Amazon and other retailers will get their hands on it. Pre-orders started in October and the first batch of 5,000 books arrive from the Michigan printer by Nov. 25. The book is, of course, just as much a non-profit project as anything else Indy Reads is associated with, and DiNicola notes the organization will recoup the most money on books directly purchased through Indy Reads.
DiNicola, who's seen with "drinking buddy" Dan Wakefield in a photo shoot for this story, talked about the project — his long-nursed "baby" — from his office at Indy Reads, peering over a desk piled with books, newspapers and other ephemera.
NUVO: When did the idea to publish an anthology start to germinate?
Travis DiNicola: That's going all the way back. I started thinking about the book almost as soon as the bookstore opened. I love it when bookstores publish books. There's this great tradition, from Shakespeare and Company publishing James Joyce to City Lights publishing Allen Ginsberg.
A couple weeks after we opened, Cathy Day read a piece at the bookstore that I just loved. It was an unpublished piece comparing Facebook to the old tradition of when people would leave calling cards when they went to their neighbors. I was talking to her about it and said, 'I'd love to publish that!' Our conversation turned to the idea that we really need to publish authors who were at the bookstore.
We weren't quite sure how to do it or how to fund it, but a year ago we were notified that there was going to be money available through the estate of Margot Lacy Eccles.
NUVO: She was a long-time supporter of Indy Reads.
DiNicola: She was a huge supporter. She was a great mentor of mine and she also made the original donation that made the bookstore possible. She believed in it, wanted it to happen, helped us raise other funds for it. There was fund set up for organizations that she cared about enormously, and we were lucky that we were one of them. We refer to it as the Big Dream Fund because it allows us to apply for funds for projects that we wouldn't normally be able to do, that are meant to help us grow and expand our audience.
As soon as we knew we would have this fund, this was our first idea. That grant has allowed us to create what we think is a beautiful book. We said, 'This doesn't have to be an inexpensive thing. We can go hardcover, we can go 400 pages, do really beautiful typesetting.' The authors were excited about that. They said, 'Wow, you're actually doing a nice book.' Once we got the funds in place and were able to get a few of the authors, the rest grew from there.
Then I went to Butler's pub lab. I had an idea of what I wanted the book to be, but we didn't have either the time (in terms of doing copy editing) or the experience (in terms of getting an ISBN number and other logistics involved with publishing). They connected me with this guy, Zach Roth, who was graduating from their MFA program. He started working on this while he was still in school, then did more work after graduating, donating a ton of his time. Zach not only did all the copy editing, but all of the interior design of the book. He also ended up making the decisions on the order of the book and how the pieces flow.
And for the cover, we knew we wanted to have it connect back to the bookstore, so we went to Amy McAdams who designed the original logo for the bookstore.
NUVO: How'd you end up picking the authors?
DiNicola: I wanted to focus primarily on authors who had been at the bookstore, whose works I had read, whose works I liked. The first author I asked to be a part of it was John Green. We had talked about it over a year ago, and he had committed to it last spring. I figured if we're going to do this, having him in the book would be an incentive for other authors to do it, which it has been, and it would be a great way to reach beyond Indianapolis. He has however many million followers on social media and hopefully some of them will pick up
the book. We got John first and then Dan Wakefield was an immediate second.
NUVO: And you're drinking buddies with Dan, right? You talked over the book with him?
DiNicola: I am admittedly drinking buddies with Dan, and he was excited about it from the very beginning. He had already been thinking of doing a history of Indiana authors, and I just thought this was a really good place for it. And then I went to another dozen authors — again, all authors I'd read and had been to the bookstore — and that entire group, which included people like Barb Shoup, Cathy Day, Terence Faherty, immediately all said yes.
Every single author in this agreed to donate their work, which was great. In most cases, the authors wrote an original work. In some cases, the authors gave us something they had written but that hadn't been published anywhere else. And in one or two cases, we have some stuff that had been published previously but not widely distributed.
NUVO: How much money from each book purchase will make it back to Indy Reads?
DiNicola: What's awesome about the grant that we got from Lacy Eccles is it cover all expenses to produce the book. So we're able to reap the benefits. And it's a big part of our budget next year. It's going to allow us to keep the programs that we have in jails. We're also going to be able to keep a number of our literacy labs operating. We break it down that every $5 dollars donated to Indy Reads covers the cost of one hour of tutoring. So buying one of these books at $25 basically pays for five hours of tutoring.
NUVO: There's a mix of genres here, including puzzles, translations, drama, non-fiction.
DiNicola: I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I started talking to authors, they said, 'How about I do something different.' So when Lou Harry asked, 'Can I write a play,' I said, 'Yeah, go ahead.' And when I was going through the list of different authors that I wanted to have in, Alyssa Newerth, who's our director of advancement, said, 'You're friends with the Jumble guys. Why don't you ask them to do a puzzle?' And Jeff Knurek, who's the cartoonist for the Jumble, lives in town and has been a huge supporter of Indy Reads. Jeff's cartoon is set in Indy Reads Books and I get to be in it.
After we asked the Jumble guys, I said, 'If we're going to do one puzzle, let's get another.' I contacted Will Shortz, the puzzlemaster on NPR and all that stuff. He's a little bit of an anomaly for this project because he's never been to the bookstore and all the other authors have. But he's so cool, from Indiana, went to IU. Plus I've had a chance to meet him a couple times, and he said, 'If there's anything I can do to support Indy Reads, let me know.' So I called him up and said, 'This is it! Can I get a puzzle for the book?' He said, 'Absolutely,' and he gave us a puzzle that he'd worked on before, hadn't used and that's totally connected to literacy.
NUVO: The book was funded by what you're calling the Big Dream fund. What other big dreams do you have if this turns out to be a successful project?
DiNicola: The best-case scenario would be that this is so well-received that we can generate funds to do a second book. We've talked a lot about that: Wouldn't it be cool if Indy Reads could put out a book every year? We don't know what the second book would be. One idea that's gotten a lot of support is a community project where we'd have workshops where people could come and write stories about, say, their neighborhoods. Another thing that's come up is a collection that would focus on the stories of students and their tutors. Or we might find that new writer who's living in Indianapolis, hasn't been published and has a really great novel.
NUVO: The book makes a pretty effective case that this is a good time to be a writer in Indianapolis. Do you think Indy Reads has played a part in the growth of the literary scene?
DiNicola: I'd like to think that we've been a part of that, especially when it comes to the bookstore. When we opened the store, the first author that we had for a reading was John Green. John had just come back from a tour around the country promoting The Fault in Our Stars, the book, not the movie. The first thing that he said when he got up on stage was, 'I'm so glad to be living in a city that's opening a bookstore and not closing one.' That means a lot to me.
I've heard from so many authors in our city — whether they're published authors or just starting out — about how important it is to them that we have a bookstore, not just a place where they know their books can be sold, but where they can do readings, where they can meet other authors. Dan Wakefield is at the bookstore all the time, just hanging out there, buying books, talking to other authors. A lot of times at these events, you'll see a lot of the same faces, other authors from the community who are supporting each other, getting to know each other.
NUVO: Dan Wakefield talks in his intro about how there was a preponderance of Indiana authors on The New York Times bestseller chart in the first half of the 20th century. But not so much the second.
DiNicola: Yeah, you have to go back to Booth Tarkington. Vonnegut didn't live here when he was writing, and neither did Dan Wakefield until very recently. There were some really great writers back then, but then there was this huge gap. Now you look around and there are writers everywhere. You have Ben Winters, who's doing amazing stuff. John David Anderson, who's a great young adult author. Frank Bill, Michael Dahlie, Susan Neville. What I hope will happen with the book is that maybe you know John Green or Frank Bill, but you don't know Terence Faherty, who's a sensational mystery writer. Or Larry Sweazy, who's a fun western writer, though he didn't do a western for us.
NUVO: Why do you think it's a bit easier now to make it as an author from Indiana? What's changed in the past few years?
DiNicola: The Indiana Authors Award has been a great way to celebrate authors here. A number of authors that have received that are in the book. But you're right that even ten years ago, the authors who were getting any kind of attention outside of the region were few and far between, and a lot of them would move out. I think a lot of it has to do with the Award, with the bookstore, having John Green here, having Dan Wakefield move back. Every author asks me, 'Can you introduce me to Dan?' He's like the patron saint of Indiana authors right now.
NUVO: Though there isn't really an Algonquin Round Table of Indianapolis as yet.
DiNicola: Dan would love to do the equivalent of the Algonquin at the Red Key!