“This is really going to be fun, I think.”
— Louis Rubin, on the founding of Algonquin in January 1983.
In 1983, launching a publishing venture outside the well-established literary circles of New York City was defiant, courageous, and, perhaps, a bit capricious. But Louis Rubin, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, founded Algonquin Books with Shannon Ravenel thirty years ago to discover, promote, and foster talented new voices of Southern literature — voices like Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons, and Clyde Edgerton, among so many others. And it worked! Today, Louis Rubin’s legacy carries on in these authors and our books. Here, we share some of their memories of Rubin, who passed away November 16.
From Shannon Ravenel:
By the time Louis Rubin began to conjure up his brain child, Algonquin Books, he’d taught hundreds of students and had come to particularly value those who wanted to write. He’d also come to recognize that young writers, particularly those far from the center of American publishing in New York City, had trouble getting literary agents, not to mention publishers. His idea was to create a traditional, for-profit literary publishing house located in the South to give those writers more immediate access. In a letter he wrote me on New Year’s Day, 1982, he asked if I’d be interested in joining him in this and asked me to “think about it.” I thought about it for 30 seconds before replying, “Louis, I’d love to. But what about money?”
Neither he nor I had much of that, but we managed to gather a few generous board members along with about $50,000, to set up editorial offices in Louis’s house in Chapel Hill, N.C. (the Xerox machine and Publicity Department were in his backyard shed) and to publish the first book under the Algonquin “A” logo- Passing Through, stories by a Kentuckian, Leon Driskell–in the fall of 1983. Passing Through got a rave review in the Washington Post and we were off and running.
From Lee Smith:
Louis Rubin has been like a rock, a lighthouse , a touchstone for me ever since I was about 18. He was my first writing teacher, and it is no exaggeration to say that I would never have become a writer if I had not run into him precisely at that time. In fact I was a wild girl, and I m not sure what would have happened to me. Louis Rubin changed my life, and I have treasured his friendship, good advice, and tried to follow his wonderful example ever since. As a teacher, I have tried to pass it on. I feel very lucky to have been on this earth with Louis Rubin.
From Jill McCorkle:
Louis Rubin changed the whole course of my life and I am forever grateful. He expressed confidence in me at a time when I had very little. When I went to his office my senior year with no ideas whatsoever about what I might do in life, he said, “Well, you need to go to graduate school, and I think you should go to the Hollins program.” And so I did.
However, my favorite advice came quite a few years later when I was getting ready for a big job interview and was terrified and working hard to enunciate and at least tame my Southeastern North Carolina accent. Louis said, “I’ve been on hundreds of these committees, and I can tell you everything they’re going to ask you.”
I pulled out a legal pad and pen and sat waiting.
“But instead,” he said and leaned forward, “What I want to tell you is this: go and be yourself. If they don’t like you just that way then you don’t want to work with them anyway.”
I think this advice applies to all situations and perfectly illustrates Louis’s great honesty. I got the job, but once again, what I really got was Louis’s vote of confidence, something that has propelled me since I was 20 years old and likely always will. He will always be missed, honored, and loved. I feel so fortunate to have known him.