Michel S. Moushabeck is a publisher, editor, writer and musician of Palestinian descent. The founder of Interlink Books, he is also the author of several books including Kilimanjaro: A Photographic Journey to the Roof of Africa and A Brief Introduction to Arabic Music, Most recently, he contributed a piece to Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora.
He is the recipient of NYU’s Founder’s Day Award for outstanding scholarship (1981), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Alex Odeh Award (2010) and The Palestinian Heritage Foundation Achievement Award (2011). He serves on various boards – notably the board of trustees of The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), an annual literary prize administered by the UK’s Booker Prize Foundation. He plays riqq, tabla and daff and his recording credits include two albums. He has performed at concert halls worldwide.
Michel Moushabeck is exclusively interviewed by Georgia for The BookBlast Diary.
Were your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Yes, both my parents and my grandparents were very bookish. They lived in Palestine, in the literary neighborhood of Katamon in West Jerusalem, until their forced exile from their home in 1948. I was born in Beirut and grew up there until age 19, when the 1975 Lebanese Civil War shattered my family’s life again and sent us in search for a new home. My parents ended up in Jordan, my brother in Athens and then California, my sister in Montreal, and I managed to find my way to Brooklyn, New York and then Massachusetts. Growing up in cosmopolitan Beirut, I was brought up on a healthy diet of good books, classical Arabic music, Oum Koulthum, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Beatles, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Egyptian cinema, and American westerns.
Soon after graduating from New York University, I followed my heart and passion for literature and founded Interlink Publishing. I play music almost daily; I am an avid hiker and mountain climber; and I am a rather obsessive collector jazz and world music, world percussion instruments, books, old maps, and contemporary art. I have three daughters — they all work in publishing — and I live in Leverett, Massachusetts with my longtime German partner Hiltrud Schulz, who works at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is a leading expert on East German film.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
My grandparent’s Jerusalem house was where the Palestinian literati of the time met; my parents, however, after experiencing multiple exiles, had hoped that I would go to America and study to become a successful entrepreneur, a highly-paid accountant, or an investment banker. I had no idea that I would end up as a book publisher and editor.
As a Palestinian and a young student activist, coming to America from war-torn Beirut was a life-changing experience. While I quickly embraced the values of freedom, democracy, civil liberties, education, and free speech, I was disappointed to learn how little people in America knew about where I came from — I got tired of having to explain, over and over again, that I come from Palestine NOT Pakistan — and I was utterly shocked by their one-sided view of the Arab-Israeli conflict that was not accepting of Palestinian history and narrative. I was also dismayed to find out the lack of interest, knowledge and understanding colleagues I met had about other cultures. It was then that I decided to change the course of my life and become a book publisher.
I was straight out of college when I started my publishing house. I had no clue of how a book is edited, produced, designed, published, marketed, or distributed. At the time, I was just a passionate lover of literature and a young student wanting to make a difference.
Has your vision from when you started Interlink nearly 30 years ago changed?
When I founded Interlink, I was twenty-something with a BIG idea: to bring the world closer to American readers and bring people of the world closer to each other through literature. My goal was — and still is — to commission, publish, and promote books that foster a better understanding and appreciation of other cultures. And, of course, Arabic literature-in-translation pictures largely in my life and is an integral part of my mission.
Interlink Publishing was founded in Brooklyn in 1987, but is now based in western Massachusetts. It is a fiercely independent publishing house specializing in literature-in-translation, history and current affairs, cultural guides, and international cuisine. It publishes nearly 60 new titles each year. The founding of Interlink afforded me the unique opportunity to merge my passion for Arabic literature-in-translation and the arts with the house’s mission of changing the way people think about the world. Introducing Western readers to leading Arab writers, getting them to take a chance on a new novelist, opening their hearts and minds, inspiring them to learn more about other cultures, and presenting them with books that inform, delight and entertain — as well as ones that counteract negative portrayals, hatred, and fear of the unknown — have been key motivating forces in my journey.
Literature is universal; and great literature travels well. It can thrive within its community and in exile. I am of the view that the world would be a better place if more people read the literature of other cultures. I am also convinced that if Americans learned more about Arab history and culture, if they read more of our literature, they would be less inclined to bomb us, invade us, occupy us, drone us, or support the occupation of our lands; they would be less likely to misunderstand us, vilify us and racially profile us. Misunderstanding creates fear; fear brings about bias, which leads to vilification, hate crimes, and the support of policies that take us to war.
Sadly, as you can tell from recent history, I failed miserably in my endeavor. But I never lost hope or strayed from my mission.
How do you balance originality and profitability publishing general-interest trade rather than educational or technical books?
This is the million-dollar question. It’s not easy; and it is harder now than when we first started three decades ago. In the early days, it didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to survive and support a family on income from the sales of the types of books I wanted to publish. This early recognition allowed me to devise a business model that allowed the press to publish money-making books to support titles we’re passionate about but may never break even or otherwise take years to do so. Today, in addition to important current affairs and fiction-in-translation titles, we publish a strong list of cultural guides and award-winning cookbooks that give Interlink a healthy bottom line. We are also active on social media and publicize our titles aggressively. Interlink has a unique publishing program that offers a global, cosmopolitan perspective. We aim to give our readers a genuine, non-Western experience and knowledge of a place: its history, its culture, its literature.
Your views on writing?
I have very opinionated views on writing. But I will do myself and the craft of writing an injustice if I give you a short answer here. So I’m not going down this road. Let’s leave this one for a future special feature. It will suffice it to say that some books inspire and transform us; others teach and inform us; while others are magical, touch us deeply or make us cry. Books have the power to alter lives and spark revolutions — inner and outer ones. What we read defines who we are and how we think, how we play, how we act, how we love.
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
Over the past three decades, I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the best literary and political minds of my generation. One of the valuable perks of running an independent press is that you get to publish writers you like and works that have left a profound impact on you. It is personal; it’s subjective; and it’s a matter of taste. My passion for literature drives my quest to find stories that have the power to change; stories that will transport readers to another place and enlighten them about another culture; stories that will leave me — and, hopefully, our readers — with a lasting impression.
Your views on marketing and distribution?
We live in a globalized world that requires attention to marketing and distribution like no other time in the history of publishing. As a small publishing house, we are in much better position than large mainstream publishers to react quickly to events or changes in the marketplace. We market our books aggressively and we depend on free publicity for our success and survival. We therefore send a large number of copies to book reviewers, academic journals, mainstream and alternative newspapers and magazines, bloggers, and booksellers. In addition, we attend numerous conferences and book fairs and do a lot of mail order and online marketing through e-newsletters, blogs, social networking and e-mail blasts.
We own our warehouse in the US, which gives us total control over distribution, order fulfillment, and speed of delivery. In the US, we guarantee that all orders are shipped from our warehouse within 24 hours of receipt. Our books are distributed worldwide and we have warehouses in Massachusetts, Toronto, and London. The rest of the world is supplied through sales representatives, sub-agents, and local distributors and stockists. We are also stocked by all major wholesalers and online booksellers.
How do you deal with your colleagues — are you very involved, or do you just let them get on with it?
My staff and I work closely together as a team and I am involved in every step of the publishing process. For us, a book is not just words on a page; it’s a valuable work of art that combines great writing, thoughtful and thorough editing, attractive layout, and exquisite design. If you own an Interlink book, you will be able to tell immediately that production and design play a very important role in every title we produce. That is why we devote a lot of resources to ensuring that our titles stand out in a very crowded publishing field. As an independent press, we don’t have a lot of advertising dollars at our disposal. So we rely heavily on quality and design to increase visibility and sales of our books.
How do you relax?
Music is my stress relief. I play regularly with various ensembles: jazz, blues, flamenco, Afro-Cuban, and classical Arabic music. Hiking and reading for pleasure are also things I do for relaxation. But above all, the one thing that gives me total peace of mind and allows me to wind down is listening to the sound of the waves with my eyes closed.
Your favourite qualities in a man?
Passion, honesty, eloquence, elegance, and activism.
Your favourite qualities in a woman?
Sharp intellect, wit, passion, and humor.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
I can tolerate almost anything except dishonesty and lying. And also Donald Trump – can’t stand him. Oh, and lateness too; I hate it when people are late.
Your chief characteristic?
I’m a good listener.
Your chief fault?
I’m always late.
Your bedside reading?
My bedside table has a pile of magazines and over 30 books in English, Arabic, and French I’d like to read this year. Magazines/journals include: The New Yorker, Banipal, and the Massachusetts Review. Fiction titles in English include: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine; nonfiction titles include Terry Eagleton’s Hope without Optimism, Chris Hedges’ Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination, Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif, and Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. Arabic books include: Jana Alhassan’s novel The Ninety-Ninth Floor, Iman Humaydan’s latest novel The Weight of Paradise, and Kamal Abu Deeb’s poem Syria Symphony. Fiction in French include: Badawi by Mohed Altrad and L’Infini livre by Noelle Revaz.
Your favourite prose author?
Your favourite poet?
Your favourite heroes in fiction?
Tintin, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson, Saeed in Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, and Fermin in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind.
Your favourite heroines in fiction?
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Your heroes in real life?
People who are not afraid to speak up against injustice.
Your favourite heroines in real life?
Definitely NOT Hillary Clinton. I like people like peace activist Rachel Corrie and Malala.
Your greatest achievement?
My three daughters: Leyla, Hannah, and Maha.
Interview © BookBlast Ltd, London. Questions format © BookBlast Ltd, London.