Recently, Chris Faatz of Powell's had the opportunity to interview Barbara Epler, publisher and editor-in-chief of New Directions Publishing.
Chris: New Directions is an amazing institution, one of the great publishers in American literary history, and one of the premier publishers of literature today. But, as I understand it, it got off to a fairly humble start. Could you tell us a bit of that story? If our readers want to glean a little bit more about New Directions' colorful history, to what books or resources would you direct them?
Epler: It was fairly humble — an office room in Cambridge while James Laughlin (J. L. to us) was still a student at Harvard; his aunt's stable was converted into an office up in Norfolk for the next spell. J. L.'s first book was the first number of what would become the annual anthology, New Directions in Prose and Poetry. Ezra Pound introduced him to many writers, and that first issue included work by Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorine Niedecker, Henry Miller, and Louis Zukofsky. But, while his taste was so impressive, he didn't know much about publishing, and it came out without any page numbers...
J. L., in the early decades especially, traveled a lot, and at one point Delmore Schwartz (who had run the Cambridge office for a time), after the only copy of his poetry manuscript had been lost for a long time (under the floorboards of the Alta ski resort's mail truck), demanded that J. L. decide what to be: a playboy or a publisher.
J. L. was also very thrifty: when Schwartz asked for an advance, J. L. was appalled, and said, "Why do you want an advance? You'll only spend it!"
He also wouldn't let authors correct proofs; it was too expensive:
You don't know what authors are like because you are one....Authors just have to take one look at a page of proofs to go entirely crazy and decide they are Jesus instead of Napoleon and rewrite the damn thing. I'm sorry, I just can't afford it. You authors have to realize that we small publishers can print you but can't humor you.
(J. L. was in fact an heir to the Jones & Laughlin steel fortune.)
For books about New Directions: Norton publishes collections of J. L.'s letters with principal authors; and he himself wrote a great book about Pound called Pound as Wuz. New Directions brought out an ABC about J. L. called The Way It Wasn't, which is highly illustrated and meant to be amusing.
There was a terrific obituary of J. L. in The Nation. And, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux will be Ian MacNiven's biography of J. L..
I like this bit, which J. L. wrote late in life, in a letter to a scholar working on William Carlos Williams:
I am happy that your "archival" number is shaping up well. If you do one again, remind me to show you some old William Carlos Williams letters that are quite marvelous. Letters to me, that is. I recently read over, in preparation for my spiel at Penn the end of April, over 1,500 letters to me from Pound, and over 1,000 from Williams. It was a rather shattering experience, as it made me realize how delinquent I had been as a publisher. Repeated demands from both about when such and such a book is coming out, when I was off skiing somewhere. But if I hadn't gone skiing, I probably wouldn't have kept my sanity, at least as far as Pound was concerned. Williams was much more patient and understanding.
Chris: New Directions has an exceptionally broad list of authors. Not only do you publish such well-known folks as Pound, Roberto Bolaño, and Denise Levertov, but you also champion the likes of Israeli author Yoel Hoffmann, Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. Is there a coherent philosophy behind your publishing? Would you care to share with our readers what that philosophy is?
Epler: We really just try to find the best writing we can, albeit in a somewhat narrow bailiwick. (We are now owned by a trust and one of its provisions is that we continue to publish the kind of books J. L. wanted: a sort of baggy category, but with an emphasis still on experimental or what used to be called avant-garde writing.) We have every hope that Horacio and Dunya and Yoel will become better known. Luckily, another tenet of the company is that, as Pound said, sometimes truly new writing can take 20 years to catch on and find its way to a larger audience. (We are trying to improve our marketing, hoping to narrow down that time lag from two decades to something a little more satisfying to our authors and for our coffers...)
Chris: I think of some books as being something one lives and breathes by. Rexroth plays that role in my life. This may be an unfair question, but you must have some favorite ND titles or authors that you return to again and again for care and feeding. Who might a few of those be?
Epler: Oh, dear: I have too many favorites — and I'd like to excuse myself as there are so many great authors, and any omissions would be painful to the living writers. But among the great and departed, Muriel Spark and Clarice Lispector and W. G. Sebald and Felisberto Hernández and Henry Green and Robert Walser have extra large places in my heart. Then there are extraordinary books that have a special place — William Gerhardie's Futility, Herbert Read's The Green Child, and Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol.
Chris: I understand that Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha is one of your bestselling titles of all time. What other books and authors really stand out historically on your list?
Epler: Tennessee Williams, especially with The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, is our chief breadwinner. Dylan Thomas, Sartre, Borges, Céline, Nat West, Neruda, Isherwood, Henry Miller, and Merton are other traditionally bestselling authors.
Bolaño is currently very much a major breadwinner for us; right now he is up near the top, and Sebald is another very good earner.
Chris: It's notoriously difficult to interest American readers in literature in translation. Is that your experience? Why do you think that's true or not, as the case may be?
Epler: I think it is a truism: the sort of thing people say enough times that they begin to believe it whether or not it's true. In our experience, it's not: as you see in that list above, more than half of our bestselling books are in translation.
I think certain cultural roadblocks exist: you hear that the big chain bookstore doesn't "believe in translation," whatever that means. The big publishers tend not to put the translator's name on the cover, as if it's something to hide that the book is a translation. Also, marketing departments are so powerful in the big houses that I think they tend to also want to avoid translations; as a friend who works at a large publisher explained, it is hard enough to get an American novel, which everyone can read and with an author name everyone can pronounce, past the marketing department's watchdogs. Younger editors have a very hard time getting a green light, I think.
And it doesn't help that the book reviews aren't faring very well these days; they have ever less space.
But the good news is the amazing amount of work being done by the excellent smaller houses like Archipelago, Melville House, Europa, Other Press, New York Review of Books Classics, City Lights, Graywolf, Open Letter, Ugly Duckling, Dalkey Archive — the list goes on: I am sure I am forgetting other excellent small presses. And some larger houses like Harcourt, FSG, Knopf, Grove, Metropolitan, Norton have some excellent translated literature.
I guess it just all depends: I mean, look at the Bolaño phenomenon; that's been going like a house on fire.
Chris: James Laughlin was, in any estimation, an extraordinary man, a true visionary. He was also — and this is not as well known as it should be — a gifted poet. Would you tell our readers a bit about him and his work, both at New Directions and as a writer in his own right?
Epler: James Laughlin exaggerated Pound's telling him that he'd never be a good poet and he ought to do something useful like assassinating the book reviewer Pound hated or starting a publishing company. (This is an interesting aspect of J. L.'s life which I think Ian MacNiven addresses in depth in the forthcoming biography.)
J. L. wrote poetry his whole life — he cultivated a modest or even humble-pie attitude about his own work, but he was a master of the tender and elegiac as well as the amorous or humorous poem. We have published several of his collections, and coming out sometime soon is a massive Collected Poems of James Laughlin.
I like his poetry a lot: here's one, "The Interdiction":
You think you can remember but
can you be certain you be—
lieve it happened but are
you sure were the things
said that each one heard
the other say were there
days were there nights did
it rain did the sun shine
it is forbidden to answer
any of these questions it
is forbidden to remember
Chris: What do you see as the future of publishing in our country and the world? How about the future of New Directions?
Epler: I think we are all going through a hard time financially, but I believe readers will always want books. New Directions has to move forward with offering our books in e-book formats, and we are trying to do a better job of reaching out over the web, with blogging and sending books to bloggers and improving our own website.
Old dogs, new tricks — it isn't easy.
But the book as a physical object is still a perfect thing, and perfect things endure (bowls, wheels, cats, spoons...). In our case, we just have to watch our spending and keep just going on.
Chris: Every time I see the new catalog from you guys, I think, "Boy, this list will be hard to beat," and yet you always manage to bring out new stuff that's just sparkling in its beauty and vision. What's coming up that our readers can look forward to?
Epler: I am very excited about the third volume of Javier Marías's novel-in-three-parts Your Face Tomorrow (November 2009) as well as his novel Bad Nature; or, With Elvis in Mexico (part of our new Pearl series of $10 books) (February 2010). There is an outstanding Colombian novel in September, Evelio Rosero's The Armies, and, in the same month, the funniest book I have worked on in years, Horacio Castellanos Moya's The She-Devil in the Mirror.
Dunya Mikhail's memoir in poetry Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, Yoko Tawada's The Naked Eye, Yoel Hoffmann's Curriculum Vitae, and Guillermo Rosales's The Halfway House are all recent favorites, just out the last month or two. The delayed Robert Walser novel The Tanners, with a wonderful introduction by Sebald, is just today hot off the press. And Bolaño's Monsieur Pain is one of his very best books.
I am also excited about new collections on the horizon by poets Michael Palmer and Susan Howe.
And our next list is (I say modestly) great. Spring 2010 favorites include:
Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño: His first fiction book; sort of like the Big Bang.
Nox by Anne Carson: Accordion-fold in a box — a beautiful meditation on the death of her brother, highly illustrated.
The Original Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, with a preface by Paul Muldoon.
The Microtexts by Robert Walser: Deluxe cloth, lavishly illustrated — a collaboration with the Christine Burgin gallery.
The Literary Conference by César Aira: An amazing and terribly funny book, and another Pearl at $10.
Conspiracy of Charlatans by Albert Cossery: He is known as the Voltaire of the Nile.
The King of Trees by Ah Cheng: A beautiful trio of novellas about the Cultural Revolution
The Three Fates by Linda Lê: A French-Vietnamese sort of King Lear in Saigon novel
Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
The Return by Roberto Bolaño: his next story volume.
Chris: Thanks so much, Barbara. This was a real treat.