The contagiously enthusiastic Will Evans views literature as an international art form. His passion for world literature was the inspiration behind his brand new publishing venture, Deep Vellum, based in Dallas, Texas. Dedicated to quality literature in translation, Deep Vellum’s first titles are slated for release later this year.
Book Expo America attendees (or anyone else in NYC this week!) can check out Deep Vellum at the Translation Happy Hour Event Wednesday, May 28th, co-sponsored by Asymptote in celebration of the BEA’s Translation Market Focus.
Frances Riddle: What gap in the publishing landscape does Deep Vellum aim to fill?
Will Evans: I started Deep Vellum with a threefold mission to fill in the pieces that I feel are lacking in the literary landscape. Deep Vellum is going to publish translations of literature from every language and an unspoken part of that is I want to publish a lot of Mexican and Latin American literature. Based in Texas, we have strong ties to our neighbors south of the border.
I’m committed to publishing equal numbers of men and women authors. I’m very committed to publishing a diversity of authors from different styles, different viewpoints, different lifestyles, cultural backgrounds. The second part of Deep Vellum’s mission is to promote the art of translation, the more creative writing side of literary translation. And the third part of my mission is to promote literature as a part of the larger arts community in our country. If you look at the funding for the arts in America, literature is not considered the arts. So we need to get literature included in a discussion of the arts and the vital role that the literary community can play in this country.
FR: What are the advantages or disadvantages to starting a publishing house in Dallas?
WE: The vast majority, maybe 90% of everything that’s published every year in America, comes from New York City alone. Even Rochester feels like Timbuktu. The advantage to everyone being in one place is that you can meet a lot of like-minded people and build cool ideas together and you can get great experience working in something that already exists.
But if just some of those people would take their experience and leave New York for Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago, or any smaller cities in between, the immediate advantage is that they’re doing something different. They’re building something from the ground up, which is fun. There’s a value proposition that comes from owning your own idea. You can start the press you want to see. In New York, there’s all these people and all these resources and there’s funding sources, but there’s also an insane competition. On any given night in New York, if I want to host a reading I’d be competing against how many other readings? In most other cities, if you host a reading the chances are you’re the only literary event within a 250 mile radius so you own the scene and you can make events special and you can make a very large impact and you can make readers out of people who are not normally readers.
It’s important to change the conversation… not only in Dallas, but in the entire country, about the way we value literature and the way we value translation. American literature and world literature are not separate things. I don’t want my books to be on a translations table in a bookstore. I want Anne Garréta to be right next to the other Gs. I want these writers to be part of the discussion on literature without any distinction. I want independent bookstores to stock more independently published titles and to make people aware of what they’re reading: where it comes from, who’s writing it, who’s publishing it.
I don’t think that people realize that most publishing houses are owned by huge conglomerates in Germany and France and elsewhere. Americans aren’t even reading American literature. They’re just reading this garbage that’s being churned out. If people protest Walmart and they’re like, “I’m indie; I’m local,” and then they go out and buy gigantic conglomerate-published titles, they’re not doing anything to help. We’ve gotten so far away from what is important about literature in America that we need a complete restructuring from the ground up and we have a much better chance of doing that in places like Dallas than in New York, where there are vested interests in keeping things the way they are.
FR: Can you give us your list of top foreign writers you think we should all be reading?
WE: There are some Russian writers that absolutely blow my mind. One by Mikhail Shishkin (who I am publishing), Maidenhair, published by Open Letter, an amazing book. It is daring, adventurous, weird, beautiful, and humorous all at the same time. It’s a book that’s in dialogue with all the languages and cultures of the world and I think that’s really special. I also think people should read Sergei Dovlatov. He was a late Soviet writer and he is hilarious and weird and really unique.
FR: Tell us about some of the books that you’re going to be publishing at Deep Vellum.
WE: I’ve signed 5 authors as of now who are pretty unique and pretty remarkable. They’ve all won huge prizes in their languages. Sergio Pitol has won the Cervantes Prize. Anne Garréta won the Prix Médicis, which goes to an author who needs to be read more and the list of people who’ve won that award are people we now know. Carmen Boullosa has won awards in every Spanish speaking country. I’m publishing Jón Gnarr, the mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland. This man is an international celebrity. He’s an inspiration to me and to a lot of other people. And Mikhail Shishkin is the first author to win the three biggest literary prizes in Russia and is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize. He values language and he values literature and he values art. He makes you remember why we read books.
I’m excited about all of them equally but I’d like to draw attention to Anne Garréta who is part of the Oulipo, an avant garde literary movement from France. A lot of the Oulipo’s authors are really well known and they’ve been doing really inventive things with language. They like to take mathematical formulas and apply them to literature. It’s pretty amazing, remarkable and unique. But for a long time they were only men and mostly French. Anne Garréta was the third woman to join the group in 2000. Of 32 members 3 are women and what’s interesting is that none of the Oulipo women have ever had any of their major works published in English. The fact that the men of the Oulipo are so widely known and published in English translation really calls to mind a lot of questions about what literature we are reading and what we value and what we’re allowing publishers to get away with.
I ran the numbers on the translation database in 2013 and it’s 80% men so we have a problem with the amount of women we’re publishing in translation, the amount of women who are being reviewed, and the amount of women who are being published in general. So for me, Anne Garréta is a really special author because A) she’s amazing, B) her debut novel that I’m publishing was written in 1986 and has never been brought into English, and C) it calls into question the male-female dichotomy. Out of all the books I’ve signed, it’s the book my mom is most excited about reading.
FR: Which new translated works from other publishers were you most recently impressed by?
WE: I subscribe to Open Letter and Two Lines Press. I think they’re both pretty awesome and they’re both doing really cool things. I need to re-up my subscription to And Other Stories, I love them. New Directions always publishes great stuff. I recently read Frisch and Co.’s Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued, translated by Megan McDowell. I really enjoyed it. I also just read Blinding which Archipelago put out by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated by Sean Cotter. I highly recommend it. It’s an argument for why we should read translations because in America you’re not allowed to write like that. You’re not allowed to think like that. Blinding is so radically different from the way Americans view literature and the writing process. It is big, bold, inventive, weird, scary, and gorgeous. I’m also really loving Talking to Ourselves, the new Andres Neuman book that FSG is publishing.
FR: In your essay in the Brooklyn Quarterly you talked about the “Three Percent Problem” and you stated that the number of translations published each year is really much lower. Should we be calling it the 0.5% problem?
WE: In other countries they track everything. They can tell you exactly how many cookbooks are published every year. They can tell you how many books were translated from French into German. We don’t do that in America. Our publishing industry is really secretive and it’s really problematic when you’re A, a publisher or B, trying to get into publishing, or C, if you’re a writer or a translator and you’re trying to get your book published. You have no idea what is out there because the industry for a long time liked it that way.
The more secretive they could be the better. I started out as a publisher because Chad Post of Open Letter Books started this blog, created this translation database, and I was like this is crazy, we need to change this, we need more publishers to do this. Three percent is just an estimate and it’s important to get people talking about it just to realize that there’s a need. But when you only focus on the Three Percent Problem it’s not enough. We really need to just be out there publishing and reading the amazing stuff from other countries and we need readers to become aware that world literature is in dialogue with everything that informs our daily existence in the English speaking world and to realize what it means to be the dominant linguistic culture on Earth.
FR: Do you think that translated literature will one day have a better foothold in the US publishing industry?
WE: I think it is going to get better because there’s so much garbage out there right now but I think it’s going to take a much larger discussion about the types of books that we read. I don’t think every book is equal. I think there’s a hierarchy but great literature is a broad category. It could be Sci-Fi, it can be Fantasy, or it could be Realist Post Modern Fiction.
I think translation needs to be brought out of the ghetto that it’s in because we talk about translation as if it is separate from literature and no, translated literature is part of literature. It just happens to be from another country, another language. We need to bring translation into the discussion of literature and we need to take literature forward. Once we are able to do that as a culture translation will inevitably be able to get more market share, more visibility, more discussion. There was a time when you could have a translated bestseller and I don’t see that happening again anytime soon. I don’t see there being any literary bestsellers in the future but you don’t need to sell a million copies to make a really big impact. You can sell 50,000 copies of a book and make a big difference. It’s important to remember that it’s an economy of scale for literature. Everyone doesn’t have to read translations. We just need a certain number of people talking about change and our reading habits and our cultural appetite for enjoying different types of things from all over the world.