Q&A with Istros Books

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month.

I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play amongst the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Susan from Istros Books whose longlisted book, Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić (translated by S.D Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth), I will be reviewing tomorrow.

1.Why did you decide to set up Istros Books?

After having spent some years working and living in South East Europe, and always being interested in the literary scene, I decided to move back to London and wanted to change my career from teaching. It was obvious to me that writers from that region very rarely made it into English, and that the ignorance of many British people about that region partly came from the very one-sided ‘cultural exchange’ which consisted – and still consists – of pushing our TV, film and literary culture on other countries (‘the other’) but not returning the favour. Cultural imperialism if you like. This was nowhere more evident that in the Bosnian war, where a lack of cultural and historical knowledge led to the most blatantly ignorant explanations for the carnage.

And so, after a brief period of contemplating being an agent for writers from the region, I decided to go the whole way and actually publish them. The whole thing started on a grant from the EU, and the goodwill of one particular translator, Will Firth, who has translated ten of Istros’ total production of 40 titles.

2. On your website you explain that Istros is the old Greek and Thracian name for the lower Danube River, which flows through the countries whose literature you focus on, and that you wish to evoke the image of the river flowing carelessly across the borders of Europe and encapsulating the ideal of the free-flow of knowledge and the cultural exchange that books promote. How do you go about finding and signing authors from this region whose writing reflects your ethos?

I maintain strong links with the Serbo-Croatian speaking countries due to ties of family and friendship, as well as with Romania. Over the past seven years, I have also attended a number of publishing fellowship programmes, book fairs and literary festivals. So I have an eye on the writers who are making an impression, winning prizes and getting noticed. My taste in narrative and author orientation is always one of inclusion rather than exclusion, and therefore it reflects the ethos of free cultural exchange and tolerance.

3. Do you work directly with your authors and translators?

Yes, I sign all the authors myself and very rarely go through an agent. I have very good contacts in the region, which makes this possible. I also work closely with translators once they have produced the first draft. I edit thoroughly and ask questions and comments when something is not clear. This annotated script then goes back to the translator and we may have a final phone conversation or Skype call to go through any remaining issues.

4. You set up Istros in 2011. Has your experience of publishing and marketing books in translation been as you expected when you started out?

Well, the biggest change for me is the ever decreasing amount of review space in mainstream media, coupled with ever few reviewers who are interested in indy books or books in translation. With Nick Lezard no longer reviewing for the Guardian and the recent tragic death of Eileen Battersby, there are so few places for us to go. And this directly results in fewer sales.

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers in the UK and Ireland publishing some fine literature. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

The only real difference is that Istros has a very specific geographical remit and publishes exclusively translations. This can be an advantage in the fact that specialsization leads to expertise, but can also appear too narrow to potential readers.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

I’m sure that latest trend is what sells. A lot of people want ‘more of the same’ and this is why larger publishers follow bestsellers with copycat novels. But what really sells, as we know, is having the financial and industry clout to secure front window displays in bookshops, posters on underground stations and in the press, and using economies of scale to print many books for a lower price per unit.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your customers want?

eBooks only account for about 10% of our sales, so our readers still want real paperbacks, although our print-runs are very modest.

8. Do you consider Istros to be niche or mainstream?

Publishing literature in translation from the Balkan region can really only ever be a niche activity. The odd book from the region will occasionally break through into the mainstream if its published by a bigger publisher than us, but even then we are not looking at anything like the sales to be had from Scandie crime.

9. You have impressive experience of prize listings. What are the costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

We have had many books on all the longlists of all the prizes that accept translations except the Man Booker International (and this means just the Oxford-Wiedenfeld Prize, the International Dublin Literary Prize and now the EBRD Literature Prize). I proposed the new translation prize back to the EBRD in spring 2015 and acted as chief consultant on its development up until its launch in 2017.

I was inspired to do this because I know that prizes, after reviews, are an excellent way to get publicity for your books and, by extension, your publishing house. Since Eastern European literatures don’t fall under the large language groupings, the EBRD prize helps to balance this a little. In the future, it would be wonderful to have some eastern European languages in the Society of Authors Translation Prizes: Polish has close to 40 million speakers, and Romanian roughly 26, quite apart from Russian!

The Republic of Consciousness prize is a wonderful support because it is the only prize that rewards the publishers. We were proud to have a Bosnian title – Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Sehic – on the very first longlist, and now again with Drndic’s Doppelganger.

10. What plans have you for the future?

Apart from trying to facilitate the above, I strive for what every small publisher must be striving for: more publicity, more sales. Surviving in this market, with huge wholesale discounts, limited review space and a decreasing reading public is tough.

I’d also love to get a book on a shortlist or even win a prize soon – that would be a real encouragement.

Find out more about Istros Books on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @Istros_books

Book Review: Dedalus

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Dedalus by Chris McCabe, a sequel to Ulysses by James Joyce.

In the Republic of Consciousness podcast episode that discussed the prize’s 2019 longlist, Neil Griffiths mentioned that some readers consider Ulysses by James Joyce to be the best book ever written in the English language. I have heard it talked about as one of the most important works of modernist literature. Declan Kiberd (Irish writer and scholar) described Ulysses as

“a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”
“Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking”

The book is vast (730 pages) and, when I have flicked through a copy considering a purchase, written in heavy language. I have not read it.

Ulysses is set in one day, 16 June 1904 – the day James Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle who he would subsequently marry. Dedalus is mostly set the next day. It is a sequel of sorts although considerably easier to read. Such an audacious concept may be regarded as brave, or perhaps bonkers. It succeeds in being a lot of fun.

The writing plays with and mimics many great and classic works of literature in language and style, referencing and (mis)quoting revered writers with abandon. Interspersed are modern elements such as computer links that suggest you may click to choose your own adventure. Between each ‘Part’ are coded maps that can be slotted together. These summarise the action to date. Certain maps offer suggestions to “>GO TO” earlier or later pages. The book works when read sequentially or as a series of loops.

The story of Hamlet, with its study of a father-son relationship, is a key reference. In a wonderfully meta section the author is interviewed about his own father and his literary inheritance. I have neither read Hamlet nor watched it on stage. I know enough from summary and heresay to appreciate what is being done in Dedalus. Those with more detailed knowledge will likely enjoy the author’s play on particular features.

Dedalus: Act 1, Scene 1, is set in the Martello Tower at 8am. Stephen awakens hungover with memories of the previous day’s activities. He must somehow get to his teaching job so dons the trousers hanging on the back of a chair. They are not his. Outside he encounters Mulligan and then a dead body from the sea over which he vomits. He teaches a lesson at the school, visits a prostitute, goes for a drink in a pub, encounters Leopold Bloom who he calls Leonard. A man in black passes by on several occasions.

Leopold needs to talk to Stephen about Molly, his wife. He picks up the lotion she requested from the pharmacy, a task he should have done yesterday. He returns to the cemetery where they buried Dignam before seeking out Stephen. He is observed and lusted after by a priest.

The story flows and engages yet this is not a book that feels the need to follow any standard ‘rules’ of writing. There are pages that seemingly exist to play with the sounds made by word and letter combinations. A chapter titled ‘Cyclops’ has all the text on each page printed in a single circle, an eye looking out at the reader. There are stylised observations and commentary. Poems explore: urinating, sex, drunken high spirits. Any recoil felt reading descriptions of bodily functions serves to highlight how sanitised life is now expected to be.

“Something is rotten in the state of Dublin”

The paragraphs covering a pub scene are written in the vein of works such as: Gone With The Wind, 1984, Lolita, The Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and more.

A section of ‘Notes’ at the end of the book explores the story as a history of computers and suggests that the machine’s key developments were foreshadowed in Ulysses.

And all of this somehow works. The plot is almost incidental to the pleasure of reading the inventive prose and recognising where the author took each idea from, how he compiles and builds his tribute to Joyce’s work. It is clever but not irritatingly so. This is a writer playing with ideas and granting them the freedom to fly. It is glorious to read.

Max Porter is quoted on the cover saying:

“Parts of this book will remain with me, and pollute my reading of Hamlet and Ulysses, forever.”

I will not be adding these two great works to my reading pile, but I am very glad to have read Dedalus.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

Guest post by independent publisher, Henningham Family Press

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month. I felt privileged to be invited to join the panel of judges for the previous year’s prize as this enabled me to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Having experienced the process I was eager to read the books this year’s judges were putting forward for further consideration.

When the longlist was announced I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

The first press to feature is Henningham Family Press whose longlisted book, Dedalus by Chris McCabe, I will be reviewing tomorrow. On the back of this book we are told:

“Henningham Family Press is a microbrewery for books.

Our ingenioous handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate and National Poetry Library.

Our Performance Publishing shows compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events.

Now our Fiction brings to you authors who are reinventing the conventions of Modern writing.”

Thank you to David at HFP for providing me with this fascinating guest post about the press, and his thoughts on literary prizes.

We gave the name Performance Publishing to what we do at Henningham Family Press. We’ve even managed to get newspapers to use the term as if it is a thing.

What Performance Publishing means is that we have been, for more than 12 years now, combining Visual Art, Performance Art and Literature in ways that hope to redefine the act of publication.

For example, in 2016 the British Council commissioned A Line of Five Feet, inviting us to join a delegation of artists and writers representing the UK in Moscow. We taught Art and Art History to Moscow students who went on to help us create, screenprint and bind a monumental concertina book in a bespoke bindery provided within the British pavilion.

That year we also led nine other London Artists in staging The Maximum Wage. An ACE funded show about income inequality. This show gathered, produced and distributed publications with its audience. Teams of volunteers manned our gameshow style print production line producing our own Orwell themed currency, valid in the immediate vicinity. An incredibly diverse crowd of 300 took part in our hectic cycle of production and consumption, going home with the publications they had helped make and contributing their ideas to a later glossy magazine.

When we are not on stage you will find us doing fine printing and master binding in our studio. We often represent the same text in different forms, as we did with An Unknown Soldier; a project based on a poem I wrote about the effect of the World Wars on my family. The National Poetry Library commissioned an exhibition of all the books, artists’ books and screenprints that made up An Unknown Soldier for the centenary year. The exhibition was praised highly in The TLS. We went on to make Letters Home with the librarians; a book teaching children about Modernist Poetry that was praised highly in The TES. (We aim to appear in all the T-something-Ss). Another commission from the time was the Active Service Gospel replica. SGM Lifewords have now distributed about a million copies.

I suppose you could call this an art career, in the sense of a car careering wildly from one side of the road to the other at top speed. The mixture of Art and Literature is hardly surprising, though, given that Ping and myself met at St Martins School of Art. Later, when I was graduating from the Slade MA and Ping was studying MA Modernist Literature at Queen Mary UoL, we started Henningham Family Press together.

Last year (a natural development, or a stab at coherence) we joined Inpress Books so that we could bring our collaborations to the shelves of high street bookshops as paperbacks, as well as to the shelves of Special Collections. 2018 got off to a flying start with us publishing split editions, paperback and artists’ books of Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin and the first Ulysses sequel: Dedalus by Chris McCabe. These gained rave reviews (Literary Review, LRB Bookshop, The Idler), effusive endorsements as diverse as Max Porter and Marian Keyes, and our longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019.

We specialise in producing novels by writers coming from other disciplines. Poets, artists and performers who bring to their writing inflections from their training. Especially those who pick up the Modernist canon and kick it further down the road. We like working with people who will take their draft as the starting point for a textual and visual editing process. We think of ourselves as book producers, in the same way that Tony Visconti, Steve Albini and Danger Mouse are record producers.

This is the first year we have entered prizes. Before that our work was mainly given the thumbs up by being collected for the nation by institutions like the V&A, UCL, Tate, National Galleries Scotland and the National Poetry Library. Or they began as commissions for touring shows from places like the British Library, Christie’s, Dundee Contemporary Arts. But for novels there is this whole system that we are dipping our toes into.

We got passed over by the Goldsmiths, which packed no emotional punch for us, but on the day of the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize I found myself utterly useless and completely pre-occupied.

This is easily explained: The Republic.. became (unconsciously) the biggest prize for me personally. It is so well thought through as a premise that it will make a big difference to our survival. Most big prizes present a financial burden. They are locked gates.

The Prize has also formed the backbone of my reading since it started. It feels like a tangible benchmark for ingenuity in art and practice. I went to the launch a couple of years ago as a consumer of canapés. We had no plans to do novels. But when plans began to coalesce they were shaped and encouraged by the existence of the prize and its culture. It would have been harder to focus our wide ranging technical and literary expertise (the unexpectedly prodigious offspring of our dilettantism and a decade-long global recession) into the form of the novel without the reading and solidarity the prize has provided.

Coming from an Art background, though, the big literary prizes (the ones we can’t afford to enter) seem a little over-understated. The ‘party’ finishes and we’re thinking “what, there’s no dancing?” I’ve never seen a fluorescent cocktail at a book event. If book events were an item in the kitchen drawer they would be the wine stopper that keeps wine from going off. We don’t own one, but I saw one once.

What next? 2018 concluded with the first in our series of non-fiction books for children, Colour Experiments for Future Artists, and in 2019 we publish Pattern Power for Future Artists.

Spring sees a second novel from Chris McCabe, Mud, which is a version of Orpheus set in the present day. Borak and Karissa must locate a bubble of air trapped in mud somewhere to end their caustic relationship. The book is “illustrated” with sculptures and concrete poetry.

We are also scouring museums and libraries with Sophie Herxheimer. Looking at Wisdom literature as we embed her sequence of poems 60 Lovers To Make And Do within collages and cutouts.

A version of An Unknown Soldier set to music for the stage with composer John Ringhofer also waits in the wings.

Find out more about Henningham Family Press on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @HenninghamPress

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Longlist Announcement 2019


Photo credit – TLS

On Monday of this week the Times Literary Supplement announced this year’s longlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Thirteen titles made the cut, chosen by judges David Collard, Niven Govinden and Catherine Taylor, along with a student panel (Ayanna Lloyd, Vijay Khurana and Maya Lubinsky) from the prize’s current academic partner, the University of East Anglia.

Having been involved as a judge on the reader panel last year I both envied them their task – they got to read the best literary fiction recently published – and appreciated the difficulty they faced choosing from such high quality submissions. As to their choices, having read only three of the books on the longlist I can merely attest to these being deserving of their place. Certain books I expected to be included were missing but, as I was not party to the titles submitted, I do not know if these were even put forward. What I unequivocally get behind is the ethos of the prize which Charles Boyle of CB Editions so succinctly put in a guest post he kindly, if somewhat reluctantly, wrote for me last year.

“Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community”

 

The thirteen titles on the longlist are as follows:

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici, published by Carcanet

Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions

Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), published by Charco Press

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, published by Fairlight Books

Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press

Dedalus by Chris McCabe, published by Henningham Family Press

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić (translated by Celia Hawkesworth and S. D. Curtis), published by Istros

Now, Now, Louison by Jean Frémon (translated by Cole Swensen), published by Les Fugitives

Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, published by New Island Books

Kitch by Anthony Joseph, published by Peepal Tree Press

Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), published by Peirene Press

Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner, published by Splice

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published by The Stinging Fly Press

 

In the coming weeks I hope to be reading further from this list. If you are interested in purchasing any of the books please consider doing so directly from the publishers. This can make a huge difference to their financial viability and therefore their continuing valuable work.

The shortlist will be announced on 2nd March following a symposium to be held at UEA, Norwich – Love Takes Risks: The Poetics of Contemporary Small Fiction. Sign up to attend here before 18 February.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize organisers have a Patreon, with many fine small press books available for supporters, which you may check out here.

The winner of the prize will be announced on 28th March at Foyles, Charing Cross Road.


Photo credit – Graham Fulcher

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Winner 2017

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to London for an event that celebrated the brilliant, innovative and vibrant literary fiction being published by the small presses in the UK and Ireland. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have been on the judging panel for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. In reading each of the submissions I have had the opportunity to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Every book that made in onto the longlist deserves to be read. Please consider buying them – if possible direct from the publishers or from an independent bookshop, many of which will post books to readers.

Narrowing the longlist down to a shortlist was incredibly difficult – like having to choose a favourite child. However, the six books selected each deserved their place.

The event on Tuesday, held in the University of Westminster’s Fyvie Hall, brought together publishers, authors, translators, sponsors and an impressive array of interested parties from the book world to discover which title was to be declared the winner. Attendees were treated to wine and canapés as we mingled and chatted, with gentle jazz being played live in the background. The atmosphere was convivial and sparkling with anticipation.


(Photo credit: FMcM)

The first part of the evening saw the prize founder, Neil Griffiths, present ‘The William Gass award for metafiction and for being the best person in publishing, like ever’ to Charles Boyle of CBeditions. Charles later wrote this about his award.

The second part of the evening was the announcement of the winner. Michael Caines of The TLS took to the stage to present the award to Influx Press for Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams.


Gary Budden, Sanya Semakula, Eley Williams and Kit Caless
(Photo credit: Chris Power)

It was pleasing to see my Twitter timeline come alive over the following twenty-four hours as discerning news outlets and other media spread the word. I link here to the press release as published by the contemporary small press who also reviewed each book on the shortlist – do check them out.

Not all of the judges could attend but those that did duly posed for a photo with the winning author.


Sally Shakti-Willow, James Tookey, Jackie Law, Paul Fulcher, Graham Fulcher, Eley Williams, Neil Griffiths, Alan Crilly, Gayle Lazda, Ann Kennedy-Smith
(Photo credit: Robyn Law)

As Little Island Press said, it is a miracle that this prize exists. The miracle happened because of the hard work and dedication of Neil Griffiths, this year ably assisted by James Tookey. From this grateful reader, thank you. Much gratitude also to the many supporters and sponsors who made the prize viable. And huge congratulations to Influx and Eley.


Neil Griffiths and Eley Williams
(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)

You may follow The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses on Twitter: RofC Prize (@PrizeRofc)

Click on the photo above to buy the winning book.

 

(Gratuitous photo of my daughter and I enjoying the evening)


(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)

 

 

 

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement

Yesterday evening, at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, an event was held which culminated in the announcement of the shortlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Prior to the announcement there were panel discussions and presentations from publishers and authors.

When I saw this lineup last week I knew that I wanted to attend and am grateful to my husband for making it possible. As this post goes out we are still in Manchester enjoying an impromptu City Break.

Having been on the judging panel I was aware of which presses would be on the shortlist – you may remember that I attended a dinner in London where the longlist was hotly debated. For four hours the judges argued and presented their cases for including each book. They all had their advocates and, when it became clear that certain titles were not to go forward, passions were in evidence. The chair did a fine job of keeping the discussion steady and moving things along. Votes were taken and taken again, often with only one or two dividing the books to be included and those to be set aside. We knew that we had an impressively strong longlist and the difficulty of whittling it down to five or six titles was evidence of its literary quality.

Our task though was to produce a shortlist. These are the books that were eventually chosen, as announced last night:

 

Attrib. by Eley Williams (Influx)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives)

Darker with the Lights On by David Haydn (Little Island Press)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press)

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)

The winner has yet to be chosen. There will be a further event in London on 20th March when that announcement will be made. Whichever book is selected, this entire shortlist is well worth reading.

 

 

 

 

Chatting to independent publisher, Tramp Press

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Lisa Coen from Tramp Press, which published The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo.

 

An introduction – who you are and what you aim to achieve?

Tramp Press is an independent publisher based in Dublin. Officially it’s just two of us: Sarah and Lisa, but we have a growing team of people helping us out. We publish the best writing by new and established authors, and we’re working hard to nurture great talent all the time. Ireland is known for its great writers, we’d like it to also be known for its excellent independent publishing.

How have things have changed in publishing since you started?

We started Tramp in 2014, but even in that short time we’ve seen Irish fiction make incredible strides in the market. Mike McCormack talks about how hard it was for his unusual style of writing to get published, and that’s no longer a problem. The growth of independent publishers like Galley Beggar, And Other Stories and so on has seen the conservatism of the big 5 being somewhat balanced out in terms of representation on shelves. There’s still a long way to go but it’s a good start.

What is your experience of prize listings – costs and benefits, monetary or otherwise?

We put aside money to enter prizes because we think it’s a really important way of bringing an author to a reader’s attention. Critical review space is shrinking all the time, so it’s vital to have another opportunity to demonstrate that someone else has read and judged the novel to be important new work

The future – where you would like to see your small press going?

We always say it’s strange that Ireland has four Nobel laureates for fiction but no equivalent publisher to Faber & Faber or Editions Gallimard. We’re working hard to develop our distribution network in the UK and the US so we can grow and compete on a bigger stage.

 

Thank you Lisa for answering my questions, and congratulations on the part you and Sarah played in getting that other literary prize, The Man Booker, to accept submissions from Irish-published novels. 

You may follow Tramp Press on Twitter: @TrampPress

Click on the book cover above to find out more about The Iron Age. 

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo, published by Tramp Press

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner), which is published by Tramp Press.

 

Tramp Press is a small Irish publisher which aims

to find, nuture and publish exceptional literary talent and … is committed to finding only the best and most deserving books, by new and established writers

Its greatest success to date has been Mike McCormack’s 2016 Goldsmith Prize winning Solar Bones (which was Booker longlisted on its subsequent publication by a UK publisher). More recently Sara Baume’s A Line Made Walking has been shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmith Prize, following on from her wonderful debut novel.

Arja Kajermo is a cartoonist – born in Finland, raised in Sweden, and living in Ireland. The Iron Age, her debut novel was based on notes for a graphic novel, and was then written as a short story which was a finalist for the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award (won by Sara Baume) before being developed into this short novel/novella.

The book is narrated by a girl, growing up in the first half of the book in rural poverty in Finland in the 1950s, the youngest in a family of four – her father, injured in the defeat in the Continuation War of 1941-1944 and seemingly suffering from PTSD.

“It’s the war” [her mother] said father’s nerves are shot. It was from all the bad things he had seen and been through

He struggles to find employment to feed and clothe his family and ends up returning repeatedly to the family farm where he struggles with his widowed mother who owns it

Grandmother was an angry woman. She was angry with father most days ….. But most of all she was angry with Grandfather because he was dead

and in an increasingly bitter marriage.

Father was always telling mother to shut up. He had married her for her good looks and plucky attitude. Then he set to trying his damnedest to destroy both the looks and the attitude

Eventually he decides that his family should move to Sweden (minus his oldest son, who he unsuccessfully plans to inherit the family farm on the death of his other relatives).

But we bought our war with us. The shrapnel that had gone into Father’s legs, in 1944 in the painful retreat when the war was lost, had somehow worked its way into his children. Each of us carried a shard of that iron in our hearts. We would never be at peace. Not in Sweden. Not anywhere.

The second half of the book chronicles the start of the family’s life in Sweden – which in many ways takes an even darker turn. The family struggle between Father’s insistence that they assimilate and yet that they also keep their proud martial Finnish identity amongst the peace loving socialist Swedes. Further, it is often their Father who draws the most attention to their foreignness (for example his Finnish dress making him look like a Nazi).

I felt that the family’s struggles to maintain this dual identity while also not drawing attention to themselves could serve as a metaphor for the difficult path of neutrality that Finland navigated after the World War.

They struggle even more with language

We were now what mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.

The narrator’s reaction both to her father’s continuing anger and the ummikko issue is a two fold withdrawal. She stops speaking altogether and draws into herself

There was a strange safety net in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a big bomb shelter and looking out through narrow slits that were my own eyes.

and further escapes into the world of books.

I did not just read books. I lived the stories in the books

In particular she escapes into the world of the Little Mermaid – identifying with the sacrifices that the Mermaid made to live with her prince

If you leave your true home you have to give something up. I had traded in my tongue too but I had got nothing for it

but ultimately rejecting the Mermaid’s choice and instead fantasising that she stays underwater in a mer-Kingdom where the bitterness of her father, the choices and sacrifices her family have made, the long lasting effects of war, all play no part, and are replaced by calmness, peace and togetherness.

Under the water everyone can stay together and nobody has to go away

In a devastating ending to the book she opens her eyes during one such fantasy and realises

I had no tail

The book is atmospherically illustrated by the author’s niece – Susanna Kajermo – in a series of black and white pencil drawings.

The illustrator Susanna has commented that

I had heard several of the anecdotes in it, told in various ways, by my Dad when I grew up. I have always been interested in the way people tell or remember things …… … my art often relates to childhood and storytelling ….. Arja gave me some old photographs for inspiration, and I also had my Dad’s, rather thin photo album to look at … I tried to make illustrations that would work with the text but also as separate pictures that could somehow tell a story of their own … I appreciate pictures that have both seriousness or a sort of darkness, combined with humour or absurdity in them. That is something I strive for in my art. Arja’s novel has all of those components and so I had a really good time working with it

And this quote picks up many of the themes of the book: its concentration on storytelling and remembrance – family stories and legends, the war stories that the narrator’s Father uses to draw on his lessons for life, the interpretation of dreams, constant reminiscing on those that fell in the Wars, Finnish folklore particularly around a witch like figure, the stories in which the narrator increasingly takes refuge; the illustrations which while clearly relating to the story often have a deeper dark fairy tale element (for example – a dinosaur skull buried under the roots of a tree, a ghost figure on a sled); the juxtaposition of the darkness of much of the life of the narrator with the absurd incidents that occur and the dry humour with which she relates them.

Overall this is a simple book but one with surprising depth.

GF

 

You may read my review of The Iron Age here.

Coming tomorrow, an interview with the publisher of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Author Interview: Simon Okotie


Photo credit: Evgeniy Kazannik

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Simon Okotie, author of In the Absence of Absalon, which is published by Salt.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in east London to a Nigerian father and an English mother. We moved to Norfolk in the late seventies – seemingly one of few black families in the region at the time. I moved back to Norfolk last year.

2. Can you tell us about In the Absence of Absalon?

It is the second book in a trilogy. My editor, Nicholas Royle, recently described the first book, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, as about ‘a man travelling 200 yards on a bus’. In the Absence of Absalon is somewhat less dramatic: it is the story of a man taking his keys out of his pocket – that’s the first half of the book, at least, as he does actually enter a townhouse in the second half. The third (as yet untitled) novel – forthcoming from Salt in 2019 – is about a man walking down a ramp; rather, it is about a man taking precisely four-and-a-half steps down a ramp leading to a pedestrian underpass (which I think is excessive – I am currently trying to edit out one of those steps).

The plot of the first book has been described as ‘slight’; whilst ‘In the Absence of Absalon brings us to a later stage in the emerging non-plot’, which is ‘wafer-thin’. Nicholas Lezard said, in the Guardian, that the whole of In the Absence of Absalon is largely a matter of qualifications, of trying, in tightened and tightening circles, to get to the essence of what it is to be alive in a contemporary city. And of course it is also a joke about the very nature of the detective’s search for clues. For here everything is of equal significance: that is, immensely significant on its own terms, and yet, when placed against the wider backdrop, of absolutely no relevance whatsoever.

I would say, though, that there is more to the plot than has so far been reported!

3. What inspired the book?

The books were inspired by a black man, known as Marigold, who was often seen in Norwich during the ‘80s unofficially directing traffic on the inner ring road wearing yellow rubber gloves. The original Marigold is still well known in Norfolk. He died in May 2015.

4. George RR Martin has said there are two types of writers – the architect, who plans everything in advance, and the gardener, who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically. Which are you?

The latter (although with my current work-in-progress – my fourth novel, a thriller – I am attempting to incorporate more of the former).

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer?

Strange to say that I don’t really think of myself as ‘a writer’: I prefer to say, simply, that I write. After all, I can only produce meaningful work when my sense of self-identity (as ‘a writer’, or as anything else) is at its thinnest (although I’m not saying that identity is unimportant, or that issues of racial, gender or other strands of identity are absent from what I write). Fredric Jameson, writing in the London Review of Books about fifty years of One Hundred Years of Solitude, says that, at its best, to write (and to read) is to ‘lose ourselves in [a] precisely situated oblivion’, which nails it, I think.

And to answer the question, my favourite part of writing is where it takes me in my reading.

6. And your least favourite?

Poverty!

7. Do you enjoy social media?

I’m with Franzen:

“Intolerance particularly flourishes online, where measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on, invisible Facebook and Google algorithms steer you towards content you agree with, and nonconforming voices stay silent for fear of being flamed or trolled or unfriended. The result is a silo in which, whatever side you’re on, you feel absolutely right to hate what you hate. And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

Yes. I think it is readers, in a sense, who create books. I am grateful when people engage with my novels – whether on-line or in print – and am fascinated by the different interpretations of the so-called ‘action’, regardless of whether people like the work. Reviews always feed in, somehow, to my work-in-progress.

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I am a public transport enthusiast, and like nothing better than a good bus or train-journey (outside of rush hours): an ideal place, often, to read, write and reflect.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I have just finished Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which is devastating, as was Philippe Sands’ East West Street.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

I would love to have spent time with the Buddha.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

I find it impossible to compute this question, as a highly introverted, private person!

 

Thank you Simon for providing such interesting, and entertaining, answers to my questions. 

You may follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonOkotie 

Click on the book cover above to find out more about In the Absence of Absalon. 

In the Absence of Absalon is published by Salt Publishing who I previously interviewed here.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, published by Salt

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, which is published by Salt.

 

This book is published by Salt Publishing “an independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature …. advocates for writers at all stages of their careers … [ensuring] that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.” They have twice been Booker longlisted, most recently in 2016 for The Many by Wyl Menmuir and recently received a Costa First Novel shortlisting for The Clock In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

In the Absence of Absalon is a sequel to the brilliantly original Whatever Happened To Harold Absalon?, a lengthy book but one whose plot could be reproduced in its entirety in a brief paragraph:

Marguerite is investigating the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor. He starts in a hotel where he has seen Harold’s wife Isobel entering a lift, he climbs the stairs to the floor where she alights and observes her eating in a restaurant with her baby and a friend. Ejected from the hotel, he then follows them and seeing her hail a taxi, and realising she has spotted him, he boards a bus and goes to the top deck. Concerned that Isobel may be on the deck below and that some of her associates may be following him in another bus he decides to leave the bus. He lets the passenger beside him stand up and walk down the aisle, and then follows him down the aisle, pausing to allow another passenger (a businesswoman) enter the aisle between them. That lady appears to pay his bus fare. At the next stop he rings the bell twice in the manner of the conductress so as to cause the bus to set off again – and while the bus is still accelerating away goes down the stairs and leaves the bus. As he is exiting he sees Harold through a window of a showroom the bus had just passed.

Clearly the author has decided that the pace of that book was inappropriate and has slowed it down for this book. The sequel features an unnamed detective carrying out “his investigation into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the Mayor’s transport advisor, who had been missing”. At the start of the book the investigator is approaching a townhouse, owned by Richard Knox, who Harold was known to have fallen out with before his disappearance. He believes he is being closely followed by Harold and that the house holds the key to resolving the mystery of his disappearance. By the book’s end he has walked up to the gate of the townhouse, looked for and found in his trousers the keys to the house, found that the apparently padlocked gate is not secured, walked up to the door which is opened by Harold’s wife Isobel, walked towards the stairs resisting the distraction of a ringing phone by then changing his plan when he hears a baby crying.

The narrator has been trained and mentored by Marguerite and is similarly meticulous in his thoughts – unlike Marguerite his thoughts are typically more focused on the actual case in hand though and (with the exception of rare Marguerite digressions into areas only very tangentially related to his investigation (one particularly entertaining one starting with a reference to whether Isobel is free to leave, quickly departing by route of the ease of leaving a non-dinner party into a four page discussion of what the concept of cooking and preparing means in the context of the three types of pizza (take-away, shop bought and home-made))) are often related to his physical progress and the motions of his body.

Overall a hugely enjoyable and at the same time thought provoking book and one very much in the unique style of its predecessor. Comparing it to that there are negatives and positives.

On the negative side, at times the physical descriptions shaded at times into a level of tedium I did not experience in “Whatever Happened …”. The book also makes, like the paragraph above extensive use of brackets, but, unlike the paragraph above does not seem capable of correctly un-nesting them, by omitting the use of double (or triple) closing right brackets. Only a mathematical pedant would notice this – but of course this is exactly the type of book a mathematical pedant enjoys!

On the positive side, the much stronger aspect of this book compared to the first, is the greater sense of meta-narrative in a number of senses: the unnamed narrator refers at times to what the investigator may be doing during chapter breaks; the investigator himself is aware (without understanding the mechanisms) that his thoughts and actions are somehow being monitored; the footnotes relate even more closely to the case than before; the narrator himself starts to get involved in the book, in particular as it ends following the investigator into the room where they baby seems to be crying “determined, once again, to understand the circumstances of his disappearance”. As a result the real conceit at the heart of this series – examining the very idea of sheer complexities of life and how they can be rendered in fiction, comes out more strongly.

This and its predecessor are highly recommended.

GF

 

You may read my review of In the Absence of Absalon here.

Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with Simon Okotie, the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc