Elizabeth Briggs Saqi Books Interview

saqi bookblast diary interview

Book Blast interview with Elizabeth Briggs, editorial & marketing director at Saqi Books

Elizabeth Briggs, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Worcester, where I lived until I left for university in the North East of England at seventeen. Determined as ‘Britain’s most average constituency’ by the BBC last year, it’s not bad coming from a city whose place on the international stage is thanks to a great sauce and Edward Elgar.

What sorts of books were in your family home?
All sorts. I was very lucky. We had these incredible encyclopedias of animals from around the world, which I used to spend hours pouring over and copying the pictures. They were shelved alongside an illustrated bible, which I didn’t think at all odd at the time. It never occurred to me as a child that people took stories from the old testament as gospel: I thought they were wild and strange fantasy at the time – violent and bloody, the kind of things I wasn’t allowed to watch on TV. My dad also has an astonishing collection of moldy orange Penguin original paperbacks, bought back when they cost 85p each. I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie. I also have two older sisters so could borrow their books too. I read The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst when it first came out (I was twelve at the time), which was eye-opening.

Books that changed your life?
The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Once and Future King by T H White, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys … the list goes on. I think all good books change you in some way. That’s why we read them. It’s particularly apparent in your formative years: The Edge Chronicles by Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart is a fantastic fantasy series, which taught me a nuanced understanding of the migration/refugee crisis at the age of ten that no newspaper has been able to better since.

Your views on book publishing?
It’s a mad but wonderful world. I don’t think any other industry works in the same way. Try explaining your margins or business model to a friend who works in a different industry and they will tell you it’s insane.

Which is more important, style or voice?
Voice. You can see something that isn’t genuine from a mile away, and it’s very difficult as a reader to give yourself to a voice you don’t trust.

Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they in reality?
I have never done one, so I am very happy to defer to those who have. I have heard many good things about them from writers. I have participated in a few as an editor’s voice, and generally found the writers enjoyed them immensely. Clearly, some are betters than others, and expectations should be managed from the start.

How well are Saqi’s books received in Europe?
Let’s return to that question again post-Brexit . . . we’re very worried here about what impact it will have on us. In English, our books sell very well in Northern Europe, and we sell translation rights in all languages from Turkish to Macedonian at present. The Germans and French are particularly supportive of our books; we often receive publicity in outlets like Le Monde and Qantara.  

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your publishing practices? What about social media?
I’m not a Luddite, overall technology has made our jobs much quicker and more efficient, not to mention more accurate. However metadata is a constant struggle for us – some books benefit from fitting into obvious genre categories and some suffer from it. Pigeon-holing books in this way always leaves a bitter taste for me, but we don’t have a lot of choice. It is why bookshops and browsing are so important: it is the only way to find views, writing and people outside your or your acquaintances’ immediate circle.
Social media: we’ve made some great contacts and even met new writers via twitter. It is distracting and I take everything there with a pinch of salt, knowing that a lot of the stats from the channels are vanity figures anyway. That being said, it is lovely having conversations with booksellers there though, and feeling a bit more connected to readers.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
1258, Baghdad, pre Halaku ransacked the city, which had been a beacon of civilization and learning for many centuries until then. I’m sure I could have saved some precious manuscripts with a fire extinguisher that have subsequently been lost, or another modern form of technology. I would also have loved to have been there in 1963 when James Baldwin delivered his speech at Cambridge University during the debate with William F. Buckley.

Your favourite prose authors?
Some include: Naguib Mahfouz, Jean Rhys, Kafka, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Moris Farhi, Jon McGregor, Edith Wharton, Mourid Barghouti.          

Your favourite noir series?
Akashic Books’ noir series, where they visit capitals around the world.

Favourite feature films?
Babette’s Feast, every time.

Five favourite bands?
Weirdly, this question has made me realize that I predominantly listen to solo artists. I’ll list the last five I saw or heard instead: Wu Tang Clan (or some of), A-WA, Florence and the Machine, 47 Soul, Balkan Beat Box, and I love Mungo’s Hi-Fi, although I think we’re stretching ‘band’ a bit here!

Your chief characteristic?
Indecisive, perhaps . . . ?

Your bedside reading?
Currently reading Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac for the third time. 

Your motto?
I don’t really have one, but I do like this from Seneca: “Qui domum intraverit miretur quam supellectilem nostram” which translates as “Whoever enters our house ought to admire us rather than our furniture.” I made a tongue and cheek cushion with this embroidered on it once, all ornate and plush, with all the precocious and pretentious layers of irony that having a quote in Latin entails. I understand what Seneca is saying as judge people by what they do and say, not for who or what they are. I have no idea, given what I have just said about the cushion, what this says about me . . . !

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, 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.