Katy speaks to The Publishing Profile about her exciting new imprint, V&Q Books.
I’m Katy Derbyshire, publisher of the V&Q Books imprint. I’m also a literary translator and I co-host a (usually) bi-monthly live event in Berlin, the Dead Ladies Show, which has its own podcast. V&Q Books publishes what we call “remarkable writing from Germany” for sale in the UK and Ireland, starting 15 September. We’re an offshoot of the German indie Voland & Quist.
How did you get into publishing?
I moved to Berlin after graduating in German studies in 1996 and started translating after I had my son in 2001. Then I decided I wanted to translate literature, which I managed in the end by working towards it like a would-be writer, getting lots of practice and making lots of contacts and publishing short texts in magazines, and so on. After the Brexit referendum, I did a great deal of soul-searching and wanted to do something that gave me more control. The idea to try and set up an imprint with a German press crystallized two years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where I happened to tell Voland & Quist about it. They said: “Don’t mention this to anyone else” and it took off from there…
What does a typical day in your current role look like?
I’m still learning a lot every day! I have an office at Voland & Quist, where I’m working a couple of days a week at the moment, so if I’m there my day will involve talking to the rest of the team about ideas, communicating with graphic designers, translators, copy editors, our freelance publicist in London… all interspersed with translation, still, which has always been a source of joy for me. Also, we all take turns to make vegan lunch at the office and we sit down to eat together, sometimes with guests.
How has working in translation offered you a different perspective on reading compared to other people working in the publishing industry? Has it changed your reading taste or the genre of books you usually read?
I suppose it has offered me intimate access to a lot of writing in German, which can be quite different to Anglophone literature. Also, we translators read incredibly closely, often catching things that slip past editors, and we’re obsessed with word choice and syntax. So I’d say translation has made me a careful reader with a love for strong voices, unusual forms of writing. I’m particularly fond of prose written by poets, who seem to weigh up every word and use them in unexpected ways.
Is there a book that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of? Why is that?
The first translation I did that I genuinely loved was The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei, published by Seagull Books of Kolkata. It’s a great novel set in Berlin around 1989, in places I’m very familiar with, and the language is so precise and beautiful, even when she’s writing about cacti on a windowsill. I’m proud that I took it to Seagull and they said yes! I can’t single out a V&Q book though…
Where do you buy or access your books?
I get sent a lot of advance pdfs by German publishers, when they need extracts translated to sell translation rights around the world. That’s often how I discover books in German. Usually, I’d also buy books at events – Berlin is great for readings. I try to source biographies for the Dead Ladies Show – where we talk about inspiring women of the past – second hand from non-Am*zon online retailers. And I’m a loyal customer at my not-quite-nearest bookshop, ocelot.
What books have you been reading in lockdown? Do these books typify your usual reading taste, or have you found yourself reading other genres and authors?
I’ve been reading slightly more eclectically, I think. Right at the beginning, I read two books in a series, Smoke and Soot by Dan Vyleta, whose work I’ve admired for a long time. They’re both very absorbing and sort of steam-punkish, so they managed to grab my attention and hold it through the initial fear. Also, a few books I got at ocelot, Bernadine Evaristo’s Blonde Roots, Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day, translated by Deborah Smith, and Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes. And I got a bit of an obsession with a dead singer, LaVern Baker, and ended up reading widely around her life, including the autobiography of her record company boss’s former secretary, Dorothy Carvello, called Anything for a Hit. That’s the ones in English… Normally, I’d have more of a literary fiction focus, but it’s been great to branch out.
What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?
I think Fitzcarraldo Editions sent me This Little Art by Kate Briggs, if that counts as a gift. A meandering book-length essay on translating, and my copy has lots of corners bent down. So many great thoughts!
What is your most beautiful book?
Weirdly enough, it’s the collected catalogues from Seagull Books. They make a thick book every year, showing off the gorgeous digital collages of their senior editor Sunandini Banerjee, who designs their covers. And they also ask their writers and translators for contributions: essays, letters, conversations and extracts. Then they go for the craziest bindings: gold, silver, suede with a string around it, silk… They take up half a shelf in my bedroom.
What is the oldest book on your shelf?
Probably Baedeker’s Handbook for London, from 1923. My ex-father-in-law had a used book habit. It has sections on Baths, Conveyances, Reading Rooms, Divine Service, and Etiquette – before it even gets to the sights. And fragile-looking maps that I’ve never folded out.
What surprises you about your bookshelves? Is there a book that you own that you were surprised to love as much as you did?
I once splurged on a book by the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl, printed on hand-made paper in 1966. I don’t read a lot of poetry but his is short and funny, sometimes made up just of syllables stacked down the page in shapes. I normally don’t care about paper or format or anything like that, so this is my only fetish-object book. It feels different reading Jandl’s very strange work on such thick paper, hand-cut and jagged at the edges. The pages make a different sound when you turn them; it makes the poems into physical objects.
What are the best books you've read in 2020 so far?
1000 Serpentinen Angst by Olivia Wenzel, a German novel that will be published in English at some point by Dialogue Books – a really powerful experimental novel about being a Black woman in East and West Germany, and so much more. And Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, such a wild ride around a violent crime in a small Mexican community with all its causes and repercussions, and so beautifully translated.
What are your most anticipated reads for the rest of the year?
Cemile Sahin: Alle Hunde sterben. Written in German, telling stories about residents of a tower block in western Turkey. I’ve read (and translated) the first chapter – about a Kurdish woman horrifically maltreated by the Turkish military. It’s not out until September and I’m finding it very hard to wait that long for the rest of it. Urgent writing.
What book should everybody read?
Any book they like!