It was several hours after the Nobel prize for literature announcement before anyone was able to get hold of winner Annie Ernaux. The long-tipped, 82-year-old French writer was deep in work, avoiding her ringing phone to concentrate. When a Swedish journalist finally got in contact, she asked: “Are you sure?”
Fitzcarraldo Editions’ publicity director Clare Bogen woke up to a barrage of hearts, clapping hands and other excitable emojis. The outcome wasn’t clear until one text: “Annie!”
Ernaux’s triumph marks the London-based independent publisher’s second Nobel prize win in four years, after Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk won it in 2019. As Fitzcarraldo also now publishes Elfriede Jelinek and Svetlana Alexievich, that’s four Nobel-winning authors who are published by this small press, with its team of six full-time employees who all “do a bit of everything” from an office in south-east London that used to be a warehouse and nightclub.
“I am continually astounded by the richness of Fitzcarraldo’s publications”, says Alison Strayer, a Canadian writer and one of Ernaux’s translators. “To read works in translation is an invitation to adventure and expanded learning of my trade and passion. Fitzcarraldo’s dynamism is fueled by the energy, imagination and intuition with which it seeks out.”
Bogen remembers that when she first met Jacques Testard, Fitzcarraldo’s publisher, about a job at the press, he put a copy of Ernaux’s Happening into her hands. “I read it in one sitting, in a bath that had long gone cold.”
Testard read The Years in French in early 2018, acquiring the UK rights shortly after. “I was blown away,” he says. “There was such a rich body of work that needed publishing in the UK. We worked quickly. There was a lot to catch up on.”
It’s a dexterity that has become a power for niche, nimble young publishers amid a literary landscape of conglomerates. “Brilliant small publishers such as Fitzcarraldo Editions make enormous contributions to literary culture and give a voice to authors who would otherwise go unheard in the UK,” says Bridget Shine, chief executive of the Independent Publishers Guild. “Independents take risks in their commissioning that most bigger publishers would not and they consistently punch way above their weight in literary prizes such as the Nobel and Booker.”
Other accolades have also come for the press’s championed writers. Fitzcarraldo-published Diego Garcia, by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams, is the first twin-authored novel shortlisted for the Goldsmith prize, while Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker prize and longlisted for the US National Book award.
Fitzcarraldo continues to make a name for himself for sharp selections of foreign languages and boundary-pushing works. “The fact that we’re interested in translated literature shouldn’t be remarkable, but in this publishing landscape, it is,” says Testard. “We pick up world class authors without UK or even US publishers. A lot of us are binational, it comes naturally. The anglophone publishing world has this huge blindspot.”
The press’s publishing executive Joely Day thinks Fitzcarraldo’s books “feel contemporary, particularly in what remain turbulent times”.
“The books are concerned with politics, gender, class, borders – themes the world is contending with,” she adds. “We have a forward-looking editorial approach.”
The covers, designed by Ray O’Meara, are sleek and chic, with uniform blue for fiction and white for nonfiction. They’re now a ubiquitous Instagram grid fixture. Where aesthetics and trends vie for readers’ attention, Fitzcarraldo is stoic.
“The covers are democratizing,” says Bogen. “One of our writers told me: ‘If my book looks like Olga Tokarczuk’s book, it’s a great equalizer.’ People are willing to take that risk with us and discover books in different ways.”
Next spring, the press will launch a range of classics, including A Very Easy Death by Simone De Beavoir and a 1928 Brazilian stalwart epic by Mário de Andrade. His first Chinese book, Owlish by Dorothy Tse, translated by PEN/Heim-winner Natascha Bruce, will be published next year.
Fitzcarraldo’s team remains ambitious after their Nobel success. “A lot of this is luck and circumstance,” says Testard. “But we’re committed to long-term relationships with authors. Book by book, brick by brick, we’re on that journey with them.”