Q & A with Dan Gunn from Cahiers Series
1) What would you say is the mission of the Cahiers Series in general?
I think this is quite well described on the dust-jackets of the cahiers themselves where we say: “The ambition of the series to to make available new explorations in writing, in translating, and in the areas linking these two activities.”
To that I could add that our ambition is to publish texts which other publishers could not satisfactorily put out, because the relation of words to image is too intimate and complex (as in cahier no.14 with László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann), or because the text refuses to fit comfortably into a single genre (as in cahier no. 9 with Simon Leys or cahier no. 21 with Anne Carson).
2)How long have the Cahiers been around? Could you say a little bit about the history of the imprint?
At our institution, the American University of Paris, we host a remarkable number of interesting guests and events. I came to realize after some years at the university that little trace remains of these events after they’re over. When it was proposed by our university president to start a Center for Writers & Translators, I thought it would be good to generate a publication that celebrates the many interesting people who pass through, and to commemorate the events we organize. This was at the origin, but very quickly the project became more ambitious, mostly because at that time – in 2007 – I met Ornan Rotem of Sylph Editions. It was he who gave a shape to the idea of a publication, and from the outset, with Cahier 1 by Richard Pevear, gave it a very distinguished and distinguishable layout and design. Since then we have collaborated in order to ensure that each cahier fits in with and at the same time expands the series.
3) For me one of the most impressive things about the series is simply the content. You’ve got writers like Anne Carson and László Krasznahorkai working together with artists like Max Neumann and Thomas Neubolt. You’ve even published the work of Nobel Prize laureates like Elfriede Jelinek. In one sense it seems like only a smaller press would take the initiative to make collaborations like this happen, but in another it seems like a miracle that a small imprint like yours has the resources to reach out to artists of such quality and diversity. Can you say a little bit about how you’re able to bring these artists together?
The answer is to be found, I think, in the first part of your question. It is precisely because we are a small operation, because we delegate no tasks at all, that we are able to speak to the writers and artists that matter to us.
One of the gambits of Ornan Rotem, from the outset, was to do precisely what big corporate publishers cannot or choose not to do: make every cahier something worth owning, something that cannot be substituted by any technological device or support. Another was to make sure that we work with artists and writers (and translators) whom we admire and trust. Daniel Medin and I have a large circle of acquaintances, and we always find a way to get in touch with artists and writers who interest us. Most cahiers take a year or two to develop, since of course, this not being principally a commercial venture, we cannot expect our contributors to drop everything just to work for us. However great the celebrity or notoriety of a writer, s/he is approachable if one goes about it in the right way. For me, the right way means as directly and simply as possible.
What ensues, if there is interest, is a complex and often quite lengthy dialogue, as we see which artist might link well to which writer; and that is before we really get on to the editing side, which – because of the exigencies of the brevity that the cahier-form imposes – can be rather arduous and exacting. Then there is the designing proper, after which further discussions, and so on. What one needs for this sort of venture is above all: several sets of good eyes, a lot of editorial experience, and a good sense of what it means to collaborate.
Now that the series has been going so long and is achieving so much recognition, certain aspects are of course simpler, since it could be said to have “proved itself”. However, when faced with a very long text that wants to become a cahier, the essential editorial challenges remain those they were at the outset…
4) What about the design of the series? What made you choose the chapbook format, and how do you go about deciding how to incorporate the art with the text?
The choice of format and design is the doing of Ornan Rotem of Sylph Editions. He has explained something of his design philosophy in various articles that are available, and I would not dare to summarise it here. But you can derive its elements from any of the cahiers: clarity, consistency, design governed not by flashiness or gimmicks but by respect for the text; consideration given to every aspect of the finished work, from the colours, to the typeface, to the dust-jacket, to the choice of paper and ink, to the printing method, right down to the scent the cahiers give off when they come out of their boxes.
Ornan is someone who does not like to repeat himself, and for whom design becomes interesting precisely at the point where most publishers’ designers give up: which is to say where it becomes difficult, where a new solution has to be found. An example would be, again, no.14 with Max Neumann’s terrifying Animalinside. For that cahier Ornan had to devise a whole new printing method to face the challenge of the intense black that Neumann uses.
As for how the images get paired up with the texts, that can come about in various ways, though the principle governing the choices doesn’t really vary: not to illustrate the text but rather to provide it with a parallel “text” against which it can shine the more brightly. Occasionally, an author comes with an idea in mind. More commonly Ornan proposes an artist or I do, or Daniel does, and then we see where that idea takes us…
5) As succinctly as you can, could you walk us through the process of putting out an edition of the Cahiers Series, or is each project different?
- At least one year before a cahier needs to appear, contact an author and see if s/he might be interested in collaborating in the series.
- Invite the author to submit texts that might possibly work in cahier form.
- Choose one or several texts and try to edit them into a shape – with the author’s help – that can fit the series.
- While doing this try to find an artist whose work might complement the texts; contact the artist and see if this might interest him/her; gather possible images.
- Begin, with Ornan Rotem and Num Stibbe of Sylph Editions, to put together the cahier in its text and image.
- Go through about 20 proof versions, trying to get it all right, appealing at this point too to our trusted band of readers who help us.
- Write the jacket and belly-band material.
- Print the cahier – this is all done by Sylph Editions at Principal Colour in Kent, England.
- Daniel Medin ensures the publicity is already working for the cahier.
- Ensure distribution of the cahiers through our distributor, Chicago University Press.
- When possible, host the author for a launch party at the American University of Paris, and on occasion organize an exhibition for the artist at our university gallery.
- Send out complimentary copies to readers and reviewers, follow up on reviews, give the cahier as full a life as possible.
- Deal with foreign publishers who would like to publish foreign editions of the cahiers.
I may well have left out a few stages, since much of this has become a bit automatic by now. But what I should stress is that it all has to be done in a way that is both personal and personable. By far the most important thing to me is that author and artist be pleased both with the process and with the result. It is because this has – to the best of my knowledge – always been the case, in all the 23 cahiers published to date, that there is so much good will towards the series. And it is because we bring satisfaction that authors and artists are happy to go on helping us.
6) On the one hand we’re always reading about the death of print, yet on the other I think small presses are having something of a moment. Certainly some of the most interesting work being put out right now is produced outside the bounds of the larger publishing houses. Can you reflect on the challenges of remaining economically viable as a small imprint in what would seem to be a tough time for publishers?
We have been fortunate from the outset to have the backing of the American University of Paris. The sums involved are not enormous, far from it, but the consistency of support is absolutely vital, especially when working on a project like the cahiers where the lead-time between having an idea and seeing the cahier completed can be two or three years or more. But even with institutional backing one gets nowhere unless one has an original idea to which one feels a real commitment.
I really do believe that there can be more to publishing than the highly standardized forms that one sees in the shops. I was fortunate in that at just the right moment I met Ornan Rotem who was able to find a form for that belief, and for his own foresight that it was crucial to make objects that have an intrinsic value as objects, even before a reader gets going on their textual contents.
The real challenge, then, is one not least of time and commitment. Doing what we do is immensely time-consuming, and the cahiers could be compared to icebergs, where only a tiny fraction is visible of the work that goes into them. If this is true of any book, it is particularly true of the cahiers where the range of expertise required to make them as good as they are is really very broad. To put it very crudely, one has to love what one is doing, at every step of the way; one needs a little luck; and in the end one has to hope that the public is ready to appreciate something that – ideally – does not too closely resemble anything they have had in their hands before…
Dan Gunn, Paris, March 2014
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