Monday, December 12, 2011

Publisher Spotlight Dalkey Archive Press: Interview with Director John O'Brien

This week I'm excited to present a three-part series focusing on the Dalkey Archive Press, a small nonprofit publisher specializing in wonderful literary fiction, drama, poetry and nonfiction. Today I have an interview with its director, John O'Brien; tomorrow and Wednesday I'll have reviews of two recent Dalkey titles, The Truth About Marie and The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am. I hope you'll stay with me for this great series and get to know a fascinating publisher!

What is Dalkey Archive all about? What's its mission and background? 

I will try to make this as simple as I can, but will probably fail. I wanted the Press from the start to be international in its scope and to publisher writers who otherwise would probably never see light of day. So, these were writers from around the world, including the United States. It was clear, starting i the 1970s, that publishing in the United States was changing, and one of the changes was a gradual decrease in the number of translations being done. This trend, of course, has continued. But the Press also has a certain aesthetic taste, one that I have an enormous difficulty describing. My easy answer is that we publish what I like, but what I like is of a certain kind. But we do not look for a certain kind of book, or what's called a "Dalkey book." We read and react to manuscripts the way that readers react to a book: they find it interesting, or they don't.

What kinds of books does Dalkey publish? When a reader sees the Dalkey logo on a spine, what can he or she expect? Who are your authors?

This is tricky. There obviously is something that characterizes our books, but it's hard for me to stand back and say what it is because the choices are so personal. My own interest is, I believe, in character--which sounds very old-fashioned. But I think that character becomes far more interesting to the degree that a novel isn't burdened by plot, which confines character. There is also certain styles and structures that I relate to, and these tend to be rather distinctive ones. I don't find our books "challenging," though many reviewers do. If one is well read and knows literary history, I think our books are almost "mainstream." (I think something must have been cut off in your last question: "Who are your authors?" There are about 300 of them!)

What distinguishes Dalkey from other small presses?

There are other presses that do books similar to ours, and sometimes we even overlap. The difference may be our insistence on a certain kind of book. I have never been interested in having the Press present a wide range of tastes. There is a certain kind of writing that I like and relate to, and I am doomed to publishing only that kind of book. We also have a critical dimension to what we do, which perhaps makes us distinct. We publish, not only the Review of Contemporary Fiction and CONTEXT, but also a number of critical and scholarly books. I don't know of any other press that has this kind of profile. Finally, we have an educational dimension to what we do, which is perhaps best represented in the translation work we do with young translators; this reflects my background as a university professor.

What's your favorite Dalkey book or books?

This is nearly impossible to answer, and I'll try to limit myself to between 5 and 10, but on another day the books could be quite different. So, to try: 1) Nicholas Mosley's "Impossible Object"; 2) Gilbert Sorrentino's "Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things"; 3) Jacques Roubaud's "Some Thing Black"; 4) Dimutru Tsepeneag's "Vain Art of the Fugue"; 5) Svetislav Basara's "Chinese Letter"; 6) Patrik Ourednick's "Europeana"; 7) Vedrana Rudan's "Night"; 8) Flaubert's "Bouvard et Pecuchet"; 9) Fernado del Paso's "Palinuro of Mexico"; 10) Aidan Higgins's "Scenes from a Receding Past"; 11) of course, Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds." There's 11. It could easily be 100.

What are some upcoming Dalkey books we should be watching out for? 

Jean-Philippe Toussaint's "The Truth about Marie"; William Gaddis's "JR"; Gerhard Meier's "Isle of the Dead"; and Kjersti Skomsvold's "The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am."

Mr. O'Brien, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Please come back starting tomorrow for the reviews!


Anonymous said...

I really love these small press interviews you do. thank for hosting them. enjoyed this one, and will be creating a list of what looks like some great reads.


Zibilee said...

I have never heard of this small press before, but a lot of the things that he says about the books, and a lot of the titles intrigue me. I am going to have to take a closer look, and I thank you for the spotlight today. You are wonderful in doing these!