Here in the Book Review Department of the Literary Arts Wing of The Memphis Flyer, I'm sure to carefully inspect the return address of every package that comes across our loading dock; each package is meticulously filed according to publishing house. It's a greased chute from New York to our little shelf in the literary world, and they're all here — Penguin, Harcourt, Knopf, HarperCollins. Increasingly, though, one pile has grown far bigger than the others, and it's from a little (nearly) homegrown press.
Sartoris Literary Group was founded five years ago by James L. Dickerson, a prolific writer with substantial ties to Memphis as a reporter with The Commercial Appeal for six years back in the 1980s. He then went on to found Nine-O-One Network in 1986, a music magazine that, at the time, was third in national circulation behind Rolling Stone and Spin.
Meanwhile, he published books — about 20 by the time he decided he'd seen enough of what New York could do and start up his own enterprise. "With five out of the seven major New York houses foreign-owned, we're one of the few American-owned publishing houses left besides university presses," he says.
Astute readers will recognize the title of Faulkner's first Yoknapatawpha County novel, but Dickerson went a step back for the name of his business. "[Sartoris is] a Chickasaw word that means 'water flowing over flat land,'" he says. "I'm from the Delta, so it seemed like a good name."
With Sartoris, one will find a focus on the South. Despite his move to the Jackson area in Mississippi, Dickerson lived in Memphis for 13 years and has an intense affection for our city. He seeks out local writers and has an affinity for its music, publishing Memphis Man: Living High, Laying Low, the memoir of musician/songwriter/producer Don Nix; and The Rock Trenches: Journal of a Music Industry Executive by Phillip Rauls, a Memphis-born music promoter for Stax Records, EMI, Atlantic, and 20th Century Fox, who worked with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, Robert Palmer, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"I get a steady stream from Memphis, and I hope that continues because I want more," he says. He calls on his past life as a music writer, word of mouth, and referrals to find those like Nix and Rauls.
Dickerson himself has written both fiction and nonfiction, and he is the official biographer of Elvis' guitarist Scotty Moore. Next year he'll release his biography of record producer Chips Moman. But his ear for fiction is sharp as well, and Sartoris last week dropped Cold Eye, a new collection of short stories by Margaret Skinner, a former English instructor with the University of Memphis and author of the novels Old Jim Canaan and Molly Flanagan and the Holy Ghost. The mystery novel Memphis Hoodoo Murders by Kathryn Rogers came out last year.
Dickerson's love of music resonates in Mojo Triangle by Mardi Allen. This travel guide takes the tourist from New Orleans to Memphis to Nashville, soaking up each area's contribution to music with brief bios of local artists along with practical information regarding food and lodging, and music venues and historical points of interest.
Dickerson averages about 15 books published each year, and he's hoping to up that number to at least 50, so I'll be making more space on the shelves here in the Book Review Department of the Literary Arts Wing of The Memphis Flyer.
In addition to increasing the number of books, Dickerson plans an anthology of short fiction by Southern writers in the near future. For that, he says, he'll be calling for more Memphis scribes.
"Memphis is important to me," he says. "I love the city. I loved living there and had a lot of adventures there."