My guest in this week's One on One is Howard Sidenberg from Twisted Spoon Press, an independent publisher that offers a wide spectrum of literature from Central and Eastern Europe in English. Howard is one of three men who founded Twisted Spoon in Prague in 1992, along with late writer Lukas Tomin from a well-known Czech dissident family, and Kevin Blahut from Massachusetts. Today, however, it is primarily Howard Sidenberg from Richmond, Virginia who keeps the small operation alive and well. Though it had humble beginnings, Twisted Spoon today plays a major role in giving people abroad access to the work of contemporary writers from Central Europe, as well giving non-Czech writers living here a chance to get their work published - the small press recently started an expatriate series. Based in Prague, Twisted Spoon Press also has distributors in Hungary, Poland and North America. I sat with Howard in the café/bookstore Shakespeare and Sons, where there is a wide selection of books in English. You can tell which books are produced by Twisted Spoon because of their unusual and imaginative graphic design. I asked Howard, a one-time doctorate student of Soviet foreign policy, what attracted him to Prague?
You came here in 1991 and just one year later started a publishing company. Can you tell me what it was like to open a business shortly after the fall of communism?
"It was a bit quixotic. The way Twisted Spoon began was quite by accident. I mean that literally, there wasn't a plan, there wasn't a business plan, there certainly wasn't a business idea nobody expected it would make any money and there was no editorial plan as well. The idea to start Twisted Spoon actually came from Lukas, all because I think he wanted to have his book published (he laughs) obviously, but it was he who said why don't you do books? He actually helped Kevin and I meet people who in turn helped us prepare the first two books, particularly the people at OKNO like Dalibor Kubik was very helpful the first two years we began. And so as far as the bureaucracy, the paper work, registering it and this that and the other it was just one task after the other and it just sort of happened. There wasn't a lot of work the first few years either, a book here a book there and it was very easy going. Kevin, Lukas and I were also doing other things at the time trying to make money."
You have such a wide range of literature from internationally renowned authors to the up and coming. What is the philosophy of Twisted Spoon Press?
"Well the philosophy of Twisted Spoon, I suppose if there is a philosophy, has developed over time. When we began the idea was to just publish the first two books we had on hand. One by Lukas Tomin the experimental novel, The Doll, and Kevin Blahut's translation of Kafka's contemplation because it had never been published as a second book. After a couple of years I had decided to expand to include other Central European writers and also to try to publish more of the Prague German writers and Czech writers from the 1920s and 1930s into war period or even before the First World War because so much of that writing has never been published in English. And then later, maybe five or six years ago, I decided to publish some writers who write in English who live here or live in Central Europe actually because were publishing a Canadian writer now who lives in Krakow. So the philosophy is more geographically based than it is the writing itself."
How did you come up with the name Twisted Spoon Press?
"Actually the object came the automat from the metro station Andel which doesn't exist anymore because they reconstructed the whole area. And like in these buffets or automats they have these flimsy flatware made out of aluminium. So that's what we had in our apartment, twisted spoons and bent forks and whatever. I sort of liked the name Twisted Spoon Press because it didn't have a corporate sound to it. I didn't want to have a name like Prague Publishing SRO or something like that. I thought it would convey that we're not trying to take ourselves too seriously."
So that kind of brings me back to an earlier question. Though you publish translated works of the internationally know names such as Franz Kafka, or Ladislav Klima, you also publish the works of the virtually unknown who in my eyes wouldn't stand a chance to be published by a more commercially driven publisher.
"Well, this is what small presses do. I do try to keep abreast of what is going on in the publishing world in the United States even though I am not there physically. Especially with small press such as what people are doing and what problems they're encountering in the United States and so forth. From what I understand the large commercial publishers have even narrowed their list more so than what it used to be. But I do think it's difficult for a larger commercial publisher to publish unknown writers especially in translation for example someone like Vaclav Kahuta or even a well-known poet but in his own country, Sandor Kanyadi because it doesn't produce the bottom line that they're looking for. So a lot of these larger publishers are part of larger entities, which are run by basically accountants."
You also have an expat series that features writers from abroad. Do you think that the Czech Republic is a country that elicits creative writing?
"I don't think more than anywhere else. It depends on the individual as well, what sort of influences they need for their work whether it's writing or any other form of art. I can't really say it is really up to the individual to answer."
Could you explain the difference in style between a foreign writer who came here, perhaps something here influences what they write, to that of a Czech writer?
"Yes, perhaps there is a sensibility that's different because of a literary tradition. This becomes a cliché as well because it is often talked about but it's often talked about because it happens to be true. Czech writers have a very developed sense of irony, as well as filmmakers, and it's a very subtly developed sense of irony. There is also a very highly developed sense of the absurd and in my opinion when it's done well, and many Czech writers tend do it well, it doesn't become intrusive as if it's interpolated into the text because it's supposed to be absurd. It just seems to sort of happen in everyday living. There has been a tendency, at least from the work I've seen, for some of the writers here from abroad to write in a diary-entry-confessional style and if they would like to make it in the vain of magical realism, they don't tend to do it very well."
If you would like to check out the Twisted Spoon website just visit www.twistedspoon.com
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