An Interview with Kevin Watson

The Carolina Mountains Literary Festival has been fortunate over its thirteen years of bringing literary arts to Western North Carolina, to have many illustrious participants and champions. Among the Festival’s most ardent supporters is Kevin Morgan Watson, founder of Press 53, an independent publishing house located in Winston Salem. Press 53 authors have had a presence at the Festival every year since 2006. They have included the likes of John Ehle, who captured the spirit of the people and the wild lands they settled in these mountains, and is considered to be one of North Carolina’s most important writers.

While Press 53 carries many outstanding North Carolina authors, the pool of talent is not limited to that state. A map of the United States hangs in Kevin’s office dotted with red or blue (for female or male) from Florida to California representing Press 53 author locations.

This year, Kevin will be hosting the Friday night banquet at the Festival. We thought our attendees would like to know a little more about him and Press 53, so here goes.

MT: Kevin, first of all, thank you for all the great work you’ve done and for your unending support for our Festival. You and your authors have really become part of our brand. How did you first become involved with the Litfest?

KMW: Thank you for reaching out, Maureen. I attended the first Carolina Mountains Literary Festival with John Ehle in 2006. We had just reissued his classic novel, The Land Breakers, which was the first book of many that have become our Carolina Classics Editions imprint. Great literature has no expiration date, and, as part of our mission, we intend to save as much of it as we can. Anyway, John was the first honoree of the festival, so I went along with him. We stayed at his cabin in Penland, which was a real treat. After experiencing the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, I was hooked. I had never experienced a literary festival like it, where the entire town opens its doors and participates and welcomes everyone. I think I’ve only missed one or two since.

MT: How did you become involved with John Ehle?

KMW: I met John in February of 2006 after the local library asked if Press 53 would be interested in reprinting his novel, The Land Breakers. The library has an annual community read event and they wanted to honor John, who had recently celebrated his eightieth birthday the same year the North Carolina School of the Arts, which John helped found here in Winston-Salem, turned forty. I had never heard of John, and after reading The Land Breakers, I was shocked. Discovering him led me to create our Carolina Classics Editions imprint to find and save out-of-print books by North Carolina authors so they are never lost to readers.

MT: Tell us more about your Carolina Classics Editions. What other authors are included and how do you find them?

KMW: After republishing The Land Breakers, we realized a need to help preserve North Carolina’s rich literary history. Since that time, we have reissued several more novels and nonfiction books by John Ehle, plus the novel The Scarlet Thread by Doris Betts, the poetry collections Sigodlin and At the Edge of the Orchard Country by Robert Morgan, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest by Kathryn Stripling Byer, This Metal and Anson County by Joseph Bathanti, and the Vietnam War memoir Two of the Missing by Perry Deane Young. We found all of these books through recommendations or from the author contacting us directly. There is so much more we want to do in this area.

MT: Press 53 has hosted a Gathering of Poets event in Winston Salem for a number of years. I understand that the 2019 event will be expanded to include short fiction. I think our readers will be interested in knowing what the Gathering of Poets is all about.

KMW: Press 53 hosted the first Gathering of Poets in 2011. It was a day-long workshop series for poets at all levels. We were not able to trademark the name “Gathering of Poets” since it was already in use in several places around the world, and after several successful Gatherings, we decided to take a new direction under a new name: the High Road Festival of Poetry and Short Fiction, the only festival in the U.S. exclusively for poetry and short fiction. It will take place on Saturday, March 23, in Winston-Salem and will be bigger and better than ever. We’ll be offering several workshops, master classes, and one-on-one critique sessions for a fee, and offering free readings by our faculty throughout the day. We’ll also have several poetry and short fiction publishers present to meet with poets and short fiction writers. We’re very close to finalizing our faculty and will be making an announcement soon. Anyone interested in more information can contact me or sign up for Press 53 emails on our website.

MT: Sounds like an amazing event! I love that Press 53 has blazed so many trails. It is interesting that your focus is on publishing contemporary poetry and short fiction collections. Why are novels and memoirs not included?

KMW: That’s a great question. We started out publishing only poetry and short fiction collections (not counting our Carolina Classics Editions), which earned us the title of “that feisty little publishing house in North Carolina,” but we eventually began also publishing novels and memoirs. After about three years, I decided to get back to our roots and leave the novels and memoirs to the larger publishers. What I learned was that small press novels have a hard time getting attention with so many novels being published by larger presses with marketing teams and dedicated shelf space at bookstores. Plus, I learned that readers of novels and memoirs follow the author, not the publishing house, unlike poetry and short fiction, where readers will follow the author but also the publisher to see who else they are publishing. In other words, readers of poetry and short fiction will often look for other titles by the publisher if they like a particular book by that publisher, which is essential to the survival of a small press. We’ve had several of our short fiction authors go on to sign their novels with larger publishers in New York, which I love to see. We hold our own very well in the world of poetry and short fiction, so that is where we are putting our focus and energy.

MT: What is next for Kevin Morgan Watson and Press 53?

KMW: I just brought on a new editor, Chris Forrest, a recent graduate of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. He studied with North Carolina poet laureate emeritus Cathy Smith Bowers, so he comes well equipped for the job. I’m looking forward to watching the press grow even stronger with his help.
I am also hoping to expand our efforts with our Carolina Classics Editions. There are so many wonderful books that are out of print and I hope to save as many as possible. I am looking into establishing a nonprofit arm of Press 53 for this purpose. I have a lot of ideas and I love doing this work.