An interview with Kevin Murphy and Dark Sky Books

Dark Sky is a fine new publisher from the Pacific Northwest whose books are strange and stunning and uncommonly good. Their most recent release, Ryan Ridge’s kinetic collection of short stories, Hunters & Gamblers,  further cements this reputation, while their regularly published literary journal, Dark Sky Magazine, offers an illuminating mixture of bold new voices and seasoned ink slingers. Recently, I checked in with Dark Sky’s publisher, Kevin Murphy, to see what life was like on the other side of the printing press. – Matthew

Where did Dark Sky get its start? What brought you into publishing and what are you up to now?

Kevin Murphy: Dark Sky began in Charleston, SC (where I used to live) in 2007 as an online magazine featuring literature and art. Initially the project was a simple attempt for me to learn some online publishing techniques and get to know local authors and artists, etc. Since then, as our output increased and our readership grew, we morphed considerably, which I consider a very healthy thing, and is why currently we publish physical books and magazines, as well as the online components we’ve featured since the early days.

I’ve always been interested in books, in publishing, and in writers, and in writing — when I was a kid I circulated to my neighbors a “newspaper” that contained “stories”, the genesis of which were gathered from discussions my parents had at the dinner table and in the living rooms of our house. Private conversations. The result was an intimate tabloid, written in pencil and copied on sheets of loose paper that I then hawked to the characters living in my tiny orbit. Must have been horrifying for my parents. In retrospect, though, it was a good business model — many of my neighbors were gossip hounds.

These days, Dark Sky Books, which is a little over one year old, has published seven books and two magazines. So far we’ve focused on short fiction and poetry and we just released Ryan Ridge’s Hunters & Gamblers, his debut, which contains a novella and a collection of stories. This fall we are releasing a book of poetry written together by Kendra Grant Malone and Matthew Savoca. It’s called Morocco and I’m really excited because the poems are unique and fun and racy and they’re the kind of poems that are so intimate and writ large that you forget you’re reading poetry and they just kind of inhabit this space that Kendra and Matthew have created. It’s pretty wild. Look for it in November. 2012 has books by Dave Housley and Jensen Beach and other fine folks. In 2013, we’ll expand into novels and other genres. Stay tuned . . .

Let’s talk about book design, which Dark Sky does exceptionally well. It’s not just that your titles look sharp, it’s that each jacket so excellently reflects the writing inside. Can you talk about the layout and design component of your press? What you’re looking for in a cover, what a good cover accomplishes, to what degree design matters to you when putting together a book…

The layout and design components of our press are just that, components. Each component of every book is given equal measure. It just so happens that the design component is the first thing a person usually encounters, and so, obviously, that’s hugely important, which is why I try to ensure that a book’s design and content are programmed to serve one another. To me, a good cover is a visual translation of the text, a piece of art that precedes the words a reader is about to consume. We design our own books, my wife and I and a close friend of ours, and so the process is terrific experience of experimentation, banter, frustration, and mutual respect. Yes, designing our books matters immensely.

Of course, Dark Sky is a publisher, and is here to make books.  What are you looking for in literature? Is there a mission statement to the kind of titles that you publish? If so, what is it?

We don’t have a mission statement because tastes change and evolve and we’re open to new things and our primary concern is publishing books that provide valuable experiences for our readers. If we’re successful in providing that experience, we don’t need a mission statement — it goes without saying what we’re about and what are are trying to do. Contemporary literature is a giant swarming storm of possibility. I want to tap into that possibility and publish books that are fresh, diverse, and meaningful.

Check out these great Dark Sky titles available now at Elliott Bay!

Hunters & Gamblers by Ryan Ridge

A sham pastor hires a cocaine-sniffing centaur to act as mascot for an Evangelical mega-church’s arena football team; Paul Revere flashes across a revolutionary sky on the back of a sunbird; an ammo-less infantry drummer and a bleeding medic are beat back to a Best Western parking lot in the Battle of Sacramento — such are the situations contained in Ryan Ridge’s Hunters & Gamblers. The tales in this lurid, edgy debut illuminate blackness with even blacker humor and a sense of outlandish beauty.

Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City by Michael Bible

This is your new favorite book. You will read it on highways and down in the sand of a deserted island. You will learn Michael Bible’s striking and gentle language, which booms and slithers like silver percussion, and ride elevators in the forest, this horse named Forever. You will know this book is not like anything. It’s a book of brightness and purpose. It’s a book that’s pure and liquid and fuel. This is your new favorite book. Get ready.

Trees of the 20th Century by Stephen Sturgeon

Stephen Sturgeon’s highly anticipated debut collection features over 30 poems which range in style from classically formalized stanzas on memory and vitality to allusive and lyrical free verses, chronicling — among other subjects — the stories of lost friends, a prophetic head that speaks from a tree branch, and an old black moon.

Cut Through the Bone by Ethel Rohan

In this stripped-raw debut collection, Ethel Rohan’s thirty stories swell with broken, incomplete people yearning to be whole. Through tight language and searing scenarios, Rohan brings to life a plethora of characters — exposed, vulnerable souls who are achingly human.

Summer Booknotes from Our Staff – Fiction

The Upright Piano Player
by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese)

Few circumstances are as suspenseful as the quiet brutality of a stalker. Nor are there many trials harder than the loss of a loved one. Entwined with the life of one so unassuming as Henry Cage, the jolting events in David Abbott’s debut novel are written so lyrically, the twists are all the more wrenching. Hung deftly on a spare, direct, literary voice, Abbott’s characters experience occasions savory and severe; transatlantic tension, foreboding suspicions, and emotional wires all crossed against a placid British backdrop, making this novel one that will stay with you long after the last page is turned. –Dave

My American Unhappiness
by Dean Bakopoulos (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Much like the American economy, Zeke Pappas’s life began to unravel in 2008. As the director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative, a federal program designed to “slow the brain drain…in that region,” Zeke started the extensive American Unhappiness Project, dedicated to answering the question: Why are we so unhappy? With his funds drying up, government agents questioning his work, and his mother nudging him to find a wife, Zeke struggles to complete his thesis and make sense of a life that he thought he had all figured out. With a deft hand, Bakopoulos has created a poignant look at a man’s descent from grandeur to delusion. –Casey S.

Jamrach’s Menagerie
by Carol Birch (Doubelday)

An escaped tiger swallows Jaffy Brown, but when the enigmatic Jamrach saves him, our street-urchin is pulled from playing in gutters into the magical world of Jamrach’s menagerie. Jaffy longs for the sailor’s life, and with youthful naïveté, he accepts Jamrach’s offer to embark on a quest to catch a mythical dragon as part of the ill-fated Lysander’s crew. Birch gives the reader a graphic historical portrayal of life at sea, which reads similarly to Melville’s Moby-Dick led by a Dickensian protagonist. Long-listed for the 2011 Orange Prize. –Alex

State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins)

Dr. Marina Singh, a researcher for a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, is sent deep into the Amazon jungle to check on the work of secretive head scientist Annick Swenson after a beloved work colleague who was investigating the field team is reported dead. Traveling by river to the village of the Lakashi Tribe where Dr. Swenson is purportedly developing a new drug, Marina is thrown headlong into a world where nothing is what it seems and her deepest fears are laid bare. Fans of Patchett, and readers discovering her for the first time are in for a treat. This is a lush and spellbinding tale that will grip you from the get go. –Laurie

Booknotes, the newsletter of The Elliott Bay Book Company, is written entirely by bookstore staff. It represents a sampling of recently published books that we have enjoyed reading. We appreciate every opportunity to assist in finding books to meet your interests.


Ever since I was a kid, I’ve marveled at the enormous scope and variety of children’s picture books. And even after five years in the book business, I’m still fascinated by the process of creating those little gems. Which comes first, an image or the words; how do a few vivid ideas collate to become one polished book; when did these talented creators know that they’d like to tell stories for a living and, once they knew, how did they go about making it a reality?

Now I have my chance—and so do you—to have all my burning picture book questions answered! Sunday, August 7 from 1-3 pm, we’re hosting Kids-a-Palooza! with four of Seattle’s finest children’s illustrators and authors: Suzanne Kaufman, Steven D’Amico, Matthew Porter and Wendy Wahman. Each artist will take the stage and talk a bit about or read from a selection of his or her work. After their presentations, we’ll have time for refreshments, activities, meet-and-greets and book signing. This will be a great afternoon for kids, their families, teachers, artists and all children’s book enthusiasts. Please join us!

Suzanne Kaufman is the author and illustrator of I Love Monkey, a  story about learning to love  yourself for exactly who you are! While Suzanne’s debut release is still quite new, I Love Monkey has already won a Mom’s Choice Award and a PTPA seal of approval for excellence in children’s programming. Over the years, while she’s been perfecting her awesome, retro style, Suzanne has also been busy producing special effects for Universal and Discovery, animating award-winning videogames and teaching film and animation.

Matthew Porter has been called the “king of the hipster boardbook” for good reason: it’s not just the little ones who are drooling over books like Calling all Animals and Flowers. His use of sharp black outlines and popping colors, his small creatures with their enormous, limpid eyes, his inimitable style draw the reader from page to cardboard page. Boardbooks may be small, says Library journal, “they may be short…but board books are hard and Matthew Porter consistently gets them right.”

Wendy Wahman is first and foremost an animal-lover. That’s what makes her books, A Cat Like that and Don’t Lick the Dog, so darn good. Of course, her slinky-vivacious-outrageous illustrations and jazz-jam prose make her books an absolute pleasure to read aloud and admire. Her editorial background working on projects for Henry Holt children’s publishing sure doesn’t hurt, either! So if you’re looking for a book that will help the little ones in your life care for the animals in theirs, look no further than the lovely stylings of Wendy Wahman.

Steven D’Amico may be best known for an elegant little lady elephant named Ella, but it is certainly Suki, the Very Loud Bunny who’s been turning heads this summer! Not only is Steve the co-creator of these five charming picture books, but also, (somehow!) finds the time to be the art director for Seattle-based Smashing Ideas, Inc. He’s produced illustrations and designs for PBS Kids, Nick Jr. and the Disney Channel.

Summer Booknotes from Our Staff – Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror

Millennium People
by J. G. Ballard (Norton)

What if the middle class decided it was the new proletariat—became a group so oppressed and restless that they refused to pay their mortgages, set their BMWs ablaze, and pulled their kids from private school—rioting in the streets over the price of parking, and the incessant mendacity of dinner parties? The unveiling of J.G. Ballard’s posthumous publication, Millennium People, will explore the possibilities of how and why such a revolution could occur, and might just make you wonder why it hasn’t already. –Candra

The Last Werewolf
by Glen Duncan (Knopf)

Vampires…please. Zombies…so 2006. Here at last is the novel that gives werewolves their depraved literary due with a toothsome lupine grin (but also a genuine heart). Although, at their basest, these creatures are but beasts who fornicate incessantly and eviscerate innocent victims to slake their monthly bloodlust, they are also part human, which elevates them with superior intelligence and emotional complexity. This humorously macabre debauch follows the exploits of Jake Marlowe who is precisely the type of impeccably dressed, perfectly coiffed werewolf you might see drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s—although in Jake’s case it would probably be a Scotch. –Jamil

by China Miéville (Del Rey)

On Arieka, a distant planet populated by humans and an indigenous race called the “Host,” a delicate balance is kept between species. Genetically enhanced ambassadors are the only people who can communicate directly with these enigmatic, seemingly benevolent creatures. But when a new ambassador arrives in Embassytown, the equanimity that once reigned may never be again, and Avice, a human colonist recently returned to Arieka, may be the lone voice of reason. Miéville turns his inimitable eye to science fiction in this tale of the machinations of aliens and men, proving that whatever subject he takes on will thrill literary audiences. –Casey S.

The Map of Time
by Félix J. Palma (Atria)

Our omniscient narrator takes us on an adventure in Victorian London with author H.G. Wells and Time as our central protagonists. This is genre-busting historical fantasy of the first order, in which three different narratives cross one another. Wells’s own novel, The Time Machine, has made the public desire time travel, and showman Gilliam Murray comes along to fulfill that desire. Can this be for real? What happens if the fabric of time is messed with? To find out you’re going to have to read Palma’s glorious “scientific romance.” –Greg

Summer Booknotes from Our Staff – Fiction

Orientation and Other Stories
by Daniel Orozco (Faber and Faber)

From start to finish, Orozco’s stories unfold in brisk and thoughtful patterns. Like the accelerated time-lapse photography of millions of cells coming in and out of existence, they are mesmerizing. The reader is held rapt from the hyper-detailed, twisted delivery of an office worker’s first day in the title story “Orientation,” to the three-tiered perspective of what it is to be alive (or not) in “Only Connect,” to the whip-like unwinding of the consequences of a great California earthquake in “Shakers.” Orozco throws it all into the pot and comes at you with some of the most innovative stories around. –Shannon

Daniel Orozco reads from Orientation and Other Stories at 7:00pm this evening at the bookstore. If you can’t make it to tonight’s reading and would like a signed copy of Orientation, call us at (206) 624-6600 or toll free at 1-800-962-5311.

Ten Thousand Saints
by Eleanor Henderson (Ecco)

It’s 1987, and two malcontent youths are smoking pot from a Coke can under the bleachers at Lintonburg’s big event: a high-school football game. Jude and Teddy are outcasts, the former an adopted son of two estranged 1970s parents, the latter abandoned by his alcoholic mother. Henderson writes a coming-of-age tale of two punks as they cope with friendship, addiction, girls, pregnancy, death, AIDS, indifferent guardians, and their hope to start a hardcore band. Ten Thousand Saints is a window into youth-punk culture from small town Vermont to New York City’s CBGB. –Alex

Centuries of June
by Keith Donohue (Crown)

Centuries of June proves that Keith Donohue, author of The Stolen Child and Angel of Destruction, is a narrative chameleon. In the middle of the night, our hapless narrator, Jack, is beaned on the head in his bathroom. While he collects his wits and susses out the situation, he is accosted by eight disgruntled, ghostly women. Each tells her story and locks onto Jack as the surrogate for the man who let her down. Fans of David Mitchell and Italo Calvino might recognize his genre-bending technique, but will discover here a master storyteller at the top of his game. –Leighanne

Booknotes, the newsletter of The Elliott Bay Book Company, is written entirely by bookstore staff. It represents a sampling of recently published books that we have enjoyed reading. We appreciate every opportunity to assist in finding books to meet your interests.

Sleepwalking with Mikey B

You can turn a blog into a book. The material has proved itself; and, judging by the popularity of Awkward Family Photos, once you’ve found the nerve, there’s certainly no sense in quitting it. Then again, if you’re someone like Tina Fey (Bossypants), you’ve proved yourself already and will merit a few weeks in the Number 1 spot of the New York Times bestsellers list when you employ an off-the-wall sense of self-deprecating humor to detail your trip to comic stardom. You can turn a book out from the work you already do.

Someone like Mike Birbiglia, however, will turn his life into a comedic bit into an off-Broadway show into a book — all for a laugh. Sleepwalk with Me first came to me by way of (surprise, surprise) This American Life. Ira Glass and company aired a segment from my most beloved comedian on an episode called “Fear of Sleep.” In the episode, Birbiglia, who has had my fanaticism and Facebook friendship since releasing his albums Two Drink Mike and My Secret Public Journal Live, regales us with his adventure bursting through a second-story La Quinta window in Walla Walla as part of a real life dream sequence that would give Wes Craven nightmares, or, at the very least, a moment’s pause.

The TAL contribution was an excerpt from a one-man show Mike Birbiglia had been working on about his REM behavior disorder, which causes him to sleepwalk. Soon after, and in the hey-day of his second off-Broadway gig My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Birbiglia released his book Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories. The comic takes chapter and verse from his own life, with little more ado than excellent timing added, to produce one kicker of a book. I don’t know whether to pity the man or identify with him, because when I read the mortifying and hilarious accounts of his being bullied in school or duped into secret dating, I can’t help but see bits of myself — in his naiveté, in his ignoring problems so they’ll go away. All the stories he tells in SwM ring with a note of “one day we’ll look back on this and laugh” as if that day is today; and, we’re all invited to chortle along with him as he recounts some doozies.

He runs jokes and candor offbeat with each other. The absurdity of some situations give way to the heartache of others without much warning, but ultimately give the impression that, even in its lows, life isn’t all that bad. It seems very few punch lines come without taking a few punches to begin with.

Since we’re friends on Facebook and all, I invite Mike to just about every event I create. Because, you never know. He seems like a fun guy, the kind of guy who’s going to be a hit with your grandparents, or your boyfriend’s boyfriend’s parents. You’ll all just sit around and listen to him tell the story about the time he won third place in Olympic dust-bustering, or fought a flying jackal off his girlfriend. He’s relatable. Gregarious. A good storyteller, so I just assume I’d want to hang out with him. Unless we’re at a slumber party.