pete ayrton interview bookblast diary

Interview | Pete Ayrton | Author-Editor of the Week

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Born in London and grew up in New York until I was sent to a public school in the UK at the age of 13; an unsettling experience.

What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
Lots of foreign writers. My mother was Russian and keen for me to read the Russian classics – which I did.

You founded Serpent’s Tail in 1986 and worked as a successful publisher showcasing writers from around the world for many years. How easy was it to transition to being a freelance writer-editor?
I was still working at Serpent’s Tail when I completed No Man’s Land, my first anthology which was on First World War writing. The transition was seamless; the anthologies contain many writers who should be republished including writers never before translated into English. I hope they function to encourage readers and publishers to search out the original texts that the extracts are taken from.

How do you choose your subjects?
It’s rather banal but publishing likes anniversaries – so in 2014, it was a hundred years after the start of the First World War. This year it’s the centenary of the Russian Revolution. As you may have noticed, there is no shortage of books commemorating it!

As a writer-editor, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of creating?
Proud of giving a voice to troublesome dissidents like Victor Serge, Jorge Semprún, Juan Goytisolo, Bertrand Russell, Alexandra Kollontai, Muriel Rukeyser, Mulk Raj Anand, Mary Borden and Claude McKay.

As a publisher, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of publishing?
It was wonderful to publish the first novels by Colm Tóibín, David Peace, Neil Bartlett, Stella Duffy and Sapphire. And the first English translations of Michel Houellebecq, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Muller, Alain Mabanckou, Virginie Despentes. I do regret not being able to continue publishing some of these writers.

Your views on success?
Enjoy it while it lasts.

Your views on how book publishing has evolved over the years and the effects of the digital revolution?
The effects of the digital revolution have been over-rated. Probably sales of ebooks will continue to have a small share of the market (10-15%) in the UK and the USA, but the predictions of the death of the traditional book now look ridiculous. On the other hand, in Africa and India the ebook’s potential is enormous: there ebooks are a way of overcoming the crippling costs of printing and distribution.

Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I do read ebooks on holiday when it’s not convenient to carry many books. My reading pleasure depends more on the content than the platform. Though I do miss covers on ebooks – it’s a lot like vinyl and cds.

Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Your views on social media?
Obviously, Wikipedia and Google make research easier and more fun – it’s a delight to meander through the back roads of the internet. Many of the texts that I have included in my anthologies are out of print but available on the internet – in fact, it’s shocking how much great literature is out of print or not translated into English. I’m sure the amount of time you can spend on social media is infinite – luckily a lack of technical savvy limits the amount of time I devote to it. Not sure I want to improve these skills.

What are your favorite literary journals?
LRB, n+1, En Attendant Nadeau, an online journal whose inspiration is Maurice Nadeau, wonderful editor and the first publisher of Michel Houellebecq, who first novel, Whatever, we also published.

If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Paris 25th May 1937 – for the opening of the International Art Expo at which Picasso’s Guernica was first seen. In addition, the presence of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russian pavilions made sure that no-one could deny the political power of art.

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
John Berger, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Emma Goldman, Dora Maar, Langston Hughes.

Your favourite prose authors?
Albert Camus, Robert Walser, Juan Goytisolo, Dorothy Parker, Kenzaburō Ōe and Mercè Rodoreda.

Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
Jakob von Gunten, Tom Ripley, Pepe Carvalho, R.B. Kitaj, Simone Weil, Frantz Fanon.         

What authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
Michèle Roberts, Sarah Lefanu, Edmund Fawcett, Neil Bartlett and John Williams always show great empathy with my editorial projects. In their writing, they demonstrate by example the need to nurture an individual voice.

Your chief characteristic?
Fearlessness.

Your chief fault?
Recklessness.

Your bedside reading?
Portrait of a Family with a Fat Daughter by Margherita Giacobino, Incidences by Daniil Kharms.

Your motto?
“I think it good that books still exist, but they do make me sleepy,” Frank Zappa.

Since retiring in 2016, Pete Ayrton has edited three anthologies relating to monumental conflict: No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War; ¡No Pasaran!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War; and Revolution!: Writing from Russia 1917.

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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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