Behind the scenes

Behind the Scenes – the Cover Designer

This forms part of in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring us readers great crime fiction. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the cover designer and Neil Lang from Macmillan was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions.

Possibly Neil’s most recognisable work is on the covers of Peter James’ Roy Grace series, all of which he redesigned in 2015.

Was being a book cover designer something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

I’m not sure that I even knew that job existed. I think like most kids I had a different career choice every week. Although I still remember being given a class project when I must have been about 7 which was a cover design with the title ‘They rounded the corner and there it was’. I seem to remember I drew some sort of flying saucer and a group of kids peering around a wall. If only I’d kept it!

After finishing my degree at Ravensbourne, I worked in a repro house for a while and then got a job at Macmillan in the text design department as a lot of the course work I had was typographic, posters, logos, even some calligraphy.

It was very different then, I remember we had a mac with a portrait screen (so you could only see a single page) which now seems crazy. Most images would be sized and sent off for scans, and you’d mark up your layouts for position. On four colour books we’d often work on the covers, and then later I’d work on TV tie in books for Channel 4, with a few for BBC and Channel 5.

That was sort of my path into cover design, as once a cover design position became available I went for it and with more confidence and experience I’ve been lucky enough to work on pretty much anything.

9781447277705Can you outline the process of designing a cover?

It varies but usually I get a brief from the editor, with a synopsis or details about the key themes in the book, and who the target audience is. It could be it’s a classic in which case you might know the story, such as American Psycho, they also tend to be books where you can be a little more creative as the target audience tend to know what they are getting.

final-hbIf it’s possible it’s always better to read the manuscript, it’s the best way to get ideas. I tend to have a notepad at the side of me and just scribble ideas as I go. Might be colours, settings, characters, objects or even the weather, most of it won’t be useful and no one else will be able to read anything I’ve written! For the recent Zero K cover design I had pages of barely legible scribbles but luckily I understood enough.

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Do you see the process as a collaboration with the author of the work?

Not all but most cover designs I’ve done before speaking to the author, it would then usually go through a cover meeting which might have up to 20 people expressing opinions, then a revised version would be shown to the author. Most of the time everyone is on the same page so to speak, in that it needs to be a visual with a clear message, which defines the genre, and hopefully stands out amongst all the competition.

What are the factors that you take into account when putting the design together?

Where the book is likely to be sold, the books you’ll find face out in Asda will be very different to those sat on a table in Waterstones. If the sales are mainly online, then you would try and keep the image simple so that it works as a thumbnail. The target audience, is it male or female, also the age of the person buying the book. It could be the book is more of a gift purchase, which usually throws up more problems with finishes and production values. Often the brief will ask for a combination of all the above!

9780230760608If the author has a successful backlist you don’t want to stray too far from that. The redesign of the DCI Grace Peter James covers evolved from what is already a successful brand but I wanted them to have more impact in bookshops but especially with a view to online sales.

One of the key things in the redesign was to make more of the titles, making them much bigger so they can be read easily even as thumbnails online. By desaturating the image it becomes more of a background on which the titles in a bright pantones and fluros have much more impact. Used in combination with a matt finish and spot varnish over the embossed lettering it makes the physical books stand out more. The bright colours also act as a series identifier, which I’ve carried over onto the spines, using Peter James author branding much larger so there can be no doubt when seen on a bookshelf who the author is.

Recently I’ve been looking at the David Baldacci brand, images used on the front but also the design of the spines which now have his name much stronger but also identify which series the book belongs to and where it sits in that series.

How much does the growth of ebooks and online sales influence the design of covers? 

There was a trend towards simple graphic, bright covers which I think came from people wanting an image to stand out as a thumbnail. So I think there has been a change, but it’s hard to say it’s down to ebooks and online sales as publishers just want their titles to stand out wherever it’s being sold.

I think it goes back to the earlier comment of the cover giving a clear message, that could be with the lettering or the image, but probably needs to be more obvious at a smaller scale.

On average, how many different designs might you put together before the final one is agreed?

This is an impossible question, sometimes you get one that works, but I’ve also had some with 100 visuals! Or you might work on something for a week, then some crazy idea comes to you 10 minutes before the cover meeting starts and that’s the one everyone picks. Although sometimes you need to work through the ideas that don’t work before you hit on one that does.

Do you have a particular style that means we might recognise a ‘Neil Lang’ book in a bookshop?

9781447263449I think if you worked as a freelancer you’d possibly want to have a style as people would come to you for that, in a sense they would know what they were getting. In the same way I would commission an illustrator, I’d look through their portfolio and get a sense of how they would tackle a brief. You might art direct the illustrator, throw in ideas or things you would like included but ultimately you’ve gone to that illustrator because you like what they do.

I’m lucky enough to work on all genres,  so I think that means I can bring different ideas to different covers. Certainly a poetry cover will look different to a crime cover, and that will look different to a misery memoir although that’s not to say there won’t be crossover.

What do you think makes a really good cover? 

A clever idea executed well. Which is easier said than done, and not always the brief!

You’ve designed covers for a range of different genres, which do you most enjoy and which provide the biggest challenges?

I enjoy working on all the genres, but I’d probably say the mass market covers provide the biggest challenge as they have to stand out in a crowded market. Often a publisher has invested a lot of money behind those titles so they are expecting good sales. These are the books that might also have the most outside influence, maybe from the retailers.

What book or series would you love to be asked to design for?

I guess I’ve already had the chance to do some such as the Picador 40ths a few years ago, various Picador Classics I’ve worked on, recently I’ve been working on a series of 24 classics (which is why this has taken me so long to write) which have been great fun. Sometimes what you think would be a great series are the ones with the most restraints, but the challenge of tackling the big names such as a Grisham or Lee Child, or maybe a fantasy author like Michael Moorcock would be fun.

9781509822812 9781509824311What are you reading at the moment?

Usually I’m reading a manuscript, two I’ve recently worked on I can recommend would be The One Man by Andrew Gross which is out now, and What you Don’t Know by Joann Chaney (out next year) as it’s a crime story told from different characters perspectives which I found was really interesting.

I’m way behind everyone here as I’ve just finished the Wool trilogy which was fantastic and not what I expected at all, and by the time you read this I’ve probably moved onto something else.


I’d like to thank Neil for taking the time to give such considered answers to my questions, and I’m looking forward to finding out what the series of 24 books is that he’s been working on!

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Behind the Scenes – the Independent Publisher

orenda letterhead redThis is the third in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring great crime fiction to bookshops and ultimately our shelves. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the independent publisher and Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was kind enough to give up her time to answer my questions.

Karen is the powerhouse behind Orenda Books which she launched in late 2014. Renowned for the way she supports her authors Karen is a master of social media, plays football for England in the annual  ‘Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Football Match: Scotland v England’, is a talented baker – providing themed cupcakes at her authors’ launches and even finds time to support authors outside her own list with a section on the Orenda website.

Was being a publisher something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

Well, apart from wanting to be a nurse or a fire-fighter, a ‘books’ career has always been on the radar. I remember reading a novel (the name escapes me) when I was about twelve or thirteen, and the protagonist was a young woman who read slush piles for a publisher. I couldn’t believe it. Reading books could be a JOB? I wrote short stories throughout my teenage years, and read voraciously from the moment I could do it myself. I also had a habit of making notes in the margins of books. I think I might have been made for this job! When I moved to the UK from Canada after university, my first ‘real’ job was with a publisher.

What prompted you to start Orenda Books?

I worked at the job above for a few years, moving from secretary to the editorial director to commissioning editor. I then left to become freelance, and ended up writing books about raising children, discipline, emotional health, education, etc., and did some TV and other media. I actually became tired of writing about the same type of thing, and when I was offered a job in a small independent, working a day or so a week writing press releases, jacket copy, etc., I leapt at it. It was an interesting and intensive experience, and I ended up working about seven days a week, not one! When a decision was taken by new shareholders to slash the list, I didn’t feel comfortable being there. After lying on my bed for about 24 hours, I made the decision to start my own publishing company. Towards the end of my former tenure, I was doing almost everything anyhow, so it wasn’t an entire leap. A month later, Orenda Books was born, and I haven’t looked back.

How would you describe the ethos of Orenda Books and the titles you choose to publish?

We publish literary fiction (and I use that word deliberately, because I have a very firm belief that you must never underestimate readers of genre fiction, and assume that they all want the churn-em-out stuff), with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half in translation. There are some exceptionally wonderful aberrations on my list, and it is honestly a huge relief and source of excitement to be able to publish exactly what I want, with no one to whom I have to account!

I believe in a lot of things. We publish across many formats, including audiobooks with the wonderful Audible, a few in hardback, all in ebook and in paperback. But I firmly believe that people who choose a physical book over an ebook want something beautiful – something that is a joy to read, to hold! We use great paper, have fantastic jacket designers, truly wonderful typesetting with lots of little details, and I think it makes a real difference. In less than two years we are competing well with the conglomerates, and producing books that certainly match theirs, in both look and feel, not to mention content.

The writing REALLY matters to me, as does a tight, seamless plot. All Orenda authors are exquisite writers – that is essential. And I love the idea of pushing the boundaries of a genre – bringing something new or different to it, upholding its greatest traditions, enlightening, drawing attention to social or other issues while entertaining. It’s a vibrant market and it’s an honour to have the opportunity to bring some truly amazing authors to readers.

I don’t care about becoming rich or famous; I care about doing this job well and doing justice to my increasingly BRILLIANT stable of authors!

What has been the biggest challenge for you and what has been your biggest success to date?

last-days-of-disco_december-with-quotes-copy-2You know what? I would say that EVERY book has been a success in its own way. To date, our runaway bestselling titles are Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, Nightblind and Blackout, and Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake, but in Scotland David F. Ross’s books (The Last Days of Disco and The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas) have received unbelievably wonderful critical acclaim and sold both in other countries and (secret) formats! We’ve had rights sold, books optioned for film and the stage. We’ve won prizes, had seven number-one kindles, achieved excellent review coverage in the papers, been incredibly well supported by the all-important blogging community, been shortlisted for the IPG Best Newcomer Award, got a Bookseller Rising Star this year, got authors into over 40 festivals. I could go on! Every author on my list is magnificent, and their achievements never fail to astound and excited me. Having wonderful new authors keen to join is also a success. We have a team that people want to join, and I LOVE that!

Challenges. OK, well it’s hard to make a name for a new company and I also have a LOT of debuts, which means that it can be even harder to persuade booksellers to take us and our authors seriously. We do a lot of translations, so cash flow is always slightly alarming (we spend probably £15K per book for a translated title before it even hits the shelves, which is considerably higher than it would be for a book in English). I am the only employee in this company, and luckily have a brilliant team of freelancers who sort me out with jackets and editorial things (I would be remiss if I did not mention West Camel here, who is my second eye and the best editor I’ve ever met! Plus Mark Swan, who does my jackets and Liz Wilkins and Anne Cater, who have done other magnificent things), but the amount of work is sometimes terrifying! We’ve gone from six books in the first year, to almost triple that this year, with the same again next year. I often feel faint!

Another challenge is an obvious one. The bigger companies tend to be more risk-averse, and often watch smaller companies to see which authors are performing well, before swooping in with a big cheque. This is a frustration, but I suppose that’s business. The irony is, of course, that bigger doesn’t mean better and being published by someone completely passionate about your books can equate to very strong sales. That’s certainly happened here.

How might being an author with an independent publisher differ compared to a major publishing house? 

2016-03-22-18-55-50I think the main thing is the personal approach. I work closely with my authors from the moment they are signed onwards. I attend events  and festivals with them, edit, promote, pitch to the sales teams around the world, and that’s something that I think authors enjoy. Having been an author myself for many, many years, I understand that everyone needs to feel valued and know that they are getting full support. I don’t know about other independents, but we are very much a team here at Orenda. We are growing together. We support each other. Celebrate the successes, and push when things are trickier. It’s just the BEST environment to nurture some incredible talent, and I think we are all happy and home, and all working VERY hard to achieve the best. Being a big fish in a small pond, or even a noticeable fish in a pond, is something that attracts people to small publishers. Plus independents tend to be more nimble, able to take risks and act quickly, and generally do things with authors that might never get past a big acquisitions meeting at a conglomerate. We’ve had a number of very big-name authors interested in joining us, so that probably says something about the ‘small town’ approach.

What impact has the rise of self-publishing had for smaller publishers?

I don’t think it’s a problem at all. I’ve signed two self-published authors and would actively encourage authors who are struggling to get an agent or a deal to consider this approach. There is no shame in doing it yourself, and some very good writers have their roots in the self-published world. It does, of course, mean that the market can become quite saturated, and the quality is, unfortunately, not always there. I worry sometimes that books are devalued by the number of free and very cheap ebooks available, and becoming strongly geared towards disposable reads. After all, if you pay only 99p or get it free, who cares, really? I never lower prices on our ebooks unless they are supported by a major retailer (or they reduce it them themselves) because I am well aware that authors need to earn a living, and we need to survive, too. Having said all that, our ebook sales are increasing month by month, and we know that people are happy to pay full price (not expensive by any means) for wonderful, readable books!

What one piece of advice would you give to an author who is trying to get their first publishing deal?

in-her-wake-hbcover-copy-4I would suggest that you get and take every bit of constructive criticism that you can. Beta readers (first readers) are invaluable, and although it is very painful to cut words, plotlines, characters and even passages of prose, you need to trust the opinions of those who know what they are doing. In particular, agents, or publishers who take the time to point out where there might be weaknesses. There are some incredible mentoring programmes for aspiring authors, courses (sometimes expensive, but possibly worth it) and other authors who run these courses or will do a report for a small fee. I DEFINITELY don’t like to promote anyone in particular, but Amanda Jennings is very involved in the Womentering scheme, and Michael J. Malone actually earns his living sorting out people’s books (around writing his own). If you can’t get a publisher or an agent, and feel that your book is as strong as it can be, then go ahead and self-publish. But get yourself out there, too. Attend fairs, festivals, events where other authors in your genre might be. Make friends. Network. Get some support and help. Use social media wisely – to befriend and let people know your book is there, without repeating messages and becoming annoying. It’s a close and supportive community, this book world, and I think that if you make friends and attract potential readers, you’ll be in with a chance. But don’t forget how important it is to get your book right before you submit it. And learn the art of writing a blurb – a summary of your book, much like what appears on the back of the books you pick up in the bookshops. If you can sell your book in a paragraph, you’ll attract notice.

sealskin-vis-3-copyFinally, I REALLY dislike it when a writer compares themselves to someone on my list. It’s nice to have an idea of the type of reader it might attract (for example, I am publishing a book called Sealskin next year, and a few wonderful comparisons came to mind, such as a book called The Year of Wonders and the author Angela Carter), which is very useful for the sales team. But if you tell me that you write exactly like Amanda Jennings or Michael Malone, chances are you aren’t going to get very far. I HAVE those authors. I don’t want copycats. Every author has to bring something new, special and different to the table.

Without giving away any trade secrets – what are your ambitions for Orenda Books?

My ambitions are to carry on exactly the way we are at the moment. Acquiring authors that fit the list and will add to the company – and the genre and industry in some way – while keeping it small enough to maintain the personal touch I mentioned above. My authors didn’t buy into something grand and big, and I will ensure that we are always a team, and that everyone is important. Having said that, I publish wonderful books, and I expect to win prizes and sell lots of them. These authors are magnificent, and I will be sticking by them as they soar. And I fully expect that all will do so. And that’s also what they bought into. A great future.

Another ambition is to demystify translated literature. While there is a thriving niche market, there is no reason in the world why the average reader wouldn’t enjoy books from other countries. I’ve got some of the MOST amazing translators in the business working with me, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find even one of our translated titles that feels awkward. We cherry pick the VERY best books from other countries, and that’s something that we want to continue.

Have you ever been tempted to write yourself?

I was a writer for many, many years, and I also ghostwrote a lot of books (for quite famous people, too!). I can write a blurb and a nice advance information sheet. I can pull apart a book and put it back together again in the BEST way. But could I do what my authors are doing? No way! They are imaginative, smart, brilliantly creative and talented, and I never buy a book that doesn’t give me at least four goosebump moments. And that doesn’t mean just plot. It means writing, too. I truly believe that I have some of the best writers in the genre on this list, and the stuff that is happening around them – awards, fresh talent picks, prizes, TV deals, reader and blogger top reads, review coverage, festival and event invitations, bestseller lists – it all confirms that we are on the right track. While I can fix books that need attention, I would be a complete fool to think I could write anything like the books that appear on my list!

What are you reading at the moment?

Ooh, OK! It’s a mix! I am a person who has books all over the place. Beside my bed is Craig Robertson’s Murderabilia, and I am LOVING IT! Today I got a copy of Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah, and that is going to be my downstairs, on-the-sofa read. In my handbag, I’ve got more, including the OMG BUY IT Fiona Cummins’ debut Rattle, and, similarly, the new Erin Kelly (He Said; She Said, gasp!), which I should pass on, but can’t bear to. The new Ian Rankin is buzzing in my bag.

Then on my computer, it’s all about submissions and editing. We’ve just finished Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. And for the first time, we’re experimenting with bound proof copies. This is ONE book you won’t forget in a hurry!! But I’m also reading the beautiful, mesmerising Sealskin by Su Bristow, a debut author retelling the Selkie legend. Again, oh WOW! Something always on the go, and fortunately not only are my personal reads all different, but my authors are absolutely different! My last ‘non-crime’ read was Schtum by Jem Lester and it would not hesitate to recommend it. There are LOADS more in the pile.

I do a ‘community blog’ on the Orenda website, and we feature Q&As with ‘other’ authors. So I get sent a WHOLE load of books with a view to doing just that! On the horizon are books by Anya Lipska, Eva Dolan, Michael Wood, Doug Johnstone, Derek B. Miller, Ali Land, Erin Kelly, Mark Hill, Joseph Knox, Luca Veste and more … I am SO busy, so I only read the ones that hook me with the blurb, the jacket or the premise. Aspiring authors, take note!

You can find Karen on twitter under the name @OrendaBooks.


I’d like to thank Karen for taking the time to give such candid answers to my questions.

Behind the Scenes – the Translator

This is the second in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring us readers great crime fiction. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the translator and Frank Wynne was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions.

Frank is an award-winning translator, working from both French and Spanish, with three CWA International Dagger awards, twice winning the Premio Valle-Inclán, as well as winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. If you’re a reader of crime fiction you’ll probably be most familiar with his work through the books by Pierre Lemaitre.

You can find Frank on twitter under the name @Terribleman.

Was being a translator something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

Absolutely not! It never occurred to me that I would be ‘allowed’ to translate a novel – it seemed (and still seems) such a huge responsibility to take on the task of recreating the tone and styles of an author. I remember the author’s  note Barbara Trapido wrote in her novel “Brother of the More Famous Jack”, where she said that she wrote her first novel at 41 having previously believed that novels were written by people who were “dead or already famous”; I felt a little like that. I felt as though translators were from some alien world; that one could not simply become a literary translator.

I came to translation by accident. I moved to Paris at the age of 22 (having never been to France) and was surprised that i quickly became fluent in the language. I began to read compulsively. It was while I was reading La Vie devant soi by Émile Ajar (a pseudonym of Romain Gary) that I felt the urge – the need – to translate. But it did not occur to me even then that it was something I might do professionally. It was almost fifteen years later (while I was working for an Internet company, and spending weekends writing “reader’s reports” for publishers) that an editor asked whether I wanted to translate a novel – I was terrified but hugely excited. A couple of years later I gave up the day job so that I could translate full time.

Can you outline the process of translating a novel?

I will usually read a novel twice before beginning a translation. Once for the sheer excitement of the book, to enjoy its pleasures as a reader – whether plot, characterisation or language. The second time, I may slow down and consider the voice(s) in the text, the rhythms of the prose – occasionally I will find myself toying with English phrases as I read the second time.

Different translators approach a first draft in very different ways. I can spend a lot of time wrestling with a sentence / a paragraph to get the sound I feel I need, and I also litter the draft with footnotes to myself – highlighting passages I’m unhappy with, questions I want to ask the author, jokes or puns I think I need to work on. Once I’ve finished the first draft, I will usually write tot he author and explain my approach to the text, ask any questions that are niggling me as a reader and / or translator. In the second draft, I am already beginning to think of the book as English-language text – I find myself reworking phrases and images that seem too ‘lumpen’ in the English. I sometimes read passages – particularly dialogue – aloud to test whether I find them convincing.

Once delivered to an editor, it will usually be several weeks or months (once, more than a year) before I get editorial notes and comments. Coming back to a translation after a long period gives you a fresh eye – suddenly, solutions that were intractable seem obvious. Work on the third draft involves responding to the editor’s comments and suggestions. An insightful editor can flag a translator’s lexical tics and mannerisms, but also highlight phrases that feel literal or literal to his / her year. By this time, I am no longer referring back to the original text, but simply working with the English.

The last piece of tinkering comes when the publisher sends page proofs / galleys. Seeing a text typeset like a ‘proper book’ is another jolt and – while at this stage I am only supposed to correct errors and typos I often find myself reworking sentences and snatches of dialogue. It is almost compulsive, and it is important to know when to stop. I often say “a translation is near finished, only abandoned” (shamelessly paraphrasing W.H.Auden’s paraphrase of Paul Valéry).

Do you see the process as a collaboration with the author of the work?

By definition a translation is a war of collaboration even if the original author has been dead for centuries. But in practice, the process and one’s relationship with authors can vary enormously. Some are perfunctory and professional, some almost non-existent (I’ve had one author who – despite repeated emails – declined to respond to my queries), most involve discussions that are informative and revealing, a small few are truly personal. I have felt intimately close to authors I have never met, and I have also had good fortune to have one or two relationships with authors evolve into friendships. In the end, however, though translation is an act of collaboration (with author, editor, copy editor  and proof reader) it is the translator who must take responsibility for recreating a work. A musician can endlessly question a composer about the intent behind a piece of music, but when it comes to playing, it is the performer’s interpretation that is heard.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Very rarely – and it is something I can only do if the projects are very different, or are in different languages, otherwise I find that the voice of one book begins to bleed over into the other.

Translating is like an intimate conversation, with the translator listening intently and responding to the writer; it is difficult to do so with multiple authors without sacrificing that intensity.

How much influence can a translator have on the tone or feeling of a book?

In theory, a translator has absolute control over the tone or feeling of the translated work – unless the author is bilingual. In practice, we strive (and should always strive) to recreate a tone and feel which we hear orintit in the original. The process is, of course, profoundly subjective; the voice I hear may differ slightly form what another translator will hear – something that has become clear in the many “Translation Duels” in which I have participated over the years.

Every decision made by a translator – about tone and register, about the cadence or rhythm of a sentence – influences the tone of the work in English. To me, this is most apparent when translating dialogue, wordplay and idiomatic language which can have no direct equivalent in the target language. But if, at such point, a translator is called upon to invent, this is circumscribed by his or her understanding of the intent and impact of the original.

Most importantly, a translator needs an ear for music and for voice, it is this that has allowed me the privilege to ‘(re)write’ novels I could never imagine, to briefly ‘become’ authors from the wide world of Francophone and Hispanophone literature and, through language, to try to recreate narratives I love and admire.

You’ve translated a range of different genres and languages, which do you most enjoy and which provide the biggest challenges?

I enjoy working in most genres and do not have a particular favourite, but I think it is true that I enjoy working on novels with a playful or complex relationship to language.

It is often assumed that very “literary” novels, with highly poetic voices are most difficult to translate, but I find that, while it takes time to conjure the right voice for such books, once that voice is found it provides a solution to other spaces of the text.

There are two authors whose books I found both deeply challenging and profoundly rewarding. The first is Ahmadou Kourouma, one of the great 20th century African novelists, whose novels Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and Allah is not Obliged I had the honour of translating. Kourouma’s novels are linguistically dense and his narrators employ the cadences of the West-African griot tradition. The text is peppered with words and expressions in Malinké, and evokes traditions and cultures that are very different form any I have experienced, yet the time I spent trying to recreate Kourouma’s prolix, poetic vernacular was a wonderful and cathartic experience. The second is Andrés Caicedo, whose novel, ¡Que viva la music! took me two years to translate. Cicero’s novel (published in English as Liveforever) is suffused with music, particularly the salsa dura of late 1970s Colombia, and the lyrical, hypnotic voice of the protagonist, Maria Carmen del Huerta, becomes a song on itself. Translating it, involved teasing out the hundreds of allusions to lyrics, song titles and film and literature threaded through the narrative, and weaving them into a new melody.

Often books are translate some time after publication in the original language, does that pose any problems for you?

Not particularly. While I like to be able to address questions to an author, at the end of the day much of what I do is about immersing myself in a text.

Is there a translation or a translator that you particularly admire?

There are many translations and translators I admire. Translations that have thrilled and excited me would include William Weaver’s translation of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Lydia Davis’ version of Proust’s The Way by Swann’s (sadly, not all of the Penguin volumes of Proust are as near-perfect). In a very different register, Christopher Logue’s War Music – an “account” (he did not call it a translation) of several books of Homer’s Iliad is a luminous revelation. More recently, I admire the stunning work done by Anne McClean and Rosalind Harvey in translating Enrique Villa-Matas’ novel Dublinesque.

I admire all translators, they constantly remind me of the joys of what we do. But if I had to choose a living translator, it would be Margaret Jull Costa, whose seemingly effortless poise and mastery of source and target language leave me breathless.

And what book would you love to be asked to translate?

Too many – and most have already been translated. For a long time, my response would have been La Place de l’étoile by Patrick Modiano, but the Nobel Prize and a very supportive editor meant that I got to translate that in 2014.

What are you reading at the moment?

La gazelle s’agenouille pour pleurer – a book of short stories by the Togolese writer Kanji Alem, whose novel La Legend de l’assassin blew me away.


I’d like to thank Frank for taking the time to give such considered answers to my questions.

Behind the scenes – a Q & A with the organisers of Crimefest

This is the first in a series of interviews with some of the people without whom we wouldn’t have our favourite crime fiction books or events but who don’t normally get their share of the limelight.

First up is the team who organise Crimefest each year (Adrian, Donna and Myles) and with just a few months to go I really appreciate them sparing time for this.

What makes CrimeFest stand out amongst the many UK crime fiction events?

Adrian: CrimeFest came about after we organised the one-off visit of the US Left Coast Crime convention in Bristol on 2006. As a result we still follow the American crime fiction convention model where everyone pays to attend and any commercially UK published author who registers in time is offered a minimum of one panel appearance. If I am not mistaken, we are still the only convention in Britain that is not by invitation only and as a result we are able to offer many authors the opportunity to appear at a major event when they would be unlikely to do so elsewhere. Possibly more important is the fact that we encourage delegates to attend for the duration of the convention and, because it is held in one location, everybody socialises in the tea room and bar between panels and in the evening. Everybody is equal, authors aren’t whisked away after their panel, and it is common for a readers to be chatting to their favourite authors in a very relaxed environment. The social aspect is key at CrimeFest.

Donna: Adrian’s totally right about the social aspect. Over the years, many people have commented that CrimeFest is one of the friendliest conventions and festivals they attend, and that’s why people come back year after year. For me, it’s the one weekend in the year where I get to catch up with loads of lovely people who I only see once a year, and meet new people who I then look forward to seeing the next year! Also, we give newer authors the opportunity of being on a panel with household names. There’s no hierarchy – if you sign up early enough you get a panel, and you could end up on that panel with anyone.

Do you think Bristol is important in the feel of the event?
Adrian: Originally we purposely did not incorporate Bristol into the name of CrimeFest in case we wanted to move it around the UK, and depending on the costs of hosting the convention in Bristol we may still have to consider this. However, with its international airport, two train stations and access by motorway it is relatively easy to get to Bristol. Also, the feedback on the hotel is overwhelmingly positive, as it is in the centre of the city and is close to shops and restaurants. So, all of that, together with the fact that one of us lives here – which makes things easy – means that there would have to be compelling reasons to move.

When do you start and how do you approach the planning and programming?
Adrian: In some form or other we usually are already planning the following year’s CrimeFest before the current one has begun. With regard to programming, Donna is largely responsible for that and she does an amazing job, so over to you…

Donna: I love doing the programming. It’s basically the focus of every second of spare time I have from my day job and university studies between October and February (Christmas Day is often partially spent poring over a hot spreadsheet). It’s a really daunting task at first – a long list of authors that you need to wrangle onto a set number of panels, making sure that everyone has at least one. And you have to make sure each panel has a suitable topic. The topics need to be varied and the panellists need to ‘fit’ but, to be honest, it’s the panellists and moderators that make the panels work. You could give five different panels the same topic and each one would come up with different discussions. That’s one of the absolute joys of CrimeFest – no matter how many times I’ve scheduled a particularly themed panel, the discussion always takes a new and interesting course. Hang on…I think my job has just become simpler…I’m just going to call panels ‘Panel 1’, ‘Panel 2’, ‘Panel 45’ from now on… One of the side benefits of doing the programming is that I get to find out about new to me authors. In order to try and put authors on suitable panels I check out every single author’s website and books, see what their latest book is, what sub-genres they write in, what their interests are etc. I’ve discovered several authors that way whose books I’ve immediately gone out and bought.

How big is the team that organises the event?
Myles (smiles): Adrian and Donna organise the convention, and I run it…

Adrian (laughs): That’s not even completely untrue! We three are the core of the team. Donna, as I mentioned, does the programming; Myles, is in charge of set up, audio-visual, the practicalities of running the convention, coordinating the front of house and technical staff, and smoothing any ruffled feathers; and I do the all the other stuff, like contacting the publishers, contact the moderators and panellists, organise the awards, etc, etc. Having said that, we have incredible support from Jen, my wife, who designs the programme book; Liz, who is the ‘face’ of CrimeFest and who, with help of friends, greets delegates at the registration desk, and also proofs the text for the programme; and Sue, our wonderful website mistress.
Did any of you ever dream that you would be involved in something on this scale?
All chuckle!
Adrian: We only ever intended to organise the one off 2006 visit of the US Left Coast Crime convention. However, following that convention we were approached by publishers, asking us to continue because they could sign up most of their crime list for what they would pay for one of their authors to appear elsewhere. Authors were eager for us to carry on because we offered them a platform they were unlikely to get elsewhere, and readers loved the fact that they could discover new authors and meet favourites and socialise with them between and after panels.

Donna: Yes, Adrian promised me it would be a one-off…

Myles: Adrian promises me every year that it will be a one-off…

Every CrimeFest I’ve attended has seemed to go smoothly, is that how it feels for you? If something has gone disastrously wrong would you mind sharing?
Adrian: Knock on wood, nothing has gone disastrously wrong so far. We’ve had one last minute cancellation of a featured guest author, but we were lucky that someone gracefully stepped in in time. And if things appear to be running smoothly, then that’s because Myles and I are running around trying to keep all the plates spinning! Donna’s pretty much done all of her work by the time the convention is in full swing, but she instantly and effortlessly finds a replacement if there is a hiccup with one of the panellists.

Donna: As Adrian’s mentioned, I’ve mostly done all my work by the Thursday lunchtime that CrimeFest starts. So, while Adrian and Myles dash around looking red, frazzled and sweaty, I get to swan around, checking authors and moderators in the Green Room are happy and hugging people.

Myles: If you see me sitting at the front desk, looking asleep, then everything’s going well.
Do you get much opportunity to attend the panels?
Adrian: I occasionally do but not often. Donna does, but that is mostly to ensure how the panels are running. We try to record the panels, so I listen to them afterwards, and we have put quite a few of them up on the site. Which reminds me that we’re running behind on doing so for the last year or two. Must work on that.

Donna: I try and pop into all of the panels to see how they’re going. Sadly, I don’t often get to stay for a full panel, because I need to check the others that are happening at the same time, or go down to the Green Room to check things there, but sometimes I get so drawn into the discussions that I have to stay until the end!

Myles: I haven’t sat through a full panel for years. I have to pop in and out to check sound levels and quality and that they are running on time. However, sometimes I get caught up with an interesting discussion and have to drag myself away.

Who (living or dead) would be on your dream panel?
Adrian: I’ll go for the obvious: Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dashiell Hammett as the Participating Moderator? Other than that, we’ve been very fortunate with our headliners and loyal regulars, and having P.D. James, and Lee Child interviewing Maj Sjöwall (the Godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction), it doesn’t get much better than that…

Donna: I love film noir and pulp fiction, so I’m going to go for Richard S Prather (who wrote the hilarious pulpy novels about Private Investigator Shell Scott who wisecracked his way through over 30 novels in the 1950s and 60s. In each one of them Shell manages to solve crimes despite being beaten up, shot and whacked over the head and still had time to sleep with a blonde, a brunette and a redhead before dinner time); Dorothy B Hughes (who, amongst other things, wrote the brilliant novel In A Lonely Place which was made into a great film noir featuring Humphrey Bogart. The film is good, but the book is even better); Margaret Millar (who should be far better known than she is (primarily for being Ross Macdonald’s wife) and who wrote loads of great books including one of my all time favourites – Beast In View – a real heart-stopper of a psychological thriller); and William Lindsay Gresham (who wrote the 1946 stunner Nightmare Alley – another book which was made into a film noir, this time with Tyrone Power. Like In A Lonely Place, the book is far, far darker than the film). The panel would be brilliantly moderated by Eddie Muller – one of my favourite authors and the Czar of Noir. He organises Film Noir festivals and is also the author of two wonderful noir San Francisco set novels The Distance and Shadow Boxer.

(Adrian: Sadly Eddie and I are not related, but he is a good friend.)

What has been the most contentious panel discussion you can recall?
Adrian: The only contentious panel that immediately springs to mind is one where the moderator cheerfully announced at the start at the panel that, despite having three months to prepare, she only did so one or two days before the convention with material her child had managed to find on the internet. Needless to say we… I think someone just kicked me in order to shut me up! We try to celebrate crime fiction at CrimeFest rather than create contention. Instead we try to encourage panellists and (participating) moderators to meet socially before a panel so that they are comfortable enough for the panel to become a conversation where they (politely) interrupt and/or disagree.
2016 will be the ninth year – how has the event changed since you started?
Adrian: Well, it’s become more popular and the attendance has grown – which is great. I don’t think it has become easier to organise. I’m sure Donna will confirm that with regard to the programming. Also, as much as we love the hotel and working with the regulars, they have increased their prices which makes things harder. This is another area where support from friends of CrimeFest comes in, especially Edwin Buckhalter from Severn House who has negotiated the hotel contracts and kept things relatively affordable. He and David Headley from Goldsboro Books have provided invaluable advice and support. I don’t think we would still be hosting CrimeFest if it hadn’t been for their input. I can’t immediately think of anything else other than that the main constant has been to celebrate crime fiction in a very social atmosphere…

Myles: A lot of the day-to-day event management has become easier and smoother both through our gained experience and the long-term cooperation of Marriott hotels in knowing what our requirements are and just being in the right place at the right time. From having no idea what we were doing, or letting ourselves in for, we have progressed to surrounding ourselves with a great team ranging from young sound engineers through dedicated volunteer receptionists to the coffee lady (who – despite being promoted – has it written into her Marriott contract that she will work at CrimeFest no matter what).

What has been your highlight?
Adrian: Getting to personally know more authors, and people like Edwin and David; the headliners for our 5th anniversary – Lee Child, Jeffrey Deaver, Frederick Forsyth, Sue Grafton, P.D.James and more – wasn’t something to sneeze at; having the BBC’s Sherlock team was a treat; and again: Lee Child interviewing Maj Sjöwall…

Donna: Each year, CrimeFest gets bigger and better. My own highlights are just getting to spend time with people I love to bits, talk about and celebrate crime fiction, discover new to me authors, have fun and buy books.

Myles: To me, the highlights are the very human aspects, from Jeffery Deaver explaining how his dog set off the fire alarm to Jasper Fforde giving an impromptu comedy turn for the entertainment of those on reception.
What are you reading at the moment?
Adrian: I’m reading James Laws’ Tenacity. James has been a CrimeFest regular, attended Crime Writing Day, and Pitch-an-Agent as well. Following the latter I know that various agents were interested in representing him and that multiple publishers made offers for the book. Reading the book seemed like a minor way in reciprocating his support, and so far it has been a compelling read…

Donna: Apart from an academic text about the plight of women in mid-nineteenth-century Victorian factories I have two great books on the go – David Young’s Stasi Child (one of the new-to-me authors discovered while I was programming) and Mignon Eberhart’s Never Look Back (part of my pulp fiction kick). Both highly recommended.

Myles: Because I’m a judge, all my spare time is being taken up by reading the 150-plus books submitted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year, the longlist of which is announced at CrimeFest in May.

What would you say to someone thinking of attending for the first time?
Adrian: CrimeFest is a party, come and join the fun. Read the Frequently Asked Questions on the website, and, if you still have queries, we’re here to answer them.

Donna: If there’s an author you’d love to speak to – do it. Everyone is really friendly and, in my experience, just loves to talk! And please come up and say hello. I’ll be the organiser who looks calm and unruffled!

Myles: This is an event organised by people who are not part of the publishing industry. We are primarily readers and fans (although multi-talented Donna has gone and become an author in the meantime). I agree with both Adrian and Donna: this is a very social event where all the back-stabbing is done on the page. Do come and say hello, don’t be nervous I only shout at Adrian!

If that’s whetted your appetite you can check out all the details and the full event programme on the Crimefest website or catch them on Twitter or Facebook.

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