Peirene Press week – Q&A

Today is the first post this week focussing on Peirene Press, an independent publishing company who publish beautiful novellas of translated fiction. First of all I asked Peirene some questions so we could find out more about them.

1. Tell us a little about Peirene Press. What is the ethos behind the company?

Peirene was set up in 2008 by Meike Ziervogel, who was deeply aware of the very low percentage of outstanding international works of fiction that get translated into English and make it into the extremely Anglocentric UK book market. She also knew that she wanted to focus on the novella form, which allows for a much more creative reading experience and which, again, is underrepresented on the current publishing market. Each year Peirene publishes a new series of three beautifully designed and produced novellas that belong together in terms of style or content and which, in spite of being bestsellers or award-winners in their countries, had never been translated into English before.

2. Peirene only publish translated fiction and release only 3 new titles a year. How do you choose which novels to publish? 

Publishing only three books a year means that we necessarily have to be extremely selective. The novella-length requirement severely limits the number of books that we consider for publication, but Meike will still look at lots and lots of submissions (from literary agents, foreign publishers, translators, etc) before deciding on the three books in a series. She looks for engaging, original stories that are strong on plot, but which also have a distinctive voice, and are told in a language and with a rhythm that fits the story. They also tend to be books that, by not telling too much, invite the reader to use their own imagination and engage in an act of creative reading.

3. Readers can subscribe to your books. Can you tell us a little more about this wonderful sounding service?

I often hear from readers who tell me that they’re interested in reading more foreign fiction but who don’t know exactly where to look for it or how to choose. Translated fiction doesn’t get much coverage in the mainstream media, is not often prominently displayed in bookshops and can easily escape the attention of many UK readers. A Peirene subscription is a way for readers to receive three yearly doses of the best contemporary European literature without having to do the hard work of looking for it! For £35 a year, a subscriber receives three world-class novellas, delivered directly to their door and weeks before they are available in bookshops or online. The idea behind this model is partly one of trust – trust in Peirene as a brand, in our ability to select high-quality novels from the international book market, turn them into enjoyable English reads and present them in beautifully designed volumes that readers will want to collect. We currently have subscribers until the end of 2018 and we haven’t even announced the books that we will be publishing after 2016, so we are delighted that readers are placing their trust in Peirene.

4. Your books have been described by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting…’ what do you think makes the novella so appealing? 

For me, there’s something deeply satisfying in reading a book in one sitting. I recently heard David Mitchell say that the novella form allows the writer to keep everything under control. He said that, when writing a novella, his ‘limited brain’ (ha!) can know where everything is, what all 15, 16, 17 scenes in a 130-page book are doing and how they’re doing it, what the ‘electronics’ of the book are. I think that, to a certain extent, this can be applied to the experience of reading novellas too. As a reader, when I engage with a book in a single sitting I get to feel more in control. My limited brain is less worried about having forgotten some important detail that I read a week ago or missing some connection between two events 300 pages apart. Maybe I’m also less concerned about things like whether my view of a character might have changed because of something that’s happened in my life since I was last reading the book rather than because of something that is actually in the text. I also like the idea of immersing myself in the world of a book and not leaving it until I’ve reached the end of the story, rather than constantly having life interrupting and getting in the way. It is altogether a more complete and unadulterated reading experience. And last but not least, by not providing too many details and not offering a complete world-view, as many long novels tend to do, what a novella offers is an invitation to the reader to use their imagination and creativity to fill gaps and draw their own conclusions, which I find empowering and exciting.

5. Peirene not only publish books but make reading a more sociable affair by holding regular literary salons and book events. Can you tell us more about these? What can someone expect if they attend a literary salon? 

For us at Peirene, literature is all about sharing enthusiasm for great books. Reading can be a lonely affair and we see ourselves not simply as publishers, but as community-builders. We would like Peirene to help create a cohesive community of readers, subscribers and book-lovers who can share their passion for great literature. Of course social media is a great way to connect with readers across the globe and we absolutely love using Twitter and Facebook for this, but there’s also something unique and irreplaceable in spending an evening, in person, with a group of fellow book-lovers who share a common passion with you. This is where the Peirene Salon comes in. It takes place four times a year at the publisher’s home in North London and is inspired by the 19th-century Parisian literary salons, which would always take place in a woman’s house. What can you expect if you attend one of our salons? You’ll be wined and dined, you’ll listen to a bilingual reading and hear one of our authors talk about their book and describe their creative process, and you’ll get to meet an interesting bunch of like-minded people in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

6. If a reader is new to Peirene books which book should they start with?

I haven’t yet met a reader who hasn’t enjoyed The Mussel Feast, Birgit Vanderbeke’s German modern classic. It’s a brilliant portrait of family relationships and of life under the rule of a tyrannical father, but also a clever allegory of the fall of the Berlin Wall and an exploration of how revolutions start and how historical change happens. It’s full of surprises and brilliantly paced, and once you start reading it you won’t be able to stop until you get to the last page. 

7. Peirene also support the Maya Centre, donating 50p from every book sold to the charity and from 2016 you will be donating 50p from each book to Counterpoints Arts.  Can you tell us more about the charities and why Peirene have chosen to support them? 

We believe that a publisher, like any other organization, has a social obligation, and that just publishing books, when you can do other things to help support some of the most vulnerable members of society, is simply not enough.

For over three years we have been supporting the Maya Centre, which provides free psychodynamic counselling and group psychotherapy for women on low and no income in London. The counselling is offered to women in their native languages, which links beautifully with Peirene’s focus on translated literature.

From next year we will be supporting and collaborating with Counterpoints Arts, a fantastic charity that promotes the creative arts by and about refugees and migrants in the UK. They run projects with individual artists and also with big organizations to inspire social change and enhance the cultural integration of refugees. Peirene is all about foreign books travelling to the UK and becoming an integral part of the English-language literary scene, so again, this links perfectly with the work done by Counterpoints Arts in such an important (and sadly topical) field as is the integration of migrants and refugees. 

Thanks for answering my questions and appearing on the blog.

You can find out more about Peirene and their titles on their website.

Or : Peirene on facebook
Peirene on Twitter
Peirene on YouTube

8 Comments Add yours

  1. I heartily recommend White Hunger to anyone who has not read a Peirene and loves beautiful writing.


    1. janetemson says:

      I’m reading that at the moment, my review will be up in a day or so. I really want to read The Mussel Feast. I’m off to a talk with Peirene tonight so I’ll have to buy a copy. It would be rude not to! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an excellent post Janet – great to see you supporting Peirene and oh how I’d love to have made tonight – can’t wait to hear your feedback 🙂


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks Poppy. It’s a shame you couldn’t make it, it would have been lovely to have met. My little piece about the evening will be up tomorrow 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Look forward to it ☺x


  3. JacquiWine says:

    Very interesting interview, Janet. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve often wondered how Meike selects the novellas for Peirene – she seems to have a rare talent for picking excellent, thought-provoking literature.


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks Jacqui. She does indeed and I think that the fact she is guided by her feelings as a reader first is reflected in that.


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