Meet the (Small) Press: Santa Fe Writers Project

This indie imprint owes its existence to a bar in the desert.

Meet the (Small) Press: Santa Fe Writers Project

Let’s clear one thing up right off. The Santa Fe Writers Project is based in Bethesda, MD, not New Mexico. But it was in that Southwestern state that Andrew Gifford, founder and director of SFWP, was inspired to start the small press.

“SFWP began at the El Dorado Hotel bar in downtown Santa Fe. This was November 1998, and I was with my uncle who lived out there,” Gifford says. “He set out to show me the sights, sounds, and flavors of New Mexico, and I was captivated by everything. It was one of the few places that seemed to call to me, embrace me, and inspire me.”

It was a difficult time for Gifford, who was suffering from the onset of trigeminal neuralgia and dealing with the demise of a previous publishing venture. Over a few drinks, he and his uncle, the author Richard Currey, who had seen two of his books go out of print, lamented the “declining support of literature in America.”

“But something about that big New Mexican sky made me think that recognizing, supporting, and championing literature was just what I needed in order to pull out of my funk,” Gifford says.

“Richard’s The Wars of Heaven was, in my opinion, one of the best books I had read up to that point in my life, and it was unavailable. How could one of my favorite books not be out there for everyone else to experience? So I made a very solemn and very drunken promise to myself that night — I would fight for literature.”

Part of that fight has included giving a second life under the SFWP banner to out-of-print titles, including books by Currey and Pagan Kennedy. Of course, SFWP also champions new fiction and nonfiction through its catalog of 28 books and counting. The eclectic slate includes story collections, novels, memoirs, biography, essay collections, poetry, translation, and even a young-adult novel.

“I publish what I enjoy reading, and I have a wide and varied taste. I read hardcore academic history books, trashy sci-fi, idiotic crime and adventure stories, historical fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, essays…I go with whatever mood strikes me,” says Gifford.

“Consequently, the SFWP catalog is all over the place. This year, we released a memoir about psychiatric misdiagnosis and PTSD, a collection of essays about the struggles and experiences of Chinese-Americans, two collections of short stories and, through our imprint, an anthology of Richard Peabody’s prose and poetry.”

And Gifford’s varied interests will continue to be on display with SFWP’s 2016 selections, which include the first book in a fantasy trilogy by Daniel M. Ford, a LGBT novel from Brandon Wicks, and Bystanders, a story collection from Smokelong Quarterly editor (and Washington Independent Review of Books columnist) Tara Laskowski.

Still, even with a goal of putting out three or four books a year, Gifford says one of the most frustrating things about running a press is finding the resources — and time — to release all the great manuscripts that cross his desk.

“Time is always my enemy. Until 2012, I worked six jobs (if you include SFWP) to pay for this weird publishing habit of mine,” he says.

“I did catering, worked in a call center, freelance writing and editing, consulting, secretarial stuff. It was madness. In the early years, I just slept at my job, or in my car at the Metro station. Why bother going home if my next job was set to start in three hours?”

Luckily for Gifford, advances in printing and other technology (not to mention selling more books) have made it easier and more cost efficient to run a small press, allowing him to hold down just one job outside of SFWP and to expand his literary endeavors to include a new online journal, the SFWP Quarterly.

Even so, while working with new and established authors and releasing high-quality literature is usually enough to keep him going, sometimes Gifford needs to center himself by harking back to that bar in Santa Fe.

“Whenever I start to lose steam and doubt my path, I think of that night, that sky, that air, and the smell of pinon and, somehow, all of this publishing foolishness makes sense.”

Michael Landweber is the author of the novels We and the forthcoming Thursday, 1:17 p.m. His short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, American Literary Review, and Pank. He is an associate editor at the Potomac Review.

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