Archive for the ‘Literary Fairs’ Category

Saving Peirene’s Heart

Monday, May 16th, 2016

‘I think there is something wrong with my heart.’ Peirene stops in her stride, bends forward, both hands on her heart.South Western Ambulance VX09FYO 1802

‘We don’t have time for this. We are late.’ I grab the Nymph by the arm, trying to pull her along. We are heading towards the Underground. European Literature Night starts in half an hour.

Peirene frees herself from my grip, leans against a front garden wall. ‘No, no, I’m not joking. I’ve detected it now a few times. My heart jumps about. I’m so quickly out of breath.’ She wipes her forehead. I notice her perspiration and I suddenly become concerned. ‘Perhaps we should go to A&E?’ I suggest.

For a while she fans herself with closed eyes. ‘Do you think so?’ Then she opens her eyes. ‘No. I’m better already. Let’s get to the event. If my heart irregularity comes back, we can jump into a cab and go to a hospital.’

The evening at the British Library is a stunning success. Six international authors, including our own Flemish author Peter Verhelst, on stage with the glamorous Rosie Goldsmith followed by a beautiful wine reception in the main hall of the library. But at about 10pm I want to go home. I’m looking for the Nymph. I haven’t seen her all evening. For a terrible moment I’m overwhelmed by guilt: What if she has collapsed somewhere in a corner. Then I spot her: chatting and laughing with the handsome Dutch author Jaab Robben, another star of the evening.

‘How is your heart?’ I ask.

‘My heart is on fire,’ the Nymph giggles. Her cheeks are rosy, her eyes gleam brightly. ‘The atmosphere this evening was electric. What a show. It’s just a pity that such events still struggle to draw in the general English reader. Or even English writers. I’d say 90% of the audience were people like us – people whose professions connect with foreign literature. ’

‘So your heart is no longer beating irregularly?’ I wonder.

‘Irregular? My heart?’ Peirene looks at me surprised. Then she catches herself: ‘Ah, yes, yes, of course. It did beat irregularly. Before. But not now. ‘

As we leave, she gives a little wave in the general direction of the authors and their audience. Then she adds: ‘I think people should understand that European Literature Night is a healing experience for any heart condition.’

Image by Graham Richardson, creative commons.

A Cold Dip in the Irish Sea

Monday, April 18th, 2016

‘I’m wondering if what you are doing to me is actually illegal.’ I can hear Peirene panting behind me. It’s 7.30am on a beautiful sunny morning in Aberystwyth, a picturesque little Welsh seaside town. The Nymph and I  are jogging up a steep 9489595907_1fec6dec2d_zcliff on the edge of town. ‘There must be a law against this deliberate cruelty.’ She stops gasping for breath.

I wait for her to recover. In front of us stretches the blue expanse of the Irish Sea. Pink streaks from the rising sun colour the sky. A stunning, rugged coast line to our left and right as far as our eyes reach.

‘Peirene! How can you say such horrible things. Just because I persuaded you to run up this hill? But look at the view. Wasn’t it worth the effort? We needed to experience this before we are heading into a second day of talks and workshops.’

Literature Across Frontiers who are based at the Aberystwyth Univeristy, have organised a two-day international literature conference on audience development, with delegates from across Europe. We are invited as one of the speakers.

‘I like the view’ Peirene replies ‘but I’m not keen on running. You must remember I’m a nymph’.

For some reason she is now skipping along the path. When we arrive at the bottom of the cliff, instead of walking straight along the corniche, Peirene heads on to the beach. She slips out of her trainers. ‘I’m going for a quick dip,’ she giggles. Then she strips down to her pants and bra and before I can say anything else, she runs into the water, screaming with joy and pain because of the cold. I watch in amazement.

Back at the hotel, she lies in the hot bath for nearly half an hour. After I finish in the bathroom, I discover that she is back in bed, shivering like a delicate leaf.

‘You have to do the second day of the conference on your own,’ she says with shattering teeth. ‘I need to warm up first. And that will take hours.’

I shake my head. ‘Peirene, Peirene. I could have told you that even though the Irish Sea might look like the Mediterranean, it certainly isn’t.’

Peirene is not amused. ‘First you make me run up a hill, then you fail to warn me about the sea in April,’ she laments through chattering teeth. ‘I may have to complain to the authorities after all.’

Image by Walter Stoneburner, creative commons.

Baltic Treat

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

‘I’ve worked out our diet plan for the next days,’ Peirene announces. We are sitting in a café in the old town of Riga. In a couple of hours we are flying back to London. ‘Soup without bread for lunch and a plain salad in the evening. That should 14317348286_289d6515bb_zget us back in a shape in time for Christmas.’ She lifts her jumper briefly. ‘Look, I can’t even close my jeans any longer.’

The waitress arrives with the coffee and the cakes, a hot chocolate flan with vanilla ice cream for Peirene and a delicious smelling marzipan cake for me.

‘Can we postpone this conversation until tomorrow,’ I suggest while I bite into the marzipan. I close my eyes to enjoy the moment.

‘How much has your waistline expanded in the last days?,’ I hear the Nymph ask.

I open my eyes in irritation. ‘Peirene, if you’re out to spoil our last hour here, then I can catch up with you at the airport.’ I pull her chocolate flan towards me. ‘This looks very tasty too.’ Peirene leans forward, holding onto the plate. ‘I couldn’t possible let you eat both.’ She sighs. ‘I will have to sacrifice my figure for your health.’

Truth to tell, my waistband too has tightened over the last days. Peirene and I were part of a group of seven UK publishers who were invited by Literature Across Frontiers, the Lithuanian Culture Institute and the Latvian Literature Centre to meet Baltic publishers and authors, first in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and then in the Latvian capital of Riga.

And what a tour it was. Three course lunches and dinners in beautiful restaurants every day. But not only the food was great.

These countries were under Soviet rule until 1990. The creative psyche therefore often still struggles with the freedoms only gained a generation ago. In literature we find abstract monologues loaded with symbolism – a response to a period when only the self could be trusted. Everyone else, even family members and friends, could be informers. Given this challenge, the creation of believable relationships between characters – one of the motors of plot – is frequently neglected. But the writers who solve these problems, provide unique glimpses into the workings of the human mind and are producing exciting literature.

Peirene and I have finished our coffee and cakes. We are leaning back in our seats, legs stretched out underneath the table.

‘I’m not keen on lettuce for an entire week, ‘ I muse. ‘How about going for a few more runs instead. That’s a much healthier way of losing a couple of pounds.’

‘You do that,’ Peirenes nods lethargically at me. ‘I’ve decided that I have now  reached an age where a few pounds more don’t matter. Ancient Greek Nymphs shouldn’t look lean and haggard.’

I don’t think there is much of a risk for that at the moment. But I decide not to speak my thoughts out loud.

Image by Ivana Sokolovic, creative commons.

Ruby Red Nails

Monday, December 7th, 2015

‘Ooh, we really are leading exciting lives.’ Peirene is clearly thrilled as the taxi is driving us to Liverpool Station to catch the Stansted Express. We have been invited by Literature Across Frontiers on a publisher’s tour of the Baltic States.

She rummages in her handbag, pulling out her sunglasses.3796378598_4ee4a7b12b_z

‘Why are you putting on your shades?,’ I enquire. Outside it’s grey and stormy.

‘In films, high-flying business people always wear sunglasses, ‘ the Nymph informs me, while she takes out her little mirror and reapplies her lipstick.

We arrive at the airport with time to spare. Peirene grabs her handbag and tells me with a vague wave of her hand that she has ‘things to do’.  I don’t follow her because I, too, have ‘things to do.’ I decided earlier on that I needed to pamper myself. A manicure would be perfect. I head to the nail bar at the main terminal. I rarely treat myself to a manicure, feeling guilty about wasted time. But since I didn’t have much of a break from work this weekend, I feel happy to indulge.

I know I want red nails but as I sit in front of the beautician, for a long time I can’t make up my mind what shade. The dark one or rather the brighter, more classic red? Eventually I come to a conclusion. I choose the ruby red. Soon, my nails look beautiful. I give the beautician a big tip.

I turn around, ready to walk away. And guess who I suddenly spot sitting on the other side of the nail bar? Peirene!

I tap her on the shoulder. ‘So that’s where you rushed off to.’

She looks over her shoulder with a start. Then she smiles at me with slight embarressment.

‘Show me your nails,’ I say.

She lifts them up.

‘Is that the colour high-flying business women wear in films?’ I ask.

She nods. I wave my hands at her: ‘That’s makes two of us.’

The Nymph compares my hands with hers. She purrs happily: ‘With nails like these we will surely clinch an amazing Baltic book deal.’

Image by Håkan Dahlström, creative commons.

Back to Dhaka

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

In Spring I visited Bangladesh for a literary conclave. A few weeks afterwards I received an email inviting me to the Dhaka Lit Fest this month. I accepted the invitation in June.8655130373_b14d219d7e_z

Since then a lot has happened in that troubled country.

Islamic extremists have killed bloggers and murdered a leading publisher. Foreigners have been stabbed in the streets. The country has been placed on high alert of terrorist attacks. The British Foreign Office is advising citizens not to travel.

In October, the festival organisers began sending out updated security measures for our visit and international authors started to withdraw.

‘Am I being foolish in going?’ I ask the Nymph.

‘What does your instinct tell you?’ she replied.

My instinct was telling me that I could trust the organizers and if they became too concerned about the safety of their foreign participants they would cancel.

I’m so pleased you say that,’ Peirene admitted. ‘Because if people like us – professionals of the word: publishers and writers and thinkers – stay away from opportunities of dialogue, then how can we encourage others to use words not weapons to communicate.’ For that I loved my Nymph even a bit more.

So, last Tuesday Peirene accompanied me to the airport, gave me a hug and waved good-by as I lifted off into the air.

I was nervous in Dhaka, I can’t deny it. My fight-or-flight sensors were wide awake and every now and again brief scenarios of bombings and shootings flickered through my mind.

But. But. But. I’m thrilled I went. And let me not overdramatize. Yes, we were escorted by armed police wherever we went and 19 participants cancelled at short notice. Others, however, came, including Channel 4’s Jon Snow, South Bank Artistic Director Jude Kelly and British writer Marcel Theroux. And many more from India, Palestine, Kenya, US and Cuba.

But the real heroes of the show were the Bengali writers K. Anis Ahmed, Ahsan Akbar and Sadaf Saaz, the three directors of the festival. Of course they contemplated cancelling or postponing the event and their concern for our safety was evident. Yet, they also understand that perhaps now more than ever their country – and the world at large – needs places where people from different cultures exchange and explore new ways of imagining the future.

‘There is actually a fourth hero.’ Peirene is suddenly looking over my shoulder. ‘The audience. They defied public curfew and political strikes that were happening elsewhere in the city to attend the festival.’

What can I say? The Nymph is absolutely right.

Image by Hasan Iqbal, creative commons.


New Order

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Peirene and I are both creatures of habit. In addition, I’m a (young) middle-aged woman and she’s an (ancient) Greek Nymph. This means change equals challenge.118970265_b42657315c_z

I will give you a simple example. If we go to the supermarket we like to find the eggs in the same aisle where they’ve always been. If they’ve moved, we experience rising hot flushes.

I wish the organisers of this year’s London Book Fair had been forewarned about our preferences.

Ever since I started running Peirene the London Book Fair has taken place at Earls Court. This year it moved to the exhibition center in Olympia. I’ve been aware of it for months. However, I assumed the layout will be more or less the same. After all, there aren’t that many ways of arranging agents and publishers over a couple of floors: publishers stands on the ground floor, agents center on the first floor, all neatly arranged in rows from A to Z and numbered from 1 upwards.

I also assumed that the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) stand would be to the left at the front and the Nordic stand at the back towards the right. Just as it had always been.

Well, someone had clearly decided otherwise. Not only did 2 no longer follow 1 (and nor was it succeeded by 3) but the IPG stand had moved towards the back and the Nordic stand was so hidden that I took more then ten minutes to find it.

Peirene gave up after a couple of meetings and sat in a cafe and told me that if anyone wanted to see her they would have to come to her. She would not be running around the aisles like a headless chicken – or a middle-aged housewife – looking for the eggs. Her dignity was at stake.

So I battled on by myself. Sometimes with tears in my eyes. But I can proudly announce I made it to all of my meetings – even if not always on time and often out of breath.

‘I had a brilliant day, ‘ The Nymph said as I arrived back at the cafe in the evening.. I sank into the chair at her table. ‘I had so many chance encounters with publishers and agents who were as lost as we.’ She smiled, looking beautifully relaxed, while I felt as if I had run a marathon. ‘I wonder, ‘ she mused, ‘if the organisers deliberately wanted to set up unexpected meetings? If so, they certainly succeeded.’ I  nodded in silence. I was simply too exhausted for ancient Greek philosophy. All I wanted was my bed.

Image by Liz West.

Career in Space

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Every now and again a pointless engagement turns into an unexpectedly fascinating meeting.3031088430_a679723a72_z

Back in December I met an agent. The meeting didn’t start well because, a week before, we both realised in an email exchange that we were not interested in each other’s books. Still, neither of us cancelled the date. The first 15 minutes felt awkward. After all, we had not much to say to each other. Then I told him – in a desperate attempt to lighten the mood – that I would like to be an astronaut.

Which is true. Last year I became interested in quantum physics and space travel. I read Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox and watched a lot of youtube films about astronauts. I even fantasised about walking on the moon. I had no idea where my new passion would lead me. Until I met the agent.

His eyes lit up and he said: ‘I, too, want to be an astronaut.’ We had found common ground. The rest of the meeting flew by at lightning speed and I left it with a long list of science fiction recommendations.

Up to that moment I had never heard of Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin or Arthur C. Clarke. SciFi and Phantasy had never interested me and even when I read about quantum physics, black holes and string theory, it did not occur to me to look at SciFi.

Now, I’m hooked. So much so that this week at London Bookfair I’m hoping to find some foreign novellas with a SciFi touch to publish in 2017.

Fortunately Peirene, too, is very excited. ‘This is thrilling story telling.’ She is sitting in my reading chair, holding my copy of The Lathe of Heaven. ‘I’m afraid I won’t have time to go to the London Bookfair with you this week.’ She has lowered her eyes again onto the page. ‘I’m working my way through the collected work of Ursula Le Guin’s – what a genius.’

For a moment I wonder if I mind. ‘Fair enough,’ I then reply. ‘You are certainly not wasting your time.’ I pause. ‘But when I return from the fair, I get the reading chair back.’

Peirene throws me a quick questioning glance. ‘Why will you need it?’

‘So I can work my way through all the stimulating foreign SciFi novellas I will discover in the next few days,’ I reply and add with a sly smile: ‘Lots of books by authors an ancient Greek nymph would not know about.’

Image by Steve Jurvetson.

Out Alone

Sunday, November 30th, 2014

On Wednesday evening I was invited to be part of an historical event: the greatest gathering of authors in the largest bookshop in Europe.Night club dancing party

Waterstones Piccadilly asked 36 writers to hang out in the bookshop from 6pm to 10pm, talk to customers and sell our books.

As I was blow-drying my hair and putting on lipstick, Peirene was teasing me: ‘Sounds like a meat market of authors. And since there will be some really famous authors, I doubt people will queue up to buy your books.’ I gave her a playful slap. ‘You don’t have to be jealous. I’m sure there will be opportunities to talk about you, too,’ I reassured her.

At the shop, we were dispersed across four floors. Two writers shared a table, with our books piled high in front of us. I sat next to Jonathan Gibbs, whose debut novel ‘Randall’ was published earlier in the year. Booksellers walked around serving wine and mince pies to authors and customers.

Of course the Nymph was right. I can’t claim that our table was mobbed by hysterical fans. However, we did receive a measured flow of cultured, interesting, people.

I talked to an artist, a man passionate about German literature and a woman who knew my cousin in Germany 15 years ago. I had a fascinating conversation about the art of the novella and I met my fellow Salt author Alison Moore for the first time. A number of Waterstones booksellers introduced themselves.

As I walked home from the tube station I was once again surprised how much I enjoy – and receive energy from – such events.

‘And did anyone buy your books? Did you sign any?’ Peirene shot down the stairs as soon as I stepped into the house.

‘Yes.’ I replied.

‘And…what about my books?’

I knew the Nymph hadn’t stayed up to enquire about the success of my novels.

‘There is a whole shelf of your books.’ I smiled. ‘Some people came up to me because they knew I run Peirene and others I’ve pointed in your direction.’

‘Good,’ she muttered, apparently satisfied by my reply. ‘As long as people are aware that I am the source of your inspiration, I don’t mind you going out without me…occasionally.’ She turned on her heel and skipped back up the stairs.

Image by

Micro Genre Success

Monday, April 14th, 2014

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 "Book Birds" by Jenni Douglasbefore 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.

Bookfair Chic

Monday, April 7th, 2014

I had a manicure on Saturday. I look at my red fingernails adoringly. They are undoubtedly the highlight of my otherwise gloomy week.Boston Public Library

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.