In 2013, Will Evans started the publishing house Deep Vellum, a wordplay on the Dallas neighborhood where it’s headquartered: Deep Ellum. The non-profit organization only publishes translated works. In its first year, it published award-winning international authors, including Anne Garréta, Sergio Pitol, Carmen Boullosa, Jón Gnarr, and Mikhail Shishkin. Its catalog now includes more than thirty books, a few of which have been reviewed here at The Rumpus. Deep Vellum is also in the process of opening up a bookstore.
I met Will at the Dallas Book Festival, where he was clearly in his element as a force of literary energy. He was escorting an author, Lina Meruane, speaking on a panel, acting as an impressively elegant book salesman, and engaging in conversation continuously with a community that had its hooks in him, and vice versa. Our interview left me feeling woefully inadequate when it came to exposure to international literature, and it was inspiring to be in the presence of such generous passion for an entire world of literature that receives understated attention here in America.
The Rumpus: How do you begin to make sense of choosing what to translate next? Is there a goal to hit as many languages or regions as possible?
Will Evans: It’s amorphous. At any given time I’m getting pitched a thousand projects and they’re all equally amazing. I still have work to finish. I have to round out the world. I haven’t published from everywhere yet. I need a Japanese book, a Turkish book, an Italian book, a German book. For me, one of the reasons I choose books is based on diversity and diversity comes in all those forms: language, region, country, gender, etc. After signing my first couple of books, I realized that I needed authors from Asia and Africa and so I started looking and we now we have three authors from Africa which is nice, but it’s a gigantic continent. The thing that unites those three books is the French language. There’s so many amazing translators working in French who help bring us really neat projects.
Rumpus: Can you just do a step-by-step of what your process is? Does it change for every single book or is there one set process you try to go through?
Evans: Because I’m a one-man publishing show I don’t have to vouch for anything with anybody, so I do what I want. I’m the one going out there and finding books, but then also the one editing and marketing the books. If I’m into it and I want to read it, then I’m going to go for it. Pretty much every book we sign involves books hitting on multiple criteria all at once. Maybe a translator I know and respect is really into a project, the book sounds amazing, it’s been pitched to us by the right agent, foreign publisher recommended it, or it’s been published abroad. A number of factors, and then whether I can imagine a readership for it, if it fits into what we’re doing, is it important in some way. Sticking power and cultural relevance is important to me. Is it in dialogue with other stuff that I’ve been into or respect or want to be in dialogue with?
I can be really into a book but it’s just not the right time for Deep Vellum to sign it because it’s similar in some way to something else going on or it’s not the right conversation to be having at that moment. Things change. There’s certainly no set way. But, for example, Seeing Red [a book he’d just finished discussing on a panel with the author, Lina Meruane], I’d heard Lina’s name pop up a few times. I’d read Bolaño’s work in Between Parentheses where he’s doing not literary criticism but talking about literature broadly across the world and in Latin America, and her name came up in there. Her name was coming up in reviews from other writers I really like: Enrique Vila-Matas talked about her, Álvaro Enrigue talked about her. Then two of my friends, one who works at McNally Jackson bookstore in New York and one who is an Italian publisher I share a lot of sensibilities with both told me I needed to publish Lina Meruane, so there was the name again. Then I found out she didn’t have any books in English, which was crazy. So I wrote to her agent to see some stuff, and the agent told me Megan McDowell had been working with her on translation, and I knew Megan, she’s great. I read a sample and just really, really loved it.
Again, it was hitting all these criteria. I don’t have the liberty or the language skills to read the books in full, and that’s kind of exciting, because then when I get a manuscript, I’m hungry, I’m voraciously waiting for these books, so if I can create some of that sense in myself maybe I can create it in readers too.
Rumpus: There’s a complicated dance of getting a writer who is on board even if the writer doesn’t own the rights. You want a writer who is excited with the project because they’re going to help with marketing and that kind of thing. How has your experience been kind of managing the original publisher, getting those rights, working with the writer, working with the translator, coordinating all these separate entities? You’re almost like a construction supervisor.
Evans: A publisher of translation is definitely in the middle of everything. Getting the rights, that’s an interesting thing. We could do a whole interview about rights in and of itself. Very early on, I got my foot in the door via Chad Post of Open Letter Books, who provided me a mentorship. I went and did a heavy, intensive internship for the summer with him in Rochester, New York, where he was teaching me how to start my own press. That was the goal. So it was not a traditional internship. He was opening the books and showing me the big picture stuff.
I told him I kept hearing about the Frankfurt Book Fair and asked if I should go, as I was very new and the whole thing was just an idea. He told me he couldn’t go that year and had me go in his stead, attending his meetings and seeing everyone I would have to know. Everyone goes to Frankfurt to do the business of books. It’s gigantic. If you’ve been a convention center, like the Austin convention center, the Frankfurt convention center is like thirteen Austin convention centers. It’s a mile long. It’s insane. It’s at least thirteen buildings, maybe more. You go to these halls and the first three are just German books and a place where the German public comes to hear about new books and meet authors and buy books. And then there’s most of the rest of the halls, and it’s shrunk over the years, but it’s where, for example, France has a hall and all the French publishers are there, and an international agents hall where there’s just thousands of literary agents from all over the world. Countries have stands, language groups have stands, funders have stands. In the American halls, a lot of digital technologies have stands, as well as kids’ books publishers. I got to go there for the first time and meet everybody who does anything, and I will say from day one, people have been receptive to me internationally much more so than in America. I go to New York and people say really negative things about Dallas, about Texas, about starting a translation publisher, about starting my own thing, but on all these different levels. I’m into this for totally different reasons than most people in publishing in America, but internationally, they’re like, yeah, there should be publishers in Dallas, there should be more publishers in Texas, there should be more people doing translation. It’s natural. I’m much more of a European sensibility in publishing, an old school publishing model that’s about connecting authors and readers. Translators are that missing link.
But with getting the rights, I will say, those people I met that first year and now deal with regularly, if they had not met with me and taken me seriously from day one, I wouldn’t be able to sign people. I wouldn’t be able to sign these ambitious authors that I do, because authors don’t ever maintain their own rights. At all. I don’t deal with authors, period.
Rumpus: Don’t you have to have conversations with the author?
Evans: Nope. They rarely enter the conversation.
Rumpus: But for example, Lina Meruane, the fact that she is here at the Dallas Book Festival, talking to people, and has a large investment in selling her book, lives in New York, all that has to be part of the equation somehow.
Evans: Lina’s actually an exception for us. We have three authors who live in the states, and they all live in New York, and they’re all Latin American women authors. Lina, Carmen Boullosa, and Claudia Salazar Jimenez who is from Peru. They have a different investment in their work than any of our other authors. Lina’s also especially close to Valeria Luiselli and Álvaro Enrigue, these authors who are making a name for themselves now in a bigger way in America as not just authors in translation, so this book being in translation now means a lot to Lina; she now has access to different conversations. However, when I signed Lina’s book, I didn’t talk to her until after I signed it. I will say that one of the attractive things about signing Lina was that she lives in New York, because it gave me a chance to work with someone who is based there. I’ve had a very good experience working with Carmen Boullosa who’s also based in New York, because it makes travel easier, it makes her available for festivals and things more. We just had Carmen in Texas for eight days of festivals. She was in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, and we do all these events with her that we can’t really do if they live in Morocco. It’s hard to get them to Austin for a weekend. With Lina, we’re able to do these and just fly her out. She just flew in last night and she’s flying out tomorrow morning. You can’t do that if she’s living in Chile. It changes the way she’s able to interact with readers. It’s one of the reasons I signed her, but it’s not the reason I sign most of my authors. We have a lot of authors who are older and not able to travel extensively.
Rumpus: Who wouldn’t be able to do this festival.
Evans: Yeah. And when you’re publishing translations, this kind of stuff is really helpful and valuable for some authors but not for everyone. A lot of major publishers don’t do events for their authors anymore, which is really bad, so it’s up to authors to do their own marketing, and for our authors it’s not really. Independent publishers still do a lot of this traditional grassroots stuff because it’s about building community and we’re trying to create the alternative to the corporate garbage that’s out there. We’re working in partnership with the Wild Detectives [a local, independent bookstore in Dallas], as well as in partnership with translators and other really cool organizations that allow us to build new readerships.
Rumpus: And having a public face is especially important for you because every single article about Deep Vellum is about, in part, the fact that it’s a Dallas publisher. You’re not just a publisher, you’re the Dallas publisher, and so being able to attend events like this adds to that.
Evans: If they’d done this festival and not invited me then my mission has failed. I set up Deep Vellum to be Dallas-specific because no one took Dallas seriously in Dallas, let alone anywhere else. No one takes it seriously yet anywhere else, but in Dallas at least, the conversation’s changed, and I’m not taking all the credit, but I’m trying to be a part of it, trying to change the way we see ourselves and the city in historical development and maturity. What does it take for us to be a literary city? Why don’t we have a big independent bookstore? Why don’t we have more publishing houses? Why don’t we have more poets and all that kind of stuff? [Evans points and waves to a woman walking by as we’re talking] And it’s actually nice because that’s a really amazing poet walking by right now and we all know each other now, and we have places to go and be seen together, and it leads to things like the Dallas Book Festival. We’ve been talking about ramping this up for three years now and it’s finally happening. The Dallas Morning News is starting to take this seriously. They did a festival of ideas two years ago which led to a conversation about a book festival, which the city needs, so they got behind this festival that already existed so that we could grow it to get Deep Vellum involved and Wordspace and the World Affairs Council which is not a literary organization but has literary components to it. You just get everyone involved, and that’s what makes a literary city.
They’re saying that 4,000 people came here this weekend. If we have 4,000 people coming in and out during the day, which could be people coming for Lina’s thing, it could be people coming in just to use the library, it could be me coming in and out to get pizza ten times, whatever it is, that’s amazing. It’s a wonderful moment. Part of my identity for Deep Vellum has been Dallas on purpose, to help make Dallas a better place to live, to make it more of the place I want to live.
The last literary publisher here shut down in 2011, SMU Press. This is a gigantic city. And you look around, the city needs a lot of different things to feel like a city, and Dallas still lacks a lot of things that makes it feel like a cohesive city. Austin has more of those, even though Austin’s way smaller. That doesn’t make any sense. It feels more city-like because you can live and walk and play in a very contained nucleus. It’s hard to get around, but that’s beside the point; everywhere is hard to get around. But Dallas lacks a lot of the mature city things that we’re just now starting to add in and I’m pleased to be a part of it and really honored that anyone is paying attention. You can’t go it alone. The Morning News getting on board with this stuff? Huge. They’ve been reviewing our books. They helped plan this festival. For the city newspaper to do that… that’s amazing. That was my goal, to be taken seriously by the newspaper and all the media as well as readers as well as all the different layers. It’s so cool to feel like there’s cohesion.
Rumpus: Since you worked with Open Letter in your internship, can you give us a sense of how your process differs from theirs, and how both of your processes differ from a larger publishing house’s?
Evans: I honestly don’t know. That’s a great question. I’m very new to this, and I’m most definitely an outsider. I don’t really know how other people do their editing process. I’ve never worked in a publishing house with an editing team that they have to run stuff by. I’m curious, editorially it has somehow happened that Deep Vellum books are quite different from Open Letter books and quite different from Archipelago books and I don’t really know how or why that happens. We all just love stories and want to bring them to different audiences, but at the end of the day, the books that we need to publish that fit our brand are all kind of different, and that’s amazing to me. I love independent publishers because you get that more personal aesthetic choice. At Penguin, they’re having to run things up a pole, trying to guarantee certain sales and all that fun stuff.
Rumpus: You mentioned what it meant for Lina for her book to be translated into English. Can you talk some about your experiences with other authors? A lot of your authors, your book is their first book published in English. Have you had any major conflicts over translation? Anybody who has wanted to take over their own translation? Because I’m guessing a majority of your authors speak pretty fluent English.
Evans: Every author’s process is completely different which is nice. Several authors, it’s their first book in English. Some of them it’s their first in a while. We have Sergio Pitol, right? Legendary Mexican author. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the capacity to speak anymore, he has a neurological condition keeping him from communicating. But I know via his assistants in Mexico that he’s so thrilled to be in English. I got the sweetest email. It made me feel like doing Deep Vellum is worthwhile. With Lina’s process, we have a little more of a direct relationship. She’s involved at a different level. I hired an editor to work on it because I wanted someone to get involved in the translation deeply, working with Megan and Lina to make sure it came out well. I went through the editing process with Carmen Boullosa with her book Texas: The Great Theft. Carmen knows English very well, and she liked to be very hands on with the translation process with Samantha Schnee, and that was cool too. It presents challenges to the translator, but they’re artistic, aesthetic challenges that can be fun and rewarding and getting towards something larger, a more complete translation. We’ve never had anybody jettison a translation or take it over or anything. I think that’s a Kundera problem, and I think that generation is dying off.
Rumpus: Can you give us a sense of how much responsibility you feel toward the writer’s input on the translation?
Evans: When I started Deep Vellum, I had just translated a book, and I wanted to empower translators. If a translator comes to me with nitpicky questions, like what color to call a shade of brick, I tell them I couldn’t care less and let them choose. So with the translation process, translators and authors work closely together if they can, but if not I like working with translators too.
George Henson, the translator of The Art of Flight, by Segio Pitol, couldn’t really go to the author with questions, so he worked closely with other Mexican writers he knew who were very close to Pitol’s work and had grown up reading him. So he would ask them questions, like “Do you know what he meant by this?” and they’d say, “Oh, he’s actually making a wordplay. He’s giving the title of a German novel he’d translated into Mexican Spanish thirty years ago.”
Rumpus: Was that something the translator did on their own initiative or was that something Pitol’s assistant suggested?
Evans: No, the translator did it on his own. He worked with a bunch of really amazing authors that are all listed in his acknowledgments. He’d come to me and say, “Look I just want to let you know that this is weird, and if you’re reading it and it sounds weird, it’s on purpose, it’s like that in Spanish.”
Rumpus: On the panel with Lina, you and she talked about differences in American humor sensibilities and American reaction to her novel being semi-autobiographical. When I interviewed Michele Hutchison [translator for La Superba, another Deep Vellum book], humor was one of her biggest worries in the translation. What other challenges in terms of differences in literary expectations have you encountered?
Evans: La Superba’s probably the most challenging book in that way that we’ve published, since it’s very long and complicated and working on very many levels all at once. The humor is very Dutch.
Rumpus: She talked about how we as Americans see Europe as this big blob, and the humor in that book is dependent some on seeing specific differences between the Netherlands and Italy.
Evans: North and south in Europe are as divided as north and south are in the US. Same for north and south of Italy, with Genoa being its own separate thing. You learn about this stuff via literature which is a lot of fun.
Another example, you have Sergio Pitol who is constantly making metafictional and hypertextual references. That’s not as common in America. Vila-Matas and Pitol construct entire narratives out of literature and they’re just one piece of this entire literary tradition. My mother-in-law, for example, has read all of our books on a very deep level, is a very engaged reader, and she hates Pitol. Hates him. Thinks he’s egotistical and a name dropper.
I think he’s actually completely egoless; he writes about these people because of huge respect for them. I’ve read other Latin American authors who do this, even Borges creates his own authors, so he’s writing through other authors and their characters and stories. For Pitol, he’s just a character in his own story as a literary writer. I find that fascinating and some people don’t engage deeply that. They don’t like the game aspect in it.
Rumpus: For people buying your books, for example, Lina’s book, that might be the first Chilean author they read. Especially a book like Tram 83, it’s almost guaranteed that’s most readers’ first book from a Congolese author. What kind of responsibility do you feel you have towards what readers take away from the books about the culture you’ve brought them from? Do you try not to think about that?
Evans: Huge question. I’m one dude in Dallas. We have to keep things in perspective here. I have been very pleased that in our first year, our first ten books, I had authors from five continents. I was very pleased with it, but then I got this really nasty email from someone in Australia that was like, you’re not doing your part, you don’t have any Australian aboriginal literature. I wrote back, you’re right, but is anyone in Australia publishing that? And I just thought, why me? I totally agree with you but I am just one small, very small part of a gigantic industry, that’s bigger than film and TV put together internationally. Publishing is a massive business. 400,000 books are coming out in the US every year. I published ten. I can only do so much.
That said, I do consider it important to be representative of other things. I don’t want to just read dead white European men. It’s not too interesting to me. I think that publishers have been narrow-minded for a long time. They claim to serve readers’ wants but what they keep shoving down readers’ throats becomes what readers expect. I think that publishing as an industry has failed readers in large part due to increasingly corporate nonsense. In terms of the responsibility I have towards readers, if I’m providing a door, it’s up to them to walk through it. Where they go from there is not necessarily my responsibility. We all find different paths. If you open Tram 83’s door and you walk through that door by reading that book, there’s infinite forked pathways from there, to borrow from Borges. I didn’t read Borges until I was thirty. I didn’t read him in school. I studied Russian literature. Other world literature is still very new to me. I grew up reading American literature, but I’ve gotten away from it and read more international literature now, so it feels like I know more about Argentinian literature than I know about American literature now, but that’s not true. I know way more about American literature. But when do you come across these paths in your own personal development? There’s no right path to get into literature.
So if some sixteen-year-old kid reads Tram 83 and finds it mind-blowing, they might read Mabanckou next. He’s next door in the other Congo. Maybe they take it and end up reading the other authors who taught them. Maybe he ends up reading Céline, which is a pretty common choice at sixteen-to-eighteen among certain alternative youth, like me. I discovered Céline through Bukowski. Bukowski was my gateway to serious literature. Bukowski being whatever, a very macho American author, but he was reading the world. He was my introduction to Rimbaud and Baudelaire and other serious poetry. Then when I accidentally read a Russian novel in ninth grade, that’s what changed my life. I’m not going to hold the reader’s hand and walk them through life. I hope they buy and read all of our books, but we’re just one small part. I’ll give a shout out everywhere I can to the publishers and books that are out there that are in dialogue with ours. As much as I like to rail on corporate publishers, the fact is that a lot of corporate publishers still put out really great stuff and still direct people to great books. Go read Enrigue published by Riverhead. Read these amazing authors wherever they are.