The BookBrunch Interview: Samuel McDowell, Charco Press

Julie Vuong
News - Interviews Friday, 02 March 2018

As its nomination in the Republic of Consciousness Prize sinks in, Charco Press co-founder Samuel McDowell tells Julie Vuong about specialising in quality translated literary fiction with a distinctly Latin vibe


There’s a feeling at Charco Press that its pursuit of encouraging more people to say "si" to new Latin American fiction is already paying off. Launched in September last year, the Edinburgh-based press, founded by Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell, landed a nomination in the Republic of Consciousness (RoC) prize, much to the delight and astonishment of the duo. "It has been an amazing experience for us," McDowell exclaims, "especially having no prior involvement with a literary prize and not knowing what to expect. We are excited but also very humbled - there is such a strong list of authors and publishers in contention, even ahead of the longlist. To be considered in amongst the final group of six is a big deal for us."

Hit the ground running
The RoC, now in its second year (Fitzcarraldo Editions’ Counternarratives by John Keene was the inaugural winner), was started by author Neil Griffiths to recognise quality literary fiction from exciting indies. It gives equal prominence to the title - in Charco’s case Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Orloff) - and to the publisher. Also on the shortlist are: Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe), Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefebvre, translated by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives), We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press), Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press), and Darker with the Lights On by David Hayden (Little Island Press).

"It really does help give us the best possible start," McDowell says. "As a newcomer we are very mindful that it is our responsibility, and ours alone, to prove that what we are doing is worthwhile and contributes to the publishing landscape. To have titles we are putting out there gain attention so early on, not only helps raise Charco's profile, it also validates what we are doing and the editorial choices we are making. We have no track record that anyone can rely on - including ourselves. It is a confirmation that we are doing at least some things right!"

McDowell is a relative newcomer to the industry, with a background in technology and business. It’s co-founder Orloff who brings a long, rich relationship with Latin American publishing. Together, their common goal is to take English-speaking readers beyond the well-known Latin American names such as Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. "Carolina’s pedigree goes back to when she was a child and her father ran a bookstore in the centre of Buenos Aires. Borges had an account there!" McDowell says. "She published her own book of poetry at age 13, then went on to earn a PhD in Latin American literature here at the University of Edinburgh, as well as become a certified translator. She also has books published on Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, both here and in Argentina. I have absolutely no pedigree whatsoever (although I am a pilot!), but have a passion for Charco and the changes we are bringing to the scene."

A fiesta of translated fiction
Charco may not be the only name in the publishing business wooing audiences with new Latin American literature but, according to McDowell, it is the only one doing it exclusively. "The idea of Charco Press was born from seeing so much great literature coming out of Latin America in the last one or two decades, and how little was making it to UK readers," he explains. "It is not about an appetite for quality Latin American literature in the UK. It is an appetite for something new, something different that we think the UK reader might be interested in. An appetite for great writing and storytelling."

At a time when demand grows for authentic voices in fiction, Charco is ready to meet the need. "All our authors are established in their home countries and beyond, and all have won acclaim for their work," McDowell says. "Most have been translated into other languages, but we are the first to bring them to English. The political and socio-economic history of the region is so very different from that of Europe, and has undergone such change in the last 50 years, and what we see is a generational change happening right now with how authors are prepared to express themselves and their experiences. You could say that they are looking at life through a different lens to, say, a UK author. This doesn’t necessarily result in better or worse writing; however, it cannot help but be different. We think the UK reader should at least have the opportunity to hear these different voices."

A rejuvenated genre?
Literary fiction, Latin or otherwise, has been the subject of debate recently after a report commissioned by the Arts Council England described a collapse in sales. Will small presses such as Charco and prizes such as RoC serve as flag-bearers for a so-called flagging genre? "The prize tries to find the most innovative works - writing that is bold, that is pushing boundaries, that maybe is taking a risk," McDowell replies. "So it is a recognition of some large risks being taken by exactly those presses that are least able to take them. That are putting themselves on the line because they feel these particular works ought to be published, with no guarantee of commercial success. If these efforts help inject something new to the literary fiction genre, if they generate interest and discussion, then that means this prize is very timely indeed."

As to the popularity of the genre, he is optimistic for its future. "This is one area where we probably have an advantage in being so new - we do not have a history to inform us about what is and is not possible. We started with a simple guiding principle: find fantastic authors who are turning out interesting work that UK readers are missing out on, and bring it to them. Obviously there are many other factors at play, and this statement may sound simplistic. But we are prepared to run on the energy this type of optimistic thinking generates for as long as we can!"

The pick of 2018 releases
Alongside the RoC prize, the Man Booker International Prize is also in Charco's sights. Meanwhile, the imprint is slated to bring out a handful of titles this year. "We have five releases for 2018," McDowell says, "and we are excited about every one of them. To mention a few, there is Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo, which comes out late May, with her cynical tales of life on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Then The Distance Between Us by Renato Cisneros is an incredible work of autobiographical fiction dealing with a son coming to terms with his father’s involvement in a brutal military regime. It has won numerous prizes, sold over 35,000 copies in its native Peru and been praised by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa. Finally, Resistance by Julián Fuks promises to be something special, having won both the Prêmio Jabuti in his native Brazil, and the José Saramago Prize. It has already been picked by a number of literary editors as one of the titles to look out for in 2018."

The Republic of Consciousness Prize winner will be announced in March, date to be confirmed.

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