Meet the Publisher: Chris Fischbach of Coffee House Press

It’s a well-known fact that I am often drawn to books that tear your heart out and stomp on it.

Coffee House Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry, and essays. Since 2014, with the publication of Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney), the press has sought out authors from Latin America and farther abroad. Coffee House Press is also a nonprofit organization that collaborates with artists on Books in Action projects that expand the relationship between reader and writer. Over email, Chris Fischbach, CHP’s publisher, and Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, discussed the press’s interdisciplinary collaborations, how they discover books by Latin American authors, and some of the titles in translation readers can check out.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Coffee House Press come to be?

Chris Fischbach (CF): We were founded by Allan Kornblum in the early 1970s in Iowa, and we were purely a letterpress venture back then, publishing poets from both Iowa and from the New York School, where Allan had moved from. In the early 1980s, Allan moved the press to Minneapolis, where it became the first press-in-residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A couple years later, we incorporated as a nonprofit, became Coffee House Press, moved down the street, and started publishing trade editions (fiction and poetry) as well as continuing our letterpress work. I joined the press as a letterpress intern in December of 1994 and was hired as an editorial assistant in August of 1995. I became publisher in 2011.

SM: Your catalogue includes works of fiction, poetry, and essay. What would you say makes a Coffee House book?

CF: There are a number of ways to answer this question, but to me, the best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorize, difficult to describe. Which, to me, is because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on. It’s not uncommon for us to say, “I love this, and I can’t imagine anyone else publishing it, so it must be a Coffee House book.” Of course we sometimes joke that our list is made up of “experimental books about death,” which I have to admit is pretty good. Also, Eimear McBride once blurbed one of the Cynan Jones books we published and called it a “merciless landscape of grief,” which is also pretty apt.

One book on our list that is really peak Coffee House is Karen Yamashita’s I Hotel. A sprawling, wildly experimental novel that is gorgeous, smart, political, brave, and ambitious. And we also try to publish people from many different cultural backgrounds. Karen is Japanese American and has lived in California, Japan, Brazil, and Minnesota. Karen knows very few borders in either fiction or life.

SM: You also publish titles as part of Books in Action. Could you tell me a little about the project?

CF: Coffee House Press has long recognized that there are many possibilities for reader/writer exchange beyond (and even without) the page. Through our Books in Action publications and programs, we’ve become interdisciplinary collaborators and incubators for new work and audience experiences—not just with CHP authors, but with visual, performing, and social practice artists, and others whose ideas and work engage and inspire. Our vision for the future is one where a publisher is more than a company that packages books. We strive to be a catalyst and connector—between authors and readers, ideas and resources, creativity and community, inspiration and action.

One of my favorite past Books in Action initiatives was the Potluck Projects. In collaboration with Works Progress, CHP invited twelve artists to engage communities in and around Minneapolis through conversation, artistic intervention, and other creative activities. Ranging from a public art performance on the Minneapolis light rail to a film screening on the side of an empty East Lake Street storefront, each artist’s project was inspired by an essay from Andy Sturdevant’s Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, adding to, enacting, and connecting with its content. To learn more about the Potluck Projects and the participating artists, visit the project’s Tumblr page.

Office at Night: 1940 was another standout, in which the Walker Art Center and CHP co-commissioned authors Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt to write a novella that would accompany the Walker’s exhibition Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process. Inspired by Hopper’s work, specifically Office At Night (1940), Bernheimer and Hunt wrote the work from the perspectives of the people and objects within the painting. It was released by CHP as an e-book and featured on the Walker’s website during the exhibition, providing a model for creative participation. The e-book was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award.

Finally, there’s our ongoing core project, CHP in the Stacks. Inspired by the Library as Incubator Project, CHP in the Stacks is a library residency program that places writers, artists, and sometimes readers in public and private collections/libraries to create new work, shine a light on the collection, and inspire creative engagement between community members and collections. To learn more about past CHP in the Stacks residencies, visit the project’s Tumblr page.

Our vision with CHP in the Stacks was always for our publishing program to overlap with the residencies, and for new books to emerge from some of the projects. Lara Mimosa Montes is helping us make that happen using various archival and published ephemera to rediscover the visual cultures of the Bronx, in particular, those used as a site-specific backdrop or object of inquiry by artists working in the Bronx during the 1970s and ’80s. The book that has grown out of this is Thresholes, which we will be publishing in May 2020.

SM: When it comes to translation, you’ve primarily published Latin American authors. What draws you to writers from this part of the world? How do you discover books written in Spanish?

CF: In the past, Coffee House limited itself to publishing “American literature,” by which we meant, really, authors from the United States. Increasingly, this felt inadequate to us, so we decided to broaden our definition of “American” to include writing from the Americas, and to recognize the whole hemisphere as having a shared (but also very varied) history, with borders becoming increasingly irrelevant (at least in the artistic and cultural sense).

There are a number of ways that we find out about books. Our first two books were by Valeria Luiselli, and I found out about them at the Frankfurt Book Fair, both from my friends at Granta, who published Ben Lerner in the UK, and also from a good friend and Venezuelan editor living in Barcelona, Diana Hernández Aldana, who now serves as our scout. So Valeria, Diana, and Christina MacSweeney started suggesting authors to us, and soon, as we published more and more translations, all the agents who represent Latin American authors starting paying more attention to us, and now we have good relationships with many of these agents. Then we hired Lizzie Davis, our Associate Editor, who is fluent in Spanish, and who is also a translator herself. She began establishing quite a few relationships with editors and authors throughout Latin America, and is going to be translating her first book for us soon, Ornamento, by Juan Cárdenas.

The latest development is that Valeria Luiselli has joined us as a contributing editor and regularly recommends authors to us. It was through her that we came to acquire Rodrigo Tizano and Daniel Saldaña París, to name just two.

SM: What has the experience of publishing authors in translation been like?

CF: It’s wonderful, of course!

SM: Could you share a few translations you’re excited about?

CF: Our two most recent translations couldn’t be more different, but they’re both very Coffee House books in their ways: Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (translated by Heather Cleary) is a smart, darkly funny, and engrossing novel that unfolds in two halves that take place a century apart, linked more by shared obsessions than narrative. In the first, set in the outskirts of Buenos Aires in 1907, a doctor becomes involved in a misguided experiment that investigates the threshold between life and death. In the second, set in the city one hundred years later, a celebrated artist goes to extremes in search of aesthetic transformation, turning himself into an art object. Together, they investigate the ethics of scientific experimentation and, later, artistic intervention, with a healthy dose of man-eating plants and even a two-headed baby. After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is an elegant, melancholy novel composed in alternating chapters that reflect the interior lives, fears, and obsessions of a shy young Mexican woman who has moved to Paris to study and a Cuban book editor living in New York, as well as their brief intersection. This book is so sad. It’s a well-known fact that I am often drawn to books that tear your heart out and stomp on it. This book does that. It almost risks going too far, frankly. But to me, taking things as close to the line as possible is artistically interesting, and Guadalupe absolutely pulls it off.

SM: What translations are new or forthcoming?

CF: We’re very excited about Naja Marie Aidt’s Carl’s Book: When Death Takes Something From You, Give It Back, a book that, though it falls outside of our Latin American translation concentration, was simply too good to pass up. It’s Naja’s first work of nonfiction to be published in the US, about the death of her son and the way it transforms her relationship to time, reality, and language.

We’re also thrilled to be publishing Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder, translated by Sophie Hughes (and recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International). It’s an incredibly atmospheric novel that includes a road trip in a hearse and a journey through the Andes as ash rains down on Santiago, and it presents a new way of writing about Chile’s dictatorial history: the protagonists are a group of young friends who must reconcile their fragile lives with their parents’ violent militant pasts, negotiating inherited wounds and their own.

There’s also Carmen Boullosa’s The Book of Anna, a playful feminist exercise that picks up where Anna Karenina left off, filling in the gaps in Tolstoy’s tome while bending the boundaries between fiction and reality (translated by Samantha Schnee); Mario Levrero’s Empty Words, a cult favorite about the Uruguayan legend’s attempts to transform his character by improving his handwriting (translated by Annie McDermott); and Rodrigo Márquez Tizano’s Jakarta, a hallucinatory English-language debut in which a man tasked with collecting the bodies of the children affected by the latest plague reflects on the cycles of ruin and reconstruction that have shaped his city (translated by Thomas Bunstead).

Chris Fischbach became publisher of Coffee House Press in July 2011, after sixteen years in various editorial roles. He has served as co-chair of the Minneapolis Arts Commission, assistant director of the Twin Cities Book Festival, and on the board of directors of the Friends of the Hennepin County Library. He currently serves on the board of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

Sarah Moses is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in various print and online journals and anthologies, including Brick and Bogotá 39 (Oneworld, 2018). Sarah’s co-translation (with Carolina Orloff) of Ariana Harwicz’s novel Die, My Love (Charco Press, 2017) was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. She is currently at work on her first full-length collection.


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