Happy Endings: A Century of Inspiring Art and Scholarship at UNC Press

Guest blog post written on the occasion of UNC Press’s centennial year by Steve Estes, author of I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement, Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out, Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement, and the forthcoming Surfing the South: The Search for Waves and the People Who Ride Them (May 2022).

The massage parlor was tucked away, but not exactly off the beaten track. It boasted a Franklin Street address on the main commercial drag in Chapel Hill. Still, clients entered through a discreet back door off the rear parking lot. I went there for research, of course, having heard rumors of the place from my Carrboro barber. I wanted to write for the Daily Tar Heel, and an exposé about a house of ill repute in Chapel Hill seemed a sure-fire way to burnish my investigative reporting bona fides. The lady behind the internal security gate informed me in a matter-of-fact tone that they didn’t offer Swedish, Thai, or deep tissue massages. What did they offer? That remained somewhat vague.     

 I’ve been writing stories ever since I can remember. The weekly column that I co-wrote with a friend for the Daily Tar Heel in the mid-1990s represented the first time someone took a chance on publishing my work. I went on to write poetry for local zines and music reviews for alternative weekly newspapers. Then I wrote a dissertation, and someone at UNC Press suggested that I should turn it into a book. That someone was Chuck Grench, a longtime acquisitions editor at the Press.

Like UNC Press editors before and since, Chuck demystified the publication process. I knew that I was supposed to turn my dissertation into a book to get a tenured job teaching history. But aside from my professors, I didn’t personally know anyone who had ever published a book, and I certainly didn’t know how it was done. Chuck understood the right moments to console, counsel, cajole, and browbeat me. When I balked at certain necessary revisions demanded by the peer reviewers, he did all those things. Painful as the changes were, I made them. Chuck sent the first copy of the book to me with a hand-scrawled note of nearly indecipherable congratulations. It meant more to me than any other correspondence I’ve ever received. It meant that I had become an author.

Perhaps because he was a bit of a masochist, Chuck Grench agreed to work with me on two more books with UNC Press. These books weren’t going to win Pulitzers or Nobel Prizes. They weren’t going to change the world. (Well, Congress did repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” two years after UNC Press published my oral history book on gay and lesbian veterans entitled Ask & Tell, but I’m pretty sure congresspeople weren’t among the 10s of verified purchasers.) Even if these books weren’t earth-shattering, blockbusters, Chuck and the Press treated them like they might be. That’s all an author can ask.

In hindsight, I realized that Chuck worked with me for the same reason that UNC Press has been publishing books for a century. The Press is dedicated to supporting art and scholarship, particularly when that art and scholarship are for, of, and about the American South.

Not long before Chuck retired, I sent him a fourth book proposal for an admittedly off-the-wall project on southern surfing. I didn’t think UNC Press would publish the book; I just wanted Chuck’s advice. It turned out that the Press was interested in publishing the project as part of its trade division. Chuck introduced me to Lucas Church, an editorial colleague at the Press, who turned out to be just as supportive, patient, and kind. With Lucas’ guidance, I finished that book. Surfing the South comes out in May.

I never did get a happy ending at the Chapel Hill massage parlor. (I was too scared to walk through the security gate if I’m being honest.) At the risk of using a metaphor as embarrassing as my 1990s zine poetry, I did find my happy ending as an author for UNC Press. Working with the Press and its tireless editors has been vital to my growth as a scholar and author. It’s made me a better historian and writer. Multiply that by hundreds of authors over a hundred years. That’s a lot of happy endings.   

Steve Estes is an avid surfer and professor of history at Sonoma State University.