They saw Dallas as a literary hub, then got to work making it one
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, July 17, 2024

They saw Dallas as a literary hub, then got to work making it one
Inside Deep Vellum, the publishing house and bookstore that Will Evans started in 2013, in Dallas, April 21, 2024. Today Dallas is home to one of the most dynamic, international literary scenes in the country, inspired in many ways by the infectious, DIY energy of Deep Vellum, now one of the country’s largest publishers of translated literature, and bookstore The Wild Detectives, that opened in 2014. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

by Anderson Tepper

DALLAS, TX.- When Will Evans arrived in Dallas just more than a decade ago, he had a degree in Russian literature, a passion for “reading the world,” and a bold vision: to create a publishing house dedicated to translating the best books in any language into English and bringing their authors into conversation with American — and especially Texan — writers and readers.

He started going to the readings and other literary events around town and posted about them under the hashtag #literarydallas. “I was made fun of relentlessly,” he said.

But in 2013, around the same time he started his publishing house, Deep Vellum, two other people — Javier García del Moral and Paco Vique, civil engineers from Spain — were hatching their own literary plans. They wanted to start a bookstore that would be something more: a community hangout and incubator of new ideas, where the conversation and mezcal would flow deep into the night. It opened in 2014 and they named it Wild Detectives, in loose homage to Roberto Bolaño’s wild-at-heart masterwork “Savage Detectives.”

Soon, they picked up the #literarydallas hashtag, too. So did The Dallas Morning News. Suddenly the idea was no longer a laughing matter, but something real, willed into existence, Evans said.

“You have to say it, ‘We are a literary city.’ And a literary city is not just a publishing house or bookstores or writers or readers. It’s the entire thing,” Evans said from Deep Vellum’s headquarters in the storied and diverse Deep Ellum neighborhood.

Today Dallas is home to one of the most dynamic, international literary scenes in the country, inspired in many ways by the infectious, do-it-yourself energy of Deep Vellum, now one of the country’s largest publishers of translated literature, and Wild Detectives. Their fates have been twined from the start, and this past weekend they threw a joint 10th-ish anniversary celebration at the bookstore that lasted three days and felt more house party than book party.

Orchestrated by García del Moral, it was vintage Wild Detectives. DJs pumped up the swaying crowds that grew wilder as the evenings wore on. Tattoo artists set up a corner table; a barbecue pit set up outside. Dallas’ first poet laureate, Joaquin Zihuatanejo, held the packed house spellbound as torrential rain cascaded down Saturday with a reading from his latest book, “Occupy Whiteness,” published by Deep Vellum.

Zihuatanejo was introduced by Evans — publisher, impresario, hype man — and followed by a five-piece Afrobeat band led by Baba Kuboye, Fela Kuti’s nephew. The skies cleared, and there was more Sunday, with Oksana Lutsyshyna, the Austin, Texas-based Ukrainian author of “Ivan and Phoebe.”

The festivities brought home just how far Deep Vellum and Wild Detectives have come, and how vital their roots are. Together, and with the help of other partners, they have built “a community from scratch” in a town not known for its literary culture, said Samantha Schnee, a translator and Houston native who is also a co-founder of the literary magazine Words Without Borders.

Despite the challenges, Evans saw Dallas as “ripe for opportunity.” Texas-style conservatism? No problem — literature and poetry will help make folks “a hell of a lot cooler.” The provincialism of American letters? Create a nonprofit to seek out “new voices, new blood, new readers,” free from the constraints of corporate publishing.

Evans wore his brand of Texan independence as a badge of honor and drew from the example of groundbreaking houses such as New Directions and City Lights and especially nonprofit publishers such as Graywolf Press, Archipelago Books and Open Letter Books (whose founder, Chad Post, served as his mentor). A closer-to-home inspiration was Austin-based Malvern Books, headed by Joe Bratcher, which published local and foreign writers and ran an indie bookstore. “Joe’s model — that’s the thing!” said Evans. (Malvern closed in 2022, after Bratcher’s death.)

For García del Moral, finding the right formula for the store was somewhat trickier. He knew he wanted to combine a carefully curated bookstore with eclectic programming — literary readings but also cumbia nights — and a bar that would lure people in. He also wanted the community to help generate programs and make it their own. Some of their ideas have stuck, including “Talking Dirty,” a storytelling night; “Inner Moonlight,” a poetry series; and “Bring Your Own Vinyl,” a record-sharing evening.

The store’s inaugural event was an off-site launch for Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu’s novel “Blinding,” with its Dallas-based translator, Sean Cotter. Only a handful of people showed up. Fast forward to 2023: Cartarescu himself came for “Solenoid,” published by Deep Vellum and shortlisted for the 2024 Dublin Literary Award. Several hundred rapt listeners filled the backyard picnic benches.

Evans had Deep Vellum’s mix in mind from the get-go: innovative international voices alongside often-overlooked local writers, with a heavy Mexican and Latin American presence. The publisher’s first title was “Texas: The Great Theft,” a reimagining of American West mythology by Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa, translated by Schnee.

Evans was appalled that Boullosa had been ignored by American publishers for so long, and felt she was the perfect fit for Deep Vellum. The feeling was mutual. She met Evans at the 2013 BookExpo in New York and was quickly won over. “Will Evans had nothing to offer me except a dream, and I happily jumped,” Boullosa recalled over email.

As Deep Vellum has grown, it has borrowed from big publishing’s playbook, acquiring other like-minded houses and creating a mini-indie publishing empire. In 2019, it took on Phoneme Media, a Los Angeles-based press, and A Strange Object, an Austin imprint. In 2020, it added La Reunion, which specializes in Dallas books, and Dalkey Archive Press, a revered home of avant-garde writers (and publisher of several of 2023 Nobel laureate Jon Fosse’s books).

And there’s more: In October, García del Moral will spearhead the Hay Festival Forum Dallas, with events at Wild Detectives, Whose Books and the Texas Theater. Evans, who will be knighted in May by the French Ministry of Culture for his contribution to arts and letters, has just signed a long-term lease on Deep Vellum’s building and already has big ideas for the expanded space, which also includes a bookstore.

Even as new condos transform their neighborhoods, Evans and García del Moral remain true to their original grassroots vision of Dallas as a cultural crossroads.

“Seeing the local as part of the international is something that is unique to what we’re doing and what Wild Detectives is doing,” Evans said. “I don’t know how and why they had the same idea at the same time — it’s true kismet — but we agree: The more local we get, the more it allows us to branch out and bring the world to us.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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