Interview – Ray Russell from Tartarus Press

Ray Russell runs the Tartarus Press with Rosalie Parker, but had some fiction works already published at other publishing houses (Ghosts, Russell collection of stories, for example was published by Swan River Press). In the rich Tartarus Press catalogue, it is possible to find titles by old masters like Arthur Machen, H. G. Wells and the Robert Aickman complete "strange stories" works. But contemporary writers is not overlooked at the Tartarus catalogue, with works by Reggie Oliver, Mark Valentine and Anne-Sylvie Salzman.

Could you tell something of the History of your publish house? Perhaps the first steps, initial ideas, choice of first authors, difficulties at first moments and the aims and strategies in the very first days.

Tartarus Press was initially set up by me, Ray Russell, to publish a few booklets for friends and fellow enthusiasts of the work of Arthur Machen, Ernest Dowson and John Gawsworth. The first mistake I made was to use the profit from my first booklet to pay for the second, which was then given as a gift to those initial customers. For the third booklet I had to start all over again financially :-)

The first Tartarus Press hardback, Chapters Five and Six of The Secret Glory, came about because I had been transcribing the manuscript of the previously unpublished parts of Arthur Machen’s novel, and various friends asked if they could have a copy when I had finished. Publishing it as a proper hardback book was the most sensible way of making it available.

The main problem I encountered in the early days was unscrupulous printers who told me they could print a book for me, but obviously couldn’t! Finally I found The New Venture Press, who had not printed a book either, but were honest about it. We worked out how it should be done together, which was very instructive. Then we had to find binders…

In those early days it was a hobby, without any idea that I might try and make a living out of publishing, as I do now.

Some publishers have a unifying vision or even a principle, a theoretical formulation that serves as some kind of guideline. There would be something similar in the case of Tartarus Press? It would be possible to define your editorial house with an idea, a word, a speculative notion?

I started Tartarus with the idea of simply publishing and sharing obscure writing that I really enjoyed. My partner, Rosalie Parker, joined Tartarus about fifteen years ago with a determination to do exactly the same thing. The publishing policy of Tartarus is still guided by our personal literary tastes.

In my vision, I realize that there are two paths preferred by Tartarus Press: one, digging in the early, forgotten and/or traditional imaginative works by authors like Arthur Machen, Thomas Owen, H. G. Wells, Robert Aickman, etc. The other one, more focused in contemporary authors like Reggie Oliver, Mark Valentine, Nike Sulway among many others. There are, in this dual pathway, some kind of balance between two sides, even in the editorial choices (authors and titles)?

We see the historic and the contemporary writers as being complimentary. A love of the work of Arthur Machen led naturally to us publishing Walter de la Mare and Oliver Onions. L.P. Hartley took the supernatural fiction genre further forward into the twentieth century, and Robert Aickman was their natural modern successor in the second half of the century. And by publishing contemporary, twenty-first century authors like Simon Strantzas and Mark Samuels, there has been a line that can be traced back down through all those writers I have already mentioned. Obviously, Angela Slatter and Nike Sulway are writing in a slightly different tradition, and Reggie Oliver with a different background again.

The Tartarus Press editions, even in the paperback form, are beautiful in every sense. The short-run editions is a huge indicate of this precious work. But there are a solid investment, as well, in e-book edition, with the careful attention to nearly all formats available. This editorial vision at Tartarus could be a way between physical and digital war format in the book market, perhaps? Are there plans to expand the digital production at Tartarus Press?

At heart we are book lovers, and nothing can replace the enjoyment of reading great fiction in a well-made book. As soon as I started to understand book production, I wanted to produce beautiful editions that I would want to keep and read myself. It was tempting to try and print books letter-press, and have more bound by hand, but we didn’t want to make them unaffordable. I hope we have a good compromise.

But realising that our limited edition hardbacks are still perceived as expensive by some readers, paperbacks have been introduced for reprints. We still try and make them as elegant and nicely-produced as possible.

Ebooks are less enjoyable to produce. We know, though, that for some people they are very convenient. It has very hard to sacrifice so much design work to create ebooks, but we make them as well as we can.

Are there a best/favorite edition or collections for the Tartarus editors?

As with your own children, it would be unfair to choose some over others!

A recent edition, The Life of Arthur Machen by John Gawsworth, had a interesting extra: a DVD with a BBC film about the book theme. This is a familiar format for the Film Art collectors (usual at some DVD/bluray labels like the American Criterion Collection) and it's great to find in a book with the already mentioned Book as Art Object vocation. But are there another plans for editions with films and audiovisual material as bonus/part of the edition?

There are no immediate plans for us to become multi-media publishers. The John Gawsworth DVD was a fortuitous opportunity that we couldn’t afford to miss. We will always be primarily an old-fashioned print publisher.

In the same way of the last question: what about the Tartarus Press future plans? More translations or the archeological task of Master Works restoration?

We are superstitious about discussing future plans, because announcing projects too early often means there is some reason why they are then delayed… We do have new books by some great contemporary authors on the horizon – some known and some unknown…

This interview was conducted with the support of FAPESP, as part of my post-doctoral research.

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