The carnival that was Eleanor Catton’s international success for The Luminaries is over for Victoria University Press. They are back to business as a thriving small press with a defined place in the Kiwi publishing world, says Fergus Barrowman. Two years from its Man Booker Prize win The Luminaries is now ‘a strong backlist title’ for VUP.
“It was an astonishing phenomenon to be part of,” Fergus says. “VUP has known previous extraordinary success with The Vintner’s Luck, but the furnace fuelled quickly after the The Luminaries Booker Prize win, and it seems that big is bigger these days.”
Eleanor is writing, but also representing her novel around the world at writers’ festivals and other engagements, and contributing to an adaptation of The Luminaries for international television distribution, so it is too soon to speculate about a next book.
It would seem that Fergus and his VUP colleagues Craig Gamble, Ashleigh Young, Kirsten McDougall and Kyleigh Hodgson – ‘3.7 fulltime equivalents’ in university speak – are back in regular work, publishing the kinds of titles that fit their vision.
Poetry is important for VUP with recent releases including Vincent O’Sullivan’s Being Here: Selected Poems (in hard cover), Half Dark from Harry Ricketts, Wonky Optics, Geoff Cochrane’s fifteenth collection, and Failed Love Poems from Joan Fleming. Dinah Hawken’s Ocean and Stone, illustrated by John Edgar and beautifully produced, was released in September. “Dinah takes her time with a new book, and when you get a new manuscript you know that it has been deeply considered,” Fergus observes.
There are ten poetry titles in VUP’s 2015 catalogue. So how is it that the Press can add to its coffers with poetry, which attracts a niche audience at best? Most poetry titles are printed locally, in runs of three to five hundred, with reprints of as few as 50 to 100 to ensure stock is always available. But VUP believes poetry is important to our culture. Fergus says this links them with other University and smaller NZ presses that publish New Zealand books, even if for small sector audiences, because of their vital contribution to our literary life.
VUP also has the guts and vision to go big on major works, as they did for August release James K Baxter: The Complete Prose edited by John Weir. Four bound volumes with cloth spines are presented as a boxed set, with the bonus of original Nigel Brown paintings for the box. The retail price of $200.00 for the sophisticated presentation has not been a deterrent to bookseller and libraries, and the not-to-be-repeated print run of 1000 is going well. Meanwhlile a second hardback run of Maurice Gee: Life & Work by Rachel Barrowman is underway.
Rights sales for new author
Another successful title is David Coventry’s The Invisible Mile, rights for which have just sold to Picador UK for 2016, with multiple foreign-language rights under negotiation. It is also reprinting for Christmas here. A first novel, it is a powerful re-imagining of the 1928 Tour de France as ridden by a combined Kiwi/Aussie team. Written as if from inside the peloton, the test of endurance for one young New Zealander becomes a psychological journey into the chaos of the war a decade earlier. Fergus says that David is at work on a second novel which will do for rock and roll what The Invisible Mile does for cycling.
Diverse topics also mark other recent releases; one is The Empire City tracing Wellington’s history from the middle of the 19th century till the present day. Stories are told through song, text, paintings and photographs and offer a creative insight into the history of life in the capital city. It includes a CD with original songs by Andrew Laking, and features a number of guest artists, historical notes, unseen archival photographs and new paintings by Bob Kerr.
New this month is Patrick Evans’ The Back of His Head, another quirky invention in the vein of earlier novel Gifted, a riff on the relationship between Frame and Sargeson. The Back of his Head features Raymond Thomas Lawrence who ‘turned his upbringing in conservative Canterbury and participation in the Algerian War into a series of novels that dazzled the world.’ But his Literary Trust members are facing rising costs and dwindling visitor numbers at the Residence.
This offbeat offering is juxtaposed in VUP’s list with important non-fiction by Elizabeth Caffin and Andrew Mason, as the title indicates: The Deepening Stream: A History of the New Zealand Literary Fund.
Fergus says there is no standard recipe for a VUP book, and that solid scholarship, esoteric experimentation and good reading are all welcome – especially if they can be combined in one book.
Bill Manhire collection is VUP’s cracker for Christmas
Fergus says that it has been twenty years since this extremely popular Kiwi author’s fiction has been published, so he is delighted there will be a new hardback in November, The Stories of Bill Manhire. It collects stories from previous collections, a novella, previously unpublished stories, and the memoir Under the Influence. The blurb lists a galaxy of topics – sheep-shearing galas, Antarctic ponies, human clones – and describes Manhire as ‘a backyard inventor, devising stories in which the fabulous and the everyday collide’.
Looking forward to 2016, Fergus says there are excellent local fiction titles in their list, with a new novel by Damien Wilkins, Dad Art, and Danyl McLauchlan revisiting a familiar landscape with Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley.
Landfall Essay Competition winner Tracey Slaughter joins VUP with her short story collection Deleted Scenes for Lovers. Later in the year Fergus hopes there will be a new novel by Catherine Chidgey, The Wish Child. “I haven’t read it yet, but she told Facebook the other day that she’d finished it, and I for one can’t wait.”