Indie Fiction Subscription #11: Introducing Fitzcarraldo Editions

We’ve been waiting for a super-special title to celebrate Fitzcarraldo Editions, and our October indie fiction subscription choice, Vanessa Onwuemezi’s Dark Neighbourhood, is just that: a new voice in British and world literature who is raising the bar even for this definitional publisher.

Fitzcarraldo is an independent publisher specialising in contemporary fiction and long-form essays. Founded in 2014, it focuses on ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language. The series, designed by Ray O’Meara, are published as paperback originals with French flaps, using a custom serif typeface (called Fitzcarraldo).

Editor Tamara Sampey-Jawad joined us to talk about published Nobel laureates, expanding the British literary imagination, and that now-classic O’Meara design. Follow and show your love to 🐦 @FitzcarraldoEds 📸 @fizcarraldoeditions.

It’s hard to believe that Fitzcarraldo has only being going since 2014 – it feels like such a crucial part of UK literary publishing! You’ve packed a lot in to those seven years, including publishing two Nobel laureates in translation, Svetlana Alexievitch and (BF fave) Olga Tokarczuk, as well as running two prizes (for novels and essays), and running in tandem with The White Review, all at top quality all the time. How on earth do you do it???

That’s very kind of you to say – we do our best! We’ve been lucky with prizes, as you mention, which has allowed us to grow steadily and develop new projects, from producing our own audiobooks, which we started doing last year, to expanding the prizes and increasing the number of books we publish a year – though there is always more that we’d like to do.

Tell us a bit about the prizes, which constitute an unusual approach to making space for new voices in literature. How were they initially conceived, and how have you seen them develop over the years? What’s the process like? And why do you think this approach works so well?

We set up our essay prize first, in 2016, which is for unpublished writers, and then in 2018 launched our novel prize, which is open to published and unpublished authors. Initially this was only to residents of the UK & Ireland but in 2020 the novel prize went global, so to speak, and we teamed up with New Directions in the US and Giramondo in Australia, opening up entries to books written in English from writers all over the world. We’ve published a number of debuts in English and the essay prize has been instrumental in our ability to discover new voices, but the novel prize has also allowed to find writers who’ve perhaps had a gap in their career, for whatever reason, such as Jeremy Cooper, who won our inaugural prize (when we ran it alone) with the achingly beautiful Ash before Oak, and we’ve since published another novel by him too (Bolt from the Blue). The prizes are an important part of our programme and they’ve allowed us to find exciting authors for the English language side of our publishing whom we might not encounter through the more traditional publishing avenues.

You have a very eclectic, transnational list that often features books that transcend established genres: how would you explain to a reader new to the press what Fitzcarraldo publishes? And where would you suggest they begin?

We focus on publishing ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language. We have two ‘strands’, the fiction series (the blue covers) and the essay series (the white covers), and we try to maintain a balance between all these categories, so our list is more-or-less evenly split between books in English and in translation, and between fiction and essays – though because we publish books that are ambitious in form the latter isn’t always an obvious distinction! For example, Maria Stepanova’s kaleidoscopic In Memory of Memory (translated by Sasha Dugdale), which dips into essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents to tell the story of an ordinary Russian-Jewish family – her own – over the course of the twentieth century. Joshua Cohen looks at another Jewish family, this time a more prominent one, in his latest novel, The Netanyahus: An Account of A Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. Blending fiction with non-fiction, the campus novel with the lecture, it’s a novel of ideas that is as riotously funny as it is keenly sobering. 

You publish translation alongside writing that originates in English, in both fiction and non-fiction (and sometimes books that play with all of the above, like Gina Apostol's Insurrecto): why is it important (for you; in general) to keep the transnational community of writing alive in this way? And what are some of the challenges to doing so in the UK?

Translation has historically been rather lacking in anglophone publishing. That is slowly changing, and prizes like the International Booker – which rewards the translator and writer equally – are helping to raise the profile of translated literature. I think a perception of difficulty, amongst other things, has hindered it from taking up a more substantial position but I don’t really understand the need to set translated literature apart from English-language works.

It sounds trite, but I think letting the books speak from themselves rather than enforcing hierarchies or perpetuating hackneyed tropes (an issue that also extends to how books by women or writers from marginalised communities are marketed, for example) helps to break down the boundaries and biases that limit literary consumption. Aside from the political value in reading outside of your cultural landscape, it also seems to me an anaemic way of enjoying books, which misses out on all the great literature, past and present, from other languages. 

Upcoming titles include Dorothy Tse’s first novel Owlish (translated by Natascha Bruce), Fitzcarraldo’s first Chinese-language acquisition, and Alaa Abd-el Fattah’s essay collection You Have Not Been Defeated (translated by a collective), which is your second Arabic-language acquisition after Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail (translated by Elizabeth Jacquette). Literature from non-European languages is less frequently translated in the UK: does Fitzcarraldo have plans to continue broadening its transnational community?

Yes, we certainly want to continue to broaden our list and both Owlish and You Have Not Been Defeated represent exciting new avenues for us. And in fact we have another Arabic-language book on the way – Bushra al-Maqtari’s What Have You Left Behind?, translated by Sawad Hussain, a heartbreaking mosaic of testimonies from the victims of the civil war in Yemen, in the style of Svetlana Alexievich. 

Am I right in thinking that Vaness Onwuemezi’s collection Dark Neighbourhood is the first collection of short stories that you’ve published since Jon Fosse’s Scenes from a Childhood? It joins collections by Camilla Grudova, Claire-Louise Bennett and John Keene on your list. What makes a good collection of short stories – and why is it important to keep the form alive?

Actually, the last collection we published was Dark Satellites by Clemens Meyer (it seems we have a thing for story collections with ‘Dark’ in the title!), translated by Katy Derbyshire, but before that was Fosse’s Scenes from a Childhood, translated by Damion Searls. For me, a good short story collection is one that has an overarching mood or style that unites the stories – each of them distinctive and complete but speaking to one another in a way that creates a cohesive whole. What makes short stories special (in my opinion) is their economy and concision – what’s left out can be as important as what’s kept in – and I think form and voice can be pushed in interesting directions, directions that are sometimes harder to sustain over the course of a novel, for example. A literary landscape without short stories would feel flat to me, and though there is often talk of the popularity of short stories waning, I think there is still plenty of appetite for them.

Writing in the Financial Times, Baya Simons, pointing to the ways in which Onwuemezi dynamically unsettles language, form and setting, locates Dark Neighbourhood “in the tradition of surrealist, nihilistic writers such as Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo and Samanta Schweblin.” That’s a pretty hardcore list for a debut collection (and as Simons says, it’s Onwuemezi’s rightful place)! How do her stories work their magic?

There is a destabilizing quality to Vanessa’s work – certainly in terms of setting, which can be quite surreal in some of the stories, but particularly in form and language – that makes her such a distinctive and exciting writer. There is a focus on rhythm and the musicality of language that makes reading her a dazzling and enthralling experience. And while there is an element of nihilism, there’s also a wry humour and a playfulness that makes her work feel deeply alive. The book’s epigraph (‘Night is also a sun’) comes from Nietzsche but I’m also reminded of another quote of Nietzsche’s when reading the collection – ‘we can destroy only as creators’ – and I think it’s the electric hum of creative possibility that makes these stories so beguiling. 

You’ve published a few debuts by UK-based authors in the last few years – including Vanessa Onwuemezi and Alice Hattrick this year. How does Fitzcarraldo work to make space for them as the available critical space in broadsheet and mainstream media narrows? How do you get these fresh voices to readers? And where do you see new and emerging UK literature heading now and next?  

While critical coverage in broadsheet and mainstream media is narrowing – and that is something that I do find concerning – the relationship we’re able to establish with readers directly through social media does help to counteract that in some way, and seeing their responses to the books is always galvanising. We’ve also been lucky to have the support of wonderful bookshops – like Burley Fisher! – and we try to put on as many events as is possible. 

I think the uniformity of design across our list is also something that benefits us. I suppose the idea is that if you’ve read one of our books before and liked it, then you’ll be more likely to pick up another and that’s something I think that helps us to bring fresh voices – whether they’re debut writers or writers who don’t have a profile here in the UK – to new readers. I think that sense of curation that small presses provide – and I appreciate that I am a little biased – is helping to invigorate the landscape and shows that there are readers for books that do new and interesting things. 

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