Indie Fiction Subscription #8: Introducing Weatherglass Books
Weatherglass Books are the publishers of our April indie fiction subscription: Isobel Wohl's Cold New Climate. It's the very first book published by Weatherglass, a new small press founded by Neil Griffiths (novelist and founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses) and Damian Lanigan (novelist and playwright), based their shared love of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and a shared fear that it wouldn’t find a publisher today.
We talked to Neil and Damian about starting a small press and whether it's a "cold new climate" for writing and publishing right now (spoiler: it's not). Get the Weatherglass report by following them on Twitter 🐦 @WeatherglassBks.
Hi Neil and Damian, aka Weatherglass Books. You’re both novelists (and Damian is a playwright as well). Why do writers make good publishers and editors? And how do you balance editing and publishing with creating your own work?
DL: Whether we do in fact make good publishers and editors remains to be seen! But I think our interests do more closely align with those of authors than is the case with a 'regular' publisher. We certainly have an instinctive understanding of the importance of weighing the authors' concerns during the editing and publishing process.
NG: More than anything we do know what it feels like to be a writer and have one’s work edited and the complexity of such a relationship. Two people and a book they both love, but perhaps for different reasons. Speaking for myself: editing is much more pleasurable than writing. Give me any excuse not to write and I’ll take it. And editing a great books is the best excuse.
On your homepage, you describe Weatherglass as “wanting to clear a space for the next The Blue Flower,” mentioning a focus on “core literary fiction [that’s] merely excellent.” What are some of the specific qualities – of language, tone, narrative, character, pace, weight, movement, metaphor – that draw you to the books you publish? And how do you work with writers to bring them out?
DL: We're totally committed to the idea of writing as a craft. From a sentence level – even word choice – we want to help our authors realise their true, unique voices through attention to detail and through a full engagement with what's valuable and interesting in the work. And of course we pay equal attention to overall structure. Both Neil and I spend a lot of time talking to each other about our books before we go back to a writer with notes. It's all in the service of ensuring each manuscript does itself justice, is the best expression of itself. Fitzgerald was an absolute master of achieving the balance of all the elements you mention, and always provides an implicit model.
NG: Can’t really improve on Damian’s answer. What I think is a little uncanny is how often Damian and I agree on what we love in a new writer’s work and what we think needs attention. It certainly helps convince writers to take another look at a passage if we both think this is needed.
Your first book Cold New Climate by Isobel Wohl is our April Indie Fiction subscription title. How did the book come to you? And what made it a good pick for your lead title?
DL: Thank you so much for your support of the book, and for seeing in it the qualities that attracted us to it. Neil read a small volume of short stories that Isobal had published and we took a bit of a chance and asked if she wanted to write us a full-length novel for us. When the first portion came back to us it was immediately obvious that she was a writer of great talent. And Isobel certainly embodies all the values I talk about above: a fantastic eye for detail, a commitment to every word being in its place, a desire to really push the characters until they confess to their true selves. She's a trained visual artist, and I think this comes through clearly too: she sees things with extraordinary clarity and originality. I think we can fairly claim her as a discovery, and that's very exciting and gratifying.
NG: I remember being only a few pages into Isobel’s Winter Strangers and thinking this is a writer for us. Damian and I talked about it: it’s a bit unorthodox and high risk to commission a first novel as what was likely to be our launch title. But then there is no right way to be a publisher. As for her training as a visual artist. When you read Isobel’s work one always feels she’s looking with great intensity at the surfaces that matter to a character’s internal world. She’s great at giving surfaces an emotional texture.
There are four more titles in the works for 2021, is that right? Can you tell us a bit about them, and maybe what ineffable “Weatherglass” quality they might have in common?
DL: Actually there are two more books this year, and one next Spring. then we'll have two more in Autumn 2022. Our next novel is The Angels of L19 by Jonathan Walker, another debut. It's about a group of teenagers in Liverpool in the 80s who are members of an Evangelical church, and is a tremendously original blend of warm, funny realism and the supernatural. Once again, Jonathan is extremely serious about rendering the absolute truth of his characters' experiences and we all worked extremely hard on bringing out the power of the contrasts between daily life and the spiritual, even demonic, aspects of the central character's story. Jonathan has real seriousness of intent, but also a great feel for what is touching, absurd and empathetic about his world.
Our third book is What They Heard by Luke Meddings is a book about the music of the 60s, more particularly about how the Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan all influenced each other and drove each other to write ever more complex and fascinating music in the middle of that decade. It's a real labour of love for Luke (he's a musician himself), and you sense Luke's passion for and deep understanding of his subject matter in every sentence. Once again, it's funny and charming, but invested with an absolutely serious desire to share with us what Luke himself has discovered about this music. We spent a lot of time on the book's structure, on elucidating and providing context for the very subtle and complex set of interactions that took place. Most of all, it will take people back to the songs and make them hear them in a totally new way.
NG: What he said. And we’re announcing our first book for 2022 very soon.
As you say on the site, these times offer “choppy waters” for any endeavour, but perhaps especially for a small press to launch without live events, and facing a larger picture of much-reduced book coverage in print media. What are some of the bright spots for indie publishing at the moment – as a random example, the Republic of Consciousness Prize goes from strength to strength…
DL: The small press world is very vibrant. Fitzcarraldo, Galley Beggar and others have had great success from understanding that the increasingly commercially-oriented world of the big publishers has left a lot of space for other types of work to expand into. By keeping costs low and by pouring care and attention into work you love you can find readers and build something of real value.
NG: Small presses are in a very different place than they were five years ago. The RofC prize has helped, but it’s mostly the editorial decision of the publishers, the quality of the books being published. It’s also true, talking to other small presses during the pandemic, having subscribers makes a huge difference when there are no bookshops open. The reduced coverage is going to hurt all book publishing, but reviews make a huge difference to small presses. Hilary Mantel will sell without a single review; not so a debut by a new writer from a small press with little or no marketing budget.
To navigate the choppy waters, you’ve developed a “Founder Reader” programme, which is reminiscent of 18th century publication by subscription. This is a model regaining popularity for indie presses (and for indie bookstores such as ourselves!) as a way of creating community as well as raising funds. How did you develop your programme and reach out to find your amazing list of first Founder Readers, which is included in the back of Cold New Climate?
DL: Emailing friends and family, coercion, blackmail etc etc. And Twitter. For all its dreadful aspects Twitter does provide quick and cheap access to existing communities in the book world as much as any other. And of course, you need to have a good offering: we found people by being absolutely clear about our intentions and ambitions and believing that people would respond to that.
NG: There is a community out there who want to support literary fiction, small presses, independent bookshops. They want to challenge the mainstream and are willing to commit to books before they’ve been published, sometimes before they’ve even been commissioned. It’s not quite the risk publishers take, but it’s part of the fun – what are they going to do next; what am I going to receive?
Wohl’s novel takes a startling and beautifully-managed – both intellectually and formally – leap into the future towards the end. The name of your press also suggests a certain predictive power! What do you see, jumping five years ahead, in literary publishing?
DL: I think there will be an increasing acknowledgment that a lot of the most interesting work being published is coming from small presses. It's a bit of a cliché, but it's true that we can take a few more risks creatively. We can also give writers more time and attention than big houses and really help them develop and grow. So we can offer readers more original and / or challenging books and writers a better atmosphere in which to develop their talents. This makes us believe that prospects are excellent.
NG: I am hopeful. Although I do think publishing will feel different. There’ll be a few big names selling vast amounts of books, serviced by the conglomerates. And a community of writers who sell in numbers just large enough to keep themselves (with jobs) and the small presses going. It’ll be touch and go much of the time, but the great novels and the challenging novels will find a way to market, and there will always be an audience for them. And I bet it’ll be these novels being talked about in 100 years.