NBCC 2007 Sandrof Awardee Emilie Buchwald of Milkweed Editions


Emilie Buchwald “discovery” Ken Kalfus was on hand last Thursday night to present the founder of Milkweed Editions with the National Book Critics Circle Sandrof award, named after a founding member of the NBCC. Here are his remarks:

It’s a great pleasure this evening to introduce Emilie Buchwald, the founder of Milkweed Editions, and to be here as she receives the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. I didn’t quite envision this the first time Emilie telephoned me, exactly 12 years ago tonight. It was 1 in the morning, my time. Emilie was in the Milkweed offices in Minneapolis and I was in bed, in my apartment in Moscow – a surprisingly distant nine time zones away.

The reason for the phone call was that she had seen one of my short stories in Harper’s magazine. This was my first story in a big magazine and she asked if I had any others she could read.

Boy, did I.

So this is what, in the most perfect literary world, an editor does: she finds work she likes and she gets it into the hands of the right readers. She’s aggressive, she’s entrepreneurial, she gives me a massive publishing contract. Okay, so the literary world isn’t perfect, but under Emilie’s direction Milkweed Editions did eventually publish my first two collections of short stories and made sure they were reviewed and that they found their way into the stores.

Milkweed has published nearly 200 other titles, some of whose covers are being displayed behind me. They’re a remarkably varied series of books. They include fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children’s fiction, a diversity that has made the press less vulnerable to poor sales in a single genre. Some of the authors she has searched out, awakened in the middle of the night, and brought to an appreciative readership include Larry Watson, Babsi Sidwa, Susan Straight, Carol Bly, Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., Paul Gruchow, Bill Holm, David Haynes, Faith Sullivan, Patti Ann Rogers, Janisse Ray and Seth Kantner. Emilie was an early board member of the Minneapolis literary center, The Loft’s, and, in recognition of her contributions to Minnesota’s rich cultural life, she was awarded the McKnight Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award, in 2002.

Milkweed began as a nonprofit literary-visual journal, Milkweed Chronicle in 1980. Before that, Emilie had begun a writing career that continues to this day. Her first poem was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1956 and her first short story appeared in Harper’s Bazaar two years later. When her husband Henry’s medical career brought their family to the Twin Cities, Emilie pursued a Ph.D., with a dissertation entitled “The Earthly Paradise and the Ideal Landscape” – anticipating the environmental themes that would eventually play a big part at Milkweed. In 1973 she published her first novel, Gildaen, a medieval fantasy for children. The Chicago Tribune named it the best book of the year for 9- to 13-year-olds.

As Emilie became involved in Minneapolis’ nascent literary life, the idea for Milkweed germinated in discussions with the artist and book designer Randy Scholes, who shared a vision for a journal that would spark collaboration between writers and artists. Emilie chose the name Milkweed Chronicle after the hardy, ubiquitous plant that needs very little nourishment and sends its seeds all over the world. She used $1000 from her book royalties and contributions from local foundations and individuals to establish the press, publishing its first book in 1984, “The Poet Dreaming in the Artist’s House,” by Emilie and Ruth Rosten.

The back of every Milkweed book states that the press’s mission is to publish “with the intention of making a humane impact on society, in the belief that literature is a transformative art uniquely able to convey the essential experiences of the human heart and spirit.”

Milkweed has fulfilled this mission with literary fiction that intimately engages the world and with non-fiction that challenges us, as a society, to do better. In its series The World As Home, Milkweed has published anthologies that have taken on our most pressing challenges. Its titles include Transforming a Rape Culture, Toward the Livable City, Arctic Refuge and Changing the Bully Who Rules the World. At Milkweed books matter because they recognize that we write and read on a demanding, problematic, fragile and imperiled planet. Emilie has been called an “activist publisher,” a term that accurately describes her commitment to publishing the vital books of our time.

When Emilie retired from Milkweed in 2003, she left with a million copies of her books in print. In the spirit of environmentalism, think of all the carbon that she has taken out of the atmosphere. Her retirement was brief,  for in 2006 she started a new project, the Gryphon Press, which publishes children’s picture books to promote the humane treatment of animals. Emilie has been a long-time advocate for animals, in the same way that she has been a long-time advocate for lost, stray and abused authors. One of Gryphon’s books, Buddy Unchained, written by Emilie under her maiden name Daisy Bix, received both the ASPCA and the Humane Society’s awards for the best children book of 2007.

In the course of these literary endeavors, Emilie Buchwald has been writing her own remarkable story. She was born in Vienna, Austria in 1935. In 1939, after Krystallnacht, her family emigrated to the US, settling in New York City. She grew up as a bookish child, went to Hunter College High School, where she was president of the student government, and went on to Barnard College. In 1954, she married a young medical student, Henry Buchwald, who is here tonight with their four daughters, Jane, Amy, Claire and Dana. Throughout this long journey, she has made literature an intrinsic part of her life and theirs.

As I said earlier, the literary world isn’t perfect, and the publishing industry is one of the not-perfect parts of it. But in the course of a long, passionate career, Emilie Buchwald has most closely approximated what readers and writers want from an editor: a catalyst, a facilitator, a guiding intelligence and an enthusiast. I now have the honor to present Emilie Buchwald, on behalf of the National Book Critics Circle, the 2008 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.—Ken Kalfus

Photo credit: Miriam Berkley