Across 2022, the Year of Stories, we are spotlighting Publishing Scotland members, who will share their own story in their own words. Get to know Vagabond Voices, a publisher that is both Scottish and fervently European through its commitment to introducing new titles from home and translating fiction from other languages.
What’s your story?
Vagabond Voices was established in 2008 by Allan Cameron in order to publish novels written in English primarily in Scotland and novels translated into English – as it happens exclusively from other European languages (though we recently published a collection of Chinese poetry translated into English and Scots). Cameron had no idea of what he was getting into!
Cameron was already a published novelist since 2004 and a translator then of more than twenty books from Italian, so there has always been a tendency towards Italian literature and yet we have published novels from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Swedish and German as well. It is again pure happenchance that every one of these other countries is bordered in part by the Baltic Sea. In 2014 we started to publish poetry with Gerry Loose’s fault line and have continued to do so, because we found that some excellent poets, like novelists, were finding it difficult to get published sometimes even after having been published for many years. We have also occasionally broken into the publication of plays and non-fiction, though novels remain at the heart of what we do.
Tell us about some of your key stories.
We started with the publication of Cameron’s In Praise of the Garrulous, a non-fiction work on languages and how the invention of first writing and then printing affected the way we use language and think, and Allan Massie’s unpublished novel, Surviving. Both of which sold well and gave the impression that publishing is much easier than it really is. In 2012, we published Chris Dolan’s Redlegs, very possibly the best novel originally written in the English language that we’ve produced, and the lack of a prize or greater acclamation has always surprised us.
Cameron read a review of Lars Sund’s A Happy Little Island in Swedish Book Review back in 2010, and immediately wanted to publish this story of dead asylum-seekers washing up on the beaches of a Baltic island (in accordance with the strictures of magical realism, no place-names are used and the nation is not mentioned). The manner in which the islanders deal with these events turns the island into a metaphor for Europe’s isolationism and hostility to refugees and migrants more generally, but there is also some very clever observation of island life. It was not easy to get past an obstructive literary agent but eventually we managed this with the assistance of Magnus Florin, another Swedish author we’d just published, but when I sent the text to our Swedish translator, Harry Wilson, he replied that “this is not Swedish”. In fact the book was written in Finland Swedish, also known as Ostrobothnian, and I had to find another translator. I rang a publisher who publishes many translated novels, and I found an excellent one, Peter Graves. This illustrates just how hard it can be to publish a book you passionately believe in, sometimes on the basis of limited information. And the tip is that the best information comes from other publishers. And we did eventually get it into print in 2016.
However our most ambitious project by far is the publication of A.H. Tammsaare’s monumental pentalogy of which we have so far only published the first two volumes. This masterpiece, which has already been published in its entirety in Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden and Finland, is practically unknown in the English-speaking world (this is not unusual). The journalist from The Bookseller asked us why a well-informed reader like himself hadn’t heard of it when he had only heard of Jaan Kross. He was not alone, but in a country where James Hogg’s masterpiece was hidden from sight until André Gide quite by chance discovered it over a century later and being the son of a Calvinist pastor understood its brilliance and innovative structure, we should not be surprised by such things. Tammsaare belongs to a select group of leading European novelists in the twentieth century, and this is in part due to the fact that, as a translator from several European languages and a voracious reader of their literatures, he could transcend his native Estonia whilst remaining very much part of it and its rural roots. The reaction to the publication of Volume One (Vargamäe) in 2019 drew an unprecedented number of e-mails requesting information on the publication of the next one. Unfortunately the translation of Volume Two (Indrek) was of a very poor standard and required a great deal of editorial work as well as the retranslation of the second half by an excellent translator we have now found. This set the publication back by two years and it finally came out in September of 2022. Volumes Three and Four have already been translated, and along with Volume Five they will come some out in 2023, 2024 and 2025.
What draws you to a story? What makes a good story?
Dare we say that with a small publisher which has few resources, the process of choosing novels to publish or translate and publish is necessarily a little haphazard? Particularly in the latter case, when in most cases we can’t read the whole book (occasionally we can read a translation into a language we do know). Experience helps and we haven’t had any disasters, but that may be more luck than judgement.
In our sector of publishing, we’re not looking for a specific thing. Ideally we would like something that has never been tried before. It is more important that a novel is good at doing what it set out to do than that it belongs to a certain type of writing we find particularly agreeable. It is probably the case that we’re not so interested in books that rely on those tried and tested techniques like suspense and we’re more interested in novels that defamiliarise and introduce new ideas to our readers.
What stories should we look forward to or check out this year?
This year we have published three books, and next year we will publish four (these numbers are much lower than our pre-covid production). I have already mentioned Indrek, the second volume of the Truth and Justice pentalogy, and the other two are Giselle and Mr Memphis, a novel by Scotland-based debut author Jerry Simcock, and The Last Woman Born on the Island, a collection of poetry by prize-winning author Sharon Black. These are three very different works, but they give an idea of our range.