Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Cinco Puntos Press, established in 1985, is an independent book publishing company located in El Paso, Texas. The company is a general trade publisher which has received most attention for their bilingual children’s books and fiction and nonfiction focusing on the Mexico–United States border area. The owners and founders are novelist Lee Merrill Byrd and poet Bobby Byrd. Their son Johnny Byrd is now CEO. Cinco Puntos is distributed to the trade by Consortium Book Sales & Distribution.Their list is known for its multi-cultural and political focus for both children and adults.
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Lone Star Listens typically focuses on interviews with Texas–related writers, but it’s a distinct pleasure this week to interview two El Paso authors (and 2017 Texas Institute of Letters inductees) who have contributed as significantly to publishing books as to writing them. Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press wants readers to know that even though he wrote most of the interview responses this week via email (wife Lee Merrill Byrd being in Denver for the American Library Association Mid-Winter Conference), she did “toss in her two cents here and there.” Thanks to both of these literary love-Byrds for taking the time out of a busy week for some bookish conversation.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Lee and Bobby, since it’s Valentine’s week, why don’t you start by telling us how you met, and how long have you been married?
BOBBY BYRD: Well, that’s complicated. Sometime in the summer of 1966, during a rather boisterous night, a friend of mine pushed me through the window of Lee’s motel room. We were both at the Aspen Writers’ Workshop organized by Robert Vas Dias and Toby Olson. Paul Blackburn was the poet in residence. Lee graduated the next spring from Beaver College (I promise you, that was its name) outside Philly, and we’ve been together ever since, marrying in 1973 in Alamosa, Colorado, honored to have our wonderful twenty-month-old daughter Susannah Mississippi Byrd carrying the ring down the aisle for us.
When did you start Cinco Puntos Press — and what motivated you?
LEE AND BOBBY: The official date is 1985. We were sort of lost. Our two boys, Johnny and Andy, had been in a terrible accident (they’re both fine now, Johnny our CEO and Andy a software engineer for USAA), Bobby was a technical writer for an Army contractor, and Lee was working in publications at El Paso Natural Gas. We weren’t happy. North Atlantic Books published Bobby’s Get Some Fuses for the House: Householder Poems, and we visited the publishers, Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough, in Berkeley for a reading. Watching them be their own bosses and publish all these great books made us think, Hell, we can do this too. Plus, they were making $25,000 a year at the time. My gosh. That was the big bucks back then. We took the bait. Happily, we’ve always been fools.
Are there certain areas of responsibility that you each specialize in?
Lee is the president and the primary editor. She’s edited national prize–winning books for all ages: early readers, picture books for kids, middle-grade readers, young adult books, and adult fiction and nonfiction. Her expertise has earned her a national reputation and is a primary reason why we continue to receive such wonderful books to consider. She and Johnny manage production matters together. Bobby is a loud-mouth and a connector. He does a lot of social media, he talks on the phone, he daydreams and is easily distracted, he writes things like, well, like this. It takes forever. It’s really hard to tell what he does. But he does it.
What do you consider to be the breakout book, or books, for CPP?
Oh, there are so many that are dear to us, so I’ll mention ones that people might remember.
Joe Hayes’s La Llorona, The Weeping Woman, which has become a bilingual classic, was our second book. It was a saddle-stitched, duotone 32-page book. Vicki Trego Hill, who lived down the street from us, did the illustrations. It has since sold somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 copies in all its many editions. We didn’t know anything about children’s literature when we published it, but we did know Joe.
Lucky us. We’ve published a number of books by Benjamin Alire Sáenz―three books of poems, the most recent being The Last Cigarette on Earth (2017); three bilingual picture books, and the forthcoming The Story of Me to be illustrated by Paula Wallace. But I would say that the books that really made a difference for us and for Ben were Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood (Top Ten Best Books for Teens, 2005), Last Night I Sang to the Monster (Top Ten Best Books for Teens, 2010) and Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, winner of the PEN/Faulkner award.
The one book that brought Cinco Puntos Press the most national notoriety was the children’s picture book The Story of Colors / La Historia de los colores by the legendary Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos and illustrated by Domi of the Colectivo Callajero. The National Endowment for the Arts, afraid of Newt Gingrich, pulled a grant from us. Voila! Suddenly, we were on the front page of the New York Times, and Publishers Weekly named us “The Little House that Roared.”
Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle’s Crossing the Bok Chitto won so many awards we had to keep reinventing the back cover. We also have published Tim’s collection of very wise stories, Walking the Choctaw Road, his novel House of Purple Cedar, and his picture book Saltypie. Tim’s work opened doors for us into Native American literature, a great privilege for which we thank him.
David Romo’s Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground History of Juárez and El Paso, 1893 to 1913. What a joy to work with David to publish this very important book. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans kept telling David and us too, “Thanks for giving us back our stories.” It truly made us understand that we are home in El Paso.
Dagoberto Gilb’s first collection of stories, Winners on the Pass Line, and our first book. What an honor to have published Dago’s first book.
Isabel Quintero’s first book, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, a Morris Award winner that has become Young Adult Feminist classic.
And so many more, with more to come shortly. We love all of our books!
What was it like to be inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters? Did it have special meaning because it was in El Paso in 2017?
Well, oddly, that’s a difficult question. For so many years since we moved to El Paso in 1978 and started Cinco Puntos Press in 1985, we really didn’t consider ourselves part of the Texas literary scene. Really didn’t consider ourselves Texans. So we weren’t on the TIL map. El Paso is like that.
That began to change in 1997 when Lee received the Dobie Paisano Fellowship and was able to reside, along with Bobby, at the Dobie Ranch on Barton Creek. What a wonderful and creative time that was. The Late Great Audrey Slate befriended us to the max. What a great lady she was. And, with hesitation, we became part of the Texas writing scene but never a part of the TIL. That all changed last year when the TIL, under the open-hearted leadership of Steve Davis and grooving on the energy of Sergio Troncoso, brought the TIL to El Paso for the first time in its existence. And we were invited to join. It was a great event, much fun, laughter, and celebration. Thanks to the TIL for making us feel at home.
Who are some of your best known authors?
Joe Hayes; Benjamin Alire Sáenz; Subcomandante Marcos; Lisa Sandlin; Tim Tingle; Isabel Quintero; Dagoberto Gilb; Luis Alberto Urrea; James Magee; David Romo; Our Lady of Border Reality, Byrd Baylor; and more to come!
What's the best thing about living and working in El Paso?
El Paso/Juarez is the intellectual and cultural capital of the U.S./Mexico Border. Being fronterizos allows us to see and feel things differently from folks in other part of Texas and the U.S. We listen to Spanish every day of our lives, lest we forget where Cinco Puntos was born. We get to eat the best Mexican food in Texas. We get to walk over the bridge to Juárez and we see la sierra de Juárez from our front porch. Here’s a place of the imagination.
What's the best thing about working with your life partner?
At night we get to sleep with each other. It’s warm beneath those covers.
What are some exciting book projects you have in the works for 2018?
In order of their appearance in the next few months:
Folly Cove: A Smuggler’s Tale of the Pot Rebellion by Kermit Schweidel
A Woman, In Bed, a novel by Anne Finger
Feathered Serpent / Dark Heart of Mexico: The Myths of Mexico by David Bowles
Letters to Goya: Poems, Titles and Letters to the Dead by James Magee
When a Woman Rises, a novel by Christine Eber
A Song for the River by Philip Connors
To close, I’ll pose a very important question: What are you doing for Valentine's Day?
Well, to be most precise, here’s a poem from Bobby’s most recent collection of poems, Otherwise, My Life Is Ordinary:
A Sonnet for Love
Flossie put her plums in the icebox.
Bill ate a plum and wrote a famous poem.
I tried the same trick on my wife.
Turns out she doesn’t like cold fruit.
That’s what she said.
She turned over and went to sleep.
That was afterwards.
I got up twice in the night to pee.
At 5am she let the cat in and fed him.
When she climbed back into bed she farted.
We giggled and went back to sleep.
After a while she let the cat back out and made coffee.
Sometimes I do all that stuff but it’s so nice when she does it.
This poem, like all of my poems, is for sale.
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