Hi Alessandro, thank you for speaking to us. To begin with, I wonder if you could tell us when you first started writing and why?
“I lisped in numbers, and the numbers came,” said Alexander Pope. I can’t quite remember how and why I started writing, but I did that from a very early age. I dabbled in poetry and poetical translations since my early teens, and wrote short stories and verse plays over the following decade. I wrote my first novel in my early thirties, and since then I have abandoned original poetry, although I kept translating classics of English literature, such as Pope and Auden.
Do you have a particular place you like to go to write? And perhaps a favourite mood – music, good light, bookshelves?
I usually write at my desk or – if it’s very late – in the drawing room, where I have a large table I can cover with dictionaries, books and other sheets of paper. I don’t need music to get going, but sometimes I love to listen to classical music. Schumann and Schubert are de rigueur. I need a lot of space around me.
You’ve published both novels and short stories. What are the major differences to your approach to these two forms?
I suppose we don’t take a different approach when we come to publish short stories: we tend to treat all styles and genres with the same enthusiasm. If we are publishing a collection of poems or short stories, I don’t see why we should be less bullish than when we publish a novel.
Judging the winners of The London Magazine short story competition must have been a challenge. How do you differentiate between, say, the top ten short stories, and the winner?
The London Magazine judging experience was quite interesting because I could use not only my publishing nous but also my writer’s skills and reader’s passion. I didn’t find it difficult to separate the first three or four stories from the rest, because quality jumps out quite clearly. It is significant that two of the three winners are published and experienced authors.
If you were to pick a single collection of short stories to read on a desert island, what would it be and why have you chosen this one, special book?
I would never go onto a desert island without a trolleyful of books, so let me choose at least three or four collections. Selected short stories by Raymond Carver, complete short fiction by Chekhov (that would probably take me into excess luggage), the Decameron and the short fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald. As to why, it is simply because these are among the best short-story writers of all time, although I could quote many more, especially from French, Russian and English literature.
In your speech about the winning story for TLM, you mentioned that it had a ‘traditional structure’. My own experience suggests that more traditionally-styled short stories tend to do better. Is this simply the prejudice of the judge/critic, or is something more fundamental going on here? Have we reached a situation in which Ezra Pound’s dictum to ‘make it new’ holds less credence in a society which has seen most things and is, ultimately, less shockable?
I don’t think it has anything to do with prejudice. I believe that a classically written story – with a strong beginning, a well-structured plot or development and a powerful ending – is much more rewarding. That said, a certain degree of originality, either in the style, the voice or the subject matter, will certainly make the short story more intriguing.
You’ve been working in the publishing industry for a number of years, successfully heading several independent publishers. How has your experiences within the industry affected your writing?
I got into publishing because of my love of writing, reading and translating, so I feel I am no more than a writer locked in a publishing cage. My experience as a publisher has killed some of my writerly idealism, giving me an insight into an at times farcical world I once admired and was in awe of. I’ve become very fatalistic about publishing: more often than not, it’s about the right thing landing on the right desk at the right time. I won’t go so far as to say that there is a general degradation of taste, but it is certainly difficult to emerge as a writer in such a cut-throat and oversaturated publishing world.
Alma Books work in seven different languages; it’s often said that fluency in another language provides an alternative perspective, with the very vocabulary of a language affecting the way we think and feel. Would you agree with this and how has you immersion in the world of translation affected your own creative output?
The knowledge of a language opens the door to an entire literature and culture. Being able to draw from this wealth of material can only enrich your experience, both when you are reading and when you are writing or translating.
In an interview with Vogue, you say that only after you and your wife have published four hundred books, will you feel as if you’ve ‘left a mark’. Why four hundred?
Because when I gave that interview I thought I’d be publishing around forty titles a year, which in ten years would have left a mark – or at least had some impact and contributed to culture and society. In fact, our going rate now is between seventy and a hundred titles per year. The increased output doesn’t mean we’re going to retire earlier, but that we are more ambitious than ever and keen on leaving a significant cultural testament in this country.
In another interview, following your Independent Publishing Award, you state that in publishing ‘the capitalist approach doesn’t work.’ Could you elucidate on this for our readers?
We don’t believe in the boom-and-bust approach – years of double-digit growth, takeovers, large turnovers – followed by many publishers, as well as companies in other industries. In publishing, you always have to take the long view, invest in authors and nurture their work over a long period of time. Too many publishers are obsessed with growth, to the detriment of quality and long-term sustainability. The capitalist approach to publishing usually ends in disaster. Over the last two years, we have seen a dozen publishers growing very quickly, only to be sold and subsumed into larger groups. The winners are the directors of these companies, perhaps, but the real losers are the authors.
Returning to the short story, I wonder if you would be happy to offer a prognosis on the state of the short story market and perhaps hazard an opinion on where it’s heading?
We publish a great number of short-story collections in our European classics series, and these are selling fairly well. It is a lot more difficult to promote effectively short-story collections by living authors who are not yet well established. The real problem is not the reader’s reluctance to engage with the short-story form – which, in fact, lends itself perfectly to the times we live in – but a certain diffidence among sales representatives and booksellers. The emergence of smaller online, digital-only and print-on-demand publishers suggests that the future of the short-story genre is promising, if not bright.
It’s notoriously difficult to sell short stories and often short-story writers struggle to break into the publishing market. What would be your top tips for succeeding in this tough environment?
Be patient and establish yourself as a writer first: then you can publish successfully in every genre, including short stories.
Lastly, what are your next exciting projects and what can you tell us about them?
I’m halfway through a novel set in an Italian lunatic asylum in the 1930s. After writing three novels in English, it’s my first attempt in Italian. When I finish writing it, I will have to look for a publisher in Italy – something that scares me and excites me at the same time.
Thank you for your time, Alessandro. It’s been a pleasure.
Alessandro Gallenzi is the founder of Hesperus Press, Alma Books and Alma Classics, and the successor of John Calder at the helm of Calder Publications. As well as being a literary publisher with over fifteen years of experience, he is a prize-winning translator, a poet, a playwright and a novelist. www.almabooks.com, www.almaclassics.com
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.