Rebecca Lerner: The city that nourishes literature

Sunday, February 7, 2016 - 1:22pm

English Prof. Jeremy Chamberlin opens every class with the same phrase: “Does anyone have any gigs they want to share?” He doesn’t just offer the time to share interesting happenings around campus because he’s a fantastic teacher and cares about building a community, (although he is and does, and everyone should take a class with him if they have the chance), but because there are fascinating and neoteric ideas, groups and businesses emanating from almost every crevice of Ann Arbor.

This city promotes creativity and imagination through so much of what it does, but growth has been especially surprising and noteworthy in the burgeoning literary community. Independent publishing companies in particular have been inclined to take root in Ann Arbor, as love for books generated in the University flows with ease to the surrounding areas. One such benefactor of this ardor is Fish Out of Water Books, run by Jon and Laurie Wilson, a husband and wife publishing team based in Ann Arbor. They have lived here for 20 years but only recently acted on their dream of going into publishing.

“I met Laurie after she had moved from suburban Detroit to Manchester, England in 1988. We were married in 1989 and moved to Ann Arbor in 1993,” Jon said in a recent interview. “We had been considering the idea of starting a publishing company that would reflect our mutual love of fish out of water stories — about visiting other countries, having to integrate yourself into a foreign culture or simply growing up as a fish out of water in your own neighborhood.”

After leaving Manchester for Michigan, Laurie insisted that the Wilsons settle in Ann Arbor. Both Laurie and Jon worked in other creative industries — marketing and academic publishing respectively — before following their dream of starting their own publishing company.

“In many ways, Ann Arbor feels very much home-from-home. We have met friends from all over the world in this six square miles surrounded by reality. The diversity and vibrancy of the Ann Arbor community has provided us with a very receptive audience. This is most definitely conducive to independent book publishing,” Jon said.

Listing some of the upcoming events in the local literary community, Jon said he was especially excited about them after just releasing the first book for Fish Out of Water.

“This is an exciting time, with the recent addition of Midwestern Gothic’s “Voices of the Middle West” conference, along with the Ann Arbor Book Festival in mid-June and the Kerrytown BookFest in September. Both of these events have grown significantly over the last 10 years and attract writers and an audiences from far and wide,” Jon said.

The first and newest book published by Fish Out of Water Books also bears the proud stamp “Made in Ann Arbor.” The novel, called “Love & Vodka,” was written by R.J. Fox, a teacher at Huron High School.

“In my first year (at Huron High), I had a student who happened to be the son of Jon Wilson and Laurie Wilson all four years,” Fox said. “I was publishing pieces of my book on Facebook and (Jon) just happened to be launching a publishing business. And the types of books they were looking to publish match the story I had, a sort of fish out of water. They approached me and asked if I’d be interested. I figured why not? It’s kind of risky. They were a new company, and there’s nothing guaranteed, but it’s been amazing. It’s their first book so they have so much at stake themselves. We’ve really just enjoyed the last few months of getting this book out there. The support here in Ann Arbor’s just been unbelievably fantastic. It’s obviously a very literate community.”

Despite the challenges of a shoestring budget and adaptation to publishing and distribution in the twenty-first century, Fox and Fish Out of Water released “Love & Vodka” in 2015. It was met with spirit and warmth from the literary community, which Fox credits toward the general zeal of Ann Arbor.

“I’ve been living here in Ann Arbor for about 6 or 7 years. I feel like the literary community was already in place when I got here. I feel like since I’ve lived here, they opened up some more places. Literati’s opened, and they’ve been just phenomenal and want so much to support authors,” Fox said.

He added that he thought the literary community, hit hard by the recession and changing technologies, is rebounding with a life force that few would have expected. But he also made the point that in the bubble of Ann Arbor, we are fortunate in the enthusiasm that the University and the town itself generate for literature.

“People say books are a dying breed, but by the same token, these stores are thriving,” Fox said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to launch a book than Ann Arbor.”