Today, we start a new feature on the Salt website, offering introductions to other independent literary publishers. We start with Gatehouse Press, introduced by editor, Andrew McDonnell.
Take this story.
A writer signs to one of the UKs biggest literary agents on the strength of her debut novel. It’s written by someone endlessly marketable: A young Anglo-Indian woman who is one of BBC Radio Three’s new voices, who has undertaken academic work on women’s living conditions in India, who has looked at Shakespeare in other cultures, who has updated King Lear and set it in contemporary India.
You don’t need to flick through many contemporary articles in English Literature to know this novel touches themes and ideas that resonate with audiences around the world: rooted in a contemporary World Fiction idiom, it uses an ancient story as a lens through which readers can see modern, international politics. Yet no-one wants the novel. The writer, feeling understandably fed up, sees at the last minute a competition run by a small press, with its prize the publication of a first novella. She has a short novella, Kumkum Malhotra, about an Indian woman who is slowly erased from her own life.
She enters, takes a shot. It wins.
At the launch, the press ask her if she’s written anything longer. Yes, she says, and recounts the last few years of her life. Let me have a look, the small press says. They look and pass it to Galley Beggar Press in Norwich who snap it up. Two years later, in July 2018, that novel wins the Desmond Elliott prize for new fiction.
In a speech at the Prize ceremony, judge Sarah Perry said: “Samira, Chris and myself were absolutely unanimous in our love and admiration for this novel, whose scope, ambition, skill and wisdom was, quite simply, awe-inspiring … all three of us sat together, shaking our heads, saying, ‘If this is her first novel, what extraordinary work will come next?’”
It’s lovely to be asked by Chris to write this article about Gatehouse Press for the Salt blog as it reflects the supportive and friendly world of literary Norfolk. I dount the county needs much by way of introduction when it comes to literary heritage, but there is an exceptionally healthy indie scene here with journals such as Ambit, Rialto, Ink, Sweat and Tears and Lighthouse, indie presses galore from Galley Beggars to Unthank Books (and of course, Salt), Nathan Hamilton and Philip Langeskov’s work at the UEA with Boiler House and Strangers Press and so much more.
I like a community, it feels reassuring to know, in the words of Miroslav Holub that “there is much promise in the circumstance that so many people have heads”. I hope this blog explains a little bit more about our ethos and business model, which is based in not-for–profit approach to reinvest in new titles and help emerging writers take the first steps as well as publishing one-off projects with more established writers.
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I came to Gatehouse Press in 2012. The avuncular and rather wonderful Tom Corbett had been running the press since 2006, working with a range of volunteers to support new writing. I liked the press very much: it had published a range of anthologies and one-off poetry collections by new comers and established poets such as George Szirtes with his libretto Shuck, Hick, Tiffey! Tom wanted to pass the press on, and at first I was a little hesitant. My first child was on the way and what did I know about publishing?
For a number of years I’d harboured the idea of starting a literary journal that published work by unknown or emerging writers. What I didn’t have was the infrastructure to pull it off – the access to typesetting, ISBNs etc. – but mostly I didn’t have the capital. Gatehouse had this all in place, and so I suggested to Tom that we set up a journal as a way of discovering and supporting new voices. I was aware that there wasn’t really a unique space for writers who were starting out. It’s hard to get published, especially for poets, who often will not see an advance on their collection or pamphlets, but arrange with the publisher for a deal on book price.
In 2012 I approached a range of writers in Norwich and we built a core team of editors and built Lighthouse Literary Journal. The journal had a hit as early as its second issue, when we published the short story #3 by Anna Metcalfe. Her story went on to be shortlisted in The Sunday Times EFG prize of 2014, with Anna being the only unpublished writer on the list. Stories were also selected for the Salt Best British Short Fiction, selected by the sharpest of eyes – Salt’s own Nicholas Royale. Then in 2015 we won the best magazine award in the Saboteur Awards, a lovely event organised by the poet Claire Trévian and voted for by readers. We had momentum.
It was from this team that the core directors of Gatehouse mark II were recruited with poets Meirion Jordan and Julia Webb, novelist Ian Nettleton and journalist Claire Hynes, and shortly after we were joined by the indispensible Sam Ruddock, who brought expertise in live literature, management, and accounting.
What we all agreed on was that the spirit of the press needed to be maintained and built upon. We set up Lighthouse poetry pamphlets, publishing Edwin Kelly’s prose poem translations of Julian of Norwich, followed by many other brilliant poets, including Natacha Bryan, Thomas Clark, Eleanor Rees and, more recently, Beau Hopkins and Adam Warne.
We also landed the brilliant second collection A Season in Eden by Peter Daniels and Threading a Dream, a memoir of Egypt by Blunden editor and Carcanet poet John Greening. A beautiful tarot collaboration between artist Tom de Freston and Helen Ivory, all printed as cards and boxed with foil printed lids, and the wonderfully weird Shed, a pamphlet collaboration between Martin Figura and our in-house artist, Natty Peterkin.
With Lighthouse #18 in production, and new books in the editing stages it seems incredible to think how far we’ve come in six years as a small team of volunteers.
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It was the Gatehouse New Fictions Prize that brought us into contact with Preti. I realised quite quickly that, as a press, handling novels was beyond our capacity. What I saw instead was the opportunity to offer a step up, to find real, meaningful opportunities for the authors who were working with us. I still remember the email from Sam and Elly at Galley Beggars saying they wanted to work with Preti, but I’ll remember more the proof copy of her novel that landed on my doorstep in the spring of 2017. To see a writer succeed is one of the greatest joys of running this press. We are all either writers or literature professionals ourselves, and we know how hard it is to break through, in however small a way. This is why we all volunteer our time: we feel part of a community that extends from directors to writers and readers, where the cynicism of commercial publishing is mellowed by the fact that we are connected to one another.
One of our subsequent winners of the New Fictions Prize, Amanthi Harris, is now in negotiation with a press we see as a serious publisher of new writing after we approached them with her manuscript. It’s these moments that reassure me that there are editors and people within indie publishing who recognise talent and are prepared to take risks. If we can help, even a little, by providing space for new voices to be heard, then we have made all that effort worthwhile.