Friday, October 23, 2009

Three Views of Jessica Powers: Press Founder, Editor, Writer

In this interview, Jessica Powers discusses the rich, varied threads of her life as a writer. Inspirational in her dedication to all three “selves,” Powers is the author of the teen-age focused novel The Confessional, founding editor of the on-line zine The Fertile Source, and founder of Catalyst Book Press http://www.catalystbookpress (publisher of the January 2009 anthology Labor Pains and Birth Stories).

What drew you to put out a call for birth stories?

When I put the call out for submissions, I hadn’t thought a lot about birth. My best friend had three children by then, and I do remember what a shock it was to me how much our friendship changed after the birth of her first baby. I was still living the swingin’ single 20s life and I guess I expected us to still gal-pal around town like normal. So I was shocked when she brought her baby to our first lunch date a couple weeks after Abby was born. I’m not sure what I expected she would do with her baby while she was living it up with me—leave her at home? take her to her mother-in-law’s? I guess you could say I didn’t grow up as fast as she did.

Anyway, when my brother and his wife had a daughter six years ago, my sister-in-law made a comment that she really should write down her baby’s birth story before she forgot any of the details. A light bulb went off in my head at that moment and I realized that birth was a profoundly transformative event in people’s lives, that it was probably the most spiritual thing a person could do even though it has a raw physicality to it. I went home and looked up “birth stories” on the internet and discovered, to my shock, that thousands of women were posting their birth stories on the internet.

I realized immediately that here was a book. I started out editing it with my best friend but she had to bow out because she was expecting her fourth child etc etc. But I’m glad to say that while I was receiving the very first submissions for the book, I was able to be at the birth of her fourth daughter, a natural birth, a water birth, which took place at Maternidad La Luz ( in downtown El Paso. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to have children due to chronic pain issues. Tabitha knew that and felt like it was important that I get at least one chance to see a birth. I’ll always be grateful that I got to witness the miracle in action before I really started editing this book.

What did you learn as you went through the process from start to finish (culling stories to final publication)?

I learned a tremendous amount about pregnancy, the process of giving birth, and what it means to become a parent. I also learned how political birth is, something I never realized before. I personally don’t take sides on the political issues—I feel that every woman should have the right to choose the best kind of birth for herself and her family. So if a woman wants a home birth, I think she should be able to have it, and the legal apparatus should be in place so that she’s not denied a safe, effective home birth. But if a woman wants an epidural in a hospital, go for it. Okay, I don’t know how I feel about elective cesareans but I’m not going to judge, let’s put it that way.

Despite the fact that I didn’t have a political agenda when I edited the book, I’ve noticed that people do have a political response to the book. I didn’t have any criteria for the essays except that I wanted each essay I selected to reach the highest literary standards. I’ve found Christians who like the pro-natal aspect of the book but object to the fact that I’ve included a couple of essays by lesbians. Natural or home birth proponents have objected to the fact that I include hospital births in the book. And hospital birth proponents have argued that the book is biased towards natural birth. Whatever. About half the births in the book are hospital births and half are natural births so I don’t see how there could be a “bias” from either side. And I included essays by Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and who knows what. I honestly didn’t care about that part of it. I just wanted to show that whatever TYPE of birth a person experiences, and no matter what spiritual persuasion a person has, the process of giving birth is life-affirming (even when a baby dies, as happens with one of the birth stories in the book) and that process changes men and women in profound and measurable ways.

To be honest, I’m still learning. The book has been out for nine months (ironic, huh?) and I’m still learning tons about birth, pregnancy, and publishing. I guess that’s not going to change anytime soon.

What drew you to forming Catalyst Press?

I didn’t really expect to do it. I have a wonderful agent but she just wasn’t able to sell this book. It came close a couple of times—made it to the editorial table and then got nixed because nobody was sure how to market it. I remember thinking, “What do you mean, you don’t know how to market it? Don’t you market it to expecting and new parents? Can’t you market it to grandparents?” I have never met a person who, upon hearing this topic, doesn’t have a birth story to tell me.

So after my agent told me she’d exhausted the possibilities, I started thinking about how much I believe in this book, and that I wanted to see it out there. I sent it around to a few small presses and no cigar. That’s when I decided to start a small press. I didn’t want to be a one-book press, so I opened up for submissions and it snowballed from there. I have two books out now, four coming out in 2010, and 2 scheduled for 2011. All of the books I’m publishing in the next two years are related to fertility or sexuality. I didn’t expect that but I’m glad to be forming a niche market. That’s the only way a small press can really succeed.

It’s exhausting but I do like working with writers. I’ve met some cool people because I decided to do this…so no matter what happens with the press in the future—whether it’s wildly successful or not—I’m glad I did it.

What advice would you give others considering starting their own small press?

Don’t do it!!! Ha-ha. Okay, that really is my advice, and it’s the same advice I heard from my mentors Bobby & Lee Byrd, who run a very successful small press, Cinco Puntos Press (

But having said that, if you’re determined to do it, you should talk to those of us who have gone before you. And you should be intrepid and bold. Believe in the books you publish! Love the process! Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you won’t sell as many books as you’d like to sell. Be grateful for every book you sell and every good review you get and every person who writes to say they like your books. Expect to incur some debt. Curse that debt. Curse it thoroughly with as many fancy, colorful, four-letter words you know. But before you start, please remember that this debt will always be there and it never goes away. No matter how much money your books bring in, your costs always seem to be just that much more than what you make.

When did you know you were a writer?

Apparently, I used to write short stories and leave them around the house when I was only six or seven years old. I do remember creating a small book with construction paper and writing back cover copy on the book that read similar to the kinds of things you read on the backs of picture books and chapter books for early readers. “Michael was a bad boy. He liked to steal food from old ladies. But one day, Michael changed. Read this book. You will love this story…”

I lost my love of writing when I was eight and went to a school where, on Friday, my teacher would threaten to pull my fingers out with a pair of pliers if I didn’t learn my capital letters by Monday morning. At eight, I kind of believed he would really do that, and I remember pulling my hair out when I had to write a creative story—I had lost all my love for learning.

My mother was disturbed by what she saw, not only my emotional and intellectual deterioration but my brother’s as well. She pulled us out of school and taught us at home. This was in 1984, when it was still illegal in the state of Texas to home school, and when people told my mom that she was a bad mother for doing it. I know homeschooling is popular now—but back when my mother did it, nobody was doing it. We kept ourselves well-hidden, told people we went to private school, and attended court cases where homeschooling parents were being sent to jail and their kids placed in foster care. Eventually, homeschoolers successfully sued the state of Texas and a judge ruled that homeschooling was legal because it was, essentially, private school.

At home, my mother unraveled the pressure I’d been under at school. She encouraged me to read and re-discover who I was. The summer I was ten, my dad took me and my brothers on a trip to South Dakota, where I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead. When I came home, I told my mother that I wanted to be a writer “like Laura” when I grew up. That fall, for English, my mother let me write a novel. My novel was set in the pre-Civil War era and told the story of a family who helped runaway slaves escape to Canada by hiding them in the Grand Piano in their living room.

It was a horrible novel but I was hooked…. By the time I went to college at 16, I’d written half a dozen novels.

What is your favorite genre of writing (to write) and why?

Oh, I definitely like writing for teens most of all. Teens change more in two weeks than most adults change in a year. It’s such a horrible, wonderful, scary hormonal time. I love exploring that world. I love teens. I wouldn’t want to still BE a teen, but they’re really fun to be around.

I also write non-fiction for adults. Somebody once told me that you know your calling by the books you’re drawn to. They didn’t mean “you know your calling as a writer.” They meant that if you’re drawn to books about social justice in Africa, maybe you’re called to work in Africa and help bring social justice to that continent. Or if you read about women’s rights all the time, you should work for women’s rights. You get the idea. Well, I’m drawn to fiction for young adults….and non-fiction for adults on all topics but especially religion, health & healing, fertility, race, immigration, and violence. (Hey, those are the topics I’m drawn towards in y.a. fiction, too, so go figure…) As a writer, I’ve decided that’s my “calling”….to write about these things.

What inspired you to write The Confessional?

The Confessional is a young adult novel that explores racial tension and school violence at an all-boys Catholic high school along the U.S.-Mexico Border. After a Mexican terrorist blows up one of the international bridges linking El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico, the racial tension at the Catholic school between the Mexicans and the Americans spills over into violence. There’s a vicious school fight that leads to a murder, and in the ensuing investigation, the six characters who tell the story in alternating viewpoints must examine their friendships, their loyalties, and their faith.

I wrote it while I was teaching at a school exactly like that in El Paso, Texas. The fall I started teaching there, we had just started the war in Iraq a few months earlier. I remember being surprised to see the “us vs. them” mentality among the young men I taught. I also remember being surprised to see ideas about the war breaking along national loyalties. The Mexican students who crossed the border every day to attend Cathedral High School were opposed to the war. My American students were pro-war, with a few exceptions. I could also see that there weren’t many friendships crossing that nationality barrier. The Mexican students stuck with the Mexican students while the American students stuck with the American students. I wanted to confront this “us vs. them” mentality that I felt was dominating the U.S. at that time, reflected in the friendships and loyalties displayed by my students. One of the American characters in my novel is gay; going to an all-boys school means he keeps his sexuality secret; but during the course of the novel, he’s placed in an unusual position of wondering whether his sexuality makes him even more of a “them” then the Mexican students in the “us vs. them” mentality that provides the context of the novel.

Once you realize the “us and them” mentality is unhealthy, you begin to recognize it everywhere. We all have identities that make us who we are but that should be used to enrich us and not divide us. For example, I’m Catholic. But does my Catholicness mean that I’m separated from people around me who aren’t Catholic? I’m also very liberal, socially speaking. Does that really need to separate me from the people I know who are very conservative? I feel like I’ve been able to embrace relationships with a lot of people who are very different from me, whose identities and loyalties are in different “camps” than my own—but I don’t see that happening with most people. I know a lot of liberals who can’t have a civil conversation with a conservative, and vice versa. I know a lot of Christians who can’t have a close, real relationship with people who aren’t Christians. I find this profoundly sad. That’s the dynamic I wanted to explore in this novel.

What are you working on right now?

Actually, I have several projects going on right now. I’m working on a novel for young adults about bullying and fear and love. I’m also working on a memoir about my time in South Africa talking to people about healing—personal healing, spiritual healing, non-traditional healing. This latter book started because I recently finished a novel for teens about a young urban Zulu girl who receives the call to be a spirit healer, called a sangoma in Zulu, after her mother’s HIV turns into AIDS.

For Catalyst Book Press, I’m editing an anthology of stories about stillbirth and miscarriage. I’m also working to bring out a book by a rape-survivor about her decision to give birth at home, a book by a woman who suffered a terrible stillbirth at 8 months old, an anthology about birth and adoption (many of these essays are written by the women who have placed children in adoption), and a memoir by a woman who contracted HIV while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa during the 1980s.

Upcoming calls for manuscripts out of Catalyst Press?

We actually are working on two anthologies right now—one about adoption and one about miscarriage. I have so many books coming out in the next two years that I can’t think about what’s next. I’m just trying to get through the next couple of years. I will probably have a call for more essays at the end of 2010—maybe on infertility—so please be on the lookout.

I would say that if you have a book manuscript that you’re interested in having me see, you should wait six months or so before you approach me with it. Right now, I’m swamped with manuscripts that I need to read. Having said that, though, I’m like any publisher—I’m always looking for the next great thing. If you’ve looked at what I do, and you’re CERTAIN that it’s right for me, then you should email me anyway.

Cal you talk a little bit about The Fertile Source (

The Fertile Source is a literary zine that I publish online. I publish fertility, infertility, and adoption related writings and artwork. The website doesn’t make any money so I don’t offer compensation to contributors—but I hope it gives them a lot of exposure. I know it has readers and I get a steady stream of contributions.

I’ll admit that I started The Fertile Source as a marketing tool to sell copies of Labor Pains and Birth Stories. I thought it would be just one more place where people could come to find out about the book. But it quickly became much more than that—that is, it quickly became a real literary magazine. From the beginning, people have sent me really quality short stories, poems, essays, even plays, and the occasional piece of artwork.

Also, it hasn’t sold a single copy of Labor Pains and Birth Stories that I know of—not through the bookstore embedded in the website, at least. But I don’t care. I love the fact that I’m offering a creative outlet for a lot of great writers who write about this topic. And I hope that men and women find the pieces published here helpful as they work through their struggles and as they experience their joys around these topics.

The more I’ve immersed myself in the topic of fertility, the more I’ve realized that it’s a fundamental part of our individual and collective identities. We organize our lives around the choices we make in regards to our fertility—when we become sexually active, what kinds or whether to use birth control, when and if to have children and how many children to have and with whom, the person or people we marry or partner with. And sometimes our lives are organized for us when those choices are taken away, whether through infertility or some other sadness.

Upcoming related events:

Birth Stories Workshops, offered through Catalyst Book Press and The Fertile Source. Instructors include Jessica Powers ( , Tania Pryputniewicz, Monica Murphy Lemoine (, and Corbin Lewars (founder/editor of the print zine Reality Mom, author of the forthcoming book Creating a Life: the Memoir of a Writer and Mom in the Making). Available in-person, as webinars, and via phone conferencing or SKYPE. To arrange a workshop, call Jessica at (925)606-5992 or email her at


Jeannette said...

Jessica you are well named...power on through with your energetic vision to share and skirt the snares of political agendas. .

J.L. Powers said...

Enjoyed reading your comments, on your blog as well as here, Jeanette!

When you think about it, I guess you could say I have my own "political" agenda--I want people to embrace the common humanity that binds us together, despite the many things that divide us.

And I think I AM sometimes naive about how simply that can be accomplished--in truth, it's not a simple thing at all. It requires a lot from us, and it requires all sides to relax their strong political positions long enough to see that there are other people on the other side who probably do share a lot of similar values, and that we can meet on that level rather than on the level where we disagree. This is true not only in the political realm of "birth," of course, but in other arenas as well.

This is really a deep and precious thing to me. I have lost relationships with people I cared about because it wasn't possible for the two of us to meet on common ground...And I've also spent years in shaky relationships until we could figure out where that common ground was so we could meet there...In the end, it's been worth it, but it's always a painful journey.