Suspect Press are on a mission. They want to let every queer kid who has ever felt closeted or restrained by Evangelical culture to realize their urges and feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. They also want to change the world, starting in Colorado, through the power of their literary magazine and book publishing platform.
Those may sound like some lofty goals, but for Amanda EK, editor-in-chief, and senior editor Josiah Hesse, it’s a labor of love.
When Suspect Press first started, it was run by, in Hesse’s words, “three straight, white dudes.” He doesn’t mean it as a criticism, just a fact. Now, Hesse and EK, who are both queer, have creative control over the mag. These days, Suspect Press puts out a quarterly literary magazine, runs a website, holds events, and also has a book publishing portion.
“It’s grown so much,” Hesse said. “We do 5,000 issues; we are trying out more ambitious projects, and we have an art director who is also the comics editor [Lonnie Allen]. We’ve been able to expand a lot.”
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” EK said. “It started as volunteer work, just counting magazines on the shelves, things like that, and then I completely fell in love with it.”
Together, the two started growing both the ad revenue and the content of the magazine, built a website, and also started working on the book publishing side of their business. But they still want to keep things local.
“I think so often when people are entrepreneurs, they want to expand and expand and go international; we wanted to be a Denver institution. We want to publish Denver writers and Denver authors, something hyper-local, not something for anyone, anywhere,” Hesse said.
This passion comes from a unique background shared by the two editors: they were both involved with purity culture and the Evangelical movement.
“Queerness was not an option,” EK admitted. “For me, coming out of Christianity and then moving to a city for the first time and just allowing myself to experience that has been an influence on the magazine, and the magazine has been an influence on me in that way, because I get to enter different communities because of the magazine.”
“The more we do this, the more we get an identity for being what’s known as Exvangelical,” Hesse said. “It’s such a common story. We’re tapping into communities of former Evangelicals across the country. I think Denver draws sexual refugees, artists, people who want to get to a place where they can connect with more people.”
“I worked as crime and culture journalist for so long, and I would meet people who came from the same Evangelical background as myself,” he continued. “I was starting to notice that there were a lot of people with the exact same story.”
Through their work, both EK and Hesse decided to put out their own books through Suspect Press. The decision to put out their work first wasn’t just vanity. They wanted to do a trial run so that they would feel comfortable and confident enough to produce work for other writers in the future.
They even received a grant from Meow Wolf to put towards their book publishing program.
“There had been a lot of communication between Meow Wolf and the underground art scene over the past decade,” Hesse explained. “They knew who we were and kind of had their eye on us for some projects. We were excited that their rhetoric was, ‘How can we keep artists paid so that artist can stay in the city?’ From then on, we just started hanging out with them and talking about all the fun projects we could possibly collaborate on.”
Suspect Press’s first release is Hesse’s Carnality series, and their second release will be EK’s purity culture memoir.
So far, the Carnality series, which is going to eventually be six books, has released two to the public, Dancing on Red Lake and Sebastian Phoenix and the Dark Star.
Without giving spoilers, the story is super queer. It centers on protagonist Jacob Sloan, slipping in and out of narrative as he hides out in a burned down, abandoned hotel remembering his past. The first book takes us through Sloan’s life as a child and the abusive, strict, religious upbringing he was subjected to. The second book focuses on his teen years, when he was an Evangelical superstar preacher.
“In the Evangelical world, your thoughts aren’t your own; God and Satan are always watching,” Hesse said. “It was cathartic to be able to write and have a space that was all my own.”
Once Hesse started writing, he couldn’t stop. It became a 1,000-page manuscript, which he felt had to be broken down into shorter portions, since this was his first novel.
“When I started the book it was 2009. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer; I barely knew anyone who read books, and I wasn’t making my living as a writer. But I just wrote all day, every day.”
As he finished his book, he started making money off of his journalism and creating a name for himself as a writer. He then got involved with Suspect Press and wanted to be involved in the marketing and promotion of his own books.
In the book, Sloan is queer, and he reflects Hesse’s struggles coming out after Evangelicalism.
“I wanted to write about what it was like to come out in a world with spiritual warfare, the idea that there are angels and demons around us warring all the time. Any impulse is considered the influence of the devil by Evangelicals. It’s weird for any kid navigating their sexuality, but when you have this extra layer of, ‘Oh, that’s an evil spirit inhabiting your skin,’ I wanted to make readers feel that.”
“With homophobia, a lot of it is the fear of perceived weakness or femininity,” he continued. “That’s definitely something I grew up with in corn-fed Iowa. For a boy who wants to just talk about music and art and poetry and has a bit of a limp wrist and an odd fashion sense, it was a f*cking nightmare.”
Through the book, Hesse was able to both make sense of his own experiences and learn more about the world of the characters he created. Just like the frantic narrator in the book, Hesse is navigating his history one piece at a time as he puts it down on paper.
Purity Culture Memoir
EK hasn’t announced her book’s title yet, but it’s already almost finished. Fitting with the theme of the book, she wants to keep it a secret.
“I got super involved in youth groups right around the time when I was going through puberty, so I was being told I was to be saved for a spouse; if I were to be single, I would basically have to be asexual,” she said. “I immediately got obsessed with the idea of finding a husband, and I wrote about it.”
EK’s book is going to be based on her diaries, which she has kept since she was seven. She has chronicled her entire experience of puberty, getting married, and then eventually cheating. It reflects on the world of secret thoughts she subsisted on, secret desires, and at one point even a secret affair.
“What came from transcribing all this is that I realized I treated God as a lover. I spent time with him every day, apologized when I didn’t make time for him, and any time I was depressed I would have this big, emotional reunion with God because I thought it was Satan trying to get to me,” she explained.
The book will go up through 2014, two years after EK’s affair. She had to reevaluate what to dedicate her life to and how to live after deciding God wasn’t her whole world.
Like Hesse, EK doesn’t want to just write her book for Evangelicals, but for anyone. She feels that all teen girls can relate to these issues, and it can also be used as a teaching tool for those who were not raised religious.
Although EK does identify as queer, there will not be that many queer moments in the book. There may be a few of her early thoughts, but at the time, EK didn’t even allow herself to consider the possibility that she was also interested in women. Still, she sees a lot of connections between purity culture and queerness that she wants to explore in the future.
The book is due out in 2019.
Photos by Veronica L. Holyfield
Cover image: left to right: Anna Vandegrift and Amanda EK, editor