Books In Conversation
DAN SIMON with Phong Bui
Dan Simon was among the first friends I made in 1986 when I was a student at the New York Studio School. We became friends at a time when we both were making critical decisions about our lives—Dan gave up being a jazz musician for a publishing enterprise and I turned from an art editorial role in the commercial publishing industry to be an artist. A year later, in 1987 when I left on a traveling grant to Italy to study Florentine art, Dan started Four Walls Eight Windows with John Oakes, from whom he parted ways in 1995 to create his own (now legendary) Seven Stories Press. Known for publishing innovative fiction and translations in prose and poetry from diverse authors such as Annie Ernaux, Alan Dugan, Octavia Butler, Kurt Vonnegut, Lee Stringer, and Linh Dinh, to name just a few, Seven Stories Press also publishes a remarkable roster of non-fiction, which features voices from Dissent, focusing on historical, social, political, and human rights issues, with authors like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, and Angela Davis, among others. As an ongoing effort to defend free speech and human rights, Seven Stories Press has been working steadily with Project Censored and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Our friendship has been built upon the mutual commitment to our impractical pursuits in a time when print is considered obsolete. We both thrive on such assumptions for we know reading, as an essential human activity, has a 6,000-year history, and it has been kept alive by the indispensable relationship between writer and reader.
On the occasion of Seven Stories Press’ 20th anniversary, the following is an edited version of my conversation with Dan on April 25th, 2009 at Art International Radio, plus some additional segments added recently for your reading pleasure.
Phong Bui (Rail): Dan, let’s begin backwards. I remember reading an article “Keepers of the Word” that you published in the Nation in 2000, which was lengthy, but concise and full of passion. Not that you need to defend what you do as a publisher, but one felt that there was a sense of moral obligation to the intellectual enterprise of publishing, and a resolute sense of optimism. Do you feel the same way about Seven Stories Press as you did when you started it in 1995?
Simon: Gosh, I don’t know. I would have to say that the sentiment today is fractured. In publishing, you’re always on two tracks. It’s like a trapeze wire act where you’re balancing on two wires because you’re both in commerce and the artistic and literary traditions. Inevitably you’re a keeper of the word. As a publisher you’re charged with keeping the flame from going out; the flame being the raw center of artistic production. And you’re in the middle of a conversation, unavoidably, between writers and readers, so you have to make sense to the readers as well as to the writers. So there’s always that duality. And we’re at a, to use a fancy word, crepuscular moment: a time of day when the light is filled with apparent realities that aren’t real. There are many dark shadows, which can be productive because it brings out the best in people. It’s as if we were living in a war zone. To use another analogy—as they say of people going into therapy—it’s not that your problems will be solved, it’s that you will face a greater variety of problems—you won't be perpetually dealing with the same problems. It’s as if we’re in a therapy moment as a society. But if I had to pick one word to describe one of the problems for the moment, I’d say the word fragmentation. Of course our publishing world is symptomatic of the larger world, which is very fragmented in terms of any of the deeper issues—in terms of optimism or hope or sense of direction. So being caught between the art of doing cultural production and commerce today is a matter of choosing what you think is real, and what you think is just shadow play.
Rail: We both prefer the former to the latter. Yet we’re both constantly having to remind ourselves of the shadow line, as in Conrad’s novella, that separates innocence and maturity. At any rate, what was the public perception of Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country when it was published?
Simon: Oh, that was wonderful. Kurt had decided at the end of his career that he would not write another book. Yet Kurt had been an advisor to Seven Stories Press, and a friend of mine ever since we met in 1984. And one of the funny things about publishing is that you’re often guided by exigencies. We had a tough 2004 when Kurt and I were preliminarily going back and forth with that book, and by early 2005 I needed a book. We started working together partly because he was our friend and partly because we needed a big book. But he was deeply ambivalent because he had a great reputation and, as he would say, had “done enough.” He didn’t want to risk his reputation on another little book, so he was very worried and concerned about the book’s reception. But he did a splendid job, and we found very innovative ways to design and produce it. It was important because it could have been ignored because of its size. I forget if it’s 24,000 words or 18,000 words, but it was slight in any case. Somehow, by the time he was done and we were done, it was clearly as close as he would ever come to writing an autobiography. And this is someone who hates the idea of autobiography partially because, paradoxically, there’s autobiography in all of his books already. He had, in a sense, already written his autobiography as the sum total of all of his fiction. So he didn’t want an autobiography, and here he had written one. Then it turned out that in August, 2005, he didn’t want to go out of the city. He just didn’t like going to Bridgehampton anymore where he used to go. So he just stayed in the city and had nothing to do. We were preparing to publish in early September 2005 so we were able to introduce him to people in print and television media, one by one. He had never done television before for his books. But one by one, in a very personal way, he met senior producers and other personnel and had good conversations. They were all admirers of his work. In other words, the response was thunderous. People were so grateful for this book at a very difficult time in this country's history. Here was a guy saying in effect that you can take the darkest look at where we are now in our history, and still say it’s okay. That simply looking at it as clearly, as painfully and honestly as we can is better than our usual tendency to avoid it, to remain fearful about what is hiding in the closet. Kurt would say, “Yeah, it’s horrible.” One of the things he was saying at that time, and he said it on national television, is that “We,” meaning we humans, “are syphilis as a species, and the planet is right to want to get rid of us.” He would say things like this. He meant it to be very funny but it was also heartfelt. And instead of saying “how depressing,” people responded by saying “how refreshing.” People thought “Gee, you can look the worst of our collective identity in the eye and it’s not so bad.” It’s the power of language really. Somehow by saying it in it’s worst incarnation, you get free of it in a sense. And you see that there is nothing so bad that we have to hide from it, to lie about it and gloss it over.
Rail: He managed to deliver the sentiment of his concerns through humor.
Simon: Yes, humor was the key. There were lots of funny lines. But it was also the intimacy that people responded to. You felt like you were sitting next to him on a couch. Kurt liked to say that he was always a good date with his readers. He was a good date in the sense that he was like a guy that, in the afternoon, before going on a date, would go to books and find some great jokes that he could share with his date that he thought she would have never heard before, to delight and entertain his date. And Kurt really did that. I remember that before he went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart he created a list that he read on the show, and they put it on their website. He wouldn’t let any of us see it before the show. But he was sitting there like a schoolboy or a professional comedian, preparing for his performance. He really worked at that, so the reception was splendid. People were really grateful for it. At this difficult moment in our history to have one of our really great writers say that he was in this moment with us, on the subway, reading the newspapers, was very important to a country that was divided and at war. It became a national best seller, helped Seven Stories out greatly. We payed off the massive amounts of debt that we had accumulated. Kurt was very happy. And one of the nicest things for me was that, as our book was a national best seller, people started going back and reading his back list. Our book was something like 8 or 10 on Amazon, and Slaughterhouse Five crept back into the top 100 on Amazon. So we stimulated a lot of reading of Kurt’s backlist, and that continues today. The timing was perfect. We managed, just because everything was so right about it, to reestablish his career. Not that his career had in any way slipped. He was always very popular, always being rediscovered by each generation, but the publication of A Man Without a Country really punctuated that in a beautiful way and reminded us that this is who we are as Americans. At the same time we were doing awful things around the world, this quintessentially American author stood up against all that. As both a veteran and anti-war voice he is also a part of who we are: we can look in the mirror and also see Kurt with his humor and integrity, and that is very important.
Rail: He definitely had experienced war. He fought in World War Two and was a prisoner of war, which colored his literary sensibility and ambition. I was also quite touched by his generosity when he collaborated with Lee Stringer who was the former editor and columnist of Street News, [the first street newspaper of its kind sold by homeless people in New York City in the late ’80s]. The collaboration was rather a conversation moderated by Ross Klavan for Seven Stories Press [Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation About Writing]. I think that came right after Lee’s Grand Central Winter, which was published in 1998 and quite a success. How did that collaboration come about?
Simon: I was on my way to lunch with Kurt in early 1998, and I had galleys of this book by Lee Stringer. I had discovered him while reading Street News during a train delay. I ended up reading the entire issue. Lee had written most of it. I was taken by his writing so I wrote to him soon after. Anyway at my lunch with Kurt and I was so inspired, I said to him “I’m not asking you to do anything for this book, but I just want you to read it, cover to cover. That’s all I ask.” I remember when I wrote a biography of Abbie Hoffman which his brother Jack published through Putnam in 1996. Abbie used to say that as an organizer you have to come up with the right questions, or reasonable demands, so that you get people in the habit of saying yes, and they will be very happy to work with you. That was one of Abbie’s primary organizing principles. With Kurt, it was more unconscious and less calculating. Anyway, Kurt read the whole thing and loved it. He wrote me a week or so later. He would send these long faxes, sometimes at 5 or so in the morning, in all caps saying “DEAR DAN, YOU’VE DISCOVERED THE NEXT JACK LONDON. YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE A MILLION BUCKS.” And that was his sense of Lee. You and I were talking a little while ago about guilt and how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be as a motivating force, and I once asked Kurt about what the key to Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter was. He said that it was that he didn’t make the reader feel guilty. That’s his great gift. Because of course he’s writing about homeless people, he’s writing about street people, and prostitutes, and drug addicts. This was during the crack epidemic of the ’80s. And he was able to give you the feeling that these were all people you would kind of like to meet and talk with and spend time with, so he didn’t guilt-trip the reader.
Rail: That holds true too of some other writers we love. The power of storytelling and lyricism can certainly replace guilt—
Simon: And forgiveness.
Rail: Yeah. I got a similar sense when I read Nelson Algren’s classic The Man With the Golden Arm. I also remember seeing the movie adaptation, directed by Otto Preminger with Frank Sinatra playing the lead role, remember? Actually, Algren was an author who also had a very difficult upbringing. He was sent to jail for a week because he stole a typewriter from an abandoned classroom, among other things. He always had a strong feeling of empathy toward marginalized figures.
Simon: But you know when H. E. F. Donohue did a book Conversations With Nelson Algren [published by University of Chicago Press in 2001], he asked Algren “Did you grow up poor?” And he said “No, no, no. Only in an American way.” What he meant was that growing up, he always had enough to eat and a roof over his head. So he was only poor in the sense that other people might have made him feel poor because his father had a tire changing garage so he didn’t have much money. But he had a mother and a father, he had a home and all that. The thing with Nelson Algren was that he wrote about other people that interested him, about the poor Polish community in Chicago, eventually about drug culture and lowlife culture in Chicago and elsewhere, and he never wrote about himself. People assume that was his life too, but Algren was a Christ-like figure in his generosity in that he wrote about others as if they were himself. But his upbringing was not particularly traumatic. He just had a kind of selflessness. And Kurt also had that generosity. It’s something that you see in fiction writers but rarely to that extent. He would have been a very good publisher if he had not been such a good writer, in that he could be really generous to his peers and friends, like William Styron, or newer writers like Lee Stringer. But when Kurt became enthusiastic about another writer he did it from his gut. Before that book was published he would call frequently and say “When is Lee’s book coming out?” And I would respond with “It’s going to be another six weeks.” And he would say “Well hurry up!” It was really him. This is the way it works in America; you need an established voice to give permission to readers to discover a new voice, and Kurt was the one who really lent his voice such that Lee was taken seriously. Not just as someone who had certain interesting experiences, but as a writer, with his own voice that people needed to pay attention to.
Rail: Right. How did your relationship with Howard Zinn get started? Did it begin prior to the publication of his A People's History of the United States in 1980?
Simon: When I was growing up in Newton Corner, Howard lived nearby in Auburndale where he lived [until his death in Santa Monica, CA in 2010]. And he and his wife Roslyn were friends of my parents. My mom was in the same department at Boston University where Howard then taught. The thing about Howard and Roz was that they conveyed a basic human respect to you. As a kid it was great because most people treat kids like kids. But they were very wise and generous in giving that human respect. They would keep your secrets if needed them to. That respect, of course, means the world to a young person. So they became, for me, kind of confessors. I was something of a juvenile delinquent for a stretch. I swung back and forth. I was a goody two-shoes through 9th grade, then I became something of a juvenile delinquent, stealing cars with my friends, dealing pot and things like that. And I could talk to Roz and Howard and they would take me seriously. I began to feel more like a young outlaw rather than just a jerk. And I did, during that period, begin to do political work. I got involved with some of the people from the Attica Brothers Legal Defense. Some of the Attica Brothers had by then served their full sentences on their prior convictions and were out and going to schools and giving talks. So I invited this guy Roger Champen (they called him Champ) and William Kunstler (who we later published) to my high school. We had missed the ’60s, but it was before the ‘70s reaction. So in ‘69 or ‘70, I would have been between 11 and 13 around the time I became involved in the Attica Brothers Legal Defense work. They were preparing a bunch of trials and it was really interesting to meet Roger Champen who was basically a jailhouse lawyer, and eventually became a friend. Roger taught himself law in prison. And also to meet people like Bill Kunstler, and others in the Boston Liberation Magazine crowd. Those were individuals of enormous personal integrity. It was extraordinarily influential because at that moment there was something of a revolution in this country. There was enormous power and hope, and enormous potential for change, be it social or political, and it was very inspiring. I remember slightly later, as a 13 or 14 year old, having repeated conversations with Howard where I would say, “Why aren’t you and your friends starting an alternative institution?” knowing that Howard was hated by the president of Boston University John Silber. They were in a famous feud, and Silber eventually did get rid of Howard after decades. Noam Chomsky was at MIT of course, where he still is. But I wondered why all of these remarkable minds couldn’t set up an alternative institution instead of having this dual existence where they worked for institutions that they were in conflict with, then did their political work on the side, partly protected by the fact that they had tenure. But it was a provocative question. And the answer, I now know as somebody with kids, was that they couldn’t do that because they weren’t rich people, and they had families. It’s interesting that we read their books, and we don’t necessarily know them personally, but these were people who had a lot of integrity in their intellectual ambition though in their personal lives families were of primary importance.
Rail: It’s a very difficult issue. I was a dinner last night at the home of David Novros and Joanna Pousette-Dart, along with Terry Winters and his wife Hendel Teicher, and we were talking about Merce Cunningham, who was undoubtedly a national treasure, and yet there is no school or institution named after him. We concluded that we, as a culture, don’t value people like Merce enough.
Simon: We live in a terrible country. I don’t mean in terms of internal issues like torture, police brutality, and militarization which are obviously grave problems in America. The torture we all read about in the papers these days is something that Obama needs to be forceful about. There needs to be accountability. But compared to other countries, we are relatively democratic. I don't walk around saying we’re a terrible country because of police brutality in New York City, though obviously there is some and it’s terrible, but we do have a real legal system. You can get justice in the courts. You can’t count on it, but it does exist. But where I do feel that we’re just a terrible country, relative to most others, is in our treatment of artists, writers, and other creative individuals. The people we need most to cherish, we often ignore, neglect. And if we can’t successfully ignore and neglect them, we celebritize them, which is almost as bad, or perhaps worse. It’s that or its opposite. We dehumanize our most valuable people. And if we can’t do it by a kind of character assassination, we do it by the opposite: by celebritization which is just as bad because it builds a wall around them.
Rail: It’s a bipolar, black and white, all or nothing culture. I just remember that years ago, reading Howard Zinn’s doctoral thesis on [Fiorello H.] LaGuardia in Congress, which was later published by Cornell University Press (in 2010). He really took LaGuardia to heart as an advocate for the right to vote, for wealth distribution through taxation, and as a figure of real conviction in the social and political climax of the ’30s and ’40s. Anyway, we also know that Zinn shared the same military experience as Vonnegut. The difference was during World War Two he was a bombardier in the Air Force.
Simon: That’s right. Howard’s unit was one that dropped napalm on a French village called Royan at the end of the war. So it was deeply personal to him whether one could legitimately speak of any war as justified. Over the years he has really struggled with that. It’s been very personal and he’s written about going to Hiroshima on one of the anniversaries of the dropping of the bomb and so on. He has come to believe that there is no such thing as a just war. And he writes about it in a little book that we did called Terrorism and War, which includes a little history of bombing and 20th century munitions. At the start of the 20th century, a majority of casualties in war were military casualties. By the end of the 20th century, the vast majority were civilian casualties. So it is partly because of that that he believes there isn't legitimate justification for war. He is quite critical right now of Obama’s willingness to militarize Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the concern is the nuclear arsenal in Pakistan, why can’t we remove the nuclear arsenal, or demilitarize these areas? But the effective policy would be exporting a non-militarism. He argues very compellingly that if, instead of exporting our military presence, we began exporting an emphatic refusal to militarize then the popular sentiment, where we are really losing those wars now, could turn powerfully in our favor, and in favor of peace.
Rail: Similarly, you did something that was somewhat controversial when you published Noam Chomsky's book 9-11, which was a risk during this vast patriotic sentiment.
Simon: Right. That was the beginning of the historical moment that we're in now. It’s a kind of war mongering moment. Seven Stories’ office was about nine blocks from the Twin Towers and we were not allowed back for several days. We got back on the 13th, and decided to reach out to a number of our writers and ask for 500 words from each to put up on our website as reflections, free for anyone who is part of our community who wants to know what’s going on. I think Howard did that along with Ariel Dorfman and Assia Djebar, an Algerian writer who became quite familiar with living with terrorist acts while she lived in Algeria for decades. The conversation with Noam started around that time when an editor at Seven Stories, Greg Ruggiero who founded the Open Media Pamphlet Series, started going back and forth with Noam. It turned out that Noam, who had been blacklisted in the American media, had been in great demand around the world. So El Pais in Spain, Der Spiegel, and all the mainstream media throughout the world, Japan, Eastern Europe, Italy, had been conducting interviews with him about what was going on. So we had transcripts of translated interviews which became the modular, raw material that went back and forth between Greg and Noam into something like 22 drafts over a very short period of two weeks. That evolved into the seven chapters that we would publish as 9-11. It’s a beautifully composed book actually. We went to the Frankfurt Book Fair and were one of the few American publishers that flew. Our foreign rights director insisted that we go, and I remember going to J.F.K. Airport in early October and it was a wasteland: there was nobody at the airport. We flew to Frankfurt and nobody was showing up to our meetings at first because they assumed that, like other American publishers, we wouldn't be there. But we had brought the manuscript that they had just completed with us. We read it ourselves on the way over. We mentioned this potential book and foreign publishers would say “I want to see it.” And we’d say “it’s so short. Why don’t we give you this copy now and you can read it tonight and come back and tell us tomorrow.” It developed this international buzz about this manuscript that hadn’t yet been published in the states. So we contracted with foreign publishers around the world, they started working on their translations. We came back, rushed to press, and we were advised not to publish it, as you said. Our own business manager said “Do not publish this book now, you’ll be attacked. All the polls show how pro-war the country is.” We weren’t going to not publish it. We said, “Well you’re probably right so it may not do very well, but were doing it.” And we had it printed by early November, very quickly. Then it became this phenomenon. And in fact it was hard to meet demand. We ended up selling 400,000 here, and I’m sure they sold close to a million copies around the world. But more importantly, it became this wonderful moment in the public conversation. It became a real assertion of something that we miss today, which is the assertion of public space and public discourse. I value, very much, the emails I got saying, generally, “You know, I’m a lifelong conservative and I wanted to thank you very much for publishing Noam Chomsky’s 9-11.” And what I took them to mean by that was that they didn’t need to agree with it, but on a human level they knew he was speaking from a place of great knowledge, that he had developed this point of view with great sincerity, integrity and brilliance. Whether they agreed with him or not there was an integrity to the conversation between Noam and the American people. He was saying what was clear to him and they could either agree with it or disagree with it. Noam until that time had been a kind of celebrity of the university campuses, which is a certain kind of compartmentalized world, but not read much outside. With that book he became a figure on the broader landscape saying the things that people desperately needed to hear. And at the same time he was asserting a kind of humanity, internationalism, and a basic level of common sense that was a counterweight to the madness in G. W. Bush’s foreign policy, compounded with the gung-ho role that the media chose to take as a uniform voice, a cheerleading squad. So buying and reading Noam Chomsky's 9-11, became a way for intelligent, feeling citizens to, in a sense, vote against what they were seeing on television. And I will say that, in this country, it still has not received a single review. In other words, we ended up with a 2 - 3 inch binder full of reviews from places like Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea, and other countries around the world where it was treated like a major statement, a small but influential book. Here what happened was that as soon as it became a national best seller the New York Times wrote about the best selling phenomenon of it, but no reviewers dared to wrestle with its point of view, its assertions, its ideas. Not one to this day. If I were going to be pedantic I would say the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote an attack of his Zionism as an excuse for the lack of coverage. But really the only thing that this country's media was willing to write about was the phenomenal sales. It was really remarkable.
Rail: Let’s see if we can go back a bit, to the beginning. I think we met around 1986. Up to that point, I remember that you were still a jazz musician, a double bassist. That was about a year before you started Four Walls Eight Windows. But going back even further, you were born in South Africa?
Simon: Nope, I was born outside of London. My folks came from South Africa.
Rail: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing, as briefly as you can.
Simon: Christ Phong! Well, growing up, my dad was an atheist. I would say mine was a secular Jewish upbringing, without giving it that name. I didn’t know I was Jewish until I started getting invited to Bat Mitzvahs by girls I went to school with who were wealthier and lived up in the hill in nicer houses. I had to say to my dad “Look, I know we don’t have a religion, but if we did, what would it be?” So I had to have the sophistication as an early teenager to say “I know … but what if … ?” And he was happy to say that all of my grandparents on both sides were Jews. I have to research this, but apparently they were publishers in Amsterdam on the Simon’s side going back to the 17th century. But we grew up without any extended family here. My dad was a medical man, an inventor and clinical radiologist at a university hospital in Boston. We arrived here when I was 6 weeks old. And we were a very close family. My mom was all about the arts, my dad was all about the sciences, and we were Jewish but we didn’t know it.
Rail: So where did the politics come from?
Simon: Well, they had been anarchists in England before I was born. My dad was a great lover of anarchism. He was very passionate about it. He loved it. He would talk about Alexander Berkman, Murray Bookchin, or other anarchist thinkers. I think he loved it in the same way that he would love the elegance of a beautiful scientific theory, or the beauty of branchings in nature, leaf structure, or something like that. He hated all the harmful things that had been done in the name of organized religion.
Rail: Did you go to Columbia University?
Simon: I decided not to go to Columbia at first. I was accepted, but decided to go to NYU instead for music performance because that was what I was into, but I transferred after one year to literature. Having started at a different university, I led an antisocial life at Columbia. I hardly knew anybody. I did an enormous amount of reading. I did Greek and Latin which I hadn’t done before. I was just a very serious student. As I said, in 9th grade, I would show up to a party with my friends and if someone asked if they were high they would say “No, we were with Dan.” I would say things like “You mustn't smoke dope because it will ruin your chromosomes.” Then I went the other way and became a pretty big pot dealer, which of course was preparation for my job as a publisher. [Laughter.] I was something of a juvenile delinquent. I had friends like David Halle, the son of Morris Halle, Noam Chomsky’s linguistics co-writer. There was a lot of university professors’ kids. But we were into our own thing, we had a great youth culture going on. But I got that all out of my system in high school. By the time I graduated high school I was kind of done with having fun. I had fun for a couple years, and that was it. Otherwise, it goes back to that conversation with Howard, about setting up alternative institutions. I don’t think I had a clue what I wanted to do in college, but whatever it was going to be, I was just a painfully serious college student.
Rail: How did you and John Oakes get started with Four Walls Eight Windows?
Simon: I graduated college. I lived in France for three years. I came back and got a graduate degree. I was a graduate fellow [of the English and Comparative Literature Department] at Columbia, and I started working in publishing because there weren't any jobs in academia at that time. All the departments were shrinking. It was Ann Douglas at Columbia who introduced me to Alice Quinn, the editor at Knopf, and it was Alice who helped me get a job at Norton. I actually did a little bit of time at Harper & Row then at [W. W.] Norton & Company. Then at some point I was introduced to Katrina Cary, through whom I was introduced to John Oakes. Katrina and John’s fathers were best friends. And I had started to publish books under the Four Walls Eight Windows imprint, basically reissuing anything I could by Nelson Algren. I had come across a short story called “A Bottle of Milk For Mother” in a dog-eared Robert Penn Warren anthology of stories. This one story just blew me away. I was taken by this voice. It was like reading Beckett for the first time, just the purity of this distinctly American voice. It’s a story about this kid who basically strong-arms and ends up murdering an old man. He gets interrogated. And at the end in his cell he says “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.” But it’s a great story. And I had never heard of Nelson Algren. I was like “Who the hell is this guy?” I guess at that time I was an editor at Norton. This would have been ’83. So I started looking for his books and it turned out they were all out of print. So I tracked down his agent and friend, a woman named Candida Donadio, and I said, “look, can I bring these books back into print?” And she said “Oh god, there’s this guy, he’s not even a publisher, he’s just a guy.” So she went back to all his previous publishers, and they all said no, so she let me do it. That was in 1984 that I started reissuing those books through Writers and Readers. A black publisher named Glenn Thompson was mentoring me. Did you ever meet him?
Rail: I only met him once through George Braziller, but I like what they do at Writers and Readers, especially their For Beginners series.
Simon: That’s right. He built that series starting with the books that Rius [Eduardo del Rio] did, Cuba for Beginners, Marx for Beginners, and whatnot. But Glenn was visionary. He was born in Harlem but grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And I learned from his family after Glenn died, actually just a few days before 9/11, that Glenn’s mother died of cancer and his father was basically unable to look after him and his brother. Glenn had the distinction, I think as an 11 year old, of calling human services on himself. That is, he called up human services and said “You’ve got to come get me and my brother.” Nelson Algren hadn’t, but Glenn really had grown up under tough circumstances in Brooklyn, and made himself into a publisher. He was a visionary publisher that built that For Beginners list into one of the really great innovations of the ’80s, one of the few series based on the idea that you can take the most sophisticated of subjects, present it in comic book format, and anyone can understand it based on natural intelligence, not based on having a PhD. He was a very brilliant man, and he was mentoring me because he was distributed by Norton where I was an assistant editor. So when I told Glenn about Algren, he offered to let me publish those books through Writers and Readers. So he offered me an imprint and said “Dan, you’ll be the youngest person in American publishing your own imprint.” Which, you know, is a nice thing to hear as a young editor. So we started reissuing those books and they did well. There was a readership for Algren. Then, in ’85 or ’86, Katrina Cary introduced me to John at a party, and talked about the possibility of setting up a company. We did, and John was a great partner and a man with great ebullience. And it was a good company. We did books at a rate of four or so a season. We did a good list and had a lot of success.
Rail: And you left in ’96?
Simon: I never left. We had a falling out in ’95 and the company bifurcated, so I retained my half of the company and my authors. I went to each of my authors and said “Look, I don’t need to do this for the rest of my life, but I would be willing to continue doing this if you want me to.” I thought it was a lot to ask because these were writers who depended for the most part on their writing. That’s what they did for a living. So it was very nice actually. I went to each of them. And each of them, I think rather irresponsibly, said “Sure, I’ll go with you.” And every one of them did. And, in fact, Seven Stories Press is named after the first seven without whom I wouldn't have done it: Octavia Butler, Lee Stringer who we had not yet published but had signed up, Project Censored, the estate of Nelson Algren, a Greek writer called Vassilis Vassilikos who had written Z, a french writer called Annie Ernaux, Charley Rosen who was a basketball novelist, and Gary Null the alternative health nutritionist. That was the seven. So I started under a new name, but I had quite a running start in that I had my copyrights, a backlist, the support of my distributor. So there was great continuity between the first and the second company. It takes a toll though to start a company. So starting a company again was probably a reckless and foolhardy thing to do that I’m probably feeling now. But it was about as smooth as can be, and the booksellers and distributors were very supportive. And it wasn’t a bad time. I don't know that one could start out now, but it was possible 13 years ago.
Rail: What are your feelings about foreign authors? When I think of a publisher that I admire, like legendary George Braziller for instance, he went to Paris and managed to get Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Janet Frame, the great writer from New Zealand. And in regards to Annie Ernaux, she is an author with considerable fame in her country France but wasn't as well known as she should have been in the U.S. What’s your feeling about foreign authors?
Simon: Normally, I would say that the world is so much smaller and the international conversation needs to be important to us here because we're going to get great sustenance from it. We need foreign writers here as never before. But the funny thing that I would say today is that the most remote far off place, really, in America right now is America. And I say that, not because it sounds nice but because the foreign writers that you’re going to get here are still part of a literary world, so they’re closer to us than many writers in our own country. I was at a dinner a couple nights ago with a number of wonderful editors. Some of them were very famous editors that I had wanted to meet and that I was happy to meet. I enjoyed myself very much. But there wasn’t one of them who is reading material that was not agented. Now that means that something has already been packaged or filtered. And these are people making the decisions about what gets published and what doesn’t. There are many people out there in this country just writing, and one of them is going to write the next important thing and it may not be agented because they may not be able to get an agent because it may be too different or too scary or too provocative. Americans writing are actually at a further remove right now than foreign literature. So the situation of foreign literature is very important. We need to be doing more translation. But it’s a bad situation for brave American writing, and I think that’s more important to me than good American writing in a sense. I’m not saying that we have our finger on the pulse, that we’re doing it and they’re not. These are all editors that are doing great books. But the question of access for good American writers finding a publisher, it’s almost like this country is on another planet in terms of getting that kind of access. And if you’re a published Armenian writer, or a published Albanian writer, you might have a more direct line to getting read at Random House or some other New York house than an American who is not connected to the literary establishment. I’m sure there’s a comparable problem in the art world.
Rail: Multiculturalism was in some ways a product of that aspiration, for better or for worse. Anyway, I ran into George Braziller just two days ago and we shared a cab uptown together for a good ten or fifteen minutes, so we had a good chance to talk about publishing. He didn’t sound so optimistic. We discussed the idea of the sustainability of the printed page as an object, whether a book, or a pamphlet, or a journal as we do at the Rail, whether people would continue to read it or not. George was extremely pessimistic, bleak even. There is a big gap in between where George is in his life, and where you are now with yours. What do you feel about where you are now? Is there love? Is there excitement about going into the office to decide what’s going to be printed, anticipating responses and so on? What’s it like being part of that whole incredible enterprize at Seven Stories Press?
Simon: Well, say as an exercise, if one took away the love and took away the enthusiasm and took away the passion, is there still something terribly important that can emerge once you are naked of those things? I think that’s a very important question right now. I think that the book itself, has incredible resilience, incredible strength. I heard Bruce Sterling, science fiction writer and futurist, give a talk last fall in Barcelona. He was saying that our literary heritage is so strong that books are not at risk. He did mention of course that most of the writers we read were dead because the history of writing adds up. We keep our dead writers around. But then, at the end, he said he was going to read the names of the dead and we all assumed he was going to list the names of dead writers. Instead, he began to list the names of dead computer programs: Kaypro, Kaypro II, Atari, Mac. All these ones that, at a given moment, we thought were the hot new thing. We thought they ruled the world. Then they were cannibalized by the next new one, and the next new one. What tends to be leapfrogged over and destroyed by the newest new technology is the previous new technology. The book is such a powerful form. We don’t always read them. You know, I’m reading Bolano’s 2666. I’m about halfway through now, I’m a very committed reader, but I’m wondering about how many of the tens of thousands of people who bought that book actually read it. I would say maybe one percent of those who bought it will actually read it.
Rail: But that one percent is very fierce with their own books.
Simon: That’s true, and I’m fine with all the people who buy it and don’t read it. But one of the big questions that I’m interested in is what happens when we take away some of the optimism and hope that we have gotten addicted to, and the belief that the problems in the end are there to be solved and will be solved, and that things are going to be better somehow. We’re so attached to that belief system. And when we start to live in a world where we basically assume that problems won’t get solved, is that the end of the world? Does that mean that nothing gets done and we don’t get up in the morning? Or is it an opportunity for a stronger humanity to come into our work? I’m feeling now that I want to be able to say “Well I don’t know that it’s going to all work out, but I’m still committed to doing it.” To say “I don’t know that this important project that I’m working on is going to get noticed, but I’m still committed to doing it.” I still believe it’s important. It’s a kind of hopeful hopelessness. That’s where we are at the moment. It might produce better work.
Rail: Good, we want better work. And we want books to be read. And in fact, the pleasure is doubled when you can talk about the same book with someone else who has read it.