September 10, 2011
It’s hard to know where to begin raving about Tonga, the new imprint of Europa Editions. But okay, let’s start here: imagine you are a struggling writer, whose debut novel is constantly being complimented by editors as “beautifully written” and “ambitious” . . . but then kicked in the teeth with rejection for being “too dark.” This is, of course, the fate of many literary writers these days, in a publishing climate where the very definition of literary seems stuck in metaphorical quicksand, going under fast in favor of marketing catch phrases like “tight story arc” and “sympathetic characters”—publishing prerequisites that would potentially have left some of the great novelists of the Twentieth Century, from Kundera to Nabokov, languishing in the rejection pile. Now, imagine that after considerable time raking up these complimentary rejections, your agent probably about to stop returning your emails, out of nowhere steps up an imprint that boldly declares itself as liking—nay, seeking—“dark” fiction and wanting to publish your novel. Well, if you’ve been around the publishing block once or twice, you’d probably receive this news with jaded trepidation, expecting to find said imprint operating out of somebody’s basement in Idaho and peddling copies out of the trunk of the editor’s car . . .
If so, maybe you’d better sit down. Because not only is the imprint in question—Tonga Books—connected to the venerable New York based, Euro-focused Europa Editions, but your editor is none other than Alice Sebold.
Yes, The Lovely Bones. The Lovely Freaking Bones! That Alice Sebold.
Look, as a writer, I know a thing or two about contemporary publishing’s aversion to dark, depressing or challenging work, and the prevailing belief that all fiction needs to feature a plucky, self-deprecatingly lovelorn heroine who triumphs over adversity in the end. And as an editor/publisher, I know more than a thing or two about how damn hard it is to garner attention for any writer who refuses to fit into that mold and continues generating bold, daring fiction that provokes and disturbs. And so, when I heard about Tonga, I basically almost lost my shit. I wanted to run around in the street proclaiming, “Yes! This is exactly what the industry needs right now!”
Things only got better from there. I soon discovered that their inaugural title would be Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing. Xander has been a player over at The Nervous Breakdown for as long as I can remember—he may in fact predate me. And, contrary to his title, he is a writer who deserves . . . well, in this rare happy ending (that would not suit Tonga if it were written in a novel), exactly what he got. An exciting new imprint and a talented, passionate, it-doesn’t-hurt-that-she’s-a-celebrity editor, tailored exactly towards the type of work he writes—work the world needs more of immediately.
Is it any wonder that early reviews of You Deserve Nothing have been raves?
This week, Xander is also Featured on the Fiction Section, and you can learn more about his book there. Meanwhile, Alice was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the imprint. Tonga, we at TNB wish you all the very best of luck!
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TNB: Tonga is an imprint dedicated to publishing “dark literary fiction.” There seem to be a number of ways dark is defined in the book world, ranging from work that is disturbing in a general sense to work focused on violent crimes to, even, simply work that doesn’t have a happy ending. How does Tonga define dark literary fiction, and what was the impetus for creating an imprint focusing on this style of fiction exclusively?
AS: So far, at least, the way Tonga seems to define “dark” means that we are open to characters who are not immediately sympathetic or who enter dark territory emotionally or politically. I remember an editor once saying that something I wrote was “not breakfast material,” meaning that no one would choose to read what I’d written when they first woke and were eating their cereal. I think Tonga is committed to dark voices and/or dark characters which not everyone wants to read with their rolled oats but some strange people—our readers!—relish the idea of.
TNB: You are, of course, extremely well known in the literary world for your wildly successful literary novel, The Lovely Bones, as well as your memoir, Lucky, and second novel, The Almost Moon. While many writers, such as Toni Morrison, initially worked as editors, and even some literary agents like Henry Dunow and Bill Clegg have gone on to publish books, the reverse trajectory—a highly successful writer who suddenly turns editor—is far more unusual. How did you come to take an interest in Tonga and make such a commitment to running the imprint and acquiring titles yourself?
AS: The flip answer is ‘insanity,’ but the true answer is that I said yes because I love Sandro and Sandra Ferri and Karin Wessel. They are the publishers and the publicist for of all my books in Italy, so I’ve known them personally and professionally for close to ten years. I also thought this would be a wonderful way to help new or largely unknown writers from the ground up. It is a lot more work than I could have imagined and I place the blame entirely on the Ferri/Wessel mojo. They made me do it!
TNB: What about Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing makes it an ideal debut title for Tonga?
AS: Everything from the title onward! There is an intelligence and simplicity to the prose that I greatly admire and a moral difficulty in the situation of the novel that is not easily resolved either within its pages or within the mind of the reader. It also has a wonderful international feel to it, which was perfect as an extension of Europa. And always for me, the voice and language in a novel… these are key.
TNB: How many titles will Tonga publish annually, and what is the next book after You Deserve Nothing?
AS: We are saying three to four titles a year but it is also dependent on submissions and staff availability. Publishing simultaneously with You Deserve Nothing is a 2nd novel by a young Zimbabwean writer. Of Beasts and Beings by Ian Holding is a fantastic post-modern elegy that really got me. After this will come Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! in 2012. A very funny novel with a perverse main character who is as undeniable as she is obnoxious!
TNB: With so many imprints—both corporate and independent—folding by the day in this tumultuous publishing climate, what are the challenges to launching a new imprint? Is there anything about the way Tonga will do business that would have been radically different just a few years ago, in terms of the changing landscape of publishing?
AS: I think Tonga is just one of those strange events that happen among friends. It was something Sandro and Sandra floated to me over drinks in the Tonga Room here in San Francisco. They didn’t know what I might say. Another reason I liked the idea was that it would give me an almost daily excuse to be in contact with Karin Wessel in Rome. My position is voluntary so there is no great financial cost of new salaries or such. I have one extremely good back-up reader in Oakland who reads for free books and the love of discovery. The rest of the Tonga staff are either on the Europa staff already or the Edizioni E/O staff (or both). Just call it The Ferri Effect.