Reviews/Interviews – Jamie Byng and Canongate

Solander, Vol. 19, May 2006 [All material copyright © 2006 Lucinda Byatt]



Canongate is one of the most innovative and successful independent publishers in the United Kingdom. It’s a name that will be familiar to many readers, but I approached Jamie Byng, its charismatic managing director, to ask him about its background, his own involvement in the company, and, of course, the company’s interest in historical fiction.

Canongate was founded in Edinburgh in 1973 by Stephanie Wolfe Murray and her husband Angus Wolfe Murray. It rapidly established itself as one of the most interesting houses in Scotland, publishing a combination of literary fiction, travel, biography, poetry, classics and history. Its eclectic list is what came to define it and whilst there was a distinctly Scottish hue to much of the publishing at Canongate, Stephanie (who rapidly became the primary driving force behind the company) embraced writing and ideas from all over the world.

The first book I ever worked on at Canongate was a stunning edition of the Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, newly translated by Judith Hemschmeyer, that we published in February 1993 and which I would still rank with anything we have ever published in terms of quality and importance. Highlights from the first phase of Canongate’s life include Alasdair Gray’s magnum opus Lanark (1981) which I think is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature – a genre-defying, wildly imaginative, structurally ingenious and beautifully written bomb of a book. Another major novel that Canongate published before I arrived there and which took the international literary world by storm was Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, a historical novel that I imagine many of your readers know and love.

I first walked through Canongate’s doors in November 1992 having recently completed a degree in English Literature at Edinburgh University. I knew next to nothing about publishing but immediately was drawn to what I saw and thankfully was offered a position as a voluntary worker by Stephanie. In October 1994 Canongate’s Scottish sales rep, Hugh Andrew (who is no longer involved but now owns and runs the publishing houses Birlinn and Polygon), and I were involved in a management buyout of the company from the receivers who had been appointed by the previous owners, Albany Book Company, who had bought Canongate off Stephanie not long after I joined. They had quite a lot of money but very little publishing savvy and without the latter you run out of the former very quickly. Anyway it meant that I was suddenly running a company having only joined 18 months earlier and having had zero experience in publishing outside of Canongate.

To say the learning curve was steep is an understatement. But twelve years on we are still here so we must have got some things right. And there were some excellent people at Canongate at that time who helped guide the company, not least Stephanie who remains a dear friend and was my first real mentor in publishing.

It’s always interesting to get a fresh insight on a particular genre, especially from a publisher. How would you define historical fiction, if indeed you think it needs to be defined at all?

I certainly don’t think it needs to be defined and I find book categorising in general pretty restrictive and fairly pointless. I have always liked that E.L. Doctorow statement, ‘There is no fact. There is no fiction. There is only narrative’. I want to be transported when I read and a great novel, whether it be set ostensibly in the past, present or future, has to take me somewhere that I believe in – both physically and emotionally. I’m not especially bothered whether I am spending time with a prostitute in Victorian London or an emperor in Ancient Rome or a schoolteacher in what seems like contemporary Britain.

One of my favourite writers on the planet is Michel Faber (who I also feel tremendously fortunate to publish). I remember Michel remarking that all fiction is historical in that it sets out to capture a particular time or place. Isn’t this what creates a sense of history? Furthermore as soon as anything is written down it is, in one sense, set in stone. Michel’s most widely read novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, is a book that most people would describe as ‘historical’ and in a sense it is more historical than say Under the Skin in that it is set in a more recognisable past (1870s London), an ‘other’ that we feel a greater distance from than the Highlands of the 1990s. But all his books explore histories and have a conscious sense of history and time passing.

We recently published The Successor by Ismail Kadare, and in his fiction history is a dark, obfuscated place where characters and time are nebulous entities. I heard him recently compare his writing to the monumentality of the tombstone, which I think really signifies the gravity and significance of the historical narrative. We are going to publish his next book, Agamemnon’s Daughter, and one of his first, Chronicle In Stone, next year, and what they have in common is that they both act as monuments of his writing, which is inherently about his life and Albania’s history. Perhaps one possible answer is that all fiction is historical but that some novels are more historical than others!

Canongate has a number of classic authors on its list, including famous historical novelists such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan and Naomi Mitchison, and less well-known ones like Harry Hopkins. Is the demand for these historical novels still strong?

Stevenson, Buchan and Conan Doyle sell steadily but in relatively small quantities. It’s strange how writers fall in and out of fashion, but I am certain that ‘classics’ will always form a key part of the Canongate list even if the sales are modest. I think it is part of your duty as a publisher to keep great books in print and our reprint programme has seen writers as diverse as Rebecca West, Charles Mingus, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Knut Hamsun, Nan Shepherd, Charles Bukowski, Jack London, Will Muir, John Fante Richard Brautigan and Iceberg Slim ‘join’ Canongate. They have enriched the list and have provided what I regard as a crucial element – context.

Among your current authors, I can think of at least a dozen who can be regarded as historical novelists. It would be a wild oversimplification to ask whether you deliberately look for ‘historical fiction’ as a genre, since obviously the first requisite is for ‘outstanding fiction’, whatever the category. But are you looking for new voices in historical fiction and if so, what is it about these voices and/or subjects that would attract Canongate?

The first novel that I ever bought at Canongate was called Hannibal. Narrated by Hannibal Barca, the Catharginian general who most famously led his army, elephants and all, over the Alps in mid-winter, Ross Leckie’s debut fiction did extremely well both critically and commercially and we also sold the rights widely around the world. Perhaps subconsciously its success drew me to acquiring more historical fiction, but the fact is I love publishing fiction more than anything and inevitably a sizeable chunk of the fiction written is set back in time. Therefore Canongate has published a lot of historical novels over the years and I’m sure we will continue to do so. I do also think we publish historical fiction well but that is partly because we pick great books to publish. It’s not easy to publish a bad book well. But if a historical novel is original, well-written, and compelling then I think it stands a better chance of selling then a contemporary novel of a similar quality. The period provides a hook and anything that distinguishes a book from what else is out there is helpful.

Leading on from the last question, do you feel there are any special challenges involved in marketing historical fiction?

Publishing any fiction successfully is a real challenge as there is so much new fiction each year. As mentioned above I think that historical fiction can provide hooks that enable readers to engage with the work. Therefore Louise Welsh’s novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, which is narrated by Christopher Marlowe is not only of interest to anyone who enjoys great fiction but will be of particular interest to those who are fascinated by Elizabethan history and literature.

Moving onto the Myths series which Canongate embarked on last year, this is a particularly ambitious project involving a wide range of authors and publishers in different countries. I have read that the series will not be complete until 2038, is this correct?

No. When I first started working on this series back in 1999 I had a written summary of the whole enterprise that I titled ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ after Wallace Stevens’ great poem. I joked in this document that the 100th myth would be published in 2038 but obviously some people took this to mean that I had envisaged 100 myths being published in the series – my dream is that this series will still be going long after you or I have become food for worms.

Could you tell us how the Myths series came about. Myths have been rewritten throughout history, but what was it about this moment that struck you as being ripe for another version?

The idea for the series came when I was thinking about the Bible and the way we republished it back in 1998 which was to break it up into its component parts and get a range of writers to introduce these individual volumes. The Pocket Canons featured introducers as diverse as Doris Lessing, Will Self, the Dalai Lama, Ruth Rendell, Nick Cave, Karen Armstrong and Bono. It was only after we had commissioned the second series of introducers that I began to think how interesting it would be to approach writers to retell myths. As you say writers have been doing this for centuries but as a publishing idea I felt it had real potential because it gives writers the broadest brief possible and myths provide inspiration rather than limitation. The fact that we managed to sell the series to publishers all over the world (37 co-publishers and counting) only added to the appeal for authors as it became a truly international project. I love the international dimensions of the series.

Apart from Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Weight by Jeanette Winterson and the forthcoming titles by David Grossman and Victor Pelevin, could you tell us which other authors will be involved and what myths they have chosen to retell?

Sixteen authors are already contracted and there are at least another ten or so who have expressed serious interest in joining the project. Those already committed include a wonderful Chinese writer called Su Tong who has just delivered his retelling of the myth of Meng (an ancient Chinese myth in which a woman called Meng weeps down the great wall of China), Ali Smith (who is tackling the Greek myth of Iphis), Alexander McCall Smith (he’s gone for this beautiful Celtic myth surrounding the figure of Dream Angus), Dubravka Ugresic (who is retelling the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga), Chinua Achebe (who is retelling an African myth), Donna Tartt (Daedalus and Icarus), Tomas Eloy Martinez (Myth of the Patagonian King), Antonia Byatt (Norse myth of Ragnarok) and Salley Vickers (Oedipus). It’s a heady mix and like I say there are some other major writers who are poised to join. I’ve never been involved in anything like it.

Much has been written about the importance of maintaining an independent publishing industry to ensure greater choice for readers. What role do you see for independent publishers in the future and how will they be influenced by the concentration of power in book retailing, potentially in the hands of distribution giants like Waterstone’s? Might this affect the commissioning of new books, especially in genres like historical fiction?

I think independent publishers will continue to play a key role in the future, but the fact is we have moved into a new world order, one which is dominated by multi-media conglomerates. In certain respects we cannot compete with them. In other respects they cannot compete with us. Publishing is not easy whether you are big or small and all publishers are being affected by the changes which has led to fewer and fewer retailers controlling more of the market. I think that if you are smart and nimble and continue to choose books that people want to read then you can survive. Opportunities appear the whole time and one has to adapt to the market, be entrepreneurial, be lucky and hold your nerve.

On a similar note, do you think that an increasing percentage of authors – above all, those writing in genres like historical fiction – will resort to self-publishing or forms of e-publishing?

The new technologies have made a lot of things possible that were inconceivable twenty years ago. And the idea of writers self-publishing is more viable than ever before because the means of delivery are so much cheaper. So yes, I am sure that an increasing number of authors will try to find readers this way (they already are) even if self-publishing presents its own series of challenges and difficulties.

Lastly, could you tell us whether you enjoy historical fiction yourself and, if so, could you tell us about your favourite authors or periods?

Jesus. I could write reams about my favourite ‘historical’ fiction but I need to keep this brief so let me start with The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing novel that is, amongst many other things, about the writing of historical fiction. This strange genre-defying novel is set partly in the Holy Land at the time of Christ and partly in Moscow in the 1930s and it is only when you are halfway through the book that you realise that the chapters starring Jesus (or Yeshua as he is known) are in fact written by the Master (a thinly veiled Bulgakov) in the twentieth century. I don’t think you could find a better example of how the historical novel has been played with as a form.

As I’ve been writing this I’ve been thinking more about the very idea of what a historical novel might be and whether novels become historical (Take Dickens as an example – I think of him as a historical novelist although in his day he could not have been more contemporary). And if this is the case, then is the ‘most historical’ fiction that which is set furthest back in time?

E.L Doctorow’s Ragtime was a book that enraptured me as a teenager. I also love Michael Ondaatje’s two early novels, Coming Through Slaughter and In the Skin of a Lion but as with Ragtime I don’t really think of them as historical because they are twentieth century (albeit early). Graves’ I Claudius was a book that I remember reading with amazement partly because the world it transported me back to was so far removed from any world I knew. It seemed more historical. But as with all great fiction it strikes a chord in the same way that myths strike chords because human nature doesn’t change and every serious work of art is an exploration in one way or another of what it means to be human.

Back to your question – I don’t really care what period a novel is set in because it almost seems incidental. Or put it this way – as long as I can hear the characters breathe then I live with the book. So I’ve got as much pleasure out of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead as I did out of James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love. I adored Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (which deservedly just won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), Jane Harris’ The Observations, Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, Peter Carey’s True Story of the Kelly Gang and Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. But I felt an especially strong connection to David Mitchell’s brilliant new novel, Black Swan Green, because like me the narrator was born in 1969 (as was David) and so he was me in certain respects. And although its setting is relatively recent (England in the early 1980s) Black Swan Green seems to me to be unquestionably a great ‘historical’ novel.

All books mentioned in this interview can be found at

© Lucinda Byatt

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