A few weeks ago, a friend e-mailed me with a request. She had an author coming to Portland for a reading; would I be able to drive him from his hotel to the bookstore?
Go to a reading? You don't have to ask me twice. So, on a recent rainy Wednesday (is there any other kind in the Pacific Northwest in March?) I had the pleasure of meeting Dominique Fabre. Dominique is well-known in his native France, where he's published nine novels to widespread acclaim. But he's virtually unknown in the U.S., because none of his books have been translated into English.
That's where my friend comes in. Jill Schoolman is the founder and publisher of Archipelago Books, a small independent press dedicated to bringing the best of the world's literature to the United States. I met Jill some years back, at the Pacific Northwest Writers' Conference. I was there to pitch my first novel to agents and editors. At the time, she was an editor at Seven Stories Press. She sat down next to me at the conference's opening banquet; we started talking, and we haven't stopped since. That was when I first heard about her idea--more than an idea, her passion. Less than one percent of books published in the U.S. every year are translations of foreign works. Why? Because common wisdom says that Americans aren't interested in reading them. If Americans won't buy translations, then obviously there's no point in publishing them. Right?
Jill believes the common wisdom is wrong. She believes it so strongly, she quit her job at Seven Stories and leaped off the proverbial cliff: She founded her own publishing house.
Everyone told her she was nuts. The odds of any independent press succeeding are astronomically high, let alone one devoted to translations. In addition to the usual costs of acquiring, editing, designing, and producing the books, there's the additional burden of finding and paying top-notch translators. But Jill was determined--and where Jill is determined, odds don't seem to matter. Now in its fourth year, Archipelago Books boasts 35 titles hailing from all corners of the world: Lebanon, Poland, Japan, Russia, Palestine, Germany, Brazil, Korea and Bosnia, among others. Just last week, Archipelago Books won the 2008 Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing, in recognition of its "commitment to enriching and broadening the American literary landscape through the publication of...a host of distinguished international authors." A whole new catalog of books is coming out from Archipelago this year; Dominque Fabre's gorgeous little novel, The Waitress Was New, is but one.
The reading, held at one of Portland's best-loved indie stores, Looking Glass Books, was cozy and informal. Dominque spoke with delightful, self-deprecating humor about his writing process, about publishing in France ("All my books sell the same number of copies," he said. "I think perhaps I'll put my grocery list between two covers, and see if it sells the same"), and about the experience of being translated into English; he said the translator, Jordan Stump, did a marvelous job. Afterward, we headed up the street for dinner and drinks with the bookstore owner, Karin Anna, along with the Looking Glass staff and many of the guests who had come to the reading. It was a wonderful evening with great conversation, but not a late one. Dominique was Amtrak-bound early the next morning for Seattle, where he read at Elliot Bay Books--the final stop on his first American tour.
All made possible by one woman's unshakeable belief that Americans will embrace the world in literature...if only we get the chance.
Countdown to publication of Ten Cents a Dance: One week!