“A lot of people don’t know we are in Deptford. People are surprised, they suspect we are in Farringdon or Bloomsbury like everyone else”, says Clare Bogen, publicity director of the lauded publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions. Although based in Creekside, they have made their name by publishing global literature. Half their list are works in translation. However, Bogen argues that this is precisely what makes them a local publisher: “London is an international city and we’re an international publisher.” They publish the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, for example, who won the Nobel Prize in 2018. “Olga Tokarczuk was not well known to English people,” Bogen says, “but she was well known to Polish people, who there are a lot of in London.”
Fitzcarraldo Editions was founded in 2014 by French-British publisher Jacques Testard with the mission to publish boundary-pushing contemporary fiction. They are a small team of only six, but are punching above their weight: “Once people see our books they see them everywhere”, says Bogen. She is referring to Fitzcarraldo’s signature blue and white covers – but she may as well be talking about their presence on the shortlists of a number of prestigious awards such as the International Booker, the Pulitzer and the PEN translates Award.
They have been in Deptford since 2018 and are proud to call it their home. Bogen speaks about the staff’s favourite bakery (Bread and Butler), bar (Villages Brewery) and their favourite Lewisham bookshop (The Word). Bogen, half-American, half-Kiwi, knows the publishing house inside and out and speaks rapidly as she says: “We feel very strongly that we are a Lewisham publisher.”
Bogen insists that they are keen to work locally, and when Brixton native Adam-Mars Jones published his novel Box Hill they hosted a reading at the South Lambeth Library. They are also publishing Deptford writer Patrick Langley’s second novel The Variations in September, and hope to do “a lot of local stuff”. That book has a broad appeal, Bogen says, “and it’s just a really beautiful novel”. However, much of what they publish doesn’t lend itself to local events. “We’re perceived as publishing ‘high literary stuff’ – whatever that means,” she says. Fitzcarraldo specialises in experimental fiction. They are home to the challenging Spanish author Augustín Fernández Mallo and the German provocateur Rainald Goetz. Fitzcarraldo Editions are nothing if not an avant-garde publisher, which sometimes makes public outreach difficult.
Fitzcarraldo do have close ties with local literature organisations, such as Spread the Word and the Poetry Translation Centre, both based at the Albany in Deptford. Spread the Word recently organised the Deptford Literature Festival where Fitzcarraldo presented a talk with their author Vanessa Onwuemezi, an event “more about the process of writing”, says Bogen. Fitzcarraldo published Onwuemezi’s rich and poetic collection of short stories Dark Neighbourhood in 2021.
Lewisham is also home to the prestigious Goldsmiths Prize, which is awarded by Goldsmiths, University of London, located only five minutes down the road. It is an award for “fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form” and it so happens that this year’s winner, Diego Garcia, was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. The local vicinity of the award was serendipitous, but is also exciting because it’s “our first UK English language prize”, says Bogen.
Diego Garcia certainly pushes the novel form: its fragmented narrative about the murky history of the eponymous island in the Chagossian Archipelago, and friendship between two writers, was written in tandem by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams. “The Goldsmiths Prize is one of the cooler prizes to win because they are genuinely interested in what is doing something unique and pushing the boundaries of what fiction can do. I really think Diego Garcia does that,” says Bogen.
This willingness to take risks has been key to Fitzcarraldo’s success. As well as publishing experimental writing, they also specialise in bringing works in translation to a UK audience. British publishing is famously insular, she suggests. In 2019 only five and a half per cent of books published in the UK were works in translation. “The UK is one of the publishing superpowers, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case anymore”, says Bogen. She explains that this is partly due to Brexit, which has severely affected small publishers’ ability to sell directly to the EU, but it’s also a harsh truth about this small island: “We are collectively not that interested in other cultures; we are not interested in translation.” Around the world they’re reading English writers, “but we’re not reading them.”
Despite their success, Fitzcarraldo Editions still has two feet firmly in Deptford. A couple of days prior to meeting, Bogen announced a talk between Irish bestseller Sally Rooney and French Nobel laureate (and Fitzcarraldo author) Annie Ernaux which sold out in minutes. Bogen seemed just as excited when mentioning this as when discussing the Deptford Literature Festival: “We are very busy but want to make sure we are making time for the community”, says Bogen.
Follow our series, Reading Between the Lines, this week to read more about literature across our boroughs