Interview with Sara Kramer of NYRB Classics!

>> Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We're halfway through the Spotlight Series on NYRB Classics!  How many books have you added to your wish list?  Ones that are new to mine?  The Summer Book, The Dud Avocado and A Meaningful Life.

How do you choose which books get published through the NYRB Classics line?  Is the decision based on suggestions or some other criteria?
 There are probably as many criteria in our selection process as there are suggestions. Years ago, the series creator and editorial director, Edwin Frank described the Classics as being edited "rigorously by whim." He might wish he never uttered the phrase at this point, because I bring it up frequently, but there is some truth to that offhand remark. Which is not to say that we don't go through a sort of checklist in assessing a title. Among the most basic questions we ask ourselves are: what was/is the critical reception of the book when it first came out and since? is there an audience for the book (this could be an existing audience that knows and loves the book or one that's out there, just unfamiliar with the book as yet)? is there something that makes it stand out from the masses of out-of-print books? and finally, do we love it?

The question everyone wants to know the answer to- how do you pick your cover art?
Well, Edwin studied art history for many years, and keeps up with art scene. Our designer, Katy Homans specializes in museum art catalogs and her husband is a curator. She has thousands of art books in her library. We generally go over to her office with some ideas, a few pages ripped from magazines like Artforum and Art in America, and then the two of them brainstorm, pulling books from the shelves. In some cases, that process doesn't suit a book, so I or someone else will comb through fine arts image archives, or Magnum photos. I keep hoping I'll come across something perfect on image blogs like Bibliodyssey or A Journey Round My Skull. I recently found something we might use on Tumblr. After a while you start seeing potential cover art everywhere, like in that old Tootsie Roll ad.

How do you choose who writes the introductions/afterwords for the books?
Sometimes a writer will suggest a book to us (as Michael Chabon recently did with The Long Ships) or have written approvingly about it in the past. Sometimes you have a feeling that he or she knows a book already and would like to write about it, and sometimes (particularly with the most obscure titles) there's a little matchmaking going on (with Terry Castle and Victorine for instance).
 How do you determine if it's better for a book to have an afterword than an introduction?
 We generally default to introduction. But on ocassion, it becomes obvious that too much is given away in a piece for it to usefully serve as an introduction. People would prefer that nothing be given away in an introduction. But I myself usually save them for last anyway. There's no requirement to read an introduction first, after all.
If you publish a book by an author who has already passed away, is it more difficult to generate interest in that book?  If so, how do you go about publicizing?
 Well, we've published so few living authors that it's hard to make a comparison, to be honest! The real problem is that it's tough to get reviews of reprinted books period (though our publicist manages to get quite a few reviews despite this barrier). Book reviews (the few that are left) are oriented toward the new, as is the larger culture, really. On the other hand, publications like Bookforum and the Believer, and on-line journals like The Barnes and Noble review and Bookslut (there must be magazines that don't start with B's—but I can't think of any right now) are less hung up on the new and shiny. And then there are so many blogs that aren't beholden to anything but their own taste, and even some that focus on neglected books.
How do you use the online book community to help spread word about books?  Is there anything you wish to change in publisher/reader or publisher/blogger relationships?
 We don't have any big corporate plan regarding this, and we've been getting into the swing of things relatively slowly—first setting up a blog, then getting on Facebook and Twitter. If anything, I relish the opportunity to be in direct contact with all sorts of readers in ways we never could be before.  

Can you give us a glimpse of some upcoming NYRB Classics publications?  Anything that you're very excited about?
I'm pretty pleased about the inclusion of Brian Moore's first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne in the series—it was a book we'd had our eye on for years and a true modern classic. It does the thing that novels do when they're really working, which is take you on an emotional journey—in this case along with a pretty unappealing character, who you nonetheless come to feel for. Moore said that the Judith Hearne, despite being entirely unlike him in almost every particular, was in some ways autobiographical, and that comes through.
I'm also looking forward to the publication of a book in our children's line called Mud Pies and Other Recipes—which is a "cookbook" of inedible dishes made up of items you find in the backyard. Erik Blegvad's drawings are charming and Marjorie Winslow's text is fully serious in its imaginary instructions. It's just the kind of thing I would have loved as a kid. In fact, I first heard about it on a Publishers Weekly blog, written by a children's bookseller.


Chris May 19, 2010 at 5:20 AM  

Great interview! I love seeing an inside look.

Aarti- I added The Summer Book and Dud Avocado to my list already. ;)

Aarti May 19, 2010 at 7:33 AM  

Glad I'm not the only one, Chris! The Dud Avocado just SOUNDS cool ;-)

Anonymous,  May 19, 2010 at 9:54 AM  

This series has been spectacular so far, and I'm just gobsmacked at the variety that's coming out of it. I love the turn "rigorously by whim" applied to editing, especially given that so much else is edited "basically, not so much at all" these days.

Matthew May 19, 2010 at 9:59 AM  

Let's not forget some fantastic resurrections of non-fiction by NYRB: I think in particular of J.A. Baker's poetic and extreme The Peregrine; Patrick L. Fermor's books about walking across Europe and later Greece, which are revelations; and Tim Robinson's two books about the Stones of Aran.

Conroy Mitty May 19, 2010 at 11:01 AM  

Avocado is good, but Dundy's follow-up (also an NYRB) "The Old Man and Me" is much sharper and funnier.

Aarti May 20, 2010 at 7:39 AM  

Miette- I love that term, too! And I'm so glad you are enjoying the series :-) I hope you participate next time, too!

Matthew- You are quite right. I thoroughly enjoyed the non-fiction I chose to review for the series, An African in Greenland (though not as I expected). I'll definitely look into the Fermor one and possibly the Robinson. Thanks for the suggestions!

Conroy- I love when authors follow up good books with great ones!

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