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.

Sleep

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

Lifting Weights

May 19th, 2015

‘You are not putting in enough effort’ Peirene is standing in front of me, hands in her hips.1004465285_994154d698_z

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.

Nymph on Politics

May 12th, 2015

‘So, the election…,’ Peirene says. But I interrupt her with a stern voice:6660241449_ec366e2044_z

‘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.

Dhaka Abduction

May 5th, 2015

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 photo[1]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”.’

A Future with Heinz

April 28th, 2015

I recently had a brilliant idea. Or so I thought.8009660283_b46ec51fee_z

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.