After working in the newspaper and magazine industry for nearly her entire career, Gia Cilento knew that one day, she’d start a publishing house. The thought stayed with her as her work took her across the country, and in 2010 when she settled back down in Ferndale she began a writing group at Affirmations LGBTQ community center.
“We started meeting once a month, then twice a month and we ate and talked and laughed our asses off,” Cilento said. “Having Affirmations as our group headquarters was an incredible opportunity to invite and embrace all facets of our community and really celebrate the ground we gained over the decades.”
It would be there that she would think of the name Mad Hatter, and in 2014, after about 20 years of planning, wanting and waiting, she finally incorporated her publishing house. It was a bit of learning curve, but in the four years since she’s been operating the Ferndale-based business, Cilento has either completed or begun work on seven projects.
According to Cilento, who is openly lesbian, Mad Hatter was largely influenced by the “burst of LGBT literature in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s.”
“The rapid growth of LGBT literature helped me see myself in the industry where there hadn’t been that kind of public face beforehand that I could relate to or draw inspiration from,” she said. “It helped me know that, not only were there others like me but that writing and publishing was a viable option as a career, that this path could lead to success for people like me. It inspired me to continue moving forward and to pursue my dreams.”
Now, Mad Hatter works primarily to reduce barriers to entry for new authors who might not have a large body of work or a literary agent yet, or who might not be first picks for larger mainstream publishers because of their sex, sexuality or topics they cover.
“I’m actually trying not to focus on the sexism, but the thing that made me want to focus on women authors, to begin with, was the disparity in the number of women that were picked up by the big traditional publishing houses,” Cilento said. “There’s been a huge movement to get that fixed. Many people who self-publish are women.”
Minerva Press is one of the publishing house’s four imprints — brand names that market different genres — and it specifically targets books written by women. The other three are Expansion Press, for books that help people in emotional need, Sherwood Press, for children’s books, and Motor City Press, which publishes local authors. Motor City is the imprint under which David Ryals’ debut novel “Elephant Play” is housed.
“The first time we met I got tingles. It was one of those things like, ‘Wow.’ My original goal was to focus on women writers, and then he sent me that and I was like, ‘I think I need to rethink this,'” Cilento said. “So, I started another imprint, and he’s our first book under Motor City Press.”
And though “Elephant Play” is about the preservation of elephants in the wild, it’s not in the format of a dry textbook. In fact, Cilento said the biggest mistake a reader can make is assuming that Ryals’ novel is a lighthearted one. One of the main sources of inspiration for Ryals was Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
“I’m nowhere near Joseph Conrad of course, but I just wanted to give it my all. I love elephants, I am kind of passionate about the whole elephant poaching topic.” Ryals said.
The book follows a narrator that readers aren’t intended to like, but who represents a sad reality — humans often prize their greed more than the environment. And Ryals certainly didn’t shy away from using gruesome imagery to demonstrate exactly how devastating poaching can be.
“My narrator thinks he’s a genius, but he’s really not,” Ryals said. “I wanted people to kind of squirm in their seats, I didn’t want them to read it and say, ‘This is great,’ and have a lighthearted reaction to it. I wanted it to be effective and impactful. I love elephants to death and I really don’t want them to go extinct. They say in 10 years, they’re going to be gone from the face of the Earth if we don’t do something.”
And although it might seem odd that an author from Oak Park, Michigan, is writing about elephant poaching in Africa, Cilento said the topic isn’t necessarily what draws her to a story, it’s a combination of the execution and the motivation behind it. And, with Ryals, she said she could feel his passion for the story instantly.
“That’s one of the big reasons that I like to work with passionate, creative people,” Cilento said. “It’s so much fun to do.”
Currently, Cilento has a few other unconventional projects in process, like a fairytale for adults by a former child actor meant to soothe grieving parents or an anonymous story of a suicide attempt.
“Some of the books that I’m publishing now, it was just serendipity the way it came to me. One of them was found in an abandoned warehouse thing, a storage facility. I got in touch with the woman who wrote it. She wants to remain anonymous, but it’s really about her trip into, ‘I bought a gun, I’m going to commit suicide tonight,’ and her whole thing with not doing it,” Cilento said.
Cilento said that ultimately, the point of taking on the uncommon stories like this one is to strike a chord with those who might not identify with the mainstream.
“I think somebody who wants commit suicide or knows somebody who’s done it or wants to do it, might get a lot out of that. That might not get published by anyone else,” she said. “I’m proud to be an out Lesbian Publisher and very grateful for all those who went before me and paved the way.”
“Elephant Play” is out now, and is available for purchase on Amazon.com as both a paperback and an e-book. More information about both Mad Hatter Publishing and its projects is available at madhatterpublishing.com. For more details on Ryals’ upcoming book signings, and details about new books, go to davidryals.com or find him on Instagram at instagram.com/davidkinbote.