Indie Fiction Subscription #9: Introducing Lolli Editions

Lolli Editions is a European publisher based at the Barbican in London. They publish contemporary fiction that challenges existing ideas and breathes new life into the novel form, with the aim of introducing to English-language readers some of the most innovative writers that speak to our shared culture in new and compelling ways, from Europe and beyond. Their latest novel Adorable by Ida Marie Hede, translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg, is our May indie fiction subscription title. Subscribe now and receive some special ephemera!

Follow Lolli on Twitter 🐦 @lollieditions & Instagram 📸 @lollieditions.

Hi Denise, first of all: congratulations on the International Man Booker shortlisting for Olga Ravn’s The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century, translated by Martin Aitken – great to see the Man Booker judges recognising what we at Burley Fisher have been saying for months! What does that kind of recognition mean for a new small press – and also for a writer translated into English?

Thank you. Burley Fisher has been an early supporter of this book, and of Lolli in general. I honestly don’t know where independent publishers would be without zealous independent booksellers like yourselves.

Being recognised by such a gatekeeper of literature that the Booker Prizes are – and more than that, the five individual judges as well as the entire team who carry out the assiduous work behind the scene – has been a humbling experience. It’s incredibly encouraging for Lolli and the work that we do (there’s six of us). Really, we had our first real publishing season in Autumn 2020, setting the bar for publishing four books a year, a number most commercial publishers would probably sneer at. And yet here we are, just a few months later, with The Employees on the International Booker shortlist. 

The exposure the book has received through the prize is at a level we could never have achieved otherwise, in the supersaturated multiverse that is the English-speaking book market. For me personally, as a reader, researcher, translator, editor, and publisher of what we tend to narrowly tag ‘experimental’ fiction, it is terrific to see this book reach a broad audience, and be so well-received. First and foremost, it is a big deal for Olga Ravn and her authorship, and while it is safe to say that Martin Aitken is already known – at least in knowing circles – as one of the most talented translators working from the Danish, this is a precious new feather in his cap. But I think it is also a huge win for innovative writing more broadly. And for small languages. And for small literary presses.

Ravn’s novel is part of a strong strand of your work: bringing novels by award-winning Danish women writers to UK readers. Why did you pick Danish novels in particular? And how would you describe some of the qualities these books share? So far I have: often compact, often surreal, frankly feminist, ambitious, unexpected and unsettling…

I am Danish but have spent most of my adult life engaged with English literature abroad (I’m currently undertaking a PhD in 1960s art novels at UCL). Being able to read Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and German, it feels natural for me to lean in this direction, without the need for readers’ reports or having to rely on prizes. We’ve started collaborating with publishers in the US like Riverhead and New Directions, and while I will keep banging the drum for more Scandinavian authors (who aren’t crime writers!!) to be picked up in the UK and US, this will, over time, mean an increasingly varied list on our end. But for other language areas, I have the same Achilles heel as any other publisher: the inability to read the original book and thus the chance of discovering it first.  

I am quite interested in the erratic movements of books; what gets translated, what doesn’t, both historically and in our present moment. I started noticing that precisely my kind of Danish fiction was being, almost immediately, translated into Swedish, German, Dutch, but rarely into English. Enter Lolli! Some publishers seem to think they only have space for one Danish, one Ghanaian, one Maltese writer, as though that is such a defining characteristic, while there is no cap on how many French writers one will publish. Of course many factors and considerations go into this, including the size of the original market, but in general it is unfortunate that fiction from small language areas are almost automatically underrepresented in translation, as is fiction by womxn. There’s work to be done here.

I suppose what I look for in fiction is that jolting experience, which is often achieved when it pushes the boundaries of form to make something of it that is completely its own. Next year we are publishing Swedish author Johanne Lykke Holm’s Strega, in Saskia Vogel’s translation. Strega too draws its own world and asserts its own language, stylistically and narratively. Maybe this is why Lolli books often feel compact, as you put it. Not necessarily in terms of brevity, but in being whole and complete within their own distinctive form. I think this quality is there across Lolli’s list, and makes for a strong coherence, even across genres, be it Emilio Fraia’s novel-of-stories Sevastopol or Signe Gjessing’s poem Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus, which Denise Newman is currently translating for us. I like when books are like little crystals, but smallness is not a criterion. We have a 480-page novel coming up, in 2023.

As for prizes, I don’t necessarily go after fiction that is award-winning. The Employees did not receive any prizes in Denmark, oddly enough. Prizes and the acknowledgement they bring are no doubt important, but I rely on my own intuition, and frankly, my own literary inclinations. It was clear to me that Olga Ravn was, and is, one of the most important Danish writers of her generation. I didn’t need a prize to affirm that. But now she’s received Politikens Litteraturpris for her latest novel, and of course the accolade of the International Booker nomination. 

The Employees took the form of workplace assessments on unnamed human and post-human workers on a spaceship; Adorable designates its characters with initials, is deeply informed by microbiology, and includes conversations with the dead. What is going on here?! As in: this presents such a gorgeous contrast to the still-dominant humanist-realist mode of literary fiction in Britain…

I am drawn to writing that surprises me, that does something unusual, that haunts me long after reading. That makes me want to return. That makes it impossible not to. With The Employees, this happened by the third witness statement, and I can pin it down to this one sentence: ‘In the dream, all the pores of my skin are wide open, and I see that in each one of them there’s a tiny stone.’ This sentence tormented me for weeks; it is so magnetically repellent and therefore strangely attractive. I kept going back to this statement, and, almost crazed, made friends read it. 

Ida Marie Hede’s Adorable engages with bodies of/and knowledge and experience in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere. I mean, if any other writer has written so elegantly and engagingly about the gut and the generative properties of bacteria and childbirth within the same work, I’d love to know about it. The tone of the book is very direct and almost talkative, blending the profound with the humorous in a way I find is incredibly affecting. Both of these novels are deeply philosophical, thinking twice about acts we carry out every day, the way we think about the ontology of objects as well as of human subjects, of our own bodies, of our children, but they do it without being didactic. And both are in conversation with other artworks. For me, they have everything I go to fiction for, and then a bit more.

I think it’s not a leap to say that most contemporary Danish writers read internationally and so are influenced from many different directions, precisely because of the country’s smallness. There is little talk of ‘translated fiction’, whereas in the UK readers often either take pride in reading fiction in translation or can be heard saying it isn’t ‘their thing’. In Denmark, it’s understood that of course you read in translation, otherwise you won’t have access to, well, anything that isn’t Danish (unless you speak other languages, of course) – which is a lot!

And absolutely, I think Scandinavian writers are generally less encumbered by a hefty realist tradition, and more concerned with newness, sometimes to a fault (traditionalist furniture would be mid-century furniture rather than Victorian, and an impressive education would not be conducive to Oxbridge but perhaps having attended a good art school that’s hard to get into but still free to attend). Publishers don’t always feel the need to identify whether something is a novel or a short story collection, which is kind of liberating. It’s a smaller market and it just operates differently, it follows its own logic. But I think this is generative towards a sort of progressiveness and creative permissiveness rather than being bogged down by any age-long conventions, and also for a lot of collaboration across art forms. This is not to say the entire literary landscape looks like this, at all. After all, it is also a market profiting enormously on commercial crime fiction. These are just the cherries I’ve picked.

Your books are incredibly beautifully-designed, from the look of the covers to the size and weight. Tell us about that process, who you work with, and why it matters to you.

Thank you! Well, literary fiction is often commercialised to a point where it becomes unrecognisable as art. A good handful of publishers do this well, but in general the UK market is overflowing with trade paperbacks where the cover seems more of an afterthought. I find it quite estrangeing as a reader. I think books mean more to us when the book object itself seems reflective of its status as art. 

My intention is for Lolli’s books to sit somewhere between art books and what you might otherwise expect from fiction, and for the interior to be in some sort of conversation with the exterior. Materiality and tactility affect the reading experience. Sometimes this means we need to price our books differently than publishers do in the main, but then I think the kind of reader who is attracted to our books will also be attracted to design and appreciate the material quality of the books. I’m not interested in following any set rules but finding out how things make sense for us. A big inspiration here is Spector Books and the Copenhagen-based publisher Basilisk.

Our key designers are Studio Ard, a Swiss-Danish duo based in Arnold Circus. Before we started working together, they had never worked with a literary press before. Most of their clients are galleries, artists, and the like. This is really meaningful for Lolli: to work with two brilliant designers who come to the novel format with fresh eyes, as designers tout court more than book cover designers. They’ve also created our visual identity, logo, and website. We also collaborate with Laura Silke, Chloe Scheffe, and most recently, Kasper Vang who has designed Jonas Eika’s After the Sun for us. 

Likewise, you also seem to work closely with translators! What’s the most important part of the writer-translator-editor-publisher dynamic for you? Where and how do the key conversations happen, and crucial decisions get made?

Our conversations take place in person over coffee when that’s possible, over email, over the phone, on Zoom, in a Google doc on the cloud! Like in any work relationship, mutual trust is vital in these relationships. I’m fortunate to usually be working with translators more than just once – I think this makes it especially meaningful, and to be honest, great fun for a language-obsessed person like me.

A lot of aspects of publishing can be so unrewarding, but for me the translation process isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s probably my favourite aspect – I thoroughly enjoy all the deliberations it entails. It has often been the translators themselves who have pitched the books to us in the first place, and if not, they were in some way or other simply the right person to turn to for that project, or already associated with the book or author via the agent. 

You joined Twitter quite recently: how are you finding being a publisher in a digital era (and hyper-digital moment)? What connections or encounters have you had via the internet – including your digital subscription?

Thankfully it is my brilliant colleague Anja who is taking care of our Twitter. I’m not much of a tweeting bird myself. I think Instagram was, for the first while, really how most readers discovered us. I’m just barely a millennial, but my heart is sort of not, ha! I turn to like-minded friends, colleagues, libraries, and my favourite bookstores for finding books and authors I will like, and not to what’s ‘trending’ on Twitter or Instagram. But, as Lolli was really born digital-native, I think we are very much of that hyper-digital moment you mention. Even if some have complained that we don’t really do e-books, and perhaps that would argue against Lolli being so digitally savvy. I just think something is lost if the kind of books we publish are read on a screen. It’s proven that reading physical books activates other areas of the brain. While I like to take pictures of books for Instagram and whatnot, I want to read them physically. We already spend far too much time in front of screens. 

One of our authors discovered us through Instagram and got in touch after that. Especially because we focus on fiction in translation, it is vital to have this opportunity for contact and discovery across distances. And bookshops and readers! We’ve discovered, and been discovered by, so many amazing bookshops through Instagram, and it’s a pleasure to hear what readers think about our books over an informal DM exchange. 

And what difference do bricks and mortar bookstores make for you? Especially given it’s sometimes depicted as a struggle to engage readers with translated fiction (spoiler: it’s not). How do you get booksellers hyped about your titles?

Every difference. Discovery. Recommendations from your trusted bookseller. A community around reading. A city without bookstores run by passionate people would be like a pool without water. 

It’s always been the strangest thing for me, this talk about either being down with translated fiction or not. I’m glad to hear you’re finding that it’s actually not a struggle! But then Burley Fisher also has the best clientele. If someone rejects fiction in translation, they’re not just rejecting entire worlds, but the world. I mean, imagine an avid reader from the Netherlands or Argentina or Serbia saying ‘nope, I don’t read fiction from the English-speaking world’. 

The best we can do, I think, is to put our books in the hands of booksellers and hope that they like what we do!

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