An interview with Michael Reynolds, Editor in Chief of Europa Editions, a New York/Rome-based publisher of international fiction and a new travel anthology series called The Passenger.
The beach was endless and deserted, with a granular sand that rustled at every step. The sea gave off an intense odor and a sharp, monotonous sound. I stood for a long time at that great mass of water. Then I sat on a towel, uncertain what to do. Finally I got up and stuck my feet in. How had it happened that I lived in a city like Naples and never thought, not once, of swimming in the sea?
This isn’t any old description of the beach. It’s Elena Ferrante’s beach, specifically Ischia, a volcanic island off the coast of Italy. And even if you’ve been to thousands of beaches around the world in your life, you’re right there with this timeless protagonist’s first-ever experience at a place where ocean meets sand. Perhaps it even makes you wonder what it would be like to dip your own toes in the Gulf of Naples, gulping the same salty air that Ferrante possibly breathed before writing My Brilliant Friend, the instant-classic first novel of the author’s best-selling Neapolitan quartet.
As Ferrante’s Neapolitan series gained popularity across the globe over the last decade (with over ten million copies sold in over forty countries) so too have travel guides and guided tours sprung up that offer a real-life glimpse into Ferrante’s storied universe.
Such literary tourism is not an uncommon phenomenon. Book-lover guides from Mexico City to Munich abound, while “Bloomsday” in Dublin invites thousands of visitors each year to celebrate Irish author James Joyce’s single-day epic, Ulysses. Notorious Lord of the Rings tours of New Zealand’s breathtaking landscape are consistently popular, not to mention the Hemingway bars from Paris to Key West that boast the famous American author’s prior patronage as a selling point. It seems that while the places we’re inspired to travel to can be brought to our attention by a variety of sources, perhaps none are more enriching than the ones we discover through books.
In order for readers to connect with books written in other languages, however, someone must be responsible for translating and bringing those works to market—which is exactly where Europa Editions comes in. Founded in 2005, Europa Editions is an independent publisher with the goal of bringing prominent international voices to the U.S. and British markets, though their mission goes much deeper than that.
“This idea of publishing an established writer with a strong readership in his or her native country comes with the idea that we’re not just introducing a new writer to a new readership in America—we’re connecting readerships, creating a bond, and a bridge between readerships in France or Italy or Algeria and readerships in America,” says Editor-in-Chief Michael Reynolds.
Since their founding, Europa has published authors from 33 different countries on each populated continent (soon to be 34 with the publication of their first Senegalese author), translating works from numerous languages, including Elena Ferrante’s novels, originally written in Italian.
“The idea [for Europa Editions] came up shortly after 9/11, and a lot of our early conversations were about how do we as publishers address this sort of world wide communication breakdown and all the negative consequences of that event?” says Reynolds. “Europa was part of the answer to that.”
Based in both Rome and New York City, Europa was founded by an Italian couple, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri. As a result, Reynolds splits his time between both cities. We caught up with him on the phone during his latest stint in Rome (“not the worst place to be stuck right now,” he says) to hear more about his work with Europa, their new travel anthology series The Passenger, and why international fiction is just as relevant as ever.
Tell us about how The Passenger came to be.
The series was started by an indie publisher in Italy called Iperborea, and it was immediately successful in Italy. We have a broad international list [of authors], but because of the kind of publishing that we do, those authors are already well established in their native markets. The Passenger allowed us to work with younger or less well-known artists and writers and helped us get a feeling for that country and that culture from the ground up. From a publishing perspective, that seemed a good investment in our time and energy and it fit really well with what our idea of publishing is at Europa. It always has been about creating bridges between readerships, between cultures, and between peoples. Each issue [of The Passenger] is a deepening of one’s awareness and knowledge of a particular country and culture.
How do you see that bridge between readerships manifest in real life?
We have the great privilege of publishing Elena Ferrante in the English language in America where her readership is massive. We’ve sold 5.7 million copies of Ferrante’s books in North America. Partly because it was a success in America, but also just because she’s a terrific writer, that readership worldwide is closer to 18 million. And to have 18 million readers of the same author around the world in 50 different countries means that almost on a weekly basis I see readers connecting online saying, I absolutely love this author. Or somebody is traveling in Vietnam and they’re on a bus and they see someone reading the Vietnamese edition of Ferrante. They may not be able to communicate at all with that one person, but they can exchange a smile and a sign of recognition, and I think that can be a very powerful thing.
How do you get international authors into the hands of American readers?
We have always prioritized and honored the position of the bookseller in the publishing ecosystem and to get the kinds of books that we publish into the hands of readers, we need a vibrant bookselling community and we need actual stores and actual booksellers because without that link in the chain, everything tends to run in the same direction. So in order to protect and defend what I like to call “bibliodiversity” we need people who are passionate about a specific book. As a publisher, if you’re providing quality content, then in many cases I think you can depend on those booksellers to sort of get books into the hands of the right readers.
You witness something like Elena Ferrante—whose first book became a national indie store best seller. We couldn’t get over it—we thought we must have done something very nice in a past life. We started looking into how exactly it happened and essentially there was one bookseller who at the time had a bookstore in the San Francisco airport. He read about Europa and our new publishing program, read the galley of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, liked the book, and just brought in hundreds of copies. He stacked them right in front of his store and every single traveler that came by and said, “Quick! I’m late for my flight and I need something to read,” he would just hand them that book. That is about as anecdotal as it gets, but for us, it was a lesson in the importance of cultivating those relationships, the importance of booksellers in the ecosystem.
How do you balance appealing to American taste in literature while expanding the spectrum of what that taste is?
I would say that our experience with Europa has suggested, to me at least, that American tastes are not as parochial as they are often counted to be. I think American readers, like every other reader in the world, love a good book—end of story. If there’s a problem with works in translation coming into this market, I think very often it’s a publishing problem, not a reader problem.
What are your favorite bookstores around the world?
A bookstore for me is part of my neighborhood and part of my community, so my favorite bookstore is always my local bookstore. It’s just a part of my life and my family’s life. There are of course extraordinary bookstores around the world and it’s great to visit them—they’re almost like holy places. But I’ve been lucky to live close to some great ones. My closest [at home in Brooklyn] is Terrace Books, which is an annex of Community Bookstore in Park Slope. For many years I lived close to Brookline Booksmith in Boston and for a couple of years my local bookstore was City Lights in San Francisco, which is one of those holy places.
Here in Rome, there’s a great bookstore called Libreria Fahrenheit 451, and it’s been here for ages in Campo di Fiori, which is a beautiful piazza in a historically rich part of Rome, where you can find a flower market that’s been operating for hundreds of years. In the middle of the piazza there’s a statue of Giordano Bruno, [deletion] erected in the very place where, 300 years earlier, he was burned at the stake for suggesting Rome might not be the center of the universe! Heresy and the inquisition, a statue that thumbs its nose at religious prejudice, a flower market surrounding the statue of a man burned to death on that very spot… and then on the edge of this piazza, this little bookstore. It’s just a great compression of everything that is extraordinary about Rome.
You’ve published from every continent except Antarctica, but are there countries you haven’t published from yet that you’re particularly interested in right now?
We haven’t published anything yet from Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Africa, or West Africa, and that’s a part of the world where we’re looking very closely at the moment. There’s a lot going on there and I think sometimes—and this is sort of a broad strokes comment—sometimes it takes time after great historical nation-building events to be digested by writers in those countries and cultures. I get the feeling now that the cauldron is boiling and something is coming to the surface.
For a number of years, we felt there was a real gap in our program regarding Asia. We hadn’t published any East Asian or Central Asian authors, and that’s changed quite notably over the past couple of years. This year, we published Breasts & Eggs by an exceptional Japanese author named Mieko Kawakami, and it did really well for us. We’ll have two more books coming from that author and I think she’s what we see as a sort of pillar over the next few years of our publishing program.
I saw in a previous interview that you had an interest in works by authors who were victims of involuntary displacement—have you been able to work with refugee authors since then?
This year we published The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by an Iranian refugee who now lives in Australia, Shokoofeh Azar. That has been tremendously satisfying for us because it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and currently is up for the National Book Award in America. It is one of the first titles [like this] that we’ve published thus far, and I think it’s a real necessity. The question of displacement is a really important one, and without literature that somehow represents it, it is destined to be misunderstood.
Has a book ever inspired you to travel somewhere or vice versa?
They all have. I think all of my reading has led me to another place or made me curious about other existences and other lives. We have so many excellent ways of telling a story these days, but I still don’t think there’s a better way of understanding another perspective, of entering into the life of another person, another consciousness, another vision of the world. I don’t think there’s another form of storytelling that is as good at that as the novel, despite these wonders of technology and the brilliance of filmmakers.
We publish a writer called Jean Claude Izzo, who died almost 20 years ago. He was from Marseille, and all of his stories were set in Marseille, and when he was sick and he was admitted to hospital, every bookstore in Marseille and a lot of other shops kept their doors closed and filled their shopfronts with copies of his books and photos of him. It was an incredible outpouring of love and affection and when you read those books, you can appreciate why, because he loved that city back with all of his heart. He was a great gourmand as well and he loved food and he loved wine, and when you read his books, you can taste those tastes. It’s extraordinary, and that’s what I think novels can still do and the best writers can still do. They can make you feel like you’re not just reading about a place, but you’re inhabiting it in the prose and in the paragraph. You’re inhabiting something architectural, something physical, and I don’t see any replacement for that—not yet.
[This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.]