Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Alice Hobbs reflects on her work experience with the Emma Press

Over the past month, I have been coming to the Jewellery Quarter every Wednesday and Friday for work experience with the Emma Press. It has been an infinitely valuable experience for which I am so grateful.

I am currently a student studying English Literature and History at The University of St Andrews, and for as long as I can remember I have fantasised about working in the elusive publishing industry after I graduate. Everyone I've told this aspiration to has responded along the lines of “Oh, good luck with that!” which filled me with even more doubt about whether I could ever have a career in this difficult industry.

I have always been interested in independent bookshops and publishers, spending hours looking up different examples and imagining myself in the shoes of people who, in my eyes, were very lucky to work there. When I came across the Emma Press on a similar such search I was immediately taken. I loved the beauty of the books and the boundless creativity of each title; I really thought that this was something special and the kind of place I could only dream of working at. I decided to take a chance and emailed them to ask if there was any opportunity for work experience, and when Emma got back to me not only saying I could come in but also suggesting a range of formats to suit me I was over the moon.

I have enjoyed every day at the Emma Press. I've been given such a huge range of tasks to have a go at that I feel like I’ve really been given a feel for the place. On my very first day I wrote the press release for the new poetry anthology Some Cannot be Caught: The Emma Press Book of Beasts and was over-excited about both being given such a responsibility and also writing about a book which I thought was so incredibly interesting. It felt as if my hobbies had merged with a work environment, and I couldn’t imagine a better job.

While at the Emma Press I was given the opportunity to get to grips with the publicity side of publishing, emailing out press releases and also finding and emailing bookshops which I thought would be interested in the titles. I was also able to engage with some of the upcoming children’s titles through writing the blurbs and selling points for forthcoming Latvian translated works, and even browsing for illustrators which I thought would suit certain works. I feel like I have been given such a rare opportunity to experience all the different aspects of publishing, and also the different genres published. Before my time at the Emma Press I hadn’t thought that publishing children’s titles would be for me, and now believe that to be an area I would love to pursue.

The PUPLAKS workshop!
Some of the highlights of my time at the Emma Press have been, firstly, the PUPLAKS workshop we did with award-winning Latvian writer-illustrator Rūta Briede, who was visiting the UK as part of the launch of her picture book Queen of Seagulls. It was amazing to spend time with such a fascinating and talented author and illustrator, but also to experience how creative and diverse the Emma Press is day to day.

A further highlight for me was discussing the short-list of pamphlet submissions with Emma. I felt so incredibly lucky to read the talented work that had been submitted, but also to be able to voice my opinions in a space where it felt they were valued despite my inexperience.

A final highlight of mine was researching potential Norwegian children’s books for the Emma Press to consider publishing, and once again I was astounded with the responsibility I had been given. I found researching the literary scene of another country riveting and also enjoyed looking for works that would really suit the Emma Press.

I will genuinely miss coming into the Emma Press. I have loved my time experiencing a wealth of new things and truly feel my time here has affirmed my aspirations for the future, and even given me a little more confidence in this journey. I think it’s safe to say the reality of the Emma Press was even more exciting than my fantasy of working here.

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We loved having you here, Alice! – Emma

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

"If you were an animal, what would you be?" Mini-interviews with poets from The Emma Press Book of Beasts

This summer we've had the pleasure of being joined by Alice Hobbs and Anna Murai for work experience at Emma Press HQ in the Jewellery Quarter. They've been helping out in all areas of the business, and one of their tasks was to interview poets from our new anthologies. 

First up, it's Alice Hobbs interviewing some poets from our animals anthology. Take it away, Alice!

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“Humans are animals. I have long found this a clarifying thought” says editor Anja Konig in the opening line of the new Emma Press Poetry anthology Some Cannot Be Caught: The Emma Press Book of Beasts.

Seeing the idea of humans as animals as “clarifying” is an exciting way to embrace our human nature for what it is, instead of shying away from our more animal qualities. Every poet in the anthology brought a different take on bestiary into the mix, exploring their relationship with animals in opposing and unique ways.

In order to dig deeper into the complex relationship between the authors of animal poems and the creatures themselves, I interviewed four of the contributors to find what they truly believe their relationship with animals to be – outside of dissecting them in their poetry!

Here's my first question:

“If you were an animal, what would you be?” 

Jon Stone, author of the poem 'Documentary of the Pangolin', replied instantly with “a fox”, explaining that he too is “scrawny, crepuscular, an occasional nuisance, and an inveterate rummager.” He added, “I like travelling between the gaps in the figurative hedges, and I often find myself sniffing around on other people's lawns. Humans make me uneasy, but I hang around in close proximity to them anyway.”

Humans can certainly make us all uneasy, just like foxes, but it is in the animal world that a lot of us find affection and refuge: a refuge created, explored and even challenged in our new anthology.

Jacqueline Saphra, author of 'Family Viewing', was next to reply: “definitely a bee.” She then drew out her similarities with this valuable critter: “hardworking, fundamentally peace-loving, productive, creating nourishment and helping the natural world.”

My next question went deeper:

“Do you think humans have anything to learn from your animal/animals in general?” 

Jacqueline commented that the productive and nurturing qualities of bees were important qualities for humans to take on, but added that the most important lesson to learn was that animals in general “take only as much as they need. They do not kill or maim others for no reason. They co-exist with others who are different to themselves.”

This is a very interesting comment on our relationship with animals. We as human beings often consider the violent and darker parts of humans and society in general as savage and animal – something to associate with losing our better nature to the animal – when perhaps what we’re losing is our animal natures. Humans take infinitely more than they need daily; without us in the world, would co-existence between all creatures be more successful?

Victoria Briggs, author of 'The Flood Committee', had a very similar response to this question: she observed that animals “would never trash their habitat. Humans, on the other hand, are vain, greedy, and glorify destruction. We are a ruinous species and the others that exist on this planet would be better off without us.”

It is clear that what we can learn from our similarities to animals in Some Cannot Be Caught is not just the ways that animals share human social behaviour, but also how we could listen to and learn more from animals in order to exist on our planet. Animal nature has proven respectful of our world in a way that human nature has not.

Our final poet Gabrielle Turner, writer of 'i, scarab', weighed up her options when answering my first question: “Would I choose an animal that looks like me, acts like me, or lives where I do?” She eventually settled on “a roe deer,” explaining that it's “forest-dwelling, plant-eating, sometimes skittish, and sometimes stubborn.”

As for what we can learn from animals, Gaby acknowledged what the anthology really uncovers about the quality of animals: “There's a sense of magic when we see animals up close. When you peek into a nest to see a bird feeding its young, when a deer runs out into the road with its fawn, or when a sparrow hawk swoops for its prey right in front of you.”

This wonder that the animal world gifts us is at the heart of our new anthology, with the poets writing the lives of animals into our view of the world. As Gaby observed: “It's not our world, it's theirs as well.”

With the help of our four wonderful poets, I think we have unearthed some truths about our similarities with animals, moving towards re-structuring our anthropocentric view of the world. Humans clearly have much to learn from our animal friends. But most importantly: should we look to embrace our animal nature as something to treasure, something that can be better than our human?

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Some Cannot Be Caught: The Emma Press Book of Beasts is out now and available to buy in the Emma Press webshop (£10).

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

An interview with The Secret Box author Daina Tabūna

With the call for night-time stories well underway for our first short fiction anthology, Emma Press team member Philippa Barker interviews Daina Tabūna, author of short story collection The Secret Box.

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The Secret Box is a collection of three coming-of-age short stories: ‘Deals With God’, ‘The Secret Box’, and ‘The Spleen, My Favourite Organ’. They follow three female protagonists at various stages of adolescence as they attempt to make sense of the world and find their place in it. ‘Without warning, the time had arrived where it wasn’t our dolls that had to be beautiful and sexy, but us ourselves.’ What appealed to you about the coming-of-age genre? And what made you want to tell these stories?

I struggled a lot with self-acceptance when I was growing up. There were plenty of things I was ashamed of, plenty of times I felt like a misfit. The stories in The Secret Box were inspired by such experiences – like embarrassing fantasies about being the chosen one for some divine task ('Deals with God'), excessive attachment to games your peers have already outgrown ('The Secret Box'), or fear of intimacy with the opposite sex (‘The Spleen, My Favourite Organ’). When I got older, I realized such experiences were actually quite common, though I rarely saw similar stories in mainstream culture – the characters of young women usually didn't resemble me or any other real girls I knew. I can admit it felt empowering to share things I used to hide and pray that no-one would ever find out. But mainly I wrote those stories with the hope that they might help someone else feel less lonely and isolated because of their own 'secret boxes'; that they would perhaps make other people feel represented the way I didn't.

All three stories are written with an intimate voice and close point-of-view, letting the reader right into each protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. ‘It was a challenge, and I had always shied away from challenges. But this time I wasn’t afraid. This was my game, and he was playing it.’
Can you talk a little about why you chose such an intimate voice in which to tell the stories? And how you went about writing it?
I was very young when I started publishing my writing – I had just turned 15 at the time of my first publication at a literary magazine. As a teenager I didn't really write about my personal experiences and feelings, though it was quite an intense time – it all seemed too intimate, too silly, too girly, too trivial – inappropriate for the 'big', 'real', 'serious' literature that I was striving to create. The impression I had was that the 'real' art was probably centered around a disillusioned middle-aged (or sort of ageless) male and told in a sort of emotionally detached, purely intellectual manner, and for a while I did my best to adapt to this frame. 

So yes, it did take me some time to grow out of these assumptions and to find the voice I used in the stories in “The Secret Box”, but once I did, I didn't even seem like a choice. It was just the only way how to write them.

How much did you draw on personal experiences to create these characters and their stories?

I used my own experiences as a starting point, but then shaped the stories in ways that seemed to work best, sometimes getting pretty far from the actual events. Often writing the 'real story' doesn't capture the emotions connected to it – I guess because it's impossible to include the entire context. So sometimes it's better to just create a whole new one. 

I only knew one thing – something had ended. The people who had been friends and objects of desire since I was a teenager, the ones I had grown up with – they didn’t exist anymore. We didn’t know each other. There was no point in trying to bring back what once had been.’ You’re a Latvian writer writing Latvian characters, yet your stories contain shared teenage/human experience which British readers can relate to and find themselves in. Are you surprised by how the stories resonate so widely?

I'm really glad and thankful about British readers enjoying my work. I suppose most writers want their stories to speak on a universal level that's accessible to everyone. I didn't include many details that would be specifically 'Latvian' or tied to a narrow time period, but in a way it also can be seen as a generational thing – I'm lucky to have spent most of my life in a free, democratic country, without any huge catastrophes defining my lifeline, and it applies to my characters as well. I also made a decision to keep their environment fairly ordinary, typical – it gave me a chance to focus on subtleties of the horror and beauty of everyday life. But I believe all of this doesn't determine whether art resonates with people or not. If a story has authentic, relatable characters, it doesn't matter that much whether their setting is strange or familiar to the reader.

Despite the insecurities and growing pains your protagonists face, each story is balanced with a dry and often self-deprecating humour. For example, in the final story, the young woman’s attempts at conversation with her awkward date: ‘“Yes, internal organ. Which internal organ is your favourite?” How important was this comedic element to the stories?

I believe that the pains of my characters are definitely worth examining – just as every living being's experience. At the same time, I did acknowledge that I wasn't exactly writing about such tragedies as, for example, the Holocaust or Soviet forced-labour camps. Even in the harshest conditions people have managed to find something to laugh about, so it seemed appropriate that so do my characters who are just trying to navigate adolescence. Sometimes my first drafts are pretty humourless, but I usually find something funny about the situations afterwards – if nothing else, then the exaggerated seriousness of them.

The title story of the collection tracks the evolving relationship of a brother and sister, their game of paper dolls forging a secret bond between them as they seek to distract themselves from their parents’ divorce. Can you talk a little about their relationship, and how this story came about?

In this story I wanted to examine the ways we are shaped by the games we play – and are encouraged to play – as children; particularly about the differences between 'girl games' and 'boy games'. Girls who enjoy 'boy games' are often proud of that, but you don't see it happening the other way around – which teaches us at a very early age that being a girl is still seen as inferior to being a boy. The boy in the story is not even a particularly 'girly' boy – he just happens to be lonely, and the intricate narratives of the paper doll universe gives him the opportunity to escape his own. But, as much as he loves this elaborate storytelling, he also resents it for not being 'manly' enough.

Furthermore, I wanted to reflect on the abandonment and sense of betrayal that the younger child might feel when the older sibling steps into the wider world, leaving their common playground. Of course, it's the natural way of things, but it can also be a real heartbreak – maybe the first one of such a scale.

I myself have two siblings – an older sister and a younger brother. In a way the boy in the story combines both of them, and also a lot of pure imagination, of course.

What were your influences, literary and otherwise, when writing the stories in The Secret Box

I assume I have been influenced by a great deal of authors, but often those influences are quite impossible to untangle and locate in my writing, even for myself. But I should probably mention that the nuanced and daring way Margaret Atwood writes about girls and young women, especially in Cat's Eye, certainly has made an impact on The Secret Box.

Another important source of inspiration besides literature was pop culture – the TV shows and music I grew up with, both the great and the terrible.

Do you have a writing routine?

Sort of, but I wish I had a better one. I absolutely love coming up with story ideas but writing them down and pulling together can be exasperating. I have tried different sorts of rituals to make it a tiny bit easier, but in the end it all still comes down to just sitting down at a computer. People tend to see it as a way more romantic process than it actually is, at least for me.

I actually wrote a longer piece on this topic, which you can read here

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm working on a novel-in-stories about women who attempt magic. It's going to be called Witches.


Find out more about the The Secret Box by Daina Tabūna, along with the Emma Press’s other short story collections.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Night-time stories: an interview with editor Yen-Yen-Lu

There are just 3 weeks left in our call for night-time stories! It's definitely time to find out more about editor Yen-Yen Lu's thoughts on stories and the night-time. Fellow EP team member Philippa Barker asked her a few questions...


Why night-time stories? What drew you to the genre? 

From my own experience, in real life and in writing, night-time brings out a combination of strange, serious, dark, and warm stories. I think it’s a very versatile theme, open to lots of different interpretations and hopefully will encourage authors to explore what interests them.

I’ve written, read, and heard night-time stories about two nervous people on a first date, a ghost driving people around New York, a friendship ending after a night out, and a woman being followed home by a stranger. These are stories that are very different in genre and content and I like the idea that they could all be happening at the same time (though I do wish women being followed home by strange men didn’t happen at all).

I would really like to put together a mix of different voices and genres in this anthology and I’m hoping that night-time will inspire a variety of stories.

What do you like about the short story genre? 

Some of the best short stories are really great at world building. There’s not as much room in a short story, compared to something like a novel, to establish the setting, the characters, their relationships and the story and I think that this sometimes forces the author to only focus on the most important details to create a compelling story. I really appreciate when it’s done well.

The single-author fiction collections that we’ve published so far are really good at that and they are definitely the types of story I would like to read and want to publish. Postcard Stories by Jan Carson is a collection of very short, snapshot moments set in modern day Belfast, catching strangers in everyday moments. First fox by Leanne Radojkovich is also a collection of flash fiction but a lot of the stories create a more surreal, fairytale world. The Secret Box by Daina Tabūna is three coming-of-age stories focused on young women going through strange situations and realisations and finding themselves changed by the end of it.

What makes a good night-time story? What would you like to read? 

A good night-time story would be something that is very grounded in whatever world it’s set in, whether that’s the UK today or 1960s Tokyo or an ancient world of vampires, something that can stand alone but leaves me wondering about what might happen after the events of the story. I suppose this goes for short fiction in any genre though.

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson isn’t a night-time story and it has been a few years since I last read it but sometimes I still think about it: what made the village decide to start and continue the lottery? How do families of the victims cope after they’re chosen for the lottery?

I would like to read submissions that are honest and authentic with interesting details and I hope to find some warmth in most stories. In general, I’m interested in work that is bold and breaks stereotypes and cliches. I’m less interested in stories that try too hard to be clever – I find that simple ideas work best.


The Emma Press is open for night-time stories until 3rd August 2018. The anthology will be edited by Yen-Yen Lu (right).

You can read the full guidelines here and you can read the press release here.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Back to the future: an update from editor Tom Sastry

A quick update from Tom Sastry, editor for our anthology of future poems!

We recently submitted our longlist for the Future anthology. We are reading blind so we don’t know who is on it but poets were contacted by Emma Press last week. The quality was high and the poems wonderfully varied. Decisions were not easy.

We have undoubtedly overlooked poems which would have improved the book. Many of the poems we have not chosen will find publication elsewhere. We will read some of those and wonder why we didn’t see their virtues more clearly. We look forward to being proved wrong many times.

In the original invitation, we tried to suggest different ways people might approach the theme. No single approach has dominated. The longlist contains poets who have addressed the future obliquely by showing the present as an arbitrary vantage point; poems about the near future set in a world that is recognisably our own; poems set in futures where life is very different to life today and (perhaps unsurprisingly given our preoccupations) poems about the end of the world or something very like it.

The thing the longlisted poems have in common is this: they inhabit their own settings. They show a willingness to leave the concerns of our time behind; to create rather than merely observe or comment. It is hard to do this – it is much easier to consider the future as an extension of our ideas about the present: an unfolding of events which will vindicate our hopes, fears and beliefs.

The poets we have longlisted have performed the essential act of imagination. The concerns of the present are there, of course, but there is something else: a distinctive take on what might be and a willingness to follow it into unexpected places.

At the same time they have produced real poems. It is one thing to create a convincing future world in thousands of words of prose; it is much harder to set a poem there without resorting to long passages of scene-setting or description. It requires a poet’s understanding of what the reader needs and what they can be left to imagine for themselves.

If you are on the longlist, it means we love your work and would like, if possible, to include it in the book. Unfortunately, we don’t have space for you all. The decisions only get harder from here.

P.S. November sees the publication of this. The poems in this book are the reason I was so excited to be invited to work with Suzannah on this project. They are extraordinary.