Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Rebels with a Cause: France’s 13e Note Editions

In 1934, Obelisk Press of Paris published Henry Miller’s landmark novel Tropic of Cancer. Banned in the United States, Grove Press’ 1961 American edition was subsequently tried on charges of obscenity and pornography, eventually and painstakingly resulting in acquittal three years later in 1964. It took 27 years for Miller, an American, to get published in his native country, and when he finally did, it was still under the clouds of institutional rejection and slander. The point is that before Miller garnered mainstream acceptance, someone was willing to take a chance on him and his work. Economics and practicality aside, it is increasingly rare to find presses willing and able (realistically) to go with their gut — to publish what truly excites them as a matter of principle and, perhaps this is the Romantic in me, obligation.
   This sense of duty and passion is where my interest in the French publishers 13e Note Editions http://www.13enote.com stems from. The literary world has recently lost two giants who championed the alternative and controversial: George Whitman, long time owner of Paris’ Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and Barney Rosset, the Grove Press publisher who took a chance on Miller. As fervent supporters of literature senselessly repressed and marginalized, Whitman and Rosset laid the groundwork upon which presses such as 13e Note importantly still stand. The names Dan Fante, Mark SaFranko, Tony O’Neill, J.R. Helton, and Matthew Firth (among others) might not be familiar to those reading this blog. The aforementioned names have done everything from toil in obscurity to achieve measured success in North America with HarperCollins (O’Neill, Fante, SaFranko — all after starting out with micro presses) and Anvil Press (Firth — who resides in Ottawa). Starting with their interest in Fante, 13e Note has been praised for their translations of North American writers into French, and France, as astute a literary nation as there is, has responded in kind by paying attention to and buying books by authors who are unfortunately often overlooked domestically.
   13e Note founder Eric Vieljeux was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule for an interview. What follows is a short conversation to help introduce readers of The Fiddlehead to 13e Note’s ethos and why, as a foreign press, they support and promote American and Canadian writers. I encourage readers to browse 13e Note’s website and catalogue where you can also get to know the writers they so fervently believe in. All I will say in closing is that as staff, readers, and supporters of an internationally renowned literary magazine based in a bilingual province, it is our obligation and to our benefit to make and uphold trans-Atlantic connections, and to recognize the excellent work of our peers in the global literary community.

Zach Alapi
Editorial Assistant 

ZA:What inspired you to start 13e Note Editions? Can you talk about the Press’ ethos?

13e Note: Some years ago, driving around LA with a friend, we passed by the mansion of Michael Crichton, and my friend said: “the one who really deserves this house is Dan Fante.” I have read Dan since his first book was published in France and then bought and read all his work... I truly love his writing.
   When I had the money to lose in a publishing venture, I thought I would only publish Dan Fante, as he had not been published in France for the past 10 years and I really believed he deserved to shine in all bookstores. So I went to see him and told him I had never published a single sheet of paper in my life but asked if he would he let me do his last book (and commit to do his other major works). That was March 2008; he said yes.
   Then Sandrine joined me and I quickly understood that to succeed you need top-notch distribution-diffusion, and to get that you need a real editorial project, not one writer and one book. But the fruit was ripe, in my mind, and immediately paid dividends with interest in Mark Safranko, Tommy Trantino, Tony O'Neill, Barry Gifford etc.... We had the project(s) and seduced FLAMMARION as a distributor. Then Patrice joined, and Dan’s book came out in April 2009.

   Yes, we have an ethos and principles, though they are obvious:
  • stay away from dickheads and make this venture as pleasurable as possible;
  • present unpublished writers (though not exclusively) to French readers;
  • only publish what we love;
  • make as few concessions along the editorial line as possible (no detective stories/genre fiction unless they are realistic, etc.);
  • have fun doing it.
ZA: Of particular interest to readers of The Fiddlehead will be the success you’ve had publishing North American writers in French translation. What is the process like in selecting an English manuscript for publication in France?

13e Note: The success is relative.... Of course, when you are unpublished in your own country, or published by a small Press and hardly distributed, selling 3000 copies of your book in France brings some notoriety success.
   But foreign literature is very costly and so far, out of the 37 titles we’ve published, none has had what you may call “financial success,” which is key to remain in the game.
   So yes, we have [had success] and we are gaining notoriety/success for publishing so many of these writers who have never been translated into French. We also have a strong graphical ID and, for the first time, decent PR.

ZA: It seems that 13e Note’s literary and historical predecessors are ones that have attained success writing controversially from the margins of society (before widespread recognition); writers such as Jack Kerouac, John Fante, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby Jr. (and others) come to mind. How does 13e Note both adhere to and transcend these important influences? How does this historical consciousness inform what you do as a contemporary press?

13e Note: Our selection is spontaneous; we know what we’re looking for in a novel, or short stories, or prose poetry, and we never cease searching for it — on our own and sometimes through recommendations from other writers. This is really mine and Patrice’s turf; all doors remain open, and if we could, we would publish classic writers like Edward Lewis Wallant or Thornton Wilder, etc. Also, remember that nobody waited for us to publish great noir writers, so we have to “fish” every day, and we take risks... certainly more than other publishers.
   Of course, we acknowledge writers and works that have inspired those we publish today. But, take Jack Kerouac, for example... as publishers, we are more interested in the writings of his daughter [Jan Kerouac] than his own works that have already been extensively commented on and distributed.

ZA: In 2011, you released an impressive anthology, Le Livre des fêlures, 31 histoires cousues de fil noir, comprised mostly of translated stories. How/why did this come about, and what do you feel links the writers you selected for this anthology?

13e Note: In 2010, we released Le Livre des fêlures, a massive anthology for our modest press, as we worked on/published it while simultaneously working on our regular program. We were reading many exciting pieces, some by writers published in France and some by unpublished authors that we thought we ought to do something with. Realistically, we cannot publish every project that excites us, so the anthology sort of promoted and publicized the literary genre we love and promote. This book won the Prix De La Nuit Du Livre thanks to the sweat and talent of Patrice Carrer.
   In putting together the anthology, we had: 31 cool and lively biographies with author pictures, 31 contracts with money sent in envelopes to rehab centers, agents, and independent writers, dozens of translators and 31 quality stories, all assembled spontaneously and organized [by genre—Néo- Beat, Méta-Réalisme, Off-Noir, Inside Out] by Patrice to help guide the reader. We will re-issue it in our new Pocket-Pulse collection.

ZA: As The Fiddlehead is a Canadian-based magazine, I want to talk a bit about Matthew Firth, who you are currently working with. Much of Matt’s fiction importantly deals with Canadian cities and the gritty experiences of their inhabitants. What drew you to his fiction, and what qualities in his writing make you feel his material will translate well to French and European markets?

13e Note: First, Matthew Firth is also a publisher and we love the same stuff. I do not think it is obvious that Matt writes about Canadian cities and their inhabitants; there aren’t that many hints in his writing. But obviously he lives there, so it works its way in. We love his fiction because it is without concession and [it] honestly depicts human nature. It is honest and sometimes brutal, and always has a sense of humour. Matt, like Dan Fante, does not hesitate to put his family jewels on the table and be vulnerable. We love that. I have never asked myself whether his [Matt’s] work would or wouldn’t translate well to the French market before deciding to publish him.

: Lastly, does 13e Note have plans to expand its market directly to North America? With Francophone populations in Quebec and New Brunswick, do you see potential/value in fostering a sort of “global” literary community?

13e Note: We have plans to expand into the U.S. and Canadian markets as soon as our French venture can somehow balance/sustain itself. The future, unless we find a partner (pronto), is very bleak, as sales, our main source of financing, are just not happening. Unlike others, we have no country rights to negotiate, movie deals either never happen or come about once in a blue moon… our sales income is paid with a 4 month delay, we have no back catalogue to sustain sales, and, frankly, it is incredibly difficult to publish an unknown writer and get him media attention. Only passion and enthusiasm keep us going… but for how long?
   Lastly, my dear Zach, we are four at 13e Note Editions, and whatever has been achieved so far would have been impossible without the talent, dedication, and shared passion of Sandrine, Adeline, and Patrice. They carry this Press on a daily basis, and I am so grateful they trusted me from day one.