Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
We had books at home but I wouldn’t consider my parents as having been “great readers”. I remember a long, low bookcase in the sitting room with the Encyclopedia Britannica gathering dust on the bottom shelf. The books were mainly non-fiction — illustrated tomes about art or classical Greece — and Readers’ Digest. I don’t remember my parents reading novels but I do remember some tut-tutting about the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a book that certainly wouldn’t have been their bedtime reading. We lived in a school — a boy’s preparatory school — which my headmaster father founded in Richmond after the war (then mainly a place of bedsits and residential hotels) and there was an interest in learning but it wasn’t an intellectual environment. Most of my early childhood seemed to be spent sitting at the top of the school stairs watching life unfold below me, with small boys lining up outside my father’s study to be admonished (unusually for the time my father disapproved of corporal punishment). Being able to play in the classrooms and in a large garden (climbing trees and playing cricket) during the holidays was a bonus. I went to school in London and then on to Edinburgh University where I studied politics and began to think about things such as class and race and feminism, certainly not part of the domestic discourse.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
No — but I did briefly and many years ago work at Heinemann’s in the Rights department where I had to type formulaic letters giving other publishers permission to use extracts from works (Graham Greene novels mostly) for which Heinemann held the rights. A fearsome boss had her office one floor below and an even more intimidating secretary shared my office. I left after one year — and went into journalism where I spent the rest of my working life. I was on the Observer for many years where I was features editor of the Magazine; my last job was on the obituaries desk of the Guardian. I published my first Papillote Press books when I was still at the Guardian.
Has your vision changed from when you started Papillote Press 17 years ago?
I didn’t start with a vision — it was more a practical solution to a problem: I wanted to write a book about the gardens of Dominica, the Caribbean island where I now live for part of the year. I knew no one else would want to publish it so I did it myself. I then thought, “I can do this,” and believed that there were books by Dominicans and about Dominica to be published and that I could help in this process. I only publish one or two books a year but I have now expanded to publish writers in the wider Caribbean — from Trinidad, St Vincent and Jamaica as well as those from Dominica.
How do you balance originality and profitability?
I don’t. I have to believe that the book I publish deserves to be published, that it has quality and integrity. I always think that Papillote Press books are irresistible — I have to think that, otherwise one might as well not get out of bed. Then I think whether the book might cover its costs — profitability is sometimes a more long-term ambition though when it happens that’s a treat.
Your views on writing? What books have had a lasting impact on you?
Although reading fiction can be wonderful — not wanting to do anything except to know what happens next — I sometimes wonder why I am bothering to read another novel about “relationships” and “families” and “middle-class privilege angst”. But then I have to confess that Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is one of my favourite books, extraordinary in its intensity, not a word out of place, spare and lean. It is also set in Dominica (although that is never mentioned) and reveals so much about the violence and complexity of Caribbean history. Similarly, with Trollope and Mrs Gaskell — I love the way they tell us about Victorian society. For non-fiction, I would choose Voices of the Old Sea by Norman Lewis, again a portrait of a place in flux and ferment where the writer is so sensitive and knowledgeable about the subject.
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
The books have to be related to the Caribbean — that is the niche. I am not fussy about the genre, but my main criteria would be quality and integrity: from children’s books (much needed in the Caribbean because so few books reflect the lives of its children: school libraries there often contain books such as How to Build an Igloo), to memoir, to crime fiction and so on.
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to industry changes?
It appears that publishers have adapted pretty well. You have to. Most people in publishing clearly relish what the amazing world of the internet has to offer. However I am still concerned with how elitist publishing is — pipe-smoking editors in corduroy jackets may have disappeared, but not the metropolitan literary mafia.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
I have a Kindle that I use when I travel but I don’t like it much. However, ebooks are very important in countries where traditional hardback books are not available in the way they are in Europe or the US. In Dominica, for example, there is limited access to books. It’s difficult to set up a bookclub there, but people can download ebooks so for that reason I would deliver three cheers to the ebook. However, I’m happy that all the evidence — the familiar arguments about the enjoyment of holding and looking at a book — points to the survival of the physical book. For me books furnish a room and are an intimate and sometimes intriguing reflection of their owner.
Your views on marketing and distribution? And on social media?
Getting books from small “outsider” publishers into the shops seems to me to be increasingly difficult. Reps no longer appear to go round the country with their suitcases and so cannot point out excellent but unknown writers in the way they once did. Going into a bookshop nowadays I will often get a sinking feeling that no Papillote Press book will be on the tables despite the fact that “my” books might be as “good” as any other book in the place. Social media — with its level playing field — does help small publishers although how it reflects sales is very hard to measure. People love interaction and social media can be a good tool for that.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
Anything that constrains relationships between countries and people is bad news. The UK readership doesn’t reach into Europe enough as it is and inevitably that will get worse.
How important is funding for independent publishers?
Without bodies like the Arts Council, I don’t think that some small and creative publishing houses could survive. For example, another press that specialises in Caribbean books, Peepal Tree, is supported by the Arts Council; it would be terrible if it didn’t exist because of a lack of funding.
How do you relax?
Outside: gardening in my rainforest garden in Dominica although keeping the bush at bay is more like hard work than relaxation. Inside: listening to tropical rain on a tin roof.
Your favourite qualities in a person?
Kindness, curiosity, common sense.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Your chief characteristic?
Wondering why I am so anxious when there is nothing to be anxious about.
Your chief fault?
Your bedside reading?
Currently, My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution by Diana Darke.
Your favourite prose author?
Your favourite heroes in fiction?
Holden Caulfield in A Catcher in the Rye — at least he was when I was 16.
Your favourite heroines in fiction?
Joan in The Orchid House and the alter-ego of the book’s author, the Dominican writer and politician Phyllis Shand Allfrey.
Your heroes in real life?
Barack Obama, especially because I once had a dream about him in which he appeared as my father in a railway carriage…
Your favourite heroines in real life?
Women anywhere who speak out for change often at great danger to themselves.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Nelson Mandela (he must be exceptionally busy going to all these parties held by people he’s never heard of), Bob Dylan, Lady Hesther Stanhope, Maurice Bishop, Barbara Castle.
Onwards and upwards.
Interview © Polly Pattullo, 2017. Questions format © BookBlast Ltd, London.