Thursday, October 02, 2008

Untitled Books and an interview with Viola Fort

If you look here, you will see an exciting new undertaking in the world of books. It is a new website called Untitled Books combining a literary service and an online bookshop, and is aimed at a young and discerning literary audience (and a not-so-young one too, I hope). If you register on the site, you will receive their online magazine - I received my first today, and thought it extremely well produced, with lots of quirky features such as pictures of people caught reading (called 'Literary Seen'), and a literary lonely hearts page. This month it features the authors Will Self, Susie Boyt, Drew Gummerson and Ali Smith.

My interest piqued, I asked Viola Fort, one of the two founders of the magazine, if she would be prepared to give me an interview - and she kindly agreed.

Interview with Viola Fort (pictured with Katie McCalmont above).

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
VF:I used to keep them as pets in an old icecream carton, garnished with dandelion leaves and a thimbleful of water. They were very good companions; quiet, undemanding, fascinating in their alieness. I have to say, I’m now much more fond of them sautéed in garlic butter.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
VF: Starting Untitled Books and realising that I’m doing a job I love.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
VF: Yes, I think realising that the prescribed route isn’t necessarily the right one, that there are different kinds of success and they aren’t necessarily demonstrated by climbing the corporate ladder.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
VF: I’m too ambitious to stop at one.

CD: What is happiness?
VF: Happiness is always rooted in flux, the high before the down-sweep or the final parting of the clouds. If you want good moods and constant smiles, ask for contentment or ignorance instead.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
VF: Flick on radio 4 and thank goodness I don’t work in the City.

Questions about Untitled Books.
CD: How did you meet?
VF: At school, in the glory days of Nirvana, thick black eyeliner and long Indian skirts that smelt of incense.

CD: Why did you start 'Untitled Books'?
VF: We both had a passion for literature and would spend long Sunday lunches discussing books we had read, writers we admired, and why there was no young, intelligent, hip conduit to the literary scene in Britain. America is so much more buzzy in that way; there is McSweeneys, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and untold other journals and magazines that give voice to excellent writing, and most particularly, the oft-neglected short story. It was fortuitous that we were both fed-up and frustrated with our respective jobs at the time; it made it easier to take the plunge. We realised the only way to make something happen is to make it happen, so we handed in our resignations and registered the domain.

CD: How is 'Untitled Books' different from other on-line book magazines? (I am intrigued by the Literary Seen feature - please tell me the story behind that).
VF: Well firstly, because it doubles as a bookshop; every book mentioned in the magazine can be bought through the site. Secondly, we focus on the writers; how do they write, what do they read, what inspires them. Thirdly, we are focused on making the site approachable and easy to use rather than just posting yards of rather dry, academic looking text that feels like a chore to read rather than a pleasure.

Literary Seen was born of a fascination with what other people are reading. Most people ask friends for recommendations –What have you read recently? What’s good? - we decided to start asking strangers. Pretty much everyone is delighted to chat, and it’s also a really good way to gauge what people are reading and enjoying.

CD: How did you go about starting the magazine?
VF: Step by step, one thing at a time.

CD: What are your views on the publishing industry today? How do you think it will change over the next few years?
VF: It’s a tough climate for new writers, and particularly for new literary fiction. Publishers don’t want to take any chances with their marketing budgets. Popular fiction, thrillers and celebrity biographies all get the biggest slice of the pie, the remainder is left to sink or swim. I can understand that caution, but it is a very great shame that some excellent writers don’t get the level of exposure needed to sell their books. If the public don’t know, how can they buy? I’m not pessimistic however. I think the rise of excellent literary festivals, big and small, over the past few years bears testament to the public’s appetite for excellent writing. These festivals are restoring a literary culture that had started to erode, and they’re doing it with style and intelligence. There are also some wonderful independent publishers bringing out consistently interesting, unusual books - both new writing and reissues of forgotten works - that provide a much needed foil for the bigger publishers. Pushkin, Hesperus and Persephone all have excellent lists.

CD: What would you look for in your dream bookshop?
VF: Knowlegable, passionate staff and the kind of thorough, intelligent selection that expose you to all kinds of books , especially ones you have never come across before. The perfect bookshop should feel like a great find, as though you’re in on a brilliant secret, like great books really.

CD: What is your favourite sort of writing? What do you look for in a novel? Do you have similar tastes?
VF: Our tastes form a perfect Venn diagram. Katie has a strong foundation in the classics as well as a particular interest for young, original, whimsical prose like Edward Carey and Nicole Krauss. I love to seek out the unusual, the forgotten gems, the works in translation. Pushkin’s reissue of Stefan Zweig’s novellas and stories has made me very happy. I’m also rereading short stories by Lorrie Moore and James Salter, which are as perfect as any I can imagine being written. We both have a particular interest in Latin American writing - Vargas Llosa, Cortazar, Borges, and the brilliantly talented American-Peruvian writer Daniel Alarcon. His stories will seriously reward your time and attention.




Blogger aliholli said...

Weyhey Ali Smith is my maiden name

Thu Oct 02, 10:34:00 pm  
Blogger jem said...

Untitle Books sounds like a great venture. I'm looking forward to having a good browse through their site. Always good to see people trying new things and to see younger people with a passion for literature. I hope I still come somewhere near young (although less so each and every day) and I hate it when society gives the impression that reading is something only the elderly and retired do.

Fri Oct 03, 04:00:00 pm  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Lovely-looking site, great premise, a real find.

Sat Oct 04, 01:55:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Aha, Ali! Ali Smith is a great writer - I highly recommend her books.

Yes, Jem, great to have such a website so enthusiastic about books.

Hi Jim - great, isn't it? Good that you get reminded about it by email too.

Sat Oct 04, 08:40:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Aha, Ali! Ali Smith is a great writer - I highly recommend her books.

Yes, Jem, great to have such a website so enthusiastic about books.

Hi Jim - great, isn't it? Good that you get reminded about it by email too.

Sat Oct 04, 08:40:00 pm  

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