bookblast diary starhaven press

Interview | Chip Martin, Starhaven Press | Indie Publisher of the Week

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
My mother read novels considered important in America of her era. She wanted to be an actress, and one of my earliest memories is of hearing her perform as a singer. She had a remarkable voice. My father used to read us Civil War history at bedtime. He was not literary, but his parents’ ancestors included “the first American poet”, Anne Bradstreet.

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
I was and am principally a writer and became a publisher at the behest of a neglected poet. One of my beloved authors, Linda Kelly, described me as continuing in the tradition of Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press Linda encouraged one with flattery. I learned some of what I know from the late Colin Haycraft of Duckworth, who launched the careers of his wife Alice Thomas Ellis and her friend Beryl Bainbridge. He published three little anthologies of mine in the 1980s, and after his death I edited a book about him.

Has your vision from when you started Starhaven Press forty years ago changed?
Apart from that initial book of poetry, my remit was to publish novellas, a genre I loved, neglected in the English-speaking world of those days. I wanted books in a mode like the old Livres de Poche handy, easily readable. I’ve never liked bulky hardbacks or the long novel, though some of my favourite writers of the past Thomas Mann, Henry James flourished in both short and long forms. I’ve pretty much kept to the original intention, adding short non-fiction of a belle-lettres kind, such as the histories of Linda Kelly.

How do you balance originality and profitability?
I don’t think first about profitability. I think: “Is this the best book it can be by its own lights?” It’s important not to lose money and desirable to do better than breaking even. To have a succès d’estime is gratifying, to have a sale in the thousands a thrill, to sell foreign or film rights a fulfillment. These things happen, but rarely. So long as I’ve been able to manage that slightly-better-than-breaking-even, I have carried on.

What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
Stories from Shakespeare given to me as a prize when I was six or seven started me in my early years in the American east; also books on classical composers from my godparents. My family moved to California when I was twelve and in early teenage reading of novels progressed from Dickens to Hardy to Hemingway. In the later 1960s came Hesse, Camus (in French), Chandler (who’d lived nearby), London, Steinbeck, Kerouac and others.

What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
The quality of their work and sensibility, and my rapport with them. Their understanding of authorship as a vocation and of publishing as a facilitation not solely based in commerce. I do only a couple of books a year; we must be in it together or it doesn’t work.

Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to recent changes in your view?
I don’t know about other publishers, but my view is let a thousand flowers blossom. In the old days John Calder had to cross continents with suitcases of books in order to scare up an international audience. Nowadays I can publish a book in London and have it available in Montana or Lodz by tomorrow, if wanted. Whatever the rhetoric against Amazon etc., let’s recognise that some of the dreaming, ex-hippy Californians of my generation have opened up the world. Viewed correctly, this is less a matter of homogenisation than of enhancement to the flourishing of communication between myriad regional cultures.

Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
I don’t mind ebooks especially when travelling. It’s grim to think of Somerset Maugham journeying around the South Pacific with a lackey to lug around his book bag. Those would have been hardbacks, and I’ve already stated my preference for paper. Without Penguins, my post-university wanderings in Europe would have been a poor education. There will always be people who want libraries of tomes to read sedentarily in deep armchairs, but for the mobile spirit our era is an improvement.

Your views on how marketing and distribution are boosted by social media and online collaboration?
Information can get out quicker and through fewer filters. Surely this is a good. On the other hand, it seems that online addiction may be reducing people’s capacity to read in larger format – proper essays and stories, novellas, novels, historical studies and the rest. There has long been a tendency to read reviews rather than books themselves, but living by and for the quick quip has become disturbingly common in the era of Donald Trump.

How important is funding for independent publishers?
Funding is as it always has been – from king, court, arts’ council, wealthy “angel” or money launderer. Haydn needed Esterhazy, Wordsworth his sinecure, Byron his inheritance, Symons his pornographer and kitchen sink types of the 1960s their socialist sponsorship. I try, as I say, to do better than break even. But I pay myself nothing and do most of the work, so the enterprise would be impossible if I didn’t get money by other means.

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 in your view?
I came here from America in the year Heath took the UK into the EEC. I lectured for years in universities in Poland, initially with British Council sponsorship. I love Europe and think the EU essential to the architecture of the postwar West, sibling and equal to my country of origin. Britain leaving the EU seems retrograde, and in this case it may result in more attention to my main interests in the international sphere – the US and continental Europe. My guess is that the bulk of UK publishing will by contrast concentrate more and more on writing and markets in South Asia and Africa.

In your experience, how and why does winning a Literary Prize make a difference?
Starhaven won the Western Heritage Award for publishing the best poetry book of 2008, and it was a thrill to go with my author,John Dofflemyer, to collect our Wrangler at the “cowboy oscars” in Oklahoma City. The award gave impetus to John on his path – he won it a second time a few years later – and it was gratifying for me to receive such affirmation, even if it didn’t amount to a great deal of difference in sales.

Your views on handling success?
When young I longed for more recognition than I received. Decades on, I realise that too much success early on can pervert an individual’s progress, so I’m grateful to have had only the taste of it I’ve had. The biggest thrills for me have been in accomplishment – i.e., the frisson of bringing a fine little piece of work to life. A book, once existing, may live longer than you or me. Success can only be judged over an extended stretch of time.

Your heroes/heroines in fiction, and in real life?
In fiction, off the top of my head: Richard Duke of York (Henry VI trilogy), Sydney Carton, Milly Theale, Buck (Call of the Wild), Tom Joad and possibly Randall McMurphy. In life: Dante, young Bonaparte, Beethoven, Dumas père, Bobby Kennedy, Barack Obama . . .

Your favourite literary journals?
Literary Review, NYRB, TLS in that order. Historically Encounter (despite covert funding!), Quarterly Review, The Savoy.

For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Artists and writers being tetchy, errant, maladjusted, politically naive and disgruntled with the world as it exists. They sometimes take this out on their publishers. I am one. I know!

Your bedside reading?
At present, Linda Kelly’s The Young Romantics. As a template for writers and artists of any era, it’s evergreen: gracefully poised – a small masterpiece. In fiction, for equivalent brief delight, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge.

Your five favourite feature films?
Les Enfants du Paradis, The Maltese Falcon, L’Innocente, The Cotton Club, Zabriskie Point.

Who would be in your dream book club?
Balzac and Stendhal casting a keen eye from the past. Colin Haycraft, Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge from my lifetime.

Your Motto?
Three:
“Only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair lures the soul to perfection.” (Yeats, more or less)
“[Vanity] is all in the not done/All in the diffidence that faltered.” (Pound)
“Be not inhospitable to strangers/Lest they be angels in disguise.” (George Whitman)

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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