‘AN UNSUBTLE METAPHOR’
Talking to Jacques TESTARD
about Fitzcarraldo Editions
FITZCARRALDO EDITIONS was founded in 2014 by Jacques Testard to publish fiction and essays. It launched with a 520-page novel written in a single sentence (Zone by Mathias Enard) and a succinct, imaginatively written essay that blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir (Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley). In the two years since, Fitzcarraldo Editions has amassed an enviable catalogue that now includes both the winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Mathias Enard, and the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich. Yet perhaps above these institutional assurances, Fitzcarraldo Editions demonstrates a clear commitment to writing that seeks to engage the reader: be that through the work’s formal ambition, the scope of its content or simply through the questions it asks about what writing is.
Hotel’s Thomas CHADWICK met TESTARD early on an August morning to discuss the ambitions and responsibilities of running the press.
Hotel’s Thomas CHADWICK met TESTARD early on an August morning to discuss the ambitions and responsibilities of running the press.
Jacques TESTARDYou launched Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2014, is there anything in particular you recall from that time that prompted the decision to set up the press?
I wouldn’t say Fitzcarraldo Editions was born out of a particular political environment or especially influenced by what was going on in 2014. It was more to do with my personal circumstances and the fact that I’d just been sacked from my previous job at Notting Hill Editions. The foundation of The White Review, which I set up with Ben Eastham in 2010, was much more inspired by the political and cultural context. We started thinking about setting up the magazine just before that year’s general election. Then the coalition government got in, arts funding was going to be slashed, tuition fees were hiked up, etc. Meanwhile, in the publishing world there had been this massive upheaval around 2008-09 with people proclaiming the printed book was dead – there was this big fear about ebooks taking over. In that context the idea of setting up a magazine back then was a lot more politically charged than setting up a press in 2014. (After the Brexit vote and the Trump horror show it is an even more politically charged context.) With The White Review we wanted to try out a new kind of model for publishing following the American model of not-for-profit publishing, with a publication run as a charitable organisation with support from individual patrons. We also wanted to make a statement about the future of the book and make a beautiful object that people might be keen on collecting, that was attractive to touch and to read. In a sense, Fitzcarraldo Editions is a continuation of some of those principles.
The first book you published was Zone by Mathias Enard and what struck me most about Zonewas the breadth of its ambition. Obviously, there is formal ambition, but it is also deeply ambitious in terms of content, in its attempt to try and distil what seems like a huge amount of post-war European politics. Where do you see Zone’s ambition and to what extent was ambition a key marker for the press?
It is very formally ambitious. It’s written in one sentence, for a start—although there are those chapters that form the novel within the novel that are conventionally punctuated—and you probably know that the page numbers match the distance between Milan and Rome on the train (the narrative, or the physical grounding for the narrative, is this train from Milan to Rome), which is an idea Mathias Enard borrowed from The Modification by Michel Butor. The fact that there are these milestones which enable you to trace where the train is based on the page numbers he gives you offers a kind of Oulipian playfulness on top of the formal ambition of trying to write a novel in one sentence, not to mention the extraordinary breadth of content he touches on. Zone and Compass, which we will publish in March 2017 in Charlotte Mandell’s translation, and which won the Prix Goncourt in 2015, are, in a sense, encyclopaedic novels, almost academically leaning encyclopaedic novels, that try to encompass the whole breadth of knowledge around a given topic. For me as a publisher, it was really important when launching the press to start with an ambitious book and to use it as a mission statement of sorts, to make it clear that Fitzcarraldo Editions was coming into existence to publish these kinds of ambitious, innovative books. Publishing a 520-page stream-of-consciousness one-sentence novel about violent conflict in the twentieth century seemed like the best way to do this.
You followed Zone with Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre, which is also an ambitious piece of writing. In fact in the back of Memory Theatre, Critchley thanks you for setting up a press to take on his book. Do you think the UK has an aversion to ambition or do you think there was a space crying out for these kinds of books?
I don’t think there’s an aversion to these kinds of books, it’s more that British publishing has been very conservative recently. I’m not old enough to remember what it was like in the 90s—I presume you’re not either—but from what I’ve heard it was a much more exciting time—well, maybe not a more exciting time but there was more risk-taking, more books perceived as difficult were being published. But perhaps there is an element of pining for a mythical golden age of publishing, which every generation seems to do. When I left Notting Hill Editions at the end of 2013 I didn’t know what I was going to do next, so I looked around at the publishing landscape in London and wondered who I would like to work for—not that there were any jobs going—and I realised there were only two or three publishers that I thought I might be interested in working for. Thinking about it more it felt like there were very few publishers publishing the ambitious fiction or essays that we’d been doing on a much smaller scale at The White Review. Given the magazine’s success at finding an audience for this kind of writing, I started thinking that there might be a space in the market and an appetite for something a bit different to what was on offer. I was also aware of what kind of publishing was happening in America. One of the biggest inspirations for Fitzcarraldo Editions is New Directions in New York, one of the very best publishers of the twentieth century, which continues to publish consistently excellent books. There are lots of other independent presses in the US publishing really exciting stuff, like Coffee House Press, who first published Ben Lerner’s fiction for example, or Graywolf Press in Minneapolis or Dorothy, who discovered Nell Zink. Though I did feel that there might be an appetite for that kind of publishing in the UK, when I set up Fitzcarraldo Editions I had absolutely no idea what the potential was and whether I would be able to find an audience for the kinds of books that I wanted to publish. It’s quite reassuring that two years on the company still exists and so I wouldn’t say, to eventually answer your question, that there is an aversion to ambitious books in Britain.
As a press you’ve made some very precise formal decisions about how you present yourself. You have a very beautiful and very simple livery, you use one font, and your public statements are very concise. Your website, for instance, simply states that: “Fitzcarraldo is an independent publisher specialising in contemporary fiction and long-form essays.” I’d be interested to know some of the thought processes behind the clarity of your presentation?
The designer is called Ray O’Meara and as I mentioned before he came up with the design for The White Review as well. When I was thinking about setting up Fitzcarraldo Editions we met up and I asked him what he thought about the idea. His immediate reaction was to say you have to do it, we’re going to make something great—I guess that was reassuring because there was no question that I would work with anyone else. At that point I had no idea really how to set up a publishing house (and probably don’t have much more of a clue now), because I’d only worked as an editor before. I knew, for example, how to produce books, but I didn’t know how to sell them. I didn’t really know very much about distribution or what little I knew I knew from setting up The White Review, which is a different proposition because it’s a magazine.
Anyhow, Ray and I started talking more about the identity of the press and we both felt that book design in Britain was not particularly good and that we wanted to create something that looked different and that let the writing speak for itself, without literal, figurative interpretations of a novel on its cover. We looked at old French publishers like Gallimard and Minuit [Les Editions de Minuit] and Suhrkamp in Germany. Ray was always going to draw a typeface and then we hit upon this idea of having a colour for fiction and a colour for the essays, which is something that has been done countless times in the history of publishing, but which in the publishing context we were entering felt quite radical. When we first came up with the cover design and I went to Faber & Faber—who were handling the sales and distribution initially—to show them the covers they were fairly disparaging. They said something along the lines of, the problem with the design is that it looks very striking but you’re putting the onus on the bookseller to actually read the books rather than being able to sell them based on blurbs or covers, and they urged me to consider changing the design after the first books had come out. Initially there was a bit of vagueness about how long we would maintain the look for and whether we’d then switch up the covers after a year or change the colours, but since those early days booksellers have responded really well to the books, and it’s not uncommon for them to display the books unprompted because the books look nice together.
With regards to the font: Ray studied on the visual culture MA at the Royal College of Art and has been drawing typefaces for a long time. He drew a serif typeface for Fitzcarraldo Editions, which we imaginatively named ‘Fitzcarraldo’, and he has been tinkering with it and improving the typeface and the design as we go along [sound of arm knocking glass of water as Jacques reaches for book on the table]. If you compare… ah no, this is the second edition of Memory Theatre… um… if you were to compare this second edition of Memory Theatre to the first one you’d notice that the lines are a lot more bunched and there are a lot more lines on the pages than the first edition. So Ray is constantly trying to improve on the design to make the readability better, playing with point sizes and that kind of stuff. He is great to work with. I’ve forgotten the second part of your question.
The second part of my question was about the sense of reticence with which you present yourselves that again I guess is still in line with the design and the…
Yes, the sparseness… it’s all too rare, I think is my point.
You mean reticence in that there’s only a line on the website about what Fitzcarraldo is? But do you need more? There’s not that much more that could be said other than that. I suppose I feel that people can just browse the catalogue and see for themselves? When you’re communicating things it’s important to stay coherent and maybe the voice on the website and in the emails is quite neutral, which I prefer, because the neutrality of tone (hopefully) doesn’t put anyone off.
Would you be able to say a little more about the day to day running of the press—how many people, for instance, work alongside you?
I work with a freelance publicist, Nicci Praca, and Ray designs and typesets all the books. There is a part-time publishing assistant, who works three days a week. I also work with freelance copy-editors and proofreaders. Did you ever read an article by Jason Epstein, who’s an older American publisher, in the New York Review of Books a few years ago? He suggested that the future of publishing would be very different to how it was when he was writing and that he expected these kind of editorial-lead, almost micro-publishers to emerge, where there’d be an editor choosing the books and all of the other component parts that make up the structure of a publishing house would be outsourced to freelancers or to micro-companies. Without really thinking about it consciously, I think Fitzcarraldo Editions has become an example of that. Nicci and Ray both work in their own spaces and work on other projects too. Then the sales side is handled by PGUK, and the distribution by GBS. So there are all these component parts that allow the company to exist.
The one distinction you do make is between fiction and essay and yet I feel that some of the books you publish are seeking to challenge that very distinction. Memory Theatre for instance is a book that could have easily been published as fiction. Have there been books whose categorisation you’ve agonised over?
Yes, for sure. Memory Theatre is the most obvious one. The reason I decided—with Simon Critchley’s agreement—to do it as a white book is that it is essentially a fictional essay. To think that you are reading a straight-up essay makes it more interesting because you’re trying to second guess whether it’s true or not. If I’d published it as straight fiction, it would have passed as perhaps an interesting speculative fiction piece, but if you’re trying to pass it off as non-fiction it screws with the reader’s mind more. Certainly when I first read the text I was wondering how much of it was true.
I did Google whether Simon Critchley ever lived in den Bosch.
Well some of it is true, and then he starts to stray from reality. Playing with the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction is very much something that I would like to carry on doing. There are books that I’m looking at for 2018 that again very much blur those boundaries and I wouldn’t know without, I think, checking with the author, what it should be considered as. Then obviously the labels we have set up are problematic as well. To have two such rigid labels to fit things into is problematic. Take something like Second-Hand Time, which isn’t strictly an essay – it’s a kind of sprawling work of non-fiction or oral history.
Another problem I’ve had within the fiction category, which I think is more to do with my naivety as a young publisher, is that I’ve called everything ‘fiction’, rather than specifying. I don’t treat short story collections differently from novels: I send them out to similar people and try and push them on people as good books first and foremost, to let the text speak for itself. Pondby Claire-Louise Bennett—which is actually the bestselling fiction book we’ve published—was initially published by Stinging Fly in Ireland as a short story collection. When I bought the rights to the UK, I took away the phrase ‘short stories,’ which Stinging Fly had on the title page and labelled it as simply fiction. I think it does still say ‘collection’ on the back cover, and I never called it a novel explicitly, which meant that it was rejected by the Goldsmiths Prize as something they couldn’t consider, and then most recently by the Booker Prize—because neither prize considers short story collection. The Booker Prize I’m particularly pissed off about because they included David Szalay’s All That Man Is, which is a very, very good book, but which is structurally probably more of a short story collection than Pond is, in that it’s nine stories with nine different characters or narrators. There’s a unifying theme sure, but...
Pond has one narrator.
Yes, exactly. Pond has one narrator throughout and can be read as a novel. I remember asking Claire-Louise Bennett at the time: Is this a novel? Is this short stories? And she said: I don’t know, I think it’s kind of in-between. Anyway, the David Szalay book was considered eligible for the Booker prize, because the author and Jonathan Cape labelled it a novel. It turns out that the author does genuinely think of it as a novel—and that’s absolutely his right, and a commendable thing to be working to expand the possibilities form, but I remain a bit jaded about the process because if I’d done something as simple as calling Ponda novel, then both prizes would have read it and considered it.
I was pretty shocked to not see Pond on the Goldsmiths shortlist. But it’s interesting that the classification was an obstacle. It feels as though you’ve made some very careful choices about how to present books in a way that allows the writing to speak for itself and then almost as a by-product of that, there’s this strange situation where rather than the writing speaking for itself it is overlooked for failing to fall into the correct category. Would you do things differently in the future?
Yes, I think I would. If I’d known that would be the case I would have just outright called Pond a novel just to be able to compete for those prizes, because I think she would have had a good chance at both—she came close to getting the Dylan Thomas Prize, I think. But ultimately I do feel that both of those prizes—and particularly the Goldsmiths Prize which exists to reward ambitious fiction—should be open to considering fiction in all its forms, and not just the novel, as if only something that is recognisably a novel could do something innovative with fiction.
There’s a story in Pond called “Words Escape Me,” where something falls down the chimney and the narrator doesn’t know what it is and has a very bewildering experience, which ends up with her stating: “the pen came to settle in the seam of my notebook. Sooner or later, I though, you’re going to have to speak up.” For me, this story brought the whole collection to a point where it began to cohere and talk about how writing could be something dangerous and I feel like this idea of writing as some kind of risk, or something that puts things at stake, is actually something that is common to a lot of your books. Nicotine, for instance, seems to be a book where the very act of writing becomes dangerous as the author wonders: am I going to end up smoking because I’m writing this book; and then in Notes on Suicide, Critchley is constantly trying to reassure the reader and say “don’t worry this isn’t a suicide note.” Is some element of risk or writing as a notion of risk important to Fitzcarraldo?
Perhaps, but not in the sense of writing as a notion of risk, more in the sense of risk being one of the unsubtle metaphors underpinning the foundation of Fitzcarraldo Editions. The name comes from the Werner Herzog film, have you seen it?
There is a famous scene in Fitzcarraldo where Klaus Kinski, who plays this man named Fitzcarraldo who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, gets a tribe of aboriginal Indians to drag a 240-ton steamboat over a hill. Borrowing the name for the press is, I suppose, a not very subtle metaphor for the stupidity of setting up a publishing house, which is akin to dragging a 240-ton steamboat over a hill in the Amazon jungle. So, yes, I guess I am interested in the kind of writing that lays everything on the page, in a sense, while from a purely commercial sense it is of course risky to be publishing these books that may be perceived as ‘difficult’.
Perhaps similar to risk is the notion of the avant-garde. Ben Lerner talks about this in The Hatred of Poetry, where he’s quite cynical about the avant-garde, and then also Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness, which doesn’t talk about the avant-garde explicitly, but does frame certain writing as a point of risk where ambition is allowed to flourish and failure can also occur. Would you be happy with people thinking of Fitzcarraldo as an avant-garde press?
No, I don’t think it is an avant-garde press, and I’m not sure what an avant-garde press would look like. I definitely reject that label for Fitzcarraldo Editions. I don’t think it is avant-garde to publish writing that is stylistically or formally innovative, that has ambitions to expand the possibilities of the form, that tackles subjects and themes that are relevant to the world we live in. There are very different kinds of texts in the catalogue, from Simon Critchley’s Notes on Suicide, which is almost a classical essay (an attempt at broaching a particular topic) in the Montaigne tradition on suicide, to Critchley’sMemory Theatre which is playing with formal boundaries, to something like Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves, which is a plot-driven novel of ideas. There are varying degrees of formal experimentation going on in the different books we have published, but the thing that brings them altogether is simply the fact that they sit together, side by side, on the Fitzcarraldo Editions list. Each of these books is a singular work, to paraphrase Roberto Calasso in The Art of the Publisher, which forms a link in a single chain, or ‘segments in a serpentine progression of books ... formed by all the books published by [a] publisher’. Another thing that should be emphasised is that Fitzcarraldo Editions is a limited company, a profit-making company—at least that’s the hope. The idea is to make this work over time and to make it work in the old tradition of publishing where you hopefully turn a small profit every year of 3-7% if you’re lucky and to grow slowly and to make the publication of these works financially viable. So while I want to carry on publishing things like Zone—not that it hasn’t worked because it is working so far—there’s also this financial consideration and the fact that I have to balance a desire to publish books with a more experimental bent—if you want to use that word, which is problematic—with the fact that the press needs to sell a certain amount of books to keep things ticking over. Also, I take a salary from this, so I have a very vested interest in it continuing.
I suppose in a sense then, the risk comes through as much as a market risk as a publishing risk and you have a responsibility in a sense to both. I mean you cannot continue to publish books that are beyond the scope of what people might want to read.
The traditional publishing model is, put in very simple terms, that you publish X number of books a year and that you have one book that sells more than everything else and props the rest of the list up. Obviously this is an extreme example, but your Harry Potter will fund your formally inventive, debut novel by someone no one’s ever heard of, that will probably sell 600 copies. The idea is to strike a balance in a sense between things that are more appealing to a broader audience and things that might be perceived as more difficult. I think in the catalogue there are things that are clearly very appealing, while still being excellent books, like Pretentiousness by Dan Fox, which is a sort of polemic on the importance of pretentiousness. It is written brilliantly—on a sentence level Dan is a faultless writer—and is intellectually rigorous, very cleverly structured and mapped out. That kind of book obviously has a broader appeal to a British audience than something like Zone, for example, which is translated from French and is perceived to be more difficult. People might pick it up and see this weighty book, written in one sentence, and drop it and run, though it is in fact a very compelling novel that does not make excessive demands on the reader (except on an emotional level). But anyhow there has to be this balance, and that isn’t to say that I think one type of book is better than the other—they are just different—and I haven’t yet published a book that I don’t like (and won’t). As the person who works the most on all of these books I have to feel passionate about all of them.
What have you published most recently and what books are coming up next?
In September this year (2016) we published a book by Ed Atkins. He’s a contemporary artist who makes high-definition videos and performance. Each video starts with the writing of a text that doesn’t necessarily end up being a part of the video, so he’s as much a writer as he is an artist, and for the first time we’ve collected all of his fiction together, illustrated with some of his drawings and sketches, and published it as a blue book. Some texts are recognisably pieces of fiction, and other texts are perhaps more recognisably prose poems. Then in October we published a 672-page novel translated from German about the sex trade in a fictionalised Leipzig by a writer named Clemens Meyer, who was published by And Other Stories a few years ago. It’s a polyphonic novel brilliantly translated by Katy Derbyshire where you hear many different voices—prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, gangsters. There’s an astonishing hallucinatory passage set in Tokyo. It’s inspired by Alfred Döblin and Wolfgang Hilbig, and David Peace is another big influence. It’s very cinematic and it is a really, really ambitious book that delivers on its promises both stylistically and formally. If you have ever watched and enjoyed (though enjoyed is perhaps not the right word) the films of Gaspar Noé, you must read Bricks and Mortar. Then in November we published the second instalment of the Nocilla trilogy, Nocilla Experience, and now we are preparing the first half of next year. The first book, published in February 2017, will be a collection of short stories by a Canadian writer called Camilla Grudova, who writes surreal, dystopian horror stories. Nicola Barker, who recommended her to me in the first place, has called her the natural heir to Angela Carter. After that there’s a collection of essays about monsters in art and film and literature by a young critic called Charlie Fox who is one of those rare people who makes a living from writing art, film and literary criticism at the age of 25. That’s called This Young Monster, and it is an insane book, touching on people like Diane Arbus, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Larry Clark, Buster Keaton, Cameron Jamie, etc. It will be illustrated with lots of pictures of the aforementioned monsters. Then there’s the new Mathias Enard novel in March, Compass, which does for orientalism what Zone did for war in the twentieth century. We’ll also publish Eula Biss’s first book, a brilliant collection of essays on race relations in the US, and Brian Dillon’s essay on essays, which is going to be called Essayism, and which is a critical biography of the essay form from Montaigne to the present, also looking at the cinematic, cinematographic essay, the photographic essay. And the latest acquisition is a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy by a Polish novelist named Olga Tokarczuk, which will come out in May in Jennifer Croft’s translation. On that note, I do feel strongly that as a publisher I have a duty to fight against a difficult cultural climate. In the wake of the Brexit referendum, it feels particularly important to publish a Polish writer of Olga Tokarczuk's stature in Britain.
Maybe this is a generalisation that is unfounded, but I feel like you are very open towards publishing writers from the art world. Do you think there’s more interesting work coming from the art world than from the traditional literary world?
Having the attention of the art world is really important because artist, gallerists, collectors and curators tend to be big readers. It was Tom McCarthy who said quite a few years ago now that the art world is where the most interesting publishing happens, because traditional publishing has become so conservative and the art world has swallowed up work that can’t get funded in the traditional ways. There are lots of art presses picking up the slack where you had people like John Calder publishing those books in the 70s and 80s. Having this connection with the art world, with writers like Dan Fox, who edits frieze, with Simon Critchley, who created the International Necronautical Society with Tom McCarthy and frequently collaborates with artists, and then Ed Atkins, feels like a natural progression from The White Review. It opens up new perspectives to be looking at the art world as much as the literary world and it hopefully gives Fitzcarraldo Editions something different that other independent publishers in the UK might not have.
As a publisher, what are your responsibilities, who are they to?
First and foremost I have a responsibility to the authors that I’m publishing, to publish their books as well as I can, and to do the best by them and their work. That means producing a nice book, with a flawless text, that we’re both happy with, and making sure it gets out to as many people as possible and that we try and sell as many copies as possible. Then, I also feel very strongly that unlike many publishers—particularly corporate publishers—I have a responsibility to stick by authors. Whenever I take on a new author I say to them that if the first book doesn’t work I will still want to do the next one. The idea is that we grow as publisher and author side by side. If it’s a young writer and they sell 500 copies that’s fine, we’ll just plan the next book and carry on publishing together and build their career little by little. I think that’s really important, to build a relationship of trust with authors and to make them feel like we’re in it together for the long haul. Then, I guess I have a responsibility to readers: you have to make books that are a pleasure to read and we’re constantly talking with Ray about how to improve the design. And then, well, I have a responsibility to my shareholders as well, to make it work financially and to reward the trust that they’ve put in me.
You mentioned earlier an older model of publishing that was based around having a catalogue of books that supported itself within a community. It strikes me that this is a publishing model that you wish to try and return to?
Yes, and I think independence is very important because it means I can do whatever I like so long as I keep the company ticking over, but yes, that’s the dream really, to be able to carry on publishing in this way without compromising, though maintaining a balance in the catalogue between books that are a slightly more attractive proposition commercially. There are books that will sell more than others and the idea is to grow slowly and keep doing it this way. It’s not like I sell tens of thousands of books, far from it, the first book we’ve published to have sold over 10,000 print copies in the UK is the Svetlana Alexievich book, Second-Hand Time. One of my aims for this year was to have one book that hit 5,000 sales, and we managed to double that aim. To be honest though, I have no idea really what the potential is in terms of sales, and I have no idea how much we can grow, but what I am certain of is that I don’t want to grow so much that we have to do forty books a year and we have to do cook books and explicitly commercial books in order to keep the company solvent. Again, New Directions is an interesting model. I heard that when the founder James Laughlin died he’d written into his will that New Directions could never have more than twelve employees, because he felt that once you got the thirteenth employee in your costs would be so high that you’d have to suddenly become more commercial and that you wouldn’t be able to do the Krasznahorkais or César Airas or whatever. It turns out that this isn’t actually true, about the will—Barbara Epler said as much at a talk at Tank magazine recently—but she has stuck to that rule of having twelve employees and has purposefully kept the company small to keep the costs relatively manageable and to keep the editorial ethos intact. That’s the blueprint, I guess.