Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt

Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 2

The cold (English cold I should say, not Canadian) fresh air slapped my face as I exited the apartment. I didn’t feel like walking, but nonetheless, nutted-up and strode for 15 minutes over to the Thames, where the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) fairly sparkled in the morning sunlight.

The Bookseller magazine‘s offices are across the river from it. A 15 minute walk West gets you to the Tate Britain. Twenty minutes on foot in the other direction, along the Thames, and you’re at the Southbank Book Market.

Given that it was late October, there weren’t too many vendors out. I suspect there’s a lot better selection in the summertime.

In case you’re interested M16’s HQ is a short trot up the road from The Bookseller’s offices. And just so you know, the surrounding district is called Lambeth – as in Liza of Lambeth,

Somerset Maugham’s first novel about the travails of a young factory worker who lives near Westminster Bridge, written while Maugham was a medical student. Lambeth is also the place where John Milton lands after cometing his way down from heaven in William Blakes’ Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

I was here to interview The Bookseller’s chief executive and owner, Nigel Roby.

The magazine goes way back, to 1858, when Joseph Whitaker founded it in order to inform London publishers and booksellers about the latest books, launch dates, and various comings and goings in the trade. It has filled this role faithfully ever since – even published during the Blitz – only today, the coverage is global. Listen below as Nigel (Beale) talks with Nigel about the magazine’s past, along with current topics of concern to the industry. Brexit, which came up in virtually every interview I conducted during this visit to London, was certainly one concern. The uncertainty created is agitating everyone in publishing.

As members of the EU, the Brits have for many years had the English-language market on the continent all to themselves. With the ‘leave’ vote, this could change dramatically. A potential battle looms with American publishers. Britain is currently the largest book exporter in the world (Canada is one of the largest importers). Sales are close to $7 Billion a year, half of which comes from the EU. The U.S. is hankering for an invasion.

The British book business employs 30,000 people. If the country pulls out of the EU, and walls go up, literary culture is likely to become more isolated, a shrinking economy would mean less money spent on books, and writers could lose their generous Euro grants. No wonder it comes up in conversation. There’s much at stake.

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I’d agreed to meet Henry Hitchings downstairs outside the building. There he was, right on time. We hiked briskly back to Airbnb HQ talking all the while about theatre (Henry is the critic for the Evening Standard), Samuel Johnson, and, yes, Brexit. Listen here as we nerd out about the smell of books and stories that can be told around buying them (books not smell), and a book Henry edited called Browse: The World in Bookshops.

Continue reading “Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt”

Brattleboro and Books, Greenblatt and Fadiman, Beowulf and Bookstores

If you have to drive for five hours in a row, there are worse routes to be stuck on than the #89 from Montreal to Brattleboro, Vermont

especially in the Fall (okay, this isn’t the actual highway, it’s an image from Vermont Tourism, but you get the idea).

I was heading down to the Brattleboro Literary Festival. We’d attended last year. Caught readings by Richard Russo and Claire Messud, among others. Very pleasant little town. Plenty of granola and veggie burgers on offer, plus a very good used bookstore.

I was pumped about who I’d lined up to interview for The Biblio File.

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Ions ago, when in my late-twenties, I came across Clifton Fadiman’s A Lifetime Reading Plan.

I’d always wanted to read the great works – had studied politics in college, not literature. Clifton’s guide changed my life. Not only did I read all of its concise, well-crafted summaries – a hundred in total – over the years I’ve actually read many of the books on the list, taking great pleasure ticking off titles as I finish reading them. Clifton’s daughter Anne has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. I couldn’t wait to tell her what an impact he’d had on my life, and to learn more about the grand old man himself. Just listen to her. Energy level is off the charts, just as I imagine Clifton’s was:

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Among other things Will in the World suggests that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. It also details the bone-breaking cruelty that religion brings out in human beings. Heads chopped off, stuck on spikes, displayed on London’s bridges. Fascinating book, and yet considering how little can be proved about The Bard’s life, rife with conjecture. It took a lot of chutzpah to write this book, ergo, I wanted to meet its author. Stephen Greenblatt was appearing at the Festival promoting his latest book, Tyrant, about MacBeth, Richard lll, and Edmund of King Lear fame. A wicked Shakespearean cabal. None bare any resemblance to Trump of course.

Listen here as we debate this

I took this photograph of Stephen by lining myself up beside Beowulf (yes, his real name) Sheehan – using the same angle he used.

Stephen Greenblatt

Why? Because Beowulf is one of the most talented author photographers in the world. He hit it big with a shot of Donna Tartt. It graces the back cover of The Goldfinch, and the front cover of Beowulf’s beautiful new book of photographs, Author,

The writer Donna Tartt (USA), April 11, 2013, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here

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One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?

Brattleboro Books

It wasn’t, the whole time I was here. You’d think, what with the Festival on and all, that this would be the time for them to make maximum hay. Perhaps they were busy helping the organizers? Perhaps they were the organizers. Perhaps making money wasn’t the most important thing.

Here’s some tourist information for Brattleboro and environs.

Toronto Trolley Buses, Torosian, Motherhood and Lista

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Next morning I road the rails to Michael Torosian’s Lumiere Press in the West end of Toronto. He has a workshop in his backyard where he produces the most impeccable fine press photography books. (Here’s a look at his latest:

and his immaculate shop reflects it

After our Biblio File podcast conversation (listen here

I jumped in a taxi – the driver was a big Dire Straits fan (he liked it very loud) – and travelled back downtown to spruce up for the Grad ceremony.

All went smoothly. Eleanor copped her diploma, and Marie Campbell (author of Halfbreed) got her honorary doctorate

and delivered a harmless enough convocation address – mostly birds, bees, flowers, motherhood about mother-earth. I’d have preferred something a bit more substantive and inspiring, but it was what it was – an important message that shouldn’t – lest we fry – continue to be ignored.

After champagne, cake and photos, I boarded the trolley bus West again, this time for Michael Lista‘s place, where steaks and wine awaited. I first met Michael a decade ago in his Montreal apartment, right before his first book of poetry, Bloom, was published; one which I think will, over time, come to be recognized as truly important. More people should read it. Given its nuclear content, it will blow your mind, guaranteed.

After perusing his skillfully stacked, wrap-around bookshelves – they carry all the books I first saw in Montreal, and many more I’m sure –

we set about talking. You can listen to what was said here:

Ryerson, Book Publishing, Libido and Plucked Chickens

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Let’s just say $120 a night doesn’t get you much in the way of a hotel room in downtown Toronto these days. Crack-houses – that’s what the customer comments make them sound like. So I dialed up Airbnb to find a place – near Ryerson University – and got a lovely one-bedroom apartment for the same money. Clean, quiet, central, just what I needed. Turns out it was less than a block away from the old Maple Leaf Gardens

where my eldest daughter was scheduled to cross the stage the next day, a graduate of this program. This is why I was here; but naturally I’d lined up a few Biblio File interviews to wile away the spare time.

The first was at the home of award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar. We talked about her book The Handover (Biblioasis, 2017).

It concerns the increasing concentration in and foreign ownership of Canadian book publishing and how this has choked off writers’ options and advances, and readers’ choices. More precisely it explores in detail the convoluted and disingenuous sale by Avi Bennett of McClelland & Stewart to Penguin Random House via the University of Toronto, and how millions in government grants and tax credits were purloined along the way. Reads like a detective story and reveals much about how the Canadian establishment works.

Listen here to our conversation:

After the interview, and a quick perusal of Elaine’s artwork, I jumped in a taxi and headed for Le Paradis

where author David Gilmour and I were to dine that evening. It’s weird. I was in the taxi, and although I didn’t know exactly where I was, at one point the street suddenly seemed familiar. Contact Editions bookshop is located along here somewhere I said to myself. And damned if we didn’t pass it about 10 seconds later (on Davenport). Here, some years past, I’d bought a first edition of the first book ever published by Coach House Press, Man in a Window by Wayne Clifford.

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David is famous among Biblio File listeners for being the only guest ever to have told the podcast’s august host to Fuck Off on-air. His blast was delivered after bridling at my nervy criticism of several of his well-turned similes. It happened during one of the early episodes of the program. You can listen to the fireworks here if you like:

We ate outdoors. The evening was warm and pleasant. Save for water, we didn’t drink anything. The pepper-steaks arrived as the subject of concentrated ownership surfaced again. More and more award-winning authors, I remarked, are resorting, out of necessity it seems, to working with smaller independent publishers, pretty well all of whom have shallow pockets. Despite caring deeply about giving voice to Canadian-told stories, the advances they can muster are pretty pathetic. This isn’t to say however that Canadian authors can’t make money with them. It’s just that it’s not as easy and upfront as it once was with the big boys.

Talk turned to literature. I raved about the class of young students I’ve encountered at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College while sitting in on some Great Books courses (stay tuned for Biblio File interviews with the profs). They, the students, are filled not only with enthusiasm, but also smart questions and answers. It’s clear they’ve actually done the readings. Close readings. I mentioned how lucky I felt to be able to participate (thanks to Director Mark Russell). Then I remembered that David does me one better. He gets paid to teach this stuff every week at the U of T.

After some discussion of Plato’s contention that it’s a blessing not to be cursed with a ravenous libido in older age, we turned-in early, two Autumn chickens. Plucked alouettes.

Actually, it’s Sophocles who’s credited with the libido remarks in Plato’s Republic via Cephalus, who in turn tells Socrates. When asked about love, and if he was still capable of it, Sophocles replies, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and it feel as if I have escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ This has also been translated as ‘like escaping from bondage to a raging madman;’ and my favourite, ‘like being unchained from a lunatic;’ there’s also from ‘an idiot,’ ‘a demon.’

To be continued…

Literary Agents and Emma Bovary in Le Perche, France

Literary Tourist in France

Le Perche is known for the Percheron horse

Horse, Percheron

and, at least in my world, the literary agent. We were looking for Pierre Astier’s house, and knew that it was located next to a cemetery in Moutiers-au-Perche, 80 kms east of Le Mans (two hours’ train ride south of Paris). Countryside villages don’t come much prettier than this, with its charming tile-roofed cottages

Le Perche, France

and blazing red, potted flowers

(Franco-American director Sophie Barthes agrees, she shot parts of her film Madame Bovary here).

We’d found an old church, with it’s extruding drainpipe-tongued gargoyles,

Gargoyles, Le Perche, France

and yes, there was a cemetery attached to it. Two choices: up the hill toward a forest (where Emma kills herself), or around the side of the church. We chose the road more travelled, and found the house down a ways, first thing on the right.

le perche, france, house

I was here to interview Pierre and his partner Laure about their literary & film agency for my Biblio File podcast. They invited me into the garden and poured me an espresso. The terrain was a bit wild. The two of them had spent the previous afternoon together trying to tame it. While doing so Pierre had been bitten by a tick. He had to go to the hospital (not wise to play around with these things), but was kind enough to engage in conversation with me for about 20 minutes before leaving Laure

Laure Pecher

to fend off the rest of my questions. You can listen here to our discussion:

Among other things we talked about french publishers’ resistance to literary agents, the differences between pitching book publishers and film producers; translation, author/agent relations and Andrew Wylie.

After the interview, Caroline and I headed for Mortagne-au-Perche where we had lunch, here

mortagne au perche

Sitting beside us was a man with a Quebec accent. We soon learned (biblio-coincidence alert) that he,

Louis Duhamel

Louis Duhamel, had spent his entire working life as a librarian at the Ottawa Public Library, and that his father had been Queen’s Printer under prime minister John Diefenbaker, appointed in the late 50s, and unceremoniously dismissed from this supposed (according to Louis) lifetime position, by Pierre Trudeau.

Louis was touring the region researching his ancestors. Many from here are known to have emigrated to Quebec in the 17th century. And another thing: Louis’s father collected The Pleiade, a uniform series of world classics put out by Gallimard, starting in the 1930s. As it happened, several weeks later I was in Bordeaux where I visited the oldest independent bookstore in France, Mollat, and they just happened to have what looked like a full run of the series for sale:

but I’m getting ahead of myself.