Friday, October 14, 2011

Michael Reynolds Answers Your Questions

We're very lucky to have Europa's support of our blog and recently, Europa Editions Editor in Chief Michael Reynolds agreed to answer a few of our questions about the new Tonga line of books. 

What was the inspiration behind the new Tonga imprint? What's it all about? How did Alice Sebold get involved in the project? What's her role?

There’s one answer, really, to these two questions. The inspiration for Tonga Books came to Europa’s owners, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola, and to Alice one evening while drinking in the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco. The imprint was named in honour of the room in which they were doing this drinking, the venerable Tonga Room. As Alice tells it, she even had a Tonga Itch, the bar’s trademark cocktail, in hand. I wasn’t there, but I can picture the scene… It is of utmost importance to this dramatic recreation that one thing be clear: all players were on their second, possibly third, cocktail…. Sandro and Sandra express their desire that Europa publish more American fiction as part of our overall publishing program, and, in the same breath, bemoan the difficulties of attracting first-rate American writers to Europa, a publishing house largely known at the time for its publication of works in translation and novels by UK writers. What we’d need, they say, is some way to broaden the connotation associated with Europa, a hook that will appeal to American authors and agents. Alice agrees, and as she raises her hand to order another Itch, she comments on how much great work there is out there, by talented and committed authors, work that is shunned by the big houses because it represents too much of a risk. A successful writer like her can blurb a manuscript, or suggest a writer to her publishing house, but beyond that it’s not easy for a published writer to help her unpublished colleagues. Though she wishes it were otherwise.

Then, as the next round of drinks arrives, there is a moment, one of those inspired moments when suddenly a solution appears, rising fully formed and luminous out of the mists of the Tonga Room’s indoor rainstorms.

I remember seeing Sandro and Sandra a few days after that. They were bleary eyed from the long flight back from California to Rome (or perhaps from the many more cocktails had in the tonga room that night). How was your trip to see Alice, I asked. Good, they said on the way to their desks. Oh, and we founded a new publishing house.
The new publishing house became an imprint, and the imprint became Tonga Books.
I don’t think any of this could have happened if it had not been for the friendship and trust that exists between Sandro and Sandra, and my colleague Karin, who also works for Europa, and Alice. Theirs is a very special relationship, all the more so because it grew out of a professional relationship—Sandro and Sandra publish Alice’s work in Italy. Things done out of friendship seem to get short shrift these days, as if they lack seriousness or professionalism. But I can’t think of any better reason to do something, or any better recipe for success, than doing something out of friendship. Surely it’s the best way for anything to begin.

Alice’s role has been fundamental. Her name has leant Tonga prestige and garnered attention that it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. She drafted the illustration for the logo. She wrote the press release announcing Tonga. She acquired books. And she edited them. Her generosity has been boundless. And her eye for talent has been exceptional. She has fantastic taste.

I understand that the Tonga line is meant to have an edgier tone than the traditional Europa Editions line. However I find that a vast selection of Europa Editions titles do not fail in that department. Is the distinction between the two lines more a question of nationality of the authors than anything else? If someone picks up a Tonga title then they know they're getting Europa quality but not necessarily European authors, is that it?

Yes, Tonga is certainly focusing on English language authors, in most cases American ones. Europa has published American authors in the past and will continue to do so. But Tonga is doing only these authors.

As far as the edginess of Europa titles goes, and Tonga’s claim to an edgier edginess, I suppose you’re right. I’ve never quite thought of it before but I suppose many Europa titles easily fit the description “edgy”— Broken Glass Park, The Companion, Izzo’s books, Carlotto’s noir, Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, many others. I think the difference is that when dealing with American authors the “edginess” quotient is often also the reason why they don’t fit into the programs of big trade publishers, where the general approach is that a book can be anything it wants as long as it doesn’t hurt sales. Edgy = commercially risky. But you really can’t live up to your mandate as an indie publisher if you’re not dong commercially risky titles every now and again. If we don’t do them, who will?

The situation is slightly different with our European authors, because, however edgy authors like Bronsky, Carlotto, Izzo, Ferrante, and company may be, they are also bestsellers in Europe. Maybe, I’m not sure, readers are more receptive to edgier work in Europe.
What kind of response have you been getting from readers so far? 

You Deserve Nothing, Tonga’s first book, was published a month ago. It’s been on the IndieBound bestseller list since it was published. The response from booksellers and readers has been tremendous. Here is a book that is edgy, and whose edginess led to it being refused by a number of trade houses, but which is now getting loads of critical acclaim and selling very well. In short, it’s a publisher’s dream! Proof not only of Alice’s editorial acumen but also of the fact that quality writing is quality writing, no matter what else it is. What matters is the quality.

What are some upcoming titles in the Tonga line?

Next up for Tonga is Of Beasts and Beings by Ian Holding, perhaps the edgiest of Alice’s edgy acquisitions. Then, right around the holidays we’re publishing Tonga’s first comic novel, Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! which has been described as “hilarious” (Karen Joy Fowler) “outrageous” (Philip Lopate) “awesome” (David Wain) and “slightly deranged” (Marcy Dermansky). Then, there’s Wichita by Thad Ziolkowski coming up next summer, a book Susanna Moore described as “a wise, funny and haunting story of our time.”
It’s really a privilege to be involved in the publication of books of this caliber. I have the authors to thank for this privilege, of course, but also Alice, who brought these terrifically talented people to our list.

Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to our questions! We really appreciate your time and this great information.