Interview with Barbara Epler

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Barbara Epler grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and joined New Directions as an editorial assistant after graduating from college in 1984. She became Editor in Chief in 1995 and in 2008 she was named Publisher and in 2011 the President.

Howl: What is the work like as a publisher?

Epler: It’s very busy and a little like a 3-ring circus—lots of different acts and tricks going on: for one thing, you are working in various time zones at once.

You are always busy with the books that are just coming out (trying to get them review attention as well as good presence in the bookshops) and then you have the books on the upcoming list which are moving from an edited manuscript into page proofs (and again, plotting ways to put the book across to as many readers as possible), and then you are editing the books on the next few lists which are still being developed.

And then on top of the new books which are in train for publication, you also have to keep an eye on the backlist: with an old house like New Directions, you have to really take care that you are reprinting the books on time, so book buyers aren’t told the book is out of stock.

You also have to watch new developments: for us, getting the ebooks going was uphill work as we didn’t have digital files for Borges or Celine or Nabokov. And we recently redesigned our website, which was expensive and time-consuming.

There is a lot of hucking and shucking that goes into publishing: it is important to be in touch with the authors; with the bookstore community; with the press; with the professors who teach may of our books; with the best translators; with colleagues from around the world, editors who might tip you off to an exciting new writer.

And there is all the reading and casting about: we get many manuscripts and also request books from abroad; we read all the literary magazines, looking first at the Contributor’s Notes to see which writers don’t yet have a book publisher; I sit on the Heim/PEN Translation Fund Awards panel and often find that’s a terrific catbird seat for finding voices new to America—last year I discovered a very amazing young Indonesian novelist.

It is a circus!

Howl: What drew you to wanting to become a publisher?

Epler: I didn’t really mean to go into publishing: I sort of fell in. I was just looking for a job so I could be in New York City, and thought it would be an easy one.

Howl: What was it like getting to work hands-on with James Laughlin, and all the other publishers of New Directions?

Epler: James Laughlin was great: wry, smart, teasing, and kind. He encouraged me to make some experiments. Griselda Ohannessian, my first boss, was the just the best—very honest, brave, unflinching, and kind. The editor-in-chief when I arrived in the mid-1980s was Peter Glassgold, a very smart and intellectual man who was a very good and patient teacher. Peggy Fox, who succeeded Griselda, gave me a lot of free rein and was very supportive.

From all of them I learned all I know about publishing – and a lot of it is not so much literary as practical—how to pay the bills and keep going. As Nabokov said once, “After all, literature is not only fun, it is also business.”

Howl: How would you describe the overall work environment of New Directions?

Epler: A little circus-like! Very busy, and everyone is giving it 110%. I really am fortunate in my colleagues who are each and every one very dedicated to making ND work.

Howl: What can a reader expect to experience from reading a book published by New Directions?

Epler: Allowing for exceptions (now and again we buy a pig in a poke), the reader can expect a novel experience: something surprising and engaging and at a high level of literary artistry.

JL believed that ND would be a place for writers to carry out their experiments, and he believed that when you read the work of a truly exciting new writer you hear a bell ring. So we are listening for that bell and then hoping to carry it to readers. If you read a few pages or Sebald or Bolano or Krasznahorkai or Lispector, I think you hear special bells.

Howl: How would you describe New Directions to people who are not familiar with your publishing company?

Epler: I usually explain that we are a small for-profit house that only publishes literature (no cookbooks, no genre titles), and I then rattle off a list of the authors from Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Isherwood, Celine, Borges, Octavio Paz, William Carlos Williams to the newer writers such as Tomas Transtromer, Inger Christensen, Enrique Vila-Matas, Cesar Aira, Sebald, Bolano, Krasznahorkai, Susan Howe, Anne Carson, Lispector. Usually they start to realize they’ve read some of these authors and so get a sense of what we do, or at least I hope so.

Howl: How has your career changed as a publisher over the course of your time with New Directions?

Epler: Since becoming the publisher I have gotten much more concerned with the bottom line and making sure that I am not the one who crashes this fine old truck into a ditch. I worry about that. But mostly I enjoy it: the people, the books, my colleagues, the challenges as well as the little triumphs of awards or great reviews (or sales).

Howl: When publishing a book, what do you keep in mind?

Epler: You try to keep everything in mind: the selection of titles, the editing, the ways to reach more readers, and the care of making sure ends meet. And you have to keep a sense of humor as things tend to go awry every so often. (I have a little handwritten sign that says, “It’s not going to help to freak out.”)

Howl: What advice would you give young authors who hope to have their work published one day?

Epler: To write a lot and to publish in the magazines—that’s where editors will see your work.

Howl: When it comes to publishing, what is your overall philosophic view on what gets published?

Epler: A mixed bag—a lot of mediocre things get published but also a lot of truly astonishing and wonderful books make it.

Howl: What is one of your favorite books New Directions has published?

Epler: Clarice Lispector’s THE HOUR OF THE STAR; Sebald’s RINGS OF SATURN; Bolano’s BY NIGHT IN CHILE; Yoko Tawada’s THE BRIDGERGROOM WAS A DOG; Inger Christensen’s ALPHABET; Anne Carson’s NOX; Susan Howe’s MY EMILY DICKINSON.  (I know—I am cheating.)

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