Interview with a Gatekeeper: Jacques Testard
The Founder of Fitzcarraldo Editions on the Secret to
Dragging a Steamboat Over a Mountain
A small press in London is making big news: this past March, Fitzcarraldo Editions received the inaugural First Republic of Consciousness Prize, an award that honors a novel published by a small press in the UK and Ireland with the exacting criteria of “hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose.” Jacques Testard, the founder and editor of Fitzcarraldo, spoke with us before John Keene’s Counternarratives was selected as the winner, and it’s apparent Testard’s standards are as unequivocal as the prize his book just won.
Kerri Arsenault: How did you come to editing?
Jacques Testard: Not because of any natural predisposition, I don’t think. I’d always had a vague notion that I wanted to work in something to do with writing—journalism, publishing, or academia—but it ended up being by happenstance more than anything else. I studied History to Masters’ level and it was after attending a compulsory seminar on the memorial bells and fountains of Oxfordshire in the period 1857-1863 (or thereabouts) that I decided against going on to do a Ph.D, without any tangible notion of what I’d do next. The only thing I could find to do on finishing my MA was a summer-long paid internship at a small, then-independent publishing house in Paris (where I’m originally from) called Autrement.
I worked as assistant to Henry Dougier, the founder, an old-school publisher who didn’t know how to use computers—this was the summer of 2008—so I had to use them for him. It was at Autrement that I first got to work on texts: I was asked to correct the translation from English into French of the biography of a 19th-century Russian aristocrat. I enjoyed my time at Autrement and went on to do a few more internships in publishing, at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Columbia University Press, and the Paris Review, where I began to acquire some of the skills you need to edit, without ever really getting to edit anything.
Then I moved back to London, where I’d mainly grown up, and founded a literary magazine, The White Review, with a friend from university in Dublin, Ben Eastham. That was the first time I got to edit anything properly, when we were putting together our first print issue, in the winter of 2010-11. The magazine developed into a quarterly in print, and a monthly online, and Ben and I did pretty much all the editing in the first few years. Then, after a few years of running TWR and freelancing (copy-editing, proofreading, writing book reports, and book reviews—all the lesser paid tasks you do when you’re operating on the margins of literary culture), I got offered a job at a small press called Notting Hill Editions as a commissioning editor. I was working alongside a very experienced editor named Paul Keegan who taught me how to publish books. That’s where I got to commission and edit my first two full-length books, Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy and Attention! A (Short) History by Joshua Cohen.
I suppose my original interest in editorial work specifically came from a misguided notion of the glamour involved in the job, the mythology around great publishers of yesteryear, and the intellectual nature of the job. I wouldn’t say I had an easy time becoming an editor—in the early days I never managed to get the jobs I was applying for and so I ended up doing it in this long, unusual and convoluted way, working my way in from the margins by starting up my own project with a friend in order to eventually get to do it for a living.
KA: You mean editing isn’t glamorous?
JT: Publishing is a fairly low-adrenaline job, particularly when you work for a small independent press. I spend a lot of time on my own, editing, but also doing everything else you need to do to keep a small press ticking. I’ve had a few glamorous moments—the pinnacle was the Nobel Prize dinner for Svetlana Alexievich in Stockholm—but I spend a lot more time carrying big bags of books to the post office than drinking martinis with famous authors. In fact, carrying books around is quite a big part of the job.
KA: How did Fitzcarraldo come about?
JT: After working at Notting Hill Editions for a couple of years my job, along with everyone else’s at the company at the time, ceased to exist.
JT: The owner decided he wanted to take the publishing house in a different direction, and so we were let go. Notting Hill Editions still exists, but as a much smaller, family-run operation—they publish maybe four books a year, mainly out of copyright stuff, where we used to publish eight.
KA: So after Notting Hill Editions, then…?
JT: I wasn’t sure what to do next; there weren’t any publishers I could really see myself working for—not that there were any jobs going anyway. After a few months of hesitation, boredom, fear, and resignation, the opportunity to launch Fitzcarraldo Editions came up and I decided to go for it. That was in February 2014. We published the first book that August, and published six books—three fiction, three essays—in the first year.
Fitzcarraldo Editions remains a small operation. I work closely with Ray O’Meara, who designed a typeface for, and the books themselves. Nicci Praça has been doing the publicity on a freelance basis from the beginning. Now we have a part-time publishing assistant, Tamara Sampey-Jawad. Then we work with an independent sales team, PGUK, and distribute the books through GBS.
KA: What’s Fitzcarraldo’s mission?
JT: The idea was, and remains, to try to publish ambitious and innovative contemporary writing, ‘literary’ books that explore and expand the possibilities of the form, that are innovative and imaginative in style, that tackle subjects and themes relevant to the world we live in, both in the English language, and in translation.
KA: How do the books you’ve published fit that criteria?
JT: The first book we published was Mathias Enard’s Zone, a 521-page stream of consciousness novel written in one sentence about violent conflict in the Mediterranean during the 20th century, translated from French by Charlotte Mandell. It was originally published in the US by Open Letter. Then there is a book like Nocilla Dream, a novel in fragments about indie cinema, collage, conceptual art, practical architecture, and the history of computers, but really perhaps about trying to find a form for the novel in the 21st century, translated by Thomas Bunstead. Alongside this there is Simon Critchley’s Notes on Suicide, an essay in the classical tradition attempting to find a way to speak rationally about suicide. And Dan Fox’s essay, in the polemical style, in defense of pretentiousness. And Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which recently came out in the US to great reviews with Riverhead.
Each of these books is a singular work, to paraphrase Roberto Calasso, which forms a link in a single chain, or ‘segments in a serpentine progression of books… formed by all the books published by [a] publisher.’ That’s the aim, anyway, and I’m conscious of how difficult it might be.
As of March 2017, we’ve published 22 books. Recent and forthcoming books include Clemens Meyer’s novel about the emergence of a sex trade in the former GDR (in Katy Derbyshire’s excellent translation); Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time (in Bela Shayevich’s ‘heroic translation’), which we managed to pick up before she won the Nobel Prize, thus rendering any future prize successes utterly meaningless by comparison; This Young Monster by Charlie Fox, a debut collection of essays celebrating the Nabokovian idea of ‘monsterhood’; and Mathias Enard’s novel about orientalism, Compass, translated by Charlotte Mandell, and which alongside the Meyer has been longlisted for the 2017 Booker International Prize. We’ll also be publishing Joshua Cohen’s new novel Moving Kings this summer, an exciting development—it’ll be the first time we publish an American novel.
KA: I see Second-hand Time was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for nonfiction. What has publishing Alexievich meant for Fitzcarraldo?
JT: A lot. It gave the company financial stability in our second year of operations—thanks to the rights sales we were able to slowly grow the company, going up initially to eight books a year, and now ten. It also gave Fitzcarraldo Editions a platform, a visibility which it might have taken a bit more time to achieve—that book was reviewed absolutely everywhere and critics and literary editors pay attention to what we publish as a result. It also gave us our first significant publishing success, from having to manage successive reprints to making contingency plans in the event of a prize-win, to organizing a ten-day tour for a Nobel Prize laureate. In that respect it’s given me the opportunity to learn more about my job as a publisher.
KA: What’s behind the name Fitzcarraldo?
JT: The name of the press, which comes from the Werner Herzog film about the man who wants to build an opera house in the jungle, is a not very subtle metaphor on the stupidity of setting up a publishing house—it’s like dragging a 320-ton steamboat over a muddy hill in the Amazon jungle.
KA: Are you saying publishing is a madman’s dream?
JT: Kind of. I guess the suggestion is that publishing is so difficult and financially precarious that to set out to publish the kinds of books that we do is akin to dragging a 320-tonne steamboat up a hill. It’s possible, but it’s going to be extremely difficult.
KA: How can publishing be more sustainable than a madman’s dream?
JT: I have a somewhat naïve and idealistic conception of the role of a publishing house. I want Fitzcarraldo Editions to be the kind of publishing house that publishes authors, rather than books. For example, if I publish your debut book and it sells 500 copies, I will publish the second one anyway, and so on and so forth. The hope is that author and publishing house can grow—and prosper—together. I suppose here it’s important to point out that Fitzcarraldo Editions is a limited company, a profit-making company—perhaps a profit-desiring company is more accurate at this stage.
The idea is to build a publishing house that is sustainable over a long time and to make it work in the old tradition of publishing. The traditional publishing model is, put in very simple terms, that you publish X number of books a year and that you have one book that sells more than everything else and props the rest of the list up. Obviously this is an extreme example, but your Harry Potter will fund your formally inventive, debut novel by someone no one’s ever heard of, that will probably sell 600 copies. The idea is to strike a balance in a sense between things that are more appealing to a broader audience and things that might be perceived as more difficult. I think in the catalogue there are things that are clearly very appealing, while still being excellent, like Pretentiousness by Dan Fox, a sort of polemic on the importance of pretentiousness. It is written brilliantly—on a sentence level Dan is a faultless writer—and is intellectually rigorous, very cleverly structured and mapped out. That kind of book obviously has a broader appeal to an English-speaking audience than something like Zone, for example, which is translated from French and is perceived to be more difficult. People might pick it up and see this weighty book, written in one sentence, and drop it and run, though it is in fact a very compelling novel that does not make excessive demands on the reader (except on an emotional level). But anyhow there has to be this balance, and that isn’t to say that I think one type of book is better than the other—they are just different—and I haven’t yet published a book that I don’t like (and won’t). As the person who works the most on all of these books I have to feel passionate about all of them.
KA: Where are these books, these books you describe in your mission?
JT: I find different books in different ways. First of all, there’re books I’ve sub-licensed from American publishers, Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents, Eula Biss’s On Immunity, John Keene’s Counternarratives, to name a few. In Fitzcarraldo Editions’ first year of publishing, five of the six books were sub-licensed, because we needed books that we could publish quickly. There will be proportionally fewer as the years go by.
Then there’re the books I’ve acquired for translation into English—like Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, the Nocilla trilogy by Agustin Fernandez Mallo. These I tend to go looking for myself, rather than waiting for submissions to come in. That’s partly because I know I can’t compete financially with bigger publishers on agented submissions, but also because part of the motivation behind doing this is to take risks on books that other publishers won’t do. So I listen to recommendations from people whose taste I trust—authors, editors, critics, and translators. I also follow what happens in France closely: French publishers tend to be very quick to translate things, and generally publish a lot more translated books. So they bring out a lot of the literature that interests me before I know it will, and by following the likes of Actes Sud, Allia, Verdier, Métailié, Gallimard and Cambourakis I find interesting things. I came across Svetlana Alexievich that way. I first came across her when I read La fin de l’homme rouge in French when it came out in 2013 and it was one of the first things I tried to acquire when I launched Fitzcarraldo Editions.
For books originally written in English, it’s different again. There are the essays, which are largely commissions, or which begin with writers coming to me with proposals. A fair few of these are in the process of being written. Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster, is the latest of these. Charlie is a young critic, one of those rare beasts who makes a living from writing. I’ve known him since we published him in The White Review when he was 19. He is such an unusual and brilliant writer. One evening I asked him whether he’d like to write a book, and what it might be, and he came up with This Young Monster, which is also an attempt to find a new form for the essay collection. Every essay is written in a different style. The Alice in Wonderland chapter is written in the first person, from Alice’s perspective; the Larry Clark and Harmony Korine piece is written in small chapters, jumping from scene to scene like a written version of Gummo; there is also a playscript in which a German vampire named Klaus and an English witch named Hermione are getting high on potions on Halloween night and talking about their favorite artists, notably Cameron Jamie. It is an insane book.
Original English-language fiction, by which I mean fiction I am not acquiring from an American publisher, is probably the toughest thing to find, because there is so much competition and possibly a dearth of the kind of writing I find interesting in the first place. So again, I have to think outside the box to find the writers I want to publish. To give you another example, we’ve just published Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, a debut collection of short stories in the tradition of Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter. Camilla’s work was first recommended to me by the British novelist Nicola Barker, who had come across her blog via Twitter. I initially wrote to Camilla asking for a story for The White Review (‘Agata’s Machine’), before signing her up to do a book, which we worked on together for a year and half.
KA: Can you tell me a little more about The White Review and how it compares to Fitzcarraldo Editions?
JT: The White Review predates Fitzcarraldo Editions by five years, and I would say the editorial line of the publishing house is in some respects an extension of the principles of the magazine. The White Review is a little magazine like many others. It’s an arts and literature quarterly magazine, with print and online editions. We publish three print issues a year, and nine dedicated online issues, and put on many events. It’s a charity (the equivalent of your not-for-profits), which is cover for not having to say we have a very small budget. Everyone who works on the magazine only does so one day a week and works elsewhere for money. As I mentioned before Fitzcarraldo Editions, by contrast, is a profit-making company (or at least that’s the hope). The editorial decisions are similar to a degree, in so far as I am involved in both, but there are some crucial differences.
The White Review exists almost outside of any market imperatives. We know roughly how many copies it’s going to sell issue on issue and there is no chance that we might have a ‘breakout’ issue the way you might have a successful book. That means we can absolutely publish what we think is the most innovative fiction, essay, art writing, or poetry we can find without worrying too much about sales. And we’re able to give young writers a chance, to try new things out. Fitzcarraldo Editions exists to publish similarly ambitious writing, but I do occasionally have to exercise some restraint, and to be mindful that if every book we publish sells 500 copies then there won’t be too many more books.
Another crucial difference is that I am the sole editor at Fitzcarraldo Editions, and so the list is absolutely a reflection of my tastes, and its successes and failures are totally my responsibility. At The White Review, there needs to be consensus about a piece of writing for us to publish it. Only yesterday I loved a piece and pushed for it to go in a print issue but Ben vehemently disagreed with me, and the other editors were more on his side than mine. So we won’t publish that piece at all. I know this is a somewhat flawed comparison but if that piece had been a book I was considering for Fitzcarraldo Editions I would probably have published it—which is to say that there are no checks and balances in place. If I like something, I’ll publish it (or try to)—I am sole dictator on board.
The White Review takes its name and a degree of inspiration from La Revue Blanche, a Parisian magazine that ran from 1889 to 1903 with a similar focus, on both art and literature. We launched it in February 2011 to provide ‘a space for a new generation to express itself unconstrained by form, subject or genre,’ and we’ve since published fiction, essays, interviews with writers and artists, poetry, and series of artworks over 19 print issues and many online issues, with a mix of established and new writers each time. Each print edition is designed and art directed by Ray O’Meara, and features a bespoke typeface and a fold-down dust-jacket by a different artist each time that doubles up as a limited-edition print.
KA: So another 320-ton steamboat?
JT: In some respects, yes.
KA: What do you feel your role is as an editor?
JT: The main thing is to bring texts from manuscript stage to publication. Sometimes that involves very little work, and just going through the motions of production—when you’re publishing a book you’ve acquired from an American publishing house, for example. But most of the time I do actually have to edit things, for structure or style or both.
I am both editor and publisher, so my role goes a bit beyond that of the editor at a bigger publishing house. As all editors I have a responsibility to the authors I’m publishing, to publish their books as well as I can, and to do the best by them and their work. That means producing a nice book, with a flawless text, that we’re both happy with, and making sure it gets out to as many people as possible and try to sell as many copies as possible. Then, I also feel very strongly that unlike many publishers—particularly corporate publishers—I have a responsibility to stick by authors. Whenever I take on a new author I say to them that if the first book doesn’t work I will still want to do the next one. The idea is that we grow as publisher and author side by side. If it’s a young writer and they sell 500 copies that’s fine, we’ll just plan the next book and carry on publishing together and build their career little by little. I think that’s really important, to build a relationship of trust with authors and to make them feel like we’re in it together for the long haul. In French publishing there is a term for this —‘une politique d’auteur,’ which translates roughly (and badly) as an author-focused policy.
KA: What is your relationship with the actual text?
JT: Usually when I receive a manuscript I’ll read it through once before sitting down to edit, so I have a sense of the whole. Then I’ll go through the whole manuscript line by line, making suggestions as I go along, both structural and stylistic. When I’m finished I send the manuscript with my notes, comments and suggestions back to the author or translator asking them to make the necessary changes. If they disagree with anything, we’ll talk about it and reach a consensus.
Sometimes we’ll go back and forth a few times before arriving at a final manuscript. Sometimes it’s quicker than that. With a book originally written in English you have the freedom to think about and play around with structure, and there is the possibility of cuts or additions, because you’re shaping a book for the first time and it can shapeshift as you go along. If it’s a book in translation the process is less creative, in a sense, because you’re making a version of a book that already exists in another language, and the foundations are already there. Some editors do sometimes make big cuts to a translation, arguing that the original should have been edited, but I’ve never done that and have an instinctive reaction against that kind of interventionism, partly out of respect for an original version of a book. Also, when editing a translation, if it’s from a language I know, I can use the original as a crutch. When it’s from a language I don’t know, which is most languages, I have to edit the English on its own terms.
KA: What are the major, if any, difference between publishing in the UK and publishing in the US?
From this vantage point, I would say US publishing feels more diverse and more adventurous than UK publishing. There seem to be so many indie presses of all shapes and sizes publishing lots of interesting books, zines, pamphlets, etc. In the UK we are probably better at publishing translation, however—a more diverse field of literature in translation appears. And I am stating the obvious here but our market is much, much smaller than yours.
KA: What publisher(s) would you align yourself with in the States?
JT: I’m a big fan of Graywolf Press, who first published Eula Biss (one of our authors), who also publish Maggie Nelson and Leslie Jamison and Claudia Rankine and lots of other brilliant authors. I suppose they are an inspiration. I really like the Dalkey Archive Press list, and admire the editorial minds behind that list—an unashamedly ‘serious’ publishing house. There are other publishers I’ve been following for a few years and that I admire a lot, like Melville House, FSG (where I interned for a few months) and Coffee House Press, with whom I now share a couple of authors. But New Directions is probably my favorite English-language publishing house, and the one I most aspire to resemble with Fitzcarraldo Editions, which is possibly preposterous of me to say after only two and half years of publishing.
KA: What are your thoughts on today’s publishing model?
JT: I don’t think I’m qualified to speak about this in any insightful way. I am still figuring out how one publishes as a small independent press, and what the model for that might be. The way Fitzcarraldo Editions functions now—as an editorially-driven independent press relying on a sum of component parts (a designer, a freelance publicist, an independent sales team, etc.)—allows it to contribute to the culture in its own small way and that is good enough for the time being.
KA: A small way perhaps, but your books carry larger messages.
JT: I’m glad you think so.