The Wrath of the Nymph

November 25th, 2014

Bad news of the week: our Arts Council funding application to take the Roaming Store to places outside London has been rejected. For the 4944293408_bc07cf51f0_zsecond time.

Apparently our application showed weakness in relation to our plans to ‘engage the public’.

‘I don’t believe it?!’ Peirene can hardly breathe when I show her the letter. ‘Weakness to engage the public?!’ Her voice is breaking.

‘Any other reason,’ she paces up and down the office.  ‘Any other reason I would have tolerated. But …’ Once again she begins to hyperventilate.

‘Calm down,’ I beg her. She shakes her head.

‘The entire roaming store is a public engagement.’ she cries in between breaths.  ‘Standing at markets, convincing people who would never go into a bookshop or look at the review pages to read foreign literature – what precisely do they call this if not public engagement. Our roaming store is the best, most efficient, public engagement tool ever invented.’

She suddenly falls silent, turns to the phone and picks up the receiver. My heart misses a beat. The Nymph is in no fit state to speak to anyone.

‘Who are your calling?’ I ask.

‘The Arts Council.’ Before she can dial the number, I’m next to her and take the receiver out of her hand.

‘You’re a coward,’ she protests.

‘They won’t change their mind.’ I pause. Then I continue: ‘I think the main challenge we have is that they don’t really understand the concept of our stalls. Even though we do our best to explain and send pictures. No other publisher does it, and certainly not in the organized fashion we do.’

Peirene sits down on the sofa. She suddenly looks deflated. ‘But I am so upset that once again we won’t have enough money to take our Roaming Store outside London. It’s such a pity.’

I nod in agreement ‘I wish one of their people would spend just a single day at our Roaming Store and see what we are achieving. I’m sure we’d get the money.’

The Nymph jumps up. ‘You are right. That’s what I am going to tell them.’

I push her gently back onto the sofa. ‘We’re going to take a deep breath.’ I bring my palms together in front of my heart and encourages Peirene to follow my example. ‘We’re going to be calm’. The Nymph half closes her eyes. ‘And then,’ we both look at each other, ‘we’re going to reapply.’

Image by JD Hancock.

Dog Encounter

November 17th, 2014

‘I worry about myself.’ Peirene and I are sitting on a bench on top of Parliament Hill as we take a break during our run. My eyes are travelling across a rainy London skyline, while the Nymph concludes her thought: ‘I might not exist for much longer,’

4509494174_d9f67caa44_z‘Peirene!’ I exclaim in such a shocked voice that the dog playing with a stick a few meters away lifts its head in surprise. ‘These are very morbid thoughts indeed,’ I continue in a lower voice.

‘Well,’ the Nymph sighs. ‘I’m just being realistic.’

The dog, a black labrador, is approaching us.

‘In which way?’ I’ve detected a hint of the Nymph’s melodramatic undertone in her voice and my initial concern is replaced by curiosity.

I look around for the pet’s owner. Both, Peirene and I are scared of dogs.

‘The written word is going to die,’ she says solemnly.

‘I agree.’ I nod. The thought is not new to me. ‘After all, it was invented by the Ancient Sumerians as a means of storing information. We’ve now developed other, more efficient ways to do that.’ I pause. ‘Having said that, I also believe that for the time being we still need the written word to structure our thoughts. So I’d give writing a few hundred years more. 300 to 500 years, I’d say.’

The dog has briefly sniffed Peirene’s shoes and now lies down in front of our feet, head on its paws. No owner in sight. We both keep our gaze fixed on the horizon, but our bodies are glued to the bench. Neither of us even dares to move a finger.

‘For an ancient Greek nymph a few hundred years resemble a mere blink of the eye,’ the Nymph says.

I can hardly hear Peirene’s words. My heart is beating so loud. ‘Peirene, ‘ I whisper. ‘There is a huge dog at our feet.’

‘I know.’ Peirene whispers back. ‘I am trying to ignore it.’

‘What, if it attacks us?’

‘Then we both die in a blink of an eye’ the Nymph breathes.

I contemplate our fate during the ensuing silence. Then I give myself a push and lean forward to stroke the dog. ‘You won’t hurt us, will you.’ I stand up and pull the Nymph with me. ‘Come on. We have a job to do.  A few more masterpieces to publish before dogs eat us or the written word becomes a thing of the past.’

We run down the hill as fast as we can and don’t stop until we are back within the walls of Peirene HQ.

Image by Duncan.

Back at the Stall

November 10th, 2014

I did not jump out of bed with joy in my heart yesterday morning. In fact as my husband and son left the house for a football match, I 12585975954_9447ca337e_zcontemplated faking a migraine so I could stay in bed for the rest of the day.

‘Will you get up!’ The Nymph eventually pulled the duvet away from me. ‘The taxi will be here in half an hour.’

If I want to glamorise my condition yesterday morning, I’d say I suffered from stage- fright. However, if I want to be honest, I’d have to admit that the source of my attitude was slightly less admirable. I am the CEO of this publishing house. I ought not to stand in the freezing cold selling books at market stalls. Such were my thoughts as I tried to hold on to the duvet.

‘Yes, you certainly ought to sell books at market stalls.’ The Nymph stood next to my bed tapping her foot impatiently, her arms crossed in front of her chest. ‘A good boss leads by example,’ she stated.  ‘ Jen and Clara – plus a number of interns – run stalls throughout the year – in the rain, the heat, the cold. When did you last work on the stall? I think it was Christmas a year ago.’

‘That is precisely my worry.’ I moaned as I dragged myself out of bed. ‘I don’t know any longer how to set up the stall. I can’t think of what to say to people. And I have forgotten how to keep smiling when they treat me like thin air.’

Peirene showed no mercy. ‘I’ll be waiting downstairs for you. And,’  she turned around in the door, ‘if you continue whining I’ll join Clara today at Richmond market and will leave you alone at the Ally Pally Farmer’s market.’

I stopped. I wanted the Nymph by my side after all.

My worries, though, were justified. I was rusty at the beginning. As we were setting up the stall, I didn’t know how best to display the books and took a lot of time shifting them around. I also lost a couple of sales straight away because I just didn’t hit the right note with the customers. I was too eager to sell, rather than sharing my enthusiasm for our books.

Still, as the hours went passed, I got back into my stride. I made eye contact with passers-by. They approached the stand. We chatted about Peirene, foreign literature and the novella.

I was yet again reminded what contradictory emotions go through me when I look after our bookstall. It is hard work – both physically and mentally, and the prospect of a day’s market duty often feels daunting. However, selling books next to cheese and fruits and vegetables makes so much sense – one is nourishment for the body, the other for the mind. And there was a moment in the afternoon when suddenly I was overcome by a beautiful calmness. I knew I was doing just what I meant to do.

And I managed to sell a fair amount of books, too.

‘Not at many as Jen usually sells at this market,’ the Nymph mumbled as I was cashing up at the end of the day.

‘Jen is our star bookseller. Hard to beat her, ‘I replied.

Not even my ancient Greek Nymph could disturb my inner peace.

Image by Holiday Gems.

A New Queen

November 3rd, 2014

‘What a great newspaper!’3343380147_354fc7a29d_o

Peirene is sitting in the office armchair, reading the latest edition of our newspaper.

She reads out loud from the introduction: ‘Best-selling German author Birgit Vanderbeke allows us a glance into her creative process, comparing writing to cooking. Internationally renowned Polish author Hanna Krall talks about stories of the Holocaust. ‘They are stories in which everything has been multiplied. Enormous evil and enormous good.’ Translator and writer Emily Jeremiah gives us an insight into the art of translation: ‘There are things one cannot render.’ And the Deputy Director of English Pen, Katherine Taylor takes us on an eye-opening journey through the world of literature. ‘Imaginations are ignited in infancy by fairy tales drawn from diverse cultures and languages.’

The Nymph pauses for a moment. Then continues: ‘Plus interviews with film makers and authors. And extracts of our forthcoming books.’ She is slightly out of breath. ‘Wow. This is so impressive.’

‘I know. Isn’t it just.’ I am proudly beaming across my face. She lowers the paper for a moment. ‘I am so pleased that the newspaper has a new editor. The last editor really didn’t know what she was doing.’ She once again disappears behind the paper.

‘Peirene. That was mean of you.’ I feel hurt. After all, for two years I used to be its editor. And I felt I did what I could at the time. However, I have to admit: what was not much more than a glorified catalogue under my control, has now evolved into an exciting magazine about foreign literature. Thanks to Clara, our new newspaper editor. Still, I like to be given a bit of credit from the Nymph.

‘Well done for delegating,’ comes Peirene’s voice from behind the paper. ‘ May I just point out, though, that the position for Queen of Delegation is already occupied within our company…’

The voice wants to continue, but I am quicker. I have walked over to the chair where the Nymph has been sitting for over an hour. I pull the paper away from her in a single sweeping movement.

‘May I announce: There has been a revolution. We have a new Queen of Delegation. And you my lady will now get back to your desk and continue working through the to-do-list I have given you.’

Image by Amazing Cupcakes.

The Work Horse

October 26th, 2014

‘Good of you to come back.’ Peirene is standing in the hallway, hands in her hips, with a look on her face as if I had abandoned her for months.3328691847_7e2ebce734_z

In fact, I was gone for five days. I had discussed my absence with her before. She had agreed. She’d be running the show in the office, she said.

I carry my suitcase inside and close the door behind me.

‘I told you I’d be back on Saturday afternoon. And here I am.’

‘You disappear to “write.”’ She mimes quotation marks with her fingers in the air. ‘No internet. No phone. 30 messages on the answering machine, two hundred e-mails, the 2016 programme not yet sorted. And look at that huge pile of post. Your behaviour is outrageous.’

She glares at me furiously, blocking my way. There is part of me that would love to walk straight out of the door again and return to the cottage in Norfolk I had rented to make headway with my next novella.

Instead I take a deep breath.  ‘Let’s have a cup of tea.’ I usher the Nymph into the kitchen.

‘So what’s the real issue?’ I ask as we are sitting down at the table.

‘The work that has piled up while you are away,’ she insists.

I pour the tea and shake my head. ‘No, Peirene. I don’t believe you. We both knew that that would happen and we also know that we can handle it. So, what’s really bothering you?’

She takes a sip of tea. ‘Ouch!’ She jams down the cup. ‘This tea is far too hot!’ she exclaims, looking at me accusingly. Then her lower lip begins to tremble.

‘Jen and Clara,’ she sobs. ‘They’ve been ghastly to me while you were away.  Jen has now finalised the Roaming Store schedule up to Christmas. 43 stalls. Can you believe it. 43! And of course I have to be present at them.’ She shakes her head in despair.  ‘And then Clara. She’s so excited. She has sent our next newspaper off to the printers and wants me now out and about with her every week distributing them at tube stations across London. They treat me like a slave. No! Worse. Much worse. Like a work horse! How utterly degrading for a Nymph.’

Peirene is dissolving into tears. I push my chair closer to her ‘Let me talk to Jen, ‘I put my arm around Peirene. ‘Perhaps she will agree to you taking a few days break.’

The sobbing subsides. The Nymph and I finish our tea in harmony: I feel proud of my team. Peirene, on the other hand, feels excited about shopping trips she will organize on her days off.

Image by Feliciano Guimaraes.

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.