Great things in small packages
It began as a small-time publisher with shelves of ambition. A decade on, Ann Donald asks what is so special about Serpent‘s Tail.
The great. the good and the godam groovy. Not many publishing cotnpanies can boast a burgeoning and cosmopolitan stable of authors \\ ho qualify Itit) per cent on all three counts. but Serpent's Tail can.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this month. the London-based independent publishing house has every right to push the birthday boatlout. Step up to the platform and take a how The Right Honourable Neil Battlett. William S. Burroughs. Alison Fell. Walter Mosley. Noam (‘homskyg l.uisa Valenzuela and a lorra. Iorra more subversives and scribes. Whether it‘s post-apocalyptic esistentialism or lesbian thrillers with a new age twist. kitschy B- movie books or contemporary (lerman short stories. you can rest assured they've got ‘em all in Iimpire State-sized stacks.
In a decade. Serpent's Tail has increased its annual publishing total from twelve to 35 books. Iispanding from releasing straight-forward translations. it now covers a myriad of music. popular culture. anthologies. essays and British and .-\rnerican fiction so sharp even Jo l’esci would ctrt himself.
The man at the helm of this internationally eclectic reading house is maverick l’etc .-\yrton ~ formerly a
translator for French and Italian books and an editor with now defunct radical publishers The Pluto Press. Back in the 80s. he observed several gaps in the market and. taking a lead from our continental cousins. became the first British publisher to introduce paperback originals to the nation's shelves. ‘I felt there was a sophisticated urban readership out there who were not culturally inclined to buying hardbacks and who didn‘t want to wait a whole year fora paperback] he says. ‘I also felt that there was no one representing certain unheard voices which for sexual. political. racial -- had been marginalised or traditionally not been represented by
One such voice was that of author and playwright Neil Bartlett. w ho confesses that prior to .-\yrton asking him to write his book Run/y 'lir ('u/r/r Ill/u Shun/(l l/(' /’u//. he \\ as ‘living on the dole. spending half my time haying sex and the other half in the ()n the cusp of publishing his latest novel .llr (‘lrrt' um! .ilr Page fourteen years later. Bartlett asserts his support and admiration for Serpent's Tail. ‘ST are a lly in the ointment.‘ he says.
Ten-year talents (left to right): Neil Bartlett, William s. Burroughs and Alison Fell
‘They are an antidote to the last ten years of this country‘s appalling philistinism.‘ This is confirmed by Bartlett‘s stablcrnate across the Atlantic. William S. Burroughs: ‘I know them and I like them. They are a stronghold of free expression.‘
Another distinguishing aspect of Serpent's Tail cited by both Aytton and Bartlett is the personal contact and bubbling enthusiasm essential to a small publishing outfit bereft of an advertising budget. ‘We tend to like all the books we publish.‘ laughs Ayrton. ‘That‘s one of the big differences between us and a large publishing house.‘ Bartlett agrees: ‘l’ublishing a book with Serpent's tail isn‘t just a matter of doing a deal and proofing a typescript. From the first conversation to the moment you hold the first copy of the book in your hand it's an adventure. a provocation. very stroppy about books they create. why they create them and who they create them for. That's what it feels like; creating books not just selling them. To be part of the ST list is an honour and an
Happy Birthday to the reptile with attittrde. then.
a pleasure . . . They are very picky and
lleels of Imagination
For something that began as a clean- cut, no-frills-attached short story about a woman at her sewing machine, liohinton Mistry’s award- winning, 614-page tome-of-a-book appears to have got a bit out of hand. A Fine Balancetakes as its launch pad the 1975 state of emergency declared in India. Against that convulsive political backdrop, Mistry places four wonderfully vivid characters whose alternately humorous, colourful, melancholy and desperate lives cross and tangle
Rohinton Mistry: no big plan
among the humble environs of the widowed Dina Dalal’s Bombay flat.
It comes as no surprise that 44-year- old Mistry’s imagination led him AWOL. The Indian-born, Toronto-based author has known nothing but critics’ breathless superlatives and a Santa- sized sack of literary awards - the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Governor General Award. The author, who only started writing eight years ago, clearly posesses a healthily untethered imagination and storytelling powers.
Explaining this transgression from short to long story-telling, Mistry says he just couldn’t help it. ‘You can’t plot these things or try to follow a big plan because your own imagination comes along and starts working on its own momentum,’ he says. ‘Like all my stories, my starting point is an image.
With A Fine Balance, the image was a
woman at a sewing machine: an independent-minded woman, a widow who was self-reliant. And it just grew from there . . .’ He trails off, at a loss to analyse how the story then gathered steam and he found himself at the mercy of a panoramic cast of characters dancing about his brain.
From the cental figures of melancholic student Maneck to the rumbustious tailor duo Ishvar and 0m, Mistry explores several facets of class, caste race and religion. ‘I left India when l was 23, coincidentally at the time of the state of emergency,’ he says. ‘So all I rely on is my memory and a bit of imagination.’ Let’s hope his grey matter serves him well for a few more years. (Ann Donald)
A Fine Balance by Bohinfan Mistry is published by Faber And Faber at £15.99.