On February 20th we’ll be at the British Library for our reading, writing and publishing event: Reading and Being Read. To get you in the mood, we’ll be presenting a series of features throughout the month focusing on the great work of some of the writers and small presses who’ll be joining us on the day.
Sam, you’re currently in the process of judging for the first Galley Beggar Short Story Prize – what have been the high and low points of that process so far?
The highs and lows have been pretty much the same thing: reading the stories. They’ve been wonderful, surprising and very impressive. It was great to read most of them… Except for the fact that there were so many. It felt a bit like getting to the bottom of the magic porridge pot, sometimes. It was exhausting! Still, that’s a problem of success, so not really a problem at all. I’d have felt far worse if there were too few to read. I’m grateful.
What are the most exciting books you’re looking forward to publishing (on Galley Beggar) and reading (from other small presses) this year?
I’m looking forward to being surprised by the other small presses. That’s one of the great things, isn’t it? You never quite know what’s coming – and there’s always a book that seems to come from nowhere that bowls you over. Last year, Influx absolutely bowled me over with Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson
, for instance. It’s a book I just couldn’t have imagined happening. I still find it hard to believe that it’s out there. But it’s brilliant…
As for our own books, we’ve got four on the way, and I’m looking forward to all of them. Here’s the lowdown from a letter my co-director Eloise Millar sent to our subscribers at the end of last year. It sums up why we’re so pleased with this list:
Feeding Time by Adam Biles
Adam Biles first sent his novel to us in 2014 (soon after winning the Paris Literary Prize for his delightful novella,Grey Cats) – and we’ve been working with him ever since on what can only be described as a gorgeous, life-affirming and quite unique narrative. Revolving around a rebellion in an old people’s home, Feeding Timeexplores the western world’s problematic relationship with its aging population. It’s exhilarating, stylistically ambitious, savagely funny – and, in truculent, no-nonsense octogenarian Dorothy Knott, Adam has created a character of outstanding dignity and humanity.
The Forbidden Line by Paul Stainbridge
The Forbidden Line is a monster. It’s a big book, over 600 pages long. As it should be, since it’s a retelling of Don Quixote – one involving the 14thcentury peasant’s revolt, the superfine transition of hydrogen… and two errant and unruly characters: Don and Is, who career around the British landscape tilting at windmills, abusing petrol station assistants, and just generally rivalling Vladimir and Estragon for conversation and charm. Is Forbidden Line insane? Absolutely. Do you sometimes feel like you’re on a train – one where all the stops and destinations have been rubbed off, and you have no frickin’ clue where you’re heading? Too bloody right. Is it a work of genius, quite unlike anything else? I really, truly think it might be.
Tinderbox by Megan Dunn
Like Adam, Megan’s relationship with us has been a slow burn, dating back again to 2014, when she first sentTinderbox into Galley Beggar. We loved it immediately – it’s an utterly compelling piece of non-fiction, taking in the breakdown of Megan’s first marriage, her life as a manager in the ill-fated book-chain Borders (with a bird’s eye view of just what it feels like, to be part of a disintegrating industry), as well as her attempt to rewrite Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from the point of view of Mildred and Clarisse, the female characters. Take these three distinct narratives, and you would be forgiven for thinking – Well, how the hell is that going to work? But somehow, Megan manages it, and magnificently. Tinderbox is never anything less than utterly engaging; it also offers timely discourses on gender and literary endeavour, literary heritage, and the inherently problematic relationship of commerce and the Arts… We loved Tinderbox so much, in fact, that even though we didn’t have a line of non-fiction books, we kept coming back to it – and finally decided to create a new list. Seriously, it’s that good.
Wrestliana by Toby Litt
Toby’s wonderful proposal arrived on our doorstep just as we were making a decision on Megan’s Tinderbox. And really, these two books are made for each other. Like Tinderbox, Wrestliana is a very literary endeavour, beautifully, delicately planned and written – and it also takes as its structure two distinct and yet interlinking threads. Part of the book is about Toby himself: his life as a writer, father – and indeed, as a male – in the twenty-first century. What does it mean to be a man, these days? What do we mean, by masculinity? … And how does this combine with chattering class, intelligentsia values and aspirations? Set this against the beginnings of a midlife crisis, and Toby’s own investigation into the career of a distant ancestor: one William Litt, an eighteenth century Cumbrian wrestling champion, who was also a published poet – and you have the foundations for a superb piece of writing, one that manages to be simultaneously entertaining, thought-provoking, and utterly unique.
Alex Pheby will be joining us at the British Library on 20th to talk about being a published writer with a small press. How did you come to find and publish Playthings? What excited you about it on the first reading, and can you talk us through the process of publishing it?
We found it thanks to one of our other authors Paul Stainbridge. We’d already started looking at his manuscript when he let us know about his friend Alex who had written this incredible book and was having surprising difficulty finding a publisher. So we took a look – and oh boy. On first reading, I was actually half terrified of the book. I thought it was tremendously impressive – a masterpiece, probably. But it’s so intense and disorientating that I didn’t know how I was going to explain it to anyone else… I even almost turned it down. But then I thought “what the hell am I doing?” The whole point of Galley Beggar is that we trust our readers – and if I was bowled over, I thought they would be too… I’m so pleased I had the courage of my convictions. Not least because the second time I read the book, I was even more impressed. I see more in the book every time I look at it – it’s just wonderful.
Anyway, the journey to publication after that was fairly standard, I suppose. We didn’t have many edits to suggest – a few trims, a few slight changes of focus, a few bits of balance. Alex is such a consummate professional that all that side of things was fast, fun and highly effective. His rewrites were immediately superb… After that it was the usual route to print and we started looking for publicity. After all my worries, people actually very quickly latched onto the idea of the book and we got some fantastic, enthusiastic, important reviews very quickly.
What’s the best part of a typical day at Galley Beggar for you?
Well, Elly and I work from home. So the best part is really picking up our daughter from school. But in terms of Galley Beggar work, I guess it’s getting good feedback from readers. Or hearing about foreign deals. Or getting a good review through. Or finding an exciting manuscript… There are lots of potential highlights really. That’s why it’s such a fun occupation.
And finally, Sam, what’s the most exciting/dangerous/intriguing/shameful place you’ve ever been caught reading a book?
I don’t know how much stunt reading I’ve done. The best reading I’ve done was probably when I worked as a goat herd in France. Just hours sitting in the sun, outside, in the mountains, tearing through Michael Ondaatje novels. Pretty glorious.
In terms of danger, I was always that kid who snuck off with a book at playtime at school, instead of joining in football games and similar. Some children thought that was weird and I vaguely remember them trying to make fun of me. Didn’t last though. They left me alone soon enough and I finished the Secret Seven series unmolested…
Thanks so much to Sam for giving us an insight into his world. You can catch Sam, and Alex Pheby, at Reading and Being Read on 20th February. See you there!