This is the fifteenth in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our Small Press Database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
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Interview with Jacques Testard, Editor
How did Fitzcarraldo Editions start?
Before embarking on this project, I co-founded The White Review with Ben Eastham, and found that there was an appetite for fiction that grappled with contemporary themes and issues as well as experimenting with form and style. As a magazine editor, I got to know the British trade publishing landscape, and found that there are few presses willing to take risks on serious and ‘literary’ fiction, much less when it is translated.
As well as working on The White Review, I also worked as a commissioning editor at Notting Hill Editions for two years. At NHE we published long-form essays: both new editions of classics like Joe Brainard’s I Remember (which, surprisingly given its ‘cult’ status in the States, had never appeared in Britain before), and new work by the likes of Deborah Levy, Joshua Cohen and Jonathan Littell. When it comes to the essay, British publishers are equally conservative: the big publishers tend to stick to publishing 360-page non-fiction blockbusters, whereas their counterparts in France or Germany have imprints dedicated to publishing shorter essays by their important authors.
Once I left Notting Hill Editions in December 2013, I started working on what would become Fitzcarraldo Editions immediately, and knew very quickly that I wanted to publish both fiction and essays. In the first year we’ll have published six books—three novels, three essays—and the aim is to try to contribute to the culture by publishing books we feel are important, ‘literary’ books that explore and expand the possibilities of the form, that are innovative and imaginative in style, that tackle subjects and themes that are relevant to the world we live in.
As for the technicalities of getting started, it all happened very quickly. Britain is a mercantile nation, and as such starting a company is fairly easy. Once the paperwork was out of the way I got to work with Ray O’Meara, a brilliant designer whom I’d worked with for years on The White Review, on the design of the first two books, which I acquired in February and March 2014. All of the Fitzcarraldo Editions books are sold and distributed by Faber Factory Plus (a part of Faber & Faber) and MDL for the print editions, and Faber Factory for ebooks, which takes a big chunk of work out of my hands, and ensures the best possible visibility for the list. And Nicci Praca, a freelance publicist with years of experience working with literature in translation, took on the PR for the books and the launch of the imprint.
Tell us a bit about Fitzcarraldo Editions. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Variety—the quality or state of being different or diverse; the absence of uniformity or monotony—is key to this enterprise. As grandiloquent as this may sound, I want to focus on ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language. As for an aesthetic, there aren’t really any guiding principles, other than those enunciated here and above (‘the aim is to try to contribute to the culture by publishing books we feel are important—’literary’ books that explore and expand the possibilities of the form, that are innovative and imaginative in style, that tackle subjects and themes that are relevant to the world we live in’). And the fact that, for now, we’ll only publish new work.
Another motivation behind the launch of Fitzcarraldo Editions is design. We wanted to design the books to make them visually striking and desirable as objects, because that’s how we believe books will survive in the new media age. It’s difficult enough to sell books, and good design makes you stand out from the crowd. With this in mind, each book is published as a paperback original with French flaps, using a custom serif typeface (called Fitzcarraldo) drawn by Ray O’Meara. His radically classical design is reminiscent of the timeless covers of the Ulysses-era Bodley Head editions or of continental publishers such as Gallimard—simple and striking. We value the content, therefore we value the way it is presented: these things go hand in hand.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
When I was looking for a first novel to publish a few months back, I was amazed to find out that Zone by Mathias Enard, which I’d read in French when Actes Sud published it in 2008, had never appeared in Britain. It tells the story of a French secret agent, Francis Servain Mirkovic, travelling on a train from Milan to Rome with a briefcase full of information about the war criminals, terrorists and arms dealers of the Zone—the Mediterranean—that he plans to sell to the Vatican. On this train journey, he recounts the violent history of the Zone in the twentieth century, starting with the Balkans War, in which he fought for a far-right Croatian militia. It’s an ambitious book in terms of subject matter, but it takes form very seriously too: it’s a 528-page stream of consciousness novel written as one long sentence (but broken up into twenty-four chapters). It sounds hard to read, but isn’t—the rhythm of the language, and the intensity of the episodes and anecdotes it recounts propel the reader along. It’s also a politically-engaged book that poses many questions about the violent foundations of the Europe we live in today. Charlotte Mandell’s translation, for the 2011 US edition by Open Letters, is excellent. I couldn’t have wished for a better novel to launch a publishing house with. As for Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley, it is similarly ambitious in subject matter and form—taking as its starting point the discovery of a hand-drawn astrological chart predicting the author’s imminent death—but firmly rooted in the classical essay tradition that begins with Montaigne. It’s had some very high praise: the novelist David Mitchell, author of The Bone Clocks, called it ‘a brilliant one-of-a-kind mind game occupying a strange frontier between philosophy, memoir and fiction.’ It defies categorisation and is also a short book—72 pages—two things that scare traditional publishing houses.
Next up, we publish Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation, which Graywolf just published in the US, and which has received a lot of attention over there. If we can replicate a tenth of the success in Britain, it will have been a great success. It’s exactly the kind of essay I envisaged publishing when launching Fitzcarraldo: an essay in the American non-fiction tradition (think Joan Didion, Susan Sontag) which takes vaccination as its starting point and moves on to discussions of the body, motherhood, paranoia, politics, hysteria, epidemics, etc.
The first translated book we publish this year is My Documents (April) by the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell), his fourth to appear in English. The previous three were short novels, written with the author’s trademark irony and precision, humour and melancholy. My Documents, which is, on the surface, a collection of stories, is his longest work yet. Whether chronicling the attempts of a migraine-afflicted writer to quit smoking or the loneliness of the call-centre worker, the life of a personal computer or the return of the mercurial godson, this novel in fragments evokes the disenchantments of youth and the disillusions of maturity in a Chilean society still troubled by its recent past. In the words of Adam Thirlwell, ‘these stories are graceful, grave, comical, disabused. I guess what I mean is: My Documents represents a new form. When I think about Alejandro Zambra, I feel happy for the future of fiction.’
In June, we publishe Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, a collection of free verse and essays by ‘Russia’s first authentic post-Soviet author’, according to Keith Gessen, co-founder of n+1. Widely published and critically acclaimed as a poet, Medvedev is also a prominent political activist and a member of the Russian Socialist movement ‘Vpered’ [Forward]. His small press, the Free Marxist Publishing House, has recently released his translations of Pasolini, Eagleton, and Goddard, as well as numerous books on the intersection of literature, art and politics. Medvedev has also taken the unusual step of renouncing copyright—only pirated editions, no contracts. It’s No Good includes selected poems from his first four books of poetry as well as his most significant essays. A collective of translators—Keith Gessen, Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich—worked on the various texts.
Following on from our launch title, Zone, we publish Mathias Enard’s novel Street of Thieves in August 2015, once again brilliantly translated by Charlotte Mandell. It tells the story of Lakhdar, a young Tangerine who finds himself exiled from his family for religious transgressions related to his feelings for his cousin, Meryem. A bildungsroman set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, Street of Thieves is also a story about immigration, and draws on a wealth of literary influences—Bowles, Choukri, Genet and Burroughs, to name a few.
Beyond that, there will be an essay on essays by Brian Dillon, a defence of pretention by frieze magazine co-editor Dan Fox, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the post-Soviet years, and quite a few exciting things that I can’t talk about right now because we haven’t signed the paperwork yet.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
Diversity, more interest in translation—our annual translation issue in The White Review is the most widely read by some distance—and the fact that this seems to be where the more interesting and avant-garde writing happens.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Fitzcarraldo Editions?
I am not sure what you are asking for my opinion on with this question! Traditionally, publishing is not a business one can hope to make millions in. But it is possible to make it work, particularly on a small scale. You need to be careful with spending, canny with editorial decisions, and work as hard as possible to make your house and your list known. Also, as I’m discovering, there are lots of grants to apply for, particularly when you publish works in translation.