Now that CURRENCY has been published, a number of people are asking me tactful versions of the question How come this took so long? and Why with a small press? In this excerpt from an interview with Leah Tallen, Other Voices editor Gina Frangello explains better than I ever could. You can see the full interview at Knee-Jerk, and if you read it you’ll see that patience reaps rewards, and that I just might win the prize for having the world’s most passionate and talented editor. Gina has a new short story collection out this spring, SLUT LULLABIES, and we’re going to be promoting our books together in Chicago, New York, LA, Iowa City, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere. Shameless self-promotion time. Come to see us! Become a Facebook fan! Buy a book!
OV is getting ready to release a new book this month, right? Can you talk a little about Zoe Zolbrod and her first book Currency?
This novel has been a long time in coming, and I’ve been acquainted with it since the late 1990s. I fell in love with it in a writing group when I was still in grad school. I thought Zoe was going to make a million dollars and become a rock star with Currency, that’s how much I loved it and the other people in our writing group loved it. But the publishing world being what it is, that’s not what happened . . .
I think a lot of editors in New York were spooked by the fact that half the novel is narrated by a Thai man, Piv, whose English is not perfect and has a heavy Thai flavor. I mean, it’s a big chance to take, I admit. Publishers might think, What if this isn’t authentic? What if it offends someone? What if some reviewer says they don’t buy it and suddenly that is the party line? Editors at the big houses have shareholders to answer to and they’re not big on risk. They don’t live by their guts anymore. But I felt like I knew Piv in a way that transcended politically correct rules like that. He was one of the best characters I’d ever read in contemporary fiction. That’s not to downplay Robin, his American lover, who is an extremely strong and complicated character herself. But I felt like Piv was someone I had never met before on the page. When Zoe’s novel started getting rejected and agents started walking away, I was stunned.
At that time, I ran a magazine, not a press. Then later, when I launched the press, we published books of short fiction exclusively. Only a little over a year ago did Stacy and I decide to launch the Morgan Street International Novel Series, and we kept getting all these submissions . . . but I couldn’t get Piv out of my head. I hadn’t even seen Zoe in a couple of years, and Stacy had never read the novel, so I was terrified of getting Zoe’s hopes up and not coming through—I knew she’d been through enough with this project. But I had to ask her for the manuscript so Stacy could read it. I think I was as nervous as she was, waiting. Luckily Stacy fell as deeply in love with this work as I had, and that was that.
How does Currency represent OV’s mission statement?
The Morgan Street International Novel Series grew out of an anthology we did in 2007, that Stacy edited, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection. That book featured thirty writers from all over the world, some published for the first time in English and others already major writers like Josip Novakovich, Nathan Englander, Etgar Keret. In that book, we made an explicit point of defining “culture” through relationships—in other words, while Nepalese culture may be very interesting to an outsider, it is not exotic or even always thought of as “culture” per se, by people in an insular community within Nepal, if that makes sense. A lot of books have explored this-or-that culture, which is important, but we wanted to explore culture as a more shifting, active thing, defined by people interacting and realizing their differences, in both positive and negative ways, and grappling that to figure out who they are. Zoe’s novel fits in with that way of exploring culture perfectly.
At the magazine, we’d always had an interest in international fiction, but through the anthology project we really realized we wanted to keep going with it—that we didn’t feel like the dominant publishing industry was offering enough fiction set outside the United States, only a few heavily promoted titles a year that became “the” Indian novel or “the” Afghani novel, etc. We wanted to provide more options, even if in a limited way given the size of our list.