Cécile Menon tells us a bit about yourself; are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
My mother was a reader. Of modern classics mainly. She used to go with her father to the local library in our small home town. There weren’t hundreds of books in the house as I grew up, but enough to spur my interest.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Yes, I wanted to work in publishing, and in England, after obtaining my degree at Sorbonne Nouvelle. I had no connections whatsoever, I was a complete outsider. My MA tutor told me right away it’d take me 10 years to get anywhere in that milieu. I didn’t believe him but he was right. After 10 years, even after I had somehow managed to get hired by the venerable John Calder, Judy Daish and Clive James, I was nowhere near a proper start in publishing. Having said that I was never really good at holding down a job! Working for Clive James was obviously a unique experience with a long-lasting influence on me.
Has your vision from when you started Les Fugitives 3 years ago changed?
My vision of the industry has changed because it has become more accurate, more realistic, better informed. My vision of Les Fugitives hasn’t really changed. This said, at the beginning I wasn’t so sure I would actually be running a proper press and publish more than the one book, Suite for Barbara Loden, which ended up winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from the French. Well, the translators, Natasha Lehrer and I, did.
How do you balance originality and profitability?
I don’t. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. All profits are currently being re-invested in the company. Each new title is meant to ‘feed’, or support at least one previous title.
What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
I never fell in love with reading. I love reading like I love being able to breathe, or speak with friends, or gaze out of the window, or stroke my cats, or cuddle my daughter etc.
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
Their work, obviously. I need to feel able to defend a title, tooth and claw. The work needs to speak to me as a person, with my personal history, my political view of the world, my personality. It’s got to be intellectually exciting and the writing needs to express a distinct voice. In all modesty I like to think I have only published masterpieces so far, so what constitutes a masterpiece? If we knew, everyone would be writing and publishing them of course. Other matters come into play: if I have been introduced to that book by the translator the relationship with the translator needs to be straightforward, easy-going. I can’t afford to work in any other way. All the literary translators I have worked with have played a key role in building the press’s reputation. They are extraordinary individuals, with great personal qualities.
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to industry changes?
I’m a dinosaur, in many respects. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. I’m an unashamed paper book person. The choice of design, paper, typesetting, all of it matters; all of it is designed to offer the written word to the world, to the reader, in the best way possible which a particular publisher, large or small, can imagine. The paper book has fixed format, it’s a defined space, a place to be. Paper books are also memento moris. You might not remember the story of the book but you will remember who gave it to you, or where you bought or read it, at what point in your life.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
I don’t enjoy ebooks, no. Obviously I’ve no crystal ball, but I don’t think the physical book is about to die any time soon. It might become a protected species though. The UK would do well to restore the Net Book Agreement so that publishers and booksellers can set the prices at which books are to be sold to the public, and so lead the Anglo-Saxon world back into an environment which values literature as a seminal art form. Those who peddle the idea of the end of the book in its paper form make me think of those who speak of the end of the novel, the end of literature, the end of democracy. Anyway, regardless what I think, figures speak by themselves, e-book sales are declining.
Your views on marketing and distribution? And on social media?
They are interconnected. The more process-driven and disembodied these systems become, the more personal contact with actual people, if only by telephone, matter. Benevolent professional relationships are crucial, and so are reps, especially because of the way wholesalers operate these days, influencing retailers through marketing strategies.
How important is funding for independent publishers?
Very important. Apart from the financial advantage funding is also a badge of honour, a token of quality. I haven’t found time to apply for large grants (from ACE, for instance) and am happy to invest my own money to some degree (Les Fugitives has been funded by the French Institute, the Centre National du Livre and PEN so far), because it makes me more eager, there is more at stake. My money, my time, my life.
Your favourite literary journals?
The ones I don’t read for want of time: ALL OF THEM.
What do you think the future holds for publishing now that the US has entered the A.T. (after Trump) era? Turmoil, opportunity, growth, or downhill all the way?
The guy is still in power, non? For as long as he is, it’s the end of the world – so there’s no time to waste, let’s make the most of it and keep up the good fight. And let’s have a ball. I am told that in France, literature (fiction) sales are down and non-fiction is increasingly popular. Obviously, reading researched information that has been processed and analysed by another mind, someone who may have devoted part of their life on a subject, is essential to the circulation of ideas. This shift of interest started with September 11. People are thirsty for information like never before, answers to existential anxieties, and to questions about how the world works and how to survive or be happy, that sort of thing – how to think, in other words. Literature offers another avenue for the mind, one that poetry offers too. It offers questions, self-reflection and emotional journeys. It offers freedom of interpretation, play, but not a set of straight answers. Literature is for those who are unafraid of doubt, ergo unafraid of thinking for themselves.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
I’ve no idea. The media will play a huge role, obviously. But my publishing press exists and its life is not guided by profit margins or the number of copies sold. It’s a philosophical, and a political (and personal) project. I’m with Grayson Perry on this one, when he says there’s never been a better time to be an artist. There’s never been a better time to publish the books I publish and am planning on publishing. I would be saying this, of course.
Your favourite qualities in a person?
Honesty, humour, tact, kindness and generosity, in no particular order.
For what faults do you have most tolerance?
Indecision, impatience, ageing disgracefully, drinking too much, selfishness, forgetfulness, being late, but it depends on who the faults belong to . . .
Your chief characteristic?
As a publisher – determined, steadfast.
Your chief fault?
I find it almost impossible to count to ten.
Your bedside reading?
I’ve actually got a mini bookshelf as a bedside table, and it’s organized in sections (essays, poetry, French novels, English/American novels, short stories . . .) the books on the top change constantly of course.
Your favourite prose authors?
Lampedusa, Balzac, Hugo, Walter Moses, Robert Pinget, Colette, Jean Rhys, Penelope Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Charles Boyle, Dai Vaughan, Paulette Jonquitud and, last but not least, all of Les Fugitives authors, published and yet to come.
Your heroes and heroines in fiction?
The King in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Hugo’s Jean Valjean and Fantine in Les Misérables, the girl in Marguerite Duras’ L’amant, the sister in Dai Vaughan’s Sister of the Artist, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Rieux the narrator of Camus’ The Plague . . .
Your heroes and heroines in real life?
Colette, Louise Bourgeois, Jean Rhys, Jane Campion, Ken Loach, all the unsung heroes and heroines from wars and genocides past and present all around the world, and my husband – a very patient hero.
Who would be in your dream book club?
Can I say I don’t dream of book clubs?
Fluctuat nec mergitur. (A Latin phrase meaning “Tossed by the waves but never sunk.”)
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