A restless scholar’s newest venture Professor and writer Ilan Stavans adds book publishing to his resume

Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ilan Stavans says he sleeps well — though he also admits his actual hours of shut-eye tend to be on the short side.

That’s not a surprise, given the Amherst College professor’s hectic schedule. Aside from teaching courses on Latin American literature, Latino culture, world Jewish writers, cinema and other subjects, Stavans is a prolific writer whose work ranges all over the map: essays, literary criticism, fiction, graphic novels. A native of Mexico, he’s shown particular interest in the intersection of English and Spanish and the place of Hispanic culture in North America.

He’s been just as busy with his editor’s pen, overseeing a book series on Latin American Jewish literature as well as Norton’s monumental “Anthology of Latino Literature,” published in 2011. He’s also the go-to guy for many news organizations like NPR as a commentator on Latino culture and literature, and he’s a regular speaker at literary symposiums and related events.

But in the last two years, Stavans, 54, has taken on an additional role: book publisher. And the name of his company — Restless Books — seems a fitting title for his own boundless and omnivorous interests, though the company’s official tag line is “an international publisher for a world in motion.”

In a recent interview in his Amherst College office, Stavans said Restless Books (www.restlessbooks.com), which has its main office in Brooklyn, New York, could trace its origins to an issue that’s long troubled him and other writers, publishers and teachers. Only three percent of books published annually in the United States (and in Great Britain and Ireland) are works translated from other languages. By contrast, the percentages of translated works published in countries such as France, Italy and Germany tend to be much higher, he said.

“I would go on NPR and complain about this all the time,” Stavans said. “You know, ‘How can we broaden our readership, make it less parochial?’ After I turned 50, I started thinking maybe I should actually try to do something about it.

“In other words,” he said with a laugh, “it was time to put up or shut up.”

A range of topics

Restless Books, which includes Stavans as publisher, a small team of editors and a marketing director in Brooklyn, and an editor in Israel, began strictly as a digital publisher but this year added print copies. It’s dedicated to bringing work from other countries and cultures to an English-speaking audience; so far the company has worked with writers from Latin America, Europe, the Mideast, India, Pakistan, China and other countries.

The 40-odd titles they’ve published have run the gamut: fiction, science fiction, travelogues, memoirs, journalism and photography collections. For instance, in “Captivity,” the company is offering the first English translation of a prize-winning historical novel in Hungary by author György Spiró. “The Underground,” translated from Russian, is by Hamid Ismailov, a native of Uzbekistan now living in England, whom Britain’s The Guardian newspaper calls “a writer of immense poetic power.”

The eclectic list includes reprints of English-language titles, and vintage ones at that, like Edith Wharton’s “A Motor-Flight Through France,” her account of touring France by car in 1905-06, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s travel and personal narrative “Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark” from the late 18th century (Wollstonecraft was a renowned English feminist whose second daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote “Frankenstein”).

The press also includes a small number of titles in Spanish.

“We live in this time when there’s so much information, so much crossing of borders and mingling of cultures, that travel writing has taken on some added importance,” said Stavans, who this semester is teaching a course on literature, cinema and music connected to travel.

And the company has also developed a “classics” line — reissuing selected standards with fresh introductions and artwork, beginning this year with Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” which is celebrating its 400th anniversary. Stavans, who wrote the introduction for the new edition, has also recorded some videotaped interviews about the book on the company’s website, and he’s hosting a series of online discussions for the novel as well.

Upcoming reissues of classic books include “Robinson Crusoe,” “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Frankenstein”; all will feature introductions or additional material from contemporary writers who will examine the books from a modern perspective.

“I see us as being a part of a community of readers,” said Stavans, who’s been keeping busy this fall making appearances at book fairs and other events connected to Restless Books. He’s also been promoting a new book of his own — “Quixote: The Novel and World,” published by W.W. Norton & Company — that examines the famous novel’s impact on other writers and thinkers and modern culture. (See sidebar)

“So much of the publishing industry has become dominated by corporations, which has narrowed the range of what’s available to readers — and to writers,” he added. “We’d like to try and change that, and hopefully, with the access the Internet has given the world, the way it’s made things more fluid, we can have a role in doing that.”

Benefactor gives assist

Stavans, who grew up in Mexico in a Jewish family, came to the United States as a young man, and the immigrant experience remains a subject of endless interest to him. He’s written in the past of having a sort of “insider/outsider” viewpoint, one that’s enabled him to find much to admire in his adopted country but also highlighted its shortcomings, like the anti-immigrant sentiment that targets Hispanics in particular.

But in making his first real foray into the business world, Stavans says he feels he’s tapped something of “the essential American spirit, this idea of taking a risk and trying something new. It’s exciting and it’s different, after all my years in academics.”

He explains that a few years ago, when he first began looking at how he might create a publishing company, a friend and benefactor gave him the funds to take a business class at Brown University and learn more about the publishing industry. Then, after completing the course, he came up with a business proposal, and his benefactor — someone he declines to name but describes as “a passionate reader” — wrote him an even bigger check to get started.

Restless Books has since started a subscription service, and it’s also funded one book through a Kickstarter campaign. Stavans stresses that the company is designed “to turn a profit. And that involves some risks. It means that if we print 3,000 copies of a book, we have to find ways to sell them.”

To find wider markets for its print copies, Restless has signed a deal with the publishing company Simon & Schuster to distribute its books to bookstores, including major chains like Barnes & Noble.

To solicit new material, the company employs a couple of acquisitions editors to find manuscripts or have existing books translated into English, which are reviewed by in-house staff and some outside reviewers; Stavans then reads the manuscripts that have been forwarded by the staff for final approval. The company generally works with specific translators on its books, trying to match the person best suited to a writer’s sensibility, a process that can take time, he notes.

Stavans also takes part in the search for new material, though he says the company is now receiving a good share of unsolicited proposals: “I think the word is getting out about us.”

Restless Books has tapped a local contributor as well. Novelist Ruth Ozeki, a Smith College aluma who’s currently teaching fiction writing at the school, has contributed an extended essay to the first book of a new series, “The Face,” that features short memoirs by writers who examine issues such as race, identity and cross-cultural experiences.

Pulling all these threads together, said Stavans, “is very rewarding. The idea that we can go out into the field and introduce writers from other countries to readers here — that’s exciting.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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