07 3 / 2014
28 2 / 2014
“What would you most like to do here?”
“Have you ever read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing?”
These were not the questions I was expecting on my first day as a publishing intern. But then again, no one has ever accused Tara Books of being anything like a mainstream publisher, let alone a typical workplace!
In August of 2007, just after 1am on a remarkably humid night, I stepped off an airplane and entered the clamoring bustle of Chennai, south India. I had accepted an internship at a celebrated cooperative visual book publisher in a city I knew only as “Madras.” With nervous excitement, I gathered my backpack—did I really bring so little with me?—and walked out into the Arrivals lobby. A mass of auto rickshaw men, families, and private drivers surged towards the disembarking passengers. Among the crowd, I caught a glimpse of a young man with a sign that read, “Jennifer Abel: Tara Publishing.” I wish I had snagged that sign for posterity. “Jennifer Abel: Tara Publishing” foretold life-long friendships, remarkable professional opportunities, and a world of arts and literature I couldn’t possibly imagine.
When I applied to Tara’s internship program, I was inspired by their openly feminist approach to publishing and their radically different list of visually driven titles. I also wanted an opportunity to learn more about independent publishing, recently disheartened by my unsuccessful applications to work at the offices of the Big Six in Toronto and New York. The advertised Tara Books internship (which I found, clichéd as it sounds, on bookjobs.com) had requested applicants demonstrate prior book marketing and publicity experience. I had none. So instead of a professional cover letter, I wrote a passionate plea—a love letter, really—to the team at Tara Books. And one Sunday evening, I logged into my email to discover a note from co-director V.Geetha. Her offer was official. I would be one of three new interns at Tara Books. We would be given rooms in a main-floor flat in a southern Chennai neighborhood near the sea. We would also receive a $500US monthly stipend and a bicycle. A far better offer than I would ever have received as an intern at Random House or Penguin!
When I arrived at the Tara Books office for the first time, jet-lagged and rather sweaty, I was introduced to founder Gita Wolf. She walked me past bookshelves overflowing with every genre imaginable, titles in English, Tamil, Italian, Japanese, and sat down with me at a table in a cool, shaded courtyard. A lizard ran over my feet and into a potted plant nearby. After sharing a few Tara titles and catalogs, Gita—smiling at me with her characteristic, almost mischievous glow—looked me in the eye and asked, “What would you most like to do here?”
After a somewhat shocked pause, and probably like every publishing industry hopeful who came before, I brazenly answered, “Editorial!”
Gita, never patronizing, quietly but firmly explained that an editor first needed to establish an informed perspective, a method of reading literature and experiencing art that was informed by political, theoretical, and social frameworks. It wasn’t enough to simply have an opinion or preference. We had to understand how our tastes were formed, and how they informed who we are, what we do, say, think. Gita gently suggested that one of my goals while an intern at Tara might be to cultivate such a critical perspective, and to live it, rather than simply speak or write it. She asked if I had heard of John Berger, if I had seen his BBC special or read his Ways of Seeing. I had not. Leaving me alone at the table for a moment, Gita returned inside to the piled-high bookshelves, selecting a thin, worn book before returning to the courtyard. She handed me Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and suggested I return to my new flat and read the book. We could go over the internship’s tasks and responsibilities another day.
I’ve never forgotten that conversation with Gita (whom I lovingly refer to as Johnita Berger), as it marked the first of innumerable lessons I would encounter during the six and a half years I have had the pleasure of working with Tara Books.
Today, February 28th 2014, marks my last official day managing Tara’s North American business. To mark this bittersweet occasion, and to offer my gratitude to my second family at Tara Books, I wanted to share a few of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this incredible independent publisher:
- Discover the artist and artisan in the everyday.
- You absolutely can (and should) operate a successful, award-winning company for over twenty years wherein “profits” are not the business’ ultimate goal. In fact, you’ll probably create more important, collaborative projects and take greater, more rewarding risks if a force other than money drives your decisions.
- Take a chance on young people who demonstrate passion, drive, and intelligence. Practical skills can be taught or coached, but enthusiasm and work ethic cannot.
- Red wine tastes best when shared with dear friends at the end of a long day at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Note: for optimal results, drink an Italian red and giggle.
- Nothing is impossible!
Thank you Gita, Geetha, Mr. A, Nancy, Ranjith, Rajeswari, Shamim, Maegan, Nia, Tanuja, Bhakti, Arun, Helmut, Jonathan, Nina, Manivannan, Sirish, Rats and the entire AMM Screens team for a profoundly wonderful six and a half years at Tara Books.
25 2 / 2014
15 2 / 2014
13 2 / 2014
Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time, available this month, is an hysterical novel based on Dominic Utton’s real correspondence with the Operating Manager of his frequently-late train company. Dan, the story’s main character, emails Operating Manager Martin Harbottle every time his train is late. He doesn’t jot a quick email, though. Dan crafts each email to take as long for Harbottle to read as he was delayed. Dan has a lot of time on his hands and a lot to write about.
The hilarity ensues when we learn everything going on in Dan’s life from his sleep-deprived struggles as a new dad to scandalous activity in his office. But then, Martin Harbottle starts responding and an extraordinary correspondence begins.
This is a laugh out loud book, and I don’t mean in trite LOL terms. If you’ve ever felt like somebody treats your time as less important than theirs, Dan’s rants will go a long way to purging those feelings, as much as Harbottle’s replies will entertain.