Stralian Stories April 2014
Sleepers Publishing: The Heart of Storytelling
by Klare Lanson
Chewton is a place in Central Victoria that doesn’t cry out for attention. Although it heralds a time in our recent history of opportunity, gold, murder, The Monster Meeting and related intrigue, these days it’s all about family, community action and living slightly off the grid. The stories here are rife and as beautiful as the storm that’s currently threatening around me.
I’m sitting in the hideout of a woman who is the co-founder of one of the best Australian independent publishers in the country – Melbourne-based Sleepers. We’re a few lazy kilometres from Castlemaine and the afternoon sky is a dark, gun metal grey. There’s a window with a view that’s almost panoramic. It‘s all about the gaze. It encourages thinking. The wind is pushing a stunning Chinese Elm into compromising scenarios, in stark contrast to its graceful stature. The tree is the centre point for a pack of kids who are practicing the art of running and testing boundaries through play. The house seems to surround the tree, and it’s a home that breeds imagination, welcomes fiction. This is where the passion lies for Zoe Dattner.
“The reason I love fiction is because it has the capacity to reveal the truth above and beyond how real-life stories can … you fall into character’s lives, all of your empathy in that situation – it asks ‘what would you do?’ It’s a really wonderful way to hypothesise about all of those scenarios that don’t occur in our lives but help us understand truth for ourselves.”
Zoe’s been writing from a young age (Dear diary, what the fuck are we doing here), and cheerfully remembers her first rejection letter at age 9, a poem sent to The Bulletin. She immediately transformed it into a song, spent her teenage years writing short stories and never looked back. It’s this innate ability to transform her writing into diverse realms that attracted her to the Professional Writing & Editing Diploma at RMIT, a course that continues its morph to meet new demands in the literary world. It was here that she met her partner in crime Louise Swinn, where they sharpened their red pencils on Visible Ink and then later at Macmillan.
“It was right on the brink of that analogue to digital transition when the internet was really starting to have a bigger impact on how books were published, even just getting books printed – it was the end of creating film for printing material.”
The timing of Zoe’s creative trajectory; her talent for production, typesetting and design combined with global technological development (making publishing more accessible) enabled her to grasp the opportunity of joining forces with Louise and starting their own company. They set a date, quit their jobs and in 2003, Sleepers was born.
They started off jumping into author promotion and events. The highly successful Sleepers Salons took the Melbourne Lit crowd by storm. Here was something fresh, dynamic, inclusive and, above all, fun. The salons took on an edgy chat show format, in the fertile environment of a bar. It changed the way many thought about the book world, expanding audiences and adding artists, writers, musos and critics to the mix. This cross disciplinary approach worked a treat, publishers wooed them for promotion opportunities, and it sat well with their overriding desire to develop community and make writers more accessible to the trade. Inspired by McSweeneys, it seemed the perfect time to start an anthology. Sean Condon launched the first Sleepers Almanac in 2005 and since then it’s become a fantastic vehicle for featuring contemporary storytelling of both emerging and more established authors.
“Any kind of story anthology by it’s very nature requires risk-taking readers, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. After nine issues, the Almanac has become a kind of catalogue for Sleepers and also an excellent way to promote emerging authors, many of whom have gone on to get publishing deals through other companies. We first found Steven Amsterdam through publishing in the Almanac.”
What stands out with Sleepers is the absolute integrity of the novels they publish. Zoe assures me that they were on the hunt for compelling works of fiction even before the first Almanac came out, before they even knew their company’s real direction. Back in the day, for a six-pack or a bottle of wine, they had an appraisal manuscript service so they were reading novels from the get-go. The irony is not lost on me when I think of a ‘sleeper’ as a book that ‘achieves unexpected success after originally attracting very little attention’ – in fact Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, the very first novel they published, won the Age Book of the Year and was book listed for VCE. Integrity and heart are the benchmarks. These things take time.
“For us to stand behind the author at their book launch and talk about it like it’s one of our children, we have to really love it and that’s basically the reason why we publish so few books …”
The conflict with only publishing fiction in a world that wants to hear true stories is strikingly apparent. That blur between memoir and fiction causes heated dialogue at the best of times and the stories Zoe loves are the ones that often blur beyond recognition. Last year’s titles Holy Bible by Vanessa Russell (A family in the Christadelphian sect) and What was Left by Eleanor Limprecht (Post Natal Depression) both hit the hard issues embedded in family, motherhood and relationships.
This year, beyond their 10th year of publishing, it’s no different. Sleepers will publish their first Young Adult novel in July. The debut novel The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew by Eli Glasman is about a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community, and will be released on July 1st. Found on everyone’s watch list, if it’s anything like his blog then we’re in for an incredible reading experience. It’s timely, and a necessary perspective on something that we unfortunately still seem to struggle with. The intense clash of homosexuality and religion.
Storytelling is a huge part of Zoe Dattner’s life, and whilst the stories published through Sleepers may not be high literature, they are authentic reflections of our cultural landscape, well written and also highly entertaining. They have compassion, diversity and above all are intelligent perceptions on life. They are full of heart and they’re not patronising to the reader. In fact, Sleepers values the reader as a thinker, and does well to provide the stories we need to navigate through our lives. ′
Zoe Dattner is the Creative Director and co founder of Sleepers Publishing. They publish works of fiction, anthologies and eBooks that can be purchased at all good retailers and via their site at sleeperspublishing.com The Sleepers App is available through iTunes for iPhone, packed with hundreds of stories to make the commuting lifestyle a breeze.
Klare Lanson is a writer, poet, mother, performance maker, sound artist, data consultant, arts worker, past editor of Australian Literary Anthology Going Down Swinging (goingdownswinging.org.au/). She also presents Turn Left at the Baco every Saturday night on Castlemaine based community radio MAINfm. Her current project is #wanderingcloud (klarelanson.tumblr.com/).