Profile: Victoria Barrett and Engine Books 

click to enlarge Victoria Barrett holds Engine Books titles both published and in the pike. - STEPHEN SIMONETTO
  • Victoria Barrett holds Engine Books titles both published and in the pike.
  • Stephen Simonetto

With her close-cropped blonde hair and nose ring, Victoria Barrett doesn't fit the typical professorial stereotype. A Renaissance woman in the realm of letters, she's a professor at Ball State; the founder of Engine Books, a local publishing company; and co-editor at Freight Stories, an online literary magazine. Her own work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals and she has two novels in the works.

Always busy, Barrett has been especially swamped during the past two years running Engine Books, through which she plans to issue eight titles by seven authors by summer 2013. Six of those seven authors are women, in line with the imprint's mission to devote 50 percent of annual publishing output to women authors.

A prejudice against woman authors begins to develop during a reader's early years according to Barrett: "If more boys were taught that stories of family life, written by women, were of just as much value as stories of going on safari or whatever, this disparity would go away."

According to an ongoing study handled by VIDA, an organization devoted to the cause of women in the literary arts, female-authored work is grossly underrepresented in major literary magazines and book reviews. For example, only 23 percent of Harper's 183 pieces published in 2011 were written by women.

"Engine Books role in this, I hope, will be to get more work by women into the world, and let readers decide what has value and what doesn't," Barrett says. "The idea isn't to privilege writing by women, which seems to be the accusation a lot of men level, but to do what very little I can to help even the odds."

Not that Barrett accepts less than ideal titles just to meet a quota: "I only seriously consider accepting books that I think I can help make better, and only by writers I want to work with. I need to see what the author can't see after working through multiple drafts. The job, once you dig in, then, is to make every line sing the song that the best lines sing.

click to enlarge Present and forthcoming Engine Books output.
  • Present and forthcoming Engine Books output.

Barrett has been "astounded" by the trajectory of Engine Books; reviews of titles have appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine and Publisher's Weekly, with a few titles making it to the shelves of Barnes and Noble and other major retailers. While some success can be attributed to the quality of her editing and her endless efforts on behalf of good books, her commitment to high-quality design has also played a part.

In the age of the e-reader, when book covers can be browsed by flicking a finger across a screen, a book's looks matter. "Reading and writing are acts of translation," Barrett says. "The visual representation of a literary work can, when it's done well, help that translation process along, can color the experience of those words in the brain."

Editing, publishing, teaching, and writing are correlative for Barrett. She believes that editing and publishing make her a better professor, but "the opposite relationship is more complicated. It often takes several weeks after the spring semester ends for me to have full access to my capacity for language, which functions just like a body: you get out what you put in. Editing kind of saves me: It provides a different kind of nutrition to the word-body."

Barrett graduated from Purdue, then went on to earn her MFA at New Mexico State, where she was awarded a graduate assistantship and cut her editing teeth at the institution's celebrated literary journal, Puerto del Sol. She became "the most significant managing editor" in its history, according to editor Kevin McIlvoy, and she developed a taste for editing: "When I left grad school I didn't miss workshop or academia, but I missed editing terribly," Barrett says. "I never stopped wanting to edit from the moment I started."

A job offer from the late Ballet Internationale brought her Indianapolis, which proved a perfect fit: "I feel like I probably belong here ... I love Indianapolis and I always have and something in me is essentially Midwestern." She's taught freshman composition and creative writing at Ball State since 2004.

In 2008, she and her husband, Andrew Scott, launched Freight Stories, a collaborative project they'd been planning since 2003. Freight Stories is available for free, but the layout and typeset provide a "real book" feel - and further, the site offers the kind of longer reads more often associated with print journals, following on Barrett and Scott's idea that web-publishable work need not necessarily be short and experimental.

A team player, so to speak, Barrett is excited about other local efforts: the relatively-new break away books imprint from IU Press; recently published and forthcoming works by local writers Bryan Furuness, Sarah Layden and Barb Shoup. "There's an energy around books that's growing in this area, and it's really wonderful to see everyone living and working here, instead of running away to New York at the first opportunity," she says.

However, Barrett also believes that "we are failing at making books widely appealing in our city." She doesn't have a solution yet, but she thinks that "those of us in Indianapolis who care about the written word and want to live in a truly literate city probably ought to get to work figuring it out."

Two to read from Engine Books

Echolocation
Myfanwy Collins
February 2012

A gothic tale of sisterhood set in a New York town during a chilly winter, Echolocation, the debut novel by the Massachusetts-based Collins, is a haunting read. We're introduced first to Geneva, who left a lackluster marriage shortly after she lost her left arm, wedding ring and all, while felling a tree. Then Cheri, her rebellious sister, returns home, only to say goodbye to the dying aunt who raised her. Finally comes Cheri's mother, rushing home with an infant that she didn't bear and the naïve hope that she can find personal salvation by saving the child. Collins's prose is lovely, relying on image and action to characterize her leading ladies. Her strength lies in her ability to paint believable, three-dimensional portraits of her characters - vibrant, salt-of-the-earth types who are both familiar and surprising.

Other Heartbreaks
Patricia Henley
October 2011
Henley, a longtime instructor in Purdue's MFA program, got a bump when O, The Oprah Magazine, placed her short story collection Other Heartbreaks on its spring break reading list for 2012. The Big O got it right: Henley's stories are poignant without melancholy, honest as a Sunday-night sigh, filled with loss, longing and the gentle acceptance that marks well-worn relationships. Protagonists are of the type you might run into at the grocery store, the ones who struggle quietly and go on with their day-to-day existence without making much of a fuss. Henley shows us the interior of such characters, the lusts and cravings that are otherwise buried. We watch as relationships begin, strengthen, crumble, and end - or continue. We see secret shames flare up, obsessions acted out, and desires fed and squelched. And we glimpse the soul-sucking plainness of the mundane: "Out the sliding glass door, beyond the balcony, was the reality of river and night, husbands, children, emergency rooms, weedy gardens, cats with pinkeye, dog fights, trash cans raccoons had upturned, broken appliances, science projects that failed, nightmares, stretch marks ..."

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