Widening the Circle
A Profile of Award-winning Author and Publisher L.M. Browning
by Staff Writer Eric D. Lehman
Featured in the Autumn 2016 Issue • Print – eEdition
I am large, I contain multitudes.
–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
The Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly hums with activity, clusters of buzzing voices gathering around paintings of boats and photographs of trees, chatting and laughing. Rows of chairs and a microphone wait for a poetry reading, generously called the “Poetry of the Earth.” Every one of the authors reading today is published by Leslie Browning’s press, Homebound Publications. At the center of it all is Leslie herself, graceful features hidden behind black rimmed glasses and long, wavy mouse-brown hair that shimmers gold in the harsh light of the art gallery. Finally, the reading commences and she stands up to read, her usual eclectic outfit of a scarf, blazer, jeans, and gray Converse All-Stars lending a whimsical delight to her presence. Her strong hands wave expressively in the air as she speaks, and her voice is calm and clear.
And yet, this is the first time in over two years that she has read her own work. The demands of being the force and the glue of the cooperative gallery that is a publishing house, naturally sap her strength as a writer. When she was eighteen she had scribbled “Homebound Publications” in a notebook, thinking about opening a press even at that age. “I naively thought opening a publishing house would give me more time to write,” she laughs wryly. Of course, this did not happen, and she didn’t write anything new for a long time. “The first few years I let it consume me,” she says.
The tension between writer and publisher is one of many: daughter and businesswoman, healer and sufferer, samurai and monk. Usually, she gives the appearance of a quiet, introverted woman, but I have seen steel in her eyes when she speaks about an injustice or a mistake. “Brilliant and determined,” says singer-songwriter Kelly Kancyr. “Instigatorial,” laughs Jason Kirkey, who brought Leslie into Hiraeth, and later became a partner in Homebound. Yet in 2008 at her first poetry reading, she “shook like a leaf” according to her mother Marianne. She seems a bundle of contradictions—steel and feathers. “I’ve made many journeys across many lands, over many lives,” she writes in Fleeting Moments of Fierce Clarity. She may mean this spiritually or metaphorically, but she also lives those lives right now—as a multi-various rainbow of responsibilities and interests, words and worlds.
Her group of authors gathers at a nearby pub and chats about wild edibles, the nature of art, and when she isn’t listening, about Leslie’s complicated multiple lives, of which we are so often the beneficiaries. At times she seems to live the romantic life of a writer, sitting in a coffee shop or pub, sipping a drink, but instead of writing her own novels or poems, she spends those hours completing the thankless job of copy-editing other authors’ work. She shuttles between Boston, Pawcatuck, New Haven, and New York on the train, watching out the windows as the salt marshes and suburbs clickclack by, meeting with authors and distributors, serving on the board of directors at the Independent Booksellers Association. “Being involved in books” was her goal, and she has achieved it. But at what cost? How many lives can one person live?
Leslie was born in West Palm Beach, Florida, where her mother Marianne lived with her first husband until divorcing when Leslie was only three. Marianne moved the two of them back to southeastern Connecticut, where she had grown up and lived. After a few years of relative calm and stability, Marianne abruptly went blind while driving on the highway. Eight-year-old Leslie had to steer the car off the road. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Marianne thought she was dying and made her will, but when she got a second opinion she found she had Multiple Sclerosis. It was not a death sentence, perhaps, but for a single mother and her daughter it was devastating.
During those years Leslie began to explore her world, always out and about in the woods, paddling down streams, or in the pond across the street. She would spend entire days out of the house; Marianne had to call her in for meals or pack her a lunch for her outings. “I lived a Huckleberry-Finn childhood in the beginning, I was knee deep in mud with frogs and turtles,” she laughs. She paddled along the streams, built shelters in the forest, and cooked on an open fire in a nearby picnic area. In Oak Wise she writes to the earth: “Laying upon my back, I rest a flat heavy stone atop my chest—anchoring myself to you.”
On one adventure she and some friends paddled down Anguilla Brook and passed under a large spider web in the vined-canopy above. The sack burst and a rain of baby spiders poured into the inflatable boat. They jumped out and capsized the craft, but a few of the spiders made it back into the Browning house. “Every now and then a big hairy black spider would go scurrying across the living room floor,” Marianne says, laughing.
She listened to her mother read The Boxcar Children and The Secret of Nimh and later read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, both books with strong women writers at their center. Following in their footsteps, she began to write, completing a short story about a haunted whaling ship, first feeling her way to the idea that she could be an author. However, she didn’t make writing a habit until she was fifteen, scribbling little poems and meditations. Her mother found scraps of paper and asked “Are these song lyrics?” “No, they’re me.” “Keep doing what you’re doing,” Marianne told her.
She grew up with a large group of friends, mostly boys, many with single parents on drugs, and her triple bunk bed and Marianne’s kitchen often served as welcome havens. She played baseball and full-contact football with the boys, but after watching The Karate Kid found her true athleticism in the martial arts, studying Budō and Goju Ryu. She learned enough to compete in, and win, tournaments, but more importantly her martial arts gave her the confidence “not to be bullied,” and she was never threatened even though her neighborhood was amongst the worst in eastern Connecticut.
We don’t often think of small-town New England as burdened with “bad neighborhoods,” but Leslie was only one of four of her large group of friends who graduated high school. The others fell into drugs, into gangs, into despair. “I was sixteen and very moral, and took a stand and said that this is wrong,” she says wryly. She had also seen alcoholism and drugs destroy the older generation, and wanted nothing to do with it. So, she stayed “very straight edge” and one by one her former friends deserted her.
And then the real problems began.
Marianne’s multiple sclerosis flared up throughout the 1990s, and in 1999 the summer before Leslie’s senior year she had a big attack, a lesion the size of a fist in her cerebellum. After spending two months in the hospital she was finally sent home, where Leslie took over full care, cleaning and cooking. While performing these duties, she continued to attend high school, ducking out of classes early so she could rush home.
She had focused on art in high school, but applied to and was accepted into a pre-med program in Upstate New York, near a few blood-relations. They promised to take care of Marianne while Leslie attended classes at the university, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do it properly. Heartbroken and sick with worry, Leslie had to defer college and brought her mother back to Connecticut. In the years to come, the two women broke ties with these family members over this, and other things.
After a few years, Marianne’s health improved somewhat, and she was able to do housework and take care of herself.
Leslie was soon able to visit the Westerly Public Library and take walks into the woods and Wilcox park. But things were still hard. The mother and daughter had to walk two miles to the grocery store, in the heat of August and the snows of February, packing forty pounds of supplies on the way home. They shopped at Thrift stores, mended clothes rather than buying them, and quilted blankets out of old fabric.
In Seasons of Contemplation, she writes without exaggeration of the “waves of hardship driven by unrelenting gales.” Those were also the years when her novel of a group of orphans surviving in the streets of 1850s Boston, The Castoff Children, started to take shape, and “bits and bobs” of the book reflect her own experiences struggling to survive. No one helped the two women, and since they only had each other, they became even closer than they had been, talking for hours at a time, trying to make sense of their world. “She gave me the space to dream,” says Leslie thankfully. Marianne modestly demurs: “It was a period of great contemplation.”
This contemplation led to new kinds of cathartic writing, explorations of her spirituality. She wrote and read her way slowly through all the world religions, looking for answers and meaning. Eventually, she found Frank MacEowen’s book The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers, and Seekers, which “saved her” during a period when she felt spiritually outcast. She wrote him a letter, and they became friends. Frank’s father LaRue loved Fleeting Moments of Fierce Clarity and became a sort of adopted father for Leslie. “You meet people and you know they’ll be part of your life,” she says. If she ever gets married, he will give her away. Such fated encounters were one of the small wonders of those difficult years.
She didn’t think about publishing any of her own spiritual writing until she was twenty-six when she wrote Ruminations at Twilight in three weeks. A month later she wrote Oak Wise in a mere two weeks. “It was kind of an intense summer,” she chuckles. Rennie McQuilken, current poet laureate of Connecticut, read her work and told her to “keep going.” He even edited the first poem she sent him, and this gave her the courage to continue. At last, Ruminations was accepted by a small publisher, who gave her a five book deal based on its strength. With the release of these first books, she toured with other “new age” authors, and was pigeonholed as a sort of spiritual guru by a few readers. But this comes with its own risks. When her novel The Nameless Man was released, she was heckled and received hate mail, mostly because she had, as she puts it in Oak Wise, “diverged from the mainstream faiths.” Of course, as with all true seekers, the spirituality expressed in these books is an “expression of curiosity,” an “exploration” rather than the words of a teacher who knows the final truth.
Although the small publisher who accepted her work may have started out with good intentions, he ended by fleecing his various authors and sinking the press. Luckily Leslie talked him down from the original contract to three books, and gave him one she “just cobbled together” to get out of the nightmare. It was a bad first experience with the publishing industry, but instead of giving up as a writer, she decided to start her own press. And in her press, this experience had convinced her, she would “do everything the opposite.”
During these years she worked at a commercial bakery, having loved baking since she was a girl, and assuming she would enjoy making a living doing it. However, as with so many expectations, the reality turned out quite different, repetitively making hundreds of pounds of dough each morning. She liked the people she worked with but made barely over minimum wage and didn’t get a raise in nearly five years. Of course, being a publisher is a little like being a baker: they both involve chemistry; so maybe this taught her something about her next profession. Instead of merely publishing her, Jason Kirkey offered her a job as Marketing Director for Hiraeth Press. He taught her the first lessons about publishing: distribution, printing, web design, and to think like a big press even if you are small.
She opened an imprint on Hiraeth, but she really wanted to start her own publishing house. She had learned the ins and outs of a multitude of subjects at the Westerly Public Library, traveling there three days a week, and now she went back, struggling up the steep learning curve of tax certificates and business licensing. With $800 during the recession, she purchased a block of ISBNs and got a distribution deal. She opened a bank account in the business name, learned design programs for the books, and built a website. She re-acquired the rights to her own books, and found her first author, Theodore Richards.
She logged “insane” hours that first year, pushing her mind and body to the limit, taking care of her small family, working two jobs, studying correspondence courses at University of London’s International Program and following her dream at the same time. “The first year you’ll be totally overwhelmed, but after that you’ll be okay,” a friend who was an entrepreneur told her once when she was feeling overwhelmed. She needed a better source of income to finance this dream, so she began teaching special education at her former high school. However, the school wanted to defund the program and mainstream the high-functioning autistic children, and didn’t tell the parents about it. Outraged, she told the parents and was forced out of the job after just a year. Luckily she had saved money and with her mother’s encouragement “went full tilt” at Homebound. It was that year that she picked up my own book, Afoot in Connecticut, and began bringing others into the fold.
For two years Leslie took the train from Pawcatuck, Connecticut to Boston, essentially running the business out of the Parker House Hotel, meeting authors and the small part-time staff in the lobby or the bar. She chose the hotel because of its “rich literary history,” but as the press expanded she rented a less romantic but more practical office suite in the growing downtown of Westerly, Rhode Island and later New Haven, Connecticut. She started The Wayfarer magazine, without any advertisements except her own, and grew it to a readership of five thousand. Larger now, Homebound Publications merged again with Hiraeth, and Jason once again became her partner.
As with any small press, money is often an issue, but she refuses to compromise when it comes to her authors, meeting them in California or New York, buying dinners, giving generous royalty packages. Why? Because it feels more human. It creates a family of writers rather than a “stable” or whatever other degrading metaphor fits most publisher-author relationships. Of course, she says that monetary success is obviously desirable, but “I’d rather be the vehicle for a certain circle of people that are doing deep work.”
It’s not always easy to find that “circle,” and with eight hundred to a thousand book submissions a year, she has to make choices. “It’s an X-factor, it’s not just the book,” she says. “It’s the alignment of a good person to work with and a good manuscript that suits the direction I want to take the publishing house.” She usually finds about fifteen or twenty she wants to work with, and then has to cut that down further, currently able to take twelve manuscripts a year, shepherding new authors into the world. As poet Gary Whited says, she has become “a gatherer.” She shakes her head at this compliment. “Authors are the number one reason a small press succeeds,” she says. “You carry the word.”
Another thing she is able to do as a publisher is to push the authors she likes. One of her favorites, David Leff, has years of journals and boxes of notes about his amazing experiences. When he told her about an experience canoeing on Maine’s Allagash Waterway that he “hadn’t worked on for ten years,” she told him to “Go work on it!” He did, and that book, and others, have come into the world because of her.
This is a fact she still hasn’t processed, stuck deep in the business aspects of publishing. “You don’t feel the accomplishment,” she says. “I have to keep going on to the next book, the next author.”
One of her many authors, my wife Amy Nawrocki, comments often on Leslie’s “intense” drive, and of the risks involved, saying “I admire the way she handles setbacks, shoulders set and plowing ahead.” And setbacks have continued to plague her, as they have her whole life. Growing up she had trained as a speed skater, and in 2014 tried to do it again as a means to get back into shape after a year of surgeries and a cancer scare. But on her first day back in the sport she fell, twisted her foot, dislocating it, ripping ligaments off the bones, and breaking her ankle in three places. Reconstructive surgeries followed and months of physical therapy as she learned to walk again. During this time, she had to run the press from her hospital bed instead of cafés. Today she has 60% of the range she used to in that leg. This accident is only one of several health problems that have assaulted her while she struggles to write and to run Homebound Publications.
Her own writing has certainly borne the brunt of her dedication to Homebound. After all, we are only given so many opportunities, only have so much time. “She will sign book deals for others and put their projects before her own,” says Kelly Kancyr. As recently as 2015, her mother and friends told her firmly that she needed to make her own work a priority, prompting her to take one or two days a week to work on her own writing. In this way she finally finished The Castoff Children, a novel she started way back in 2004, going through many revisions, moving from darkness to light. Eleven years is a long time to work on a novel.
On the other side, publishing has undoubtedly made her the author she is today. It forces her to rub up against other authors with different styles and forms, to read closely, to think about what works and what doesn’t, to ask questions that authors working in isolation sometimes never consider. “When you’re around other creative minds, it pushes you further in your work,” she agrees. It has also taught her the difficult lesson of leaving earlier work behind; she can look back and say, “I’m not there anymore.” Last year when we sat together at an author signing on Groton Heights under the tower of the Battle Monument, she looked at the row of her published books, and “only wanted to take credit for about a fourth of it.” As an author you have to keep moving forward, even if the early work still resonates with others.
Her next book, Wild Silence, is well on the way. But the laptop pulls her back into publishing work, and she struggles to “get away.” It is no exaggeration to say that this tension defines her life. After all, creating a successful publishing house from nothing is the work of many years, and becoming an accomplished writer is the steady, complex work of decades. Can one person do both? If anyone can, she can.
On a spring day at Nomad’s End, the home I share with Amy Nawrocki, Leslie sits on the porch with a blue cast on her left arm, scarf around her neck, Oxford shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, a borrowed watch on her wrist. As the birds twitter and the wind blows through the beeches, we eat a meal of fresh fiddleheads, fried polenta with a spicy chocolate chutney. We talk about our projects, and as always, she seems a contradiction, awkward, introverted, yet possessed of zen-like confidence. We walk down to the stream, past a mother robin sitting on a nest, cross a stream, walk along an old Indian trail, and inspect the ruin of an early 20th-century cabin. She immediately sees it all as a writer does, sees the possibilities. But later her talk runs on the publishing house, on the direction for the future. “I don’t care the awards we’ve racked up, I care about widening the circle.” She references the Concord transcendentalists and the Bloomsbury group, citing the accomplishments that might not have happened in isolation. “What came out of their conversations is amazing, all pushing one another, all inspiring one another.”
As an author, I have longed my whole life for those kind of conversations, and now they have become commonplace. Just a month earlier Leslie was at Nomad’s End with singer-songwriter Kelly Kancyr, artist Mary Fletcher, and author David Leff, who said that being one of her authors is like “being part of a family.” Our conversations may have been “literary” at first, but ranged over the whole of life, starting new thoughts, inspiring new work. I actually began putting together a new book the next day. “To have facilitated in some small way that kind of creative group, that is the legacy of the press,” Leslie says.
We think because the act of writing is essentially solitary that being a writer is solitary. But it is not—it is essentially a communal act in both its genesis and its outcome. It is a reaching out, a bringing together. We share literature. And running a publishing house works the same way, but not because it is also “involved in books.” No, they both aspire to do the same things—to connect people, to start conversations, to open doors and build bridges.
Whatever challenges her complicated life brings, we can be sure that Leslie Browning will continue to widen the circle for us all.
Eric D. Lehman is a travel and history writer, with reviews, essays, and stories in dozens of magazines and journals. He is also an award-winning author of many books, including Afoot in Connecticut, The Foundation of Summer, A History of Connecticut Wine, Insiders’ Guide to Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Food, Becoming Tom Thumb, and Homegrown Terror. In his spare time, he pursues Henry Miller scholarship and teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport, where he directs the school literary magazine, Groundswell, and the faculty essay series, The Commons. He lives in Hamden with his wife, poet Amy Nawrocki, and his two cats.