The Nymph has gone for her winter sleep. And the Peirene Ladies are taking a break. Thank you for reading Peirene’s books and following my dramas with The Nymph.
Maddy set up our coffee mornings, supper clubs, experience events and roaming store. Thanks to her we received two arts council grants and PEN funding for the Nymph’s first ever UK tour. When Maddy joined, we didn’t feature on twitter, had possessed ten facebook followers and our subscription model wasn’t even conceived. Now we can count ourselves lucky with thousands of social media fans and readers who have already subscribed to Peirene books up to the end of 2016.
Maddy ran a Peirene treasure hunt in partnership with bookshops across the UK each year. She masterminded Peirene’s marketing internship scheme. Our hugely successful reading guides were inspired by her.
On Wednesday we said goodbye in style. Clara, Sacha, Maddy, the Nymph and I headed downtown. Only Jen was missing. She was ill in bed. We watched Michael Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, followed by a meal in Covent Garden. And then we hit the bars in Soho.
The Nymph was in seventh heaven. ‘This is what life should be like. At least once a week. I feel young again.’ She drank white wine and red wine and Amaretto on ice and smoked a few cigarettes. But – an ancient Greek Nymph is not a young goddess. She paid the price. As we headed home at 2am, she looked very pale indeed and we had to stop the taxi a couple of times so she could catch some fresh air.
She’s been in a foul mood ever since. Especially during lunch time.
‘I don’t like your soup,’ she pushes the plate away and folds her arms like a child in a huff. ‘Maddy’s lunches were so much nicer and tastier.’
For a moment I stare silently at the Heinz tomato soup in my bowl. What can I say? The Nymph is right. Maddy cooked us beautiful fresh vegetable stir fries. Then I sigh, before I pick up my spoon. I, too, will miss Maddy.
Thank you, Maddy, and good luck.
Image by AlicePopkorn.
you brighten my day, light enters my soul when I think of you. You make my life with Meike and the Peirene Ladies worthwhile.
You might think that you are for me just another name on a list, another customer, another credit card or paypal transaction.
You are so wrong!
Each one of you has a special place in my Ancient Greek heart. The thought of you makes me get out of bed in the morning and gives me the courage to work through the day. To each one of you I blow kisses before I go to sleep.
There is Chris, a publishing colleague from Malta. Thanks to him, half of the Maltese population have become Peirene subscribers. Including his mother.
Joy wrote: ‘Thank you for bringing Peirene into my life – the beautiful books, and everything that is bound up with them (especially the Maya Centre), is a soothing balm that makes my heart sing.’ Three of her friends will receive a Peirene gift subscription this Christmas.
On Friday I picked up the phone. It was Cathy. She had recently received her first book subscription from us. ‘The best present I have received in a long while,’ she said and ordered five Christmas gift subscription for her friends across the UK and US.
And sometimes you even send me beautiful Christmas cards. ‘A very small thank you for all the many happy hours I’ve spend reading your Peirene books,’ wrote Christiane.
I know who has been a subscriber for years, who is new, who works their way through our books, who has left out which book and which series. And I ponder about the ‘why’ and what that says about you – and me.
Thank you for your support. I will do my best to be a good Greek Nymph (and will make sure Meike doesn’t fall too far behind).
Image by jcarlosn.
Three weeks ago we were burgled. The insurance company is probably not going to pay out because I ‘run a business from home’. They argue that because I receive business contacts in our house, our home is not really a “home” and thus our home content insurance does not apply.
The business insurance refuses to pay because stolen jewelry – mine and my daughter’s – has nothing to do with the business.
On Saturday we held the Peirene Winter Salon. As always in our house. Some I knew, others I met for the first time as they walked through the door. One new-comer, while she was shown into our bedroom where she could leave her bag and coat, exclaimed: ‘Wow, the Salon really does take place in your home.’ I laughed and asked what she had expected. ‘Well, I thought you might use an extension to your house,’ she explained.
Our guest star was the British poet Ruth Padel. She read from her latest work, The Mara Crossing. The book explores the notion of migration. All life stems from migration. Cells, animals and humans have always migrated, need to migrate to survive. But does this alter our idea of home. “Home is where you start from, but where is a swallow’s real home? And what does “native” mean if the English Oak is an immigrant from Spain?”
So, the word home is certainly problematic. However, one thing is clear: home is as much linked to movement and change, as to the commonly held notion of a never-changing haven.
Late on Saturday night, with only ten people left, we talked about the paintings on our wall. We analysed their male and female symbolism. It was a riveting and, at times, hilarious conversation. Six of these people I would have never met without the Peirene Salon. I am thrilled that my children should grow up in house where strangers bring creative thoughts and become friends. This is the home as I have always imagined.
Pity that the insurance company doesn’t agree. But I won’t waste my time trying to persuade them. I would rather save my energy for the next salon.
Image by Care_SMC.
There is the man who bought Tomorrow Pamplona from me two years ago. Three months later he returned and let me know that’s it’s the worst book he’s ever read. He would certainly never buy another Peirene book, he stated. With a smile I now point out that we have some new titles. He should try, perhaps, The Mussel Feast. It’s got longer sentences and no sex. He might like it. He shakes his head. He hasn’t changed his mind. He will never again buy a Peirene book. Ever.
‘Still, we clearly impressed him,’ the Nymph muses. ‘Otherwise, why did he stop by? Nice of him.’
There is the middle aged woman. She’s attracted by the design. She picks up the books. Tight-lipped, suspicious. After all, looks can be deceptive. I ask if she has come across our books before. She shakes her head. She certainly won’t engage in a conversation. She won’t be sold to. Absolutely not. She humours us by taking a flyer.
‘She wants to check us out first,’ the Nymph whispers. ‘And hopes for a better bargain online.’
And then there is the unpublished writer. He’s delighted to meet a publisher. He smiles, his eyes shine brightly. But when he hears that we only deal in foreign fiction he hurries to leave. I try to persuade him that he can improve his craft from reading our books and that our events offer him the opportunity to meet like-minded people. To no avail. He has already moved on.
‘He’ll be back, ‘the Nymph hisses. ‘There is no better way to hone his skills then by looking at our perfect novellas.’
So, does anyone buy Peirene books for Christmas?
The connoisseurs. There are two groups. The ones who have come across our books before, read a review somewhere, heard about us from a friend. And the second group consists of shoppers who need to buy serious books for serious readers. They have in mind their stepdad, their girlfriend, their wife – and instinctively they recognise a good deal. They often buy in bulk. They are the Nymph’s heroes.
We ran twelve stalls in November and will run another thirteen up to Christmas. We’ve done well so far: made a few thousands pounds and sold hundreds of books. But today we hit the jackpot. At the Christmas market in Belgravia. People were queuing at Jen’s stall and she SOS’ed for more books after two hours. Who would have guessed that the most discerning London readers live in affluent Chelsea.
Peirene throws me a pitiful glance. ‘It’s not the post-code, it’s Jen. She’s just a brilliant bookseller – and she never seems to attract awkward customers, unlike some people I could mention.’
Image by mirvettium.
You’d think that by now the Nymph and I would receive these deliveries with an attitude of professional detachment. After all we know what’s inside – the next Peirene book. And we know every word on every page.
Outwardly the Nymph and I are in total control. We open the door, smile at the delivery man. While he carries the boxes inside, we even exchange a few words about the weather.
Then the door closes.
The bulk of the books are stored with our distributor in the East End. We only receive the copies we will send out to our subscribers and reviewers. Still, that’s nearly 1000 books, 20 boxes. Our corridor is narrow. Most of the boxes stand in our living room.
You’d think the Nymph and I might now carry some of the boxes upstairs into the office, open them and admire the contents. Or at least, we would organize the boxes, so that our home doesn’t look like a warehouse.
We don’t even glance at the boxes. And touching them is out of the question. For once the Nymph and I are in total agreement. These boxes contain monsters.
Some books arrive with glue still stuck to the spine. If that happens, at least we’ve got someone to blame – the printers. And the copies are all shipped back the next day. That’s a small monster. The big monsters, however, make me cry. The author’s name misspelled on the cover or a typo on the inside flap. Both have happened before. With different books. No one, including myself, spotted the errors in time. But the moment the end product lay in my hand, the mistake jumped out. Such calamities haven’t occurred for a couple of years. We play extra safe. Three proofreaders look at the covers. But, there is no guarantee that mistakes won’t happen again.
So, Peirene and I have worked out a clever strategy. We pretend the boxes haven’t arrived. My family has to climb over them in order to enter the house and at night I lie awake worrying how we’d get out of the house in case of fire.
Eventually, however, an angel comes to the rescue. One of the Peirene ladies turns up at the office. Silently, I hand them the scissors. Then the Nymph and I turn our back, close our eyes. I’m sure my heart misses a few beats.
‘And?’ I ask.
‘It’s beautiful.’ Jen opened the box with No 13 last week.
I gaze from afar. It takes me another couple of hours before I pluck up the courage to touch the new Peirene book.
It is indeed beautiful. I love our next year’s series design. The black and white photo with the coloured circles is stunning. And no typos on the cover.
At least, none spotted so far.
Image by chrisinplymouth.
My first true love was called Winnetou. He was a native American Indian. A chief of the Apache tribe. Young, handsome, courageous,wise. According to the German romantic novelist Karl May, whose invention he was, he lived sometime in the 19th century. In fact, it wasn’t the fictional Winnetou of Karl May I was in love with but his 1960’s German TV incarnation, played by the very good looking French actor Piere Brice. Even at the age of seven I was discerning.
Watching Winnetou on Tuesday evenings was a huge treat. I would dress up with a wig of long black plaits and an Indian dress and my brother would hold a Tomahawk to defend me from the bad cowboys. For months I would go to bed telling myself that if I managed to wake up thinking of Winnetou, he would love me back. I often couldn’t fall asleep for hours because I was worried I would forget to think about him. But I never forgot. And he did love me back. Yes, he did.
My Winnetou romance has taught me an important life lesson: If you want something badly enough, the impossible becomes possible. You just have to dedicate your energy and effort and thought to that one aim.
Nowadays, when as a publisher I am asked to name my favourite Peirene book, I usually say ‘I love all my book babies.’ If then I feel the need to specify I name at least four, one from each series.
I’ve given up on this egalitarian strategy a couple of month ago. Favouritism is my new buzz word. And my favourite Peirene book is Chasing the King of Hearts. Recently I was asked by Foyles to put forward my favourite book of the year – Chasing the King of Hearts. A number of bookshops wanted to know which Peirene title to promote for Christmas – Chasing the King of Hearts. And when I talk to book-groups, I highlight Chasing the King of Hearts. Wherever I go I talk about Chasing the King of Hearts and carry copies of Chasing the King of Hearts in my handbag.
I made this decision in full possession of my senses: namely when I realized that the book wasn’t selling and didn’t even attract reviews. Over the last few weeks it has received stunning reviews and on Thursday this email from our distributor landed in my inbox: ‘Looks like we finally have some serious orders coming though. It can take a while for the penny to drop! I think we need a reprint. How many??? The definite good news is that this one is taking off!’
Unbelievable but true: Peirene has a bestseller on her lovely Nymph’s hands.
‘And you think this success is due to your will power alone?’ Peirene asks with a hint of mockery. ‘How old are you: 7 or nearly 47?’
I decide to ignore her comment. Instead I pick her up and dance with her through the office, fondly remembering Winnetou who caused me so many sleepless nights nearly forty years ago.
On a busy day we are four – with the Nymph five– people at Peirene HQ: Maddy, Jen, our intern Clara, and myself. In addition there might be my cleaning lady in the house and perhaps an electrician because our washing machine or dishwasher has broken down, or the Rentokill guy pays us a visit because yet again mice are dancing on our kitchen floor. The door bell goes constantly with deliveries of books and office equipment and the phone rings with subscription orders and card payments. And if school’s out, my son’s rock band practices upstairs.
On a good day, I love the buzz and I am proud of the Nymph – and myself – to have created such productive & creative space within an unassuming terraced house in North London.
On a bad day, I understand why some people wouldn’t contemplate running a business from home. It’s a continuous balancing act between the private and the public. And sometimes the private loses out.
On Monday we were burgled in broad daylight. It was a quiet day. Only Clara was in the office. I was out at a meeting in the morning. When I came back she said: ‘Your window cleaners have just been. They said you expected them. They did the job and will come back later to collect the money.’
‘My window cleaners?’ I asked incredulously. I have a nice Polish man who comes every so often. He always rings me a couple of days in advance and he works on his own.
‘Did either of them have a foreign accent?’ I asked. She shook her head. Then it dawned on me.
We don’t have much to take. But what we had they took. A necklace, a couple of pair of gold earrings, two rings, my daughter’s piggy bank. They didn’t take any laptops but broke a small stone stature – nothing of value except that I loved it.
Clara had opened the door and let the two men in in good faith, while she returned to her desk in the office. After all, she had seen me do exactly the same many times before.
When the police arrived they told us that there had been a very similar incident in a parallel road the previous week. From my description they suspected the same people.
I have to admit, for a few minutes I sat on the sofa and cried. And for a few hours afterwards I felt as if I had lost control and perhaps I should just stop running the publishing house altogether, since I can’t afford to hire an office space. Needless to say, Clara was upset too and very apologetic.
The Nymph saved us from descending into utter gloom. She might put on airs but when it matters she is down to earth and hands on. She brewed us chamomile tea ‘to calm the nerves,’ as she said, stroke our heads … and send us back to our desks and the work. ‘You know you will feel even worse if you don’t get your work done today,’ she smiled at me.
We were lucky to receive Arts Council funding for two consecutive years –2012 and 2013. A couple of months ago we handed in our application for 2014. On Friday we received the bad news: no funding for next year.
It’s a shame. But not the end of the world for Peirene. Nor for anyone living inside the M25. Though for the rest of the UK, the outlook is bleak. For twelve months the Nymph will be based in London – and nowhere else.
We submitted a detailed plan for a one-year expansion of our Roaming Store and events across the UK. It was a beautiful application with every sentence honed to perfection. How about this for a succinct definition of the triple challenge facing independent publishers: “we need to build our business round three columns: conventional media promotion, on-line sales activity and real world community building.” The grant of course would have strengthened the third of these columns. But it was not to be.
Truth to tell I am not surprised about the Arts Council decision. They have experienced further cut backs and literature – sadly – always suffers first. It’s a fact. No need to moan or throw fits. This year we fought against the odds. And we knew it. Even Peirene, to my surprise, hasn’t shed a tear.
‘London has over 8 millions inhabitants. We have some thousands of fans among them. That’s fine. But frankly – not very spectacular.’ The Nymph rolls her eyes in slight disgust. ‘I would like at least a couple of million to worship at my feet before addressing the rest of the world. I don’t need a UK tour. I only need a new dress and the cosmopolitan masses will be impressed. And trust me, there will come a day when the Arts Council will knock on our door and beg us to share in our fame.’
That’s my Nymph! I like her fighting spirit. And for once I might even consider complying with her desire for a sparkly new gown.
On Thursday I attended a seminar at the University of London ‘Motherhood in Post-1968 European Women Writing.’ There were three women writers from three countries on the panel: French Eliette Abecassis, English Helen Simpson and Peirene’s German author Brigit Vanderbeke. All three read extracts from novels and short stories that deal with motherhood and young children. All three writers are mothers.
In the discussion the writers were asked whether motherhood had influenced their writing style. Of course mothers have less time and can’t work in an uninterrupted fashion but the question also addressed a deeper issue. Does the intense physical experience of child-birth change not merely the way we are but also the way we write?
It’s a question that stayed with me after I went home.
When I was in labour with our second child there was a moment when the midwife panicked. She couldn’t find the child’s heartbeat. I – or rather my body – on the other hand knew that the birth was imminent. I heard her panic from very far away. It didn’t touch me. All I remember thinking was: it’s coming out. All will be well. Our son was born shortly afterwards.
This concentrated calmness was one of the strangest and most powerful sensations I have ever experienced.
When I write I access that same calm space. Something then happens which goes beyond my control. And ‘all’ I as the writer have to do, is to keep my own mind switched off, to observe and note down the turn of events, in the same way as I, in child-birth, kept the panic at bay and merely witnessed my body creating a new life.
There are a lot of writers – men of course and many women – who have never given birth. For them the creative process might feel different and require other analogies. In my case, however, I believe that I could not have started to trust in the creative process if I hadn’t gone through the birthing experience.
I wrote essays and articles before having children. I only started producing fiction after the second child. And needless to say, I only conceived Peirene after having my own children.
‘You conceived me?!’ the Nymph is outraged. ‘I’m an ancient Greek Nymph and have been around far longer than you. I came to you because I saw that you might need an inspirational nymph.’
I give her kiss on the cheek. She is right after all.
Image by Sam and Ian.