Karavan Press: an interview with Karina Szczurek

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Karina Szczurek (picture: https://karinamagdalena.com/about/)

Karina Szczurek talks to Naomi Meyer about Karina’s new independent publishing house.

Karina, congratulations on your new venture, an independent publishing house. I know that you love books and reading, but what made you start your own publishing company? (Also, tell me about the name of the publishing house.)

When you become part of the publishing industry, in whatever capacity – in my case, as a writer, editor and critic – you quickly realise that many stories never find a home. And often, the ones that do, seem less deserving than those left out in the cold. Quite a few years ago, I began thinking of establishing an independent publishing house to offer them a literary shelter. At the same time, my husband André Brink and I nearly lost our home, an old Victorian house in Cape Town, which  contains a private library spread over several rooms, with about 15 000 books ranging from its creator’s own first published novel, Die meul teen die hang (1958), to a 1790 edition of François Le Vaillant’s Voyage de Monsieur Le Vaillant dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique, par le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, dans les années 1780, 81, 82, 83, 84 & 85. Since I came to live here in 2005 and married André, we have added a few hundred titles to the precious collection. Among them are the ones I have authored and edited over the years. After André’s death in 2015, I became the library’s sole custodian.

Losing a home is a terrifying prospect for most, but the fear I had felt all those years before about leaving another one, surprised me in the context of my own life. During my early migratory years, I had lost many homes, and one more should not have made a difference, or so I thought. But it actually did. By then, my roots had grown too deep to survive such a change without permanent damage. With the possibility of a move looming, I desperately began searching for a home no one would ever take away from me. A caravan was the obvious option. It can even be shipped to another continent, and filled with books from which you will never have to part.

In the end, however, we were able to keep our home and all the books living in it. I did not buy a caravan; but I realised that a book is like a caravan, a home away from home, taking you to unexpected places. It seemed only natural to name the publishing house I was dreaming of Caravan Books. My friend, Alex Smith, recommended “Press” instead of “Books”, and the “K” was my own idea.

And thus, Karavan Press came into being. At first, it was just a vision in my head, sustained for a few years only by the wisdom contained in Roberto Calasso’s L’impronta dell’editore, first published by Adelphi Edizioni in 2013, and by the enthusiastic support of a few people in my life. This year, finally, the vision became reality.

Your first two books are out. Please tell our readers about them.

Both are by the same author, Melissa A Volker. At our first launch at the Book Lounge mid-July, Jacqui L’Ange, who interviewed Melissa, said about the books that they read like “eco-romance thrillers”. It was a great description of what Melissa writes. She is passionate about the romance genre, but she is just as passionate about the environment, and she combines these two interests in her writing.

Karavan Press published her second novel, Shadow flicker, and we reissued her first novel, A fractured land, for South African audiences (it was published in the US last year, but the publisher did not have a local distributor). Both novels can be described as eco-romance thrillers. One is about fracking, and the other about wind energy. The protagonists are strong, independent women with quite a lot of baggage, but with open hearts and minds. Both fall in love. These are romances, after all. Our friend, writer Sally Partridge, captured their essence best: she said that Melissa brings a sense of gentleness and wonder into these love stories, even though the characters involved might have forgotten what that feels like in their turbulent lives.

What captivated me about Melissa’s writing, from the moment I encountered it a few years ago, was its freshness. There is a spark and inventiveness in her prose that makes you smile. And that is part of what is so special about her novels: they do not shy away from dark and difficult topics, but, at the end of the day, they are feel-good novels. There is a great new term for such stories: Up Lit. You get romantic escapism and, at the same time, find out all about the environmental topics involved, without being lectured to. There is also surfing, great music and the magnificence of South African landscapes (the Karoo in A fractured land, and Cape St Francis in Shadow flicker). All in all, an irresistible combination.

What kind of books would you be interested in printing? And why?

Books I can be passionate about, of any genre, any length, but mainly literary fiction and non-fiction. I read extremely widely, and don’t want to box myself or Karavan Press writers and readers in. I want to nurture authors and their creativity, establish strong bonds between Karavan Press writers and readers, and offer a literary home for those who treasure words and stories. Excellence, integrity, and love for the book as an object are the cornerstones of what Karavan Press is about.

Are you looking for books in English only? Also, who is helping you with the process of examining/assessing new manuscripts?

No, I will be publishing a memoir in Afrikaans in the near future, and I am hoping to have a French novel translated into Afrikaans and English for local readers. Once the announcement is made, it will become apparent why I chose this particular book for translation. I have plans for publishing in some of the other official languages in the country, but I do not want to give too much away for now, as what I am thinking about is going to be experimental, and I need to find the right team to work with to make a success of the ideas I am hatching.

For other languages, I will be getting help, of course. But in English, I am reading and assessing new manuscripts myself. I have years of experience doing it for other publishers. Also, I cannot imagine ever publishing a book I have not read myself. I need to know that the book has already stolen my heart, before I share it with other readers.

Should new writers make contact with you, and where can they get hold of you? Please let our readers know some practicalities about submitting manuscripts.

I work with a team of designers, editors and proofreaders whom I commission to do specific tasks for Karavan Press, but, for now, I am more or less a one-woman show, and it is important to me to retain a hands-on approach. I truly want to nurture Karavan Press writers as much as I can. So, my capacity will remain small for a while, perhaps four or five books per year. The next Karavan Press title, Breaking milk, an exquisite novel by Dawn Garisch, is going to print at the beginning of August. The Afrikaans memoir I mentioned and two short story collections are in the pipeline. The first of these will be Lester Walbrugh’s debut collection. His writing is stunning. He has a voice that is immediately recognisable, and the stories he tells are unique. I can’t wait to begin the work on this book. I am also discussing the possibility of publishing a biography by an author whose writing I adore, and a novel by another South African favourite. There are also the translations. A few manuscripts are already waiting to be read. And I am still editing and writing myself.

If you do the maths, it’s heart-breaking, because there are only so many hours in a day and so many books Karavan Press can give a home to. But I love everything that I do, and I will try my best to do justice to any writing an author might think I could be interested in. The easiest is to contact me at [email protected] and see what can be done. But, first, I encourage writers to read Karavan Press titles, follow us on social media and engage with what we do, so that we are all on the same page, creating and sharing those beautiful books we love so much.

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