Indie Fiction Subscription #7: Cipher Press
Cipher Press are just about to celebrate their first birthday and an incredible first year of keeping queer & bookish community alive through pamphlets, books and events – and doing it differently. Their first novel – and second book – Dryland by Sara Jaffe (listen out for our podcast interview with Sara!) is our Indie Fiction title for March 2021, a beautiful hymn to queer DIY adolescence. Grab your subscription here.
Cipher write that they're:
entirely queer owned and run because we want the publishing industry to be more inclusive at every level. We have over a decade’s worth of bookselling, publishing, and editorial experience under our belts. We still don’t often see the kind of books we want to see on shelves, and we’d like to change that by finding authors who excite us and by publishing books that we love.
Hi, Cipher, aka Jenn and Ellis! Easy question to start… What are your tips for launching an indie publisher during a global pandemic?
Hello! Wow, good first question. Our first tip would be to try and launch at a different time, a non-pandemic time, when bookshops are open and events are happening. Launching a press without a launch party feels untethered somehow. But if that’s not possible, we’d probably say don’t put too much pressure on yourselves and try to be as in-contact with other book people, publishers, and your authors as you can be – zoom hang outs, WhatsApp groups, old-fashioned phone calls.
The thing we’ve really missed is the book community, being able to chat to other publishers at cramped book launches and talk about publishing, ask for advice. Everyone is so helpful and supportive and we’ve missed being around that, so a good tip would be to keep your community as close as you can. Otherwise you feel untethered, again. Like a lot of other people during all of this, our focus and ability to achieve feels about 50% lacking. Things take twice as long, we’re reading much less, and we’re obsessed with trash TV as a way to handle anxiety. It all feels unhealthy, but we keep telling ourselves we’re doing the best we can and the support so far has been amazing. We’re looking at this time as a laying out of groundwork so when the world opens back up again we’re ready to go.
You currently have a submission window for #NewQueerVoices based in the UK, open until 31st May 2021. What are you hoping to find in the submission folder – especially given there’s a lot of great things going on in UK queer writing right now, thinking of the breakout success of Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House and Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo, for example…
We’re hoping for books that reflect some aspect of queer life in the UK. Our submissions are open specifically to trans and gender non-conforming writers, queer writers of colour, and queer working-class writers because we want to publish stories by queers who are further marginalised within our community. We’re looking for the queer stories we haven’t read yet, and although the number of LGBTQIA+ books being published is definitely increasing, we feel in a way that we’re reading the same stories over and over. We want to publish outside of the white, cisgendered, able-bodied experience, and are focusing our efforts on that as we grow.
We’re looking for writing that’s innovative and new. We’re of the mind that queer literature is about more than queer content, it’s about language, and about the way that content is presented. In our first book, Large Animals, Jess Arndt has almost created a new kind of language to talk about the non-binary experience, about living inside a queer body. We’re looking for great stories that are wrapped in campness and silliness and weirdness.
You’re so right that there are great things going on in UK queer writing, which makes it an exciting time to be doing Cipher Press. We love Niven’s work, and The Black Flamingo is top of our reading pile. And we want to also mention Lote by Shola van Reinhold, which we adored. It captures so much of what we’re trying to do with Cipher.
We worked in publishing and bookselling for years before launching Cipher, and have long wanted to see a queer lit scene emerging here. It feels like that kind of thing has been going on in the US for a long time, but that it’s really just getting started here. We’re excited to be a part of it.
Last year, you kicked off with two pamphlets, Cipher Shorts, each of which included a dozen QUILTBAG writers who are doing things differently or doing something new. How did you put those projects together to pack a punch? And will you carry on with the Shorts form?
First off, thank you for reminding us that QUILTBAG exists! When we decided to go ahead and launch Cipher, we’d always planned to do a series of chapbooks. Our publishing model is otherwise fairly traditional, and we wanted to pay tribute to the way queers have published and distributed our stories through zines, through self-publishing and distribution. We wanted to make accessible, affordable collections of queer literature in a zine-y format. We hadn’t planned to start publishing the shorts as soon as we did, but Ellis found themselves furloughed from their day job, and lockdown #1 had just started, and we were missing physical spaces full of other queer people. So we did an open call for Cipher Shorts 1, and the response was incredible. It was a lot of work but the submissions were completely inspiring and hopeful and brilliant, including a fantastic piece from Isabel Waidner, who is one of our favourite queer writers. For Cipher Shorts 2, we teamed up with the Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Festival and did an online event and a companion chapbook. Again, we were blown away by the quality of the work.
The shorts series has proved really popular so far – we sold out of the first edition in just over 24 hours – which goes to show there is a strong appetite for new queer writing here. So we’ll definitely carry on with it. We might wait until the world is closer to normal for Cipher Shorts 3 so we can do a live launch.
Both of the Shorts have a strong and supportive relation to live events that showcase QUILTBAG writers and culture. Can you talk a bit about the importance of live events – readings, discussions, launches, cabaret nights – for queer and trans writing and publishing in particular, and for a healthy literature in general?
Live book events are probably the one thing we’ve missed most since the start of the pandemic. They are so, so important. In a lot of ways, live events that focus specifically on queer and trans writing operate much like queer pubs, discos, and club nights, in that they create a space for queers to share an experience that is specifically for and about them. It’s validation, and joy, and celebration. And it’s so important that we champion the voices of queer and trans writers so they flourish and keep creating – live events are a great way of doing that. It feel like there is such a need for it too – we managed to catch a couple of events in the ICA’s Queers Read This series, curated by Isabel Waidner and Richard Porter, before lockdown, and there were always so many people there, it was really exciting.
From the position of publisher, having an electric, busy space to talk about the thing you love most is invaluable. It encourages conversation and ideas and means you get to meet different people and writers. It feels vital for publishing – especially indie publishing, which relies more on a grassroots approach.
All this said, we have really loved how online events have opened things up and made literature events so much more accessible. Publishing is so London-centric, the move to digital events has meant people can join from all over the world. This accessibility has been so brilliant, and we hope it continues. It’s meant we’ve been able to do online events with our authors in the US that probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for online events becoming such a part of everyday. But we will also be overjoyed to be sipping shit wine in the back of a crowded bookshop again.
Your 2021 slate is bringing exceptional US queer and trans writers to UK readers. American QUILTBAG writing has been very influential in the UK: what do you think it does differently, in general? And why did you pick up these three writers – Jess Arndt, Sara Jaffe and Brontez Purnell – in particular?
The queer lit scene in the US seems to have been around and more active for much longer than our UK equivalent. We’re not sure it does anything so differently other than being more present, maybe. We’re starting to see more of a queer lit scene here for sure, but it feels like in the US queers been producing and publishing amazing work for decades. There was Michelle Tea’s Sister Spit collective in the 90s, and US indie publishers seemed generally to be putting out more queer books. Our three US authors either know each other or have a certain scene in common. We love that, and are super excited to see it grow here.
Maybe it’s also fair to say that here in the UK, the queer arts and writing scene is more focused on performance, on theatre and spoken word, whereas there’s more of a fiction scene in the US? And that’s what we’re really interested in, fiction and creative/narrative non-fiction.
Jess Arndt, Sara Jaffe, and Brontez Purnell are all writers we came across pre-Cipher and loved massively. They are three very different writers, but their work all holds in intrinsic queerness we find familiar in some way. It’s the kind of queerness we relate to, that sets a standard for Cipher Press to build from. We like work that’s weird and awkward and unnerving and funny and filthy, that’s powerful because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Brontez, Jess, and Sara are all of this.
Which books most shaped you as readers, and specifically as queer readers? Were there books that helped you, or even saved you, within the systemically homophobic and transphobic trash fire that is the UK?
Good question! I (Jenn) feel like I have been saved by books countless times. I grew up in a tiny town in North Yorkshire, which was so un-queer in every way (in the 90s – maybe it’s better now, I don’t know), and I spent a lot of time sulking about on the moors reading Virginia Woolf and Frank O’Hara, two writers I didn’t realise had had such a queer effect on me until later. I went through an intense Beat phase, which, looking back, was a formative queer time for me.
My hometown is near Castle Howard, where the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was filmed, and so I became obsessed with that book, and with Sebastian Flyte. And I think I had a crush on his sister Julia. Brideshead helped me feel more like myself in an environment that felt very un-me.
When I left town and could access more, I was utterly blown away by Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls and Michelle Tea’s Valencia, both of which I’ve repeatedly re-read over the years. I could go on, there are so many! Mary Gaitskill’s work, although not strictly queer, felt very queer to me and helped me a lot in my early 20s.
Ellis here… I’ve been saved and shaped constantly, and am still being so. I see Jenn's gone formative years, which for me was Section 28, and enforced reading of Joseph Heller and Ted Hughes' animal verse. I was saved by poets, queer and non-queer alike... like Plath (whose language and self-fetishization felt queer), Anna Akhmatova, Blake, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Audre Lorde, Diane di Prima. Giovanni’s Room was consumed on the qt, plus Jeanette’s Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (whose mythic and mundane lines run right through to Rita Indiana’s Tentacle I think). Clarissa Dalloway arrived with a bump: “she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day”.
Is there something particularly queer about reading and writing as a survival strategy – and celebratory tactic?
Oh yes definitely. Most obviously because queer people have never had easy access to our own stories and histories. When mainstream culture ignores you, and you don’t have access to community or art or the easy ability to part of a queer culture, writing our stories and reading our stories is a fundamental queer act. Even the physical act of reading can be a survival strategy – having a book to focus on in a public situation that feels unsafe is a form of survival, the physical object of a book in itself can help with the stress of being a queer out in the world.
We love the idea of queering history and stories, of the power queer writers have in taking something existing and rewriting it to fit their/our understanding of the world. It’s radical and funny and electric and wildly celebratory.
What can publishers – particularly indie publishers – do at this moment, as we’re seeing an increasingly transphobic public sphere, and the potential rollback of LGBT+ spaces in education, as well as the impact of the pandemic for LGBT+ young people in particular? (No pressure). I’m thinking of the Trans Writers Union collecting statements of support, transparency and advocacy from presses and magazines as an example.
Urgh it’s terrifying. An ongoing shitshow of media transphobia, misinformation, things inching backwards… govt rollback from LGBT anti-bullying programmes in schools, side-lined reform of the GRA and NHS gender identity services. As publishers the best thing we can do is push to amplify the voices of trans creatives in whatever ways we can, publish more trans stories, be an available platform. Even before Covid and lockdown, mental health stats of LGBT+ young people in the UK made for depressing reading, how queers are more likely to be homeless, may be more reluctant to access healthcare; magnify this for LGBT+ people of colour.
We need more books from trans writers, telling us what they want to tell us, in the ways they want to tell us. We’ve got a debut literary horror novel from a UK trans woman coming out this autumn. It’s horrible, its disruptive, it’s utterly incredible and we think it’s going to help to crack a seal of what sorts of books trans people are writing and getting published.
And obviously a big yay to Trans Writers Union – we need better and more active trans publishing from all publishers and more varied and consistent ways to platform trans voices.
Your first novel Dryland releases with an exclusive Spotify “mixtape” by author Sara Jaffe. Do you have an editing or writing soundtrack, individually or collectively? What does a working day at Cipher sound like?
We should preface this answer by saying our publishing so far has had so much crossover with music. Sara Jaffe used to play in post-punk Erase Erata, who Ellis saw play in 2004 at the long-gone Astoria supporting Le Tigre. And we’re also fans of Brontez’s band The Younger Lovers. And Sara and Brontez know each other through music.
I (Jenn) work better in silence, especially when editing, but this is London, and we’re all trapped at home thanks to a pandemic, and humans are loud. So I’ve been listening to white noise recently, which has been weirdly helpful. Aside from that, my soundtrack is probably very similar to Sara Jaffe’s Dryland mixtape – lots of 90s. Hole has been my most played band on Spotify since I downloaded the app.
My (Ellis) soundtrack (still) sounds like new wave, post punk, goth, interspersed with electro dance-pop. I can't move on, I don't want to move on. Dark journeys and dance floor gold.