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Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient: Perfect Day Publishing

We’re excited to introduce each of our 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog this winter! For these fellowships, out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 439 applications we received. These judges named nine writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. The 2018 OLF applications will be posted online soon, and the deadline will be toward the end of June. You can read more about the application process by clicking here

2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient

Perfect Day Publishing




Michael Heald is the author of Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension (Perfect Day, 2012). A writer at large for Runner’s World magazine, his feature on the running club at the Oregon State Penitentiary was selected as Notable Sports Writing of 2015. He operates Perfect Day Publishing out of Portland’s Union Station. The past two Perfect Day releases have been finalists for the Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction.

Q&A with Literary Arts

1. What are your sources of inspiration?

I remember reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem in my early twenties and feeling let down when I tried, and failed, to find another book like it—which somehow contained all the vulnerability of a memoir while capturing the zeitgeist with a kind of journalistic ease. A few years later I got the same feeling after discovering Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction. How could something so smart be so entertaining? And then I got the same feeling in the summer of 2010 when my friend Lisa Wells shared a couple unpublished essays with me. Over the course of the next year, Lisa and I turned those essays into Yeah. No. Totally. and my mission with Perfect Day Publishing crystallized. I would publish the books that I wish existed, by writers overlooked by major publishers, writers with voices as distinctive, addictive, and fearless as Didion and Dyer.

I’m also intensely motivated by what I consider the most fun part of publishing books: hiring my friend Aaron Robert Miller to design the covers. Sitting down with Aaron while he presents us with eight or nine incredible ideas feels like the reward for all hard work we’ve put into the manuscript. Aaron brings a kind of punk, handmade, pop art aesthetic to Perfect Day that feels at once totally familiar and uniquely contemporary, and I often joke that I’m going to keep putting out books just to see what he’ll do next.

2. How would you describe your creative process?

Perfect Day publishes only one book a year, and usually a great deal of each book gets written in the twelve months leading up to its publication. I pitch book proposals to writers, as opposed to writers pitching me their polished manuscripts. My dream situation is to find a writer with about 20,000 to 30,0000 words of really inspired material, and then become their cheerleader/annoying best friend/therapist as they finish the manuscript. It’s such an honor to have a hand in figuring out the structure to these memoirs, their narrative arcs and connective tissue … I’ve always felt more like a record producer than a book editor. My job is to make sure that there’s a consistency of quality that feels like Perfect Day, while recognizing that each author I work with has a totally distinct vision. It all begins with building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect with my authors, and then pursuing each book with as much urgency and passion as possible, relying on our instincts when making huge decisions about things like the title, the cover, the ending. There’s a kind of spontaneity to the process—a real sense of discovery—that I think is palpable when you read our books.\

3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?

Until recently, I operated Perfect Day out of my tiny studio apartment. I lived an insane life surrounded by towers of boxes—our inventory was basically my furniture. Then, two years ago, my friend Casey Jarman (author of Death: an Oral History, and co-founder of Party Damage Records) encouraged me to go in with him on an office in Union Station, which has made an enormous impact on how I live. Even though I still bartend to make a living, Perfect Day is my life’s work, and now I go to work, like everyone else.

This fellowship is a lot like my office: it helps quiet down the self-doubt and insecurity that comes from operating a “business” that is, essentially, a break-even proposition. I’ve never paid myself for running Perfect Day, and don’t plan on doing so any time soon, but to be able to put $3500 directly into our next title relieves all sorts of financial strain. It’s so liberating to look at my bank account and know that we can already afford to print our next book.

Most importantly, this fellowship gives me the message that I need to keep swinging for the fences in the next few years—to keep trying to push the boundaries of what a memoir can be, and how it can impact our culture. This kind of recognition from Literary Arts carries with it a sobering sense of accountability. Simply put, I want Perfect Day to live up to its potential.

4. What are you currently working on?

It’s always a little nerve-wracking to pitch an idea to a total stranger, but this time around I was especially nervous because our next author lives in Illinois (making them our first non-Portlander), who presumably had no knowledge of our little west coast operation. On top of that, I knew that our next author had, at least at some point, been represented by an agent (who of course wouldn’t be thrilled about the financial realities of publishing with a press as tiny as Perfect Day). All this to say that a few weeks ago, when Sung Yim agreed to my proposal that we make a book together, I was pretty much beside myself with excitement.

Sung has only published a couple of essays so far, but those pieces are soaring, explosive things which have left their mark on everyone who has read them. Sung is a genderqueer South Korean immigrant who will graduate this spring from Columbia College in Chicago. Their prose is bold and unpredictable, expressing an intelligence that feels both utterly universal and painfully specific. Their debut memoir (title TBD) is going to dominate my life for the next six months, and will hit bookstores this fall.

5. What advice do you have for future applicants?

The OLF application is an opportunity for you to try to articulate some of the bigger-picture stuff of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Before this year, I applied unsuccessfully several times, both as a writer and as a publisher, but this past year—perhaps because I was in the throes of finishing up Martha Grover’s The End of My Career, which is, at heart, a celebration of feminism—the application felt different. Even then, I was asking myself the question, ‘What kind of books would I publish if I were living in Berlin in 1932?’” The application gave me the chance to wrestle with this question, and I emerged with a sense of clarity and purpose that has served me well over the past seven months. Whether or not you get a fellowship, there’s a real value in having to explain to a stranger why you, personally, deserve this kind of support. I’m truly humbled to be selected.

OLF Judge’s Comments

“Both of these houses presented wonderful manuscripts, the narratives brilliantly composed, the physical books beautifully delivered. I enjoyed in Get It While You Can and Excavation a beautiful execution of language, of pace and prose and purpose.”

—Steve Gillis, publishing judge

Excerpt from current work:

From Sung Yim’s essay “Mess of Color,” first published in the James Franco Review, selected by Guest Editor Elissa Washuta:

I’m about to turn twenty, introducing myself with an Anglican name like it’ll save me from the bold mispronunciation and scrutiny of well-meaning white folks. I cling to narrators and characters named Alice, Jerry, Carol, and Peter in my writing like it’ll cast a wider net. I glow when a teacher tells me I do a great job writing men. It never occurs to me there might be something wrong with feeling like I have to write men. Or that the men I’m writing are undeniably, invisibly, insidiously white.

I have no clue how to write about the people I know, love, and am. I have no clue how to make the words look right—even the word Korean, the word monolid, the word epicanthic, the fermentation, chili flakes, rock salt, rice, even my birth name: they look ugly on paper. They won’t fit. The syllables like a rough chop, the terse layout of our names and places, they look ugly mashed flat through a Latin alphabet. They won’t let my readers vanish into the feelings. The same restless feelings we all know to varying degrees of acting upon, the isolation, the destitution of particularly interesting—and therefore troubled—comings-of-age. I can’t write a serious story about Soo-Bin and Ki-Hong cracking open their first beer or drifting apart over a pregnancy scare. I can’t write a story about them without mentioning where they come from, what their names mean, and without being asked for more of that.

I can’t call myself 성애 without being asked.

Someone’s always going to be asking. It will be more bearable than the assumptions. A boy in my class will roll Baoding in his hands and confidently call them Ben Wa. A straw-haired New Englander on TV will dump soy sauce in her kimchi fried rice. Some white tourist will write about 기분 with mystic imposition as if how are you means something deeply Confucian when asked in Korean. Or write about Eastern humility versus Western individualism. Eastern apology versus Western shame.

It will almost be a relief when someone asks—what’s the difference between K-Pop and J-Pop? Is everybody Buddhist there? How do you tell between Korean, Chinese, Japanese? Even though I have no conclusive answers.

There will be times when the questions fish deep into history. It will be like a long-forgotten splinter pushing through the skin. There will be the odd history buff here and there, white boys, Kerouac fans, long-time students of Daoism who will ask me about comfort women and Japan, ask about communism in the North, ask about Seoul’s embrace of western commerce, ask why old women at the Korean grocery never say hello, please, or thank you. They will reduce intrusion to intervention, trauma to trivia, heritage to history, vigilance to hostility in their asking.

There will be white girls eating 반찬 without rice out of my mother’s covered jars who say I always smell like fish. There will be white boys pulling from my mouth to say my accent’s not too obvious as a compliment.

I will have so much to say, but nothing for them.

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