Twisted Spoon Press, founded in 1992 by Howard Sidenberg, Lukas Tomin and Kevin Blahut, is an independent publisher based in Prague. It focuses on publishing English translations of writing from Central and Eastern Europe. Equal emphasis is placed on introducing both new works from contemporary writers as well as works from an earlier period that have been neglected in translation. Here, Sid, one of the founders of Twisted Spoon Press talks about the past, present and future of this remarkable publisher.
When did you move to the Czech Republic and how did you get into the publishing business?
We got here in early 1991. Twisted Spoon Press began because we had a few manuscripts to publish (Lukas Tomin’s novels and Kevin Blahut’s translations from Prague German writers). It was completely by chance. It was Lukas who suggested “why don’t you do books,” and we thought, yeah, why not.
Did you or do you have a publisher whose example you follow, a paragon? Can you name similarly oriented publishing houses?
City Lights, Black Sparrow, New Directions, Calder, these are the types of publishers that came to mind when we were mulling over starting Twisted Spoon Press in 1991. We not only admired their work, but considered much of it seminal, and they also showed that one could publish non-commercial writing and translation (what some like to call “risky”) and have it work out OK.
Twisted Spoon Press was founded in 1992 during turbulent times of transition. Has this era somehow influenced the ethos of the company?
Twisted Spoon Press was conceived in 1991 and formally registered in 1992, and its first two books were published that year. We wouldn’t call either 1991 or 1992 turbulent here, except for a few weeks of anxiety in ’91 over what was going on in Russia, still the Soviet Union (Yeltsin on that damned tank and Gorbachev’s whereabouts certainly generated a bit of “discussion”). Many people were looking to get projects off the ground, and everything seemed possible, so perhaps the general atmosphere, the general giddiness, seeped in. The “ethos” of TSP is DIY. It’s been that from the outset, though we don’t do letterpress.
How has Twisted Spoon Press developed over the years? What have been the highlights for you so far?
We’ve gone from being a small publisher with limited resources to a small publisher with limited resources … with a Facebook page. Highlights would include: Lukas Tomin reading on the bar at Café Kandinsky; Kevin Blahut’s translation of Severin’s Journey into the Dark and the year spent tracking Leppin; the Globe shutting down a Travis Jeppesen reading after about 15 minutes because of the noise (courtesy of Schloss Tegal); Pavel Z. not being able to channel the “commercial spirit”; working with James Naughton on Hrabal’s Total Fears; turning the Marquis de Sade into a woman (something many have suspected anyway); Alf Van der Plank’s illustrations for Ashtrays and Kye and Fred’s goofy illustrations for the hardcover edition of Others’ Paradise (way too many late nights on that one); Baradla Cave and getting to know the surrealists; the Kafka series, as it developed over time; other Lukas readings: for Ashtrays at the old Globe and from The Doll at the first Beef Stew gathering (hilarious how he got everyone all worked up … too many taking themselves way too seriously back then); Laura Conway leading a group reading of May, actually the way May turned out overall, thanks to Marcela Sulak’s translation, brought a smile, for a sec.; finding Hermann Ungar’s grave, which remains unmarked due to theft of the lettering; Ladislav Klíma.
Does Czech bureaucracy pose bigger impediments to your business than would be the case elsewhere?
Having never set up a business in another country, we have nothing to compare Czech bureaucracy to but assume it is neither better nor worse in general than elsewhere, though every country has its particularities (one could even say, eccentricities).
Does it still matter where an international publisher like yours is located, considering current distribution methods? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being located in Prague?
We don’t think it matters, but it might matter to some. People find all sorts of reasons to be silly, rather, they find all sorts of reasons to make it seem there’s only one way to skin a cat – that is, if one were to actually skin a cat. The advantage of being in Prague is that this is where we live, and it’s nice to work where one lives rather than having to commute from … Berlin let’s say, or from Banská Bystrica.
One disadvantage is that it costs more to ship to the US and a bit more to the UK (compared to if we were based in either country). Other than that, the distribution works the same, more or less, whether we’re next-door or halfway across the globe. I suppose not being close-by means we can’t pester the distributor as much – lucky for them – but it also means we don’t attend sales meetings with the distributor’s reps. Whether that makes any real difference might be a matter of scale.
How and where do you distribute your books these days? Has the internet improved your distribution?
We have a distributor that handles North America and one for the UK/Europe. We take care of distribution in Prague ourselves. In some cases, we deal directly with bookstores in Europe. We also sell directly via our website, www.twistedspoon.com. As for the internet, it’s often been noted that Amazon allows publishers, large and small, always to have their books “on the shelves.” So that’s a plus. And being able to keep in contact with distributors or bookstores by e-mail or Skype is another. The web didn’t exist, at least not its widespread usage, when we began, so it wasn’t part of our calculations about how best to handle distribution from afar. Actually, we had no calculations about distribution at all. We had no plan beyond trying to figure out how to prepare a book for the printers, which in the end was only partially successful.
The list of your published books is diverse encompassing writers from many countries, from classics by the likes of Franz Kafka and Karel Hynek Mácha to more contemporary authors such as the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun. What is the editorial concept of Twisted Spoon Press?
We publish work from writers in Central and Eastern Europe. That’s it in a nutshell. We have an abiding interest in the interwar avant-garde, but are not limited to any particular era, though we do not intend to publish much that’s earlier than the 20th century (two exceptions are Mácha’s May and Erben’s Bouquet).
You’ve also published literary works by expat writers living in the Czech Republic. Could you talk about this side of your publishing activities?
We are almost entirely focused on translation, but every once in a while, when the work is there, we’d like to be in a position to publish a text originally written in English by a “local.” (After all, the Lukas Tomin work we published, he wrote in English.) We consider it our contribution to the community, as it were, and through this we also try to connect expat writers living in different places in the region with one another as well as encourage them to translate. Soren Gauger, who lives in Krakow, is a good example. This gives us another way to collaborate with each other.
How did you manage to obtain the rights for the books of leading Polish writers Andrzej Stasiuk and Olga Tokarczuk? Are these titles among Twisted Spoon Press bestsellers or are there any other titles that have sold most?
Rights are obtained by contacting the rights holder, be it author, publisher, agent, or guy in the corner pub and then agreeing to the terms. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk and Primeval and Other Times by Olga Tokarczuk are among our favorite books … published by anyone anywhere, and it was a great help that we were able to read both first in Czech before deciding to publish them in English.
What criteria do you employ when choosing contemporary Czech writers (Brycz, Hakl, Kahuda, Novák…)? Do you cooperate with advisors on this?
We don’t use advisors. We read the Czech original, and our criteria is simply if we like the book or not, and that has more to do with energy than story. We might, on occasion, ask others’ opinions, but this is only because it gives us something to talk about, instead of staring at each other like lobotomized baboons.
In what state is the current Central and Eastern European literature and what are its specifics?
Who knows. The bullshit gets pretty deep when people start talking about it, and then the same tired clichés usually get trotted out. All we know is that some fine books have been published over the past two decades. The fact that so many new publishers sprang up in these countries after 1989 has certainly been a boon to writers as it’s given them more opportunities to publish. If publishers start going out of business because the market, even if limited, dries up, then we’ll see what develops.
What is your favourite book published by Twisted Spoon Press?
Our translations of Ladislav Klíma’s work – to date, The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch with Glorious Nemesis coming out this year (in Prague) and two more underway – is perhaps our most important project.
What publications are you currently working on?
Immediately at hand are Glorious Nemesis by Ladislav Klíma, The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, I Burn Paris by Bruno Jasienski, and Dreamverse by Jindrich Styrsky, and Bouquet by Karel Erben. Then we have another novel by Emil Hakl, the Václav Kahuda book to finish up (finally making progress), and a novel by Finnish author and former Prague expat Riikka Pelo, who used to sing with Ecstasy of St. Theresa. After that, more Nezval and Klíma and another Jasienski book, and we expect our first of two Walter Serner books will be ready. There are some other projects in the works as well, but they’re still inchoate at this point.
Interviewed by Lucia Udvardyová for Czechlit