Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

INTERVIEW WITH MARC COTE, CORMORANT BOOKS EDITOR

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One of my favourite literary experiences is conversations with Marc Cote, who is the publisher and editor of Cormorant Books. Marc is a dream to work with. Like a good parent, he is gentle but firm, always asking the right questions that nudge the work in the right direction.

Q Linda.
What is the greatest reward in being a literary publisher?

A Marc.
If it’s possible to have multiple “greatest” rewards (and please give me this possibility) I’d say there are: A) reading a manuscript that makes my hair stand up on end, knocks my socks off, takes my breath away – be that manuscript from the slush pile, an agent, or one of our previously published authors; B) working with an author on his or her book, which is almost always a joy, it’s a great conversation that takes place over two to six drafts and is an enriching experience as I learn to see the world through different eyes; C) publishing a book well – great cover, great interiors, publicity, good reviews, happy author; D) the crack cocaine of book publishing: nominations for awards, be they local, regional, national, or international – we all love the validation that comes with the recognition conferred by a nomination. Ideally a great relationship builds through working closely with an author and though it’s a relationship that has a lot of similarity to a ship-board romance that experience is rewarding.

Q Linda.
We just watched an American election where money talked. Does being a small press with a limited budget give you a certain freedom, or does it hinder promotion of important work?

A Marc.
This question contains its own answer: money talks. When Doubleday, HarperCollins, McClelland & Stewart, Knopf, (append the word “Canada” after the foreign-owned companies to show that they’re really “Canadian”) are nominated for awards like the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the response from the media is “Of course.” When, as in 2006, two literary presses (both Canadian-founded, owned, and controlled companies) collected four of the Scotiabank Giller Prize nominations, that became the story. It was as though a Canadian company in its own country did not deserve to have its authors recognized for excellence. More galling, however, were the stories in The Globe and Mail and on CBC Radio which took apart the quality of the editing of the books – the editing, that is, done by the literary presses. In the case of Cormorant, the sentence used to demonstrate bad editing was correct grammatically and, also, metaphorically; the “critic” commenting must have been incapable of understanding ambiguity. Strangely, though, the book that was edited most poorly on that short-list was the one published by Doubleday Canada. It did not come under the same level or “quality” of scrutiny.

The cost of printing a sufficient number of books to blanket the country, with a built-in return expectation of 50% or more, is beyond the means of every literary press. The cost of frequent advertising in the major dailies is high, and unaffordable. The cost of having publicists who will email, call, with encouragement to review the book, profile the author, etc., is also costly.

Q Linda.
Do you feel Cormorant has a fighting chance at award time, and how important are awards to book sales?

A. Marc.
Yes, Cormorant has a fighting chance at award times; as Quill & Quire and many others have pointed out, we “punch well above our weight.” This is not to say that we publish “better” books than other publishers, because the truth of the matter is that in Canada for the last twenty years and looking forward to another twenty, there is an embarrassment of riches. We have been lucky that many juries have had tastes that are congruent with those of Cormorant Books.

Award nominations mean everything to book sales – everything. It’s a difference in the magnitude of 1,000%, not the 400% “Giller effect” that is being bandied about currently. Because the Canadian book market is inundated with foreign-published product, there is a lot of choice for the book buyer when she (or he) goes into the stores. The Canadian media does an adequate job of promoting Canadian books and authors, but it’s only adequate when compared to the pretty good to excellent job they do of promoting foreign authors and publishers. Strangely, some papers won’t review the authors living in their areas of circulation. (I’m not making this up!) There was a time, quite recently, when you had a better chance to have your first novel reviewed by the Canadian media if you were published by a small college press in the U.S. Award nominations redress that imbalance for Canadian authors – suddenly, the spotlight shines on them.

Q Linda.
What do you look for in a manuscript and how much is working with a writer like a good or bad marriage, as they say in bands?

A. Marc.
Does the author have something to say and does he or she have an interesting way of saying it? Does the book illuminate an issue, a time, an area of Canada? Does it contribute to the great democratic dialogue that I believe the body of literature is? Am I engaged? Will the book engage others?

Working with a writer is like a good or bad marriage (without the sex). There’s not much more to say, as that statement says it all. A good marriage is a life-long conversation. A bad marriage is one in which the spouses don’t talk.

Q. Linda.
I bought your Charles Pachter alphabet book M is for Moose for my youngest granddaughter. Will there be more children's titles from Cormorant?

A, Marc.
There’s a very good possibility …

Q Linda.
Is there poetry in Cormorant's future, or do you think you will stick with prose?

A. Marc.
That’s a question we’re wrestling with right now. There’s a particular angel who’s planted that seed of discussion and it’s on-going. It would be premature to say a definitive “yes” or “no”.

Q. Linda.
I have just read The Soul of All Great Designs, Neil Bissoondath's new novel. Was the shorter book an editorial decision, or did he set out to tell the story this way?

A. Marc
Ah. This is a question I can’t answer. Marriages work for the people inside of them. Ideally, they’re admired from afar. But, no, I don’t kiss-and-tell.

Q. Linda.
I found the lie Alec, who pretends to be gay in order to succeed as a decorator, unsympathetic. Did I miss hints of his sexual conflict in the book?

A. Marc
I can’t tell you how to read the book; if you found Alec’s lie unsympathetic (and it is) that’s your reading. There is no sexual conflict for Alec: he knows he’s straight and that he likes to engage in sex with only women. (I’ve said it that way, almost clinically, because that’s how Alec would put it.) I’m not sure if this lie itself makes Alec unsympathetic. His reason for lying about his sexuality is based entirely on how he thinks other people want to see him and he wants to fulfill those expectations. What’s interesting is that he allows his identity to be shaped entirely by external forces and he internalizes expectations to the point that he will go to extremes to continue meeting them. In psychological terms, he’s a sociopath or psychopath. But maybe his actions are the extreme version of what we all do – conform to expectations, live our lives inauthentically.

Q Linda. What are your dreams for the future of your publishing house? What would be publisher's heaven?

A Marc.
That’s a difficult question to answer simply. I’d like Cormorant to continue publishing wonderful books and thereby contributing to Canadian culture; I’d like our books to be bought and read more. I’d like to see our authors in more public libraries. I’d like to see our books reviewed more frequently and given the attention I think all Canadian authors are due. In terms of publishing, we’re going to continue our program: first-time authors, gay and lesbian authors, authors in mid-career, novels, short stories, art books, biographies. I don’t know about publisher’s heaven in general (okay, for sure no returns) but this publisher’s heaven would be, in this order, increased sales of books on a title-by-title basis; the adoption of Canadian-authored (and published) books from kindergarten through post-graduate levels; better public library acquisitions of Canadian-authored and published books; better funding from all levels of government; nominations for all our books. Okay, it really would be heaven to be sitting at the table of a Scotiabank Giller Prize winning author, whose winning book just happened to be published by Cormorant. Or a GG-winning book. Or the Rogers Writers’ Trust. Or the Commonwealth … you get the idea.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Linda Rogers

Linda Rogers is the author of the novels Say My Name (Ekstasis Editions, 2000), Friday Water (Cormorant Books, 2003) and The Empress Letters (Cormorant Books, 2007). She has also published several collections of poetry, including Love in the Rainforest (Exile Editions, 1996), Heaven Cake (Sono Nis Press, 1997), The Saning (Sono Nis Press, 1999) and The Bursting Test (Guernica Editions, 2002).

Go to Linda Rogers’s Author Page