I am taking an Easter Break and will be back with latest Peirene drama at the beginning of May.
Image by dwstucke.
Regardless of whom I met last week at the London Bookfair, not once did I need to explain what Peirene is or does. Our reputation in the book world is now global. Even international publishers and agents who I’d never encountered before had heard about us. I received compliments for the books, the translations, the newspaper and the events. Colleagues from the US, Denmark and Spain expressed their admiration for our ‘selective programme’, our ‘innovative marketing’. And people noticed my new shoes too. Simply a brilliant Bookfair. As far as The Nymph and I were concerned, it could have gone on forever.
By Friday, however, the international literary connoisseurs had cleared the stage and gone home. And Peirene and I where thrown out of Earls Court and back onto the streets of London.
Waterstone’s Piccadilly had asked Hamid Ismailov and I to talk about The Dead Lake in the store on Friday evening. As I arrived I noted that our event wasn’t mentioned on their blackboard outside the store, nor, for that matter, anywhere inside. I went to the counter to inquire where I should go. They looked at me slightly bewildered. But eventually I came across someone who knew. I was shown to a room in the basement where I found Hamid surrounded by 50 empty chairs.
The Nymph was very unhappy and when I asked the store manager why there weren’t any signs to the event and how they thought people would know about it, I was told that yes, there are indeed announcements – on the fourth floor in the Russian book section. Peirene opened her mouth. I knew she was about to make some sharp comments about preparation, promotion and who-goes-up-all –way-to-the-fourth-floor . I squeezed her arm and caught her just in time. She closed her mouth again without saying a word but threw the manager an angry glance.
Ten people came, including Kazakh TV and a Peirene fan who had traveled all the way from Birmingham. I invited our guests to sit in the front row and we spent a lovely, inspiring hour together.
My husband came too. Afterwards we went out for meal. ‘You publish books for a particular audience with a particular taste. And your fans are willing to come out on a Friday evening. That’s wonderful. Maybe you will never draw the big masses,’ he mused. ‘On the other hand, you are collecting a great array of micro genres on your list: Cold War Fiction, Holocaust Romance, Lonely Women Thrillers. And who knows, one of these days one the micro genres might become macro.’
I lent over the table and gave him a kiss for his belief in the Nymph and me. It was a brilliant week.
Image: Book Birds by Jenni-Douglas.
The distributor has raised their charges. Peirene’s designer would like more money. PEN will not fund our roaming store UK tour in the autumn. And to top it all, when the third print run of The Mussel Feast arrived on Thursday, I discovered that the books have been glued appallingly. I have to return the entire order to the printers.
I end the week with a worry of how to cover the rising costs. Our increasing book sales are held in check by ever larger discounts to amazon and bookshops alike.
‘I see you have been painting your nails, ‘Peirene throws a side glance at my fingers. ‘Perhaps you should have been looking after the business.’ She is peeved that I didn’t take her along to the beautician.
‘Actually,’ I lift a gorgeously manicured finger, ‘these nails are going to help me clinch a few book deals this coming week.’
It’s London Bookfair. I have 40 meetings, three dinners and a couple of parties.
Six years ago I attended my first London Bookfair. The idea of setting up a publishing house was on my mind, but I hadn’t yet founded Peirene. Moreover, I didn’t know anyone in the international publishing world, nor was I invited to any dinners or parties. I went to the fair to make contacts and had set myself a target of not leaving Earls Court unless I had spoken personally to ten people. Ten business cards. By 4pm I had received three. Most people didn’t want to talk to me. I remember leaving the building and sitting in a cafe wondering if I could face returning inside. I did. By the time the fair closed that day I had managed to hit my target of ten contacts.
At this year’s fair there will be lots of familiar faces and a lot of catching up – with plenty of professional and personal gossip. I am looking forward to the break from my desk and the day-to-day running of the publishing house.
‘Did you also buy new shoes for the fair by any chance?’ The Nymph knows me too well. There is no point of denying my Saturday spending spree.
‘Well, let’s hope all these fashion accessories will help you to secure us a bestseller.’ She turns back to her screen, mumbling: ‘Otherwise you might have to find an evening job to cover your extravagant life style.’
Image by Boston Public Library.
Fourteen and a half years ago my son was born. I looked at him with loving eyes, convinced I had given birth to the most stunning and perfect male creature that has ever walked the earth.
Since my husband has always worked away during the week, from Mondays to Fridays we used to be three at home: Our daughter, our son and me. My daughter has now finished school and gone travelling. So its son and mum home alone. The most stunning male creature and I.
We get on well. With few words.
I: ‘How was school?’
I: ‘Have you done your homework?’
He: Indistinguishable grunt.
I: ‘You still need to practice your trumpet.’
I used to be a puritan about meal times. No music. No books. No screens. Meal times were there to make conversation. Now, I have discovered a different way.
At breakfast I read my book, he reads his. And at supper time we prop up the i-pad in the middle of the table and watch documentaries. We’ve already watched a few on how to become a solider in Afghanistan. And at the moment we are viewing a fascinating series about astronauts.
Every now and again, however, I still feel obliged to share words of deep wisdom, such as:
‘Brushing your teeth is important. You only have those sets of teeth and you need to keep them for a few more decades.’
Or: ‘Your brain is like a muscle. You have to train it. That’s why you have to learn all these different subjects in school. The more subtle and stronger your brain muscle becomes, the more you can do with it in later life.’ I was particularly proud of this last as an ingenious piece of advice. And he acknowledged it with a special one word answer:
‘MBS.’ Mum’s Bull Shit. I lifted myself on to my toes and tried to give him a slap on the back of his head. He ducked away shrieking with laughter.
So here we are: two different galaxies orbiting in space. But there is one thing that links us. The black hole through which we can time travel towards each other. Rhubarb crumble.
‘Your rhubarb crumble is the best, ‘ my son praises it in an unusual long sentence whenever I serve it. And my heart once again melts. He is indeed the most perfect male creature that has ever walked the earth.
Image by Whitney.
Friday morning. ‘I’m off.’ The Nymph is already half way out of the door before I look up. ‘Where are you going?’ I say slightly absent-mindedly. Frankly, right at this moment I don’t care that much about her movements.
I have my own problems. No 14 was supposed to have gone to the printers today. But in the morning I woke with a nagging feeling that I ought to look at the manuscript one last time – even though I’ve already done two rounds of editing. Furthermore the book has been sub-edited, set, and proof-read, but I worry that the text doesn’t yet gel.
‘You are stressed, I can see it from your pursed lips.’ Peirene replies. ‘And all you will do is revise the text for the rest of the day. And if I make a tiny noise, you’ll snap at me. So I am off to seek some fun elsewhere.’
I look up from the pages with a sigh. I don’t need a Nymph tantrum. She explains: ‘I’m going to Jen’s. She is scouting out new Roaming Store locations and she asked me to accompany her.’ Peirene waves at me and exits. Pleased that the Nymph is making herself useful, I return to my work.
A few hours later, my life looks brighter. I am happy that I followed my instinct. Editing translations is like peeling an artichoke. Each round of revision brings us closer to the essence of the original and improves the English text.
I take a break. While the kettle is boiling I check my messages. It’s the Nymph. She can barely talk, she is so excited.
‘Have you… have you seen twitter? I am trending. Over 70 responses in the last hour alone. Fame at last. Call us back.’
I open the internet browser on my computer. And true! Twitter has gone Peirene mad.
I call Jen. ‘Wow! This is amazing. What has happened?’
In the morning Jen had linked to a BBC book list of 100 must-read classics on our facebook page. A couple of our twitter fans commented on how anglo-centric the list was. So Jen suggested she’d draw up a top 100 Peirene list with recommendations from our readers. She received nearly 200 suggestions. In the evening she proudly put up our list, The Peirene 100 Essential Classics From Around The Globe, compiled entirely by Peirene Press readers.
I haven’t seen the Nymph all weekend. She’s staying with Jen. ‘No offence.’ Peirene texted me. ‘But Jen just knows how to have fun. We are twittering with the world. I hope you’re enjoying adding full-stops and taking out commas’.
Image by Vestman.
The Nymph and I are preparing ourselves for one of the most exciting moments of the Peirene year. We have bought chocolate biscuits. We make ourselves a cup of coffee and settle in front of the computer. Sacha, Peirene’s designer, has sent us her first drafts for the 2015 series.
Sacha’s annual task is quite a challenge. Not only does she have to come up with three covers that fit the Peirene branding. The covers have also to relate to each other as a series and the series itself has to be distinct enough from all other Peirene series.
Our Female Voice series provides fascinating glimpses of the inner realities of three women, while we – the readers – will never know the entire story. The covers are dominated by circles – peep holes – through which we see parts of an image.
Our Male Dilemma series followes along similar lines.
When we published, however, the Small Epic series, we increased the circles by epic proportions.
Then came the Turning Point. And it arrived with a bang. For the first time beautiful illustrations adorn the covers.
This year, the fifth year, Peirene has “come of-age” with a series of the same name. The covers sport full black & white photos.
And next year? Chance Encounters. Three stories where lives are changed by the arrival of strangers and where opposites clash to create unexpected plot turns.
I click on the file. Both Peirene and I hold our breath. It takes a few moments for the file to download.
‘Sacha is good,’ I hear Peirene say next to me as we are still waiting. ‘But I think this might have been a challenge too steep for her.’
‘I trust her.’ I mumble, though I am sure that at best I will think: yep, nice covers, job done. I can’t imagine Sacha coming up with a series for the sixth year running that will get me excited.
Then the 2015 covers explode onto our screen.
‘Wow!’ Peirene and I exclaim as if out of one mouth. ‘They are stunning.’
‘She is a genius.’ I say.
‘I can’t wait for these covers to be printed.’ Peirene says.
For a while we stare in silent admiration. Then suddenly the Nymph gets up.
‘Actually’ she is rolling her eyes, ‘Sacha’s has an easy job. We deliver first class stories. We link them to a series. So all she has to do, is find a few images, play around with design elements – et voila.’
‘Peirene, Peirene.’ I shake my head, but smile. After all, her jealousy betrays how impressed she is yet again with Sacha’s work.
‘What are you looking for?’ I enquire, curiously.
Instead of an answer, she mumbles, ‘I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it.’ She shakes her head, turning page after page. I wonder if she has heard me. ‘I’m reading the news.’ she eventually says.
‘I couldn’t have guessed that.’ I chuckle.
‘You are just as bad as any of them.’ With a wide, angry movement of her hand she points at the papers around her. ‘I have just made history… and not a word. The world ignores me.’
The penny suddenly drops. I know what she is talking about.
On Friday the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) 2014 longlist was announced. This is the most prestigious foreign fiction prize in the Anglo-Saxon world. Peirene No 10, The Mussel Feast is on it. That means that since we started, a Peirene book has been longlisted. Four consecutive years. Moreover, the IFFP is notorious for male domination. The prize was set up in 1990 and not a single woman author has won it. This year – once again – there are only five women on the 15-title strong longlist. One of them is our author Birgit Vanderbeke. AND from Peirene’s four longlisted authors over the last four years, three are women.
‘Show me another indy publisher who has pulled this off.’ The Nymph aims her index finger at me as if I had told the newspapers to ignore this story. ‘I – we – should make headlines.’ Her finger stabs me into the chest. I tumble over backwards, laughing.
‘I totally agree. And I am so proud of you. But unfortunately this isn’t headline material.’
Peirene looks at me in silence for a moment. Then a slightly mischievous grin appears on her lips. ‘So let’s open a bottle of champagne right away. This might be our only opportunity to celebrate. After all, statistically we have little chance of making the shortlist. And who knows, a drunken Ancient Greek Nymph misbehaving in the workplace might make the headline material that will interest the editors.’
Image by Kheel Center, Cornell University.
And truth to tell I can see why. He has been an absolute pleasure to work with.
I can pinpoint the moment he won Peirene’s affections. Before we embarked on the translation of The Dead Lake we held a meeting. I explained why I was unhappy with a particular sample translation. He said: ‘I see your point. The English sounds very Russian indeed.’
That was the first time the Nymph could have thrown her arms around him in adoration. I was barely able to hold her back.
Most of our authors speak very good English. Many of them worry that the English version of their story does not sound like the original. Hamid knew instinctively that his Russian novella had to change into an English book and that as long as it sounded Russian, we hadn’t succeeded. He also knew that his job as the author – the conceiver – of the Russian story was completed. He had to relinquish control for an English book to emerge.
Andrew Bromfield delivered a fine translation. But that was only half the journey. I then edited the text. Anything that jarred with the overall rhythm and flow of the English story I rewrote. Afterwards I passed The Dead Lake to Lesley, my line editor. She picked out unnecessary repetitions and unidiomatic English. Eventually the text passed to an English reader before being set and going through the final proofread.
We follow the same procedure with every Peirene book. Each step takes the story further away from the original and further towards an independent work of art. Producing translated fiction requires collaboration. I often think of the film industry. There everyone involved in making a film knows it’s a joint effort. The script writer needs a director. The director has to rely on an actor. The actor looks bland without a skilled make-up artist. If anyone tried to take control the outcome would disappoint.
Trusting others to do their job well, is a scary thing. Authors spend years writing their book in solitude. It is difficult to let go, difficult to realise that other now have to take over. But Hamid succeeded.
And so, rightly he has won the Nymph’s heart. ‘He knew I’d do a good job,’ she sighes with stars in her eyes, while caressing our lovely Peirene book No 13. Being on the receiving end of trust is an empowering feeling.
Image by cygnus921.
‘Do you think I am flippant and shallow?’ A little tear shows in the Nymph’s right eye. I shake my head. ‘Of course not.’ ‘But I think others think that.’ ‘Who precisely?’ I enquire. She shrugs her shoulder. ‘Others. Everyone.’ She hesitates for a moment and then adds: ‘And it’s your fault. When others talk about deep thoughts, you praise pretty pictures.’
Ah! I suddenly understand where she is coming from. She is worried about the impression we gave last Friday.
We were invited to the British Centre of Literary Translation industry day. I shared a panel with commissioning editors from Harvill Secker and Granta and the publisher of Comma Press. So, four high class literary publishers on one panel.
Trainee translator pitched at us books that they wanted to translate for the UK market. We commented on their choices and their presentations.
My colleagues and I agreed on much. But there was one subtle difference in our argument. While the others emphasised the importance of innovative thought in a narrative, I insisted on strong images – pictures if you will.
I’m a busy woman and my attention span is limited. If you pitch a book at me, you have three seconds to grab my attention. It’s the same amount of time we have when we are selling a Peirene book to a new reader outside Budgens supermarket.
‘God is taking a sabbatical’ immediately caught my curiosity. On the other hand ‘This is an important book by a famous Belgian writer that feels very modern but who has been neglected over the last half a century,’ did not set my imagination on fire.
An image is full of contradictions and possibilities which reveal themselves in the story. If a book can be summed up in a powerful image, it usually means that the author has succeeded in ‘showing’ us what concerns her or him rather than ‘telling us’ or ‘talking at us’. And that for me suggests good and exciting literature.
I look at my little drama queen. ‘I thought you agree with me about images?’ I say to Peirene. ‘Yes, of course I do. And a successful literary image always implies complex thought, while it’s not necessarily true the other way round.’ ‘Good.’ I reply. ‘But I also want to be acknowledged as an amazingly intellectual and intelligent person,’ she pouts. I laugh out loud. ‘Well, that’s impossible. You’re a Nymph not a person.’ But then seeing her face cloud over I add, ‘but a very clever Nymph indeed.’
Image by karen_neoh.