For the Love of Books and Bookstores: A Session with Rick Simonson

As a kid growing up amid the Crosswords and Landmarks of our time, I often marvelled at the beauty and structure of bookstores abroad each time I saw one in the movies. There was a certain sense of elegant quietness to them that beckoned me, and once home from the cinema, I’d look up photographs of the world’s most beautiful bookstores.

I reminisced my childhood amazement during the masterclass with the legendary bookseller Rick Simonson from the Elliott Bay Book Company, the iconic bookstore in Seattle. For Rick, the customer is a key element while dealing with the literary world. Which was all too present as he sat behind us in the session prior to his, taken by Kerstin Schuster and Philipp Theisohn. As the lecture progressed, I felt as if he was assessing the questions we asked them, in order to get a better picture of how he should in turn interact with us later. It was as if he wasn’t leaving a stone untouched, in the way he was going about things.

Prior to his class, we were shown a presentation that made us better understand the Elliot Bay and the space it has created for its customers. The bookstore looks quite rich in taste and yet has the tag of simplicity attached to it. One little feature that caught my attention—and everyone else’s, I am sure—was what Rick later said made the customers particularly glad: there exists a Recommended Books shelf whereupon each book has a pleasant yellow sticky-note with comments, quirks, approvals and witty synopses written by members of the staff who have read the book and want others to experience the magic too. How charming an idea! And as he remarked later, customer interaction with the staff proved to be a very important technique in generating more sales.

Rick has worked at the Elliott Bay since 1976; he had joined when he was only a student. The senior book buyer now, he had founded the ‘Author Reading Programme’ in 1984—which chiefly presents writers from around the world to their readers.

The session began with Rick commenting on the initial stages that the bookstore had undergone. He mentioned how Elliot Bay emerged at a time when the US was experiencing several political upheavals. The Vietnam War was winding down, Richard Nixon was being re-elected. At the same time, he remarked how there was a sort of trial-and-error phase in-between, when they tried out a multitude of books—the sales figures of course depended on the books’ popularity. Soon enough, the kind of titles they displayed expanded as the readers increased and began to visit more. The bookstore began taking on a more organic shape, so to speak.

My interest in the master class peaked when he mentioned T2F. A community space for open dialogue, T2F (also known as The Second Floor) is a brave platform in the inner streets of Karachi, Pakistan, featuring rich cultural activities in the form of poetry readings, film screenings and art exhibitions, among other events. The reason T2F struck a nerve was because of my previous job at a similar creative arts space, the Gyaan Adab Centre—the founder who had set it up in Pune was also from Karachi and had been immensely inspired by T2F’s work!

Talking about the magic of author readings, Rick gave us several examples when things had gone as they had planned, but sometimes, the other way around as well. Like Senator Barack Obama’s visit to the bookstore drew a crowd upward of 22,000 in 2006, whereas an afternoon session with the South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin was an unexpected hit—a staggering number of fans made it to the event.

As Rick went on to talk about the localization of talent, I couldn’t help but think about my previous workplace where I had the exact same experience. It was a delightful mix of the past and the future as my walk in memory lane was interspersed with Rick’s talks about the future of bookstores. With this class and many others, I have come to realize that the ‘soldiers’ in a publishing industry not only perform a myriad of tasks but also are on different sides of the finished book. They arrive with their own sets of skills but from different facets of the literary world. The publishers interact with the authors. The authors converse with their inner monsters. The distributors deal with the bookstores–but it the bookstore that finally makes sure that we, the customer, grab the book we so deserve to read!

Ushnav Shroff

On Translation: Traversing the Path of Owning and Unowning with Tess Lewis

Translation has always been an indispensable medium of cultural intercourse, but at Seagull School I realized the depth of this domain. I admit, unabashedly, that I had never paid attention to the ‘Translator’s Note’ of a book and that I would have remained oblivious of its significance had not Tess Lewis taken us through a transformative experience of being a translator. Tess is a writer and translator of French and German, who was ‘endlessly fascinated by the plasticity of the German language’ even before it went on to shape her profession.

Being a translator is more than just perceiving and internalizing the emotional and intellectual dimension of an authorial voice. You undertake the colossal task of becoming a cultural bridge; like an opera director, you become absorbed in the consciousness of its composer, while being dissolved in the composition, you strive to preserve its essence. You have to live in a world conditioned by an author’s imagination. Translation, thus, is a task which calls for an author-translator-editor harmony. But then, reality does not always adhere to ‘what-should-be’: Tess candidly shared an instance when an author refused to approve her translation of his work because he could ‘recognize’ his voice in the translated manuscript. She also added that besides the cultural-intellectual dimension of this profession, the financial uncertainty can never be ruled out. You might be at your desk working on your translation for twenty-four hours a day, while you might have go over a year without a project at hand. Hence, securing one’s financial resources in this vocation is of pivotal importance.

A translator’s work should not be confused with transliteration. The act of translation is rooted way deep into socio-cultural folds—a translator must step in for the author, at times, when an expression is wanting for words in the target language (in other words, the language of the translation). The readers of the translation must pulsate with the same quiver of joy, pangs of pain, peals of laughter as have been infused into the original utterances of the source language. The translator must weave the bridge of words across the ‘shadow line’ of geographical borders and become the author’s medium for their new readers.

Tess further explained how translating poetry is even more challenging—the possibilities of translating a particular word or expression in poetry are narrower; moreover, much of the emotional and rhythmic quality of the original language is either lost or diluted as it filters through the translator’s consciousness. Tess also pointed out that the time invested in the work of translation depends entirely upon the nature and density of the original work, which can take from six months to two years or more! And in the end, you let go of the translated manuscript—that which you have been nurturing in your mind, like a nascent idea, now fully grown. You wait in as much anticipation to find critical appreciation and acceptance of a voice which is not yours, a gallery of characters you don’t own, an array of ideas you did not originate. And yet the translator’s task does not get any easier. It is a labour of love like that of an author or an editor. But, then again, that’s what the creative art of bookmaking is all about!

Suchandra Roy

A Writer’s Mind: Masterclass with Author Brit Bildøen

It was mid-January and we had our first master class at the Seagull Books store. The guest was Norwegian author, poet, translator, literary critic and librarian Brit Bildøen (and yet I think I have left out a couple of feathers in her cap).

The session with Brit was fascinating primarily because she is, so far, the only author we’ve met who doesn’t write in English. To hear about the processes of writing and translation, from a person who does both, was intriguing. The focus of the conversation that took place was Brit’s novel Seven Days in August (2016), published by Seagull Books.

Brit covered a whole range of areas, including the writing process of an author and insight into her work of translation into Norwegian. Seven Days in August came out of a desire to write about the 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo. It is a particularly sore subject for the country because, unlike India and other countries that have more or less gotten used to the idea, if not the actual horror of terrorist attacks, Norway had never experienced anything like it since the Second World War.

Despite wanting to write about the way the 2011 attacks affected their lives and psyche, Brit wanted to do it differently. She didn’t just want to write about the time immediately after the bombings but, rather, write about the future—about people’s lives, years after the tragedy. She sought to explore how, years later, the incident continues to infect the lives and relationship of a couple, Otto and Sofie, over a period of seven days.

As writers, we often start-off with an idea which gains a life of its own and, at times, resembles nothing of the original perhaps because the story progressed differently than we had imagined, or that other ideas and emotions seeped in and demanded a complete transformation of thought process. As an author hoping to publish a novel, how far do you think you can be in the writing process when the original idea has drastically evolved?—Brit was halfway through her novel when she revised it!

She began the novel with a specific narrative in mind, but the principal theme changed when a particular train of thought fused with the story. The politics surrounding the terror attacks as well certain creative tropes and emotions thrust the story in a new direction. This was a major point of interest for all of us because it’s so hard to imagine going back and reworking something from scratch, for inspiration demands it!

Another topic addressed, which writers might feel insecure or doubtful about—I know I have—was how to write about something you haven’t experienced yourself, especially, in the voices of different characters. I loved what Brit said regarding the process. To begin with, there’s the ‘well-known’ but can’t-be-stated-enough-times thumb rule: Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

A couple of lines from Dr Seuss’ I Can Read with My Eyes Shut aptly sum up the current issue:

The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

It goes without saying, but helps to constantly remember, that the more stories and information we absorb, the more we learn. The more books and novels we read—the more characters, voices, opinions, perspectives, and psyches we know of and understand. After that, we should let our imagination run wild!

As Brit said, a writer essentially takes on different personas in the course of a novel. Each comes with its own background, personality, experiences and tastes. As a writer, one should try to immerse into the skin of characters, pretend to be different people, and then write.

As to the dilemma of writing about things we haven’t experienced—how strong is your desire to share the story of something in the way you’ve thought about it? One of the key moments of the master class was when Brit spoke about how the tragedy caused massive ripples in the lives of the people, especially because Norway was known to be one of the most peaceful countries in the world. The terror attacks led to a loss of innocence.

She shared her fears and doubts on writing a story based on the tragic events of 2011 because she hadn’t personally experienced the loss. However, like most Norwegians, she felt so deeply about the incident and wanted to explore the long-lasting repercussions in ordinary people’s lives that she didn’t want to leave it unwritten.

Speaking about the quandary translators face between translating and transliterating a text, Brit mentioned a crucial aspect—that of retaining the essence, good language and fluency of the original work. These are more important than getting the exact wording right. The same point came up in another master class later with Tess Lewis, an American translator of French and German. Tess also spoke about the issues of finding the right words that not only convey the meaning of the text but also the flavour of the language and the story/idea/theme.

The session with Brit Bildøen encapsulated the groundwork of writing a novel. From the genesis of an idea, its development and transformation, to dealing with social and personal experiences and expectations—all these are the basic stages writers struggle with and overcome. She inspired a sense of confidence as a writer when she shared her own stories and experiences.

Not to forget, she also read an excerpt from the first chapter of Seven Days in August. I was already interested in the book, but as she read the passage, my desire to read it increased. I loved the lyrical, dreamy and penetrating narrative. So, of course, I did the only thing that was possible for me to do after the session. I bought a copy of the book! Moreover, it’s always fun and exciting to have a book signed by the author for you!

A. Apoorva


Birth, Reincarnation, Survival: With Urvashi Butalia

As I settled in to attend one of the last masterclasses at Seagull, I glanced around and took a mental picture of the people and place I have grown attached to, thinking to myself: Why does this have to be over so soon? A few seconds later, our master for the day made an appearance.

The page-turner and pioneer of feminist publishing in India, Urvashi Butalia stood before us with an inviting smile. After a brief introduction from each of us, she dived straight into her life story.

Ram and Mary Sita take centrestage

She began by recounting the early days of post-Independence women’s movement and the changing face of Indian publishing which was mostly academic at the time. Her own entry into publishing happened as a result of systematically ridding Indian readers of the colonial impositions in text. John took on the avatar of Ram and Mary became Sita for our textbooks. She loved the exercise and found her calling as an editor.

I paused to think how small things can change the whole course of your life. More often than not, inspiration makes an appearance in your daily grind and refuses to reveal itself in the grandiosity of things.

Kali makes an appearance

I snapped out of my reverie to learn about the beginnings of her brainchild, Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house in India. Lack of any literary records of the feminist movement in India and a personal curiosity made Kali happen. (Google wasn’t around, you know, you had to find your own answers.)

It wasn’t a smooth sail from the get go. To begin with, it was tough to find women’s voices in order to shape women’s literature out of the vast body of Indian literature. When they finally did find the voices, it took them quite some time to publish the first issue, thanks to the tripping interventions of the 1970s.

Capital was another problem. Unlike present times in which venture capitalists are lined up to pump millions into the next big world-changing idea, in earlier times what sponsored your unprecedented undertaking was either old family money or your determination. And so it did—the lack of the former and an abundance of the latter, plus some clever thinking helped Urvashi and co-founder Ritu Menon keep their dream alive.

The result was a pool of empowering writings by women for women, the literature that didn’t echo a voice just from certain women across certain parts of society, but built a collective sentiment that crossed internal borders and social classes.

That voice continues to be heard even as Kali dissolved to form two independent publishing houses.

Survival of the Indie—not business as usual

By this time, I had changed gears from being a giddy little kid listening to a story to a more adult-ish entity understanding how Zubaan (which Urvashi heads) functions. The philosophy was simple: practise your beliefs in personal life, in the workplace too. For Zubaan, it meant giving as much support to the employees as it gave to the voices it was putting out in the world; having a democratic setup where different opinions are important; being transparent about their business. Simple as it may sound, it is the very essence of anyone trying to weather the storm in publishing. Good advice for someone setting sail there.

As the class concluded, we moved into another room to put to use our new set of editor’s eyes. Urvashi showed us her edits of an essay. What started out as a serious exercise turned into a complete laugh riot as we looked at Urvashi’s comments displaying varying degrees of frustration over the text. I thought to myself: I should learn to laugh at my misery.

Ritika Sherry

Attic Diaries: Masterclass with Anita Nair

It was one of those strange days in August in Calcutta when you don’t know what to expect of the weather. One minute it’s sunny and heavy downpour in the next. Anita Nair’s visit to Seagull evoked a similar feeling in us. We didn’t know what to expect. Some of us, including I, had never met a popular author before. Would she be approachable? Could we ask questions? We were, however, pleasantly surprised when the first thing Anita said was that we should ask her a lot of questions and make the sessions as interactive as possible. What followed, in the next two days, was an enlightening journey through Anita’s stories and rediscovery of the writer in all of us.

Masterclasses at Seagull are like a breath of fresh air. With classes and assignments throughout the week, a masterclass is that one day that we needn’t worry about finishing assignments! The customary Seagull email had a note on Anita Nair’s prolific career as a novelist, poet, playwright and translator, and that she was in the city to release her latest crime novel, Chain of Custody. All of us were invited to the book release event that evening.

I could go on and on about her story: how she started writing while switching jobs, multitasking at work and at home, letting her passions drive her, and her personal struggle to be published and so on. But I have a word limit and so I shall stick to the part that intrigued me the most—her travel experiences.

I personally enjoy stories about the places that I have never visited, so when Anita paused to ask ‘Any questions?’ I couldn’t help but ask her to tell us more about her travel experiences. What followed were the most exciting stories of Anita Nair the free-spirited traveller! She has had the most fascinating experiences around the world and we listened, awestruck, as she recapitulated. What really interested me was how she talked about travel being a ‘transition’ and not just about reaching a destination. It was interesting to know that Anita wrote her most profound travelogues while wandering around Manhattan.

Meeting strangers, talking to them, getting to know how they live and what they think comprise her notes. Unlike most others, she doesn’t care to write about the colour of the sky or the clarity of the water—it’s the journey more than anything that appeals to her. Sifting through her memories, Anita shared another epiphanic moment—‘I looked at the letter H on my keyboard and typed Hanoi’—and that’s how she decided her next destination! She said, you don’t need an expensive trip all the time—travelling can also be just a train ride from one unknown station to another.

On the second day we learnt about Anita’s biannual creative writing program—Anita’s Attic. Amusing as the name sounds, her students too work on interesting projects! We were lucky to have a mock writing exercise that day. It was a creative writing assignment. We were given a few keywords and had to write a few lines based on them. My friends came up with amusing stories and beautiful imagery. After we finished writing, we were asked to discuss our stories at length. She then guided us through the process of writing: we were told what went wrong and how to improve writing skills, and how the plots can be developed further.

Finally, as I look back—sipping coffee together and sharing stories like old friends—those two days were not only excited us but also helped us widen horizons and certainly made us more discerning as future editors.

Sutanuka Pal

Practical Lessons in Publishing with Thomas Abraham

‘If you want to join the publishing business just for the love of books or reading, becoming a librarian would be a better option.’

With all thy love of reading, smell and sight of books, publishing contrary to popular myths is a business much like any other industry—though with a literary and cultural symbolism attached to it. Our masterclass with Thomas Abraham was as candid as it was entertaining. Thomas focused on the forces that drive the book business around the world.

He began with a sneak peek into his own career—from a highly successful stint in advertising, after studying literature at St Stephen’s College, he ended up publishing the first edition of Limca Book of Records and subsequently forsook the financially rewarding career for a job in academic publishing with Oxford University Press then moved on to Penguin India, and lately, established the Indian chapter of world-renowned publisher Hachette. He shared insights on his personal milestones, for example, Oxford Dictionaries, the Harry Potter series, Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My Way, etc.

One immensely valid point he made was that unlike many Indian brands that attempt to make a mark overseas but don’t succeed, our writers have an indelible influence on the literary sphere across the globe. Indian authors, such as, Amartya Sen, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, among others, have made a huge contribution in the contemporary world of writing. And it’s time we take greater leaps to overcome the limits of borders and markets and promote fresh talent for a larger readership across the world.

Thereafter, Thomas presented a slideshow tracing the evolution of publishing in India: how various indigenous publishing houses and distribution networks were setup, their stories of survival, the later onslaught of the multinational trade publishers like Penguin, HarperCollins, McGraw-Hill, Routledge and Pearson, etc.

Then, the discussion turned to an interesting topic—he spoke about the evolving contemporary market which has had an exponential effect with regard to developing new genres, like the much criticized ‘campus romance’, ‘historical fiction’, etc., which often comprise the best-selling or the more popular titles. At this point, he cautioned that lists cannot be entirely built on what editors personally like or dislike; at times, the editors might have to take on a manuscript even though they may not endorse the genre or the style of writing. In order to strike a balance in the market, one needs to understand that different people have different tastes, and publishers have to cater to readers across the board.

Furthermore, he talked about Hachette’s focus on building new lists, especially with debutant authors, since they are not part of the ‘rat race’ to produce mass-selling commercial fiction, which he reckons may not be profitable in the long run. He shared his ideas on how publishers can negotiate subsidiary rights for films and other media reproductions which are often more profitable than selling printed copies exclusively. Thomas ended the session with an exciting contest! He displayed some of the most iconic covers in the history of publishing and we were asked to identify the titles. The winners would receive their favourite Hachette books as their award! The excitement in the class was palpable . . .

But, above all, we enjoyed knowing about Thomas’ incredible career and his practical views towards publishing and the session turned out to be a great learning experience for all of us.

Parinay Jain