5 September 17 | Chad W. Post

Summer intern David M. Smith, translator from the Norwegian, 2017 ALTA Fellow, future guest on the Two Month Review, conducted this interview with Duncan Lewis of Nordisk Books.

Proving there’s more to Scandinavia than macabre crime fiction (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and—hygge (always hygge), Nordisk Books is a small UK press specializing in Nordic literary fiction, started in 2016 by Duncan Lewis. With two translations released in its first year and more on the way, Nordisk Books has pushed bold, challenging works whose authors (many of them women) are responsible for much of the innovation in Nordic literature today. Nordisk Books first crossed my radar when I found out they acquired the English rights to Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s Zero, a novel I loved in the original Norwegian. Recently I was able to ask Mr. Lewis about his experience starting a small, one-man press.

David M. Smith: How did you first get interested in Nordic literature? What are your all-time favorite authors and books from the region? And what ultimately led to the creation of Nordisk Books?

Duncan Lewis: My original connection to the region and its literature is from a period of six years (2005 – 2011) where I lived in Denmark, first in Aarhus and later in Copenhagen and Helsingør.

The original idea for Nordisk Books was really inspired by two things. Firstly, Karl Ove Knausgård’s description in the (I think) sixth tome of Min Kamp (My Struggle) of how he came to set up the press that he runs with his brother and friends, Pelikanen. One of their main goals was to publish exciting foreign fiction which had not found a home in Norway (for example, they have put out books by authors such as Ben Marcus).

Secondly, I felt that there was—and is—a huge interest in Nordic culture in the UK, but that from a literary perspective, not much was making the bookshops outside of the crime thriller genre. I thought it would be interesting to try and redress the balance a little. The UK public has recently shown itself to be more open to translated culture—think of the success of Les Revenants and Broen on television—and sales of translated fiction are on the rise.

As for favourite authors, the overall goal of Nordisk Books is really to publish contemporary, new fiction—I guess what used to be called “avant-garde.” So there may not be many that are well known, yet. I do like what I’ve read of Laxness, Hamsun, Carsten Jensen, and Michael Strunge. However, my real aim is to introduce people to some of the pulsating, raw energy that exists in current Nordic literature. The likes of Gine Cornelia Pedersen, whose debut novel is the latest that I’ve signed, is exactly the direction I want Nordisk Books to be going in.

(Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattström, Translated by Kate Lambert)

DS: What was your publishing experience before starting Nordisk Books? What about the enterprise has surprised you, challenged you?

DL: None. I have worked in banking since 2006, which is to say, excluding stints in bars, cleaning a kindergarten and working behind the till at Disneyland Paris, my whole career. This is still my full time job and Nordisk Books is something I run in my—ever diminishing—spare time.

I started Nordisk in February last year and I’m fairly pleased with what has been accomplished so far. I’ve managed to work out the basics of the publishing environment; I have connections within a number of great publishing houses in Scandinavia, I’ve succeeded in releasing two books (one of which I translated and both of which I typeset) and in acquiring the rights to two more. I think the real challenge is, of course, getting the voices of these authors heard. There is evidently an enormous amount of competition. How many books does the average person read in a year, even a voracious reader? And think how many books there are out there. So the real work is in finding ways to get the attention of booksellers and the people buying books, without having a multi-million-pound marketing budget.

DS: What are some of the ways you have gone about promoting your titles?

DL: For example, I’ve been out with birthday cupcakes to lots of booksellers in London when it was Nordisk Books’ first anniversary (didn’t work) and have contacted bookstores directly over Twitter as well as going in to see them with copies of books to talk about what I’m trying to do (did work). Additionally, I held a couple of screenings of a film that the writer of Nordisk’s second book directed, which had great reviews in Norway and went down pretty well here. Once you start thinking about all the ways these books and their authors can reach people, there are plenty of ideas that start flowing.

DS: How did you decide upon Tom Kristensen’s classic novel Havoc as your first title, and what was the motivation behind updating the existing English translation?

DL: The Nordisk Books edition from last year uses a translation from 1968, by a Swede, Carl Malmberg, that was published in the US. I simply adapted this to British English and modified a few parts here and there, where I felt that the original had inaccuracies.

But as regards the idea behind starting with Havoc, so to speak, I thought it was important to start with a strong work to establish the label. Havoc was written in 1930 and is one of the most widely read and recognised works in modern Danish literature and I feel incredibly proud to have brought it to an English speaking audience.

DS: What other titles have you published and which are forthcoming? How do you generally decide what titles to publish?

DL: The second title was You can’t betray your best friend and learn to sing at the same time, by the Norwegian, Kim Hiorthøy. Hiorthøy’s book is a compact volume of 40-odd flash fiction-type short stories as well as drawings, which together form a wonderful reflection of the absurdity of everyday life.

The next book, to be published later this year, is Love/War, by the Swede Ebba Witt-Brattström. The novel was heavily inspired by a 1970s work by a Swedish-speaking Finn, Märta Tikkanen, telling the tale of the breakdown of the author’s marriage with her abusive husband. Like Tikkanen’s earlier work, Love/War is told in a semi-verse like form and has been hugely successful in Sweden, having been made into both a play and an opera, not least due to the public interest in the real-life couple behind the fictional narrative.

Following this will be Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s phenomenal, prize-winning debut novel, Zero. Pedersen is mainly known in Norway for her starring role in the TV series, Young and Promising, soon to be aired on Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK. The book tells the story of a girl growing into adulthood, at the same time as her mental state deteriorates.

To be honest, the choice of books has been very personal so far, entirely based on works that I have seen value in and wanted to put out in the UK. That’s one of the pleasures of running your own publishing company!

DS: Describe your relationship as an editor with both the original authors of the books and the translators.

DL: So far, so good. It’s an interesting process translating a book into English from a language which is spoken by comparatively few people. It of course gives the author access to a far greater number of potential readers, but the fact that Scandinavians tend to speak excellent English means that they are also keen to ensure, understandably, the quality of the translation and production generally. I see this as a good thing, it certainly keeps me on my toes.

As for translators, I only have admiration for this work. Whilst I translated Hiorthøy’s book myself—with plenty of input and assistance from the author—I wouldn’t attempt more lyrical works, such as the next two books. Maintaining not just the sense of the source language but also the feeling of it when reading the book is an incredibly difficult feat, which is why I’m so excited about the translation I’ve just received for Love/War.

DS: Where do you see it all going now that Nordisk Books has been up and running for a while?

DL: Good question. It’s still early days really. My main focus is on building out the list, both in terms of adding more authors from Denmark, Sweden and Norway and in terms of looking at works from Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands etc. The challenge for me personally with the latter countries is that I can’t read the original texts myself, so I need to let go some control of the project. Other than that, it will just be about strengthening the sales network in the UK, to try and get more of these books that I’ve worked so hard on into more of the fantastic independent bookshops across the country.

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