We are in the dressing room of the gym. I’m sitting on the bench with tears in my eyes. I had only completed a couple of exercises when I suddenly felt I could not go on. ‘I have to stop,’ I told Peirene. ‘You can finish your round.’ But she followed me into the dressing room.
I now bend forward, closing my eyes. ‘I feel sick.’
At first Peirene shows no sympathy. The ancient Greeks valued the beautiful body and she is not sure that 21st Century Britain has really kept up.
For a moment there is a silence. Then she sits down next to me and puts her arm around me. ‘So, what’s the problem?’
‘I have to read through the whole manuscript again,’ I say.
The nymph rolls her eyes. ‘So you’re not even thinking about the leg-curls or the upper arm-thrusts’. Then she refocuses. ‘You’ve been through the manuscript endless times. It’s now been edited, proofread. Your publisher is very happy with it.’
My third novel Kauthar is ready to go to the printers. The book will be published in August.
‘It’s full of mistakes which we haven’t spotted. I know it. I feel it in my blood.’ A tear drops onto my trainer.
‘You have to let go.’ Peirene strokes my back. ‘Your job is done.’
A sob escapes my throat. The nymph practices a bicep flex.
I lift my head and look at her indignantly. ‘Peirene! You’re not even listening.’
Peirene sighs and says: ‘Only two days ago you told the audience at Daunt’s Bookshop that creativity is a collaborative process and that one needs to let go in order to make space for others to do their job.’
‘That was two days ago.’
Peirene ignores my last comment. She stands up and pulls me with her by the arm. ‘Let’s finish our round.’
The weights on the machines feel heavier than ever before. I huff and puff and turn red, while the Nymph next to me looks elegant and controlled.
‘Do you still want to read one more time through your novel,’ Peirene asks as we are getting dressed.
I shake my head too exhausted to even speak. Peirene is already putting on her make up while I’m still battling with my socks, when it suddenly dawns on me:
‘You lowered your weights today, didn’t you?’
She throws me a mischievous glance. ‘Well, only a bit. I felt you needed a proper work-out whereas I was in great shape – mentally and physically.’
Image by John Haslan.
‘Peirene, we don’t talk politics here are on the blog.’
She pauses for a moment, before she calmly finishes her sentence:
‘…. I really hope that they might forget about the EU referendum.’
‘I agree,’ I mumble. ‘But I doubt it.’
There is a silence. Then the Nymph can no longer hold back:
‘What century do they live in? The world has become so interconnected. We can’t just sit on this island and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist.’
Once again I nod in agreement.
‘We need to do something!,’ Peirene says emotionally.
‘We’re already doing something by publishing foreign literature. That’s our contribution to broaden people’s minds, ’ I try to calm the Nymph down.
‘I know I know.’ Peirene shakes her head. ‘But our reach isn’t wide enough. More urgent action is required.’
I throw a side-glance at my Nymph. She has a determined look on her face.
‘I’ve got it,’ she suddenly announces. ‘We need people to focus on the future.’
I’m intrigued to hear her vision.
‘In a few generations, due to the rising sea level this island will sink. Then all of sudden the British will want to be best friends with the Europeans because they will be desperate to find new homes.’
Peirene may be an inspirational nymph but her political forecasting aims high – and then goes even higher.
‘Are you sure people will care enough about future generations?’ I question in an even tone and add: ‘Humans don’t think about the long term’.
‘But I’m not human. I’m a Greek Nymph,’ Peirene beams across her face. ‘And I will still be around in a hundred years – and so will the next generation of Peirene subscribers. So, when this island sinks I will put in a good word with my fellow Greeks and other mainland Europeans – and tell them that broad-minded Peirene subscribers wouldn’t have wanted to leave the EU in the first place. An EU ferry will come and rescue them while everyone else will have to swim.’
Peirene stands up, ready for action.
‘I’m their only hope. It’s a pity I am one week too late. Otherwise I might have stood as an MP’.
Image by garlandcannon.
A few months ago I received a phone call. Would I like to come to Dhaka for a literary conclave? The invitation sounded exciting, not least because I’ve never been to Bangladesh before. I checked my diary and said yes.
As I put down the phone, Peirene shook her head. ‘That was unwise. You don’t know the caller, you don’t know any of the organisers. We’ve never heard of the Bengal Lights Literary Conclave.’
I clicked on the website that I had been given. ‘Look, here are the details from last year’s event.’
The Nymph wasn’t convinced. ‘Anyone can put up a website nowadays.’ She paused, then took a deep breath. ‘I think it might be a scam…in order to … lure you away from Peirene HQ … and abduct you,’ she whispered in a hoarse voice.
‘Abduct me?’ I tried not to chuckle. ‘They just offered to pay for my flight, my hotel. That doesn’t sound like a plan for an abduction.’
‘That shows you how clever they are. Because,’ the Nymph’s lower lip began to quiver, ‘they actually want me. They will hold you hostage until you hand me over.’
I pulled Peirene towards me and put my arm around her. ‘You are an invaluable source of inspiration to me. But I’m pretty sure that no international hostage taker would bother with either you or me.’
The Nymph calmed down. But when I left the house last Wednesday to catch my flight she gave me a long hug as if I might be gone for many months.
It’s now Monday morning 9am Bengali time, 4am UK time. I’m sitting at Dhaka airport waiting to board my flight back to London. I have had three wonderfully inspiring days. I sat on three panels, discussing world insurgencies, fiction writing and the future of publishing. I met writers from seven different countries and four continents, including Nigerian Igoni Barrett, Indian Githa Hariharan and Dutch Femke van Zeijl. And I was invited to the homes of Bengali writers and editors. I received nourishment for my body and soul.
I texted the Nymph, saying that I’m looking forward seeing her. She’s finally put her abduction theory aside. In fact, she now wishes that she had joined me. ‘I feel I missed out :-(’ she messaged ‘I could have been the first Greek nymph to be “big in Bengal”.’
At the London Book Fair I met the editor from the Feminist Press in New York. She is interested in some of our books. She also showed me their catalogue.
Back in the 1970s The Feminist Press established their name with publishing reprints of 1940s and 50’s women’s pulp fiction – the Femmes Fatales series. Many of these stories had been turned into black & white cinema hits with famous film divas such as Bette Davis and Gene Tierney. The books still sell today.
My eyes lit up. What if I were to publish this series as Peirene Retro here in the UK?! This might be our chance to get books into supermarkets and airport bookshops! Because, let’s face it: we will never be able to sell our highbrow, foreign literature in Tesco or WHSmith. But stories about women battling for their identity in classic 20th century patriarchal set- ups? This is what the mass market loves to read.
I suddenly got very excited about the Femmes Fatales series: Here was Peirene’s chance for nation-wide domination.
I knew it would be tough to convince the Nymph of this new business strategy. And sure enough, after I finished explaining she looked at me with raised eyebrows.
‘May I remind you, ‘ she then said calmly, ‘that you and I publish literature – art – and not pulp fiction.’
‘I know, ‘ I said, slightly impatiently. I had expected such a reaction from her. ‘But wouldn’t it be great if your name were known to a wider audience.’
‘I think we have quite an impressive number of readers as it is,’ she replied. ‘And the figure grows continuously. Your idea suggests that we might be desperate. And I don’t believe we are,’ Peirene added cool-headed.
For a moment I paused. It hadn’t crossed my mind that my expansion plan might look desperate from the outside. And then I pictured a future in the supermarkets: Did I really want to see the beautiful name of my ancient Greek Nymph next to a shelf of baked beans?
I’m lucky to have Peirene. She certainly keeps my standards high.
Image by Boston Public Library.
I will give you a simple example. If we go to the supermarket we like to find the eggs in the same aisle where they’ve always been. If they’ve moved, we experience rising hot flushes.
I wish the organisers of this year’s London Book Fair had been forewarned about our preferences.
Ever since I started running Peirene the London Book Fair has taken place at Earls Court. This year it moved to the exhibition center in Olympia. I’ve been aware of it for months. However, I assumed the layout will be more or less the same. After all, there aren’t that many ways of arranging agents and publishers over a couple of floors: publishers stands on the ground floor, agents center on the first floor, all neatly arranged in rows from A to Z and numbered from 1 upwards.
I also assumed that the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) stand would be to the left at the front and the Nordic stand at the back towards the right. Just as it had always been.
Well, someone had clearly decided otherwise. Not only did 2 no longer follow 1 (and nor was it succeeded by 3) but the IPG stand had moved towards the back and the Nordic stand was so hidden that I took more then ten minutes to find it.
Peirene gave up after a couple of meetings and sat in a cafe and told me that if anyone wanted to see her they would have to come to her. She would not be running around the aisles like a headless chicken – or a middle-aged housewife – looking for the eggs. Her dignity was at stake.
So I battled on by myself. Sometimes with tears in my eyes. But I can proudly announce I made it to all of my meetings – even if not always on time and often out of breath.
‘I had a brilliant day, ‘ The Nymph said as I arrived back at the cafe in the evening.. I sank into the chair at her table. ‘I had so many chance encounters with publishers and agents who were as lost as we.’ She smiled, looking beautifully relaxed, while I felt as if I had run a marathon. ‘I wonder, ‘ she mused, ‘if the organisers deliberately wanted to set up unexpected meetings? If so, they certainly succeeded.’ I nodded in silence. I was simply too exhausted for ancient Greek philosophy. All I wanted was my bed.
Image by Liz West.
Back in December I met an agent. The meeting didn’t start well because, a week before, we both realised in an email exchange that we were not interested in each other’s books. Still, neither of us cancelled the date. The first 15 minutes felt awkward. After all, we had not much to say to each other. Then I told him – in a desperate attempt to lighten the mood – that I would like to be an astronaut.
Which is true. Last year I became interested in quantum physics and space travel. I read Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox and watched a lot of youtube films about astronauts. I even fantasised about walking on the moon. I had no idea where my new passion would lead me. Until I met the agent.
His eyes lit up and he said: ‘I, too, want to be an astronaut.’ We had found common ground. The rest of the meeting flew by at lightning speed and I left it with a long list of science fiction recommendations.
Up to that moment I had never heard of Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin or Arthur C. Clarke. SciFi and Phantasy had never interested me and even when I read about quantum physics, black holes and string theory, it did not occur to me to look at SciFi.
Now, I’m hooked. So much so that this week at London Bookfair I’m hoping to find some foreign novellas with a SciFi touch to publish in 2017.
Fortunately Peirene, too, is very excited. ‘This is thrilling story telling.’ She is sitting in my reading chair, holding my copy of The Lathe of Heaven. ‘I’m afraid I won’t have time to go to the London Bookfair with you this week.’ She has lowered her eyes again onto the page. ‘I’m working my way through the collected work of Ursula Le Guin’s – what a genius.’
For a moment I wonder if I mind. ‘Fair enough,’ I then reply. ‘You are certainly not wasting your time.’ I pause. ‘But when I return from the fair, I get the reading chair back.’
Peirene throws me a quick questioning glance. ‘Why will you need it?’
‘So I can work my way through all the stimulating foreign SciFi novellas I will discover in the next few days,’ I reply and add with a sly smile: ‘Lots of books by authors an ancient Greek nymph would not know about.’
Image by Steve Jurvetson.
We have a dead cow in the freezer. My husband’s friend owns cows and every year he slaughters a couple. This year, my husband put in a big order. An entire cow. And that despite the fact that we don’t eat much beef. So each time I open the freezer I feel annoyed with the cow. And my husband.
‘There is no space for my frozen peas.’ I slam the freezer door.
‘My, you are in a bad mood,’ the Nymph remarks from the kitchen sofa where she sits cross-legged and with a cup of tea in her hands.
‘Everything feels cramped. The freezer. My life. My head. There is no space. No space for anything at all.’ I start emptying the dishwasher with unusual vigour. Peirene, in the meantime, contemplatively sips her tea. Eventually she says: ‘I think you’re being unfair to yourself. Only yesterday you were very happy because you had mastered a new challenge.’
Earlier in the week, Monocle Radio had sent me an email inviting me to discuss the Saturday papers live with their presenter Georgina Godwin. I accepted, only to spend the following days worrying that I might have agreed to something beyond my capabilities. However, once on air, it all went well. I even enjoyed myself.
‘So why are you in a bad mood?’ Peirene asks and taps with her hand the space on the sofa next to her, gesturing to me to sit down.
‘Because of the cow in my freezer,’ I repeat stubbornly.
‘I think you need to empty your mind. And then everything will fall into place,’ the Nymph says.
I roll my eyes. ‘And how I am supposed to do that?’
‘Close your eyes. Meditate. And wait for messages from the gods and goddesses.’
‘That won’t make the cow disappear from the freezer,’ I insist.
‘Not all at once, but little by little. Why don’t you start right now by making your poor husband and children Sunday lunch?’
I was about to ask what I should make when I received my divine inspiration. ‘Of course, roast beef – and lots of it’.
P.S: Peirene will be on Easter break for the next two weeks. So, I’ll be back here in two weeks’ time.
Image by Matthias Ripp.
My publishing house has reached a nice cruising altitude. I would like to take it to the next level. But I don’t know what that next step should look like. Because simply increasing the amount of books and losing control of the quality is not an option. So for the time being I’ve decided to expose myself to as many new ideas as possible.
‘Why on earth are we here?,’ Peirene sighs while we are heading into our next lecture. The Nymph and I are attending a business conference.
‘Because it’s good for us to listen to cool-headed, strategic, business people. We might get some inspiration,’ I tell her – not for the first time.
We sit down in the auditorium. Peirene demonstratively crosses her arms and closes her eyes even before the speech has started. ‘It worries me that a company dedicated to beautiful books should be taking an interest in “management”. Before we know it we will be run by accountants,’ she mumbles.
I decide to ignore her. Next up on stage is motivation coach David Pearl. He shows a clip from Chicken Run. I nudge the Nymph. ‘You should listen to him.’ She opens one eye. She is beginning to pay attention now.
David asks us to draw our life graph. The Nymph rolls her eyes and draws a circle. I draw a slightly ascending zigzag line indicative of up and downs.
David then asks ‘So if the x-axis shows the passing of time what does the y-axis represent?’
‘Happiness,’ someone suggests. ‘Professional achievement,’ someone else replies. ‘Self-actualisation,’ Peirene offers. I can sense that she is finally starting to enjoy the session.
No. None of us has hit the mark. The Y-axis indicates the ‘why’ – what motivates us personally, what gets us up again when we are low, what we love doing and often most naturally do best. Each one of us has a different Y or Why-axis – even if we do similar jobs. It might be the ability to help others, the passion to teach or the skill to overcome obstacles. Being aware of the Why-axis helps to figure out the next step.
But of course it isn’t easy to recognize your own ‘Why’.
Back in the hotel room, I am lying on the bed trying to find the answer to my own Why. Peirene, on the other hand, is using her bed as a trampoline, jumping up and down. Eventually I persuade her to stop. ‘It would be useful if you too can think about your Why, ‘ I remark.
‘No need.’ She stops jumping and sits down on her bed. ‘I know precisely what makes me get up every morning– compassion for you. And I am extremely good at it too.’ She smiles and hands me a little gift. I open it. It’s a massage oil. ‘I’ve booked you a massage,’ she explains. ‘I’m sure the Why will become apparent far more easily when you are relaxed.’
Image by CircaSassy.
Last week I spoke at a TEDx conference about Contemporary Revolutions. I was surrounded by giants. The speaker before me was facebook’s policy director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Simon Milner. The speaker straight after was the Vice President of Spotify, Marc Hazan. Then came the founder of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts and Tom Hulme, General Partner of Google Ventures Europe.
Needless to say the Internet featured highly during the day. Milner spoke about how facebook can transform the cycle of friendship – sustaining connections that would otherwise have fallen away after school. Hazan used the success story of New Zealand teenage singer Lorde to demonstrate the power of the Internet to create a global audience overnight. And Roberts talked about the anonymity of most Mumsnet users and how such a set-up allows for honest conversation.
I, too, made reference to the Internet in my speech, pointing out that even a small, independent press like Peirene can now sell ebooks anywhere in the world and that twitter, facebook and blogging allows us to build and interact with a global community of readers.
So, the Internet was outed as a 21st century hero. Or was it?
‘None of the other speakers has talked about how they make their money,’ the Nymph whispered into my ear half way through the conference. ‘It’s all very well, talking about truthful chatter and overnight fame in the virtual world. But these Internet platforms employ a lot of people. So were is the money coming from?’
‘Shh,’ I hissed. ‘Making money is not the focal point of this conference.’
‘Well… revolutions need money… just saying. ’ Peirene continued. ‘You and I know that the Internet serves us well as a marketing tool. But we make our money primarily through subscriptions, the roaming store and our sold-out events.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘If you ask me, the Internet is a lot of fluff and empty air. People ultimately still want to belong to a real community, made of flesh and blood.’
‘Peirene, please be quiet.’ I was embarrassed sitting next to a whispering Nymph.
But Peirene continued: ‘One more point. Which were the slides of your speech that evoked the most reaction? The image of 50 adults on little plastic chairs in your front room, and you in your thick down jacket behind the stall at the farmers market. Humans love the real stuff. That was the case during ancient Greek times and it is still the case. The future of revolutions may depend not on a few Internet giants but on many small enterprises building and sustaining communities in the real world. So… now I will be quiet.’
And she indeed was, until the end of the conference.
Image by twitter.com/mattwi1s0n