Last week, I had one of the more unique experiences of my writing life: meeting with the directors of Elan Sud, a boutique French publisher, at their cozy headquarters on a quiet side street in Orange. The interview was arranged by the woman who owns the house we were renting in Rapheles-les-Arles, an avid book reader and the friend of an author who publishes with this press. It was a wonderful experience talking with Madame Corinne Neidegger and her partner Monsieur Dominique Lin. Madame Neidegger understands spoken English but speaks little herself; Dominque speaks and understands English, yet it is, of course, very far from being a first language for him; I understand spoken French somewhat, but I don’t speak it well at all. So for over an hour we engaged in a fascinating triangulated conversation. Madame Neidegger asked me questions in French, and I answered them mostly in English, with interpretations and amplifications provided by Dominique, a working writer himself--I bought one of his novels (Toca Leon!) during my visit--with long experience in the publishing industry, as has Madame Neidegger. In fact, Madame Neidegger once worked for Actes-Sud, one of the largest publishers in all of France and a company headquartered in Arles.
A passion for well-written, well-edited books is what encouraged them to start Elan Sud. Like many niche presses, it is a labor of love and one that tries to address important needs left behind by mainstream publishers. For Elan Sud, this means publishing, among other things, graphic novels, novels by young first time writers (through a labor intensive, multi-stage submissions and drafting process), and publishing fiction set in atypical settings, like Cuba. We spent a good deal of time discussing my Van Gogh novel, but also many minutes reviewing the state of publishing in France. What was striking was how similar their complaints were to complaints made about publishing in the United States; e.g., a few massive houses buying up many smaller presses, a lack of courage and originality in what they publish, too many examples of patently bad books—with little evidence of editorial oversight—being not only allowed into the market but turning into bestsellers. The subject of Fifty Shades of Gray came up. (Yes, the book has been published in France too.) I told them what I tell everyone: I hear that it’s pretty badly written. Dominique was beside himself. “Of course, of course, it’s badly written. That’s what everyone says. And I don’t understand. When somebody tells me this food smells terrible and tries to give it to me, I will not eat it. But if someone says , this book is terrible, people want to read it!”
They are both lovely, dedicated, and shrewd people, with wonderful senses of humor and an abiding interest in publishing provocative work. Here I thought I was driving to Orange from Arles just to drop off a copy of my novel, and I found myself invited in, given a place to sit, offered coffee, and engaging in a chat that lasted seventy minutes long and covered everything from my own life history to the history of my book to the characteristic of my book to the characteristics of their press to the state of “the book” to the practical challenges of literary translation. We even talked over their philosophy on book covers. I’ve never had a more engaging if nerve-wracking hour, an hour I could never have imagined for myself years ago when I first started my book. One I could have never imagined for myself when I first thought of visiting France. Sometimes, it’s simply amazing where a project can take you. In this case, I really mean where.