If you like “walking” novels and heard there was a good one on the Booker longlist, you were probably hearing about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (my review here). Despite the qualities that book had, I didn’t like it and didn’t consider it a suitable representative of the “walking” novel genre, whatever that is. I wasn’t sad when Harold Fry didn’t make the Booker shortlist. Fortunately, the “walking” genre didn’t lose out and is in fact represented on the shortlist by a superb debut novel, The Lighthouse (2012).
Futh, our protagonist, is crossing the North Sea on a ferry, on his way to go for a days’-long walk in Germany. Much is introduced in this opening. Standing on the ferry deck, Futh thinks back to years earlier when he sat with his father in a movie theater. In this memory, his father proceeds to tell Futh a story of when he met Futh’s mother in a movie theater (she was handing out the popcorn, and Futh’s father had gone to the movies with someone else), and we get a sense that Moore is going to be nesting story within story, and that she’s going to pull it off. Also, while Futh thinks back to sitting in that theater with his father, we get an uncomfortable sense of how repulsive and sudden human contact can, at times, be:
Futh felt the warm pressure of his father’s thigh against his own, felt the tickle of his father’s arm hairs on his own bare forearm, the heat of his father’s beery breath in his ear hole, his father’s hand reaching into his lap, taking popcorn.
I admit I jumped a bit when Futh’s father reached into his lap, before I realized he was just reaching for some popcorn, and I’m sure Moore wanted us to be wary going forward. Not only has the past been tragic, but this is an ominous trip.
We also learn in this opening that long ago Futh’s mother abandoned him and his father (something else that relates to Harold Fry). “‘Do you know,’ Futher heard his mother say, ‘how much you bore me?’”, and Futh knows that she’d rather have some excitement in her life than spend even a day longer with his father, and losing Futh is not that big a deal. We also learn that Futh himself has just lost his wife, possibly because she also thinks he’s incredibly boring.
So this trip to Germany is an attempt to grapple with his past and present demons, to hopefully restore some balance in his life. Futh’s first stop along the way is at Helhaus (German for “lighthouse”), a nice bed-and-breakfast, where the hostess Ester is dealing with her own marital problems. In fact, from here on out, the book will alternate chapters — one for Futh, one for Ester – until Futh’s journey comes full circle and he plans to stop at Helhaus once more before hopping on the ferry for home.
As Futh’s journey progresses, the story’s complexity reveals itself both in narrative ties and symbolic ties. We’ve already seen that both Futh and his father were abandoned by unhappy spouses, and, in fact, both spouses were named Angela (though Futh’s wife repeatedly told him “I am not your mother”). Maternal abandonment leaves Futh sexually confused at a young age:
‘We can do without her,’ his father said as they walked on. But Futh knew that every woman his father brought into the hotel room was a substitute for her. Some of them even looked like her. And Futh, seeing the women going into the bathroom, watching them in the mirror in the middle of the night, desired them himself.
This confusion is brought out again when Futh’s father remarries to their neighbor, Gloria. For some time, Futh had been friends with Gloria’s son, Kenny, but that’s not to last, particularly when one evening Futh falls asleep watching a movie with Gloria, Gloria puts him in bed with Kenny. Kenny is livid the next morning, and their shaky friendship doesn’t survive. Sexual confusion continues when one day Futh walks in to find Gloria bathing. She asks him to scrub her back, saying that usually Kenny does this for her. Naturally, this brought Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence to mind, and I now cannot think of any movie that better matches the tone of these murky moments of heightened reality, again showing how something can be an aphrodisiac at one moment and repulsive the next.
Besides abandonment and sexual confusion, but related to them, infidelity is strung in with all of the narrative threads. While at Helhaus Ester and her husband, Bernard, are still together, she’s been unfaithful for years (“She remembers her first infidelity, but she does not remember them all”), at times hoping that jealousy will make Bernard hold on to her harder. Ester and Bernard themselves come from some infidelity; Ester was originally engaged to Bernard’s brother, Conrad. We wonder if Futh’s father ever hit on Futh’s wife, and we wonder if Futh’s wife ever had an affair with Kenny. Actually, we never get much of this resolved, and that’s okay. The moments that suggest something may have happened come into the narrative in a single sentence and drift away as quickly (if we’re not paying attention, we’ll never see them), and the questions raised linger and the potential answers disturb us all the more as the book proceeds to a conclusion we are dreading.
Besides the narrative connections, there are any recurring symbols: venus fly traps, moths, lighthouses, etc. If anything, this is the spot where I can see some weakness in Moore’s works. Sometimes she prods us with her clever symbols: what a character says about a real venus fly trap, for example, will become relevant to how a character acts later in a chapter entitled Venus Fly Trap. It’s not always nice to get the writer prodding us on in this way, but in The Lighthouse this didn’t become a big issue for me. Rather than detract from the story, these symbols, however overt, kept me right on track and served to emphasize just how many narrative connections the story has.
So, back to the walking aspect. As Futh walks, his memories return, sometimes in fragments, sometimes clearly, and often are repeated. We hear Futh’s mother ask his father “Do you know how much you bore me?” several times, and we see how this unwanted memory insists on being present everyday that Futh walks. As mentioned earlier, he’s more adept at suppressing memories about which he’s less certain, like the ones with his wife and his father and Kenny. Less insistent, those memories drift in and drift away, and Futh walks on, doomed.
I would be very happy if this book won this year’s Booker prize.
It’s time to do a Mookse and Gripes podcast, which will be dedicated to discussing NYRB Classics. I’ll be joined by my brother, Brian, an avid reader and lover of NYRB Classics, as well as by periodic special guests.
Every month or so we will select and discuss one of the many fine books published by NYRB Classics. Why NYRB Classics? Because they are, for us, the quintessential publisher as curator, bringing out a beautifully produced, diverse series of books. From their own words, the series is “designedly and determinedly exploratory and eclectic, a mix of fiction and nonfiction from different eras and times and of various sorts.” As a reader, you can’t do much better than stacking your shelves with NYRB Classics.
Of course, there are other publishers and other things we’d like to cover, so every now and then we will have “special” episodes.
The show has been submitted and approved for iTunes, but apparently it will be a few days before it becomes searchable. In the meantime, you can play it below or click here to subscribe in iTunes. You’ll notice the show has no reviews yet, so if you feel inclined you could maybe be the first.
Now, on to the show:
In 1960, John Williams published his second novel. Butcher’s Crossing, considered to be one of the first revisionist Westerns, didn’t bring Williams fame or fortune and didn’t establish for Williams a reputation as one of the great American writers, even though it is highly regarded by its readers. Still, upon publication, much like his first novel (though this time not deservedly), Butcher’s Crossing was largely ignored, and today it is overlooked, if not forgotten.
NYRB Classics published their edition of Butcher’s Crossing in January 2007, and it is the book we’ll be talking about in Episode 1 of the Mookse and Gripes Podcast.
In Episode 2, we will be discussing Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Please join us in our preparations!
Podcast: Play in new window
Show Notes (56:30):
- Intro: 00:00
- Brief John Williams Bio: 02:40
- Spoiler-free Synopsis: 03:35
- Spoiler-free Discussion: 05:05
- Spoiler-rife Discussion: 19:40
- Co-Host: Trevor Berrett
- Co-Host: Brian Berrett
- Introduction Music — “Where We Fall We’ll Lie” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
- Outro Music — “Where I’m From” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Tony Earley’s “Jack and the Mad Dog” was originally published in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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Tony Earley has been writing short stories for some time now, but I’ve never read his work before. I’m looking forward to this one and will post my thoughts here soon. In the meantime, leave any comments you may have below.
John Williams published four books: Nothing But the Night (1948), which he later renounced; Butcher’s Crossing (1960) (my review here); Stoner (1965) (my review here); and Augustus (1972) (my review here). Between 1972 and his death in 1994, he was working on an ambitious work looking at war and fine art forgery (though it seems the years he actually spent working on this book were 1976 to 1980*). Williams himself was a veteran of World War II, and he rarely spoke about it to anyone (though certainly we find its echos in all of his works). He never finished this work, which he was calling The Sleep of Reason. Still, we have portions of it, one of which was published by Ploughshares in their 10th anniversary issue in 1981.
In general, I’m against excerpts being published in place of short stories, though at times I’ve found them strong and they’ve made me want to read the entire book. Here, I am very glad that we have this excerpt because it’s about all we will ever get. Somewhere other passages exist, including some detailing war experiences, and a lengthy excerpt was also published in The Denver Quarterly in 1986, in an issue devoted entirely to Williams.
Ah! It’s very sad that Williams did not finish this, as it promised to be an exceptional piece (as were three of the four novels he published). It appears that he felt it was promising as well, and that if we’re looking for a reason we don’t have the finished book we can probably blame alcohol and cigarettes.
The title of the piece comes from Goya: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” (Who came up on this blog just a month ago when we looked at the cover of Tyrant Banderas here).
The main character is Paul Mathews, an administrator and curator at the Washington Institute of Art. The book opens with him looking at a beautiful painting by Andrea Mantegna, simply titled “Peter at the Tomb of the Resurrected Christ.” It’s an important piece in a new collection the museum has acquired for a few months (and hopes to get permanently if everything goes just right). This is the Tyler Collection, pieces owned by an eccentric agoraphobe who hasn’t let anyone see the paintings he has in over fifty years. All Mathews can say when he looks at the painting, though, is, “There’s something wrong with it.”
With him in the room is the Director of the Institute, an old friend named Theo Dietrich. What’s wrong, he asks – after all, the piece was authenticated in 1928 — but Mathews cannot say. Nothing looks wrong; it’s just a feeling, one he hopes will go away.
This nagging feeling doesn’t go away through the remainder of the piece, showing again how good Williams is at maintaining tone and pacing, even as he introduces other aspects of the narrative.
After this introduction with Theo, the excerpt can be divided into three parts: a completely unexpected and distressing (but again, why) run-in with Mathews’ old Army Captain, Dave Parker; a lunch with Larry Philips, a board member most responsible for getting the Tyler Collection; and an evening at home with his beautiful wife.
Throughout it all, he can’t quite push aside his misgivings about the Mantegna, and it leads to reflections on his work in general (and, I’m sure, though we can’t know, all of the other themes running through this unfinished novel):
A feeling of helplessness came over Paul Mathews, as he sat alone in his office on the fifth floor of the Washington Institute of Art on a bright morning in early spring. It was a feeling that he had had before, but seldom had it come upon him with such intensity; he thought of what time and man and the accidents of history had done, and would do, despite whatever efforts he and others like him might raise against the tides of destruction. In time, all the Mantegnas, the Titians, the Michelangelos, the Raphaels would, like living flesh, wither and dry and return to the elements of which they had been composed. It seemed to him at that moment that his curacy was a vain and futile undertaking, a fruitless action against that which could not be stayed.
Some day, I will get the other excerpt published in The Denver Quarterly. Then, I guess, we just continue to be thankful for what we have, for it all could be lost far too soon.
*Much of the detail I refer to in the first paragraph comes from a great lengthy piece on John Williams by Alan Prendergast, published in Westword here.
Is it a gimmick, or a formal element that adds to the story? I wondered this when I picked up The Canvas (Leinwand, 2010; tr. from the German by Brian Zumhagen, 2012), a book that is designed to let the reader choose between two equally situated beginnings. We can start reading on the side called Amnon Zichroni or we can flip the book over and begin the story with Jan Wechsler. Each side contains the copyright information and even the ISBN. The two halves meet in the middle where each have identical glossaries.
Review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books.
It’s hard, when talking about a book like this, not to begin with the unique structure, and we threaten to focus on that rather than on the story itself. However, it works here, because the book’s physical structure is actually a factor in interpreting the themes. Why is the book set up this way? So that neither narrative is more important than the other.The Canvasis a book about identity, about memory, about the narrative one makes of one’s own life, about the competing narratives others may make for you. Consequently, the book’s physical structure, which gives no preference to either narrative, makes the reader choose his or her own pathway through the novel and, thus, to doubt the legitimacy of that path. Personally, I think the book could have done some of this without the unique format, and the format itself has some pitfalls, but there’s something to be said about an author who doesn’t want to control our experience with the book.
The story? Oh, yes, the story. Well, which narrative should this review begin with? I myself started the book on the Amnon Zichroni side, so let’s start there.
Amnon Zichroni’s story starts when Zichroni is just a young man in a very orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Israel. His life is dedicated to the Torah. Nothing secular is allowed to enter. But one day he discovers hidden in his father’s things a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He can’t get it out of his mind. He wants to read books from around the world, secular books. In what he considers to be an act of love, Zichroni’s father sends him away to Switzerland to live with his uncle (well, not really his uncle, but by the end he will feel like even more than an uncle).
Much of this side is about Zichroni’s coming of age and beyond to where his life unravels. He eventually goes to school in America and eventually works in a psychiatric hospital. The reason he takes up psychiatry is because, as a youth, he realizes that he’s been given a special gift: the ability to experience the memories of other people. He can feel whatever sensation they once felt just as if he is then feeling it. He wants to use this gift to help others, and he does have some success. It’s not to last:
The collapse of Minsky, for whom I hadn’t even been a therapist, but simply a friend, cost me my reputation, my practice, and my research position in Freiburg. With Wechsler I might possibly even have become a criminal in the end.
Minsky is a friend and a survivor of the Holocaust. In a way, Zichroni encourages Minsky to write his memoir, and it’s a hit. Then Jan Wechsler comes along and exposes it as a fraud.
This is the side I read first. I know others who have read the book by alternating sides after each chapter, and I wonder if that wouldn’t have been better for me. After all, it is only on page 100 (out of 158) of Zichroni’s side that we finally hear about Wechsler, but even then we don’t get to his story. Instead, we go to Minsky and spend several pages on his violins. Only in the last few pages do we get the narratives to merge, making me feel as if I’d read a lot of build up for a pay off I didn’t understand.
Consequently, as much as I enjoyed the Zichroni side, it was refreshing to begin reading about Wechsler, a rather modest publisher and author, whose story covers much less time and seems to push the themes forward a bit more.
As Wechsler’s story develops, we realize that he has major gaps in his memory, maybe. He is surprised when one day a delivery-man comes to his house with a bag and an apology from the airline who said they’d misplaced it. Zichroni is confused because he hasn’t lost a bag, though this one does have his name and his address on it, written in his hand, and the airline said he was the one who made the formal complaint in the first place. Disturbed, he doesn’t open the bag for a long time. When he finally does, he finds in it a few books, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he admits is familiar since it looks just like his own edition that is in his library, and, even more strangely, a book entitled Masquerades, by one Jan Wechsler. Wechsler’s story begins to spiral out of control even as he begins to tell us about his past. He discovers more apparent gaps in his memory, even as Masquerades seems to fill in the gaps. He begins to destroy his relationship with his wife, and no one understand what is going on with him. He can simply say, “I am what I remember. I don’t have anything else.”
It’s an interesting book, well written (even when I got frustrated as I realized the time I was spending with violins meant the book’s two halves were only going to come together at the very end, I still really enjoyed reading about those violins), and it comes at identity (cultural, religious, actual) and memory from a unique perspective, even without the physical book’s structure. The structure is just an added layer, and one I can appreciate since it makes me wonder how I would have responded to these characters had I read it another way; or, rather, it makes me wonder how much of my own interpretation is based solely on my perspective, on the path I took, and how much of it I should doubt. Whatever, the case, Stein offers no answers, and we can see in a sentence what he is hoping to do as he presents these lives in this way:
Instead, he was contemplating a delicate black cloth that shrouded the painting on the easel; it was left to the observer to speculate about what might be depicted on the canvas behind it.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Mohsin Hamid’s “The Third-Born” was originally published in the September 24, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I read Mohsin Hamid’s Booker shortlisted The Reluctant Fundamentalist when it was published in 2008, but I haven’t thought much of the author since, so I’m looking forward to this one. Leave any comments you may have in below.
I was happy on Tuesday when, after the Man Booker shortlist was announced — Simon of the blog Savidge Reads (here) and the podcast The Readers wrote to ask if I’d be interested in talking with him about the shortlist and the prize in general for his podcast. Of course I was!
So, for all interested, here is the link to The Readers Man Booker Special (you can also download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes).
When I began The Mookse and the Gripes in 2008, one of the blogs I looked to for inspiration and enjoyment was Rob Redman’s The Fiction Desk. At the time, besides covering fiction, Rob’s blog offered editorial services to writers. Then, in 2010, Rob shifted gears a bit by venturing into publishing, relaunching The Fiction Desk as a publisher of new short fiction from around the English-speaking world (and soon the non-English-speaking world too!).
I myself think that working to publish and promote short fiction is an awesome thing, and I admire Rob’s courage and passion as well as the results. So far The Fiction Desk has published three anthologies: Various Authors, All These Little Worlds, and The Maginot Line. You can subscribe to The Fiction Desk at its website here, or you can purchase the volumes on Amazon (though in the United States only in e-format), the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), or from The Fiction Desk itself (which also offers free worldwide shipping).
I have been meaning to ask Rob some questions about his work at The Fiction Desk.
Q. Rob, in this day and age, why did you decide to start a literary magazine?
It sounds corny, but I started it because I wanted to read it! Like a lot of readers, I’ve tended in the past to neglect short stories, and at least in the UK, they’re often treated as the hair shirt of the literary world: dry exercises in craft sandwiched between self-indulgent non-fiction and poems about twigs in winter. They’re often surrounded by advertisements for writing courses and other authors’ services, which I think risks sending a message that short stories are only of professional or academic interest, and you can see why a lot of readers have come to assume that they won’t have a good time with short fiction. On the other hand, short stories seem to get a better ride in genre publishing, where there’s a huge energy and will to entertain. I wanted something that had some of that energy of genre publishing, but applied to general fiction. For the same reason, I also decided not to carry any advertisements or have any non-fiction in there, and to make our publications feel very much like books rather than magazines: it’s just new short fiction, in a pure and hopefully entertaining form.
Q. I know what you mean about the short story. Through no fault of its own, the short story isn’t widely read or appreciated, and I’ve heard it said this is particularly the case in Great Britain, where you’re based. Why did you decide that The Fiction Desk would focus exclusively on short stories?
I wanted to work with a good range of authors and stories, and with limited resources, short stories are the obvious way to do that. As a new publisher you also have a responsibility towards your authors: if I publish a selection of short stories from different authors, and it falls flat, the authors get their rights back in a few months, and there’s no real harm done. (Our subscribers also give us the security that the anthologies will never really fall flat, so I can be sure that the stories I publish will find an audience.)
If I, as a brand new publisher, had taken novels that authors had spent maybe years over, bought the rights, and then tried to market them with no marketing experience or real resources behind me, I wouldn’t have been able to do justice to the authors’ work and it wouldn’t have been fair on them. As The Fiction Desk grows in experience and readership, we’re getting gradually closer to the point where we can look at publishing some longer fiction as well, but it wasn’t the best way to start.
Q. It seems, then, that practical concerns, at least partly, have directed you to short stories. How has your relationship to the short story gone up or down as you’ve read so much for these anthologies? As a snarky follow-up from a short fiction fan: In other words, do you look forward to the day when you can throw practical concerns out the window and focus on longer fiction or do you see yourself as continuing to give short stories another avenue through The Fiction Desk?
The practical concerns were really only a relatively small part of the decision to focus on short stories, so the short fiction fan can rest easy! It would be interesting to add other projects as time goes on, but the anthology series is and I think always will be the core of The Fiction Desk. It’s far too exciting to work on to ever let it get neglected.
Q. What would you say is the “style” of the short fiction you publish?
That’s quite hard to put my finger on. You’ve read the anthologies: you tell me!
Q. Fair point. Your anthologies show a range of events, characters, and styles that makes it difficult to pin down anything too particular. Having read three of your anthologies, though, I believe that if I read a piece of short fiction somewhere I might (only might) be able to tell if it was a good fit for The Fiction Desk. If forced to say why I’d say that the fiction you publish moves away from showy style and metafiction and concerns itself primarily with people who seem to be your average folks from the street. The language, appropriately, matches that tone. That’s not to say what happens to these characters is average or that, in the end, they turn out to be average. Now I’m seeing exceptions even to all that I just said. But in general am I being fair or am I way off?
I think that’s very fair. Showy style and metafiction tend to leave me a little cold these days, and contribute to the problem I mentioned earlier, where short fiction can be seen as inward looking and interested only in the craft, rather than as an engaging way of dealing with the world in general. (It’s not always that simple, of course, but it often is.) On the other hand, I don’t want the anthologies to get too narrow in focus, so I try to regularly step outside my comfort zone and keep things interesting. In a sense, I think the selection reflects the behaviour of a real reader: there’s a certain preferred style, but it does move around and outside it from time to time, when there’s something suitably tempting.
Q. When publishing these anthologies became more than just a thought, how did you get started? How did you get the word out for submissions? How did you figure out how to publish a book? How did you get people to buy that book?
Having a blog really helped, as I already had a network and an audience. Social media is great, but you have to focus on what works for you: I actually deleted our Facebook account, because I dislike Facebook, and so wasn’t engaging with it. Twitter’s been great, though. We’ve also been lucky enough to get some fantastic bookshops on board: The London Review Bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, and The Martello Bookshop in Rye have all been wonderful.
As for the publishing process itself, I’d worked on bits and pieces in the past, so I had a fairly good sense of what I was doing. And I’d spent a couple of years looking into and researching options before I actually decided to go ahead.
Q. About how many submissions do you receive, and what is your selection process?
We get around 500 submissions a month, but we’re always looking to push that up. Unlike many publications, I try to source the majority of what we publish from our unsolicited submissions, because that’s where a lot of the most exciting and fresh stories actually are. It takes a lot of work to sort through, but it’s rewarding and it’s democratic: we publish some very good stories through contacts or scouting, but whoever you are, and wherever you are, if you write the right kind of story, you stand a fair chance of getting accepted by us. As an independent publisher, I have a responsibility to offer opportunities to new writers, and I take that very seriously.
As for the selection process, I go a lot on instinct. I do all of the selection myself, as it’s such an important part of the process. I can never quite understand how so many editors can trust interns or volunteers to go through their submissions for them, although of course it’s very time-consuming. In the first place, I’m looking to be grabbed. Short stories have a lot of competition for readers’ time, both in terms of literature and the wider world, and so I need stories that people aren’t going to be able to put down. Resonance is important too, and more than once I’ve plucked a story out of the ‘to reject’ pile because I’ve found myself thinking about the characters for days after reading it. (I have a ‘to reject’ cooldown pile for exactly that reason.)
Q. What is one thing you’d like people submitting to The Fiction Desk to know?
The only real answer to this is that I’d like them to know what we publish. There are a lot of online conversations, interviews, and so on where editors try to communicate what they’re looking for, but the only real way to know what a publication wants is to read it. There’s no substitute for that. In an ideal world, every potential contributor would read at least one of our anthologies before submitting, whether bought new, bought secondhand, borrowed from a friend, or ordered through a library. When we launched, I gave away 500 copies of Various Authors to creative writing schools around the country, in order to encourage submissions and really get across what we were looking for.
Q. What is your editorial process or methodology?
There will usually be a copy edit, which I’ll return to the author for approval, then I’ll do the typesetting, proof it twice myself and then send it to the author for final approval. (Proofing is the hardest part of being essentially a one-man operation. You can learn to typeset, you can learn to build a website and code an epub file, but it’s very hard to learn to proof a text that you’ve already read and edited multiple times.)
Q. What is the best part of running The Fiction Desk?
It’s the writers. Half of my job is to give our readers a book they’ll enjoy; the other half is to give our writers a publication they’ll be proud of. There’s nothing better than an email from a contributor telling me they’ve received their copies and they’re happy with the result. Sometimes I’ll look at our anthologies and hardly believe that I’ve had the privilege of working with such talented people.
Q. What is the worst part of running the Fiction Desk?
It’s the writers. We get a lot of submissions from people who don’t format their manuscripts properly, don’t bother to read our submission guidelines, don’t bother to take a few minutes to browse our site and see the kind of thing we publish, let alone read a copy. It’s frustrating because I know how much they’ve invested emotionally in their writing, and how much time, and how important it is to them, and I hate to see them let themselves down like that. People interested in submitting to The Fiction Desk can read our submission guidelines here.
Q. Please tell us about how you stumbled on to a few of the stories you’ve published. What is it like to find one you’re excited to publish?
I met Jason Atkinson several years ago in Rome, and he immediately struck me as somebody who would be a good writer. That occasionally happens: you’ll be talking to somebody and have the strong sense that they’ll be able to write. It’s nothing to do with how they talk about writing, but how they talk about the things they’ve seen and done and they way they’ve considered them. It’s about observation. I pressed Jason for some stories and was excited with the result. At first glance his stories (‘Assassination Scene’ in Various Authors and ‘Get on Green’ in All These Little Worlds) have that kind of detached, sardonic tone that’s superficially typical of a certain type of contemporary writer, but beneath that there’s a raw sensitivity that’s really refreshing.
One submission that really struck me was James Benmore’s ’Jaggers & Crown’, which appeared in The Maginot Line. It was such a wonderful, solid performance from beginning to end, and really exciting to publish. James has a novel coming out next year, the first of two about the Artful Dodger.
I also love effective genre crossovers: Mandy Taggart’s ‘Man of the House’ gave me a chance to publish a ghost story, and a good one at that, and I was really excited to have the chance to publish writers like Charles Lambert and Mischa Hiller, whose work I’d enjoyed before becoming a publisher. (Mischa Hiller’s novel Shake Off is just waiting for somebody to turn it into a new British thriller. There’s a touch of Hitchcock to it.)
I’ve been excited in one way or another by every story I’ve published, and that’s why I’ve published them.
Q. In your introduction to The Maginot Line I really enjoyed your discussion about how you designed your covers (readers, check out an extended an illustrated version of this introduction on The Fiction Desk blog here). What does the rest of your production process entail?
As I suspect is the case with most indie publications, I do everything ‘in-house’, from editing the stories to coding the ebooks. I’m not actually a huge fan of reading ebooks myself, and I always find it slightly odd that I can create an ebook but can’t bring myself to read one. I choose Goudy Old Style as our main font (almost everything is in it), because I think it reinforces our values of traditional storytelling. It’s also very pretty, if a slightly controversial choice for book text. The physical aspect of the books was probably the thing I was most nervous about when we started, as I had experience of editorial work, but of course production and design are completely separate, very specialised fields. I would still never hold myself up as any kind of book designer, but I think I’m getting away with it within our titles, and of course constantly trying to refine that aspect of our publications.
I didn’t think about it when I launched, but looking back I realised that I’ve always had an interest in the process of putting a publication together. When I was a boy I used to produce handwritten magazines for the neighbourhood. At one point I rearranged my entire bedroom into a magazine office, which was actually much better equipped (for the time) than what I have now with The Fiction Desk. My grandmother edited the bulletin for her air sports association, and she taught me a lot about how these things are put together, although back then it involved a great deal of Letraset and glue.
Q. Perhaps that craftiness goes beyond you book design. In your latest volume, The Maginot Line, the organization of the stories seemed to be deliberate. For example, I think reading “Man of the House” right after “The Maginot Line” makes “Man of the House” even more surprising as we pick up on similarities between the two only to have those similarities subverted in a very interesting way. Was this intentional? In general, how do you go about organizing each volume?
Firstly, there’s an overall rhythm to take into account: the stronger stories and the more downbeat ones, the longer and the shorter. A really long story can stop a reader in their tracks, so you have to be careful how you place them. Then you have to think about the psychological journey the reader takes through the book: let’s say you have a dark story with a shattering ending. Sometimes, a light fun story will follow that very well. Other times, it will be hard for the reader to concentrate on the fun because their mind has been left in another place by the darkness of the previous story. It’s not fair on a story to present it in a place where the reader will be in the mood for something else, so you have to coax people between stories. The two stories you mention were a particularly good opportunity to do something interesting with that. The brief introductions to each story can also be a handy way to adjust a reader’s expectations and frame of mind between pieces.
Q. With three volumes out of the way, what have you learned that you wish you’d known before volume 1?
It’s rather dull, but I wish I’d known that Royal Mail was going to massively increase its prices for postage and services between 2010 and 2012. That caused me — and every other small business in the country — a few headaches.
Q. When can we look forward to volume 4 (and can you offer any clues about its cover and contents)?
Volume 4 is well on the way; I’d like to see it out within the next month or so. Although we’re ostensibly a quarterly, the gap between volumes is still a little longer than that, and the hold-up is always down to the challenge of finding the right stories. I believe our subscribers would rather wait for a solid volume than get a mediocre one to deadline, but hopefully as word of what we’re doing reaches more writers, we’ll be able to pick up the pace a little.
The next volume will also feature our first translated story. I don’t publish much in the way of translated fiction because I like to work directly with the author on the text, which isn’t practical over a language barrier. But I couldn’t turn down this one.
Exciting news! Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss your work, Rob. We look forward to hearing more about the new volume when it gets closer to publication — and, of course, to reading it when it arrives!
You’re welcome! Thank you for inviting me.
They announced the 2012 Booker Shortlist today:
- Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy
- Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
- The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore
- Umbrella, by Will Self
- Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil
- The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng
Only one of the three longlisters I read made this list — Swimming Home (my review here) — and it happens to be the only one of the three that I thought should be shortlisted.
Don’t forget that many former members of the official Man Booker Prize forum have relocated to the unofficial Man Booker Prize forum at my fairly new place: http://mookseandgripes.myfreeforum.org. Please join us in discussing the shortlisted books and the shortlist in general. Right now folks are very split on whether Swimming Home is any good (I may be spinning that a bit; perhaps many more people there think it is no good, but I’m hoping those of us who liked it are putting up a good fight).
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Leonid Tsypkin’s “The Last Few Kilometres” (tr. from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell) was originally published in the September 17, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
For the second week in a row, The New Yorker gives us a very short — and very worthwhile – story. I had never read Leonid Tsypkin, who died in 1982, though I’ve heard great things and have been meaning to read him ever since I got a copy of his Summer in Baden-Baden. This story, though I’m still grappling with it, makes me excited for that.
According toThe New Yorker, “The Last Few Kilometres” was written in 1972, and you can feel the poverty of Moscow under the Soviet system. Throughout this story, our unnamed man is riding a train home from Moscow at twilight. Here is what he sees from his window:
Outside the window, in the murky film of the fading autumn day, Moscow’s former suburbs swam past — clusters of identical white high-rises with laundry hanging on the balconies — which weren’t suburbs anymore, but inside the city now. Closer to the railroad huddled earthbound two-story structures, blackened with soot; plots of land fenced off with solid walls stretched along the rails, their terrain cluttered with car bodies, stacks of logs, or rusted constructions of unknown purposes.
It all feels closed in, and the city is steadily overtaking all horizons. Our man himself “had just finished lovemaking rather indifferently.” As the story progresses we shift from the back and forth from the train to the afternoon when he arrived at his mistress’s place for some food and drink and sex. She has cleaned up the place and is herself “all dressed up.” She busies herself getting their food ready and he realizes that “[h]e had a real mistress and she received him the ways mistresses generally do only in the movies.”
Of course, it’s not entirely fulfilling. Afterwards, really all he wants to do is get home. This story — its descriptions and its tone — is empty and aching.
The underlying ideas in this story may not be particularly new, but that doesn’t matter to me at all. Tsypkin’s style, the pace of the story, it all reverberates nicely.