An Interview with Jeanne Guyon of Éditions Verticales — Tobias Ryan

For almost twenty-five years Éditions Verticales have been publishing the best in contemporary French fiction, with a list including Maylis de Kerangal, Noémi Lefebvre and Pierre Senges, whose epic Ahab (Sequels) will soon be published in translation by Contra Mundum Press. I sat down with Jeanne Guyon, who runs Verticales alongside Yves Pagès, to talk about the house, their authors and the state of the French literary scene.

To begin, how would you introduce Verticales to those who don’t know it?

Verticales is a collection, in English perhaps we should say an imprint, that is part of the Gallimard publishing group. We were founded 1997 – next year will be our 25th anniversary – so we’ve been a fixture in the landscape of literary French fiction for a long time. We publish about ten books per year, and try to keep this regular. We want to stay little.

Most of our books are fiction; we publish novels, and we also like to have texts in the form of fragments. But no poetry, no theatre, no roman policier or science fiction. Our books might have some elements of poetry or theatre, but we like narrative. We also like every book to have a specific form, thought we don’t publish formal or experimental works. We want stories told in an original way and with a specific voice.

There are two editors at the same level; we don’t share authors, we co-edit. It’s as though we were one person, but there are two of us: Yves Pagès, who has been here since the beginning, and who is a writer, and me. I arrived in September, 2000. It’s funny, we’re going to talk about Pierre Senges, and I arrived just in time for his first book. He’s a part of my story in the house because I knew him from the beginning.

I met Bernard Wallet, who founded Verticales, at the Salon du livre in Paris in 1998. I didn’t come from a publishing background or do publishing studies; I was a French teacher. At that time, Verticales was part of a Swiss group, and when they decided to sell it, Le Seuil bought the trademark, the rights and finally the employee contracts. With Bernard and Yves we decided to create this team, they made a place for me. We had fallen, not in love, but into a friendship and had realised that we wanted to work together.

Bernard Wallet retired in 2009, how much did his character define Verticales?

Bernard had very eclectic taste, so in the beginning there were essays, comics, translated fiction, poetry and so on. It was a good idea, but it was difficult for one little house to publish everything. After he retired, we decided to publish fewer books and focus more. We wanted to do something that he was very fond of, which was to find first novels. We kept to that, and each year we publish up to three debuts, while also working with our existing authors.

He always said we were working long term. That’s what we set out to do, and now, after almost 25 years, I think we can say we’ve managed it. By taking our time, working alongside the authors as they develop and grow – we say compagnonnage [mentorship] – we have been able to provide a free space in which they can create. Taking time is very important.

Which of your writers would you say are representative of what Verticales does?

There are a few we can call “historical authors,” such as Olivia Rosenthal, two of whose books have been translated into English: To Leave with the Reindeer (tr. Sophie Lewis, And Other Stories) and We’re not here to Disappear (tr. Béatrice Mousli, Otis Books Seismicity Editions). She wrote one of our first novels in 1997 and has always written for us. And we also have Arnaud Cathrine, who was one of our youngest novelists and started his career with us[1].

Among these “historical authors”, we have two very famous writers who both got their start at Verticales: Maylis de Kerangal and François Bégaudeau. Maylis had such huge success with Réparer les vivants (Mend the Living/The Heart) that she has become a classic, contemporary author. She’s studied everywhere and has been translated into many languages, including into English by Jessica Moore and Sam Taylor. François became very famous because of Entre les murs. It received a lot of prizes, as did Réparer les vivants, and he also appeared in Laurent Cantet’s movie adaptation (co-writing the screenplay), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008.

Other authors I can mention include Alexandre Labruffe, who has just published his second novel Wonder Landes. He’s representative for us because we discovered him through the post – just like Pierre Senges and Noémi Lefebvre, known for Blue Self-Portrait and, more recently, Poetics of Work (both translated by Sophie Lewis for Les Fugitives/Transit Books). There are several authors we discovered that way, and who have stayed with us from the beginning.

Another kind would be those that had been published elsewhere but that we were close to as readers, such as Arno Bertina, Nicole Caligaris and Claudine Galea. We discovered them through existing works. We didn’t invite them to come, because we never try to steal writers, but one day they said “I’m fed up …” or “I’ve been refused …” and so on, and we were able to give them the chance to start something new with us.

Since the reissue of Artistes sans oeuvre by Jean-Yves Jouannais in 2009, we realised that we also really like texts about “non-art”: artistic fiascos, fake masterpieces and artists with a Bartleby-esque character. For example, Jusep Torres Campalans byMax Aub is a funny and moving hoax about a possible friend of Picasso … And recently Gregory Buchert (Malakoff) and François Durif (Vide sanitaire), who both come from the world of contemporary art, have made a big impact in literary circles by questioning the link between art and self-recognition.

And finally I also have to talk about Nastassja Martin, because another type of book we publish is narrative non-fiction. Croire aux fauves has been a huge success since its publication in 2019. It’s been translated into Italian, Spanish, German and will soon be published in English by NYRB, also in a translation by Sophie Lewis. Natassja is an anthropologist, and she wrote a very important book on shamanism which originated in her thesis. When she was in Kamchatka, studying the indigenous Even people, she was attacked by a bear. She survived and then wrote about the metamorphosis the experience put her through, how it changed her way of living but also her way of writing, thinking and her way of understanding people: her whole philosophy.

So, we have authors like Nastassja who come from an academic background but want to write narrative and be in a literary not scientific house. Philippe Artières (Rêves d’histoire, Le dossier sauvage …) would be another example. They want a more mainstream readership, writing something more personal but which also incorporates their knowledge. So there is fiction and non-fiction, and a lot of books are in between…

Are there any of your writers who haven’t been translated yet, but who you want to promote?

Yes, all! But if I have to choose just one I will say Gaëlle Obiégly. I think she’s very influenced by American poets, but she’s so free! I like her writing a lot. I would like to sell her books to a demanding and curious press, but it’s difficult. A lot of her books have no plot. I’m not even sure if it’s fiction, in fact.

(photo Tobias Ryan)

Turning to Pierre Senges, you mentioned that you received his first book through the post?

Actually, the first manuscript, we refused. But as it was good and quite interesting, Yves wrote him a nice personal note. For his second, he only sent it to Verticales, and it was the right one: Veuves au maquillage. We published it in 2000. So we already had a story before publishing him. The first book isn’t always the first text.

When you receive a Pierre Senges manuscript, how complete is it? Especially when his manuscripts come together through fragments – and you mentioned that you “co-edit” with Yves – is it all there or is it a collaboration between the three of you?

No, it’s all there. I can say we are interventioniste, but we never write for the author.

Yves has always said that there are two types of editor in France. The kind like us who are very involved, who are invited to give masterclasses, to be on juries and meet a lot of young authors – we are always looking for new voices – and we follow our authors throughout their careers, working very precisely on their texts. And there is another kind of editor who asks for specific projects or takes books as they come and defends them like that, but are less involved in the process.

So, with Pierre, we would meet and discuss the work together. We ask him how he wrote it, what his intentions are, and can say “this is working; this isn’t working. Why did you choose this? This is a bit too long. Maybe you’re repeating this.” We accompany him through his projects, and share some intuitions. We have some very sharp ideas on things, and we try to find what the problems are, we can suggest some modifications but I can’t say it’s co-writing because that wouldn’t be true; the text is the basis of our discussions.

It can take many hours to get into the deep work of the project, but in the end the author has the choice, he can do what he wants. Generally, the author is happy to be read by people who know him, who want to go with him, but also want to push him further. And just to say with Pierre, we almost never touch on the writing itself because there’s never an issue.

The translation of Ahab (Sequels) will be coming out soon. When it was published in 2015 it won the Prix Wepler, did it also find success with readers?

Not so much. The problem for readers and journalists was that it is a big book and also because it was in November, right? Just after the Bataclan attacks. Everything stopped and it was dreadful. He did have quite good press and reviews, but it didn’t sell enough to be in paperback, for example – that doesn’t always just depend on sales, but it’s important. So we were disappointed. But thanks to the prize we added a bandeau, an advertising band, and there was a “second launch”. We’re so happy that the novel is now finding a new life in English!

With a writer like Pierre Senges who is playful, but also intertextual, intelligent, using fragments –

We say he’s savant but not érudit[2]

How do you market that to a general readership? Is there a big audience for his work?

I don’t know … We’re not good at marketing … Maybe this is an aspect of marketing: we have tried not to have a second Pierre Senges in our catalogue. We know exactly what he’s doing, we’re with him, and we don’t need anyone else doing the same things. Pierre tries to alternate between grand projects with literary subjects, like Ahab or Lichtenberg, and something shorter – his upcoming book, for example, is only about 160 pages – or with a “lighter” subject.

We like him because with very simple, very common subjects, like Laurel and Hardy movies in Projectiles au sens propre, he can say so much about the world. He’s very funny, writing notes on the page, playing games with himself and with the reader, using references to art, music, opera, philosophy, cinema, theatre … but you have to play along; you have to be in a kind of fantasy.

You know, his first two books were big successes, not blockbusters, but successful, because he was doing something totally new. And another thing I can say that we like about Pierre is that he’s not bothered by what’s going on around him. He does what he does, he never follows the trends. He doubts what he writes, of course, but he doesn’t doubt that he has something to say.

Maybe that it’s: when you take a book by Pierre Senges, if you like it, you like it, but there’s not a “marketing” way to sell him. Maybe the subject can be, more or less. With Ahab you can say “it’s a new Moby Dick!” and you sometimes use the fact it’s a big book. That might be a publicist’s argument.

On that question of publicists and marketing: how much of that is Gallimard’s responsibility?

They have a role to play. When they bet on a book, they might make some posters, do some publicity in newspapers or even on the radio. But in fact, the best ways for us to promote our books is on social networks, “Propaganda”, as we call our newsletter (a booklet in which every author is granted the same space) and when authors go to bookshops and festivals … Doing events, readings, signings, that’s how we publicize authors; that’s our audience, our best market.

Generally speaking, do you feel French literary culture is in a healthy condition?

Yes, quite. I think so. But I think maybe there is less curiosity for books which are more demanding or discomforting. I don’t want to be too schematic – or too pessimistic! There are a lot of little houses doing a very good job and I find writers themselves are more audacious than ever. On the other hand, a lot of mainstream fiction, though well done, can be artificial and mechanical – readers enjoy it because it’s familiar. It’s the classic split between littérature d’auteurs and entertainment lit. There are always one or two big titles that take all the attention, and there are too many books – too many bad books – and fewer readers for the good ones. It’s difficult.

You were the publisher of Gabrielle Wittkop, a personal favourite of mine, do you have any anecdotes about her that you would be happy to share?

She scared people, Gabrielle, and women in particular, because she was so radical. She preferred animals to people, and so on. But she loved us like we were family, and she was very, very funny, very sarcastic. We laughed a lot together, drinking good wine, gossiping or listening to her tell tragic stories about her life during WWII … I was the only woman on the team and, every time she came to visit from Frankfurt, where she had lived since 1944, she offered me delicate presents like Venetian perfume, jewelry, old books and drawings of her own. She was an unforgettable character! Her death was terrible because she had called us just beforehand … a sad memory but radical too, just as she lived.

You mentioned that next year is 25th anniversary of Verticales, do you have any big plans for the celebrations?

Top secret!

Minor Literature[s] will publish an excerpt from Pierre Senges’ Ahab (Sequels) later this week.

[1] You can read a story from Arnaud Cathrine’s collection Pas exatement l’amour (2015) here:

[2] Smart but not scholarly.