Not long ago I heard about a book that had just been acquired by an independent publisher I admire. It's easy to glance at daily acquisition notices and quickly move on, since the journey to publication date is a long one. But this time I paid attention, partly because the author is an indie bookseller.
Chris La Tray
That nonfiction title Milkweed Editions publisher and CEO Daniel Slager acquired is Becoming Little Shell (forthcoming in 2021) by Chris La Tray, who works at Fact & Fiction Bookstore in Missoula, Mont. It is the story of his mixed-race, Métis heritage, a father who denied that heritage, and the community he was denied as a result. It is also a history of the state's Métis people, known as Montana's "Landless Indians," and their largely unrecognized cultural presence on the High Plains of the U.S. In particular, the book discusses Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians and their struggle for federal recognition.
Learning about this, I took the logical next steps. I ordered La Tray's first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large (Riverfeet Press), and then I asked Slager and La Tray about Becoming Little Shell's journey to acquisition.
"I first met Chris as a bookseller," Slager recalled. "I've been working with a few writers based in Missoula in recent years, beginning with Chris Dombrowski. I've also been at Beargrass, a writers residency and workshop that meets every year in August, on a ranch outside Missoula."
Fact & Fiction often sold books at events, and Slager said he began talking with La Tray "when Becoming Little Shell was more a notion than a proposal. Still, I was drawn to the project, and, frankly, to Chris. He strikes me as an authentic, original character, hard-working to boot, and when he told me his family story, I encouraged him to think about writing a book based on it. This last summer, when I arrived at Beargrass, he handed me a proposal for Becoming Little Shell, along with a sample chapter or so. I loved it, thought it the kind of book we could publish particularly well, and made him an offer the next day."
La Tray has worked at Fact & Fiction for three years. "It's technically only a part-time gig for me, but, as bookstore gigs go, it tends to spill over into more than that," he said. "Mara Panich runs the show; she and I were friends before I was hired and that is how I came on board." After F&F's founder Barbara Theroux retired two years ago, his role expanded.
When I asked how he weaves being a bookseller into his writing life, La Tray replied: "Time, it all comes down to time. I have to make sure and make time to write, because it never just happens on its own the way sitting and looking at Instagram or stroking my beard or something does. I've come to accept that the two gigs are so intertwined now as to be virtually inseparable."
He offered tips for making the two pursuits work together: "First off, don't be a jerk. This is a small world, whether we're talking about the world of writers, booksellers, people in publishing, all of it. Life is just better for everyone if you're cool to people, so that's what I try to be. People remember you if you are a jerk, and word gets around. Secondly, be a good literary citizen. Talk about work from other people that excites you. Be enthusiastic. Champion your friends. That's one of the best parts about being a bookseller, is putting something I love in the hands of someone else and being jealous that they still get to experience it for the first time. What a gift that is! Writers should be doing this whether they are booksellers or not. I'm just lucky I get to be paid to do it."
La Tray also observed that he can "draw a direct line from everything good that has come my way as a writer to the moment I started working at the bookstore. Meeting in person the editor of a magazine I'd been relentlessly pitching without success has led to a steady gig with them. I met the publisher of my first book through helping out at a writers retreat on behalf of the bookstore. That led in subsequent years to meeting the Milkweed folks (and many others) and ultimately securing a publishing deal with them. I've gotten to spend time in the company of writers I admire and learn from them. All of it. Yeah, I had to deliver the goods when doors opened, but I wouldn't even have gotten to those doors otherwise, or it would have taken far longer. I can't express enough how deeply grateful I am to Mara, and to Barbara, for their support. Not to mention my co-workers--Bryn, Patrick, Irene, Joe, Hannah--for their support and friendship. It's really been something."
Regarding Becoming Little Shell's publishing journey, Milkweed's Slager said, "I have plenty of fine relationships with agents, and I have no aversion to acquiring books from them. But I also find books outside this traditional channel more often than most anyone else I know in a position like mine, and I really enjoy doing so. Working with Chris to develop this proposal into a book will be a collaborative relationship, the kind I find very rewarding and enriching. Especially when it happens with great book people, and Chris certainly is one of those."