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Interview | Eric Lane, publisher, Dedalus Books | Indie of the week

Established in 1983, Dedalus Books is a truly unique publishing house which is recognised for its quality and unorthodox taste in the esoteric, the erotic and the European. The press’s founder and MD, Eric Lane, is unashamedly intellectual. His tenacity and vision have kept Dedalus going through the lean times, and helped it to flourish during the good. Dedalus had two books on the Booker Prize longlist in 1995: Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin and Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by David Madsen. The complete list of Dedalus prizewinners is at dedalus.com

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
No, neither of my parents were great readers. My mother grew up on a farm in southern Italy and my father in an orphanage in Surrey. They met at the end of WW2 when my teenaged mother accompanied a friend who went for a job at the RAF base in Naples. My father was doing the interviewing and offered the friend a job and also one to my mother who refused. As they were leaving my father said to his colleague, I’m going to marry that one – meaning my mother – which he did, in February 1946. My mother was nearly 20 and my father 25. My sister was born in November 1947 and I followed in September 1949. We lived in Finchley which my mother loved. We used to go every few years to Italy. In the end my mother used to speak to everyone in Italy in English with the odd word of Italian whereas my father spoke to everyone in fluent Neapolitan. My parents were very happily married for 25 years until my father died of a heart attack in 1971.Growing up I was a voracious reader but also loved sport, especially football.I was a very spontaneous child and often got in trouble at school for being ‘cheeky’.

I grew up on a council estate which many would describe as not the best start in life, but I think I had a really good upbringing with two parents who loved me and made me feel important. At 16 I left school to write poetry and contemplate the world. After 5 months I realised this was not the best career option and got my first job as a junior transport clerk which I lost 2 months later for making too many jokes about the directors at the Christmas lunch. I was told that I was not suited to being a junior transport clerk. After a bewildering number of jobs I ended up starting my own company at 19 and retired from work at 21. I did my A levels, then studied foreign languages at Manchester University and spent most of my time going to the theatre and writing novels.

While still a student, I began taking Americans around Europe which I did on and off for ten years while doing other things such as studying law. At the end of the 1970s I took Italians to China as it was opening up to the outside world although very much still a communist country in the Soviet manner. The most interesting trip I did working was in 1980 when I took  14 people from Victoria Station to Hong Kong, a 10,000 train journey through Siberia, the Gobi Desert and right through China. That certainly was travelling as a life-enhancing experience.
I had completed the Bar Finals and got called to the Bar at Middle Temple and was doing a LL.M at the LSE when I decided I should be a publisher rather than a lawyer.

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
When I was at university I applied for a job at MacMillan and was offered a second interview, but the letter did not arrive, and when I rang up it was too late. In hindsight it was not the job for me, as it was in management and not as an editor. Faced with being a lawyer I decided on becoming a publisher. I was not going to become Dostoievsky as a writer, but I could end up publishing Dostoievsky. Until I was in my thirties I didn’t really want to do anything but read books, go to the theatre and travel. I travelled a lot, both for work and for pleasure. in many ways I was typical child of the 1960s.

Has your vision from when you started. Dedalus 34 years ago changed?
I’m not sure when I started Dedalus how long I intended to work as a publisher. Dedalus was so spectacularly unsuccessful at our beginning that we were nicknamed the DeadLoss Publishing Company. I even had a profile in the Guardian as the publisher of the DeadLoss Publishing Company and I wrote a book about it Dante Alighieri Publishing Company which I thought would be the last book I published. It was a matter of pride not to give up until Dedalus was a success and this is why I’m still at it. In 1985 one of our unsaleable first novels, The Arabian Nightmare, was sold to Penguin for £21,000 which changed our fortunes. In addition to publishing first novels we did translations which I learned very speedily were even more difficult to sell than first novels. Basically this is what we still do today.

diego marani dedalus bookblastHow do you balance originality and profitability?
Our basic creed has always been about publishing books which are different and most of the books we have published without us would have remained unpublished. If a small independent literary publisher can’t put originality first who can? Dedalus Books survives by being successful in getting translation funding, support from ACE and producing sufficient books which defy all the odds to become successes. When I bought New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, I thought it would sell 300 copies but so far it has sold 27,000 for us, and is still selling.

Your views on writing? What books have had a lasting impact on you?
I like books which appeal to the mind and touch the heart and also books which are very different and very clever. Books which have had a lasting impact on me are Ulysses by James Joyce – Dedalus is named after James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. The novels of Anthony Burgess, Dostoievsky and Tolstoy. I have read all of Dickens who is the only author who can make me laugh and cry in the same book. Pickwick Papers and Our Mutual Friend are my favourite Dickens novels. Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Giovanni Verga’s I Malavoglia are still great favourites. My only publishing ambition when we started was to publish a new translation of I Malavoglia which we did in 1985. Judith Landry’s translation is still in print –  it is a wonderful read. As a teenager I had a big thing for the novels of Sir Walter Scott and D.H.Lawrence, but now I just could not imagine reading anything by either of them.

What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?bookblast dedalus robert irwin
The first thing is the book must fit our list.If it is not our kind of book we can’t publish it. When we get a book that is clearly a Dedalus book we are most of the way there. We like the bizarre, the grotesque, the surreal and the clever, preferably in the same book. We call this kind of book, distorted reality. For instance David Madsen’s Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf, Sylvie Germain’s The Book of Night and Vladimir Sharov’s Before and During. Three perfect examples of what we are looking for.

Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How have publishers adapted to industry changes?
I think publishers have adapted well and it is an industry which is used to change. After the end of the net book agreement and fixed prices for books the publishing industry’s DNA was adapted for perpetual change. The ebook revolution took longer than anticipated coming and for the moment it has stalled somewhat. Nearly everything we have published is available as ebooks.

Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
I have never read an ebook. When I get the text of a book emailed I always print it out. I spend most of my working day looking at a screen to want to read books on a screen.The book as a printed object will not die and like vinyl records might end by becoming even more popular. Books are cultural artefacts and our bookshelves proclaim who we are. On the whole a new media does not destroy what it has replaced, that is why we still have cinemas, theatres and we listen to the radio.

Your views on marketing and distribution? And on social media?
There is no point publishing books and not doing everything you can to get them read. It is harder getting books into the bookshops nowadays and even independent bookshops wait until a book is doing well before they stock it. We do try and harness our books to events and anniversaries which will increase their prominence. We use social media, but we have not found that it will get a book started and make an unsuccessful book successful, though it will certainly help when a book is on a roll as it did with New Finnish Grammar.

How important is funding?
All publishers need funding whether from their shareholders, their owners or by bodies like the Arts Council. Translation publishing would not be 3.5% of what is published without translation funding. Yes it would be even lower! Creative industries need funding to be risk takers and create the books, plays, films, music that in later years we are proud to recognise as part of our national heritage.

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?
Brexit is happening so we must all be positive and work to make it an opportunity and not a liability. Dedalus is as pro Europe as any British publisher and that won’t change and we will strive to put British publishing at the heart of Europe. There will be some unintended consequences but they remain to be discovered.

Your favourite qualities in a person?
A sense of humour, reliability and intelligence.
                              

For what faults do have you most tolerance?                                 
I try to be tolerant of most people’s faults as I’m only too aware I share most of them myself.

Your chief characteristic? And chief fault fault?                                 
Determination which other people call stubbornness and bad temper.

How do you relax?
Watching films going for walks and involving myself in the minutiae of football.

Your favourite prose author?
Anthony Burgess and Eca de Queiroz in translations from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Your favourite heroes in fiction?
Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses and Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

Your favourite heroines in fiction?
Courage in Grimmelshausen’s 17th century novel, Simplicissimus, translated from  the German by Mike Mitchell, and as she becomes in Bertold Brecht’s 20th century play, Mother Courage.

Your heroes in real life?
Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Your favourite heroines in real life?
Dorothy L.Sayers: a neglected literary superstar. Her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a magnificent achievement (although she died before she could complete the last part of ll Paradiso) and she shows that you don’t have to speak a language well to be able to translate it. She was also a first-rate novelist.

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
I stick with five people from the past as it would be great to see how they interacted. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Anthony Burgess.

Your bedside reading?
I’m reading Sappho by Alphonse Daudet, translated by Graham Andersen.

Your greatest achievement? 
Still to come, so watch this space.             

Copyright  © Georgia de Chamberet for The BookBlast Diary, London.

Dedalus prizewinners include: The European Crime & Mystery Award 2003 for Dragon’s Eye by Andy Oakes; The French Translation Prize 1992 for Christine Donougher: Book of Nights by Sylvie Germain; The Portuguese Translation Prize 2013 for Margaret Jull Costa: The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersao; The German Translation Prize 1998 for Mike Mitchell: Letters Back to Ancient China by Herbert Rosendorfer; The Polish Translation Prize 2012 for Antonia Lloyd-Jones: Saturn by Jacek Dehnel; The Russian Translation Prize 2006 for Oliver Ready: Prussian Bride by Yuri Buida; The Greek Translation Prize 2006 for David Connolly : The Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy edited by David Connolly; World Fantasy Awards 2012 Special Award Professional to Eric Lane of Dedalus Books for publishing in translation. 

 

Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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