The Austrian Riveter: NAVEEN KISHORE (Seagull Books) interviewed and introduced by Sheridan Marshall

Seagull Books is renowned for its commitment to publishing literature from all over the world in English-language translation, with a substantial Austrian list. Naveen Kishore founded Seagull Books in 1982, beginning with the New Indian Playwrights series. His dedicated leadership has seen Seagull publish translations of over 500 books, including titles by Nobel Prize winners Peter Handke, Herta Müller, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Mo Yan, and Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai.

SM: Can you tell us the backstory to Seagull Books?

NK: Forty years ago, the impulse to document contemporary Indian theatre, cinema and art led to setting up a niche publishing house. Overnight. With no experience. One learnt on the job. Like I had done ten years ago in 1972 when I had turned a hobby, my interest in theatre lighting, into a livelihood. These were interesting times with much happening across the arts but nobody was publishing or documenting this rich material. Surrounded by playwrights across many Indian languages, filmmakers like Ray and Sen and Benegal and Gopalakrishnan, artists like KG Subramanyan, Somenath Hore and Chittrovanu Mazumdar, it was a natural thing to do. Translate their works into the link-language in India: English.

Translation was an intuitive conduit to all that I felt I wanted to publish. It was a time of changing technologies. Seagull began in the era of fine letterpress printing and straddled the transitions to Apple and desktop publishing and offset printing. Later the comfort of changing times made us comfortable with the digital, the ‘e’ and now the audio.

Jump to 2005 and the need to challenge the status quo of publishing locations and enforced structures that drew boundaries: it was expected that Indian publishers buy rights from the English-speaking West for their subcontinent only. Not for the world. The Western publishers on the other hand could cherry-pick for the rest of the world from our lists!  We changed this by setting up Seagull London that is now eighteen years old and owns the world rights for over 500 books of which seventy percent are translations. We are distributed worldwide by the University of Chicago Press. There is reach and visibility and mutual trust and a shared commitment. The rest is a combination of content and intent.

How do you curate your list?

Through instinct; a certain generosity of risk; and trust – in other publishers, translators, authors. In other words, a circle of affection and an ability to listen and respect a host of players from agents to scouts and booksellers. It is a community. And communities share even whisper with supressed and sometimes open excitement about what they read. We become conduits. Midwives if you will to this ‘eco-system’ and the list evolves. When for example you look back at the over 150 German, Austrian and Swiss titles you see it coming together. Our curatorial vison is retrospective. The ‘doing’ on the other hand is immediate. What I had earlier called content and intent. Add the word ‘regardless’ to it. Some books may work well others may not; certain books, as you build your wish-list-back-list, will go on to ‘fund’ many others. One must carry on regardless. 

You are one of the biggest publishers of Austrian literature in English-language translation. Why such a focus on Austrian literature?

Not sure about the ‘biggest’. Many wonderful presses led the way. Some new ones do it with great elan. Like everything else at Seagull, the ‘focus’ is always retrospective. In the beginning one is always attracted to fine writing. The attraction has to come from within this desire to publish texts that are vital and manage regardless of their own ‘age’ to shine a light on our contemporary ‘condition’. People often ask me about what makes us choose a book: I always use the term ‘the human condition’. That which resonates across borders across cultures across divides and ends up with the possibility of changing lives. A publisher of the intuitive can only offer possibilities. The rest is up to the reader and the writer and their ensuing bond. Austrian literature has all of these qualities. It is a little oasis within the German writing world. Hard to explain the distinction or even suggest that there is one but clearly there is. We did not seek either this ‘distinction’ or set out to have a sub-list within our German language translation list. It just grew into what you are calling a ‘substantial Austrian list’. What we sought was a writing of resonance. The focus is therefore a by-product of that intent. 

What do you feel distinguishes Austrian literature from its bigger German cousin?

 Tough! – we have often heard so many people say that the best German writers were Austrian! I do not have a specific answer to this question. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I do not ‘arrive’ at the texts I publish after too much ‘mulling’? I do not look for differences. Nor do I seek comparisons. The fact of the author being an Austrian, or Swiss German or Bavarian or some other part of Germany—all of which have little traces peculiar to their locations within the larger ‘German’ language world and therefore if one were to study these deeply, I am sure a list of distinguishing features would emerge! For now, let me just to what I do best: publish!
Which Austrian authors stand out for you among those you have published?

Too many to list both alive and those that are no longer amongst us but the one name that personally matters a lot is Christoph Ransmayr.

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