Small independent presses: interview with Cécile Menon
Tomorrow evening (Wednesday 16th May), a group of BookMachine-goers will be joining the TLS in London for an event which focuses on small, independent presses and the current trend which has seen a 79% increase in sales by sixty of the UK’s smallest publishers. Here Norah Myers interviews one of the panellists Cécile Menon. Cécile is a translator between French and English, and the joint-laureate, with Natasha Lehrer, of the 2016 Scott Moncrieff Prize for Translation from the French, Cécile is also a publisher and an editor.
1. Why was it important for you to establish Les Fugitives?
As Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, the founder of African press Cassava Republic elegantly put it in a recent interview, “Sometimes acting from a place of innocence and darkness brings its own light and reward.” It all started with the translation of Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (French publication, 2012), which didn’t have a publisher in the UK or the US. Suite for Barbara Loden, the first book published by Les Fugitives, went on to win one of the most prestigious literary awards in the UK, the Scott Moncrieff Prize. I knew that, to sell that book, I needed to frame it within a list. It seems obvious but as I didn’t initially plan to be a publisher and knew quite little (in hindsight) about the business, and as my primary goal was to publish that one book, devising an ethos turned out to be key. There was a gap in the English literary market for a certain type of literature by French female writers, or so I found out, almost by accident.
2. Tell us about two or three recent books you have published. What makes them special?
They’re short books, which doesn’t mean you can read them fast, by francophone female writers published in France, respected authors in the homeland. I’ve published four so far. All have found a small but – in terms of gender, age, race and culture – fairly broad readership. They’ve garnered quite intense critical acclaim in the UK and in the US (having been initially rejected by English and American publishers large and small). Another common point, apart from the representation of women and a certain intellectual quality, is the bending of genre. They are poetic works that push the boundaries of the novel, biography and autobiography; also interacting with or drawing inspiration from other art forms, such as music, cinema and visual arts; thought-provoking belles-lettres if you like; more often than not pretty dark too, but always beautiful.
3. What is your favourite part of working as a translator?
I’ve only translated one of the books I’ve published, and it was a co-translation with Natasha Lehrer. But I do work as a translator, for other publishers. What I like best about working as a translator is focusing on the one project, story, narrative; the continuity of the work – being in the zone, between two cultures and languages: my mother tongue (French) and my second language (English). Also learning to write, each and every time, and understanding the world through another mind’s eyes; educating myself and broadening my horizon.
4. How do you see Les Fugitives developing in the next few years?
French publishers (like the mighty Éditions Gallimard, for instance) entrusting me with the work of their authors make an educated guess but also take a leap of faith. I take heart in their trust – at any rate as we’re contractually bound I better not screw up but I’m still the dingy that takes a fraction of the vast number of French books no one else in the UK is interested in, across the Channel to dry land. There’s a virtue in staying small. The books I publish I deeply care about, having invested in them and being invested with them. Continuing as a one-woman band (with continued support from grant-giving bodies, friends and family) means staying small. I’m endeavouring to create a safer, faster operation, which depends on a permanent team. I’d like to continue to publish more than one book by one author, and that includes more than one book by the one male author (Jean Frémon, whose book Now, Now, Louison, translated by Cole Swensen, coming out in the Fall, is the first male author published by Les Fugitives). I see Les Fugitives maturing and gaining more recognition, rather than developing, perhaps; slowly, but surely.
You can join Thea, along with her chosen speakers at BookMachine London with the TLS on Wednesday 16th May from 6.30pm. For tickets and information click here.