Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Absolutely, both of them. My parents hoarded books, and they read to us every night as kids. My mother is a voracious reader of novels (although she never allows herself enough time to read them). My dad came from that great working-class tradition of self-betterment, investing in his own education throughout his life. He stock-piled political and historical texts, was a huge fan of EP Thomson and Eric Hobsbawm in particular, and loved Strachey’s Eminent Victorians so much he named one of my brothers ‘Lytton’. He left behind a library of books about Nasser and Middle East history that none of really know what to do with. Dad was more of a history and non-fiction reader, Mum more fiction. There were some writers they both agreed on though: Lawrence, Hardy, Orwell.
Also, I have to say, in the context of our new release Protest, that this book is effectively my ‘thank you’ to my parents for the extraordinary political education I got from them. I was privileged to grow up in the eye of a whole cluster of political storms. As kids we stood on pickets lines outside coalfields in North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, took day trips to Greenham, were greatly involved in the 1984 Chesterfield by-election that returned Tony Benn to parliament, marched with the country-long anti-Apartheid march that culminated in the two Free South Africa concerts; and saw a newly freed Mandela address the world at second of these. We were beyond lucky.
As well as being a thank you to them, this book is also a potted journey of protests that Mum, Dad and two grandfathers I never knew were involved in, as well as much earlier ones that I heard mentioned in hushed reverence. Mum and Dad got to know each other on an Aldermaston march; both were linked with the Hornsey sit-in, both were at the anti-Vietnam demo in Grosvenor Square, 1968 – where Dad was wrongly arrested and defended himself in court. My grandfather also marched with Jarrow marchers as they entered London in 1936, and fought against the blackshirts on Cable Street the same year. That’s the thing about this book, it’s not just me, scratch the surface and everybody has a connection to not one, but multitudes of these stories – because it’s our history, not theirs. To quote my friend, Dinesh Allirajah: “It’s political, but it’s always been personal.”
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
No, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I tried journalism for a bit, but I hated it. I hated what I needed to be to become a journalist. Comma kind of grew out walking out of journalism. It sort of gathered around some of the other interests I had.
Has your vision from when you started Comma, in 2005, changed?
Comma has always been about giving a platform for short stories. It might always be about simply that. So, in some senses, no. That said, my sense of what the short story can do, how it can converse with non-fiction, assimilate new ideas, traverse cultural and linguistic boundaries – all of these things have changed and grown drastically since I first set Comma up. Publishing Hassan Blasim changed my whole view on what a small publisher could do, and therefore should do. That discovery, combined with what happened in 2014, when nine of our writers were trapped in Gaza during the bombardment of that summer, changed everything. Short fiction can play a role, not dissimilar to citizen journalism, it can speak truth to power, it can challenge the offensively patronising, ever-simplified, self-affirmed narrative the media give us every day; it can offer alternative narratives.
How do you balance originality and profitability?
We’re not-for-profit; so we’re firmly in the camp of originality. We’re also supported by the Arts Council England which has been extraordinary from day one. We have ACE to thank for allowing us to develop writers and projects at their own speed. In that long view, originality always win through, always proves itself to be not just vital but sustainable too. Sometimes it just takes a while. It took 11 years, for instance, between Comma publishing In Another Country and the film based on it (45 YEARS) to get an Oscar nomination. It’s taken almost as long for Matthew Holness’ story Possum (first published in The New Uncanny in 2008) to make it to the big screen (out later this year). These things take time.
Your views on writing? What books have had a lasting impact on you?
Oh where do I begin? There’s too many to name. Here’s three that I haven’t named in previous interviews: Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium, Edgar Allen Poe’s A Man of the Crowd.
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
Again, where do I begin? These questions are getting harder! 🙂 It’s impossible to define, but it’s that sense that the writer is doing something completely independently, and indifferently to what you might need or want or expect from them, as a reader. That sense that the writer is being propelled by a momentum you can’t begin to fathom. A writer that’s coming from somewhere completely alien, and knows exactly what’s needed to do justice to that momentum.
Why short stories?
In his essay The Lonely Voice (1962), Frank O’Connor famously distinguished the short story from the novel in terms of the types of characters you find in each: “The short story has never had a hero,” he argued. “What it has instead is submerged population groups.”
Publishing short stories is an act of giving voice to these characters on the margins, individuals like Chekhov’s Iona Potapov in Misery, who have no one to tell their story to, no audience that will listen to them in their daily lives. In this sense, publishing short stories is an attempt to democratize literature, to make sure voices and characters aren’t excluded from the narratives we tell ourselves. It is also a call for pluralism, for differing, contradictory “discrete moments of truth”, as Nadine Gordimer calls them.
In this sense, an anthology of short stories has certain advantages over a novel: it is better equipped, for example, to give readers access and insights into new cultures, because it is able to embrace difference and diversity within any one culture: an anthology of short stories can accommodate a series of discrete, contradictory truths, rather than promote one single, cumulative, “Truth”.
When wider public debate sometimes reduces subjects to simplistic, one-sided narratives (often perpetuating myths like the “Great Man Theory” that assumes “the history of the world but the biography of great men”), short fiction can offer an alternative perspective, something closer to Tolstoy’s version of history – “the unconscious, common, swarm life of mankind” – in which an emperor plays no greater role than a humble hussar.
Who are your five favourite short story writers of all time?
Mark Anthony Jarman;
Philip K. Dick.
What are your five favourite books of all time in translation?
L’Etranger (The Outsider) by Camus;
The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka (especially The Hunger Artist) translated by Edwin Muir;
Candide by Voltaire;
Beowulf translated by Michael Alexander;
Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim.
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to industry changes?
I do think sometimes that the very word “digital” is the “soup-stone” of our age – you know the adage about the door-to-door salesman who sells housewives a stone that will enable them make a soup if they put it in a pot with hot water, and add vegetables and meat and boil it – “The stone will turn the rest of the ingredients into soup!” the salesman exclaims. Large institutions are so obsessed with digital these days (as are a lot of audiences in their wake), that an enormous amount of money and time and hot air is being invested into merely the word “digital” (and other silly words that orbit around it) often when it’s quite inappropriate beyond what’s already been done, and just as often at the expense of other good work. We think the word “digital” will solve all our problems, do our jobs for us, make great art, guarantee quality, and set organisations and projects apart from the crowd (even though it’s a pandemic obsession – not being obsessed with digital would actually set a company apart). I think in a decade’s time (or less), we’ll look back at the current age and see it as a bit of a blank generation – a time when artistic productivity and investment dropped through the floor, archives were destroyed, and crap was invested in . . . all because we were collectively mesmerised by this word, “digital”.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
Of course not. Johannes Gutenberg didn’t blow all his Christmas vouchers on a Zune!
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?
There are a few, small crumbs of hope within the Brexit result. It was a close call, and the Leave vote was based on a profoundly misinformed and badly reported campaign. Publishers, writers, producers, filmmakers – all have a responsibility to fight back.
Now that the US has entered the A.T. (after Trump) era how do you think this will affect the UK publishing industry, if at all?
We have responded to Trump’s measures such as the “travel ban” by announcing that in 2018 we will only translate authors from nations “banned” by President Trump’s recent executive order, otherwise known as the #MuslimBan and we will feature on our translation imprint writers from the countries affected by the ban – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
If the only narrative America wants to export right now is the narrative of hate, then we need to look elsewhere. We, at Comma and perhaps the industry as a whole, need to consciously turn our backs on the circus that America is descending into and fight this. And it will be a fight, but we choose to stand in solidarity with a number of our writers who are directly affected by the ban, including all 20 contributors to two prose collections and Hassan Blasim, the Iraqi-born writer and broadcaster, who is now unable to travel to the US, despite huge success there with his 2014 novel The Iraqi Christ.
There is a world beyond our friends in America, and we need to turn around and listen to it, give it a platform, hear its stories.
How do you relax?
Recently, watching election coverage till 6 a.m.
Your favorite qualities in a person?
Erm, that they’re human. I’m well into humans.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Erm, being human. I’m well into humans.
Your chief fault?
Your favourite heroes and/or heroines in literature?
I always like the Joker.
A penguin strolls through the office door wearing a sombrero and shades. What does he say and why is he visiting?
I have no idea where to even begin with this one.
I always find George W Bush is good for a quote. How about: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
© Ra Page, 2017. Questions format © BookBlast Ltd, London.