Impressing Young Men

September 28th, 2015

Parents and teachers listen up. Peirene’s books are trending with 16-year-old boys. They belong to a group that is notoriously reluctant to be impressed by literature. Their busy lives of sport and parties and music and Facebook don’t leave them 15853564422_58a27117b4_ztime for reading. Indeed I can personally vouch that at least one of them – my son – has struggled to see the merit of any book for a couple of years. But now, all of a sudden, Percy and his friend have reformed. They are spearheading a movement that promises to revolutionise the reading habits of an entire male generation.

The Nymph is in seventh heaven. All red-cheeked and giggling, she flits around the office. ‘I wonder if I should update my wardrobe. It’s all so dowdy. I need to wear something cooler, trendier when I next meet them. And how about cutting my hair short? It will make me look younger. What do you think?’

‘You are a good looking, clever Nymph,’ I tell her. ‘But sadly I don’t think that’s what stirred the boys. I believe they are after the money.’ I hate to disappoint Peirene. On the other hand I just can’t let her live an illusion.

‘The money?’ Peirene stops dead in her stride and stares at me in disbelief.

Two months ago I mentioned to my son and his friend that we are looking for more booksellers at our stalls, and that they could work as a team. Their eyes lit up at the possibility of earning cash. Then I told them they would first need to read the 18 Peirene books, i.e 9 books each. My son rolled his eyes and left the kitchen. His friend, however, said: ‘Ok. Give me the first three books.’  I selected Chasing the King of Hearts, The Brothers and Tomorrow Pamplona. Three weeks later he told me that he had read them. We had a chat. I was impressed. His favourite of the three: The Brothers.

The performance of his friend put my son under pressure. Charlie has now read six titles, Percy three. Charlie’s top book so far: The Dead Lake. Percy’s: The Mussel Feast. ‘I really enjoyed it,’ he admitted, slightly surprised.

‘The possibility of earning money might have given them the initial incentive,’ Peirene now says. The shock has disappeared from her face and she has recovered her rosy complexion. ‘But I can’t help feeling that our stories have their approval .’ Her face once more takes on a dreamy expression. ‘And from there it’s only a small step to admire an Ancient Greek Nymph. I can’t wait to be taken out by two handsome, young men.’

Image by Phil Galdys.

A Nymph’s Idea

September 21st, 2015

‘I’m such a clever, gifted Nymph. I want to do more than just donate money to good causes,’ Peirene muses. She is lying on the sofa in the office, twirling her hair. I’m sitting at the desk in front of my computer studying the company’s accounts. 15166203826_a89dc50c09_zWe recently learned that we won’t receive an EU grant in 2016 – indeed, no UK publisher will. Which means that keeping our cash flow under control will be an even more precarious balancing act than usual.

‘We’ve now been supporting the Maya Centre for over three years,’ Peirene continues in the background. ‘I wonder if it is time to move on.’ I’m trying to ignore the Nymph’s chatter. Looking through forecast figures for 2016 with a realistic eye requires concentration. Peirene, however, is unperturbed by my silence. ‘I would like to find a new charity. A charity that does important work with refugees just like the Maya Centre – but one that also needs my expertise.’

I find it hard to concentrate while Peirene talks. Impatiently I turn around. ‘Your expertise in what precisely? As a chatter box?’

Peirene stops twirling her hair, sits up straight and glares at me. ‘You just stay glued to your numbers. I will go out and make myself useful.’

I heave a sigh of relief as the Nymph closes the door behind her. Finally the office is quite.

A few days later Peirene invites me to join her at a meeting with Almir Koldzic and Tim Finch from Counterpoints Arts,  a charity that supports and promotes the arts by and about refugees. They run projects with individual artists but also with big art organisations such as the British Museum. Their aim is to use the creative arts to inspire social change and enhance the cultural integration of refugees.

Both the Nymph and I leave the meeting inspired. Almir and Tim are excited to collaborate with a publisher. They would like us to attend their conference planning next year’s Refugee Week, take part in a weekend on art & activism and help shape a literature event around the theme of migration in collaboration with Royal Holloway University.

‘Thank you for dragging me away from the spreadsheet,’ I admit as we are heading back to Peirene HQ.

‘That’s quite all right.’ Peirene is obviously delighted with herself, and excited that Counterpoints Arts can make use of her skills. Her cheeks glow with a lovely red shimmer. ‘And truth to tell, I’m so pleased that you are diligent with our accounts. After all, we can only support others if we keep our own budget in order.’

Image by Maria Elena.

Of Husbands and Whiskies

September 15th, 2015

To no surprise, writers fear discussions about their book in a foreign language. What if I can’t express myself adequately? What if I don’t understand the questions?PeirenePressSalon-268

In addition, there are writers who love to talk about their work, and others who don’t. Some are natural performers, while others struggle to speak up.

Over the years, the Nymph and I have had many opportunities to observe the ways writers deal with stage fright. After all, we bring our authors to London to talk about their work at the Supper Club and our Salon.

There are those who pretend that they are not nervous at all, projecting their anxieties straight onto the Nymph, who then complains bitterly to me about feeling emotionally drained. Others close up and don’t even try to engage. Some get drunk and one didn’t turn up at all.

But then there are those who are able to hold their fears. They are eager to engage with the new audience. They see their trip to London as a chance to learn new things – about themselves and others.

In the Nymph’s league-table of salon performers Norwegian women come out top.

Last year, Hanne Ørstavik discussed The Blue Room. She was fiercely intellectual but also displayed a personal vulnerability. It was an enthralling talk. And last weekend Gøhril Gabrielsen launched The Looking-Glass Sisters. Her gift? She could observe and articulate her own creative processes. She left the audience inspired. The Nymph and I were in seventh heaven.

Gøhril ought to have received all the glory for the evening. But sadly she didn’t. Judging by the audience reaction, someone else stole the show. My husband.

‘He is wonderful,’ a regular Salon attendee whispered into my ear. I smiled. Fifteen minutes later, a second one came up to me: ‘Your husband is just a lovely man.’ When eventually a third one sang my husband’s praise, I rolled my eyes.

I know his trick. While the authors, the Nymph and I work hard for the Salon, my husband has carved out a role that earns him praise without effort.

From 10.30pm onwards he sits on the carpet in the front room surrounded by a selection of Scottish whiskeys. He pours them into special glasses with ice, while in his deep voice he tells stories about Scottish highlands and islands.

At the end of the evening, even the Nymph put her tipsy head onto my shoulder. ‘Gøhril was brilliant and really inspiring. But your husband’s Scottish whisky…,’ she didn’t manage to complete the sentence. She had gone to sleep.

Image by Loy Olsen.

A New Journey

September 7th, 2015

‘It’s terrible what’s happening with the refugees,’ Peirene is in tears. ‘I don’t want to belong to a country that hides behind barbed wire and turns a blind eye to the suffering on its own doorsteps.’

The luggage that I could never own‘But you and I are part of this country,’ I reply in matter-of-fact tone.

‘Then we have to do something!’

‘We are donating 50pence of each sold book to the Maya Centre, a charity that helps refugee women,’ I point out.

‘That might be enough to calm your personal guilt!,’ Peirene snaps at me. ‘But it isn’t enough to save lives’ she exclaims, wiping away her tears. ‘We need to change society.’ She pushes up her sleeves and begins to stride through the office, brows furrowed in deep thought. Suddenly she stops, looking me straight into the eye.

‘I’ve got it! It’s time we expand what we publish. We will commission a writer to go to the Calais refugee camp to collect stories and impressions in order to create a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, this story will also take seriously the fears of people in this country who don’t want to open their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can help to bridge the gap.’

‘Wow!’ I stare at my Nymph in admiration. ‘And where do we find such writer?’

This conversation took place at the beginning of August. We sent out news of the project to see if anyone at all might be interested. The response was wonderful. We quickly narrowed down on four writers and asked them each for a proposal. I’m now in the process of signing the contract.

The book will come out next August. The Nymph is beside herself with excitement. For the last few days she’s been wondering aloud how many press conferences to give over the next ten months. And if she should participate by herself or with the writer too? And if she and the writer should wear matching outfits? And if those outfits should be colour-coordinated with the book cover to leave longer-lasting impressions in the mind of the audience and have a bigger impact?

I have to admit Peirene’s dream of press conferences might be fanciful. But over the next months we will certainly keep you up-to-date with the progress of the book on this blog and our twitter and facebook. And I, like the Nymph, am looking forward to our new journey.

Image by Samantha Marx.

Staying Fit Over The Holidays

June 30th, 2015

‘So, you are taking two months off this summer?’ Peirene pulls an unhappy face.4660302531_cf428e2585_z

‘No, not exactly.’ I correct her. ‘I’m taking my annual two months summer blog break.  Otherwise I’m going to be quite busy.’

‘With a family holiday and a two-week writers retreat?!’ Rolling her eyes skywards, Peirene puts her right hand to her forehead in a state of lady-like distress.

I smile at the Nymph. ‘Yes, that too. But I will also prepare for print the first two titles for 2016. I will make headway with our 2017 programme which might include a Romanian novel.  I’m also hoping to eat healthily and take plenty of exercise. ’

Peirene tries to interject

I raise a finger to indicate that I haven’t completed my list. ‘And Clara and Sacha will finish the next edition of our newspaper and Jen and Gianna will run stalls throughout July.’

For a moment the Nymph appears non-plussed. Then she says: ‘I agree, that sounds busy. However, let’s face it: there is always a chance that you might not return from your holidays. And then I will have to run this show on my own. For ever.’

I furrow my brows. ‘Not return from my holidays?’ We are going on a 12-day cycle trip through Romania and into the Carpathian mountains. And although I’m looking forward to the adventure, I know that nearly two weeks on the bike and sleeping most nights in tents will be enough to make me want to return to Peirene with open arms. I have no intention of staying in Dracula’s country for ever.

‘You will be eaten by packs of wolves or maybe marauding bears.’ Peirene’s lower lip begins to tremble.

‘Oh, Peirene!’ A warm feeling of love for my Nymph sweeps through me. I put the arm around her. ‘We will be careful,’ I promise. ‘And by the way, wolves don’t eat humans and the bears are little brown bears and as long as we don’t keep food in the tents they won’t bother us.’

‘How do you know?’ She looks at me inquisitively.

‘Because I, too, was a bit scared,’ I admit. ‘So I did some research.’

I turn back to my desk, ready to continue my work. Suddenly I hear Peirene say behind me:

‘Perhaps I can come with you?’

I swivel around on my chair. ‘You want to cycle 7 to 8 hours a day?’

‘No. Of course not.’ Peirene looks at me indignantly. ‘I will sit on the back of your bike. You will become fit. And while you pedal I will read Romanian novels to see if they might suit our 2017 programme.’

Peirene and I will be back on this blog at the beginning of September. We hope you have an inspiring summer and a relaxing holiday.

Image by: Toronto History.

Musings under the Sun

June 23rd, 2015

A couple of weeks ago the UK publishing world was hit by a little storm. Kamila Shamsie, a well-known British novelist, has called on publishers in a Guardian article to bring out only female 11012234054_7f8f9c288e_zauthors in 2018. She wishes to redress an apparent imbalance in male and female published writers. A couple of publishing colleagues have responded and taken up the challenge.

When I tell the Nymph, she shrugs her shoulders: ‘Been there, done that.’ In 2012 our entire annual programme consisted of female authors. And overall we have a beautiful gender balance: 21 authors in total, 10 women, 11 men.

‘And may I be frank,’ she continues, ‘they are looking for a solution in the wrong place.’

We are having this conversation in the pocket-size garden of Peirene HQ. A beautiful afternoon with blue sky, sunshine and a lovely breeze. Peirene, in shorts and belly top, is lying on a deckchair under the cherry tree. On her kindle she is reading a Serbian novella in French translation to see if it might be a book for us in 2017 or 2018. I’m sitting at the table in front of my laptop, line editing our first 2016 title, The Man I Became by Flemish Peter Verhelst.

Peirene moves her sunglasses to the tip of her nose and directs the gaze over the brim straight at me.

‘As you very well know, the problem lies with the women writers and women readers.’ She sighs, adjust her shades and reaches with her free hand for the glass of lemonade that is standing on a little table next to her.

At the London Bookfair in April we met a number of national and international publishers who are desperate for more submissions by female literary fiction writers. The critical mass is missing. And as for readers, although the majority in the UK are women, most of them lack courage to step out of their comfort zone of thrillers and romance. And if they do, they often need to be guided by major prize winners. At the Roaming Store we spend most of our time trying to persuade (mainly) female readers to take a risk with something different. Men seem to be far quicker to be willing to make a bet on a new reading experience.

Peirene walks into the house and returns a few minutes later in her bikini. She hands me the sun cream. While I rub her back, I ask: ‘What about the Serbian novella, any good?’ The Nymph shakes her head. ‘No. And initially I was so excited by the prospect of publishing a Balkan story. But I’m on page 50. So far nothing has happened and I’m utterly bored.’ She rolls her eyes, adjusts her bikini and spreads her towel onto the grass. She lies down on her front and covers her head with a T-Shirt.

‘Is the author male or female?’ I wonder.

‘Don’t get me started,’ she mumbles, ready to drop off for a nap in the sun. ‘The story doesn’t feel alive. And that’s what matters. And to be honest, I can’t judge by the author’s name. Obviously not Greek,’ she chuckles. And in the next moment breathing comes and goes with the calm rhythm of a summer siesta.

Image by Pawel Pacholec.


June 15th, 2015

‘Oooh, isn’t it exciting!’ Peirene exclaims. It’s the morning after our 26th Salon. The Nymph and I are moving boxes from the bedroom back into the office… Well, I’m moving boxes. 5639337229_3525809995_zWhile I’m pushing them along the corridor, Peirene sits on top, dangling her feet over the edge and enjoying the ride. Then she starts jumping from one to the next.

I let her be. I, too, am in a good mood. I always like this part of the clearing up.  Before putting everything back into its place, I go through the boxes with flyers, newspapers and books and reorganise the half full ones in order to reduce the clutter. At the same time I look through one or two bookshelves, throwing out books I know I won’t read again.

Peirene is now dancing in her socks on top of the coffee table. ‘I’m being really useful,’ she announces, ‘I’m cleaning the table.’

Indeed, it begins to shine. ‘Yesterday evening has given me so much energy.’ She steps down from the table, fetches the duster and runs it along the skirting boards, humming: ‘I love, love, love to clean.’

For a moment I stare bewildered at my Nymph. This is not normal behaviour. On the other hand, I don’t want to interrupt her. She is doing good work.

‘Do you know why I’m so nice to you, ‘ she eventually asks as she is wiping my computer screen.

I shake my head. I’m hoping that her newly found enthusiasm won’t stop too soon.

‘Because you were very nice to me last night.’

I wrinkle my forehead. I have no idea what she means.

‘You made sure the party finished on time. By midnight everyone had left. And by half past twelve I was in bed. That’s all an Ancient Greek Nymph needs to be happy: to get enough sleep.’

I laugh. ‘And that’s all a middle aged woman needs too. I’m so pleased we were all in bed just after midnight.’ I move one last box and ask myself what the nymph and I should do next.

Peirene provides the answer, ‘Actually an Ancient Greek Nymph also needs a Sunday afternoon nap.’ She hands me the duster. ‘And once you’re done here, don’t forget, the kitchen is still waiting for your attention.’

Image by Jared Wong.

A Beer for a Book

June 9th, 2015

Sometimes people walk up to our stall and ask if we sell children’s books. When we say ‘no’ they tend to turn away. I then ask them: ‘Well, do you read?’ Often they shake they heads: 4652321435_82346d5943_z‘Unfortunately I don’t have time.’ they reply.

It always strikes me as odd how people want their children to read books but they don’t read themselves. As we all know: children copy their parents. And even as adults we easily fall back into habits we witnessed our parents do.

Our 15-year old son used to read. But no longer. A few biographies and autobiographies, a couple of novels a year. That’s it. My husband is dismayed. He claims that he read many classics at our son’s age, including Hardy and Dickens.

I certainly didn’t. In my teens I did not read excessively and, as for classics, only the ones I had to study for school. I began reading in earnest only in my early twenties. And I never liked Dickens. And still don’t. So I’m not worried about our son’s books habits. After all, he comes from a household with lots of books and book talk forms part of many dinner chats. I’m sure eventually he will find his way back to the excitement of reading.

But my husband isn’t convinced. So last year he struck a deal with our son. £10 for each 50 pages of Dickens. Oliver Twist to start with. In six months my son didn’t earn a penny. My husband proposed a new deal: a can of beer for 50 pages.

‘You can’t do that!’ I said. ‘That’s surely illegal.’

‘Let him be,’ the Nymph soothed me. ‘It’s for the good of literature. It can’t do much harm.’

‘Yes, it can, ‘ I insisted. ‘What if my son becomes an alcoholic?’

‘We cross that bridge when we come to it,’ Peirene responded matter-of-factly. ‘In the meanwhile your son might finish Dickens, start a Hardy, move on to TS Eliot. It won’t be long before he is reading The Looking- Glass Sisters.

She knows that she has me there. Not only would I be very flattered if Percy began to read Peirene books, he could then also work at the Roaming Stall. A young, good-looking man like him would surely sell many books. And he might even set a new trend among teenagers: reading foreign lit.

But I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. When I last went into his room, Oliver Twist was open on the bedside table. Page 39.

Image by Karl Baron.

A Delicate Constitution

June 1st, 2015

My husband and I spent a week on a Scottish island. Just the two of us. It was bliss, not least because the cottage had no internet connection and received no phone signal.13629817404_da83b43b0c_z

Not even the Nymph could get hold of me. She saw me off with a smile. ‘Don’t you worry. I have everything under control. I hope you and your husband have a wonderful time.’ She blew me a kiss.

On the ferry heading back to the mainland, my phone signal was restored. I found ten missed calls and seven messages, all from Peirene. The first one said: ‘Ring me back. I’m exhausted. I can’t go on.’ The last simply announced: ‘I’ve been advised to take it easy. So I’ve delegated the work and will spend the rest of the week in bed.’

I called her immediately, suddenly feeling guilty for having turned my back on her for an entire week.

Peirene answered in a perky, cheerful voice.

‘It’s me,’ I said.

Her voice changed straight away.

‘You left us all alone with that stall.’

Last Sunday Jen, Gianna and the Nymph had indeed run a very special stall. We put stickers over the prices on the books and asked people to pay whatever they liked. It was an experiment. We wanted to see how much readers think literature is worth, and we also wanted to test if we can attract interest from passer-bys who would otherwise ignore our stall.

The day was a success. Jen had already briefed. The three of them made more money than we anticipated and spoke to over a hundred people in five hours, many of whom then bought their first Peirene book and, quite possibly, their first book of foreign literature.

‘But some people were so negative.’ Peirene sighed. I could hear her swallowing her tears. ‘ Someone said that he thought indie publishers take advantage of pretentious customers and charge too much for books. So he gave us 50pence for a copy of Tomorrow Pamplona. Someone else said that he thought our books should cost under £5 as we don’t have a shop so our overheads should be low. When I tried to speak about translation expenses and printing costs he simply said “Ok then I’ll give you £2.” Can you believe it?’ she sobbed.

I let the Nymph cry for a moment, then I interrupted her flow of tears: ‘But from Jen I also know that you had some very encouraging conversations.  For a start, any one who had bought books from us before, paid the full price. What a vote of confidence. And then there were a couple of people who only had £2 or £3 left in their wallets and hadn’t brought cards to the market. They actually refused to take a book, saying they wouldn’t take advantage but would come back in June to pay full price. And one guy said he had often passed our stall but that he was on a tight budget and so could never afford them. He paid £4.50 – all the money he had left! That made Jen’s day.’

‘Ok, if you say so,’ Peirene sniffed a couple more times. ‘But for me it was a very hard day indeed.’ Then she finally calmed down.

‘So, who advised you to take it easy for the rest of the week?’ I was dying to know.

‘Jen and Gianna. They recognise my delicate constitution,’ the Nymph replied and then added:  ‘I wish all the women at Peirene HQ could be so understanding.’

Image by simpleinsominia.

Writer’s Needs

May 21st, 2015

I’m in Scotland for a week – to write and walk and stock up on whiskey for the next salons. I will be back with new Peirene dramas at the beginning of June.Chair Lamp copy