How to Run an Independent Publishing House

An Interview with Meike Ziervogel

/ by Lucy Popescu

Meike Ziervogel founded Peirene Press, an award-winning independent publishing house based in the UK, in 2008. Peirene is dedicated to publishing European literature in English translation. Meike publishes 3 - 4 novellas a year and runs a successful literary salon in north London aimed at introducing the authors and translators to their English readership.  

Meike is also a novelist. She grew up in northern Germany and came to London in 1986 to study Arabic language and literature. She has worked as a journalist for Reuters in London and Agence France Presse in Paris. Meike is the author of Magda, Clara's Daughter and Kauthar, all published by Salt in the UK. Her fourth novel, The Photographer, is released in May this year.

Lucy Popescu: Do you consider yourself primarily a publisher or a novelist?
MZ: I deal in stories. Some I write myself, others I find abroad and then I publish them. If I had lived two hundred years ago, I would have been a storyteller earning my living by walking from one village to the next, retelling my own stories and those I’d heard on my travels elsewhere. Not much has changed since then. 
LP: Why do you write in English rather than your mother tongue?
MZ: The better we know a language, the more meaningless verbal noise we are able to create because words and sentences come easily and often ready-made to us. I love writing in a language that is not my mother tongue. I appreciate the feeling of not being totally at home in English, not being completely comfortable with it. It means that I have to be on my guard, checking myself that each word I write is the right word, that each sentence is the one I intended.

LP: Magda, a fictional portrait of Magda Goebbels, explores abusive mother and daughter relationships while The Photographer, set at the end of the Second World War, focuses on love and survival in a time of mass migration. How do you turn your historical research into a novel? Do you have a particular writing process that you follow?
MZ: The first thing I do when I sit down to write is to empty my mind. I try to forget everything I’ve ever known in order to make space for the characters to emerge from within me. For Magda I read a lot of books by and about the Nazis. However, when it was time to write the novel, I didn’t go back to my notes. There were various images in my head, and a feeling of desperation deep inside me. I wrote until the images began to form a story that expressed that sense of desperation. On the other hand, for The Photographer I relied on family anecdotes I had heard over the years. I also travelled with my father to East Prussia where he was born and from where he fled with his family in 1945. But again, the facts didn’t matter to me. After all, I’m writing fiction. What mattered, once again, was something I felt inside me but couldn’t put into words. I needed a story to give shape to that feeling. And this time it was something positive: gratefulness.
LP: Why do we need the past?
MZ: When we lose our memory, we lose our identity, and with it our sense of self. But we need a sense of self-worth in order to have a vision for the future.
LP: Who have been your biggest literary influences?
MZ: I love Hannah Arendt and Ursula Le Guin. Two incredible women, two brilliant minds, two wonderful writers.
LP: Turning to your work as a publisher. Peirene curate their books according to themes. This year’s series is entitled “East and West” and features The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch; The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, translated from the French by Sheila Fischman, published in May; and Dance by the Canal By Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja to be published in September. How do you choose your annual themes and what’s the process behind the books you choose to translate and publish?
MZ: The books come first. I only publish books that I consider good literature. I read them – either in the original language or a translation – before I decided to publish them. When I have chosen three books I take a step back and look at their commonalities. They always have something in common – either thematically or structurally.  

LP: The Peirene Now! series involves specifically commissioned works of new fiction, which engage with the political issues of the day. Last year, Peirene published Breach, a fictional account of the Calais refugee camps by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes. This year Peirene publishes The Cut by Anthony Cartwright, a fictional exploration of Brexit which will be published on 23 June, the first anniversary of the EU referendum. Why do you think it is important to explore and reflect the current political ferment surrounding migration in Europe, the refugee crisis and Brexit in fiction?
MZ: Current political issues – such as Brexit and the refugee crisis - are often loaded with conflicting, complicated feelings. The newspapers can only address the facts. Fiction allows us to look at the emotions behind the facts and events in the privacy and security of our own minds.
LP: What is your input as publisher/editor and how far do you edit the work you commission?
MK: As an editor I collaborate closely with my Peirene Now! authors. At the beginning of the project we decide the themes and story line together. Then throughout the writing process, I read each new draft and we have regular meetings where we discuss the progress.
LP: Peirene is actively involved in the local community – operating pop-up book stalls and choosing a specific charity to support every three years. Why does Peirene regularly invest in the community, with a regular salon at publishing HQ as well as supporting different London-based charities?
MZ: Every company – whatever their products, may it be crude oil or literary fiction – should have a social conscience and serve the community around them.
LP: What are your tips for running a successful salon?
MZ: To run it from your own home. It makes it special. 

LP: This year, you’ve expanded from Europe into Quebec with The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay – is this a new trend? Will this dilute your brand?
MK: No. We have other non-European writers on our list, such as Peirene No.13 The Dead Lake by Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov and Peirene No.15 Under The Tripoli Sky by Libyan Kamal Ben Hameda. 

LP: What’s next as a publisher and a writer? Please give us a sneak preview.
MK: As a writer: I’m half way through the first draft of my next novel. It’s about a man who falls in love with a female artist who has a dark secret. As a publisher: Peirene Now! No3: For this book we are collaborating with the Beirut-based NGO Basmeeh & Zeitooneh. In July Syrian born editor Suhir Helal and I will travel to the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon in order to give a creative working shop to Syrian refugees. We will publish their stories in English translation in 2018. Peirene’s series “Surviving The Past: Our 2018” series will include novels from Latvia, Lithuania and Iceland

Lucy Popescu

is a writer, editor and arts critic with a background in human rights. She worked with the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers, for over 20 years and was Director of its Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. She compiled and edited A Country of Refuge, an anthology of writing on asylum seekers by some of Britain and Ireland’s finest writers, published by Unbound in 2016. Lucy is a volunteer writing mentor for Write to Life, the creative writing group at Freedom from Torture. She edited refugee writer Jade Jackson’s collection Moving a Country and the Write to Life anthology, Body Maps. The Good Tourist, her book about human rights and ethical travel, was published by Arcadia Books. She co-edited the PEN anthology Another Sky (Profile Books) featuring the work of writers that PEN has helped over the last 40 years. She was Granada’s youngest published author in 1982 with Pony Holiday Book. Lucy reviews books, theatre and film and contributes to various publications including The Independent, Independent on Sunday, The Financial Times, TLS, The Literary Review, New Humanist and Huffington Post. She has a particular interest in literary fiction in translation and free expression. She sat on the Spanish New Books Panel in 2013 and the 2016 judging panel for The Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. She is the chair of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Lucy currently teaches creative writing at the Working Men’s College in Camden, curates literary evenings at Waterstones Piccadilly and is a Trustee of the JMK Award for Theatre Directors. She is currently crowdfunding for her next anthology, A Country to Call Home , focusing on the experiences of young refugees and featuring the work of some of our best loved children’s authors.