An interview with Barbara Epler
"I asked Ezra Pound for 'career advice'. He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do 'something' useful." This is how James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, a publishing house in New York that has been around since 1936, narrated the circumstances of its birth. A publisher of innovative and experimental work from the beginning (they took on Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Tennessee Williams, among others), New Directions’s main aim today is to make the works of foreign writers known in the US. They have published works by W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Mihail Bulgakov, as well as by several Central European writers like László Krasznahorkai, Dubravka Ugrešić or Mircea Cărtărescu. We talked to Barbara Epler, editor-in-chief of New Directions, who has worked for the house since 1984 and has been its head since 1996.
What is the position of New Directions among American publishers?
New Directions is probably the only one of its kind in a way, because it is independent still and it is for profit, and in America publishers break down to for-profit ones – big corporations or small companies – and non-profit ones – funded by various, basically left-wing cultural organizations. So we’re a little unusual. We have been around for seventy-five years, so we have a long history with a lot of transitions.
You have published books by several Hungarian writers: Tibor Déry (Love and Other Stories, 2005), László Krasznahorkai (Melancholy of Resistance, 2002; War and War, 2006; Animalinside, 2011), Dezső Kosztolányi (Anna Édes, 1993; Kornél Esti, 2011). This is a very mixed list. On what basis did you choose them?
It is very hard to find Hungarian readers, so we knew about all the three authors from previous English-language publications. Our first Hungarian author was Dezső Kosztolányi. There used to be this great publisher Quartet that went down – we found their Anna Édes and republished it. Susan Sontag was still alive then and she loved that book; she was the one who mentioned another Quartet author, László Krasznahorkai. She used to mention ten books at a time that you’ve never heard of, and they were all great books. She had already recommended several books that we translated eventually, so I said: ‘who’s László Krasznahorkai?’ And then I got a copy of Melancholy of Resistance and read it, and it was in fact great. Tibor Déry was the obsession of a friend of mine, Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street Magazine. He loved Niki, the Story of a Dog, which has just been republished by New York Review Books Classics. He told us to do the dog, because dogs sell, but we loved the stories of Love more, so we made a selection on the basis of two different British books that were already out of print.
László Krasznahorkai is, I think, a really great writer, he is probably the genius on our list who should get more attention, and will probably get it when we publish Satan’s Tango that we’re bringing out in February. We always wanted to bring it out, but for some reason I thought it was thousand pages long and was going to be one of these very hard-to-sell novels. And then I saw it at a publishing house in France, and I realized it was not an enormous size novel, so I decided to publish it, as well as that little tiny Animalinside. And we are also bringing out the short-story collection Seiobo’s Been Here Below, the last two in Ottilie Mulzet’s translation. Satan’s Tango was translated by George Szirtes, who is a great translator, but is incredibly busy – he’s a professor and a poet, and it took him ten years to translate the book.
As for Kornél Esti, I always loved Anna Édes and I heard that Esti was very different and sort of experimental, so I was curious about it, and then I read a very nice chapter on the website of the PEN Translation Fund which works in New York for helping to get more translations published.
Do you get a lot of feedback from critics and readers?
Yes, sometimes too much… Luckily, mostly good feedback. Buying is huge, and we get a lot of fan mail. Also, sometimes someone just gets obsessed with a writer like Krasznahorkai. Students at universities where creative writing is taught are interested in interesting writers, and they are not only reading but actually reviewing our books.
Many people complain that it is particularly hard to get American readers to be interested in translated literature.
It is unfortunately true for a lot of people, but there’s a group of people – it’s not a very big group, but a very serious group, around half a million, maybe a million people – who really read books, and they don’t differentiate between English-language and translated literature, they just read whatever is good. And the number of people who read translated literature sometimes expands – like when suddenly Gabriel García Márquez became a bestseller.
What other Hungarian writers are you planning to publish?
Well, more of László Krasznahorkai – after Animalinside, which is coming out this month, Satan’s Tango will be published in February 2012, and Seiobo probably in the Fall of 2012 or maybe Spring 2013. And we have just recently decided to publish Sinistra District by Ádám Bodor. You talk to a lot of people, and many of them say ‘why don’t you publish this book or that book’, and when there is a lot of overlapping opinion of people that you trust, then you start thinking about it. Doing a lot of world literature, you find friends in publishing who do the same kind of thing. There is a great Spanish publisher Jaume Vallcorba who publishes a lot of things that we also do, like László Krasznahorkai. He was leading on me and another friend.
Translation is an especially important and also a very problematic issue for a small nation with a peculiar language. How do you ensure that the translations you publish are of good quality?
Unfortunately, at New Directions we are so small and the money is so tight that we cannot hire language editors, since unfortunately – or fortunately – we publish books from so many languages. In any given language, when the translation doesn’t sound right, when it seems that it doesn’t come across, we ask a native speaker for help. But in some cases, like in Szirtes’s translation of Satan’s Tango, one can feel that it is amazing even without knowing the language. You just ask yourself: how does he do it? It feels like you are in the middle of a river that is flowing smoothly, it is beautiful. We had everyone in the office read it and they all said it was one of the most amazing books they had ever read. So with his translation all we had to do were really small things, like changing some of his British English expressions into American English. And there are some translations that turn out to be a massive disaster – luckily, none of our Hungarian books – and then you just go into the trenches and try to fix it. Sometimes you can’t, and then every once in a while we have to give up on a book.
Who was your most successful author? Were there cases when you expected no success and were surprised to find it, or vice versa?
You have all these wild young horses and you try to choose which one to tame and bring into the stable, but they are all beautiful. I see many more beautiful books than what we can afford to publish, so we make hard choices when we decide on something. And not all of them win eventually. I was surprised at the success of Bolaño, he sold hundreds of thousands of copies for us. Sebald more like tens of thousands, but it’s still great. Neither of them did we acquire thinking that they are the ones who make money. And there are some people who perform very poorly in terms of sales, like the Israeli writer Yoel Hoffman that I really love. He writes fiction that works like poetry, and he is very experimental. We never sold more than a thousand copies of his books. But he is a very great writer.
And then there is César Aira, this great Argentine writer who has written around eighty books, all of them very slim. He is also an experimental writer; not all of his books succeed, but when they do, they are wonderful. And he’s building up – this is what we do at New Directions: we cannot just do a book here and there, if we decide that someone is a great writer, then we keep trying. If you really believe that they are good and you can get enough critical traction, at some point you can put them over. The New Yorker has already written a review on César Aira, so we are beginning to get through. Unless you believe in someone and put your money in their books, it’s not going to work. With any truly great author, you just have to keep trying. Just think of Herman Melville – his books didn’t sell! Whether a book sells or not – there is some overlap with how good it is, but not really. I think it is the second-rate books that do really well.
How much do you rely on your backlist?
We used to rely on our backlist. The backlist was such an engine that if something on the frontlist sold well, then we opened a champagne, but now the backlist doesn’t function in the same way, because on the internet a lot of our books are available used for maybe ten percent less. Our backlist used to be a benchmark of American studies, and it is not so any more. Different kinds of things are coming in between – different ways of teaching literature, political and thematic considerations, and we do not follow this as easily as we used to.
What books on your frontlist are profit-making?
We’ve been very lucky to publish Roberto Bolaño – he’s been a big phenomenon in Europe, but he’s huge in the States. He became a kind of a James Dean in America. Initially two of his books were published by two bigger companies and they spent a huge amount of money on advertising him: very cleverly they did things like they showed pictures of him in his early twenties – a really hippy guy. All his books sold very well, he’s really been a big money-maker for us. Anne Carson’s book Nox was sold in fifteen thousand copies, which was really impressive. And Javier Marias, W.G. Sebald... not all our frontlist is successful in terms of sales, but individual titles do have some success.
What is your vision of the future of New Directions?
Struggling away. March was the worst months for sales I’ve ever seen in my life. This is because of the economic crunch, but also and particularly because we are not fast enough at changing. The whole thing of moving into e-books is not speedy enough for us. Certain people want so much for e-books rights that we make less money on the e-book than on the print book, whereas the whole idea of e-books is that both publishers and authors make more. Traditional book-vending has changed so much, so we are trying to use new ideas, like using the website to sell directly. But there are things on the horizon that seem very promising – like Satan’s Tango, or Javier Marías’s new book, which are really good and may do well. The quality of our books is high, sales low to medium, and we need to strike a balance where we keep bringing out only the best world literature but learn new ways to improve our sales (via social media, the new website, the e-books), and yet the key is to stick to what we do best.