Ducks, Towns, and Prizes:
An interview with Sam Jordison

Interview conducted March 2020.


TCB: Despite a successful career as a journalist and writer yourself, I think it’s fair to say that now you’re most well-known as the co-founder/director of Galley Beggar Press, one of the most brilliant and popular independent publishing houses in the UK. What led you to venture into the world of publishing, and what is the particular ethos of Galley Beggar, as opposed to some of the larger, more established publishers out there?

SJ: It's kind of you to say my career has been successful. Anyway! In a way, I fell into publishing with my co-director Eloise Millar. We came across a book (The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough) that seemed really worth publishing. No one was going to publish it if we didn’t, so off we went… But there we did have ideas at the time that I suppose you might call an ethos. One way of putting it might be that we wanted a publishing house that put the book first and asked all the other questions about how you market it later. We wanted to be led by the love of the writing, rather than notions of how well it might sell. Or perhaps a better way of putting it might be that we hoped that if we loved a book, and believed in it, other people might too. We didn’t think we had super powers as readers or editors or were somehow better able to appreciate high art than other people… We believed that if we saw something in a book, other people would too. So far, that’s worked out pretty well. I’m not sure if that answers the question about how different we are? I think there are plenty of editors in big houses who have similarly strong feelings about art. But the difference with us is that because we’re so small, we can put everything we’ve got into the books we believe in. Every book we put out is a risk. Which frees us up to take big risks and to do things because we’re passionate about them and because we think they matter.

TCB: Last year, you published the novel Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, which has been a huge and rather high-profile success. How did you come to publish the book? What was the experience of reading it for the first time, and of later witnessing the book win the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize?

SJ: We were very lucky that Lucy’s agent David Godwin passed the book to us almost as soon as it was turned down by Bloomsbury. The experience of reading Ducks, Newburyport for the first time was joy and excitement, mainly. I think it took a few pages to begin to understand what Lucy was doing… And then, once I was in there, there was just amazement – alongside the hope that she could maintain the impossibly high quality and humour and momentum all the way through the book. It’s quite something to have such a long manuscript and to be one of its very first readers and to have no idea how it’s all going to end up. But then, of course, she delivered that consistency and momentum – and then some more. The way I remember it now is the kind of feeling you get when you’re punching the air with joy – but having that for a very long time… I should also say that I read the pages just after Elly (I think I was generally about 30 or so pages behind her) so I already knew that she was really excited… We had a shared sense of discovery. And I should also add that reading Ducks, Newburyport was even better second and third time around, when I kept on discovering more in the book and better understood the mastery with which Lucy had put it all together… I’m really looking forward to more people in the world having those second and third readings too. I think we’re only at the beginning of appreciating Lucy’s achievement.

But, on that note, seeing its success in 2019 and in the Goldsmith’s Prize was a dream. I hope it doesn’t sound too arrogant to say that part of me thought the recognition was no more than the book deserved. But it’s also true to say that it’s one thing to love and believe in a book – and it’s another to see that love shared and amplified. Seeing so many people find those rewards is what you dream of as a publisher. I’m very grateful to everyone who’s read it and even more to those who have said such kind things about it.

TCB: Also last year, there was some controversy surrounding the sharing of the Booker Prize between two different novels (by Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo respectively), meaning that Ducks had been overlooked. I recall your article in the TLS (see 'References' below - 1), expressing incredulity over the reasoning for this verdict as given by the judges (specifically the mention of Margaret Atwood’s “titanic” career). Now that some time has passed, how do you reflect on that decision and its impact upon both Lucy and Galley Beggar?

SJ: Hmmm! I think, in a way, I said enough in the TLS article. As for now, I don’t feel entirely comfortable about being the person who complained. Okay, someone had to say something for Lucy and the five other fine writers on the shortlist. But it’s also worth pointing out that the Booker brought good things too. It helped raise the profile of the book and helped it begin its journey to immortality and in the long run we’ll be more grateful than bitter… I should also say that I’m optimistic the Booker Prize will learn from the problems last year and be better in the future as a result. It’s a great asset to the literary community and I want it to continue to be so.

TCB: After Ducks came Patience by Toby Litt, the most recent publication from Galley Beggar. It’s a novel largely free of punctuation, and in the Guardian review of the book, it was termed “heartbreakingly plaintive” in tone, while being rendered with a “new and overwhelming vividness.” What was it about this book that made you wish to publish, and why should it intrigue potential readers?

SJ: Oh well! In a way I just want to say read it and see. The reason Elly and I wanted to publish it is that we fell in love with it. We adore the novel’s narrator. His struggles tear your heart out – but his optimism and determination and intelligence and sense of adventure fill you with delight. It’s also beautifully written. The lack of punctuation is something you notice, initially, but actually the main thing I’d want to say about the style is that it’s all there to serve the substance of the book. It’s a way of plunging you into the narrator’s thought stream and that’s vivid and touching and wonderful… I had that same slow-motion-air-punch feeling when I read it ...


TCB: To look now at your own work – you had great success with the Crap Towns sequence of books, which was a fun look at the grimier undersides of much of urban Britain. How did this project originate, how did it develop over time, and do you think there will ever be another volume in the Crap series? The last one in 2013 was ‘Back by Unpopular Demand’ after all …

SJ: The main inspiration for the project was growing up near a town called Morecambe. It was a beautiful place that was full of potential – but all through my childhood it endured really dreadful decline. Lots of it caused by bad planning decisions and philistine ineptitude… But there was no one ever telling the truth about that. The local paper seemed to be full of stories about how great things were and blah, blah. So I thought someone had to say something… Plus, while there was a very sad side to Morecambe’s decline there was definitely grim comedy too. I remember some French exchange kids coming over and just been in awe about how crazily bad things were there… And I guess that sense of humour and ability to laugh at ourselves hit the right note with lots of people in the UK back in 2002 when I first came up with the idea. In terms of how it’s developed over time, I do wonder if British people would still be as funny about themselves now? Certainly it’s all started to feel a lot grimmer post-Brexit. The last book, Crap Towns Returns which came out in 2013 also now feels frighteningly prescient. London came top, for instance, mainly because of resentment about the huge inequality in the UK, the way the city sucked up resources and people in the rest of the country felt ignored… The books also sounded a lot of alarm bells about neglect, anger and people who felt marginalised by the world… I have wondered about doing a new book, but it feels almost too much like digging into an open wound. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a longer more engaged narrative looking at what I’ve learned in almost 20 years digging into Crap … I guess the question would be if anyone wants to hear from me about that though?

TCB: In more recent years, you collaborated with your partner Eloise Millar to produce the book Literary London, a study of sites of literary interest within the London area and a discussion of the significance of each. What led you to want to create such a book, and what do you think is special/unique about London as a literary city? Can you tell us something that particularly surprised or delighted (or disgusted) you from your research on this topic?

SJ: The honest truth is that we were asked to do it! But it’s lovely to be asked and really inspiring. We’re very grateful to our editor at Michael O'Mara because it was such a fun idea. It was a delight to write and research and (forgive the pun) right up our street. It gave us a chance to enthuse about writers we really like.

To answer what’s special about London, I think it’s the richness of its history. It would be enough to say that Dickens and Shakespeare were there, let alone all the other hundreds of wonderful writers, the melting pot of immigration, the incredible things that have happened throughout London’s history…

As for delight and disgust, it’s hard to know where to start. I loved writing about Thomas Hardy and the horrors he encountered removing corpses from a graveyard in St Pancras… I was also a real sucker for the stories about happenings and crazy drug fuelled behaviour in the 1960s, and bohemian activity throughout the centuries… I think one thing I really learned from the book and found really quite moving was how much post-war UK publishing owed to people who had fled from Hitler. There are some incredibly brave, inspirational figures like Peter Owen and André Deutsch who wouldn’t have been here but for the evils of the Second World War… Their stories are important and while they and their families had suffered, they went on to change lives for the better. It felt good to be able to honour them in a small way.

TCB: Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen a few features on the Guardian website, created by yourself and concentrated on the work of Georges Simenon, including a webcast Q&A with Simenon’s son John just last week ('References' - 2). Can you tell us a little about your current focus on Simenon, what he means to you as a writer, and why more people in the UK should be reading his work?

SJ: I’m lucky enough to run a monthly book club called the Reading Group. Sometimes I and my editor will choose an author, sometimes we’ll throw it open to reader suggestions based on a theme. Always, it’s a wonderful opportunity to really dig into books and authors and I feel very fortunate to have such a space and readers who join in and make the discussions really interesting… Georges Simenon felt like an ideal subject. I’ve been enjoying the new translations of his books that Penguin have been putting out for the past few years. More than that – I’ve been pretty awe struck at his strange and unsettling genius. There’s something about a good Simenon that can really move and disturb you. They go to some dark, difficult places… But then again, they also contain really joyful descriptions of Paris and food and good things in life… What else? They’re short, potent, deceptively straight forward. You can finish them in a day – but the best ones will stay with you forever. The Snow Was Dirty! Immortal classic! What are you waiting for? Tear through it…

TCB: As anyone who reads my website or follows me on social media will know, I am a huge and very passionate fan and advocate of the writer James Kelman. In my monograph last year celebrating the 25th anniversary of Kelman’s Booker win, I quote a brilliant piece you wrote in the Guardian in 2011 ('References' - 3) about that very novel, How Late It Was, How Late, where you stated:

“There is real worth and life in his hopes and fears, his enthusiasms (he can make margarine on toast, bad beer and old country and western tapes sound like the height of sensual pleasure) and his sadness and tragedy. He is human. To dismiss him is a failure of empathy.”

This is such a powerful and insightful comment; both in relation to the Booker controversy of that year and to Kelman’s work in general. Why do you believe that novel was so misunderstood and misrepresented, and do you feel that ‘failures of empathy’ often colour the responses of critics and readers to such works of literary art in our society?

SJ: Well, firstly, thank you. I’m glad you think I was right. As to the rest, I remember from my reading at the time, that most of the controversy – as so often – came from people who hadn’t really engaged with the novel on its own terms. In a way, it was quite like the ‘controversy’ surrounding the year when Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger won. People who hadn’t read that book criticised it as the housewife’s choice – which was incredibly patronising both to housewives and that fierce, fantastically clever novel. Likewise, lots of people seemed to assume Kelman had nothing to say to them – when, of course, he did. And he said it with supreme artistry.

I suppose you can see a slippery slope if you believe that you can’t empathise with a poor guy like the protagonist of How Late It Was, How Late … It doesn’t fill you with hope… But of course, as a critic myself, this talk about responses is making me feel nervous. I’m worrying about whether my critiques all the books I haven’t like show a similar lack of empathy… One of the many lessons from Kelman is that humans are pretty fallible after all…

Is that a reasonable answer? I’m going round in circles, I know. Perhaps the other thing to say is that it’s a difficult novel. It makes intellectual and emotional demands. You have to work hard to understand it and to get something from it. That seems to annoy some people. But it’s their loss if it means that they’re missing out on great writers like James Kelman.

TCB: On a much lighter note, back in 2012 I recall your rather public spat with the writer Ewan Morrison regarding the voting process for the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ award. What do you remember of that whole episode, and how has the ‘Not The Booker’ progressed since those halcyon days of controversy and conflict?

SJ: I think probably the best thing to do about that particular controversy is to just read the pieces I wrote about it at the time. There isn’t much more to say except I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible… Since then, the Not The Booker still has the potential to stir things up. And since we do as possible out in the open and with free discussion, there’s always the potential for the unexpected and unusual. Having said that, we’ve developed a really good system of getting nominations for books, highlighting talented writers and giving time to works that might otherwise have gone under the radar. It feels like it offers something quite important and useful – as well as the chance for crazy fun.


TCB: So, on to recent times – last year, a sum of £42,000 was raised via crowdfunding in order to make up the shortfall faced by Galley Beggar after the collapse of The Book People book-traders. Your readers and fans effectively saved the company from oblivion. That must be a rather amazing feeling, to know that people care so passionately about what you do that they would mobilise in this way? What was this experience like?

SJ: I think you’ve summed it up pretty well. It was one of the worst and best days of our lives. It was awful to feel like the future of Galley Beggar Press could be in danger. And it was unbelievable and beautiful that so many people so generously helped us secure that future. I know now why people talk about “overwhelming” gratitude. You don’t quite know how to express how much it means. I just hope we can continue to be worthy of the faith that people showed in what we’re doing.

TCB: What can we expect in the future, this year and longer term, both from Galley Beggar and from yourself?

SJ: From Galley Beggar we hope to do more of the same. We want to carry on putting out books we love and that matter. We’ve got some brave and brilliant releases on the way this summer in Alex Pheby’s Mordew and James Clammer’s Insignificance. And I’m not sure if I can try your readers’ patience further by putting out more PR about our books. But I really do think these are both important novels and can’t wait to get them into the world. So please read them!

TCB: We always end by asking for recommendations for our readers – as someone who has spent much of his life involved in books and writing, what are the greatest works and greatest writers you have encountered?

SJ: Not an easy question to answer. And the temptation is just to give you a list of Galley Beggar Press authors. But let’s take my belief in them as read… Otherwise, it’s hard for me to answer this question honestly without both sounding like a cliché and a bit of a nob. The truth is that the really big writers in my world are the big ones in most people’s. Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf, DeLillo, the Bronte sisters… There’s a reason Virgil has lasted 2,000 years. There’s a reason Proust is so revered. But once you start saying how much you like Proust, you always sound like a bit of a wally. I know from hard experience too. I was once on my third (or possibly fourth or fifth) glass of wine at a dinner where there were quite a few very smart Parisian editors and I started telling them how good Proust is… Luckily I caught myself before I got too far and started laughing. But he’s one of those writers. You’ve either read enough of him that you just think it’s an absolute given that he’s an immortal genius. Or you haven’t and you just think people must be showing off by claiming to have read enough of him… But my pitch today is that we should really get over the showing off thing. It denies us from sharing a great joy. My hot tip is to listen to the audiobook versions…. The achievement of the voice actor Neville Jason is pretty staggering. It’s not so much that he read so much, it’s that he did it so well. Full of nuance and character and emotion. He also does the difficult work of ploughing through those long sentences for you… It gave me real delight. Sure there were plenty of moments (maybe even hours) where I drifted off. But there were also so many more moments of profound insight, of humour and empathy. I often found myself laughing out loud. And screeching in horror. I also nearly wept about the loss of Marcel’s grandmother… I’d recommend that experience to anyone. And you can have it while doing useful things like washing up and walking the dog. So there you go: Marcel Proust. He’s very, very good. Who knew? ●


Sam Jordison is a journalist, author and publisher. He writes for the Guardian. He is the author of several best-selling books, including the Crap Towns series, Literary London, co-written by Eloise Millar, and most recently Enemies of the People (a guide to the people who brought you Brexit and Trump). He is also the co-director of the award-winning indie publisher Galley Beggar Press. He lives in Norwich.
You can follow Sam on Twitter: @samjordison

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