A Conversation with Mark Probst by Gavin Atlas

Mark Probst is the owner of Cheyenne Publishing, a
press predominantly dedicated to historical LGBT fiction.  Their adult fiction includes widely known
authors of gay historical fiction such as Alex Beecroft, Erastes, and Lee
Rowan.  They also publish a young adult
line aimed at gay teens.  A book
published by Cheyenne, Normal
Miguel
by Erik Orrantia, has recently been nominated for best gay romance.

Hi, Mark! First,
could you tell us a bit about your upbringing and perhaps where you believe
your interest in writing and publishing came from?

Hi, Gavin. First of all let me say I’m really
thrilled that Out in Print asked me for this interview. I’m honored and only
hope that my answers will not put your readers to sleep!

I grew up in southern California, raised by very
traditional, religious parents. I don’t say that to put my family in any kind
of bad light, but just to point out that I had some challenges to overcome in
my journey into adulthood. As a youngster, I dabbled in creative writing. My
mother was supportive of my efforts but my father was indifferent. However my
literary interests were for the most part uncultivated, so nothing came of it
until much later in life.

 Cheyenne
Publishing was started in 2007 as a means for me to self-publish, and then I
began getting letters from writers who wanted to know if Cheyenne was accepting
submissions. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on the responsibility expanding
into a small press, but I realized that LGBT fiction was really
under-represented by the big, traditional New York publishers; and it was just
beginning to flourish in the small presses. So in 2009 I began accepting
submissions and Cheyenne has been growing ever since.

I imagine you must
have been elated for Erik Orrantia and for yourself, but can you describe the
thoughts that went through your mind when you first learned a book you’d published
was nominated for a Lammy?

That morning in February when the finalists were
announced, I was exhilarated. It is the very first Cheyenne book to become a
Lambda Literary finalist. What probably went through my mind was how happy I
was for Erik. Normal Miguel is such a
culturally rich story that beautifully demonstrates what it’s like to be a gay
man struggling to find love and acceptance in rural Mexico. I really feel that
Erik Orrantia deserved the nomination and I couldn’t be more proud that he got
it. 

Could you describe
any experiences that have made you think “Gosh, I wish someone had told me to
expect this before I got into the publishing business?”

Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve had any really bad
experiences with publishing. I hear horror stories from other publishers all
the time—usually involving misunderstandings or expectations not being met on
some level between the author and publisher. But I really haven’t hit any snags
and I feel that everyone I’ve worked with has been very professional and
courteous. It does however take up a lot of my free time, but that’s par for
the course.

 

Cheyenne is a
Print-on-Demand press, and the major chains have been reluctant to stock POD
books.  Also, my understanding is that
it’s difficult to sell to LGBT youth online because they don’t have their own
credit cards, and they’re often reluctant to ask their parents to buy a
queer-themed book.  What has your
experience been with reaching a youth audience?

Wow, Gavin, that is an excellent observation and it’s one
that I really hadn’t thought of before. The decline of the brick-and-mortar
bookstore has hit us all very hard, and the hardest hit are the LGBT bookstores
which were so important in the eighties and nineties. Things have shifted from
physical bookstores to the convenience of ordering online and downloading
eBooks. Cheyenne started out strictly as a print book publisher, but we are now
transitioning to include eBooks. The eBook market was just too big for us to
ignore.

Marketing to LGBT youth is very, very challenging. It’s true that it’s difficult for teens to buy
POD books because for the most part they aren’t available in bookstore chains.
It is our hope that parents will buy these books online for their LGBT kids,
but sadly that is not a reality in so many cases. My only hope is that LGBT
teens who are not out to their families, will find some support, either through
the GSAs in schools or through their peers, and will find somebody to help them
purchase these books. But that raises another question: If an adult (especially
one affiliated with the school) gives a child access to gay-themed young-adult
literature, are they undermining the parents? There are some who would see that
in the same light as condom distribution. Lee Wind, who runs a great site for LGBT youth, once offered to
donate a dozen or so of the most popular LGBT young adult novels to a school
library and his donation was politely declined because the school didn’t want
to have to deal with angry parents. It can be challenging to get these books to
those who need them most. All I can say, is if you know an LGBT teen, and the
parent is not an obstacle, please buy them a book!

Also, I hope you don’t mind if I take this opportunity to
mention Cheyenne Publishing’s young adult anthology Awake, which is coming out in June. It is four extraordinary stories of
LGBT teens from different walks of life. Five very talented authors, along with
the editor have donated their time to the project, and all publisher proceeds
will benefit The Trevor Project.

If an aspiring author
expressed interest in writing historical fiction aimed at an LGBT audience and
wanted to read the novels the best exemplify queer historical romance or
mystery, etc, which works would you be likely to suggest?

I’d say some of the best historical fiction was written
contemporarily and then many years later came to be regarded as historical.
Such novels include Maurice by E.M.
Forster and The Charioteer by Mary
Renault. Other more recent novels I’d recommend are Icarus in Flight by Hayden Thorne, Transgressions by Erastes, The
Phoenix
by Ruth Sims, and one of my absolute favorites, Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen.

 

I understand you’re a
fan of old Western films.  What attracts
you most to that genre and which films are your favorites?

I really don’t know what attracts me to Westerns. Maybe it’s
the wide outdoors and the rustic settings, which doesn’t make sense considering
that I’m not an outdoors person—I just like to sit indoors and read about
outdoor life!

My favorite Western films include Red River which is all about a very long cattle-drive and has that
nifty homoerotic scene with Montgomery Clift and John Ireland comparing
pistols! But I’d have to say The
Searchers
is my favorite John Ford Western because it is so beautifully
photographed and has the perfect execution of the Western motif.

 

If you could meet any
writers from history, who would you want to hang out with? Is there a writer
from the past that you’d like to encounter simply so you can tell him off and
kick him in the shin?

Most of the writers I admire, I’d be much too
intimidated to meet in person. I actually did meet Patricia Nell Warren who had
a booth set up at a gay pride festival and I was just a gushing fan telling her
how much I loved The Front Runner and
how important the book was as a groundbreaking novel. If I could magically
bring back a writer to meet from the past, I suppose it would be Laura Z.
Hobson. Not because I would have intellect to offer her, but just so I could
sit and listen to her tell what it was like working as a promotional writer for
Time Magazine at a time in history
when very few women had any influence in the publishing world. She was a
pioneer in using literature to shine the spotlight on social injustices. She
wrote Consenting Adult in 1975, a
mere six years after Stonewall! I believe she was one of the first straight writers
to boldly champion gay rights. There were many other writers before her that
introduced positive gay literature, but they were predominantly LBGT writers,
such as James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Gordon Merrick, E.M. Forster,
Mary Renault, and of course the gay pulp writers of the 1960s Victor J. Banis
and Richard Amory. Hobson was really the first of the straight allies in gay
literature.

And no, I don’t have any desire to kick anybody in
the shins—well, not any writers, but there are a few politicians out there…

 

What do you
hope the future holds for you?

I just hope that we can continue to introduce relevant
stories to the world that will touch and entertain readers for many years to
come.

 

Thanks so much, Mark!

Thank you, Gavin. It’s been a pleasure.

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