Soquel publisher tries to size up the post-Trump era in new essay collection
In the world of publishing, Steve Kettmann is a tiny fish in an enormous ocean. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to let the big fish take all the tasty morsels.
The Soquel-based author and journalist is hawking a new book as a publisher/editor, from his small publishing imprint Wellstone Books, that sounds like something that the big houses would unleash on the world.
Now What? The Voters Have Spoken — Essays on Life After Trump is a collection of 38 personal essays, reactions to the 2020 presidential election, with a roster of contributors impressive in both its scope and diversity. The book includes three Pulitzer Prize winners and other award-winning columnists and writers.
As for diversity, has there ever been, or will there ever be again, one book that contains essays from actress Rosanna Arquette, former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark, soccer coach Bruce Arena, the Rev. Al Sharpton, baseball manager Dusty Baker, and former Trump administration spokesman Anthony Scaramucci?
Let’s take a risk and declare, no.
Kettmann emphasized that Now What? is not punditry. It’s only political insofar as it addresses what the last four years have meant on a personal level to its various contributors. “We wanted the collection to be a conversation,” he said, pointing to essays by Ken Korach, the broadcast voice of the Oakland A’s, who talked about his World War II veteran dad, and Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Bretón, who wrote about the crushing disappointment of his twin 12-year-old daughters at the election of 2016.
“Everyone was writing these essays in the direct aftermath of the (2020) election,” said Kettmann. “Mostly they talked about relief, trying not to draw grand conclusions.”
Kettmann will host a virtual event sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz on Jan. 11. The contributors to join him will be novelist Stephen Mack Jones, artist Mark Ulriksen, and journalist Angela Wright Shannon.
Kettmann went deep into his Rolodex compiling the author list of the collection, which included some prominent brand names such as commentator Keith Olbermann and satirical novelist Christopher Buckley.
But the list went a bit deeper as well, including television writer Sophia Lear, the granddaughter of legendary producer Norman Lear, and J-L Cauvin, who gained a measure of fame for his uncanny impression of Donald Trump on YouTube.
The idea dates back to Kettmann’s work as a contributing writer to a book about the 2017 white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. (The book also includes former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, and activist Susan Bro, the mother of the young woman killed by right-wing demonstrators during the Charlottesville rally).
From the moment he conceived of the idea to the day he had the finished book in hand was, he estimated, about two months — lightning speed in the often glacial timelines of traditional publishing.
That kind of quickness meant a lot of long days and longer nights. But, he said, he wants to strike a blow about the relevance of books in a world obsessed with tweets and shares.
“I seriously think that this is front and center to the answer to the problem we have in this country,” he said. “Everybody is reading social media. Their brains are in a frying pan, just sizzling. They’re not really moving beyond certain narrow emotional reactions and thoughts. I do think this collection demonstrates what a real conversation looks like.”
Kettmann and his wife Sarah Ringler run the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in the Soquel Hills, which hosts resident writers from around the world and events with authors for the local community. As a publisher, Wellstone Books has published A Light in the Midst of Darkness, a history of Bookshop Santa Cruz (written by the author of this piece) and the newly published I Wish I Was Billy Collins, a collection of the poetry of the late Santa Cruz writer Pete McLaughlin.
With Now What?, Kettmann is looking to launch Wellstone Books into the national conversation and maybe even to break through the ice on the increasingly frozen methods and priorities of the major publishing houses.
“When we look back at the four years Donald Trump was in office and we look at the impact books had, I think it will be a very mixed picture,” he said. “You have crazy aberrations like Mary Trump, the niece of the president, writing a book that sold a million copies in a week. But in terms of people having very interesting, smart takes, that helped us all process Trump, whether in fiction or non-fiction, I don’t think there’s been much.
“I don’t want to sound too self-important; we are a small publisher and, as of now, who knows if people will engage (with this book). But we do know we have a great lineup of writers who put a lot into this, giving of themselves. We hope that adds up to something.”