Some of the most acclaimed books in print today – the odds are, most Americans will never see them in print. That’s because they’re not translated into English. But one young Dallasite has just started a company to publish books from France, Russia and Mexico. KERA’s Jerome Weeks asks – what in the world is he thinking?
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The single question Will Evans is asked most often is: Why are you setting up a publishing company — in Dallas? It’s true, his wife’s a lawyer who got a job here last year. And Evans likes the idea of getting publishing out of New York City. Ninety percent of American books are still published in New York.
So Evans asks, why not Dallas?
“As you can imagine,” he says, “publishing is going through a period of upheaval and radical change, and so for that reason, it’s actually easier now to start a publishing house in Dallas than ever before.”
Evans’ new company is called Deep Vellum Publishing. Vellum’s another term for parchment, the name for the animal skins used to make books before paper was invented. Deep Vellum is releasing its first five books starting this fall, and though the firm is just a start-up, the books are by some big literary names. Mikhail Shishkin is the only writer ever to win all three major Russian literary awards. Evans is publishing his collected stories, Calligraphy Lesson. Carmen Boullosa has been called one of Mexico’s greatest writer-poet-playwrights; Evans is releasing her novel, Texas: The Great Theft –– about the relatively unknown invasion of the US by Mexico in 1859. Sergio Pitol is the winner of the Cervantes Prize, often called the Spanish-language Nobel. Deep Vellum is publishing The Art of Flight, the first novel in Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory.” And Anne F. Garreta was one of the rare female members of OuLiPo, aka the “Workshop for Potential Literature,” the famous French experimental group that often applied mathematics to writing and included such notable authors as Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. Garreta’s 1986 novel, Sphinx, is the oldest of the contemporary novels Deep Vellum is publishing.
Even with such literary firepower, all five of these books are coming out for the first time in English. And the Garetta and Pitol are the first books either author has ever had released by an American publisher. The explanation for such a drought is simple enough. As a (mostly) literate nation, we Americans are unusual: Very few of us ever read translations. But then, we don’t actually have access to many of them. American publishers are convinced translations don’t sell (for them, the Latin American boom of the ’70s and ’80s was an aberration).
Besides, translators cost money.
“A lot of New York publishers consider it a prohibitive cost,” says Evans. “So if you look at how many books were published in original translations from China last year, it’s, like, five. There are a whole lot more than five great books being published in China every year. Korea, it’s three.”
In fact, translations make up less than three percent of all American book sales. (The University of Rochester even has a website devoted to translations called Three Percent.) Of course, Deep Vellum is a non-profit, but even so, how can Evans afford to publish such ‘niche’ books?
Turns out, other countries and their foundations promote their authors. Some will pay for translations to get into American hands.
“I’ve won grants for the first four books I’m publishing,” says Evans. “The Mexican government awarded a pretty substantial grant to support the translation and the rights acquisition for Carmen Boullosa’s book. And that investment actually goes a long way. It’s promoting cultural ties, it’s doing a lot of amazing things.”
Evans himself may have forged a unique cultural tie. Jon Gnarr is famous as the young, punk-anarchist mayor of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. He’s helped better the city’s economic plight (Reykjavik has been called “the Detroit of Iceland.”) But as he explained to a German interviewer on YouTube, there are other reasons he’s popular: “I guess I’m unconventional, not traditional, maybe. And — I’m a comedian.”
It’s not a joke. Gnarr did work as a radio and TV comic before running for mayor. But he’s also a novelist and next year, Deep Vellum is publishing The Indian, his first work of autobiographical fiction. Gnarr recently told Vice magazine now he has a friend in Houston and a publisher in Dallas. So this summer, after he steps down as mayor, he may move to Texas.
In any case, Dallas already has book publishers. There’s the self-publishing firm, Brown Books. There’s Taylor Publishing, which pumps out yearbooks. But literary publishers with international reputations? Ahhhhhh, no. Not since SMU Press had its operations suspended four years ago.
Yet in the year Evans has been here, he’s raised money, gotten publishing rights and made connections with the literary group the Writer’s Garret and some of the translators at UTD’s Center for Translation Studies. He’s gotten five books lined up to go. The 30-year-old publisher is a wiry bundle of energy and ambition.
“I didn’t move to Dallas with a small-time idea,” he says with a chuckle. “If I’ve learned anything about this city in the one year I’ve been here, it’s that the bigger and bolder my idea, the better off I’ll be. It’s really the kind of thing that Dallas needs, especially when it comes to literature and world literature. I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, ‘world-class city.’
“Well, what does that actually mean — if we’re not in dialogue with the world?”
Clearly, Evans has also learned to talk that Dallas talk.
The Deep Vellum catalog:
Fall/Winter 2014/2015 Titles
Loosely based on the little-known 1859 Mexican invasion of the United States, Carmen Boullosa’s newest novel Texas is a richly imagined evocation of the volatile Tex-Mex borderland, wrested from Mexico in 1848. Described by Roberto Bolaño as “Mexico’s greatest woman writer,” Boullosa views the border history through distinctly Mexican eyes, and her sympathetic portrayal each of her wildly diverse characters—Mexican ranchers and Texas Rangers, Comanches and cowboys, German socialists and runaway slaves, Southern belles and dance hall girls—makes her storytelling tremendously powerful and absorbing. With today’s Mexican-American frontier such a front-burner concern, this novel that brilliantly illuminates its historical landscape is especially welcome. Texas is Boullosa’s fourth novel to appear in English, her previous novels were published by Grove Press.
Sphinx is the debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garréta, one of the few female members of OuLiPo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Queneau, among others. Sphinx is a remarkable work of literary ingenuity: a beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and A., written completely without any gendered pronouns or gender markers referring to the main characters, all the more difficult in the strict gender requirements of the French language. In addition to her creative output, Garréta is a scholar of French and Romance literatures, and teaches half the year at the University of Rennes in France, and the other half of the year at Duke University. Sphinx is Garréta’s first novel to appear in English.
The Art of Flight, originally published in 1997, is the first novel in Sergio Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” a collection of essays and stories that blends the genres of memoir and creative essay in an imaginative swirl of reflection and contemplation. Pitol, considered Mexico’s greatest living author, was honored for his lifetime achievements with the 2005 Cervantes Prize, considered the Spanish language’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. From the 1960s through the 1990s Pitol worked as a cultural attaché in Mexican embassies throughout the world, and served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia. An erudite scholar of literary history and world culture, Pitol is also renowned for his translations from Russian, Polish, English, and German into Spanish, including Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, and Witold Gombrowicz. A unique, timeless, international literary voice in the mold of Henry James, Thomas Mann, and Jorge Luis Borges, Pitol’s work has been translated into more than ten languages. The Art of Flight is Pitol’s first novel published in English.
Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories is the first English-language collection of short stories by Mikhail Shishkin, the most acclaimed contemporary author in Russia, including four stories that have been published in various English-language sources (Words Without Borders, Read Russia Anthology, Spolia, the Independent) and four previously untranslated stories (including two previously unpublished in any language). Shishkin was the first (and still the only) writer to win the three major Russian literary awards (the Russian Booker, National Bestseller, and Big Book Awards). He is a master prose writer in the timeless, breathtakingly beautiful style of the greatest Russian writers, such as Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Bunin, and Boris Pasternak. Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories will be Shishkin’s third work available in English, previously published were his novels Maidenhair (Open Letter) and The Light and the Dark (Quercus).
“A lot of people will undoubtedly wonder whether this is a biography or a novel. It’s both. It isn´t totally true, although there aren’t any total lies in it either. I don’t believe in lies. In fact I think lies are the greatest obstacle on our path towards spiritual development. But I shift quite a few things around. I write from memory. There are some things I have absolutely no recollection of myself, so I’ve had to rely on other people’s memories. But all memory is fiction. Our brain is the greatest master of deceit in the universe.”
The Indian is a highly entertaining piece of bittersweet autobiographical fiction by world-famous Icelandic comedian and Mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr, who describes his riotous childhood—which wasn’t always a bed of roses. Diagnosed as “retarded” because of his severe dyslexia and ADHD, Gnarr spent several years as a child in a “home for retarded children.” He finally got out, only to find himself subject to ridicule in regular schools for being slow and red-headed. Subjected to constant bullying, young Gnarr watched Westerns always rooting for the Indians to defeat the bully cowboys.
The Indian is the first novel in a trilogy on Gnarr’s youth, and resonates with young readers as much as with parents of children with emotional and learning issues; The Indian is taught in schools throughout Iceland, resonating with readers of all ages. The second book in the trilogy picks up on Gnarr’s teenage years when he discovered punk rock music and started rebelling (The Pirate); the third book looks at his young adulthood, when he dropped out of high school and had to do time in a home for juvenile delinquents in a bleak, remote corner of Iceland (The Outlaw). Deep Vellum will publish the full trilogy throughout 2015-2016.