Interview with Donatella Di Pietrantonio

Interview with Donatella Di Pietrantonio

Donatella Di Pietrantonio‘s new novel, Bella Mia, has recently been published in translation by Calisi Press.  Our reviewer Becky Danks posed some questions to Donatalla, whose answers have been translated by Calisi’s editor Franca Scurti Simpson.

CSP: What inspired you to write about the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009?

DDP: I was motivated by the need to write a novel about pain, about loss, but also about the human ability to transform pain, reshape it without removing it, and use it as an opportunity for growth.

How did you approach the task of researching the subject? How long did it take and how did you go about it?

I did my research by visiting the historic centre of the town, always with friends who live in L’Aquila. They were also the most valuable source of information, particularly about the emotional experience of the people affected by the earthquake. In any case, I know the town well, I went to university there and I have maintained strong links with people and places after I left. The research into the book took about 18 months.

This is a book about recent events. Did you find it difficult to write about this subject as it is still so raw in people’s minds and residents are still displaced?

In a way, yes. I wrote carefully, fearful that my fiction would intrude and upset the sensitivities of those who have lived through the traumatic experience of the earthquake, those who had lost a loved one, those who had lost their home, their neighbourhood and their job.

In light of recent events, with further earthquakes occurring in Central Italy, what advice would you give to those people newly affected based on what you have learnt?

It is very difficult to give advice about this sort of thing, there is always the risk of being intrusive or simply banal, but it is important to encourage those who have been affected by tragedies of this type not to lose hope, to invest in their future, rebuild their lives around what is left, rather than focus on the past, on what has been lost.

Are any of the characters in the book based on real people? If so then how much is based on truth and how much is fiction? For example the central family and also the writer who is the only official resident of the Red Zone and the elderly man in the camp who telephones his dead wife every day.

The only real person in the novel is the old writer, a historian, to be correct, who the day after the earthquake refused to leave his home, which had been only minimally damaged, and continued to live, alone, in the deserted city centre. The other characters are all fictional but I believe they are consistent with their background, made so peculiar by the earthquake.


Your previous novel was about dementia and its impact on a mother-daughter relationship. What makes you choose to tackle such sensitive subjects?

I believe that pain is an inevitable part of our existence. It is also what allows us to give shape and highlight our human “essence”. For this reason it needs to be explored, talked about, so that we can get to know it and accept it. When we experience joy and happiness, we can simply be, but we have to learn to work on our pain.


How have you found the process of having your writing translated and what advice would you give to aspiring female Italian writers?

Holding in your hands your book translated into another language is very exciting, even when you don’t understand that language. It is an amazing feeling to realise that what you have written can leave you behind and travel much further than you can. My advice to young Italian female writers is to believe in themselves and to nurture themselves and their writing, by reading and experiencing life as much as they can.

Can you describe your writing routine?

I don’t write methodically and I don’t write at fixed times. I steal the time to write when the story forming inside me urges me to do so. I often write in bed, on my laptop, in positions that are uncomfortable and hurt my back. I am curious about and open to the world, to other people. With the earthquake in L’Aquila, I felt immediately involved, because the experience of pain and loss is universal, it affects us all. And I know and love the town, so I felt its wounds and those of its people, in particular.

How did you combine your job as a paediatric dentist with writing your books? Would you consider writing full time?

Dentist by day, writer by night! Actually, the best time for me to write is at dawn, when the house is immersed in silence and my rested thoughts are eager to find their way onto the page. There are times I think I would love to be able to write full time but I don’t think I could bear to be separated from my little patients.


Are you planning on writing a new book and if so, what will it be about?

Yes, I am finishing a new novel which will be published in Italy by Einaudi next February. It is again a novel about fundamental relationships, about mothering experiences, broken and then renewed and partially mended, and the traumatic effect of these on the children involved.

Bella Mia is available now from Calisi Press.


Republic of Consciousness

Republic of Consciousness

The Contemporary Small Press talks to writer Neil Griffiths about his new literary award for books published by small presses, The Republic of Consciousness Prize.

CSP: What are you suggesting by the award’s title?

NG: A grand name for a small prize.  The phrase came to me when I was reading A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, after I’d just read Zone by Mathias Enard from Fitzcarraldo Editions, both of which are deeply written within the… there’s something stream of consciousness about them but they’re not at the same time.  I think they’re articulating almost a kind of theory of mind, and so part of me was thinking that.  Does writing of a certain kind give us a potential insight into what consciousness is?  And what mind is?  Because I work in research there’s a lot of neuro-guff going around.  There’s a lot of neuro-philosophers who have completely rejected any notion of mind, rejected any notion of will, they just sort of think we’re pre-programmed computers, that in fact we live in a kind of causal nexus that means that not a single thing that we do do we have any control over, there’s literally the big bang and then there’s us, and it seems to me to be so palpably silly, and I think that there’s something about this writing that does create a sort of republic of  consciousness, that we can find or get a sense that other people, however it’s articulated, are like us, that we are like each other, and that we can get as close to knowing another through that kind of prose, and I think that’s hugely valuable and moral.  It’s a moral act to write like that.  Even if it is difficult.  Both Zone and Girl have done very well but they’re exceptions.  There are books of equal quality that don’t get that kind of exposure.

What is it about the small presses that enables that kind of writing?  Why do you not find that in the mainstream?

I think you do now and again.  What the prize is throwing up for me, having lots of submissions, is that quality is variable, that’s in the nature of the prose, the nature of the publication, whatever, but there are a number of small presses out there who clearly have a niche sensibility, and that is to publish what might be called avant-garde work, and I think there is a kind of community of people who kind of love and relish and want to support that and they end up in fairly close coordinates of each other, and that’s how the small presses come into being.  There’s almost an acceptance that mainstream presses are unlikely to publish these books and perhaps a rejection of the model that mainstream publishers offer.  I think that’s become my experience.  So the best of the [small] presses who want to do this, I think, are doing it with such commitment… Books don’t make money, but rather than trying to make something that doesn’t make money make money, they go, well let’s just try and get the best possible thing we can.  Publishing is not a very good business model.  There is a fit between the kind of amateur sensibility and the avant-garde.  Which means that occasionally you get these small presses doing it.

Equally with the short story, the short story is a difficult proposition for mainstream publishers, but small presses can take that up and there is a short story market and that’s an area of opportunity for them.  One of my favourite books from last year was Pond [by Claire-Louise Bennett] that is just brilliant: they’re not really short stories, it’s not really a novel – it was published by Stinging Fly who only publish short stories [now also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions].  That’s writing of such high order that it is astonishing: on some level mainstream publishers should be going ‘we will give you anything you want to have this writing’.  If they just set aside the commercial imperative and just think purely in terms of artistic merit – we have a tradition of gently avant-garde female writing, so she’s part of a tradition, it’s quite rural writing and at the moment that’s quite fashionable – but it’s just the sheer quality and the originality of prose and the originality of voice. If I was the head of a mainstream house I would just say ‘buy her, and pay her, and let her do what she wants’ because we owe that to her and the writing community.  That’s the kind of interesting place where that’s what a small press does when a mainstream publishing house should take a decision there.  And there are other books that I’ve been submitted that that’s the case for.

Neil Griffiths

How many entries have you had, how many books have you read and what is your sense of the wide diversity of books being published by contemporary small presses?

I’ve probably had about 20 entries and there’ll probably be about 40 by the time it closes in September.  There’s a couple of books which have been very unique in their own way, and I mean that in a good sense, that just needed better editing, better editorial control, a kind of mentor to guide them.  We’ve had a great book by an African writer based in Africa with a press over here, an astonishing book by an American writer, a couple of great Irish writers, short stories, multinarrative voices, classic modernist works: a [diverse] range, but the quality has been variable.

All the books come to myself and my co-chair Marcus and we read them for a very low level of quality control as gatekeepers, and if it passes that then it gets sent out to the six other judges who are all independent bookstore owners or workers, there’s one in the north east, one in Wales, one in Scotland, one in Manchester; there’s Sam at Burley Fisher Books in London, and there’s the deputy head of fiction at Foyles.  So a real regional spread.  They are instructed only to carry on reading if they think there’s any chance that this book is likely to end up on the longlist.  I don’t want to make it too arduous.  But at the same time I might say that I don’t think this book is right for the prize but actually you might have a readership for it.  So that’s another point about the prize, to give books exposure.

There’s been a couple of books that have been more genre literature than literary fiction and that exposure might help, so even if you don’t end up on the long or shortlist there might be a bit of exposure in those bookshops, so that’s a plus point.  When that finishes we’ll draw up a longlist, then there’s going to be a shortlist ‘do’ at Waterstones Piccadilly in early January.  Hopefully we can get a month of table space for the shortlist.  The big moment will be the shortlist announcement, because that gets more names and more books out there.

How has this experience shaped your understanding of the small press?

If anything it’s made me think that I want to start some kind of small press surgery, which is, if you’re a small press and you want to produce a book well you need guidance from people who know how to do it well.  I absolutely believe in the small presses and I feel as evangelical now [as when I set up the prize] but if I’m to be honest, quite a lot of them need quite a lot of help to actually get into a good place where they’re going to be creating viable novels.

Have you had much support for The Republic of Consciousness Prize since you announced it earlier this year?

There’s a number of ways people can support.  All the people I’ve asked to be judges have been very supportive.  The media to a certain degree have been supportive, The Guardian, TLS, whatever, but I think social media has been just as supportive, lots of people have got in touch through Twitter and Facebook.  While the books come in and we read them and there’s essentially a kind of lull, because that’s all there is to do, social media is to a certain degree keeping the flame alive in terms of awareness.

When I started the prize I threw in a little bit of cash myself, and I said that I would try and raise money elsewhere.  I’ve tentatively started that and that’s not going quite as well.  It’s always hard to get money out of people and I accept that.  I’ve gone to a few agents and I’ve written to them saying that often small presses are their last resort, if they’ve got a novel and they can’t place it with a mainstream publishing house, small presses are always there.  They don’t necessarily want their authors to go with a small press because there’s no money, but it’s better to be published than not.  So did they want to back my prize?  Nothing, I mean, not even ‘no’.  Just completely ignoring the emails.  Someone even emailed me back and said ‘I’m not going to support your prize, I don’t think prizes do any good’ and then he added, ‘you’d be better to spend your time trying to renegotiate financial terms with Amazon’.  This is someone who’s been published by a small press.  That seems to me a very unhelpful [response].

There’s been endorsements, Marcel Theroux, Scott Pack, Anthony Horrowitz, Alistair Campbell – I haven’t yet sent out a load of letters to wealthy writers to see if they’ll support it.  At the moment the prize money is £3000, which is kind of fine for the winner, but I want to get it up so that I can give money to at least the final three or four books that make the final cut.

Do you think this is symptomatic of a lack of support for small presses in general among mainstream writers, agents and publishers?


I think mainstream agents are fairly scornful of the small press enterprise.  I spoke to one agent who just looked at me with a sort of smirk at the idea that he would even go to a small press, he was too important for that.  But I think writers, who I haven’t spoken to yet, writers I hope will respond.  But I think publishing is a difficult business.  The mainstream publishing houses are fighting for retail space in bookshops, they’re fighting for column inches in newspapers, against each other, they don’t want a whole load of attractive, alternative, sexy, small imprints coming up and taking away [from them].  They want to manage that and have their imprint that does that.  I think it’s a battle.

I think British publishing itself isn’t a particularly generous place, there isn’t a great deal of money in it  so the people who have money want to protect it, the people who have jobs want to protect them, people who have power want to protect it.  So I think small presses have a kind of nineteenth century amateur sensibility, they’re still in it for the love, whereas it’s so tough to be in a mainstream publishers, you lose that after a certain period of time.  Someone told me the other day that at UA United Agents, each agent has to make 250k in advances just to pay for their deskspace, before they even start to make any money.  If that’s the case, and you’ve got a difficult novel that you know the mainstream publishers aren’t going to buy, it’s still a financial difficulty.  We’re not in a good place, in terms of the industry.

Neil Griffiths 2

Your next book is being published by Dodo Ink Press, how has the experience been different for you from previously publishing with larger publishing houses?

It’s been really nice!  I courted three small presses with my book and despite being a published novelist it’s still been quite tough.  Just because you want to go to small presses doesn’t mean that the journey’s going to be easier, you go through a very rigorous reading period.  With small presses they’ve got to really believe in it, which means that everybody on the team has to believe in it equally, and if you’re writing a difficult novel your chance of doing that diminishes, because people disagree about things.  But Sam Mills at Dodo made me believe that she loved my book, which was good.  They’re only publishing three books next year and mine’s going to be one of them, and they need to make it work.

We talk to each other as grown ups, I’m not treated like some kind of employee or indentured servant or slave.  We all know that we’re going to try and do the best for it.  They’re quite happy for me to have an input into the marketing and the cover, we’ve discussed the title, we’ve discussed my vision of the book to make sure that that accords with their vision of the book.  They just want it to be the best book it can be on its own terms.  It’s a long, difficult book about faith.  So you just might as well try and make it the best long difficult book about faith.

Leigh Wilson and Georgina Colby set up the Contemporary Small Press research project in response to the resurgence of independent publishing they had noticed as a result of the 2007/8 financial crisis. What do you think might be the impact of Brexit on the small presses, and what would you like to see as their response to the changing economic and political landscape in Britain?

[Brexit] can’t be good for publishing – good books are luxury items in a way.  There’s a rather utopian belief that when the world gets dark that art steps up and finds a place: I’m not sure that is or ever was true.  Certainly artists and writers have something to react to, but I don’t think necessarily that – apart from a small hard core of people – that you’re necessarily going to turn to difficult fiction because the world looks gloomy.  Certainly that audience isn’t going to increase.  I think it’s going to be quite grim.

Publishing on any level is a very narrow margin business.  And I think the financial crisis of 2008 meant that mainstream publishing houses had no wriggle room, and many people who were being published by mainstream publishing houses found themselves on the streets at that point, because they couldn’t afford a loss leader.  I’m not convinced Brexit will happen.  But I think it’s going to have a negative impact on mainstream publishers and a negative impact on small presses because there’ll be less money about – I think that’s just a given.  What will small presses’ response be to that, I don’t think there should necessarily be a response, in the sense that the only objective they should have is publishing the books that they love.  They may have more choice because the mainstream publishers may have to pull in even further and therefore maybe the result will be that agents will have to give more consideration to small presses.

The Arts Council needs to make sure that it carries on with its grants because that’s the only way half of them survive.  It’s actually for people like me and other people – small presses need a philanthropist – if I was a very rich man I’d be their answer because I’d just support the hell out of them.  But I fear it’s going to be tough and I don’t know what the answer is.  But I do think that initiatives like this [The Republic of Consciousness Prize], however tiny… If the prize money stays at £3000 and they give a grand to the author and the small press gets two, that is the price of a first print run of a new book, that just takes some of the risk out of one book.  And if on some level one can think of other ways of getting those small amounts of money it will just prop up what is essentially an artisan, amateur business.

Thanks Neil!  

Follow the progress of The Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Correspondence with a Writer

The Contemporary Small Press interviews writer Lara Pawson, whose book This is the Place to Be will be published by CB editions in September.

Lara, you were at the first Contemporary Small Press Symposium run by the University of Westminster in February 2015, how did that event impact on your decision to choose a small press publisher for your book?

Massively.  I went to that because I’d seen something tweeted by Tony White, the writer who also has Piece of Paper Press.  I went, very much inspired by Tony, and I went because I though I know that small presses are doing interesting things, I want to learn more about small presses.  At that point I had written my piece that has now become the book, This is the Place to Be, which was initially called Non-Correspondence, and I wrote that in 2014.  So it wasn’t that I’d gone there looking for a small publisher.  I’d gone there because of Tony White and because of the kind of work that I’m working on – I’m working on a novel at the moment – and the way that that is progressing, I feel that it probably won’t fit with a conventional ‘market’.  My hunch is it’s more likely to be taken up by a small press.  So I went with the hope of meeting like-minded people, seeing what kind of people were in that world, a bit of ‘networking’, and also that I might learn something.  And I did feel really inspired by it.

Afterwards at the book fair, I went around all the tables looking at the books, and when I got to the CB editions table Charles was standing there, I saw The Notebook by Agota Kristoff.  I had seen that performed by Forced Entertainment at Battersea Arts Centre the year before, and I said ‘Oh my God, you’re publishing Agota Kristoff’ I told him I’d seen it – incredible play.  [Then we started talking and exchanged contact details and stayed in touch] and he said to me ‘if you’ve got anything you’d be interested in publishing with me, just send it my way and let me have a look’ And I didn’t really think much more about it until a year ago when I was on my way back from Wales and I was in the car with a former performer, who had performed with Forced Entertainment, and he had asked me about my work and I was telling him about the Non-Correspondence monologue, and he said to me ‘why don’t you get it published as a book, that sounds like it’s a book’ and when I got back I thought ‘oh I should get in touch with that man Charles’.

And I think that, going to the symposium, I just felt very excited that there were a lot of people there doing very interesting, brave things.  In a world that you quite often feel is closing in on you all the time and you have to conform and you have to compete with all these people to get your product into the market, there I was amongst people who seemed to be interested in the work for what the work is and I felt very liberated and excited by that.  So when Charles said yes he’d publish it, I just felt like I’d hit the jackpot, even though I hadn’t literally hit the jackpot in terms of dollars.  I felt very lucky.  These people are doing very interesting things, and they’re sort of creating what they want to exist.

Now that I’m working with Charles and CB editions I’ve been slowly making my way through some of the books he’s published, and I’ve just been astounded by how great they are.  All these wonderful things that are being produced.  In the world of the small presses, it feels like you’re creating something and I think when you live in the over-developed world, which I like to call the northern hemisphere and especially the UK, you kind of feel that everything’s been done, and it’s closed and locked – and I think for me what that conference, the symposium did for me, and did again last week and that’s why I went again because I thought I know it will open my eyes, it’ll open my horizons, and this time I heard about Commune Editions and I thought I really want to explore all of these things.


What’s your experience of being published by CB editions?

I’ve only published one book before this book.  The book that’s being published by CB editions is called This is the Place to Be, my first book was called In the Name of the People and it was about Angola, a non-fiction, published with IB Tauris, so I’d already had a lovely experience of working one to one with my editor, and it was a very positive experience.  So it’s kind of, again, incredible to be working with Charles and it’s even better than that was.  Because Charles is basically a one-man-band, he does the design, he does the layout, he does everything.  So I sent him my text, he had a read, he gets back to me, we go for coffees, and it’s been a very personal microexperience.  Instead of spending so much of our lives sitting behind screens and not being in touch with people, or being in touch with people miles away.  We both live in London so we meet in town for a coffee or something and we talk about various stages of the book planning.  It just feels very close up and intimate.

CB editions tend to have uniform covers – they used to be those beautiful brown covers, but Charles has recently changed that, and I entered into that process while he was in the middle of making that change.  So in fact my book when it comes out won’t look like lots of the other CB editions books, but Charles sent me some suggestions of how it could be and was very happy for me to choose.  Then I went to his house where the books are produced and I sat in his front room with his cats and we looked at different covers on the screen and looked at fonts and it was great.  I met his wife who’s a painter and I felt like it was a really special day, and I found myself thinking ‘why can’t all books be produced like this?’ It was really good fun.  I just love the fact it’s such a personal experience.

I think the small presses are much more flexible and there’s a kind of speed and elasticity which feels in some ways much more appropriate in a way to the world that we live in where everything changes so quickly and you can produce stuff online and produce a digital book ‘like that’ [*snaps fingers*] but these small presses are producing hard books, quality paper books, in months, so I really love that.  I’m quite impatient and I’m quite spontaneous so for me that’s just great.

Lara Pawson at Burley Fisher Books

I remember at the first symposium you were angry at the suggestion by some panellists that writers and small press publishers shouldn’t expect to make a living from it and should accept poverty as a choice in exchange for the privilege of writing non-mainstream books. What’s your opinion on that now and can you clarify your thoughts for us?

The idea that it’s noble to not be paid.  What’s noble about not being paid?  It’s important, we all have to live, we all have to get by in the world, and I think that the idea that writing and producing works of art, be it fine art or writing or poetry or theatre or whatever, that the people who produce it don’t need to earn a living from it is something I really dislike. I think it’s just a sort of fanciful idea, presumably reproduced by people who either don’t appreciate art and don’t think it has a value or by some people who have a lot of money and don’t need to be paid for the work they’re doing or what they’re creating.  So I don’t think we as writers and artists and people who are producing this stuff should encourage a culture of not earning.  I think it’s a real problem.

That said, in a way you might accuse me of hypocrisy but I also understand that here I am being published by a very small publisher.  I’m not being paid huge sums, I am being paid a sum of money for it, but a very small sum of money.  Certainly not enough to live off or pay my mortgage with.  I have an agent, who did send my book to another publisher that didn’t want it, I suppose I could’ve gone around looking for more big publishing houses with more money.  But I think with this particular book, because it was originally written as a performance, as a looping monologue that was performed at the Battersea Arts Centre as a kind of theatre-performance-sound piece I never expected it – and I was paid for that by the way, I was paid a sum of money for that piece of work and I was paid again when it went to Brussels, so I got paid for the times that that was produced.  But when it became a book – I never expected it to become a book and it’s been expanded a bit, it was initially 20,000 words and it’s now 35,000 words, so still very small, but when it became a concrete plan that it was maybe going to be published as a book, I saw that as a bonus, as a kind of surprise and so I wasn’t thinking primarily that I must get lots of money out of this.  My priority was that I wanted it to be published with a publisher that was respected for the quality of writing that they produced.

But I feel really strongly about being honest about the money side of it.  I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t a partner with someone (my husband, I’m married) who has a full time job.  If he was not earning money there would be no way that I could do this.  I’d be doing other things as well.  I do do other things to earn money but I don’t earn enough to live off without my husband’s contribution.  So I’m fortunate, I don’t think it’s a model that should be pursued.  I don’t think it’s something to be proud of.  I don’t think it’s noble not being paid.  I think I’m very privileged and fortunate and it’s not fair on people who haven’t got money or haven’t got a partner who can support them, what are they supposed to do: just sort of think it’s noble to produce a book and breathe in air?  People need to live.  And you need time to write, you can’t work full time and write.  Some people do do that, but it’s a really hard thing to do.

So I’m just very uneasy, particularly when I hear academics, who are very often on salaried jobs, talking about the idea that it’s somehow superior not to be paid.  It’s not true, we need to live.  It’s elitist, it’s exclusive.  There’s a minority of people out there with private money, but we don’t just want work to be produced by those people, we want work to be produced by everybody, so that we get a mix of voices and input.  So yeah, I really bristle at people who promote poverty, I just think it’s bullshit.

Will you be looking for a small press publisher for your third book?

The publishers that are producing books I like are often small presses, but not only.  There’s plenty of good books produced by the ‘normal publishing industry’ that I really like.  There’s lots of books that get produced by all sorts of publishers that I really like.  But the books that sort of fire me up, apart from the old classics, tend to be with the small press. So I might well [look for a small press for book 3] but I’m also quite mindful that I’m anxious to make a bit more money out of it.  People said to me once you’ve got your first book out you’ll make loads of money on your second, but that has not been the case.  And that’s not a criticism of CB editions for one minute, but it’s not as simple as that.  I’m beginning to think that maybe, given the kind of writer that I seem to be, or seem to be becoming, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be that mainstream, and I’m going to have to accept that.  But I also think that small presses are influencing the mainstream presses, so who knows.  Eimaer McBride’s book is a classic example of that, but there are plenty of other books and I think people are beginning to realise there’s quite a big desire to read those books.  So to be honest I’m not sure.

What would you like to see in the future from the small presses in general, and for your book in particular?

I hope with This is the Place to Be, that it will reach people, that it will reach readers, I’d really love it if it gets reviews by mainstream newspapers in Britain.  With my first book it had quite a big readership, especially in Portuguese.  What for me is really wonderful is writers getting in touch with you from Mozambique, or someone in Spain or someone in Canada, and they’ve read your book and it’s moved them and affected them and they write to you – you cannot beat that sort of feeling of something you’ve produced touching people.

I feel very nervous about this book, because I feel like I’ve really let it all hang out, I’ve really exposed myself, and in fact after I’d initially written a first draft, I gave it to my next door neighbour who’s a writer, and she really liked This is the Place to Be, and she said to me, ‘You’ve got to read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, your book’s really like that.’  I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson until then, so I then read her book and I then felt really nervous because I thought Maggie Nelson’s book was so good.  I though oh shit, my book’s not good enough.  But I suppose there were overlaps, and felt that if I could reach people with my own writing, I don’t know.  In some ways I just feel like I’m so amazed it’s being published.  I’m so happy it’s being published with CB editions.  I’m so happy with the few people who’ve read it and their response to it, that if it keeps going like that then frankly I’ll be dead chuffed.  The writer Joanna Walsh read it and very generously endorsed it, and I was just ecstatic for about 48 hours because she’d read it and liked it.

In terms of what I hope for the small press, I hope that they keep going, I hope they survive.  In the climate we’re in right now, not simply that we’re in this weird, ‘Are we going to Brexit or not’ moment but the fact that in the economy we’re looking at even more austerity that presumably is going to be a bit of a threat to people working on small presses.  And if we pull out of Europe is that going to affect the funding because a lot of these small presses, I don’t know who funds them, but a lot of CB editions books are written by European writers, translated by people into English.  To what extent is this whole Brexit moment going to affect the publishing houses?  And Other Stories produce lots of books written by people all around the world.  I imagine this [Brexit] is a bit of a threat to [publishers].  On the other hand, I think people quite often rise to the challenge – so it’s a threat and it’s a crisis but it might make us all fight back a bit more.  Because when you put up barriers, people create ways through it.  I’m amazed by the number of young people who are behind a lot of this stuff, and I think wow, they’re really pushing back and creating a lot of this stuff and it’s happening.

Thanks Lara!

Look out for our forthcoming review of Lara’s new book This is the Place to Be from CB editions.


Talking About Books That Get People Talking

Talking About Books That Get People Talking

The Contemporary Small Press interviews independent bookseller Sam Fisher of Burley Fisher Books, a London bookshop specialising in small press publications.


What made you decide to open up a bookshop selling small press books in the difficult climate of bookselling in 2016?

There’s reasons to be positive in bookselling, people’s attitudes are changing.  I know that we’re pretty privileged in London and it’s more difficult outside of London, but people realise that Amazon and other online retailers only really offer an illusion of choice where you get funnelled towards certain mainstream titles.  So I wanted to offer something which counters that, and to represent small publishers.  There’s a real wealth of independent publishing happening – in London but outside of London as well – so I wanted to have a space where that could be represented.

Has it been easy to source and identify the books that you sell?

Mostly, it takes time to build it up.   A lot [of small publishers] came to us, a lot of them I was following anyway, and it’s not just me, all the guys here have their own interests [in various small presses].

Burley fisher

What do you think your customers value most about small press published books?

Firstly they cover areas that big publishers won’t touch, they take risks on new writers.  I think in fiction you get a lot more innovation and risk taking than you get with big publishers, which means that it can be good and bad.  I think there is a certain sense that big publishers are gatekeepers, and that can be helpful sometimes, but they miss a lot and they get [it] wrong all the time, and [the small press] gives you access to those things that you normally wouldn’t find, that don’t have a voice.  I think people are pleased to come across the unexpected and it means that they come back to look for more.  I think that what bookshops need to do now is to show people things that they didn’t realise they wanted until they see it – people grow quite loyal to publishers and start to follow their output.  When a new book comes out people notice.  Small publishers like Fitzcarraldo know that and are starting to produce their books accordingly.  Also Galley Beggar, And Other Stories – they have a kind of coherence.

Small presses cover areas that big publishers won’t touch, they take risks on new writers.  I think in fiction you get a lot more innovation and risk taking than you get with big publishers.

What makes a small press published book a bestseller in your opinion?

I think it’s very diaphanous.  It’s very difficult to [pin down].  If you join a conversation at the right moment, one example would be Pond, which is a fiction, but I think it speaks to a lot of things that people are talking about in theory and cultural theory at the same time.  Intersectionality is very important for small presses because that gets people talking, and small presses need word of mouth because they don’t have the ad spends – those kind of intersectional presses.

What’s the best thing about coming to work at Burley Fisher Bookshop every day?

Because we’re so new, it’s new every day, different things are happening every day.  Getting to know the community, what our placement is, how we can become part of it [the community], I really enjoy that part of it.  Also being able to talk to people about books like Pond [and others], I really enjoy being able to get people excited about those kinds of things.  We do a lot of events here as well.  They’re really helpful when you’re starting out.  But also with these kinds of books, people read them because they want to talk about them, I think.  People are thinking about those issues.  It also means that – especially when something is published by a small press, there’s often opportunities to meet the person who wrote it in quite an intimate setting, and then you can have a meaningful interaction with them rather than kind of watching two august figures up on the stage at the South Bank, you know there’s a slightly different vibe.

With these kinds of books, people read them because they want to talk about them.

The recommended titles are what we’re currently reading.  I try to read about two books a week.  But there’s four of us and we all have different interests.

I’ve been really grateful for the support that small presses have given us in the first few months, the willingness they’ve shown to join with us and do events.  So this is a good opportunity to say thank you to those people who have helped us there.  And I think that this community building [work] is really important and we should try and do as much of it as we can.

Thanks Sam!

Check out Burley Fisher Books online, or pop in for a coffee and bagel while you browse the shelves…

Reflections: The Elephant and The Bee

Reflections: The Elephant and The Bee

On Thursday 26th May Jess de Boer visited the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in conjunction with the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture for the final event of her promotional book tour with Jacaranda Books in London.

Jess de Boer interview 1
The Contemporary Small Press’s Sally-Shakti Willow (left) interviews writer Jess de Boer (right)

Jess spoke vibrantly about her life and experiences as a bee-keeper, read from her memoir The Elephant and The Bee, responded to questions from the audience and signed copies of the book at the event, which was ‘the perfect way’ to end the London book tour.

The book, The Elephant and The Bee, has been both written and illustrated by Jess de Boer and the book design chosen by publishers Jacaranda accentuates Jess’s fun and light-hearted approach to her story with a soft cover and rounded edges, giving the book an enjoyable tactile aesthetic which enhances the pleasure of reading.

Jess spoke on a wide range of topics during the interview.  When asked about her writing process Jess revealed that she had started keeping a journal during the years of her experiences and had started drafting out chapters that she hoped ‘might be funny some day’.  When she made the acquaintance of a Kenyan literary agent, she sent her the chapters which were then revised and edited.  After a process of a few years the book was created and subsequently acquired by Jacaranda Books for publishing.  Jess has plans to write further books based on her continued experiences as a bee-keeper and her development into the field of permaculture, which will also be published by Jacaranda.  On a recent visit to the Kenyan Embassy in London where the book was officially launched, Jess was encouraged to ‘write three more books’ by next year!

One of the most vivid and memorable sections of the book describes Jess’s disastrous attempt at insect farming, in which she tries to cultivate maggots as an alternative source of protein.  It does not end well.  However, in sharing this experience with the audience at the event, Jess spoke knowledgeably about the need to turn to alternative and sustainable sources of protein production, saying that ‘Agriprotein and insect farming are a more efficient and necessary form of protein production’.  She highlighted the cultural differences that mean that some people across the world embrace this solution while others find it difficult to stomach.

In this sense, Jess’s writing has a marvelous ability to enable us to reflect on ourselves with a degree of humorous critical distance.  Like when she relates her first trip to London as a teenager and the effect of the ‘bizarre breakfast of pop tarts and pink Nesquik’ with ‘the absence of wind down windows’ as she hurtles along the M25 in her uncle’s car.

Subsequent visits to London, however, including this most recent, have given her an insight into the importance of urban food production.  In response to a question about London’s rooftop bee-hives, Jess said that ‘approximately 70% of the world’s population lives in urban centres; we must begin to produce food in urban centres.  Urban beehives and rooftop gardens allow us to contribute to food production from cities’.

Jess is a vibrant, informative and inspirational speaker, and it was a pleasure to welcome her to the University of Westminster on behalf of the Contemporary Small Press and the IMCC.

Contemporary Small Press reviewer Becky Danks said of the event, ‘it was an inspirational evening and Jess’s genuine enthusiasm for bee keeping and for making a difference in the world makes her a great role model and spokesperson. I’m reading her book now and I think that many people could relate to her experiences, young and old.’

Click here to find The Elephant and The Bee on the Jacaranda Books website.

Interview and review by Sally-Shakti Willow: Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.  Images by Becky Danks.

Jess de Boer interview 3

Escaping with a Book: Avril Joy Interview

The Contemporary Small Press speaks to Avril Joy about her novel, Sometimes a River Song released today, as well as her influences and experiences of working with small presses.

Avril Joy


Tell us about your upcoming novel, Sometimes a River Song, what inspired these characters and plots in such a vivid landscape so far from your home?

I think it goes back a few years ago when I watched a fascinating documentary by chance about a river community like this one – a fast vanishing river community. I was taken with it and I don’t quite know why, but I think somewhere in the back of my head I parked the idea of writing about such a place. I’ve been asking myself why it’s so resonant for me. I’ve always been attracted to water, nearly all my books have some kind of watery element. I actually grew up on a tidal creek. It’s quite different from Arkansas as this was in Somerset on the levels, but water would appear and disappear as if by magic, so I was always fascinated by getting over onto the riverbank and seeing what it would be like. I think that’s probably why it appealed to me so much.

What made you decide to turn this story into a novel?

I wrote two short stories and this helped me to get into the mindset of this community and the way they lived. Then one day I woke up and had this crazy voice in your head thing, which said “Silas keeps the book.” And that must’ve been the first time I heard her (Aiyana’s) voice and I remember thinking I don’t know what this is but there’s something here.

As you know the language is quite strange and I thought ‘this is so different from anything I’ve ever done before, am I going a bit mad?’ but I entered that (short) story for the Manchester Prize for Fiction and I was the only woman short listed, I didn’t win but I met the judges and they were very complimentary. One judge who had championed the story, Claire Dean, said that the voice had really leapt off the page for her late one night when she was reading her way through the entries. That gave me the confidence and I knew I wasn’t really done with it.
You mention on your website how the ‘floating photographers’ inspired your upcoming novel, what was it that inspired you most about these photographs?
They came in a bit later, I was already writing the story. There’s a journalist, blogger and author called Chris Engholm who I mention in the acknowledgements, I used to look at his sites a lot because of his photographs of the White River. There’s also a great book called The Last River by Turner Browne who took black and white photographs of the White River and that was fabulous – in fact grandmas boat is definitely in there – and that’s where I came across the floating photographic studio.


In my mind I was thinking (like any reader will) how is Aiyana really going to escape, and then when I saw the picture of the floating photographic studio I just thought that’s how. Suddenly it wove itself into the story and I knew it would be the end of the novel.

How did it feel to take Aiyana through that journey of trying to escape such a closed community?

I can’t read the ending without crying, I don’t know if it was just the sheer effort of getting her there because there were so many obstacles on the way or whether it has a deeper resonance for me. On a personal level, leaving the place where I grew up and loved was in many ways my salvation. I was one of those grammar school girls of the ’60s who got to go to University, but wouldn’t have been able to if there hadn’t been free education. We were the first real generation of any size of women going onto further education and it changed my life so enormously, so I guess deep down there’s some kind of internal resonance for me. Anyway I’m just glad she’s out of it!

How do you decide which characters are the crucial ones?

Often the name will tell me, if the name really rings for me I know they’re going to be something of importance. I’m not the sort of writer who has a plan, I let it grow organically and I honestly think that’s the best way to write. See what the pen says, as it can be very surprising. For example, I had no intention of telling Silas’ story but then you have to somehow for some reason as it makes sense to do that.

At first he was a monster, then I realised we’ve already got Floyd and no-one wants two monsters in a novel. He would’ve been quite stereotypical and I wanted him to be more complex, he couldn’t just ill-treat her. In reality people probably do go from one awful abusive relationship to the next, but that’s not how I wanted it to be. In fact, I found his story when I re-read The Grapes of Wrath. I had to be really careful actually and in the last edits I started looking at some of the names in Silas’ story to check – I haven’t taken those names from The Grapes Of Wrath have I? But really what better thing to read that chronicles the story of that huge migration, so his story just fell onto the page, probably easiest of all.

So how did you change him from being the same monster as Floyd, as in the book, Silas sort of became a silent monster instead?

That was one of the benefits of having an editor, as Lynn [Michell] said to me that she felt there wasn’t that difference between him and Floyd. We decided on silence together, as soon as Lynn said it, I agreed with her. In the first draft he was doing the physical things her father did, so we reshaped him and both thought silence was the thing. I have some experience of that growing up, of that being used as a weapon and it’s not easy to deal with, it gradually eats away at your sense of self and confidence.

And of course that fits with the experiences of the women in prison, who I’ve worked with for so many years. They don’t have a voice often, certainly not in the community and often not in prison either.

Your work is so viscerally raw and seems to evoke a landscape of women, women’s connections and community, even when it’s a community stitched together with pain. How has working in a women’s prison affected your approach to this?

When I first went there, there was this tiny unit for women because in those days, before heroine and crack, there were very few women in prison, who were mainly prostitutes, shoplifters and the occasional domestic violence murder. Nobody wanted to work with them, the other teachers disapproved of them so strongly and so did the world. There was this kind of almost fear of them. I moved up north from London, so I had slightly different views with the right to choose marches we went on and the growth of feminism. I came up here and found County Durham was about a decade or two behind in all of that! I remember my boss saying could you go over to the female wing and I said “yeah, great!” And it was an extraordinary place to be, eventually it became rerolled as a women’s prison entirely as the prison population exploded, so I became the education manager and a sort of governor.

Everyone used to come to my door whether they were in my class or not, saying “hi miss, you got any paper?” I used to give out paper and pens freely, a bit like contraband. Later, they’d come back saying “this is my story miss would you like to read it?” For them, this was a huge time of crisis and difficulty, but for the first time in ages they had time to think, and a lot of what they’d think about is ‘how has this happened? Where has my life gone so wrong?’ They’d want to write their life stories down and I saw what writing meant to them. They loved education, the women loved getting English qualifications because a lot of them had missed out on school. I’ve met lots of women who couldn’t read and like Aiyana, they’ve learnt to read really quickly. That’s such a fantastic thing! I’ve had the experience of teaching people to read and there’s not much better thing you can do.

How did you come to be published by Linen Press, and what has your experience of Small Press Publishing been like over the years?

In my years of writing I’ve had two agents and two close calls with big publishers and it brought me to my knees. It was not a happy experience, so I nearly stopped writing. Then I just decided to go indie and go do whatever I wanted to do. I had a good experience with Iron Press, so I’d already made up my mind to try and find a small press for this book and Linen Press was on my list. I sent the submission and a few days later I got a fantastic email from Lynn saying just how much she liked it. It’s been wonderful because they really do like what’s arising and I’ve never really had that before, that enthusiasm, help and support. Small presses are really good with helping you. I think it’s a great connection for me as they’re interested in women’s writing as well and so I’d like to think we’re a perfect match, I love them and they’ve been great and really supportive!

Many thanks to Avril for giving us such a wonderful insight into her work.  

Click here to buy a copy of Sometimes a River Song by Avril Joy from Linen Press.

Interview by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing. 

Read Isabelle’s review of Sometimes a River Song here.

Sometimes a River Song

Femininity, Motherhood & Publishing

The Contemporary Small Press speaks to Dr. Teika Bellamy from Mother’s Milk Books  about femininity, breastfeeding mothers, and publishing.

Mothers Milk Books

Teika, you are the editor of Mother’s Milk Books, publishing books that aim to

normalise and celebrate breastfeeding, femininity, empathy and parenting. What

made you choose this as your specific focus, and have there been any surprising

challenges for you as a publisher?

Well, after I published our first title, the fundraising anthology Musings on

Mothering (which raised money for the breastfeeding support charity, La Leche

League GB), I received many emails from readers and writers (mothers, in the

main) who were incredibly enthusiastic about the idea of Mother’s Milk Books.

It made me realize that many mothers were thirsting for books that reflected

their own understanding of mothering as a life-changing, creative and overall,

joyful experience. There are other publishers, of course, who publish books in

this area (I am in awe of the indie press, Pinter & Martin who publish, mainly,

non-fiction titles on pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding) but I felt that there was

a need for books in other areas, such as poetry, commercial fiction, children’s

fiction, even sci-fi, fantasy and fairy tales, in which we could explore in greater

detail, the issues of motherhood. Eventually, I twigged that femininity and

empathy were two themes that linked all my books so that has become our

specific focus, and part of our tagline!


I’m not sure I have had any particularly surprising challenges; I think our

greatest challenge, like that of many small presses, is financial. Because selling

books is damn hard! The lack of finances seeps into everything, sadly. It means

that we only have a tiny marketing and publicity budget, which means that not

enough people know about books, which means that we don’t sell that many

books, which means that we only do short print runs, which means that unit

costs per book are high, which means that we can’t afford a distributor, which

means that we can’t get all our books into Waterstones or supermarkets, or sold

by Amazon Prime, which means that fewer people are aware of our books… etc.

etc. and round and round it goes. So a lot of my time is spent simply juggling our

cash flow to ensure that we can just about keep the whole crazy show on the

road. (And that’s without ever paying myself.) So we’re always on the lookout for

anyone who may want to invest in us. Let me know if you’re interested!


You recently won the 2015 Women in Publishing’s New Venture Award for

pioneering work on behalf of under-represented groups. What do you think are

the main reasons that breastfeeding mothers continue to be under-represented

in literature?

I’m not entirely sure that breastfeeding mothers are entirely under-represented

in literature. When I asked my authors and supporters this question on Facebook

a fair few books and writers were mentioned, including Shakespeare, Steinbeck,

Toni Morrison, Emma Donoghue, Lissa M. Cowan… But, what is very clear is that

a reader has to go out of their way to find authentic representations of

breastfeeding mothers. It can be very easy for writers to stereotype mothers who

breastfeed, and most mainstream literature deals with mothering as something

that is dull and a chore. And although I can think of several children’s books

where breastfeeding is portrayed in an authentic manner, it isn’t the norm in

children’s literature. I think it says something very pertinent about our society

when breastfeeding, which is the biological norm for our species, becomes a

taboo topic and is, essentially, airbrushed out of our children’s reading (and

learning) experience.


Can you tell us a bit about The Only Way Is Indie, the event that you were involved

with in Nottingham?

We had a huge amount of enthusiasm for the event, with approximately fifty people attending. I think that all us publishers made some great contacts on the night — with writers, illustrators, readers, reviewers and other publishers — so, overall, it was very rewarding. One reviewer wrote this excellent write-up which provides a good insight into the evening.

The feedback we had from those attending was really positive and it’s clear that many writers want more of this kind of thing to happen in the future. And they’d like it to go on for longer and to hear more from each individual publisher. I think it’s obvious that actually meeting with publishers and hearing about how their business is run is something that especially emerging writers long for, as much of the workings of the publishing industry is unfathomable and opaque. Getting writers in the same room as indie publishers so that they can see that we’re passionate about what we do — and also human! — is key to making an informed choice about how to go about being published.

Also, as there’s so little support for indie publishers (who are, in the main, often just individuals running the press out of a spare bedroom) it was good for us, as individuals, to meet and share a drink with like-minded people and to spread the word about our books. And to let the writers know that most of us didn’t earn a living from the publishing and that we’d all given up our time for free so that this event could happen probably debunked a few myths about the indie publishing world too! Oh! And we sold some books. Always a bonus.


What have been some of your favourite indie-published releases recently?

My first name, Teika, means fairy tale story in Latvian so I’m a bit mad on fairy

tales. So I loved Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press),

which I read recently and I’m hoping to get the follow-up to that The Bitterwood

Bible very soon. And as I have a background in science I really appreciate what

Comma Press are doing with bringing together scientists and writers in the

creation of short fiction. Moss Witch by Sara Maitland is a fine example of how

science can be beautifully woven into short stories. I’ve also just now started

reading Francis Plug’s How To Be A Public Author (by Paul Ewen, and published

by Galley Beggar Press), and it’s making me laugh. A lot. (Which is very much

needed at the moment!).


Finally, what are your memories of books and reading as a child, and is

childhood the ideal time for parents and children to bond through good books?

I have many very happy memories of visiting the school library when I was

young and having to make the exquisitely difficult choice of what books to

borrow… English wasn’t the first language of either of my parents (my father,

who died when I was fifteen, was Latvian and my mother is Russian) and so I

can’t really remember them reading much to me. But they were good storytellers

and singers, which counts for a lot, I think. You can convey a fine story in a song

or a tall tale. So I discovered my love of reading with the help of the library and

the books from my older sister’s bookshelves!


Now that I am a parent and nearly always busy (such is life as a 21st century

mum!), stopping to read with my children is a good way for us to get away from

the mad bubble of every day life and simply slow down and enjoy each other’s

company. I read to both my children before bed every night and it’s such a

precious and joyous time. So yes… I think that there is something magic that

happens when a parent reads a book to their child.


Thanks Teika!  

Find out more about Mother’s Milk Books here.