People become book publishers for all sorts of reasons – love of literature or ideas, a need to be famous or influential, vanity, or happenstance.
For Geraldine Kennedy, a longtime Santa Monica resident and founder of Clover Park Press, it was her stint in the Peace Corps.
“The press was born,” she said last week, ”out of ideas germinating since my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia. That experience marked me profoundly. Upon returning to the U.S., I saw many of my countrymen as naïve and blissfully isolated from the reality that is life for most of the people in the world. I wanted to bring that world home and share the stories with Americans. I wanted to show societies that operate outside the materialism and consumerism that defined the U.S. I wanted to be able to immerse Americans in another, quieter pace and get them in the heads of foreigners- let them experience others and how others see us.”
Though former volunteers, including Kennedy herself, were writing, she didn’t think they were getting the attention they deserved, grew tired of publishers claiming there wasn’t a market for Peace Corps stories, and founded Clover Park Press, named for the Santa Monica park she had persuaded the City to create on land vacated by the McDonnell Douglas Company on Ocean Park Boulevard.
“I can’t say what drove me to publish,” Kennedy says now. “…it was a high risk for our circumstances and against my normally prudent nature. Throughout this time, I had a full-time job, was raising three children and caring for my dying mother and sick husband, my partner in the press. But plow on I did, energized by every step of the process.”
A well-meaning friend, savvy in the ways of New York publishing, advised Kennedy not to mention the Peace Corps in book titled, as it would be “the kiss of death.” Kennedy ignored the advice.
The first book to be issued by the fledgling press was an anthology, which Kennedy reasoned would not only serve as “a showcase for a number of writers,” but attract other writers.
Published in 1991, From the Center of the Earth: Stories out of the Peace Corps put Clover Park Press on the map and in the black. Kennedy sold enough books prior to publication to pay all her bills by the time the book came off the press. Within two months, it made the Washington Post bestseller list, and, 18 months later, Kennedy ordered a second printing. Today, 14 years later, the book is still used in many college and high school courses.
Kennedy says now, “This early success went straight to my head. It confirmed that I was meant to be a publisher.”
Clover Park Press’s second book was written by one of the contributors to Center of the Earth, but, she said, “Unfortunately, as we were putting the deal together, he died intestate and abroad. His assets were hopelessly tied up in family wrangling. I didn’t want to loose momentum and the only other work I could count on relatively quickly was a book I had been working on for many years.”
Harmattan: A Journey Across the Sahara, which Kennedy describes as “the grand adventure of young women loose in the world at a time when Africa was tasting independence and Americans were respected,” won the Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award in 1995.
Both of the books were chosen as Best Book for Young Adults in their categories by the New York Public Library.
But Clover Park Press’s fast start came to a sudden stop. Kennedy’s mother died before the publication of Harmattan, and she “put the press on maintenance mode while I reordered my life.”
Clover Park Press’s third book has just been published. It’s Last Moon Dancing: A Memoir of Love and Real Life in Africa, by Monique Maria Schmidt and it has been chosen as the December selection of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, which have more than 1,000 members in 65 clubs in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Last week, Schmidt appeared at Dutton Books in Brentwood to read and sign books.
Moving right along, Kennedy recently acquired a book by a young American Muslim, whom she describes as “disturbed by the overwhelming association of Islam with terrorism. She shows a different side of the faith in the stories of her experience and that of nine other young American Muslims.”
The book will be out early next year.
Looking back and ahead, Kennedy says, “It’s very difficult for a small press to compete for talented writers and for attention in a market producing 190,000 new titles a year. Starting with Peace Corps stories gave Clover Park Press an early identity and a primary market I knew how to reach.“I want to continue to bring other cultures to Americans and also to expand my list with non-fiction books about California and books for non-scientists that make science accessible through story. And I am always open to that new idea out of the brain of an inspired writer.”