Spotlight on Publishers: Peirene Press

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Glittering Gems in the Sea of the Human Imagination

Written by Meike Ziervogel

“I read, therefore I write, therefore I publish.”

Before I started up as a publisher, I was a writer. Before I became a writer I was a reader. Now I am all three. Being a reader and a writer, informs what books I publish and how I publish them.

There were not many books in the house where I grew up. It was also a house of walls without pictures. I became a reader when I realised that books can help me fill the walls of my imagination – and my room.

I am a reader because a good book serves as a spring board to engage my mind. A novel asks probing questions about myself and the world around me. It gives me a chance to expand – even alter – the ways I think and use my imagination. As a reader, I expect the writer to treat me as an equal in the creative process. Each book should be written with an awareness that a reader is required to finish the act. In other words, I like to be shown things, not told.

I am a writer because I have questions and no answers. Each story I write is an exploration, a journey, a search for something I know I cannot express in any other way. I use images, language and structure to give shape to an emotion I can feel but not grasp. I then hand my book to the reader as an invitation to travel together for a short while before each of us continues on our separate ways.

I am a publisher because I want to share the books that have set my imagination on fire, provoked me to think and made me feel alive.  I want to show other readers the books that have prompted me to be creative – as a reader and as a writer.

Growing up in Germany gave me the privilege to read many books in translation. As a young adult I learned English, Arabic and French, have lived in these countries  and have read many books in the languages.

‘To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life,’ the German philosopher Wittgenstein argues. Structure, sound and rhythm of a language influences how we perceive reality, how we process it, what images in our mind’s eye spring up. The language then also dictates the narratives that we shape in order to make sense of our lives.

I feel lucky that I can feed from four different languages.

I came to the UK in the late 1980s and ever since have been acutely aware of how few books are translated from other languages into English. That’s a real pity because it deprives Anglo-Saxon readers of the possibility to see the world from other angles, gain different impulses for their imagination and encounter unexpected reading experiences.

So when I set up Peirene I knew I wanted to publish foreign fiction. I also knew that I wanted to specialise in novellas which have never before been translated into English.

I love the novella form. Many full-length contemporary novels tend to be over-written. Too much description, too much repetitive dialogue, too much information copied from the internet. Furthermore, the world inside the story is often kept in balance – a villain confronts a hero – and our world view is more often confirmed than challenged.

A  novella, on the other hand, prefers to focus on one view or one voice, tries to encapsulate one feeling, portrays one psychological trait. It zooms in on one aspect of a story. By doing so, it prompts the reader to fill in the larger picture.

From a writer the novella requires artistic discipline. Every word, every sentence has to count. Images have to be evoked with care and deliberation. At the same time a story arch – like in a novel –  has to be built. But because there is a limit on the word count, a powerful voice and a strong structure are required too.

At best plot, voice and structure form a complete whole and each of these three aspects supports the other with an intensity made possible by the novella’s obligation to focus.

Moreover, the three novellas Peirene publishes within a year are linked by a common theme. Because that is how I read. I come across a book that catches my attention. Something inside it has fascinated me. A little glittering gem. Sometimes it’s a theme, sometimes the way a story is told. Sometimes a feeling that is evoked. Then I look for other similar glittering stones, to compare, contrast and complement.

The first Peirene book, Beside the Sea by the French author Veronique Olmi is the best book I’ve ever read about mother-child relationship. It addresses the challenge mothers face in understanding that their reality is different from their children’s. The protagonist in Beside the Sea does not succeed and acts accordingly. The book is a masterpiece because we only conceive reality through the eyes of the mother. It is the first book in our Female Voice series, which includes three narratives each formed by a single woman’s voice and her perception of reality. Each is playing to various degrees with the stream of consciousness form.

As a contrast, for Peirene’s next series I got interested in how male protagonists perceive the world, what stories their perception calls forth and what narrative techniques. The Male Dilemma series, therefore, presents three very different books from our first series. Here the reality of the story feels much more anchored in the reality of the outside world. But is it?

The first book of Peirene series No.3, Small Epic, that I came across was The Murder of Halland by the Danish author Pia Juul. It’s a thought-provoking exploration about grief. Moreover, in fewer than 200 pages it turns the genre of crime fiction on its head. How brilliant, I thought, and so I looked for two more novellas that play with genre fiction. I found a stunning Finnish historical novella, The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg and a beautiful poetic biography about the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, Sea of Ink by the Swiss writer Richard Weihe.

Series No.4 is called Turning Point and presents three stories about important historical moments written by famous women authors. The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke was my starting point. This book is a contemporary German classic about the trauma that has afflicted post-war German families and the fall of the Berlin wall. It presents its heavy themes with an extremely light touch, disguised as stream of consciousness narrative told to us by an unreliable narrator. That got me thinking of how to present historical truth – rather than mere historical facts – while at the same time creating a text that asks the reader to engage emotionally with something that happened many years ago.

And then this year’s series: Coming-of-Age: three novellas about our individual struggles to reach emotional and psychological maturity in a changing world. We have just launched the second title in this series: The Blue Room by the Norwegian Hanne Orstavik about a women who is locked in a room by her mother. A chilling and fascinating analysis of a woman’s struggle to seperate from her mother.

We are humans because of our ability to create and use language. The French philosopher Jacques Lacan believes that the Self is not fixed but “finds itself” through playing with language. Peirene’s literature in translation hopes to provide new impulses for that play.

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Meike Ziervogel is the publisher of Peirene Press and the author of  ‘Magda’ (published 2013) and ‘Clara’s Daughter’ (to be published September 2014).

Head over to Reprints to see our review of The Blue Room.

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