Over the last two decades Debra Winegarten has built a professional career on the idea that great untold stories abound, especially in the Lone Star State. In light of all she has accomplished, the fact that Winegarten’s Hebrew first name means “honey bee” is apt.
During a recent telephone interview about her career, Winegarten said her gift for writing was inherited from her mother, the late Ruthe Winegarten, a social activist and renowned chronicler of Texas women’s history.
“I came by it all genetically,” said Winegarten. “My mother specialized in writing short pieces about Texas women’s history. She hoped that people would come after her and write full-length biographies about those same women.”
The younger Winegarten did exactly that for several years, penning Texas biographies for young adults in books published by UT Press and Eakin Press. While working on those projects, she nurtured her own upstart publishing company.
Winegarten began Sociosights Press in 1998.
“I’d just moved here to Austin, from Dallas, and was living with my mom. It was one of those hot summer days here, and I told her that I thought people would pay us to write family histories. We decided to take a nap. Later, the phone rang. It was a woman from Dallas wanting us to do that, to write her family’s history.”
When it was time to publish the book she co-authored with her mother, Strong Family Ties: The Tiny Hawkins Story, Winegarten found herself in a Kinko’s at 2 a.m. with the book’s designer.
“She asked me what the company name should be. The title came to me, just standing there. I knew it needed to reflect sociology, which I had studied, and the word ‘insights.’ And that was that. Sociosights was born.”
A few years later Winegarten created a book honoring her own mother, relying upon addresses she found in the elder Winegarten’s Rolodexes to help her collect tales.
“Mom was turning 72. The stories were great, the kind that people will tell about you when you die, but you will never get to hear because you won’t be there. Mom read it and sent me corrections. But then she came back and said ‘No, no, it’s great.’”
Tragically within a short period of time the elder Winegarten was gone, dying of suicide. “She died in 2004, but at least I knew that she’d been acknowledged by others in her lifetime.”
Within a short period of time Winegarten’s sister passed away as well, another cornerstone in an extended low point. Incredibly through an eight-year period of pain and loss–one familiar to so many of us women, the author-publisher found a new creative path. “One of the ways I processed my grief was through writing poetry. Bad poetry.”
Remarkably that “bad poetry” turned into a good chap book, There’s Jews in Texas, which won a national poetry prize for contemporary Jewish poetry and sparked a series of books. “People told me that the book was too short, so I wrote a second and am now working on a third.”
Over the years Winegarten began to publish other authors at Sociosights Press, too, essentially becoming a literary midwife. It’s a role she takes seriously. “I work very hard and invest money in proofreaders, editors, book designers. If my company’s name is going to go on it, the book needs to be good.”
She surprised herself a little by opting to publish a children’s book in the first place.
“At the time I thought ‘This is ridiculous!’ I’d never worked with an illustrator, never published a children’s book,” Winegarten said, laughing. “Now I could write a book on what I learned from it all. I made so many mistakes. But this book is so beautiful and touches people so deeply that I’m glad I took the chance.”
Featuring Kline’s words with charming, vibrant illustrations by Susan Simon, the book was released in April 2017. It quickly garnered praise from the American Jewish community and beyond for its sensitive, feminist overview of religious practice.
“I helped put something beautiful out there in the world and people responded to it,” said Winegarten, marveling at the responses to Almost a Minyan. As she spoke, her joy was almost palpable, infused with the satisfaction that comes from a creative life well lived.
Pamela Price is the founder of THE TEXAS WILDFLOWER and the author of two parenting books.
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