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Fifth Star Press aims high

A new indie publisher brings forgotten Chicago lit to light.

Photograph: Nicole Radja

At a time when mega book publishers are merging and digital books are shaking up the industry, launching a new independent publishing venture may seem risky. But Jason Stauter and Ian Morris, founders of Chicago’s Fifth Star Press (and its publisher and editor, respectively), are optimistic. “It’s as if we’re at the bottom of the sea where it’s very still,” Morris says, “and up there all hell’s breaking loose.”

Surviving isn’t easy, though. Like many indie presses, Fifth Star relies on a small staff of mostly unpaid volunteers to help curb costs. Fortunately, Stauter and Morris bring decades of expertise to Fifth Star, which emphasizes contemporary and reissued works of fiction and poetry. After Morris received his M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arkansas, he spent 13 years editing for TriQuarterly at Northwestern, which is where he met Stauter, then the production coordinator for Northwestern University Press and now business manager for Columbia College Chicago Press.

In 2010 Stauter approached the then skeptical Morris about starting Fifth Star, so named, in a nod to the city flag, to represent Chicago’s imminent “artistic or cultural breakthrough.” They spent that summer researching titles and establishing nonprofit status. “It seemed like we were pretty busy,” Stauter recalls, “but it took [more than] two years before our first book came out.” It was Winnetka poet Susan Hahn’s first novel, The Six Granddaughters of Cecil Slaughter, largely a critical success.

Now Fifth Star is reprinting lost or forgotten homegrown classics in a series called Twentieth Century Chicago. The first volume was released last week: MacKinlay Kantor’s debut novel Diversey, which Stauter discovered scouring old issues of The Chicagoan magazine. Originally published in 1928, it follows Marshall “Marry” Javlyn, a young reporter from Iowa determined to make it big in the Windy City newspaper industry. He’s quickly swept into the violent, romantic, sex- and gin-drenched world of Prohibition-era Chicago.

Although Morris admits Kantor’s novel relies on “melodrama and coincidence,” Diversey is an engaging read. But where has this gem been hiding? Kantor authored dozens of books, adapted one of his novels into the Academy Award–winning film The Best Years of Our Lives and received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1955 novel Andersonville (the Civil War–era prison, not the North Side neighborhood Kantor called home). Yet, “[He] could not have done more and had less of a legacy,” Morris says. Like many writers at the time, Kantor primarily penned for money. “When you’re writing for Boys’ Life magazine, you’re bringing in a paycheck but not necessarily a reputation for greatness.”

One wonders how many lost Chicago works are out there. “Initially, we’re not having trouble finding them,” Stauter says. Next up in the reprint series is a collection by novelist and storywriter Henry Blake Fuller, a chronicler of early Chicago and queer lit pioneer, edited by local historian Paul Durica.

With four titles slated for print in 2013, including publications by Illinois poet laureate Kevin Stein and poet/memoirist Kathleen Rooney, Fifth Star’s cofounders are buoyant. Stauter hopes to make a living doing what he loves most: making books. And after reviewing their preliminary releases, “It’s exactly what I hoped it would be,” Morris says. “So if that would continue forever, I’d be very happy.”

Fifth Star celebrates the launch of Diversey Thursday 6 at City Lit Books.

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