Inside the Publishing Process: An Interview with Series Editor Paul Sutter

This year marks the 25th anniversary of our series Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books. It also marks Paul S. Sutter’s fifth year as series editor.

Here, Sutter talks with our Senior Acquisitions Editor Andrew Berzanskis about his goals for the series, how he sees environmental history changing, and offers some practical tips for authors.

Sutter is professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His five books include Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press).

For those interested in the origins of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series, here is an account by founding series editor William Cronon.


In 2002, you published your first book, Driven Wild, in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (WEB) series. William Cronon, the founding editor of the series, was editor then. How did Cronon help shape your book?  

Bill was a huge influence on my decision to choose the series. His famous wilderness essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” had just come out, and it was a piece that refined my argument in important ways. I sent an initial email inquiry to Bill—we had met once or twice, but I’m not sure he knew who I was—and he wrote a lengthy response that quickly convinced me that working with him would be the right thing to do. The series was quite new at that point, and Bill put a lot of energy into reading and commenting on my manuscript. Driven Wild mediated the wilderness debate in a ways that I think Bill appreciated, but he also pushed me in ways that made my argument better.

2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the series. As a discipline, environmental history has blossomed. More scholars, more students, and many more publishers. What keeps Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books—a series launched in 1994—unique in 2019?

During the early years of Bill’s editorship, environmental history was a much smaller field, and one that seemed overwhelmingly U.S.-focused. In that context, the series sat at the center of a series of nature/culture debates that largely defined the second generation of environmental historiography. In the last decade or so, the field has changed in dramatic ways. Environmental history is much more international, the number of programs training graduate students has grown geometrically, and the subfields within and around the edges of environmental history have multiplied. Environmental history is a large and crowded room with many conversations going on. The series has changed with the field.

We still publish books that critically assess the historical and cultural dimensions of our current environmental crises and commitments. But the qualities that keep the series unique have more to do with how we work with authors: our commitment to careful developmental editing, our desire for books that are clearly and accessibly written and intended for a crossover audience, our commitment to producing beautiful and well-illustrated books, the work we do with authors to help them to market their books, and our author community. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes that approach than the time we spend with authors and prospective authors at the annual American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting.

Why is publishing with a series different than publishing as part of a press’s regular publishing program?

In the simplest sense, publishing a book in a series helps to define the book by the company it keeps. It also helps to get the book in front of the eyes of those who pay attention to that particular book series and the field it helps to define. But perhaps the biggest advantage to a book series is the chance to work with an academic series editor who can help to shepherd the book manuscript through the publication process. Not all editors put in the effort that Bill and I have at WEB, and so even among other series I think we are unique in the editorial energy we put into the books in our series. Having an engaged series editor can also be helpful in navigating peer review.

As a series editor, how do you like to work with authors?  

Because of the energy we put into developmental editing, we usually like to work with advance contracts, which confirm our partnership with the author. I then like to work with authors on matters of big argument and framing. It is a truism that most dissertations are written to a narrow audience of specialists, and so I push authors to figure out how their book can speak to thousands of interested readers rather than dozens. That often means working with authors on their introductions first, and then the overall organization and narrative arc of their manuscripts. When the author has a fully revised manuscript ready for peer review, I will read it along with the peer reviewers and provide a thorough report that both synthesizes the external reviews and offers comments of my own. We spend a lot of time with authors, on the phone and in person.

What do you get out of serving as a series editor? What makes it personally and/or professionally rewarding?

Being the series editor at WEB is a lot of work. But I love helping authors do what Bill did for me with my first book—transforming promising manuscripts into the books that their authors want them to be. I have seen quite a few authors transform their manuscripts through careful and thoughtful revision, and I take great pride in the role that I play in those transformations. (Mine is a small role. The authors do most of the work!) I take great pride when a beautiful series book arrives in my mailbox—and even more pride when the authors feel like the results are better as a result of working with us.

You write a foreword for each book. Why is that important?

Bill described the foreword as an extended blurb, and I have tried to follow that model. The foreword is a pitch to readers and reviewers to buy or review or assign the book.

You are entering your fifth year as editor and putting your own distinctive imprint on the series. What series books are you particularly proud of and why?

This feels like asking me which of my children is my favorite. I am proud of all of the books we have published for different reasons. But I will provide an example of why I am proud of one book. A year or so ago I received an email from a legal scholar who had just reviewed Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan. This particular scholar is an expert on contemporary legal frameworks for managing international whaling, and he found Arch’s history of whaling in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) as critical to contextualizing Japan’s contemporary claims that its whaling practices are traditional. Bina had worked hard to transform a masterful but somewhat narrow study into one that mattered to today’s whaling policy, and this reviewer made it clear that she succeeded.

What are the most common mistakes you see when people put together a book proposal?

I think there are several. One is the proposal that suggests that the book in question is the most important and innovative thing to come along in ages. A good proposal is humble and realistic about what it will accomplish, and respectful of the field in which it will sit. I also often read proposals that are too topical and not sufficiently thesis-driven. More than that, though, I increasingly urge authors to define not just the argument but the research problem that their book will address. A well-defined and expansive research problem will get my attention. Defining the research problem is a way of explaining why we need your book, which is a different issue than what it is about or what it will argue. Finally, I often find prospective authors to be overly optimistic about the popular appeal of their books. To reach a crossover audience, I think authors need to think deeply about which specific non-academic audiences they might realistically reach.

You see many manuscripts go through peer review. What are the most common problems identified in peer review, and how can authors avoid those same mistakes?

The most common problem, particularly for first-time authors, is that they don’t have a clear enough sense of what their book is about. That might be a strange thing to say, but often authors want their books to be about too many things. What’s the big idea/argument? How do the chapters contribute to and build towards that big idea/argument? The big idea is what disciplines a manuscript and helps to create a hierarchy of arguments, and it is not something that emerges organically. Rather, it is usually a matter of authors making tough choices.

What advice do you have for scholars trying to reach a broader audience?

First, figure out specifically who that broader audience is. Know who else might be interested in the book and speak to them. Second, get comfortable imagining your reader as an intelligent non-expert and explaining why scholars argue over the things that they do. An accessible book elegantly explains significance, constantly circling back to it. Third, develop characters if you can, and tell good stories.

I constantly urge authors to tell me the biography of their project. This forces them to go back to the moment when they decided to pursue the topic, to explain what made them passionate about it, and what it was like to know little about the book they were embarking upon. It requires them to imagine the reader opening their book for the first time and deciding whether to buy or devote their time to reading it. If you can go back to that point of initial ignorance and then explain how you proceeded to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of a topic, you can better convince your reader to want to follow along. A book that can explain the process of coming to understand a topic—rather than merely presenting the results of a deep understanding—is a book that will be more accessible.

Tell me about the first time you went to an American Society for Environmental History conference. How was it different then?

I first attended ASEH in 1993 in Pittsburgh. That was only the sixth ASEH conference ever held, and back then the conferences were biennial and much smaller. I was still a graduate student at the University of Kansas and did not have enough travel funding to afford both the flight and the hotel room. So four of us pooled our funds, rented a white Cadillac Seville, and made the 13-hour drive in style. I think the conference was at a Days Inn, and I’m not even sure if there was a book exhibit. It was tiny. I have been to every ASEH meeting since.

Where do you see the field of environmental history developing in the next 20 years? 

I will answer this in two ways. The first is that our field must directly address the big environmental problems of our moment, and many scholars are busy doing that. Where the second generation of environmental history was largely engaged with a critical assessment of nature as our field’s category of analysis, I think the current generation of scholarship will be defined by its critical engagement with the Anthropocene concept and the material environmental challenges that it encompasses.

The second is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a singular field of environmental history no longer really exists in 2040. Rather, we may see a proliferation of subfields and sub-conversations in fields such as animal history, energy history, climate history, evolutionary history, environmental justice, etc. The field of environmental history that I matured with was fundamentally shaped by the national environmental movement of the 1960s-1980s; the current generation is being shaped by global concerns about climate change and the great acceleration of human impact on the natural world.


Andrew and Paul will both be attending the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting April 10-13 in Columbus, OH. Stop by the University of Washington Press booth (#21) to meet them and to learn more about this series!

Racialized Gender Politics and “Women’s History” Month

Featuring Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics for women’s history month offers us the opportunity to speak on the feminist and racialized gender politics that terms like “women” and “women’s history” often serve to marginalize and erase. In many ways, our collection is about naming, addressing and navigating the many silences and invisibilities that emerge not only between the white/Anglo middle-class heterosexual presumptions of who counts as “women” and who determines mainstream feminist agendas, but also between concepts explicitly named in the title: “Asian American” and “Feminisms; “Asian American Feminisms” and “Women of Color Politics.” At the heart of our book is the question, what is an Asian American feminism and what is its genealogy as a political formation? Situated within, and in relation to a Women of Color politics, what are the complexities and contradictions within the field of Asian American feminisms, and what are the possibilities for cross-racial solidarity through an Asian American feminist praxis?

Noting the difficulty to name and identify an existing collection that grapples with the relationship between Asian American feminisms and Women of Color politics, we set out to create a collection that did not assume to be exhaustive of all Asian American ethnicities, identities, or political struggles. Rather, we wanted our contributors to engage the broader political questions: What theoretical interventions, resistant strategies, and epistemic shifts shape the field of Asian American feminisms? How are these central concepts, theories, and praxical strategies in dialogue with the coalitional politics of Women of Color and US Third World feminisms? What tensions or disconnections push against and redefine or re-imagine the possibilities for an Asian American feminist politics? In so doing, we were able to create a collection that not only speaks to particular sites of Asian American feminist epistemologies, struggles, and theorizations traditionally marginalized in mainstream feminist genealogies, we were able to grapple with existing tensions and contradictions within an Asian American feminist approach.

We were clear that we wanted to name and accentuate the on-going political tension between Pacific Islander Studies and Asian American Studies more broadly. While Asian settler-colonialism is recognized within Asian American studies we wanted to push Asian American feminisms to embrace and recognize the two fields as completely separate operating from different histories and epistemological frameworks. Thus, as our author’s Nohelani Teves and Maile Arvin emphasize, we chose not to title the book Asian Pacific American Feminisms, as this falls into the practice of establishing false equivalencies.

As co-editors we consciously engaged in a feminist praxis editorial model. Early on we established ground-rules for collaborative writing, one of which was that we never simply erase or replace each other’s words without consultation. We clearly documented and reiterated our plans, with our deadlines clearly set. We discussed deliberately every issue we encountered knowing the politics at stake, and never minimalized each other’s concerns. We worked closely with the Editor in Chief over major decisions as a collective, neither one of us ever acted or engaged in conversation over decision-making issues without the other’s presence. We sent out carefully crafted invitations, and all email correspondences were seen and edited by each other before they were sent. We crafted a long-term writing system, where we first requested abstracts, discussed them and made decisions, then we requested each contributors first five pages, read them, provided feedback, discussed them, and returned them with suggestions for revisions and our vision on their developing essays. We repeated this process with the next 10 pages, 15 pages, and then the full rough draft. As co-editors we were very hands-on in the development and edited as each chapter came along. This enabled us to engage with each author as they worked through their original essay specifically keeping in mind the larger questions driving this collection.

Throughout the process of editing this collection, we along with our contributors were fortunate to participate in multiple roundtables and panels at several major conferences. Extending this conversation outward we learned early on that wider audiences are still grappling with identifying an Asian American feminisms. In one instance we experienced divergent desires to see a collection that was less theoretically driven and more definitional in scope. We stood committed to developing a collection that could grapple with the larger conceptual frameworks of state and interpersonal-violence, decolonization, and resistance prominent in Women of Color politics yet sorely missing in Asian American feminisms as a collective body. We see this collection as an entry point in which to further timely discussions of coalitional possibilities as Asian American feminists engaging in Women of Color politics.

In the spirit of “women’s history” month, we offer Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics to those who seek to live a political commitment that not only identifies the intricacy of our interlocking oppressions, but also, and most importantly, our expansive and deeply interdependent modes of resisting, building, flourishing, and rising up despite state-sponsored (neo)colonial racial projects seeking to quell our refusals to be complicit in our own and others’ destruction.


Lynn Fujiwara is associate professor at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Mothers without Citizenship: Asian Immigrant Families and the Consequences of Welfare Reform. Shireen Roshanravan is associate professor of American ethnic studies at Kansas State University. She is the coeditor of Speaking Face to Face / Hablando Cara a Cara: The Visionary Philosophy of María Lugones.

What Tahlequah Said

Even writing that headline, I feel the lilt and wash of the ocean in the language of the Salish, who consider the orca, qal̕qaləx̌ič in Lushootseed, their kin.

We show our own smallness, place a frame around an individual creature, when we name an orca in human terms. But somewhere along the line, people felt that this particular orca needed a name we could relate to. Tahlequah supposedly means “mother of waters.” J 35 suggests a science experiment, not just a study of existing conditions, and we have been conditioned to expect experiments to fail.

Of all the noise we were subjected to in 2018, the most important message we received was from Tahlequah. She brought her baby to full term only to have it die within a few minutes of birth. Those of us who have experienced pregnancy know that your body prepares you during the whole gestation for the miracle of being twinned somehow, divided so that you will have two bodies to care for until the little one is fully grown. I can imagine the surging hormones experienced by this mother orca as her calf was born and failed to thrive. What could she have done? Nothing. But she understands that the conditions humans have created in the Sound make it impossible for the near-shore orcas who depend on Chinook salmon for their food to survive. She carried that dead baby with her for seventeen days, until it fell apart, so that we would see her and it, and get the message.

While it is in many ways a series of humorous books, Douglas Adams got it right when he named one of his books “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” as the farewell message from the dolphins while departing from a future earth, no longer considered tenable by its oceanic inhabitants. As the dolphins desperately try to tell us that we are doomed, that we need to leave, we ooh and ah and applaud their apparent hijinks. We are incapable of understanding that we are not the only creatures on earth with an understanding of time, life, and mortality.

While there is ample evidence around us of global warming and impending disaster, we are aggravating this scenario with our willful inaction. A couple of months ago the governor of the state of Washington, Jay Inslee, rolled out some points to enhance his standing as a protector of the environment. This included some language about saving the orcas, but not an obvious one: take down the dams that are keeping Chinook salmon from reproducing. The Snake River was once their breeding ground, but fewer and fewer salmon make it past all the obstacles we have placed in their way. The Chinook are not reproducing, and the whales are starving to death. It doesn’t take summersaults, it doesn’t take naming orcas, to figure that out.

In spite of our reluctance to face the obvious, nature has been very forgiving. The dams on the Elwha River were removed a couple of years ago, and the natural life of the river is surging back at a miraculous pace. Its native salmon have been waiting almost a hundred years to return to their spawning beds. Just imagine! They had to return from the open ocean to the mouth of the river each year, only to be turned back by dams. Again. And again and again. But now they made it.

Can we save the Chinook? In my opinion, there is only one way to find out. Take down the dams. Ease up on the hatchery fish, which probably just compete with the wild salmon for scarce resources.

Almost unremarked, another orca died on January 28, 2019, after a short illness. Kayla was thirty years old, what should have been the half-way point in her life, when she suddenly sickened and died. She lived at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, which has been the site of many questionable practices concerning orcas.

“We shared our salmon,” wrote Jack Flander of the Yakima Nation in The Seattle Times (1/29/19), speaking for the orcas, “but you took more than your share,” leaving us little to survive on. “Our waters became polluted. Our infant mortality rate increased … Imagine what a brotherhood and sisterhood we could have shared. Now imagine that I am an Indian.”

With the paperback issue of my book, The Deepest Roots, I wish I had a more cheerful introduction to offer. But the same warning bells are going off as when I started this book. What’s more, the current administration has made the work that we do to conserve the environment even more difficult, and even more important.

Every person I interviewed for The Deepest Roots has a different story to tell, a different relationship with the land and the sea. Some of them are gone now, having passed their legacies on to younger farmers and fisher people. They are remembered with fondness, their penchant for barbeque, or having created fertile soil through sheer willpower.

Others have begun to engage with the land and the people in a more entrepreneurial fashion, looking to the eastern horizon and the inevitable population growth that will take place on the island. We wonder if our children will return, and what it will be like for them in ten, twenty, one hundred years from now. Will the salmon continue to wait for us?

This book has raised as many questions as answers, but people continue to approach me thoughtfully, usually with their own stories to share. I hope The Deepest Roots encourages you to see the place where you live with new eyes, and to see yourself as an active partner in its salvation and recovery. As storyteller Vi Hilbert would say, “Haboo!”


Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a collection of essays, The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing; three novels, including Treasures in Heaven; and a collection of short stories. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

To learn more about The Deepest Roots, buy your copy of the book today!

Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet by Nico Slate

What We Can Learn from Gandhi’s Diet

I set out to write about Gandhi’s diet because I find Gandhi himself endlessly fascinating and because I love food. To be more precise, I love thinking about food. I like eating it too, of course, but a lot of the joy I get from food comes from thinking about how to cook it and what nutritional benefit it might bring to me and my family. Gandhi was similar; his passion for food was often driven by his interest in nutrition. But it wasn’t nutrition alone that inspired his many experiments in the kitchen or the hundreds of letters, notes, and articles he penned on dietary topics. Gandhi’s obsession with diet was as philosophical and spiritual as it was bodily. His relationship to food transcended the common divide between body and spirit. That’s why his diet fascinated me from the moment I began the research for my new book Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind. As I say in the book, “Understanding Gandhi’s relationship to food is to understand the man and his life, and to connect two of history’s perennial questions: how to live and what to eat.”

I originally saw myself writing something of a diet book in which I would praise Gandhi’s culinary practices—vegetarianism, avoiding sweets, eating whole grains, fasting, etc.—and discuss how to apply them in our world. But the more I delved into the history of what Gandhi ate and why, the more complex his diet became, and the more I came to see the darker side of some of his dietary obsessions. The book became about Gandhi’s search for the perfect diet—about his struggles and his questions, as well the answers he found over years of experimentation. I wanted to learn from Gandhi about food and nutrition—and I did—but I learned just as much from the social, political, and religious dimensions of his dietary journey.

I learned that food helped inspire Gandhi to fight for justice. His first sustained political activism was on behalf of vegetarianism. As a student in London and a young lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi’s dietary commitments connected him to communities of radical activists who questioned many facets of society. Those who rejected meat often also rejected sexism, racism, and war. Gandhi’s experiences championing vegetarianism prepared him to attack inequality, white supremacy, and other forms of injustice.

Gandhi’s diet was rooted in traditional Indian cuisine—particularly the vegetarian foods of his home state of Gujarat. But many of his dietary interests and practices were shaped by food reformers from outside of India. He learned from the African American scientist, George Washington Carver, famous for his experiments with peanuts. He discussed vitamins with scientists in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. At a time of resurgent xenophobia and chauvinistic nationalism, we can learn from the tolerance and openness with which Gandhi brought dietary ideas across the borders of nations and cultures.

When I started this book, I hoped to clear up some basic questions I had as a chef and a father. I wasn’t disappointed. My research shaped how I think about salt, sugar, dairy, whole grains, and fasting. Thanks to this book, there are new foods in my diet and new ways of preparing old favorites (the recipes at the back of the book have been well-tested). Nevertheless, more important than any specific lesson about cooking or nutrition, what I took from writing this book is the importance of continually reconciling our dietary practices with our deepest values. Gandhi wouldn’t want us to imitate him, but to approach our own diets with the same curiosity, openness, and integrity he brought to his. I hope readers learn about Gandhi, about food, and about their own path toward “eating with the world in mind.”


Nico Slate is professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India and editor of Black Power beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement.

To learn more about Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet, read an excerpt in The Atlantic or buy your copy of the book today!

Welcome, ALA Midwinter!

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The University of Washington Libraries and Press are pleased to welcome participants to the American Library Association’s 2019 Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. While you’re in town, we invite you to explore the city with self-guided walking tours from two recent UW Press books, Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces: From SoDo to South Lake Union and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City.

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Excerpts from these books are freely available on the University of Washington’s instance of a new publishing platform, Manifold.

Two chapters from Seattle Walks will introduce you to a fascinating collection of clocks, gargoyles, and hatch covers stretching across the heart of the city, offering a glimpse into the histories behind them.

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Hatch cover by Nathan Jackson, 1976

The chapter from Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces features extraordinary artwork in and around the Washington State Convention Center, including Games by the renowned artist Jacob Lawrence.

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Games, Jacob Lawrence, 1979

Click here for information about these pieces and many more, and enjoy your walk!

 

$1,205,000 Mellon grant to expand the University Press Diversity Fellowship Program

The University of Washington Press, the MIT Press, Cornell University Press, the Ohio State University Press, University of Chicago Press, Northwestern University Press, and the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) join forces to expand the University Press Diversity Fellowship Program.

A four-year, $1,205,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been awarded to the University of Washington Press to support the continued development and expansion of the pipeline program designed to diversify academic publishing by offering apprenticeships in acquisitions departments. This new grant will provide for three annual cycles of editorial fellows at six university presses: the University of Washington Press, the MIT Press, Cornell University Press, the Ohio State University Press, University of Chicago Press, and Northwestern University Press.

This new grant builds on the success of the initial 2016 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which funded the first cross-press initiative of its kind in the United States to address the marked lack of diversity in the academic publishing industry. Graduates of the first fellowship program hold professional positions at university presses across the country, including at Columbia University Press, the MIT Press, University of Virginia Press, the Ohio State University Press, and the University of Washington Press. Additionally, for the four participating presses, the initial grant expanded applicant pools, improved outreach to underrepresented communities, created more equitable preliminary screening practices in hiring, and enabled dedicated attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion overall.

The 2016 grant also served as a catalyst for broader changes at the partner presses and within the AUPresses as a larger organization. “Diversity is one of AUPresses’ core values. As such, we are proud to partner in the expansion of this significant program,” says AUPresses Executive Director Peter Berkery. “Our participation in the original initiative over the last three years has led, not only to more inclusive programming choices at our annual conferences and webinars, but also to the formation of a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which will evolve into a Standing Committee to help us sustain momentum in this area of vital importance to our community, higher education, and the entire publishing industry.”

This new grant offers opportunities for more sustained engagement with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion among the new partner presses and the university press community more broadly. “Continuing the fellowship program will enable us to focus on longer-term issues of retention and leadership development among the program’s participants,” says Larin McLaughlin, Editor in Chief of the University of Washington Press and principal investigator on the grant. “With this new grant, we want to provide the opportunity for new presses to participate in the program while benefitting from the experience of the original partner presses.”

Gita Manaktala, Editorial Director of the MIT Press, comments, “The fellows have inspired a strong sense of responsibility among partner presses, which have demonstrated this in several ways: by developing more inclusive press environments, by opening processes to welcome the fellows’ perspectives and input into the daily work of acquisitions, and by providing fellows with focused career advice for job placement and professional development.”

The first and second grants combined provide for a total of 30 fellows in six years, which will generate marked shifts in acquisitions staff across university presses not possible without this kind of dedicated funding.

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Washington Mark Richards says, “At the University of Washington, we value and honor diverse experiences and perspectives and prioritize promoting access, opportunity, and justice for all. I’m excited about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s investment in diversity and inclusion in transforming academic publishing, and delighted that UW Press is a leader in this area.”

Betsy Wilson, Vice Provost for Digital Initiatives and Dean of University Libraries, to whom the UW Press reports, says, “UW Libraries actively supports the university in sustaining diversity, creating inclusive experiences for the UW community, and confronting institutional bias and structural racism. This new grant augments our existing commitments and programs to equity and social justice as a world-class research university.”

For more information, please contact Larin McLaughlin, Editor in Chief, by calling (206) 221-4995 or emailing  lmclaugh@uw.edu.

What Prisoners Tell Us: The Making of Concrete Mama

Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, by Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy, won the Washington State Book Award in 1981 for its stark, sympathetic portrayal of life inside the maximum-security prison. The University of Washington Press is publishing a new edition of the book, long out of print but as relevant as ever.

McCoy was recently interviewed by prison scholar Dan Berger, who wrote the book’s new introduction, in Berger’s class at the University of Washington Bothell. For University Press Week, here are some edited highlights from the interview about our neighbors behind bars.


DAN BERGER: Why did you decide to write about the prison?

JOHN MCCOY: My first glimpse of the penitentiary was as a cub newspaper reporter at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. At that time—this was 1977—the State Penitentiary was ending a reform experiment in which prisoners were allowed a fair amount of autonomy inside the walls and allowed outside furloughs. The theory was that the more contact that prisoners have with the outside world, the better the chances are that they can be safely returned to society. But this reform project was failing. I wondered why.

So you and Ethan Hoffman, a photographer at the paper, quit your newspaper jobs to do a book on the penitentiary?

The guard in 9-tower, his rifle ready, watches as new prisoners arrive “on the chain,” a bus that carries them shackled from the state corrections reception center in Shelton.

Yes. Ethan and I spent four months in the fall and winter of 1978-79 inside the prison. We were allowed to come in as early as 5:00 in the morning and stay as late as 10:00 p.m. We were unescorted, which was absolutely crucial. If we walked around with a guard, we were not going to get any information from prisoners. Then, towards the end of our time there, we spent some time with guards, which was interesting, because some prisoners who had talked to us earlier ceased talking to us. It’s a very polarized world inside prison.

How did you approach doing the book?

As journalists. Ethan and I were not prison experts. We simply wanted to photograph and report on what we saw inside the walls. Here’s what prisoners tell us. Here’s what their day-to-day life is like depending on whether they’re tough or vulnerable, men or women, black, white, or brown. Here’s what the Parole Board members say. Here’s what the warden says. Here’s the guards.

Besides the warden, did you have to talk to others to get access?

Not to get access—but politically, I had to talk to the head of the guards’ union and the prisoners who served on the Resident Council, the elected representatives of the general population.

One thing that helped pave our way with prisoners was Ethan’s decision to give anyone who asked a nice 8-by-10-inch black-and-white portrait photo of themselves. So Ethan had guys posing with weights, stripped to the waist, displaying all their tattoos. He took pictures of whatever they wanted, but one picture only. And in return, they signed a release form that said we could use these pictures in the book. Ethan spent a lot of nights in the darkroom because prisoners wanted quick results. Nonetheless, the decision created a lot of goodwill and gave us great access.

Kim, right, spends time with Leomy, his “inside lady” and a member of Men Against Sexism, a club popular with prison gays and queens.

At this time, there were all kinds of areas that were off limits to guards. So, in order to enter these areas, we had to have either the president of the Lifers’ Club, or the Chicano Club, or the Meditation Group, or Men Against Sexism, or some other prison leader, either accompany or approve us. We had to tread cautiously. If we got crosswise with any particular group, we would be out of there, or we could have caused harm to ourselves. There were certainly some tense situations with both prisoners and guards.

Could you describe an average day in those four months you were there?

Prisoners were locked in their cells overnight. The day began with morning chow, about 7:00, for the general population—those not confined in the segregation unit or in protective custody.

Prisoners were released by tiers and walked to the chow hall—an ugly, cold brick building with a lot of cold metal tables and metal serving trays. Sometimes there were fights in the chow hall, or food was thrown, and guards intervened.

Some prisoners spend hours playing dominoes in the black prisoners’ club room.

After chow, most prisoners had nothing to do. There were certainly not enough jobs to employ even a minority of the 1,400 prisoners. So they were free to go back to their cells or wander the breezeways. There was recreation time in the gym, the weight room, and the Big Yard, where prisoners played baseball, card games, and smoked weed. On occasion, the bikers were permitted to race their motorcycles around the inside perimeter. There was also a limited education program—which soon ended when the Legislature withdrew funding—in which prisoners could complete their GED or get community college credits or university credits. Occasionally, there were movies or shows in the auditorium.

Some prisoners hung out at their private club rooms. Although you could get an infraction for smoking weed, it was basically tolerated. And there was heroin and other drugs smuggled in from outside.

You could work if you could find a job in the kitchen, chow hall, laundry, license plate shop, or elsewhere. Pay was pitiful—a few cents an hour. The primary advantage of a job was access to things you could steal and then exchange or sell.

Lockup in the evening came early, right after dinner, unless you had a permit to be out for work or prison business.

Because most of the population spent most of their time in four-man, 10-by-12-foot cells, your cellmates were very important. The Resident Council ostensibly helped prisoners find compatible cellmates. But there were powerful guys in the prison who really controlled the cells. Often, you had to buy a cell. Sometimes you’d get a cell equipped with a television, a nice mattress, and so on, but you paid for that. And you paid for that with money, drugs, sex, cigarettes, pruno—which is prison-brewed liquor—or other things.

What did you expect to find at the prison and did you find it?

First of all, we knew it was a good and unexpected story. Look, these guys are in motorcycle gangs, and they’re in prison, and they’re racing their Harleys? We knew Ethan could get fabulous pictures. I mean, a sweat lodge—I’d never been to a sweat lodge before, and certainly not one inside a prison. A casino night at the Chicano Club. There were transgender or cross-dressing dancers. There was sex, there was drugs. So, without making a judgment call, we had to ask: What’s happening here? And why?

“Nert,” left, and “Kickstand” are bikers, cellmates and tattoo enthusiasts.

Our hope was to do a fair, balanced, and accurate account of life inside a state penitentiary—a notorious state penitentiary, perhaps—at a time in which hard questions continued to be asked about the purpose of prison.

How do you know you got at the truth?

Ethan had it easier, because photos don’t lie. I had to pursue multiple sources. Sometimes I heard prisoners explain their crimes and protest their innocence in ways that were preposterous. Fortunately, a helpful prison trustee was willing to share confidential records with me. And a prison attorney was quietly willing to access court records for me. I was able to verify prison stories and eventually developed a pretty good BS detector.

How did the experience of those four months in the prison affect you?

I went away humbled by the experience. I left with the strong feeling that this is really a destructive place. It’s destructive for those who are there, both keepers and the kept. It’s dangerous. It does little to help people adjust to the real world. In fact, it destroys a lot of prisoners’ chances of having a successful transition.

And it picks on the poor, the less educated, and the mentally ill. Incarcerated people are disproportionally poor and minorities. They have unaddressed behavioral issues; learning issues; addiction issues. Their keepers, at Walla Walla and prisons elsewhere, tend to be disproportionally white, rural, with a high school education, often veterans, and with limited understanding of those they are charged with “correcting.”

Why is Concrete Mama relevant 40 years later?

Ed Mead, a founder of the radical George Jackson Brigade and a Marxist revolutionary serving time for armed assault on a bank, is confined to the “intensive segregation unit” commonly known as “the hole.”

For two reasons: First, prison life doesn’t change much. Prisoners spend most of their time caged. They have little to do. They band together for protection and personal gain. And they generally leave prison more alienated and damaged than when they came in. As a result, two-thirds of them return.

Secondly, starting in the early 1970s, Washington State had tried to reform its prisons by emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. That meant giving prisoners a good deal of autonomy with the expectation that if they could make something of themselves inside, they could be successful on the outside. For a variety reasons, it was a failure. Ethan and I were there as the experiment finally fell apart. But you have to ask, what have we done since?


John A. McCoy is the author of A Still and Quiet Conscience, a biography of Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. He was a reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and has taught writing courses at the University of Washington-Tacoma and Seattle University.

Dan Berger is associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical prison studies. He is the author of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, and coauthor most recently of Rethinking the American Prison Movement.

To learn more about Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla or to buy your copy of the book, click here.