Interview with Bob Biderman, Managing Editor of Black Apollo Press

Black Apollo Press was founded 15 years ago by American writer Bob Biderman and Baudelairean scholar, David Kelley. Based in Cambridge, England the press has published translations of important European authors and has brought back into print a group of late Victorian novelists.. The press has also published a series of art books jointly sponsored by Trinity College, Cambridge, and the French Cultural service. Over the last decade Black Apollo has established a reputation for its contemporary fiction and poetry and has published non-fiction titles in media studies, social history and politics.

How did Black Apollo Press start? What were its beginnings?

Black Apollo Press emerged from three key ideas – that mainstream English language publishers had failed to tap into diverse cultures, had failed to support emerging writers, and that small press publishing, under proper circumstances, could be viable. This latter idea was based on the work Joy Magezis and I had done in the early 1980s helping to organise a cooperative publishing and distribution project in San Francisco that proved to us how successful small press publishing could be – depending, of course, on one’s idea of ‘success’.

Tell us more about this early venture.

Well ‘early’ is certainly the operative word. We called it Early Stages Press – Contemporary Literature Project. Besides Joy Magezis and myself the original group included Gordon DeMarco, Harriet Ziskin, Celeste Macleod and Ed Buryn. The books came out and were funded in different ways, but they were all distributed through a common catalogue. We used groups like Writers and Readers as a model – connecting books with particular audiences, making alliances with independent bookshops, doing readings, discussions, convocations, etc. Of course all that supposed a particular set of circumstances – a thriving independent book trade for starters and libraries that were still buying books from small presses or buying books at all.

Was there a direct connection from Early Stages to Black Apollo?

Not exactly. Early Stages served to give me a publishing background. That and my work as one of the west coast organisers for the new National Writers’ Union allowed me to gain some understanding of the industry. We left the States in 1983 and settled in Britain. At that time, amazingly, there was a more diverse publishing scene than in the US – or so it seemed. Gordon DeMarco, a friend and colleague from our early days in publishing, had made a connection with Pluto Press and they were keen to do one of his political mysteries for a crime list that they were starting. I had written a book based on the story of the first American merchant ship captained by a black man in WWII and was getting nowhere with it so I decided to re-write it as a mystery. Gordon had introduced me to Pete Ayrton who was editing Pluto’s New Crime list and it became the first of my Joseph Radkin books – Strange Inheritance. The Radkin series was later picked up by Gollancz and then, briefly, by Walker in the States. But I had mixed feelings about being labelled as a crime or mystery writer. I didn’t like the idea of being trapped in a genre.

Then how did Black Apollo come about?

I had left England in 1988 and went to live in France for a bit before returning to America. I felt a strong connection to all three countries. I think in the back of my mind I had always wanted to do something that linked these cultures which had so influenced me in different ways. When we came back to Britain in 1990, I reconnected with an old friend – David Kelley, a bohemian academic at Cambridge – who had written his dissertation on Baudelaire and saw himself as an extension of the poet transmuted to a Trinity don. In those years he was going through the last phases of that process and we would spend much time together thinking of ways we could develop something akin to the Rive Gauche on the staid banks of the River Cam.

So you dreamed up Black Apollo - where did you get the name?

I was intrigued by the way the English class system had been circumvented in the 18th century by the development of the coffee house which provided a meeting ground for both prince and pauper. In fact, those early cafes were called penny universities because of the rousing discourse provided within, aided and abetted by the newly arrived stimulant from the land of the Turks – coffee, otherwise known as the Black Apollo. In fact the first venture for Black Apollo Press was Café Magazine which I edited and David wrote a few articles for. Later, when David retired from teaching we came out with our first book– Lire c’est voir – which was David’s poetry in French and English along with his drawings. He was a marvellous artist. I sometimes think he missed his true calling.

Where did you go from there?

Our second book was three plays by the French playwright, Jean Tardieu which David had translated. Tardieu and David had been good friends. When Tardieu died David inherited his spectacles which sat prominently in a place of honour on David’s dining room table. The project was financed by the French cultural delegation which at the time had an office in Cambridge overseen by Jean Khalfa who worked closely with David on a number of projects. When David tragically passed away several years later, Jean helped develop several projects for the press – one, a marvellous book of images and essays entitled The Dialogue between Painting and Poetry which came out in conjunction with an important exhibition of artist’s books held at the Fitzwilliam Museum. It has since become a classic in the field.

How did David’s death affect the press?

It meant a change in direction. Actually, David and I only did three projects together – the Tardieu book, his poetry and drawings – Lire c’est voir - and a children’s book which he illustrated and I wrote (under the pen name of Mortimer Tune) – Anna and the Jewel Thieves – which is finally coming out this year as sort of a memorial to him.

What was the next stage in your development?

Linking up with another friend named David - David Cutting - who had a graphic design studio in Cambridge and who helped put the press on a professional footing. At the same time I was doing research at the Cambridge University Library and had come across a number of novels that gave me an entirely new perspective on late Victorian England. These were brilliant works by writers who had helped re-define the novel and wrote in the vernacular long before it was fashionable. In fact their work had nothing of the stilted tone that I had come to believe was standard Victorian English. I was amazed that these books, these wonderful writers, had been allowed to moulder in dusty archives, rarely if ever seeing the light of day.

Was that the beginning of your Victorian series?

Yes. David Cutting and I developed the series directed pretty much to the growing interest in Victorian studies. It included Margaret Harkness, whose work was known then only by a few specialists; Amy Levy, who was known slightly for only one of her titles; and the great Israel Zangwill, whose work was loved and remembered by elderly Jews but whose fame had fallen from the popular heights it had once reached many years before so that he, too, had been long out of print. I would say that this list more than any other helped to establish the press and to give us some recognition.

But the Victorian series wasn’t your main interest, was it?

Not my main interest, no. That said, I was fascinated with these characters I had discovered and ended up using two of them – Harkness and Zangwill – as the protagonists in a book I was writing about a murder case that had become a cause celebre in 1887 and did much to influence the formulation of the first immigration act. I spent the last ten years researching the book and it’s finally coming out in 2011 as Eight Weeks in the Summer of Victoria’s Jubilee: The Queen, the Jews and a Murder. Quite a mouthful, I know, and the title probably will take up the entire front cover, but it’s been imprinted on my mind for over a decade now.
Another project we developed was Visions of the City which attempted to look at the evolution of the urban metropolis through multiple perspectives – especially as a centre of art and refuge. The project was organised in collaboration with Marc Hatzfeld, an important French sociologist and writer who has done much work on the culture of urban homelessness in Paris; Yann Perreau, a brilliant young writer who worked for the French Cultural Delegation and had done his dissertation on the ideas of Walter Benjamin; and Kevin Biderman, an exceptionally talented photographer with an analytical eye focused on the urban scene. Our joint efforts came together in Visions of the City Magazine.

How did the shift into digital technology affect you?

The new printing technologies provided an opening for small press publishing that hadn’t been available before. Short run printing had always been uneconomical until then. Digital printing allowed books to be published in small quantities for a comparatively minor investment. Our poetry list, for example – it would have been difficult bringing out wonderful books like Universe for Breakfast, a collection of Zen poems by Joy Magezis or Voices in my Head, poetry on aging by the esteemed linguist, Terence Moore without the digital printing revolution.

It also caused an explosion in the number of titles available making small fish even smaller.

That’s true. Every shift has its positive and negative sides. The trick is to maximise the positive.

I guess it allowed you more room to experiment, though.

It allowed us to take risks with titles we couldn’t possibly have done prior to that. I had always wanted to do more translations as I felt the English-speaking world was missing out on some wonderful writing. So when we were offered the translation of Gurgen Mahari’s Burning Orchards, we jumped at the chance.

That’s an exceptional book. How did you come across it?

David Cutting had a friendship with Dick Tahta, the mathematician who Steven Hawking said inspired him to go into the field. It turned out that Dick was a man of many talents and he and his brother, Haig, had been translating Mahari’s work over the course of several years. Dick showed it to David and David showed it to me. When I read it I was astounded that something of that calibre had never been translated into English before. It was a great piece of literature. And the translation, itself, was a work of art. Later, of course, I discovered that Haig was an excellent writer himself and subsequently we published his remarkable Constantinople trilogy.

What are your plans for the future?

We have an exciting new fiction list for 2011. Besides the children’s book I spoke about earlier, Anna and the Jewel Thieves memorialising the illustrations of David Kelley, we have a new historical novel by Haig Tahta, The Siege of Darabad, based on the Indian mutinies of 1868. We’re bringing out A Knight at Sea by R J Raskin which has to do with Raymond Chandler’s return to England as an aging writer. It’s done as a mystery set on the SS Mauritania and it relates to his years in Hollywood. Then we’re starting a series called Sacha Dumont’s Euro-mysteries which explores the emerging Europe through stories that connect the present to the past. The first one is set in Amsterdam and has to do with the COBRA art movement. And we’re finally bringing out my book I mentioned earlier, Eight Weeks in the Summer of Victoria’s Jubilee.

How did you end up with such diverse titles?

Because we gave ourselves the freedom and had the desire to publish what we like. Literature is a very personal medium. What is appreciated by some is ignored or even despised by another. There are no rules, no mandates except our own particular taste that may or may not mesh with others. To pretend it’s otherwise is foolish and doesn’t really get you anyplace except the hind end of a cookie machine producing sugar-coated biscuits.

Besides the personal taste of the editor, is there a thread that runs through your list?

I suppose generally there is a thread of sorts - it’s one that speaks to the human condition; that values humanity, art, originality and compassion. Black Apollo tries to live up to its name – stimulating, provocative and consumed with pleasure.


The complete list of Black Apollo Press titles can be viewed on their website at: