An unreliable guide to Influx Press – Tim Burrows

Kit and Gary, sitting in a tree, E-D-I-T-I-NG.

True story, apart from the tree – Influx Press work from an office on the fringes of Tottenham. From here, and their previous home in Hackney Downs, Kit Caless and Gary Budden have brainstormed, commissioned, pitched for funding, and above all published some of the most interesting and exciting titles of the last few years: Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson, Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams, Life in Transit by Sam Berkson, Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London by Gareth E Rees, Outside Looking On by Chimene Suleyman, and more. Their London anthologies, An Unreliable Guide to London and the book that started it all Acquired for Development By…, have included work by writers including Nikesh Shukla, Salena Godden, Lee Rourke, Juliet Jacques, M John Harrison and Chloe Ardjis.

This year could be the most exciting yet for Influx. Having just published Eley WIlliams’s Attrib. and Other Stories (“Williams has crafted her fictions to be miniature and sparky, concentrating on the implacability of details, no matter how small or brief” – the Guardian), the publisher is poised to unleash Jeffrey’s Boakye’s Hold Tight, an essential book about grime and black masculinity, Paul Scraton’s Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast and Tom Jeffrey’s Signal Failure, about walking the entire London-to-Birmingham stretch of the proposed HS2 line. To help burning ambition along meet cold, hard cash-flow, they’re launching a Kickstarter with a self-explanatory title: Make Influx Press Bigger and Better.

Kit and Gary’s fateful meeting at Simon Langton School in Canterbury, Kent, was an event that highlighted the arbitrary nature of language as much as it did the uniting power of bold hairstyling. “We were in the same form because our surnames are close together in the alphabet,” says Kit. “In year eight, Gary had shoulder length hair, listened to Bush and was nicknamed Shaggy Buddha. I had an undercut, listened to Tupac and was nicknamed Caveman.” By year 10, Shaggy and Caveman had started a ‘zine together. “It was called Inspired. Gary wrote about punk and I wrote about hip-hop. We did it to get records sent to us from labels, really, and it worked! Gary had a computer at home so we learned how to use Microsoft Publisher and produced it that way, rather than the old cut ‘n’ paste style of traditional fanzines. It was about 20 pages long I think, stapled in the middle. We did four issues.”

In 2011, with much travelling, dead-end jobs and even a marriage and a divorce between them and their school days, Kit and Gary were both living in Hackney, East London, as it was being buffed and prepped for the Olympics (short-term goal) and for the arrival of six-figure salary types (long-term goal). “It’s hard to say what the initial spark for Influx was really, says Kit. “I think essentially, we just wanted to tell stories that other people weren’t telling.” Their idea for the book Acquired For Development By, an anthology that dealt with regeneration and gentrification in the area of Hackney, was published just a few months before London 2012 Olympics. With a cover design by Laura Oldfield Ford, the draftswoman of London’s radical sparks and elegiac street-level ecstasies, and with endorsements from Stewart Home and Owen Jones, the thing was remarkable in its readymade nature. Here was London life reflected back to us: rising house prices and alternative living; compulsory purchase orders and the precarity of London nightlife. Was it a case of right place, right time? “Probably,” says Kit, “but that’s the point of what we publish – we try to make our books as timely and relevant as possible.”

He might be a little too modest there. Searching through old emails I realise that it was never the initial intention of Kit and Gary to even publish the book themselves. They were approaching other publishers with the idea but it seems they just did it to get the book out. And it did well – were they surprised? “Not really, in the sense that it’s a good book,” says Kit. “But yes, I was surprised in the way people found out about considering we had no presence in the literary scene or any contacts in publishing and bookselling.”

Acquired For Development By is how I started writing for Influx; I’d heard Kit and Gary were looking for writers and pitched for a discursive creative non-fiction essay on the legacy of Newton Dunbar’s Four Aces club in Dalston, digging deeper into the Scottish history of the name Dunbar, how it had crossed the Atlantic to Jamaica under Cromwell, and the new Dunbar Tower that had been built in Hackney by Barratt Homes without the permission of Newton himself.

Influx gave me the confidence to step out of music writing to dig deeper into areas of place, identity and social history, as I’m sure it has with many writers who haven’t quite found their outlet or voice yet.

Kit and Gary realised they might be on to something when later that year they sold out the Arcola Theatre for Sam Berkson’s debut poetry collection launch, Life in Transit. “It was our second title we published and it was amazing to see so many people into something we were doing.” Why do they think Influx took off? “There’s a number of small and independent presses who all started around the same time Influx did,” says Kit. “I think there must have been something in the air. Perhaps it was more simply that this was 2011 and jobs were scarce and publishing looked incredibly safe and conservative.” Kit lists Influx’s kindred spirits in publishing are Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Dead Ink, Jacaranda, Blue Moose, Salt, Unsung and Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Another London anthology, An Unreliable Guide to London, was published in 2016. Says Kit: “We’ll try to do an anthology every other year or so, I think. It’s a great way to get lots of writers together and explore themes as a collective endeavour.” From the start, Influx has been a publisher preoccupied by place. Connecting Something With Nothing was an anthology focused on the Kent coast. Chimène Suleyman used London’s Docklands as an allegory for loneliness in Outside Looking On. Linda Mannheim’s Above Sugar Hill was concerned with a small but many-storied patch of New York. Gareth Rees’s Marshland channelled the histories and waking dreams of a multi-purpose patch where Hackney meets Walthamstow. Sam Berkson treated public transport as a place in itself in Life In Transit, and translated the poetry of occupied Western Sahara in Settled Wanderers.

Influx’s Insight series has included accounts of journeys through Teesside by Richard Milward and Natalie Hardwick, Birmingham by Steven Camden and Chris Prendergast and the Essex Thames Estuary by myself and Lee Rourke. But instead of adding to the pile of ponderous place-based literary pontification, Influx has sought to provide a way out of the cul de sac that psychogeography had taken location and geography-based writing. It is “place” as shorthand for experience itself, or as a springboard for diversions into inner realms, a tour of monuments of the imagination.

Darran Anderson’s near-600 page Imaginary Cities has been Influx’s biggest hit to date. A journey into utopias and dystopias, it posits urbanity as possibility and tugs at thousands of literary and architectural threads in a dream-like reverie that seeks to enliven thinking about cities. “It’s such a great book and deserves all the success it gets,” says Kit. “Darran spent a lot of time taking it to publishers and no-one took it. When we said yes, I think Darran was just relieved it was getting published at all. It was a beast to edit, but more than anything it took off because people must have been wanting a book like Imaginary Cities without knowing it!” Since it came out in the UK it’s been published in America and France, while Anderson is writing Tidewrack, a memoir about rivers, Derry and Ireland, for Chatto & Windus, and has acquired huge following online. “We’re very proud of him and think he is a genius,” says Kit.

But the theme of place seems to have less and less of a hold. “I don’t think it matters so much to us in a strict sense anymore,” says Kit. “It’s great to have in the background as we consider projects, but Hold Tight is a great example of developing the idea of ‘place’. It is about grime, London, masculinity, black British culture; it’s not ‘set’ anywhere but it has a strong sense of cultural grounding. A ‘place’ can be a psychological space or a physical one. I’m personally very excited about where Hold Tight might take us.”

Influx find writers by going to readings, asking friends, and reading small literary journals and online magazines. “We have a submissions window open every now and then. Last time we opened for a month and got around 900 submissions. However, generally, we ask authors directly to write us a book rather than it already existing in their mind.” They abide by a basic rule: whoever commissions the book, edits the book. Sanya Semakula is the editorial assistant who does first readings and edits on the books. “Outside of that process, I do more of the promotion and publicity stuff,” says Kit. “Gary does more of the finances and logistical stuff because he feels guilty about not doing the promotional stuff.” As with any independent, the boring bit pertains to getting sufficient readies to keep the thing going. “Cash flow is the biggest issue with publishing, staying on top of bills and invoices whilst chasing invoices you are owed is the biggest pain in the arse.”

Influx have forged ahead with an inclusive publishing strategy, an attempt to provide an antidote to the closed-border parochialism of UK publishing. When they open a writer’s submission window, they actively seek writers of colour. There is a clear-eyed, street-level truth telling vibe to Influx. “This probably comes from both Gary and my political views, which are rooted in anarchism and leftwing activism, though not necessarily rigid in ideology,” says Kit.

“I think the influence of punk on Gary and hip-hop and grime on me is definitely part of this – it can’t be overstated how important the DIY ethos and storytelling of these music cultures is to us.”

Is it hard to keep faithful to that and at the same time grow? “Yes. Partly because when you publish what we do, some of the books are not inherently commercial, but we put the same time, effort and money into them as much as the ones that are more likely to be a sales success. We believe in all the books we publish and we want to see them in the world, even if they are the nichest of niche stories. The fact we are responsible for producing things that might never exist without us is really exciting.”

Milo Yiannopoulos went to Simon Langton, the same school as Kit and Gary. They don’t profess to have known him, but when the Tori Amos-inspired bad poet turned self-styled far-right after-dinner speaker for the intellectually incoherent was asked to talk at their former school, they used their platform as a publisher to speak out. Their open letter to Simon Langton objected to the decision to send the fascist former tech journalist who was expelled from Simon Langton and equates feminism with cancer to speak to 16-year-olds, and it predictably attracted the ire of arch-sympathisers such as James Delingpole and the many Twitter eggs who call themselves “deplorables” and luxuriate in the comfort of their hatred and prejudice. The talk got called off, but not without the school sullenly decrying that “freedom of speech” had ultimately lost out, a false, cowardly argument that’s unfortunately gaining traction in these de-enlightening times.

Influx could be said to operate in the exact opposite way to a Milo or a Delingpole. Instead of amping up the worst of marginalised groups to serve up a spiteful – and witless – performance and stoke the fires of hate, they create space for the untold stories that might not otherwise see the light of day. For this reason and more I hope more people take their lead and believe they can step into the cultural sphere and start something from the ground up.

If Influx could give British publishing a word of advice, what would it be? Says Kit: “Take more risks. Employ more people of colour. Don’t publish dickheads.”

And what are you most looking forward to?

“When the Kickstarter is over and I can stop badgering people about it!”