Lawrence Schimel: These Things Take Time

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July 25, 2016

Lawrence Schimel: These Things Take Time

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Photo by Ģirts Raģelis, Satori.lv

Author, poet, translator and publisher Lawrence Schimel was born in the USA, in New York City, and currently resides in Spain, where he writes in both English and Spanish. Lawrence is also the director for an independent publishing house "A Midsummer Night’s Press" which mainly focuses on publishing mythology related poems, poetry in translation by women writers, and LGBT literature. He has published over 100 books as author or anthologist, and his own writings have been translated into more than 30 languages. He is now in Latvia joining the British delegation of publishers of children's literature and poetry in conducting a seminar for Latvian publishers on better and more effective strategies in marketing  children's literature abroad.

Your area of work is quite wide – poet, publisher, editor, translator... Could you briefly tell us what exactly do you do in your daily life?

That’s a good question. I spend most of my time translating, and the least time – actually writing. There are two reasons. First, I write much less poetry when I'm happy. Luckily, I have been happy for a while, so I haven’t written much poetry. Second, it is very hard to find time for my own writing when so many people are asking me to translate something. If I write something, I can maybe find a publisher eventually, but there is no one right now desperate to publish my poetry. Whereas there are publishers who want the translations, so I can be sure that if I work on the translations, someone will publish them. And I have a deadline, which makes it easier for me because I schedule my time that way. It is a lot easier to respond to deadlines than it is to say: “I have some time. I will take an hour and work on my poetry”. One of the things I did in Riga was bring my own work for the time in the mornings at the hotel...

So you have written something here already?

I haven’t yet, I have been reading through some notebooks and things to work on for a new project. Because at home I have my routine while working for others – both the translations, and the publishing work has to happen on certain dates, texts have to get to the printer on time, and everything... It’s all deadline driven. Whereas my own work is not deadline driven.

That’s probably why yesterday someone suggested you visit the Ventspils Writers’ and Translators’ House.

That is one reason – to dedicate time only for my own projects. It is common that writers need to step outside of their daily life, and all the things that we do that inform our writing but are not the moments of writing. Residencies are nice places to do that sort of work. Especially for writers who do long books, you know, like novels. With my lifestyle, I wouldn’t be able to write a novel since I am traveling so much... I think you need time in one place to work just on one big project.

Or at least you need a place where to start a big project...

Starting projects is never a problem. I can start a lot of projects. It is getting over the middle where the problems start for me. The middle I think is when you need the dedicated time. Also, in a place like Ventspils – they take care of a lot of the things, so you can focus only on work. At home you go shopping, cook, a lot of the other things take up time. I am a person who can manage a lot of creative work in a very short time, so I am very, very productive, and then I have a period of...

Procrastination?

I’m a very big procrastinator. I have a big burst of activity and then a long period of nothing...

But that is not something very strange.

No. Nature works this way – you have spring and then you also have winter when it’s all sleeping. So I have a natural way of writing!

Can you explain what was the purpose of your seminar for Latvian publishers of children's literature? What did you talk about?

The seminar had two themes. One of them was helping Latvian children's book publishers to prepare their material, identifying what might be of interest for publishers in other countries. And another – to understand how the buying and selling of rights and publishing works in other countries, so that they can offer books by Latvian writers and illustrators that fit into these markets, and be better in selling to other countries. I was in Bologna with a group of Latvians and we were looking through an Estonian picture book that they had copy of, and it had 53 pages. And I said: “This won’t work here, that won’t work here,” explaining why those things wouldn’t work – because of the size, or because there was too much text for many picture book markets. A lot of countries, especially English speaking ones, want very little text per page. In the workshop I was explaining some of the basics of how many Western markets tend to work, and how publishers should try to think differently on the editorial side about the books they are creating. Not just the writers, but the editors can say: “These sort of things do better in one way or another”. There are a lot of interesting stories and really lovely artists in Latvia. So it is important to try and make these works be accessible in other countries.

So far Latvia hasn’t been very successful with selling its children's book rights. Why is that so?

I think Latvia is still starting. The right sales process takes a long time, and a lot of it is building on personal relationships. I always say that it takes three years in a row of meeting someone before you start doing business. This is not always a bad thing. Just because someone buys a book doesn’t mean they are a good publisher for it. What you definitely don’t want is for someone to buy the rights and publish the book badly. Latvian children's book publishers are still working on building relationships with foreign publishers who share their philosophy. Somebody committed not just printing the book in another language, where it maybe gets lost, but to take the writer and illustrator in, to create synergy that could turn into a long term thing. I don’t think the goal is just to sell a book and that’s that.

So a relationship with a publisher definitely isn’t like a one night stand?

Exactly. There are lots of things which hinder good publishing. For example, sometimes it may be better to have a smaller publisher in a foreign country who gives you less money but publishes all the books from a series, instead of a bigger publisher who gives you more money for an advance but only publishes the book number two.

How do you think, why do Latvians have so much text in their children’s books?

There is a feeling of value. In Spain, for instance, they want more text than in the English market because parents want to feel that there’re enough words in a book if they are paying money for it. Certainly, the Baltic States and the post-Soviet countries traditionally have more words per page in picture books. Here, even books for older children still have illustrations, which is nice since there are so many skillful Latvian illustrators. These artists get more work, and beautiful books are made for older readers in a way that doesn’t happen as much in other countries. There, they stop illustrating books for children much sooner.

What do you think about Latvian children’s literature in general? What are the strengths and weaknesses?

Obviously, since I don’t speak Latvian, it is easier for me to comment on illustrations. There are some illustrators I like a lot. I like “Bikibuks”, and it is wonderful to see so much poetry for children in your literature in general. The range of artists that you can see in the “Bikibuks” series is just incredible. I think it’s a wonderful project that makes both new and old Latvian poets available to the contemporary audience at a very good price. I am a big fan of Elīna Brasliņa, I think she is someone who has a style that’s very appealing and could work in many other territories. It is very possible that a foreign publisher could decide to take an artist from Latvia to illustrate a text from a local writer. To publish a picture book from Latvia with a Latvian writer is to publish two people who are unknown. But if there was a well known UK writer with a Latvian illustrator, it would be way easier to introduce the artist to the country. Or vice versa – they could do a Latvian story but with new illustrations by a known and recognisable illustrator in the UK. Latvia as a country also needs a long term plan to have more translators working from Latvian into other languages.

How can we manage that? How can we multiply those people?

For instance, you have the residence in Ventspils, maybe there is a way of doing sponsored residencies to learn, or to improve Latvian. You may have a separate funding stream that helps translators come to Ventspils and learn Latvian. I know that at “Banff”, a creative residency for translators in Canada, they bring in both the writer and the translator to work together. This may be a solution especially for some language combinations that don’t have very strong translators. There may be a way of doing a residency, or a grant, or universities that sponsor something in the beginning or middle stages, when translators come to Latvia and strengthen their skills or work directly together with the writer.

You are here also as a poetry publisher. What do you think about Latvian poetry?

There’s a lot of exciting stuff. I tend to be more conservative in my style, and I know that there are more progressive avant garde challenging poets in Latvia, and also the traditions are different. But it is wonderful that there is so much of it, and it is wonderful that the print-runs in Latvia are much bigger than they are in many other places. It’s nice to see poetry included, for example, in the free magazine “Satori”. The quality of editions also is very high here. The books are very nicely designed, nicely printed.

What do you think about the way we work on the export of our literature – grant programmes, agents, organizations that are involved in this process?

I think that Latvian writers and illustrators are very lucky to have this interest and support on an institutional level. That doesn’t always exist in another countries. I am in a curious case – an American living in Spain and writing in Spanish, I do not to fit into the support systems in a way that Latvian writers do. It’s understandable that possibly historically the Baltic region, especially for large parts of Western Europe and the USA, has not been seen as a cultural centre. Or there may be fear of what is happening with the literature here. It seems scary to a lot of editors because they don’t speak the language, they don’t have the access to it. I think that as more work in Latvian becomes available in English and more bridges are made to other languages, the better the results you will get.

Do you think it is possible to create a literary agency for the entire Baltic region, for example?

It might be interesting for a person to be an agent but the institutional support must be there for people working on the agency level to promote Latvian literature, like your organization does. An agency responsible for the Baltics would be something different, something that could be interregional. But it depends, because I think Latvia offers more support for publications than other countries in the Baltic region.

Is this so?

Yes, that is so. That would give Latvia an advantage other countries wouldn’t have. Of course, you can have collaboration among countries, but I think that it’s probably more interesting to keep focusing on a national level. In many ways, agents and national support are opening doorways, but I don’t think that it is good for writers or publishers not to do any work on their own. But with a seminar like the one I gave, and others that are being done, we are trying to prepare the publishers for establishing long-term international connections. To not just focus on London 2018, but to look beyond London, to use it as a stepping stone, a launching point for promoting Latvian culture continuously into the future.

What kind of opportunities does the “market focus” status at the London Book Fair 2018 offers for Latvia and other Baltic countries? Do you have any suggestions for how to prepare better?

London is wonderful for opening doors in many other regions. Having samples in English and translations into English will make it much easier for publishers from other places to find out about Latvian literature. This maybe something where the Baltic states can work together to get invited as guests of honour in other countries and book fairs. But it’s good not just to stop there, it’s very important for Latvia not to disappear off the scene afterwards.

Ok, the last question. Is there any possibility that a book from Latvia or Estonia suddenly becomes a worldwide bestseller?

Definitely possible. You have to remember that publishers in the UK don't need a foreign writer to write the kind of things they can get from their own writers. Passion and authenticity is what ends up interesting them in a translation, and that's also often what can help create a bestseller.

Interview by Anete Konste