INTERVIEW: Giancarlo DiTrapano, Publisher at Tyrant Books

Atticus Lish and Giancarlo, Tyrant Books
Image provided by the Publisher

There’s a lot of things to be said about independent publishing. Recently, Tyrant has been showing the big publishing houses in New York City that it’s a force to be reckoned with.

The novel, Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish is honestly one of the best novels of the last decade, and was a breakout smash for the publisher. Luckily, Giancarlo DiTrapano isn’t resting on his laurels. Instead, he’s published another round of amazing books since, and has stopped by to talk to us about what to expect while they continue to change the world, one book at a time.

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Image from Amazon
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Are you familiar with the Brand Supreme?

No, I’m not. 
Ok, well neither was I, I wasn’t familiar with it either, at all, until Thought Catalog paid David Shapiro to fly around the world to visit every Supreme store and write an ebook about it. David wanted a print version of it too so he came over to my place one morning when  and pitched the book to me. We took a walk around the block, actually made like ten laps of the block while he pitched and one thing was for sure; he’s obsessed with Supreme. Before I heard the whole pitch and way before he wrote the book, I already kind of knew I would end up publishing it. When someone is that excited about something and they have that look in their eye, you can be pretty sure that something great will come of it. Doesn’t hurt that David is hyper intelligent as well. I told him it sounds interesting but he has to write it first and then I have to read it.

So he went on this trip around the globe to all the Supreme stores. There’s one in LA, there’s like five in Japan, and there’s one in London, and New York, of course (which i think he is banned from). The only thing besides Apple, where people wait in line for days outside for new things to go on sale, is for Supreme. It’s crazy, they sell certain things and then people get online and flip them on Ebay for like, tons. I mean there’s a jacket on their right now, I think it’s on sale for fifteen thousand dollars. Just the other day here in New York, when people were in line, somebody I guess cut the line, and ended up getting his face slashed from ear to mouth when he came out with his shopping bag full of Supreme items. Fucking intense. Of course I felt sorry for the slashee but also thought to myself, “Hell yeah, people are really into this shit.” I mean, it’s a clothing brand, it’s skate ware, kind of street wear, they take — it’s almost like an art project, it’s all kind of explained in this book, the book is a novel. But it’s based on what happened and it’s pretty close. The book comes out July 5th.

And then I have a book White Nights in Split Town City by Annie DeWitt, that comes out in August and it is fantastic. One of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read between a pre-pubescent girl and an elderly neighbor. Then there are some other things down the line. I have two books by Scott McClanahan, I’m relaunching Firework by Eugene Marten which was one of the first books I put out. When I put that out, I didn’t have proper distribution, I didn’t have a publicist, and the book is, I mean it’s on par with Preparation for the Next Life. It’s so good, but as politically correct as Preparation for Next Life is, Firework is politically incorrect, kind of, so I don’t know if it will appeal to the masses as well asPreparation did, but it’s a fantastic book. A true burner. Just unforgettable.

What was literature like in your life, building up to your involvement in it? 
Shit man, I mean I read when was little. I just constantly read, mostly classics I guess, I mean I basically read classics up until I was in college and I discovered Sam Lipsyte. Once I read him, I started reading interviews with him and I learned about Michael Kimball and Noy Holland and all these other people, like Donald Antrim and I just discovered that, wow, there are people today writing awesome shit too. I just, I stupidly thought that all the great stuff was written in the past, and nothing was happening today, until I discovered these people, and, yeah, that is when I found out about Gordon Lish. I just discovered him and all the people that he taught and edited, so I started looking for their books, and that is what led me, I don’t know, led me to reading current stuff today. My father, when I was young, he would give me twenty vocabulary words every week that I had to learn by Sunday. I would have to know them well and be able to use them in sentences, so maybe it’s his fault that I got into word things, or whatever.

But yeah, I took a couple of English classes in college. I was a philosophy major though, and then when I was, I was just telling somebody this yesterday, when I was in Italy for a year, I went to school in Rome. I studied at Loyola New Orleans, and Loyola had a campus in Rome, and one of our teachers there taught a class on Joseph Conrad, and I had never read Conrad before, and I felt like I didn’t know how to read until I read Conrad. It was just, it blew my mind. It, that class, totally changed me.

Yeah, I moved to New York, I started working at Farrar, Straus and Giroux interning there. I wasn’t thrilled with the lit mag scene at the time. It was like, Open City was like it for me, I loved Open City, but they were the only ones doing really great stuff. If I wanted to start up in a lower position in the New York publishing world and work my way up, I knew that it was going to take a very long time for me to publish books I wanted to. So, I started the magazine New York Tyrant with a couple of people. But then they left, you know, for whatever reason, and people have come and gone, different people have come and worked with me for a little bit, and then, they leave once they see that it’s not as glamorous a business as they thought it was, that there’s actually a lot of boring shit that you have to do, then they would eventually take off. So it has been, it has been pretty much just me the whole time.

What was the transition from journalism to books like? 
Right, well, we sent Brian Evenson an email, and asked him for a story. At that time I worshiped Brian Evenson, and I really wanted a story from him for the magazine and so, we sent him an email, actually a guy who was working with me, his last name was Brown, this guy named Jody Brown, he emails Brian and the next day Brian sends us back a story and he sends us this novella, that is called Baby Leg. It was published before in a sequence, or like in a serial of a magazine spread out through eight issues, and Brian thought that nobody probably read the whole thing, like read all those issues, and so he sent us that, and I was, fuck man, I was like, “Well, that was awfully generous of him, he doesn’t even know who we are,” and we were basically nothing at the time. I read an interview later with Evenson, saying how he believes in repetitions, and things that appear in strange ways I guess and he told a story about, that he was teaching at Brown, and one day he got an email from somebody from a lit mag by the last name of Brown, and he said he sees the name Brown, and he works at Brown and he makes a small connection. But the very next email under that was from another person named Brown, which was my editorial assistant, Jody Brown, asking him for a story, and so, he’s like, Brown, Brown, Brown together, and he took notice of the repetition.

He said in the interview, “I know this kind of thought could be a leaping board into insanity, but I act on things like that,” and just because that email came in at the right time, he sent us this story and novella, so that novella is when Tyrant Books started, that was the first book that we did, and we did a very short run of five hundred copies, a nice hard cover, sold them for forty bucks a piece, and it was fantastic, I love that book, it’s great, and then afterwards we started doing longer runs, paperbacks of, what was the next one? I think it was Michael Kimball’s, “Us” and then “Firework” and then from thereon, we did the other ones, but that is how Tyrant Books started, just because that email happened to land in Brian Evenson’s email account at the right time and right after someone else named Brown. It’s pretty strange you know. O how life is strange and changeful, right?

And so, what made you decide to close the submissions for the magazine?
Well the magazine, it’s not entirely closed, I did, at a certain point, once I started putting out novels, there was a much bigger purpose, there’s a lot more pressure with novels, and there was a much bigger, I don’t know, a bigger weight. When I got the manuscript for Firework, I was losing sleep incredibly. I would lie in bed at night thinking, “Fuck man, I can’t fuck this book up,” I mean this guy Eugene Marten spent ten years writing it, and I didn’t know what I was doing, I never published a book like this before, so I asked Lorin Stein (editor of Paris Review), I went out and got a drink with him and talked to him about it, and he was like, “Look man, all you can do is make the book look as best as you can and try your hardest to get the reviews. That is your job. Just relax after that, you can’t do anymore with it.”

So, that put me at ease, and I don’t know, you know, putting the magazine together was great, and I think I did a fine job with getting that out there, it really hit. As soon as Tyrant started coming out, it just made a really big splash, and we had Barnes and Nobles carrying it, all the indie book stores were carrying it. It earned me a lot of cultural capital, people knew about it immediately, we were swamped with submissions, we were putting out great stories, but after a while, it was just like filler, you know? It felt like making mixed tapes when I wanted to make concept albums. But we are working on issue eleven, which actually I’m having Thomas Morton from Vice guest editing this one.

It’s very hard to, it might be impossible actually, to make money from a lit magazine. Unless you have donors and a board like Paris Review. They get thousands of dollars a year to do what they have to do. I don’t have that. But the magazine was great, and it got the name Tyrant out there and it helped Tyrant Books form. A lot of the people publishing with Tyrant Books were in the magazine, it made the connections, it served its purpose, and people love it, people ask me about it all the time, so I want to keep putting it out, and I would like to find more new writers. I like to find new writers, undiscovered, unknown writers. It makes me really happy to publish somebody for the first time, it makes me happy to make them happy, and just, where they have worked so hard for so long and nothing is happening, and then, it finally gives them some hope, and they can feel like “Ok people like my stuff. I’m getting published. I can do this.” And sending an acceptance letter is almost as sweet as sending a rejection letter. I’m kidding of course. This one time though, I sent a rejection letter to a guy twice by accident, and he wrote back, and was like “I already received a rejection letter for this story, but thanks for nailing it to the barn door in case I missed it.”  I felt bad but died laughing at his response. It’s like, fuck man, I’m sorry.

Yeah, so was it tough having that love of finding new writers and then getting to a point where you have to take like agent submissions and stuff?
I didn’t have to deal with agents in the past, just because most of the writers I published were un-agented until I put their books out, then they found an agent, and then when Atticus happened, I saw an entire new world. His agent is the biggest and most powerful one in the city, and there was a lot of money involved and people wanted that book, other presses wanted it. So lawyers got involved (and I have a pitfall for a lawyer). But you know,  I didn’t get into this business to cut heads. I am a patron of the arts for fuck sake. But once you reached that level, the sharks come out.

How do you prefer to read?
I mean, I have nothing against ebooks but I don’t care. If a book is good, I will read it. If it’s written with a crayon on a roll of toilet paper, I will read it as long as it grabs me. If I’m into a fucking book, nothing can stop me from reading it.

How do you deal with your own writing and personal life in the spotlight?

A New York Tyrant Books Promotional Bag
Image provided by the publisher
I used to write for some online places like Vice or whatever but I think once Tyrant had enough popularity or whatever, I pulled up. I stopped doing that. I stopped writing and just because writing is not very pleasurable to me, it’s like pulling teeth a lot of times. Really, I don’t enjoy it. I mean there have been some moments where I have enjoyed it, and I mean I enjoy interviewing people, I like doing that, that’s fun, but it’s just, I don’t like to sit down and force stuff out of me. Especially with Vice, I was having to come up with something every week. I would have ideas sometimes, and then if I didn’t have one, I just fucking wrote some bullshit that I really regret having out there online.

I like my life to be an open book. I have never done anything wrong, and I don’t know, I’m just honest about what I do. With drugs and sex and shit like that, I, whatever man, I used to do a ton of drugs and I’ve never been ashamed of it or tried to hide it or anything. I love getting high. I think everyone should get high more often. I still drink and dabble in some other things on occasion, but I don’t tear it up like I used to. I’m getting a little older now, but I’ve always been honest about my recreational activities. I think that is how one should be. I mean look, everybody fucking does drugs, and it’s like nobody will admit to it. If people would just be honest about what drugs they do then maybe the war on drugs would end. I mean, everyone I know in New York who is at a a bar past midnight is doing coke. It’s just they are all these huge pussies who won’t cop to it. And anyone who looks down on me or my friends for doing what we want to do to our bodies and our minds can fuck all the way off.

So what keeps you in New York City?
Good question. Well, none of this could have happened if I hadn’t been in New York. I’ve thought of moving overseas before. Moving to Italy. Which might be happening soon. I might be moving to Italy. I feel more at home in Italy than I do in America. I’ve lived over there for a few years and I speak the language. I’m healthier. Item men are cuter, and I’m happier. Things are more my speed there. There’s no constant hustle like there is here. I don’t know, I just like it better.

I thought of moving there in the past and people are like, “You could run Tyrant from anywhere.” And I’m like, “Okay, I can to a point, but all the good things that have happened to me involving Tyrant have been with relationships that I’ve made face to face. Atticus and I became friends years ago. I did that ‘Life is with People’ book with him. We are good friends. I fucking love Atticus. We hang out hard and we can riff better than anyone I know. He trusted me to do his books because he knew me. Same with Marie Calloway. we met and became friends and she trusted me. All my writers I’ve been friends with. I am close with every one of them. A trust is established with an editor or publisher or whatever you want to call me. My writers know I’m not going to fuck them over. They know I’m going to do what they want to do. I like my writers to have a lot of input on their books. I want them to be happy with the covers. I want them to be happy with the edits. With the publicity. With everything. I want my artists to be happy and to feel like they are at home when they are with me.

Is publishing your full-time job?
Yes. Publishing. As well, I’ve been teaching recently. I just started teaching a class for Catapult. I’ve been teaching writing to about eight students. I want to keep doing that. It was my first time doing it. We started a couple of months ago and I love it. It came totally natural and we have a great time and my students seem to enjoy it. They’re great writers. I think they’re becoming even better. I don’t know, I like teaching. I do like that.

What have you read recently that you wished you did publish?
I’ll tell you what just blew my skull out the back was, Binary Star by Sarah Gerard. That actually came to me first. She emailed that to me when she was trying to get it published and I had fucking a million things I was reading. I didn’t get to it in time. Next thing I know Two Dollar published it. I actually have just reached out to her. When I was in Italy a few months ago I saw she was there too. We had never talked before but I texted her on Twitter. I was like, “Hey I’m in Italy. Do you want to meet up?” She was in Trieste, I was down South. So we said no we’d do it when we were back in the States. It’s weird but I saw a particular picture of her online and I just knew I would love her. I went to a party the other night and she was there. I got to meet her. That’s one book I definitely regret not publishing. I wish I had gotten to it. I don’t know, I didn’t get to it, unfortunately. But Two Dollar did and I’m glad it got published.

How has Tyrant evolved in the past few years?
What happened, I don’t know if you’ve read about it, but after Calloway came out I was running out of money. I was kind of looking for a job. I didn’t know what was going to happen with my press. And Playboy hired me to write a profile on Matthew Johnson from Fat Possum Records. This record label down South. They started out recording a bunch of the last of the Delta Blues guys and they started doing indie rock stuff. Matthew and I met and hit it off. Became fast friends. Love that guy. The Playboy profile didn’t happen, but he liked my press. He liked the books that I put out and he knew what position I was in and was, “Look man, I don’t want to see your press die.

I want to help you out.” So he invested money in my press for a part of my company. The deal was, I do what I know how to do, which is find the books, edit, and figure out a cover. Fat Possum’s job would be to take care of the money and the business side of things. Without them Tyrant probably wouldn’t be around anymore. The first book we did together was the Atticus Lish, so they were obviously happy with that. But I was like, “I hope I didn’t set the bar too high, guys, because I can’t win a PEN/Faulkner every year. It’ll probably never happen again.” So that’s a little tough. But we’re still cranking out some books. But that was, you know, for a first book to do with them, it couldn’t have gotten any better.

Do you feel like there was a snub with the Pulitzer?

Image from Publisher's Website
Image from Publisher’s Website

Well, I think he definitely should have won it. There’s a website that’s like Pulitzer predictions, where people get on and once he won the PEN/Faulkner, people were talking like he was going to win it. It’s not like I was sitting there waiting for him to win a Pulitzer because it’s such a shot in the dark. I would have loved him to. I thought the book was more just a statement of the times of today. It was politically firing on all cylinders.

So with the PEN/Faulkner there’s five finalists. With the PEN/Hemingway there’s one winner, one finalist. Atticus was the finalist, another guy was the winner. So, Atticus was in California on tour. He couldn’t make it to the PEN/Hemingway. So they sent me to Boston to accept his thing and give a little speech or something. So I show up and it’s in the Kennedy Library on the water which is beautiful. I’d never been to Boston before.  I always didn’t want to go because I felt like someone like Marky Mark was going to beat me up or something. I hate Marky Mark and those kind of people.

So I show up to the thing and I’m there and there’s a huge room full of two hundred people. They’re up on stage giving speeches, whatever. I come in and I see these two women who are the ones running it and I’m like, “Hey, I’m here.  Atticus wrote me a little thing to read.” And they’re like, in the snobbiest, most condescending manner possible, they were like “Well, we really wish Atticus could have come.  You won’t be accepting anything or reading anything. There was really no reason for you to come here.” One thing I cannot deal with is uppity fucking snobby literary people. And you run into a lot of that in the lit scene. That’s not how I was raised. I would never treat anybody like that. So I went and sat down and was just sitting in my seat stewing about how they talked to me when someone on stage started saying Atticus’ name but they kept saying “Lynch” instead of “Lish” so… so I just couldn’t take anymore so I finally stood up and yelled, “It’s Lish! His last name is Lish!”  and then I walked out across the entire crowd and loudly exited out the door. The doors made this really loud noise (that I was very happy hearing) while the ceremony was going on. It’s just like, fuck this kind of people, you know? ! I was pissed off. I’m nice so I want people to be nice in return.

Did the success of ‘Preparation for the Next Life’ kind of benefit the press in a lot of ways?
Of course. Tons more people know about Tyrant now. They know about Tyrant Books.  I get better submissions from agents. They give me really good stuff. I think a lot of times they pass around less quality things to smaller presses because they want to sell the better books to big ones. But I do attract a certain kind of writer I think. I get a lot of submissions, because maybe of my own reputation, about drinking, gay sex, drugs, shit like that, death. Whatever things that they know I publish about, I guess from my past books. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of more serious submissions. People take it a little seriously and a lot of people love the fact that I’m a teenie press. Like this is my office, this small box of a room with a bed. This is it. Except for, we have a warehouse down in Mississippi where we keep all the books and all that shit. And I have freelance people doing things for me. But this is like the headquarters. People are always like, “Oh, where’s the office?” I meet them at a bar down the street and be like, “Oh, all the secretaries are working right now. It’s kind of busy. I don’t want to take you in there.” I like to keep the illusion that this is like a real, functioning office space.

Tell me about Bad Sex.
I love it. Just how unapologetic it is, like the end. And the last line. What a great fucking last line. If that last line wasn’t the last line of the book, I probably wouldn’t have published it. Just like, will we ever have it that good again? Just, ahhhhh, it’s fucking beautiful. Clancy Martin is the number one expert in the philosophy of deception, which is like his specialty, right? It’s pretty funny. He’s the only author I published who we had not met in person, before I did the book. But a week after it came out, he came to New York, we had a reading, we hung out all night. He’s a very sweet man, very sweet guy. He doesn’t drink anymore. But he hung out. We hung out pretty late, and just, yeah. He drinks Diet Cokes—that character in Bad Sex, Bret, is him, basically. He’ll sit there and drink like six Diet Cokes. Like when we were hanging out the first time, I was like, “Oh, so you really are like that.” He was ordering one after the other. Like so many Diet Cokes.

Do you move in bigger circles now after the success of Preparation For The Next Life?
No, man. I don’t know. I’m a little bit of an outsider, I guess. I don’t go to the big social events and things like that. I kind of stay away from those. I don’t know. I have my friends. I hang out with some writers that I like. I went to a PEN party the other night, like whatever, like a PEN members party, and I wanted out of there. I was just like, I don’t know. I don’t like most of those people. The self-importance makes me heave. That’s why I have publicists. That’s my publicist’s job, to go out and do the socializing, and meet the people and things. I don’t do that, no. No, no way. Never will.

And so I remember seeing on Facebook Rose O’Keefe, who runs Eraserhead Press. Somebody said, “Do you write as well as publishing?” And she kind of took that almost an offensive, as though there’s less merit in it. 
No, people ask me, just because I used to write. I used to write online and stuff like that. People ask me if I’m going to write a book or something like that, and I don’t want to. If someday I do, I will, but you have to have a genuine desire, and I don’t have that. I don’t want to publish a book. I like publishing other people’s books. I like finding them. I don’t know if I would want to be as obsessed as writers are. Fucking Atticus or like, Eugene Marten was, for ten years, every morning, he’d wake up at and write for four hours, and then go to work. And it’s like—it occupies your mind constantly. You’re obsessed with it. Your outside world falls apart. You lose your friends. You might as well have a heroin addiction, if you’re being a serious writer. It’s like being a fucking gamer. They disappear. Especially at these parties and things, the real writers are at home, writing. In their free time, that’s what they’re working on.

That’s their life. And I tend to—I don’t have the discipline, first of all, and I like to just enjoy life a little more. I get the saying, the one that’s like editors are writers who can’t write or whatever, but I don’t know. It’s a different kind of art. Editing is dealing with people, dealing with—with every author I’ve worked with, it’s almost like I’ve been in a relationship with them. It’s about trust, about trusting each other, with changes in the text, with what we want to do with it. I think it takes a different talent than writing does. But, yeah, I don’t know. Someday if I get a bug and want to write something, I’ll give it a shot. But it’s not—I’m not obsessed with it. Atticus, with that name, he’s been carrying that name on his back for all these years. What else is that guy going to be? Is he going to work for UPS? “My name’s Atticus Lish. Here’s your delivery from Amazon.” Doesn’t seem right, does it? It’s like you’re destined to be a fucking writer. with a name like that. I believe in nomen est omen (your name is your destiny).

So why do you keep Tyrant focused in the USA market? 

Marrie Calloway and Giancarlo DiTrapano, Tyrant Books
Image from the Publisher

That’s all I can do. I sell the rights to other countries. We’ve sold—I think we’ve sold Preparation to like 13 different countries. Marie Calloway sold to a few countries. A couple other things have done one or two, but, yeah, I don’t know what else I could do in other countries with Tyrant. I don’t know.

Yeah, I suppose if you’re doing print runs rather than print-on-demand. So that makes it harder. 
Yeah, I’ve never done print-on-demand. I know presses that do, but I feel like…doing print-on-demand is a little bit like saying, “I like your book, I believe in your book, but maybe I don’t really believe in it, so we’re just going to do 100 and see how it goes.” I like to print a couple thousand at least, and be like, “I believe in this book,” because I do believe in my books. In an odd way, I think that’s important, how much you believe in the book, and maybe it has something to do with its success, or probably not, but…I don’t know. I want to believe that it’s going to do well, and I want to pretend that it will, and when it does, if it does, great. If not, then I still believe in it, and sometimes the world doesn’t act how it’s supposed to. It never does. And sometimes it’s very chaotic. Sometimes it’s like pitching things into a void. You don’t know—I knew that Atticus wrote a great book. I knew it was fantastic, and the best book in ten years, but I wasn’t sure that the right people were going to get a hold of it. You never know. You really don’t. Never ever. And luckily the world got. They did. They got ahold of it and it got a hold of them. That first New York Times review just set off an avalanche,. But nobody disagreed with it. The New York Review of Books by Cathleen Schine was so nice, gave me goosebumps. She compares him with Walt Whitman, and rightly so.

So what brought out the re-release of Life Is with People
The first run was limited to 500 of these. They were very expensive. Atticus draws on lined paper. So I wanted to make this really nice, so we lifted the images, and then we had to print the blue lines, and then put the images on top, and it cost a shitload of money. This book cost like 20 bucks to make. And so—we made very few. And I wanted to make a cheaper version. So we—I made it on a smaller budget—the paper’s cheaper, the cover’s cheaper, there’s 90 illustrations in it, but it’s just a more affordable version of it. And the other ones are gone, or almost gone, anyways. And now with—now that he’s known, I think this is going to get some press. People who think of him as the author of Preparation, are all of a sudden going to be like, “Fuck, man, this dude has got a whole other side, like twisted as shit. And funny as hell.”

An image from Life is with Other People by Atticus Lish, published by Tyrant Books
Image from The Nervous Breakdown

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