Most of the people who came to Camilla Morton’s book party at the Diane von Furstenberg showroom last Thursday night appeared to be models or DJs or photographers. Giselle Bündchen arrived in skintight leather pants. A man with a waxed handlebar mustache wandered about wearing glasses. One young lady had on an American Apparel leotard and platform heels that resembled nothing so much as toaster ovens.
Thirty-seven-year-old publisher Carrie Kania, who recently put out the American edition of Ms. Morton’s best-selling style book, A Year in High Heels, looked with excitement at her author’s fashionable friends, but spoke only to her colleagues from Harper Perennial, the small but proud paperback unit of HarperCollins that she has lovingly presided over since the fall of 2005. Ms. Kania has spent the past three years working to transform what was not so long ago an undernourished and passive operation into a real paperback publishing house, with a carefully curated list of attractive, repackaged classics and original fiction by unknown authors who either can’t get their work published in hardcover, or prefer to do their first books in paperback because the stakes aren’t as high and failure’s less fatal.
Ms. Kania wore all black to the party, with a long string of white pearls wrapped around her neck and a ring on her right hand emblazoned with a sinister little skull.
She was probably more into skulls than anybody else at the party, as her taste in everything, from music to books to fashion, tends in general to run dark. Of all the authors she publishes at Harper Perennial, those closest to her heart tend to be self-identifying misfits with drug problems and deviant inclinations who take their cues from hipster anti-heroes like William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski. In the words of Sebastian Horsley, the wacky British “dandy” whose memoir about abusing heroin and crack and having sex with thousands of prostitutes moved U.S. customs agents to turn him away at the border twice last year, “She’s loser-friendly,” meaning not just tolerant of the unrepentantly depraved, but captivated by them. “She’s a pervert!”
Ms. Kania is trying, it seems, to work up a posse of these “losers”—to find them and make them friends with each other and turn Harper Perennial into their clubhouse. At this point, in addition to the less flamboyant and traditional authors on her list, such as the short-story writers Simon Van Booy and Lydia Peele, Ms. Kania already has in her stable a number of writers who share Mr. Horsley’s inclination toward the demimonde, including Dennis Cooper, N. Frank Daniels and Dan Fante, whose editor–Perennial’s director of marketing Amy Baker–said he is “a hero to the misfits and the drunks and the people who like to read about them,” just like his more famous father John.
The latest of these authors to publish a book, and perhaps the one Ms. Kania is most amped on at the moment, is 30-year-old ex-junkie Tony O’Neill, whose latest novel, Down and Out on Murder Mile, came out earlier this month. A man cut from the same cloth as Iggy Pop if you’re feeling generous and Marilyn Manson if you’re not, Mr. O’Neill takes pleasure in inflicting the grotesque upon unsuspecting squares and seems to get a thrill out of starting a Monday morning conversation with “I’m really hungover.”
Regardless of what you think of Mr. O’Neill’s writing, it’s easy to see why Ms. Kania seems so sure he can help her bring about the scene she is after. This is a guy, after all, who recently wrote an essay called “Writing is the New Rock and Roll” in which he proclaims that young new writers from across the globe who “have learned their lessons from the likes of Cooper, Goines, Burroughs, Selby, Kavan, Stahl, Trocchi, Bukowski, Fante and Huncke… are banding together with murder on their mind”– a guy who a little further down the page asks, “Is it a scene or is it a kind of collective insanity?” and answers, “We won’t be able to figure that out until the dust has settled and the blood has been mopped from the floor.”
Mr. O’Neill was nowhere to be seen at Ms. Morton’s party, where the mustachioed man continued walking around and Ms. Kania watched as Julia Novitch, a recent Yale grad who edited the US edition of Ms. Morton’s book, engaged him effortlessly in conversation.
When Ms. Novitch came back over ten minutes later, Ms. Kania expressed her admiration. “I could never just come up to a stranger,” she said.
“But you’re Carrie!” the charming Ms. Novitch answered, placing her hands cartoonishly on Ms. Kania’s shoulders. “You’re The Carrie!” Ms. Kania smiled at this as though trying not to and looked away, signaling a sort of melancholy affection for Ms. Novitch that she seems to flash with regularity at everyone who is fond of her. “Sometimes I just want to crawl under a rock and die,” Ms. Kania said then. “Just seems easier than coming up to a stranger.”