Words Without Borders

October 20th, 2014

The future of the book is making headlines once again. This time in The Economist with a six-page special supplement.6777464101_a41546c701_z

I haven’t read it. I’ve been preoccupied with other things.

A few months ago the artist and poet Steven Fowler asked me if I wanted to take part in the Enemies Project which encourages collaboration between poets across countries. Without knowing much of what I was letting myself into, I said yes. It sounded exciting.

I have been paired with the Slovakian poet Juliana Sokolova. We have been told to create a ten minute performance piece that we will stage at the Free Word Centre in London on 5th of November.

Juliana and I have never met. We haven’t even heard each other voices. Initially we toyed with the idea to Skype, so we can at least see each other on screen. But then we decided against it. After all, our collaboration is about words. Last week we sat down and created a story purely by email exchange.

The story is in English. We developed the plot in alternating paragraphs, with added quotes from poems and songs. We took as our starting point a poem by the Turkish poet Sait Faik about a man drinking a beer on a Sunday. What became clear was that we both held different images of this man in our heads. But we also knew that we could build tension and a narrative arch by accepting these differences. Most exciting, during the course of the story our perspectives began to converge.

Now let’s get back to the future of the book.

In his Booker prize acceptance speech last week, the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan said that ‘novels are not content. Nor are they a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life.’

I would like to extend that to all forms of text and to all books. As long as we humans use language to communicate with each other, we will explore the creative potentials and limits of words by producing text – novels, novellas, short stories, essays, poetry and drama.

Some of this might be published as ebooks, some as paper books. And some might be created via email exchange to be performed for one night only.

Image by P K.

Overlooking A Winner

October 12th, 2014

‘Congratulation to the Swedish Academy.’ Peirene beams contentedly across her face. ‘They’ve chosen well for the Nobel prize in Literature this year: A French man who writes novels around 130 page short, his language deceptively simple and 12308739253_f11096e120_mhe loves plot – detective stories seems to be his favourite genre. He is our kind of man.’

‘I know,’ I agree. ‘But sadly Patrick Modiano has so far slipped our attention. And now big English publishing houses will snap him up and he’ll become far too expensive for us.’

‘Well, you had a meeting with his publisher last year in Frankfurt,’ the smile has suddenly disappeared from Peirene’s face. ‘You could have made an offer.’

‘They didn’t mention him to me,’ I say slightly defensively. Then I return to the book that I am holding between my hands. I am lying on the sofa in the sitting room. It’s Saturday afternoon and I am for once doing what I preach to our readers – I am taking the afternoon off to read a two-hour book. So, I’d really appreciate if the Nymph would leave me alone. She, on the other hand, appears intent on a chat.

‘What are you reading?’ she asks, perching now on the armrest of the sofa.

I lift the book without lifting my gaze off the page so that Peirene can see the title.

A Meal in Winter,’ she reads out loud. ‘By Hubert Mingarelli. That was on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize along side The Mussel Feast earlier this year.’

I nod. It’s a fantastic book. In fact another title that could have been a Peirene book. I’m half way through. It’s only another 60 pages and I want to stay in the ‘zone’.

But alas, she must have mind-read my last word, because she continues:

‘Have you read ‘Zone of Interest’?’ She doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘What a remarkable book. It shows like no other novel the shocking grotesqueness that the English linguistic insularity can lead to. The story tries to portray the Nazis from ‘within’, while the author doesn’t speak German and has only read books about Nazis rather than looking at Nazi literature and the literature that influenced Nazi thought.’

‘Peirene. Be quiet. You shouldn’t badmouth other books.’

‘I’m not!’ she exclaims indignantly. ’I’m praising the book. It holds up a perfect clear mirror to the Anglo-Saxon world, showing them their own distorted view of the Nazis. I am sure every reader will see that.’ She jumps down from the armrest. ‘And anyway, if they really wanted to read something that would give them a different insight into the Nazi era, they should read A Meal in Winter. The last ten pages are stunning. I’ll leave you to it.’

She finally exits the room and I return to my book. The last pages are truly thought-provoking. I spend an extra hour on the sofa contemplating them, while I hear Peirene complaining to my husband in the kitchen, how I could have possibly overlooked Patrick Modiano.

Image by Thomas Fisher Rare Book.


The Arrival of the Gremlin

October 6th, 2014

The post in our house used to present a problem. It would fall through the letter box onto the doormat. Husband stepped over it, Nymph skipped around it, children trampled across it. Everyone knew of course that I had to eventually pick it up 2793008572_7a72abe9f4_zto check for Peirene post.

But sometimes I would go on strike and refuse to pick it up for as long as I could without jeopardizing my business.

This little experiment had two results: Firstly: as I watched the post accumulating on the doormat, I became aware of a growing resentment towards my family. And secondly: Once a thank you letter from my mother-in-law lay unopened for a couple of weeks.  She has never quite forgotten or forgiven.

So, eventually I took an executive decision to save the peace of the family. And since there was really only one feasible option, I embraced it with joy in my heart. I became a martyr. Every noon I now bend down in submission to collect the letters from the doormat without a murmur of complaint.

And I shift them about six feet to create a second neat pile on the stairs.

But alas, calamity has struck. And I would like the world to know that I am not to blame.

It was our son’s 15th birthday last week. The previous week cards from his grandparents arrived. I recognized the hand writing. I collected them from the doormat and added them to the pile on the stairs. When I prepared his birthday breakfast, I wanted to put the cards on the table. But they were gone. I’ve searched the house, I’ve asked husband and children.

‘We never touch the post,’ they say truthfully.

‘But I didn’t touch the pile, either,’ I reply in all honesty.

‘There was money in grandma’s envelope,’ my son points out.

‘You will have to confess to my mother that you’ve lost her letter again,’ my husband laughs. He finds the idea amusing.

‘I didn’t lose it,’ I defend myself. I am not sure I find this a laughing matter. ‘And if you truly love me, you will ring your mother and confess to her that it was your fault. You mislaid her card.’

‘But I didn’t.’ he replies with unhelpful stubbornness.

We haven’t yet told my mother-in-law or my parents. I am still hoping Peirene might find them. I’ve sent her to Mount Olympus to seek help from the ancient Greek gods. But I fear the worst. Because it’s becoming clear that in addition to a classic nymph the house may also host a Celtic post gremlin.  And once a post gremlin captures a birthday card, it’s gone for forever and a day.

Image by Ben Becker.

Malone’s Return

September 29th, 2014

Peirene and I are presenting the 2015 titles to our sales reps. They will start selling the books to bookshops straight after our meeting. We need to give them enough information about the stories and fire them up so they in turn can excite our Beckettbooksellers.

I mention the new series title – Chance Encounter. All eyes on me, interested nods from everyone around the table.  I move on to the books. White Hunger and Reader for Hire go down like a treat. Then I come to the third title, The Looking–Glass Sisters. ‘It’s about two middle-age sisters,’ I say. Juliette, one of the sales reps, begins flicking through her notes. ‘It’s about physical disability within a family.’ Jim is checking his phone. I pretend I don’t see and continue: ‘And how to cope with it.’

Then I stop. And stare in disbelief at Peirene next to me. She has slid down into a lying position on her chair. Her head rests on the back, her face turned upwards, her eyes starring at the ceiling.

I kick her foot under the table. ‘Sit up!’ I hiss. She turns her head slowly towards me. ‘This is so boring.’ she yawns. For a moment I am speechless. I glance around the table. Have the sales reps noticed the Nymph outlandish behaviour? Not really. Because no one is looking in our direction. They too have lost interest.

‘I told you,’ Peirene whispers. ‘You shouldn’t give some phony reason why you publish this book just because you think that’s what sales reps and booksellers want to hear.’

‘But the real reason is too academic for the Anglo-Saxon bookmarket,’ I reply. ‘Well,’ Peirene returns her face to the ceiling. ‘You’ve got very little to lose.’

I take a deep breath.  ‘Has anyone read Beckett’s Malone Dies?’ I ask. The Irish sales rep nods. That’s all the encouragement I need. ‘For me Malone Dies is not about the death of the plot, but the inevitable and necessary death of the male ego before a story can emerge. The Looking-Glass Sisters offers the female version of this narrative. The sisters are the two sides of the writer. One who can’t move, who can’t look after herself, can only read and write. And the other half needs to care for the first one but she is desperate to get away and revel in a purely physical existence. They will never be free of each other, unless they acknowledge their mutual dependency. This story is a brilliant tale about the creative writing process,’ I conclude.

‘That sounds fascinating, ‘ Jim says. His phone is back in his pocket.

‘Put that onto the Advance Information Sheet,’ Juliette says.

‘But isn’t it a bit too high-brow?’ I ask.

‘That’s what booksellers expect from a Peirene book.’ Mel says.

‘We’ve made it!’ The Nymph smiles at me out on the road. And then to my surprise give me a hug ‘How many publishers quote Beckett to the sales force?!’ she asks. ‘And have the sales reps excited by such literary reference.’

Writing Like a Libyan Jazz Musician

September 23rd, 2014

The Nymph has been out of action since Sunday. A bad migraine attack has kept her in bed. Every now and again I peep into her darkened room.5146725115_3861c205bc_z

‘I’m so exhausted,’ she sighs. ‘My poor, poor head has gone on strike.’

We held the three launch events for our 15th title last week. Peirene Experience, Supper Club and Salon with the Libyan author Kamal Ben Hameda. All three events were a huge success.

I fetch a wet flannel and place it across Peirene’s forehead.

‘Thank you, ‘ she mumbles. ‘These author visits drain me. They are so intense.’

‘It all went swimmingly. ‘ I sit down on the side of her bed. ‘Kamal was an excellent performer. And a nice man too. He gave us lots of compliments.’

‘I know. I know,’ she whispers. ‘Still. They arrive and we throw them into the deep end. Place them in front of an Anglo-Saxon audience. English is often our authors’ third or even fourth language. They worry that they can’t express themselves well enough and I worry that our audience doesn’t really understand them.’

‘But isn’t that precisely why we introduce our audience to these foreign authors? Each language, each culture perceives reality differently.  It was fascinating listening to Kamal. He’s a Jazz musician. He answers questions like he tackles music. He never provides a direct answer, but takes each question as a starting point to develop themes, to meander, before he returns to the place where he started. He does the same in his book, Under the Tripoli Sky. It’s not a linear narrative. There is no beginning, middle and end. Instead he improvises on a theme and the reader is invited to go with the flow.’

‘But what if our audience doesn’t get it?’

‘It’s not about “getting it.” It’s about opening up to unusual ways of experiencing life.’

‘Oh, listen to you. So very wise,’  Peirene mocks me.

‘Hah, you’re feeling better now.’ I know my Nymph. When she begins to tease me, she is usually on the mend.

‘No! I’m still very poorly. I will have to stay in bed for at least another day. Do be so kind and bring me a big pot of tea.’

I bend forward and give her a kiss on the forehead. She behaved impeccably while Kamal was here. In return I am happy to obey her orders. I brew her a lovely pot of camomile tea to calm her still ruffled nerves.

Image by Nikkorz.

A Problem Child

September 15th, 2014

‘My life is utter misery.’ Peirene is shuffling around the office with uncombed hair, slippers on her feet and shoulders hunched forward. ‘I don’t know if I can go on living.’5165181_773ce5bdd8_z

‘Hm,’ I respond, without taking my eyes off the screen. I don’t really want to be drawn into a doom & gloom chat with the Nymph. She will snap out of it eventually. And as far as I can see her life is going just fine. Two weeks ago we’ve been awarded a major EU grant for our 2015 ‘Chance Encounter’ series and last week our Polish masterpiece, Chasing the King of Hearts, received the Found in Translation Award 2014.

‘I’m going to sell my shoes – the one with the sparkles. I’m going to put them on e-bay.’ She says decisively. She is now standing right next to me, her voice is shaky, a big tear drops onto my desk.

I sigh. I better pay her some attention before she dissolves totally. I make us a tea. We sit down on the sofa.

‘No one loves me,’ she stumbles, her hair hanging in her face.

‘You have lots of fans,‘ I reply matter-of-factly. ‘And the first reactions to Under The Tripoli Sky are fantastic.’

‘Yes,’ she shakes her head impatiently. ‘Our books are doing fine. But I am not.’

‘If you want me to help you, you need to be more precise.’

She flings her hair back, looking at me angrily. ‘If you truly loved me, you’d know what I am talking about it.’ For a moment we both stare at each other in silence. Finally she rolls her eyes:

‘OK. I clearly have to spill it out for you. It’s our Experience event this coming Wednesday. Supper Club is sold out, Salon is sold out. And the experience event? Four people so far have signed up. It’s my favourite event. But each time we struggle to get the crowd. The author will be there – all the way from Libya, musicians and a beautiful actress. It’s innovative. Unique. And in addition I am starring too. Does no one want to see an ancient Greek Nymph in flesh and blood?!’

What can I say? Peirene has a point. Our Experience Event is our problem child. Each time we hardly sell any tickets in advance. But on the day so far always enough people have turned up. It’s nerve racking. But it’s never been a flop.

‘So fingers crossed that it will be the same this time.  However, you better improve your mood. Otherwise…’ I stop as I search for an effective threat. ‘Otherwise, you won’t be allowed to show off your sparkling shoes.’

… and if you want to make Peirene happy, you can book for our Experience event here.

Image by Dave Morris.

Book Launch Highlights

September 8th, 2014

My own second novella, Clara’s Daughter, published this month by Salt, was launched on Friday. In style. Thanks to an amazing team.7688672396_2caab2860e_z

The preparations started at 9am on the dot. My daughter Rosa and her friend Connie chopped 10 kilos of potatoes for the potato salad, then tidied the house, while I fetched baguettes and cheese. By 3pm the buffet was laid out, the white wine consigned to the fridge, the bicycles moved from the hallway into the back garden. At 5pm we loaded glasses, bottles of Prosecco and books into the car then drove up to the Highgate, to the Literary and Scientific Institution. Rosa and Connie organised the drinks, my son set up the table with the books. Zelda and Aysha, our two lovely 14-year old Peirene Salon waitresses, turned up at 6.30. Peirene’s Jen sold 90 books in an hour, while I greeted the guests.

The writer Isabel Wolff and I took to the stage at 7.45. My son was employed as the official photographer.

By 9pm we all headed back to our house. Clara and her boyfriend had gone ahead to put the finishing touches to the buffet, uncork the wine bottles and open the door for the first guests. Connie and Rosa stayed at the Institution to tidy up and put the empty glasses and bottles into our car which I picked up the next morning.

It couldn’t have gone smoother. It was a wonderful evening. With over 100 guests. I felt very honoured indeed.

‘I love the way you always make yourself sound so chilled in your blogs.’ Peirene chuckles behind me. ‘If only your readers had seen you at the beginning of the week. You were in tears. You couldn’t see how to boil enough potatoes. And then you decided to cancel the entire event.’

‘Not because of the potatoes’ I am responding defensively – but I already know what is coming next.

‘No, because of your hair.’

True, I can’t deny it. I had forgotten to book a hairdresser appointment. But Drew, my hairdresser, managed to fit me in at short-notice. I received my new highlights just in time. So I add him to the list of team members who help when help is needed.  Thank you to my wonderful team.

Image by Daniel Oines.

21st Century Exam Skills

September 1st, 2014

I’m back after a wonderful summer. What was the highlight? An exam, actually. My first in the 21st century.photo

A couple of months ago I finally decided to apply for a British passport – and for that you need to pass the ‘Life in the UK’  test.  I have been living my ‘life in the UK’ for over 25 years so I felt well prepared. But not so fast. Apparently you have to buy a book. Then you study it. Then you register for the test. Then you sit in a room at a set time with a crowd of others and the test begins. Suddenly I felt a little nervous.

The morning of my exam, I sharpened my pencil, I made sure my fountain pen had enough ink. And I also put a newly purchased ball-point pen into the pencil case. After all, I wasn’t sure what sort of pen we’d be allowed to use, and I wanted to be equipped for all eventualities.

As I cycled down to Islington, in my mind’s eye I saw myself bending over a desk writing my name at the top of a sheet of paper. And at the end of the exam I would clip the sheets together and pass them over to an examiner who would tick the correct answers and then add up the ticks.

I arrived well in time – I was always a good student. I locked my bike and went inside. There were no desks, no examiner, no paper clips, not even any paper. Instead we were shown into a room with rows of computers. The images in my head evaporated into thin air as they were confronted with the stark, technological, reality. What would my son have said? ‘Dah, Mum, which century did you take your last exam in?’ And I would have had to admit that it was indeed in the last millennium.

Exam nerves subsided and full-fledged digital panic took over. What if my computer of all the computers won’t turn on. Or perhaps the machine turns on, but won’t let me access the right programme. Or it turns on, I access the programme, but then it saves my answers wrongly. Or doesn’t save them at all. It might even explode! My heart started racing. My palms became sweaty. And I feared my fingers were too wet to touch the keyboard.

‘Pull yourself together, woman. You are the head of my publishing house. Don’t disgrace yourself – and me.’ This were Peirene’s last words as I left the house that morning.  And as always, the Nymph’s words did wonders for me.

The computer did not explode, it let me enter the programme, it saved my answers. And I passed the test.

Back at Peirene HQ, the Nymph greeted me with a clap on the shoulder. ‘Well done, proud of you. Can’t wait to encounter the new, modern, technologically savvy, British you. We will from now on all look to you when the internet doesn’t connect in the office.’

Summer Time

July 6th, 2014

… and I am taking my annual summer blog break until the beginning of September.IMG_0408

However, I won’t be idle. Family holidays, then a writer’s retreat. Peirene No 15, Under The Tripoli Sky will be send to our subscribers. And I also want to read a few books.

Most importantly I like to finish The Old Testament. A few weeks ago I started on page 1 and have now reached the end of Chronicles 2. So, I’ve nearly completed the histories and very much looking forward to the Poetry Books.

Other books on my summer read list:

Poetry: Niall Campbell’s ‘Moontide’ and Anne Carson’s ‘Men in the off Hours’

Non-fiction: ‘Words and The Word: language, poetics and biblical interpretation’ by Stephen Prickett and ‘The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms‘ by Ernst Cassirer

Fiction: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Murphy’.

I hope you have a sunny, inspiring couple of months. See you back here in September.


Thoughts of a Hostess

June 30th, 2014

Last Wednesday I went to see the artist Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine Gallery where she is staging ‘512 Hours’. For three months Marina Abramovic is at the gallery from 10am to 6pm, six days a week. Everyone is invited to come.  She 7198892352_2726579394_z(1)greets you at the door. Then you walk into three empty rooms. Throughout the day she approaches her visitors and talks to them. A young assistant tells you to do things, such as standing with a face against a wall or walking in a room blind-folded. But you don’t have to. You can just sit on the floor and observe.

My visit made me think a lot about private versus public, and our individual body – and emotions – as part of a public performance. It also made me think about the role and power of a hostess. Because that is precisely what I explore with the Peirene Salons.

Four times a year total strangers enter our house. We wine and dine them. We provide literary entertainment. We offer our private, personal space for public encounters and conversation.

Strangers drop their coats on our bed, glimpse our family photos on the wall and see the books that we are reading. For an entire evening our personal refuge – our home – turns into a public arena.

It’s by far the most stressful thing I do.

Traditionally, a Salon has always taken place in a woman’s house. Two hundred years ago that might have been a necessity. Women were not part of public life. However, the connection between women and Salons goes deeper. A Salon is an exploration of what happens when private and public spheres collide, interact and fuse.

I went with a friend to Mariana Abromovic’s 512 Hours. My friend left the gallery angry. In her view, Marina Abranovic didn’t do anything. I, on the other hand, felt exhilarated. As far as I could tell, she had done a lot – she provoked feelings which we were forced to carry with us to the outside. And apparently she provoked these feelings without doing much. Or did she?

What I suddenly realized last Wednesday: Abramovic in her function as the hostess created a fusion of the private and the public and so offered her guests – and herself – a chance to participate in a communal performance.

I attend a lot of public literary events. Often they are completely disconnected from the actual creative source of literature which is the private. I.e. Good literature, in my view, always stems from a personal space or preoccupation. However, many literary events stand in stark contrast to that. The environment has no connection to the book presented and the author is interested in selling the work rather than talking about it and inviting the guests on a journey of discovery.

I have now finally understood why the Peirene Salon is so important to me – and why, despite of all the stress, I am looking forward to each one of them: The Salon not only brings together hosts and guests and fuses private and public, but it also offers a platform where the story is linked back to the private place from where it originated. Thank you Marina Abramovic for giving me these insights.

Image by David Lombardia.