By Helena Cavendish de Moura
Edited by Rand Raynor
The impetus for launching my publishing house, Casa Forte Press, came from a loving personal experience during a dark time, when I felt I could no longer recognize my fellow human beings. Who are we, I asked myself, as I watched the newly-elected American president hurl insults and aberrations to a cheering crowd of shock-numb supporters, deformed by hatred and vitriol.
Our state of affairs is a result of years of irresponsible, greedy corporate control of our cultural consumption. Our new voters are the children raised on a heavy diet of nearly 20-years of talk radio and the corporate conglomerates that have been shaping and dictating what we read. It was a subtle process on the making. And here we are.
But this is the story of Casa Forte.
Someone I loved for many years was, and luckily still is, a formidable writer.
The father of my child is a man of great eloquence, a truly brilliant mind. His intellect is nimble and creative, studied and disciplined. His exhaustive vocabulary, from the Latin to the cockney street slang, makes him a natural lexicographer. As a journalist, he witnessed wars at first hand, slightly deaf in one ear from traveling with rag tag armies through Pashto territory, then into Syria and Iraq. Driving back home to our country house in through the winding roads in the Subbetica mountains, he relished us with stories about the daily lives of regular people living in these war zones, of barefoot children playing games in the rubble and taking lessons in a school near a crossfire, stories of people who went on with their ordinary lives under the flickering skies from live fire.
Our children’s attentive orbs remained fixed at him, frozen in a spell by his spin, unbreakable eye contact with his audience despite his expressive gesticulation that helped dramatize the events. It was much the same with adults.
Write a book, I would nag him over and over again, perhaps for selfish motives, to keep him closer at home. And safer.
And one day he did. He sequestered himself in one of the dark upstairs rooms of our ancient stucco house, pushed a rickety old desk against a miniature window, like living in a pinhole camera where his limited source of natural light came from a sharp beam from Andalucia’s blinding sun, spotlighting the author at work.
And there he revisited his experiences in the Middle East, and with some poetic license, he wove a few imaginary details that could challenge any non-believer. The dry desert heat, the swish of the temperate air descending from the Sarwat mountains from the Arabian sea.
The manuscript was ready to be edited. I was lucky to have the first first go and like a kid who gets to lick the spoon of cake batter, I relished every bit of my assignment, the exercise of editing and excising with the utmost respect for the voice and decisions of the writer. Editing gave me an unexplainable feeling of delight and accomplishment. Paraphrasing the god of editors, Max Perkins, it was like releasing the writer’s energy into the world without tampering with his or her voice.
The first few chapters were exhilarating. I was transported as a reader to vivid scenes of the bustling cities and villages in Yemen and the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing through the narrow alleys of the spice markets, the taste and texture of sand and sweat, and underlying terror that lurked beneath. As an avid reader raised in a family of intimidating literature professors, I felt like I could hold my own. The writing was alive, full of Chi, as the Chinese would call it. It was an extension of him.
News arrived from America at our little Buzon 8, the rusty mailbox miles away downhill which we shared with neighboring farmers. The acceptance letter from a major literary agent arrived and within days of signing, he landed a deal with a highly reputable and coveted publishing house. It felt unreal, like some novel with an implausible happy-ending. The cynic in us, both journalists, always puts the brake on any excitement and we decided to wait first before we opened the Verdejo to celebrate. At least the one we saved for the toast.
Editing process begins. The industrial sound of a meat grinder somehow surfaces when I recall those days. Busy days, lots of chatter. We had contractors covered in white stucco dust walking around like strange ghosts while our child drew on the thrown out chapters on the floor, next to her daddy.
Proofs came back and forth from New York to our faraway farm house through our feeble internet which could barely handle an email. Incessant discussions, phone calls, Skype. Sometimes I felt they were speaking different languages to each other, but the diplomat in my then-husband seemed to allow for things to always run smoothly. At least in the business world. Acquiescence. The tone became more agreeable and mellowed out. The image of a fire waning to the incessant trickle of rain. Truce, the book is ready for print.
A cash-fluid book marketing campaign began with glossy banners and ubiquitous stands with posters of the shiny cover. Friends would email to say they saw his book at the Copenhagen airport. Fiumicino. Gatwick. Top New York publicists with great connections and direct dial powers from their personal phones to media executives bulldozed their way through the book promotion, opening doors with top American, British and French media. Such an aggressive publicity campaign, even we couldn’t stay away from it in remote Andalucia. Within months, translations surfaced in several languages. The book was a hit in Poland and France, and news emerged down the olive fields that the “giri” up the hill, as locals call the English, was also becoming a famous writer in Spain. A major movie deal too!
When I read the freshly printed final opus, something felt, well, slightly disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, it was still an excellent book. But it no longer was HIS book. It was excessively and unnecessarily cleaned up. “Homogenized,” my friend said on the phone to help refresh my non-English speaking brain. The author went missing. The “friction ridges” of his imprint, his rhythm of speech, gone from the book. It felt like what made him a writer, his trademark jokes and witty descriptions were laser-ed off in a programmatic way. The narrative pace, the tone, the rhythm. The author’s imprint erased.
He was happy, I was happy for him and proud of his hard work. He was getting a lot of recognition. But I remembered the book as it was handed to me at first, the scribbles and idiosyncrasies projected his essence on paper, like the up and down lines of an electrocardiogram, his energy onto that paper projected his soul.
But the lines were flattened out.
I had just finished building out our tiny library in a hidden room once used to kill pigs for the Spanish “Matanza.” A butcher’s tiled platform where they lay the dead pig to salt and eviscerate it remained in the library, now a depository for dozens of unopened boxes. As I began shelving some books, many classics, I reflected on the lives of artists, writers and the process of releasing these masterpieces into the world. The starving artists. The drunks, vagabonds, the tragic, short lives behind some of the great works of art I was putting on the shelves. What miracle brought these great pieces to us? Who were the editors, the patrons, the publishers who recognized the value of these often impossible characters who breaking the rules of syntax and social norms, stubbornly pushing their vision into the the sphere?
What would Thomas Wolfe do today, what if he came back to life with his manic illegible notebooks and scraps looking for an agent for representation in one of the fancy New York publishing houses? And Joyce with crayon-written manuscripts of Finnegan’s Wake? Would the words that came from their quirks, manias, and often scandalous personalities be ironed out, put through a filter to appease audiences and sell more books?
The publishing world has been under attack lately for being, as The Guardian put it, “hideously middle-class and white,” alluding to the Lee and Low survey on the state of publishing in the United States. And of course, the vetting processor manuscripts, cruel and banal, the “slush” piles purgatory where someone’s lifelong work is taken out like a lottery ball, likely by an intern with no student debt.
Perhaps I am being too cynical. But my recent visits to bookstores where pyramids of “American Dirt” or other bottled literature seem to overwhelmingly adorn the windows, I get a feeling everyone is looking for the easiest sell and the most facile ideas.
And what happened to that unadulterated authenticity of the mad writers of long ago? Can they make the cut?
Well, I am looking.
Casa Forte Press is on a mission to “occupy” and take on this industry of back slapping white males, afraid of a little quirkiness. We cherish the autodidacts, the rawness and honesty of experience. Our authors have struggled and written during their off hours, while trying to make a living. No cushy writing camp in Connecticut.
They are on the fringes and have absolutely no talent for self-promotion. Nothing about their writing is tailored to appease audiences or follow a trend.
And we will continue to fight for their stories.