University of Minnesota Alumni Association


From Pen to Page

Book publisher and editor Emilie Buchwald knows the importance of a good story, well told.

Photo by Caroline Yang

Many of us have thought, at one point or another, that we might have a story in us worth telling. For most of us, that idea goes no further.

Emily Buchwald (Ph.D. ’71) remembers the moment it dawned on her that publishers play an extraordinarily powerful role in turning the storytelling process into reality.

It was 1978, and the Loft Literary Center—then located in a house in Dinkytown—was sponsoring a reading for poets Robert Bly and Etheridge Knight at Northrop Auditorium. The Loft, as it’s commonly known, offers classes, readings, and other resources for writers; Buchwald had recently joined its board of directors. (Among more official proceedings, her first meeting included eating sandwiches and drinking wine while sitting on the floor.)

As Buchwald tells it, it became clear that an extra table was needed for the upcoming reading, so she and a fellow board member named Randy Scholes carried one of the Loft’s tables over to campus.

Scholes was a visual artist, and Buchwald had a doctorate from the U of M in English literature. She’d been impressed by the beauty of Scholes’s bookplates and other work, which led to a conversation about how there was no journal or magazine bringing together visual artists and writers in a way that enabled interplay between the two disciplines.

That table-hauling conversation gave way to additional discussions, each filled with increasing enthusiasm. Finally, Buchwald’s husband, U of M surgeon Henry Buchwald, challenged Buchwald and Scholes to stop theorizing about what someone else could do about making such a publication and take it on themselves.

The Milkweed Chronicle’s first issue was published in 1980. It quickly established a following with local writers, including Carol Bly (M.A. ’55), Bill Holm, Patricia Hampl (B.A. ’68), Phebe Hanson, and Jim Moore (B.A. ’67). In those early years, the literary and arts journal was published three times a year.

As readership spread, Buchwald and Scholes received so many quality manuscript submissions that they decided to start an independent, nonprofit publishing house, which became Milkweed Editions in 1984. (The duo continued to also put out Milkweed Chronicle until 1987.)

The first Milkweed Editions book, The Poet Dreaming in the Artist’s House, was edited by Buchwald and poet Ruth Roston and designed by Scholes. A collection of poems about the visual arts, with drawings by Scholes, the book prioritized the kind of storytelling that mainstream publishing houses often overlooked—storytelling that in Buchwald’s words gives the reader “insight that can open your heart and mind to the world.”

Buchwald’s influence on the literary ecosystem over the last 44 years has been profound. “Emilie is really one of the people who invented the idea of independent nonprofit publishing,” says Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press. “Partly through Emily’s creativity and influence, we ended up with this vibrant publishing scene in Minneapolis, which is really remarkable at a time when most of publishing has become corporate and centered on the East and West Coasts.”

Photo by Caroline Yang

BUCHWALD WAS BORN in Vienna. Her family emigrated to the United States in 1939, after Kristallnacht, the pogrom targeting Jewish businesses that occurred as the Nazis rose to power. She spent her childhood in Queens, in a “neighborhood of red brick houses with stoops where neighborhood kids could sit and talk, and a vacant lot where we played storytelling games on the weekends, when we weren’t roller-skating or jumping rope.”

Buchwald remembers her father as a born storyteller. After dinner and on weekends, he told Buchwald stories from books he’d read as a child, which motivated her to read everything from Tom Sawyer to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He also told Buchwald stories about the history of their family. When she was a student at Barnard College in the 1950s, Buchwald rewrote one of those stories and sent it to Harper’s Bazaar magazine. It was accepted for publication and reprinted in the O. Henry Prize collection of Best American Short Stories. “The most important part of that publication was how happy it made my dad,” she says.

Though Buchwald says she had “no inkling” of a career in editing and publishing when she was young, she now sees that her start began as a teenager on the staff of her school literary magazine. That interest continued at Barnard, especially after she and Henry married after her freshman year. His busy medical school life left her plenty of time for herself and Buchwald gravitated to the campus literary magazine, where she wrote poetry and stories. As a senior, she became the magazine’s editor. She had summer jobs at TV Guide and as a college guest fiction editor at Mademoiselle, a position poet Sylvia Plath had several years earlier that is said to have provided material for her novel, The Bell Jar. And even though Buchwald didn’t yet envision a future for herself in publishing, she found it deeply satisfying.

“I realized at that time how interesting I found it to help shape the writing of others, and to have the pleasure of bringing good writing into the world,” she says. (In fact, Buchwald herself has a new book of poems publishing this fall, called Incandescent, by Nodin Press.)

The Buchwalds moved to Minnesota in 1960 for Henry to start a surgical residency at the University of Minnesota. (Today Henry is honored on the Discovery Wall on the U of M Scholars Walk for his surgical innovations.)

Buchwald spent her childhood in Queens, in a “neighborhood of red brick houses with stoops where neighborhood kids could sit and talk, and a vacant lot where we played storytelling games on the weekends, when we weren’t rollerskating or jumping rope.”

That same year, Emilie started her Ph.D. in English at the U of M while working as a teaching assistant. The part-time schedule and a good babysitter allowed her to split time between work and home while the couple’s four daughters were young. Buchwald continued to teach at the University after she earned her degree. Today she sees that teaching was another stepping stone in her journey to become an editor and publisher.

“Teaching at any level gives you a lot of humility and it gives you a lot to think about in terms of communicating,” she says. “I think teaching is very helpful for editing because you are doing the same thing. When you work with writers, you want to encourage, but you want to be truthful. You want to explore what is possible. You don’t want to diminish self-confidence, but you want people to be realistic about what they’re doing.”

After founding Milkweed, Buchwald was immersed more than full time in that truthful back-and-forth with writers. While the press remained committed to poetry and fiction, Milkweed also published nonfiction titles with ethical, cultural, and environmental themes, including the 1993 essay collection Transforming A Rape Culture, which Buchwald edited with fellow academics Martha Roth and Pamela R. Fletcher. It’s still considered a pioneering examination of the dynamics of power, gender, race, and sexuality.

“We read every book we could find about rape,” Buchwald says. “And what we realized was that all of them were told by the victim, and it was about being victimized, but there was nothing that talked about why [rape] happens? What are the societal issues that makes rape such a pervasive crime? And so we began to look at all the areas in which we should invite writers [to explore the subject]. What’s happening in the education of boys and girls? What role does the church play? What about politics?”

Authors published by Milkweed from 1985-2003, during Emilie Buchwald's tenure at the press: "As an editor, I loved working with these wonderful writers," she says.
Carol Bly
Barbara Bonner
Jill Breckenridge
Tessa Bridal
Ralph Burns
John Caddy
Philip Dacey
Marjorie Dorner
Jack Driscoll
Pamela Fletcher
Timothy Francisco
Patricia Weaver Francisco
Paul Gruchow
Judith Guest
Patricia Hampl
Margaret Hasse
David Haynes
Phebe Hanson
Ellen Hawley
Bill Holm
Syl Jones
Deborah Keenan
Julie Landsman
Bill Meissner
Jim Moore
David Mura
Sheila O’Connor
Mary Rose O’Reilley
Susan Power
Roger Pfingston
Martha Roth
Jim Stowell
Faith Sullivan
Mark Vinz
Cary Waterman

Another book was Paul Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, a deeply personal collection of essays about the takeover of family farms by corporate agriculture. (Gruchow was an author and editor who grew up on a subsistence farm in rural Minnesota. He was also the co-owner and editor of The Worthington Daily Globe in the 1970s and 1980s.)

That book led to a host of others telling stories about endangered places by nature writers including Rick Bass, Alison Hathorne Deming, William Kittredge, Barry Lopez, Gary Nabhan, Janisse Ray, Scott Russell Sanders, and Terry Tempest Williams.

And there were others, including U of M Regents Professor Emerita of English Patricia Hampl.

"Emilie already had a brilliant reputation for her launching of Milkweed Editions," Hampl says. "It was such an exciting publication before there were many publishers around here. When she heard that Steven Sorman and I were putting together a book about Antonin Dvorak's 1893 visit to Spillville, Iowa, she astonished me by suggesting that she would like to publish it! This was an ambitious project, involving a 'fine press' book, which was really a large, boxed set of engravings by Sorman, and my text, handset on gorgeous paper). I imagine it was almost scary for Emilie to take on, but she was fearless in her cheerful way and saw us to publication and beyond."

When Buchwald retired from Milkweed Editions in 2003, the publishing house’s books had received more than 200 prizes, awards, and recognitions. (Today the press continues under the leadership of publisher and CEO Daniel Slager.)

AND ABOUT that retirement …

Buchwald today splits her time between Edina and, in winter, warmer climates. When she stopped going into the office every day, she decided to get a dog, whom she named Sam. Her family had had other dogs, but Sam was the first pet who was hers. She loved raising Sam so much that Buchwald started doing what she does naturally—read—in this case, animal blogs and the Humane Society and ASPCA websites. “I found out, to my surprise and disappointment, that children—even young children—did some nasty things to animals,” she says. “And like the shoemaker who pounds nails into shoes, I thought, ‘There must be books about this.’”

Buchwald discovered children’s animal books were really about anthropomorphized animals that were substitutes for children—what she describes as “Why don’t you go to sleep, bunny?” titles. So in her nascent retirement, she decided to start a new press exclusively for children’s picture books that address the responsible treatment of animals. She calls this venture Gryphon Press, because the gryphon—which is part lion, part eagle, and part serpent—is a symbol of finding justice. The press’s mission is to “give voice to the voiceless.”

Gryphon’s first book, Buddy Unchained, was published in 2006. Written by Buchwald under the name Daisy Bix, it’s about a mixed-breed dog that is rescued from neglect and abuse. Today, the press has more than 20 titles, including 2023 Coyote’s Wild Home by acclaimed author Barbara Kingsolver. Buchwald runs Gryphon with her youngest daughter, Dana, who’s also an attorney with a background in animal law.

“The stories in Gryphon Press books offer children an insight into the harsh realities that animals, both domestic and wild, often face in their everyday lives,” says Buchwald. “The books portray our fellow animals as sentient beings to be treated with respect and kindness.”

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