I first became familiar with Eland publish house when I received an article about Irfan Orga for the review. After that I've kept an eye out for the distinctive red and white spines in the books shops round Istnabul. I haven't been disappointed by the range and quality of the travel writing that they publish. That books and the societies they detail that would otherwise be forgotten are preserved and made available is a fantastic thing. I got the opportunity to put some questions to Barnaby Rogerson about the work of Eland and the importance of travel books.
Luke: I’d like to start with a simple question. How do you define travel literature?
Barnaby: We don’t define anything. We are a small business on the look-out for books that we can sell. Our readers relish the spirit of place and like to understand other communities. I am not that keen on using the word ‘Literature’ as it sounds like a slightly stilted under-graduate reading course, but if the word “literature” means anything positive to me, it is a signpost that the writing is so infectiously good, that as you finish the book you realise that you already want to read it again.
Luke: I accept your comment on literature being a bit of an ambiguous and abusable term. I suppose what I was interested in is do you make destination between travel writing and say, war journals like Seven Pillars of Wisdom, academic anthropology, or current affairs/ foreign policy books?
Barnaby: For us it is all about the ability of the writer to tell his story to an audience larger than their professional colleagues. I think that academics and foreign policy analysts sometimes forget that they read to keep their jobs, they need to know to receive their salary. They forget that for the rest of the world, reading is a privilege not part of their professional life. Reading has to take place in the weekends, during the summer break, the Christmas holiday on the train or plane. We were very excited to publish Nigel Barley, as he is an anthropologist from an academic background who is interested in talking to a general audience. As I read further into his anthropological field I release how rare is this ability.
Luke: The first piece of serious travel literature I ever read was William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu. It left a lasting impression and I believe that good travel literature should be able to do that. For you why is travel literature important?
Barnaby: I am glad you like William Dalrymple’s work. I was lucky enough to have dinner with him two nights ago, he is an effervescent genius who is interested in everything and is also a brilliant story-teller. He had just come back from looking at some rare Indian watercolours in the print room of the British Museum and was very excited about a Cretan-based foundation that preserves Ottoman music. Fortunately he is also mortal and likes to eat, drink, gossip and dance. He also believes in working and listens to his editors. I once heard him give a most wonderful tip to a group of young, would-be writers. He advised them to aim low to begin with. Do not send that first draft to an agent or a publisher, instead send it to your dozen best-read friends and relations. Do not ask them not to write a commentary but to simply tick the bits they loved and mark up the bits that lost them with a bored squiggle. Then use this information.
On your second question: I am sufficiently old to have watched the destruction of most of our quality newspapers, as well as fine, independent news-reporting and the old craft of documentary making. Instead we are fed a babble of emotive entertainment, slickly presented news bulletins, with no depth, no engagement, which I sometimes seems to be specifically designed to increase fear and ignorance. We passionately believe in books that can take an interested reader into a deep journey of discovery into another culture, and prove that there is “nothing to fear except fear itself”.
Luke: Eland focuses on the publication of classical travel literature. Quite a lot of the material is old and obscure, where do you find the books that you chose to publish?
Barnaby: We are aware that some of our recent titles might sound obscure, but one of the wonders of travelling is to stumble across the fact that there are millions of cultural centres, not just Paris, New York, Istanbul and Tokyo. We relish books that take each culture on its own value, and plunge you into the central desert of Somalia (such as Warriors by Gerald Hanley) or amongst the cattle nomads of northern Uganda (Warrior-herdsmen by Elizabeth Marshall Thomson) with the same energy that other writers might devote to interviewing Presidents and Film-stars.
Our principal resource is our readers, who are often much better read in the specific regions that they live and work in, than those who work in the Eland attic office. For instance last year I received a letter praising our five books that explore China and wondering why we hadn’t added Peter Goullart’s Forgotten Kingdom to our list. He was right, it is superb, and is now an Eland. We also go out of our way to meet journalists, travel-writers and guidebook editors, who often have achieved a very specific in depth knowledge of a region, and can pin point that single book that can still be read for pleasure.
Luke: Can you tell me something about the selection process? What are you looking for in a piece of travel literature?
Barnaby: We can never quite define what we are looking for until we stumble across it but it needs to be observant of others, capable of summing up a spirit of a place and catching the moment on the wing– aside from such everyday literate skills as being funny, wry, intelligent, humane, universal, self-deprecating and idiosyncratic – plus the whole book has to be held together by a page-turning gift for story-telling. Increasingly we look for travel books that are not defined by heroic adventures but the ability to listen (and maybe understand) other cultures – ‘anthropology lite.”
Luke: To what extent is there a market for classical travel literature?
Barnaby: We have over 35 years slowly built up a list of 115 highly rewarding and readable books about people and place. In any one year we probably sell about 35,000 books. One of the odd pleasures of running a business is watching how some books sell by word of mouth, some by the fame of their author, some by the innate fascination of the destination and some hardly at all. Some of what I consider to be our best-written books remain in the latter category. We have never yet let a book that we have revived fall out of print, but fortunately the business is sustained by a core of about a dozen titles that sell sufficiently well to sustain the rest of the list. We have also have enjoyed some surprise successes - such as the year when one of our titles sold over 750,000 copies.
Luke: As an editor, I receive a lot of travel pieces for the Bosphorus Review and they are often (though far from always) among the weaker submissions I receive. What can modern writers learn from classic travel literature?
Barnaby: I probably get four submissions a day, offering us typescripts to publish. They tend to fall into three categories. A young person’s experience of travelling abroad between school and university, a middle-aged persons experiences of travelling abroad after some mid-life crisis ( divorce, illness or career change) and an old person (like myself) writing an end of life memoir about their travels. It would be tempting to bin all these submissions, if it wasn’t for the fact that three of our greatest books (The Way of The World by Nicolas Bouvier, Full Tillt by Dervla Murphy and Naples 44 by Norman Lewis) also fit these categories. Good writing is very rare. Read the last three if you are a young writer.
Luke: When it comes to older travel literature, a lot of the material can be orientalist, condescending, imperialistic or flat out racist by our standards. To what extend to you think that there is value in publishing these works despite these problems as a window into the past and into cultures that no longer exist? What is your editorial policy with regards to these problems?
Barnaby: We love stumbling across wisdom in all the different ages of humankind, and try to avoid falling into the trap that our contemporary culture is any significant way, wiser than that of our ancestors. I went to see Dr Johnson’s house yesterday, and was amused to discover a right-wing, Christian traditionalist who was yet the most compassionate of neighbours and fantastically in advance of his time in his attitudes to sex, race and class. Yet if we decided to reprint any of his works, we would not want to edit his work, to make him sound modern, or to shave away some unattractive things he said for instance, about Scotland.
Luke: Eland has started publishing its own original stories. How are they different from your classics and again what are your criteria when selecting?
Barnaby: We have published a dozen new works. In all of these occasions we have noticed that we have done much better with reviews, with blogs, with all the multi-faceted elements of a modern publicity campaign than with our revival of an old writers works or a dead author…yet our long-term trade customers, the bookshops really prefer us to keep to our row of curated travel classics. We have developed a brand that works, and they respect that and have learned to trust us. I am not sure that we wish to weaken it with too many fresh talents.
Luke: A lot of the space that would have been occupied by travel literature has been taken over by TV documentaries and more recently travel blogs and vlogs. Is travel literature an endangered species?
Barnaby: No. It is a highly adaptable form. We have just republished Jonathan Raban’s first five travel books. They are as funny, as entertaining and as politically revealing as when they were fist penned. Nothing in these books, could have been bettered by the presence of a film camera, in fact they would have almost certainly been ruined. They also now seem prescient, and no one who has read either Old Glory or Coasting could possibly be surprised by either the arrival of Trump or the Brexit vote. Raban does not quote statistics or theory but by talking to everyone he meets on his travels he has arrived at a better understanding of the popular bedrocks of British and American culture than any politician. I would make a similar claim for Dervla Murphy’s A Place Apart, which on one level is a humble book about a middle age woman peddling her way around Northern Ireland and stopping off for a pint and a chat in every other town and village that she passes through. Cumulatively it creates a better broad understanding of the issues within Ulster society than a hundred academic texts. I am not alone in this, and so we have asked a British general to add a postscript to this work, which reveals what an influence it had on him and his staff.
Luke: Which books from your catalog would you recommend and why?
Barnaby: I would be interested in reading your personal reaction to Dmetri Kakmi’s Motherland, Carla Grissmann’s Dinner of Herbs, John Freely’s Stamboul Sketches and Ates Orga’s collection of the poetry of place for Istanbul.
Luke: What books would you like to acquire for publication that is not yet in regular circulation?
Barnaby: Paul Bowles’s novels, Wilfrid Thesiger’s two travel books, most of Eric Newby, but I would not be so foolish as to reveal any of the others that I am currently pursuing before signing a contract.
Luke: Last of all, what are you reading now?
Barnaby: I have just read (all of last night) a brand new novel by Katri Skala, A Perfect Mother, which I found completely compelling. A new and original female voice, equally at home in America, East Europe and England. I am about to start Saul Kelly’s The Hunt for Zerzura, then James Barr’s recent work, Lords of the Desert, before I go away for our summer holiday to the Outer Hebrides with a bag of books which tends to include one battered Penguin classic. This year I have my eye on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones