Meet the Press, Acquisitions Edition: Interview with Laurie Matheson

Happy University Press Week! This year’s theme is “Raise UP” which emphasizes the role that university presses play in elevating authors, subjects, and whole disciplines that bring new perspectives, ideas, and voices to readers around the globe. This year for the UP Week blog tour, we wanted to give you the opportunity to get to know our acquisitions staff to honor the invaluable contribution that acquisitions editors make in the dissemination of scholarship. This week, we’ll be featuring interviews with Laurie Matheson, Daniel Nasset, Alison Syring, and Ellie Hinton. Make sure to check out the other posts in the UP Week blog tour and browse the #RaiseUP gallery here.

Check out the interview with University of Illinois Press director and music and folklore acquisitions editor, Laurie Matheson below. You can find interviews with the other editors here.

Q: How long have you been at Illinois Press and how did you get into academic publishing?

I have been at Illinois Press since 1996, when I came onboard as a graduate assistant to Judy McCulloh as her development associate. Judy was then music editor with a third of her time devoted to serving as the Press’s development officer. The grant proposals I wrote, mostly on behalf of particular subject areas at the Press, brought me to the attention of the director, Dick Wentworth, and when a full-time job came open as the marketing copywriter in early 1998, he encouraged me to apply. I started that job in February and defended my dissertation and completed my DMA degree in choral music that spring. I never went on the academic job market, as I was finding quite a lot of satisfaction in my full-time work at the Press. So, I came in by a side door and moved through opportunities as they arose. After seven seasons as marketing copywriter I became an acquisitions editor for history, later also for music, and eventually became editor-in-chief and then director.

Q: What types of projects are you really excited about acquiring right now? 

I am very excited about the work that is going on right now in African American music, much of it by talented young Black scholars. Also, it is very exciting to see the field of musicology continue to turn from close analysis of musical texts toward contextualizing music in a broader social landscape. This turn not only moves the field continually more in the direction of Illinois, it also offers great potential to reveal the vital roles of minority music creators and to interrogate structures that have, for example, systematically channeled Black talent into popular idioms and away from classical music.

Q: What do you wish potential authors knew about your job or publishing?

What do I wish potential authors knew about my job? One thing is that I’m not their dissertation advisor. Some authors are in need of close editorial remediation, but that is not my role. That is the role of other professionals, like developmental editors and copyeditors. My job is to see the potential of the project to contribute both to the Illinois list and to broader scholarly conversations; to help authors shape their work, find their voice; and to encourage and guide them through the peer review and revision process.

Q: Of the many projects you’ve been involved with at the Illinois Press, do you have any favorites or any that are most memorable?

Well, no parent wants to favor a particular child over another. But I will say that the some of the most satisfying projects were those that took the longest time to come to fruition, and in some cases struggled the most to navigate the review and revision process and find their final shape. Many of these became award winners, and some of them shifted scholarly discourse into a new path. A few examples are Nancy Rao’s Chinatown Theater in North America; Sandra Graham’s Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry, Naomi André’s Black Opera, Christopher Smith’s Dancing Revolution, and Lydia Hamessley’s Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton. But again, these are only a few of literally hundreds of projects in whose publication I’m very proud to have had a role.

Q: How would you describe the current role and mission of the university press community?

The role and mission of the university press remains to facilitate the publication of significant original scholarship; to serve the host university; and, for presses with a regional identity, to connect the University through its publications to the region and state in which it is located. Another aspect of our mission is access, both access to transparent and current information about best practices in publishing and access to reliable scholarly content. Open access has the potential to transform the accessibility of scholarly content, especially important for less resourced institutions and for readers outside of the academy’s gated community. The sustainability of open access formats depends on sustainable financial models (of which many are in development). Alternate formats like audiobooks also extend the reach and impact of our work.

Q: In your view, what defines the type of books that the Illinois Press publishes?  What sets the UI Press apart from the other presses within the AUPresses community?

Illinois Press publishes essentially social history and cultural studies: books and journals that document and interrogate humanistic activity, with focus on African American studies, women’s studies, labor, music, sports, film, media and communications, Mormon studies, folklore, Midwest and Illinois history, and Appalachian studies. Our list remains largely US focused, increasingly with important interventions into global studies, especially in terms of the politics of gender and race and of media and communications infrastructures. I think what sets our Press apart is the very close integration of many areas that speak to each other and mutually reinforce each other: African-American studies with music, for example; sports with women’s history; labor with Appalachian studies. In addition to subject area integration, the Press has very strong integration between our book lists and our vibrant journals program.

What do you do in your spare time (if you have any)?

My sources of joy apart from work always include music, although in this current environment my music making is restricted to my own piano playing, where in other times it would include singing with others, directing choirs, and playing the organ for church services. The past few months have given me a lot of joy in my postage stamp-sized garden, as well as exploring some of the state parks in our area. I look forward to future travels, and to the renewed opportunities to view art and listen to music, as that is so restorative for me.

About Heather Gernenz

University of Illinois Press Publicity Manager