Michael Reynolds on Ferrante’s Class Consciousness (and Rome vs. NYC)
In Conversation with the Editor of Europa Editions
This interview first appeared in Italian in America 24.
What is “the groundskeeper of the biggest maze in the southern hemisphere” doing in New York working at an Italian-owned publishing house? Very simply, as he has done in the past, he guards secrets.
Michael Reynolds is the editor in chief of Europa Editions, the American younger sister of the Italian press Edizioni E/O. Here, in brief, is the story: in 2005 the husband and wife and the founders of E/O, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, decided to invest in an American publishing house specializing in European literature.
After years spent doing the most fascinating and diverse jobs on three continents (and becoming in the process a human box of stories) Reynolds was an Australian in love, living in Rome. There was an immediate affinity between the Ferris and Reynolds, and he started working for the fledgling Europa Editions, whose main offices at the time were still in the Roman headquarters of E/O. The idea of publishing European authors in a country like the United States, where readers read only (or mostly) books originally written in English, was an ambitious one. “You’re crazy; it’s not going to work,” they were told by many.
Eleven years, two children, several books, and a literary phenomenon later, I pay a visit to Reynolds in Europa Editions’ headquarters in New York. He welcomes me in his office: a room full of light and books, nothing like a maze. He prepares tea while I prepare to collect his stories, stories that run the gamut from his relationship with Italy to the number of copies sold by Elena Ferrante in the United States so far (one million!), from the challenges posed by the profession, to finding and selecting books from abroad that can fare well on this side of the pond.
Francesca Pellas: You’ve had many different jobs in your life: you were a gold miner, a maze groundskeeper, a barman, a windsurfing instructor, a “guinea pig” for sleep deprivation experiments, a poetry teacher, an English teacher, a gardener, a builder, and a translator. You have directed a writer’s festival, a literary magazine, and written three books. Where did you have the most fun?
Michael Reynolds: This is the greatest job that I’ve ever had!
Francesca Pellas: How would you explain Europa Editions’ mission?
MR: Our bet is that quality fiction, no matter where it comes from, no matter if it’s in translation or not, can appeal to American readers. If a book is a good book it can and should be accessible to all readers.
FP: Why don’t Americans (and native English speakers in general) typically read books written by foreign authors?
MR: Mostly because those works are not available to them, in English. American publishing houses are not publishing many books from abroad. Editors don’t read in a second language—the majority of editors, at least. There’s very little awareness of or sensitivity to work that is being done outside this country. It’s not a problem with the American reader; it’s a problem concerning the publishing industry. I think American readers are happy to read anything that is good, and Elena Ferrante’s success proves this theory.
FP: Talking about Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment was the first book ever published by Europa Editions. What did you think when you read her for the first time?
MR: I was floored. It was early in my time in Italy, I was separating from my ex-wife and I thought: how does she know that about me? Is she writing about me?
She creates such a penetrating and universal portrait of human suffering. I saw myself in the husband and I saw myself in Olga, the wife. Elena Ferrante sticks her finger in our wounds. And she keeps pushing and pushing. She has a supreme faith and confidence in the written word, and that’s something very powerful.
FP: And the first time you read the Neapolitan Novels: did you immediately sense that you were in front of something big?
MR: Yes. I first heard of the quartet from Sandro Ferri. It was the summer before they were going to publish the first book in Italy. Sandro is a passionate publisher and a passionate reader, but he doesn’t often go overboard in his praise of a book. He doesn’t often use superlatives, but that time he said, “This is a masterpiece.” I knew something big was coming because I had never heard him use that word. Or, maybe, there was one other time, when he was talking about Brandys’ Rondo. When I first read the Neapolitan novels, my impression was confirmed.
FP: Were you expecting this success in the US?
MR: Nobody could have predicted this. The Days of Abandonment was a discreet success. The two following books, Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter were not. So we did not know what to expect. I had a sense that with My Brilliant Friend things were going to be different, but I have to say that my idea of big was nothing like what eventually happened.
FP: What’s the relationship between E/O and Europa Editions?
MR: We’re very closely connected, we work together on a daily basis. And I think it’s one of the keys to our success. We have one foot in Europe, we understand why a particular book is important, and we understand why it should be translated. But we have the other foot in America and can form a realistic picture of what its prospects will be. In the New York office there’s the publicity and sales and marketing departments, and much of the editorial is done here. Design is in Rome, our production manager is in Rome, contracts and accounting is done through Rome. The owners in Italy are obviously deeply involved in deciding the general business strategy of the company, and they still make many acquisitions. We are one body, really.
FP: But currently you don’t publish only E/O books like you used to in your first years, right?
MR: Yes, at this point only about 50 percent of our list is shared with E/O.
FP: Can you tell us something about your relationship with Italy? How did you learn Italian?
MR: I lived in Italy for ten years; my two kids were born there, and their mother is Italian.
FP: Where is she from?
MR: Rome! So my relationship with Italy is a very close one. I started working for Europa Editions there; at the time we were in the E/O offices. I started coming here quite often. At about that time my second daughter was born, and Europa had recently published The Elegance of the Hedgehog (by the French writer Muriel Barbery), and so I think things were sort of picking up here for us…
FP: That book did very well, right?
MR: It sold 1.2 million copies, just in the United States. We thought that it was necessary to have more people here in New York at that time. Initially it was to oversee what we saw as a transitional period from a very small publishing reality to a slightly larger one, but we kept transitioning and transitioning, so I stayed here. And I’m still here, six years later!
FP: So this means that your daughters are bilingual.
MR: Yes! It’s fun actually because my older daughter started speaking in Italian, and subsequently acquired English. I always spoke to her in English but before we moved here she always replied in Italian. My younger daughter grew up totally bilingual, because she was about to turn one when we moved here. She started speaking in English, but her mother speaks to her in Italian and we go back for the summer so they get to speak Italian there… It was all very interesting to watch.
FP: What was the first book you ever read in Italian?
MR: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
FP: What qualities should a publisher possess, aside from nationality, language, money… What makes a great publisher?
MR: I think that a publishing house has to have a strong identity. Just like an author, who must have his or her own voice, an imprint must have its own voice too. There are around a million books published in America every year. A million titles! So it’s very important that a publisher presents a strong identity and that readers come to think of it as a reliable source for good reads.
FP: You said that the role of a good publisher is “to create demand rather than meet demand, or that perhaps it’s more a question of meeting a dormant, unacknowledged demand.” What’s the best demand you were able to create with Europa Editions?
MR: The publishing house itself. When we were starting everyone said, “You’re crazy, it’s not going to work.” I think we proved them wrong.
FP: What are the most fun, or moving, or striking things that have happened since the “Ferrante Fever” exploded in the US?
MR: One of the things that many readers miss about Ferrante is that she is writing about the underclass, about very poor urban families, about people who have been abandoned or underserved by society. Last year, an African-American friend told me that her grandmother and all her friends in a city in the South have got Ferrante Fever, that it was all they were talking about. I loved hearing this, because I think ethnic minorities, those people who have suffered history, are Ferrante’s natural audience.
Another thing I always remember was a night with Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s translator, held at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. Obviously there was no author present. But the place was packed: the crowd spilled out into the lobby and onto the sidewalk, and there were people in the street shushing passersby so they could hear the live stream from downstairs. To see that Ferrante is appealing to such a vast array of readers is the most extraordinary thing about this. The events have always been amazing for me: there’s no author, but there’s a feeling that people want to be together around these books, they want to feel the energy of their love for this writer. There’s something almost mystical about that.
FP: Elena Ferrante has in the past explained why she doesn’t want to be in the spotlight: because she thinks that a book, once it’s published, doesn’t belong to its author anymore, and has to follow its own path. So, she doesn’t want to stand out in order to have the freedom to write. What do you think about it? Why doesn’t she doesn’t want to enjoy the fruits of her own labor? Doesn’t she even have an ounce of vanity (in a good sense), or desire to be celebrated?
MR: I don’t think that she feels uncelebrated. Her reasons might have changed over the years. Originally, I think, her motivation was shyness mixed with a nascent idea that books had to have a life of their own.
FP: Maybe she didn’t want to trouble her family, because of what she wrote?
MR: That’s a possibility. But then I think that not appearing allowed her to discover a greater space, a space of freedom. And this evolved into an idea of what writing should be, that it could exist without the involvement of what I think she sees as a lesser version of herself. Or a different version of herself. Let’s suppose she has a family: of course she is not a lesser version of herself to her family, or her friends, but a different one. And if you’re looking for the author in that person you’ll soon discover that she is not really there: an author is in his or her books. If people were meeting Elena Ferrante in person, they would be looking for the author, but what she’s trying to say is: I put all of myself in my books. I am there. I am much more present there than I would ever be at any book event.
FP: Do you think she might have been tempted over the years?
MR: I think so, yes. But there’s also another consideration. Over these last few years we have fielded incredible offers for her to show herself, and her response has been, among others: “I’ve been saying no to everyone for 30 years. If I say yes now to this person, it’s a complete betrayal of all those others. And why should I do that? Why should I say to those people: you weren’t that important. And why should I say to someone: you are much more important than anyone who has ever asked me before?” It’s an admirable position.
FP: I was re-reading Michiko Kakutani’s review of The Story of The Lost Child and it struck me how she says that Elena Greco went to “a decent school” (“lucky enough to win a place at a decent school”), when in fact the Normale of Pisa, the school Elena goes to, is the most prestigious and legendary and almost inaccessible school we have in Italy: it’s the university attended by real geniuses. So I was thinking about how a foreign perspective can change everything in one’s comprehension of a story. If missing such an important thing only because she’s not Italian can happen to such a revered critic, to such a wonderful reader, then how many things can the common reader miss, if he or she reads something which was written in a country other than his or her own? How many times can that same, sad thing happen to me, or to everyone else?
MR: Obviously, some things are going to be lost on American readers. But something is lost also on readers who don’t come from the same social background. Many of Ferrante’s most passionate readers in Italy are well-to-do, upper middle-class readers. How many of them can understand what it is like to grow up at that time in extreme poverty, in a violent neighborhood in Naples, in that culture of “prepotenza,” chauvinism, and daily power struggles? What I think though is that at some point you sense there is something greater pulsing beneath the surface, and that’s what captures even the reader whose life bears no resemblance to what’s recounted in the books. That’s what fiction is for.
FP: The Italian production company Fandango is working on a TV series based on the Neapolitan Novels: what do you think about it?
MR: I’m excited. I know that she’s very much involved in the project, that nothing happens without her, and for me that’s enough to be sure it will be good.
FP: How do you select manuscripts here at Europa? How much do you read before making a decision?
MR: I read everything that comes in, but I don’t read the pitch first, nor the cover letter. I start with the manuscript. I look at the email just to make sure it’s not something that we don’t publish, and then go straight to the manuscript. I read 30 pages and decide whether it’s worth continuing or not. Sometimes I know from the second line that it’s not going to work for us, but I always, always, give these manuscripts the benefit of the doubt and read those 30 pages. I’ve never changed my mind, but I feel that’s the least I can do out of respect for someone who spent so much time writing something.
FP: Suggestions to someone who dreams of becoming a writer?
MR: Just this one thing: read more. If you already read a lot, read even more.
FP: Does the fact of having written and translated books yourself help with your job?
MR: I don’t think the writing does. The translating is different, because I work with a lot of translators and authors on their translations, and I think that having had experience as a translator myself makes me more sensitive to the problems and the difficulties that a translator encounters while working.
FP: The book you would never publish?
MR: The vast majority of books! I think that 60 percent of books that are around now are not necessary. We at Europa are lucky to be in a position where we don’t have to publish things that we don’t like but think will sell. The line between realism and cynicism is right there: in a publishing house it’s normal to read something and ask yourself “is this going to sell?” because in order to keep doing your job you have to be realistic. But when you read something that you hate and think “this is going to sell” and publish it, that’s where realism becomes cynicism. We’re lucky not to have to do that.
FP: Who is the author you were most excited about meeting?
MR: Good question. Massimo Carlotto, I think. It was emotional and exciting to think about meeting him and then even more exciting to actually meet him. He’s a special person with an incredible story.
FP: You are Australian; can you suggest us some Australian authors we should absolutely read?
MR: Two coming out for us this year: Charlotte Wood and Joan London. Two very different writers, both exceptional. And a writer I myself would love to publish: Richard Flanagan, one of the greatest contemporary Australian authors.
FP: Just out of curiosity, where do you live here in New York?
MR: Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. I love Brooklyn and especially that neighborhood.
FP: And where did you live in Rome?
MR: Rione Monti. Such a beautiful place!
FP: Do you want to live in New York your whole life?
MR: Who knows. I thought I would live in Rome my entire life, and now I am here. Maybe one day I’ll go back to Rome, or go to London where Europa also has an office, or somewhere else. All that matters to me is that it’s a stimulating environment both for me and my family, and a place where I can keep on doing what we’re doing: publishing great books.