Books and Music at the Heart of Independent Publishing

It is said that about 10,000 hours of experience are required to become skilled in a job, for example to be a good musician or carpenter, say. And what about the role of a commissioning editor? Is it the same? Is it a skill? And how do you use it to acquire books written in languages you can’t read? And if it is a skill, what the hell is And Other Stories doing asking our reading groups what we should publish, asks Stefan Tobler …

There are several skills needed of an acquiring editor – the main one might be to have a feel for books. (Developing your taste, to put it another way.) The thing is, the experience you need to develop that feeling and taste is something many people do without a job in publishing: through reading and thinking a lot about books and talking about them with other people who read a lot too.

Of course, in almost all publishing houses today, for example, the commissioning editor’s job is not simply to find great books that fit the list of that publishing house, but also to acquire what is good for the company. What Jeanette Perez, a HarperCollins editor, says in this interview seems quite representative of much corporate publishing culture to me: “Of course, we all want something that’s written well, but the book also has to have a hook that’s easy to pitch. Much of my job as an editor is selling the book in-house to our publicity, marketing, and sales teams. […] As for what I look for in an author, […] it’s wonderful to have an author who’s willing to spend some of their own time marketing the book.” In other words, editors learn to weigh up much more than just the text. It’s about an industrial product.

However, the learnt craft of acquiring well for the publishing house is also a conditioning of the job – or if you prefer: a professional deformation. Amazing books can remain unpublished in English, for example, to the astonishment of the people who have read them, and often for a combination of publishing reasons, such as: the author will not do interviews or travel or doesn’t speak English; the book does not have a hook or strong focus on plot, the book is too short or long to be what readers will expect. Plus, if the book is a translation, the editor may be relying on reader reports. And put together, those can all look like good reasons from a publisher’s point of view to be wary of a book. Who has money to burn, after all? But it can also lead to a lack of adventure in publishing – and less adventurous or literary choices for readers.

That’s why at And Other Stories we make a point of being open to book suggestions from people who are, we hope, less professionally deformed. Our reading groups gather translators and readers of fiction in different languages to discuss (in English) a few books that someone in the group has recommended. It works. Powered by intelligent, well-read people’s passions, most of our translated books have been discovered through our reading groups, including Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Guardian First Book Award shortlisted Down the Rabbit Hole and Iosi Havilio’s Open Door. By the way, everyone is invited to come to our groups – including editors at other publishing houses and any reader curious about literatures from elsewhere. As translators often supply samples in English, even without foreign language skills it is possible to read along and take part in the discussion. Come along!

Although we sometimes think of translators as unwitting betrayers of the texts and authors they translate, the concept of betrayal has no place in fiction, or, better said, there is nothing to be betrayed: to believe that would mean believing in the existence of an original, that elusive, untraceable figure in literary history of a completely finished text which is no longer susceptible to any corrections, the kind of thing that you can set in stone and carry down the mountain to show your people and start a religion. Yet nothing of the sort exists: texts are the result of circumstances, and circumstances change all the time.

No circumstance has as much impact, of course, as a change of language. Some of my books have been translated in the last few years, and on every occasion I have had a dazzling and enlightening experience. Every time I have collaborated with, or answered queries from, my translators (Mara Faye Lethem and Kathleen Heil into English, Roberta Bovaia into Italian, Kristina Solum into Norwegian, Arieke Kroes into Dutch, Christian Hansen into German, Claude Bleton into French, etc.), I’ve had the impression that ‘my book’ ceased to belong to me and became someone else’s, who gave it back it to me enriched thanks to the change of language (concealing my tentative use of Spanish) and thanks to a certain kind of vision translators have: a close yet distant vision, the vision of someone who is deeply familiar with a text but not emotionally involved with it the way an author is.

Fiction is an exercise in ventriloquism, but other authors’ voices are not the only ones worth listening to. Translation brings the excellent news that an author is not the sole owner of his or her words, and that his or her words are not the only words worth saying. Also, in my case, there is news of the fact that texts travel long distances: El espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia borrows its title from a line by Dylan Thomas; in English translation, it has reverted to the original: ‘My fathers’ ghost is climbing in the rain’. Its translation, then, offers this book a sense of homecoming to the language in which a number of writers we love have best expressed themselves.

(Translated by Martín Schifino)

— Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is published in English in June 2013.


‘I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new.’ Roger Deakin

From Siddhartha to One Hundred Years of Solitude, from the Congo of Heart of Darkness to Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi, rivers have been at the centre of many a classic work of fiction and non-fiction, symbolic of renewal, change, life, wisdom, death, escape. While Roger Deakin wrote his wild swimming travelogue Waterlog from a ‘frog’s eye view’ – bodily immersed – others prefer to retreat to the bank or linger on deck. Some notable writers have lived on the water: for example Penelope Fitzgerald, who lived with her family in a houseboat on the Thames until it sank with all their possessions (an experience that inspired her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore), or Jan Morris, who describes here the moment she first stepped aboard the Nile steamboat Saphir, whose wheeldeck was to be her writing room in the years to follow.

Celebrated literary adventures on water include Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage – a canoeing trip through France and Belgium along the Oise River in 1876 which begins with these rather swiftly dispelled misgivings:

The sun shone brightly; the tide was making – four jolly miles an hour; the wind blew steadily, with occasional squalls. For my part, I had never been in a canoe under sail in my life; and my first experiment out in the middle of this big river was not made without some trepidation. What would happen when the wind first caught my little canvas? I suppose it was almost as trying a venture into the regions of the unknown as to publish a first book, or to marry. But my doubts were not of long duration; and in five minutes you will not be surprised to learn that I had tied my sheet …

To Mark Twain (his name, of course, a boatman’s cry indicating safe water), the river is ‘a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice’. In Two ways of looking at the river from Life on the Mississippi he describes the way in which his training as a steamboat pilot, while bringing him this instinctive understanding of the river’s moods and dangers, also robs him of a certain innocence – never again will the river be to him purely a thing of poetry and grace.

There is a similar moment of bathos in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), the pinnacle of comical travelogue (and the book that introduced Housemaid’s Knee to the hypochondriac’s popular repertoire) in which J., the narrator, despairs at his co-voyager Harris’s lack of a soul:

Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing round the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child’s song that it has sung so many thousand years – will sing so many thousand years to come, before its voice grows harsh and old – a song that we, who have learnt to love its changing face, who have so often nestled on its yielding bosom, think, somehow, we understand, though we could not tell you in mere words the story that we listen to.

And we sit there, by its margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a sister’s kiss, and throws her silver arms around it clingingly; and we watch it as it flows, ever singing, ever whispering, out to meet its king, the sea – till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out – till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak – till we laugh, and, rising, knock the ashes from our burnt-out pipes, and say “Good-night,” and, lulled by the lapping water and the rustling trees, we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream that the world is young again – young and sweet as she used to be ere the centuries of fret and care had furrowed her fair face, ere her children’s sins and follies had made old her loving heart – sweet as she was in those bygone days when, a new-made mother, she nursed us, her children, upon her own deep breast – ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands years ago.

Harris said:

‘How about when it rained?’

You can never rouse Harris. There is no poetry about Harris – no wild yearning for the unattainable. Harris never ‘weeps, he knows not why.’ If Harris’s eyes fill with tears, you can bet it is because Harris has been eating raw onions, or has put too much Worcester over his chop.

Finally, inevitably, to Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows, in which the riparian life is one of infinite calm and pleasant pottering, according to Rat:

‘Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?’

If you’ve nothing else on hand this Monday evening, drop down to the Social and join Mick Jackson, Peter Murphy, Olivia Laing, Tom Bolton and Charles Rangeley-Wilson in dipping a toe into rivers of all kinds. Bring a towel.

Since men first emerged from the water, they have written psalms in praise of the river. Old Man River. The River of Jordan. The Rivers of Babylon. Moon River. Shenandoah … ‘Yes, the river knows,’ crooned Jim Morrison. Nick Drake softly sang of The River Man. Leonard Cohen heard the river answer. ‘I was born by the river,’ cried Sam Cooke. Springsteen’s river, a symbol of salvation from dreams that become lies – or something worse.

The Mississippi River that is the spine of Huckleberry Finn. The Ohio River that swept John and Pearl to safety in The Night of the Hunter. The Tiber, on which Romulus and Remus were set adrift, watched over by the river deity Tiberinus, who delivered them to be suckled by Lupa the wolf. The Nile that bore Moses away from the murderous Pharaoh in a basket of bulrushes coated with pitch.

Creedence’s Green River, a metaphor for the Mekong, or the fictional Nung river from Apocalypse Now. Neil Young’s Down by the River. Tim Hunter’s film River’s Edge. The bourgeois killer of Banks of the Ohio by the Blue Sky Boys. Flannery O’Connor’s parable The River from A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

The apocalyptic river in flood: John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo, Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks, Sinatra’s River Stay Way From My Door. Weary River by Roy Acuff. The River of Nine Sorrows by The Grateful Dead. Lost on the River by Hank Williams. Harlem River Quiver by Duke Ellington. The Moon Fell In The River by Count Basie. Whiskey River. Moody River. River In The Pines. Big River. Blue River. Many rivers to cross. Cry me a river. Love is a lonesome river. Somewhere down the crazyriver. You don’t pull no punches but you don’t push the river Take me to the river …

Shall we gather at the river?

— Peter Murphy is the author of Shall We Gather at the River, which is available now.