Turnpike Books is one of my favourite independent Irish publishers.
They publish a series of Northern Ireland’s neglected authors such as Shan Bullock, Linda Anderson and Benedict Kiely and have been instrumental in bringing Janet McNeil, Brian Moore and Ian Cochrane back into print.
Turnpike also publishes a series of the selected short stories of the major English writers of the twentieth-century, beginning with the stories of A.E. Coppard, J.B. Priestley and V.S. Pritchett.
Turnpike Books is based on the hope that if a writer has something of value to say then that is reason enough to publish their work.
To celebrate Reading Ireland Month, I am delighted to welcome James Doyle to the blog to chat about the great work that Turnpike Books does.
- Most readers of my blog will be aware of the work of Turnpike Books, but could you give us a little background to the company and why it was formed?
About ten years ago, I was in Edinburgh and was struck by the Scottish Room in the Blackwells on South Bridge. It’s a room that contains only books of Scottish writing. It reminded me that I had often thought of publishing a series of Northern Irish writing. A few weeks later, I was in a hotel in Fermanagh when I noticed a plaque memorialising a local writer called Shan Bullock. I grew up a few miles away, but I had never heard of this writer so, when I got back to London, I went to the British Library and read some of his novels. I really enjoyed The Loughsiders, first published in 1924 (just a few years after the creation of Northern Ireland itself), and particularly admired its descriptions of the Fermanagh landscape. So much of Bullock’s writing resonates with everything that has happened in the century since, and there are numerous echoes of Seamus Heaney’s early poetry, as well as John McGahern’s writing. I founded Turnpike to publish the first paperback edition of The Loughsiders. After that, there were so many other Northern Irish novels that should be in print: Benedict Kiely’s Proxopera, Maurice Leitch’s Silver’s City and Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream.
- You’ve brought some fantastic writers back to the reading public’s attention – Ian Cochrane, Maurice Leitch, Shan Bullock – how do you decide on what author’s to champion?
It’s mainly personal taste. When I lived in Belfast from 1988 to 1993, I bought old (forgotten) books from secondhand shops, like Bookfinders, and I now publish new editions of some of them. Other books have come from a wider interest in Northern Irish literature. I first came across Janet McNeill because of a chapter in John Wilson Foster’s Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction. After publishing a new edition of Maurice Leitch’s Silver’s City, I would meet Maurice for a drink sometimes and he told me about his old friend Ian. When Maurice was incredulous that I had never read Ian Cochrane’s novels, I searched them out and published F for Ferg in 2018. A new edition of Cochrane’s A Streak of Madness and a collection of Ian’s previously unpublished short stories will follow later this year.
I once worked for Waterstones, where you quickly notice that the average novel is almost immediately forgotten after its publication (the majority are forgotten within months, unfortunately). As a consequence, books can slip out of print within a few years. Making them available again for new generations of readers is important. In a society as polarised as Northern Ireland, having as many stories and voices available as possible increases the opportunities for each community to speak to the other. Understanding the Protestant community from Maurice Leitch’s novels or gaining an insight into Irish history from Benedict Kiely’s writing adds to a deeper awareness of Northern Irish politics. That sort of understanding may, even, contribute to wider change (integrated education via reading novels).
- Your recent republications of three Brian Moore novels for his centenary sparked a real interest in his work again. Have you any plans to bring more of his novels into publication?
Yes, a new edition of Cold Heaven is coming in June (I hope). It’s my favourite of Moore’s novels about marriage, and yet another of his musings on religion. There are many of Moore’s novels still out of print, and since I published some of Moore’s short stories in The Dear Departed an academic has found some previously unknown stories (and Moore’s journalism has never been collected). Few writers merit, or benefit from, having their collected works perpetually in print but Brian Moore is one who deserves that.
- Brian Moore was never really known for his short stories, but The Dear Departed, which you published last year showed that he was really skilled in that genre. How did the publication of the stories come about?
I once worked in a publishing company with a freelance editor called Peter Haining. Peter was a remarkable compiler of anthologies of short stories, he put together hundreds of them (under so many pseudonyms, it’s impossible to know quite how many). He told me about Moore’s short stories, and he had put several of them into various anthologies that he edited. I always assumed that someone would publish a collection of Moore’s stories and, eventually, it occurred to me that I could do it. I published The Dear Departed during the first lockdown in 2020, when all bookshops were closed. Still, both Wendy Erskine and Joyce Carol Oates reviewed the book and that was a very bright spot in that year.
- Janet McNeill is another novelist whose work was reinvigorated by your publications. What is it about her writing in particular, do you think, that still resonates?
It is the elegance of her writing, the unflinching honesty of it. McNeill’s sentences, like those of Elizabeth Taylor’s (another novelist ‘re-discovered’ over the last few years), seem simple but only because they are so keenly observed. Northern Irish writing is often assumed to begin with the Troubles (the post-1969 years) but McNeill fills in those mid-century years when women writers, in particular, are overlooked. Her themes of the emotional cost of domestic life and the frustrations of middle-age (though, for McNeill middle-age begins in a woman’s 30s) are, perhaps, more meaningful for readers today.
- As well as highlighting the work of neglected authors from Northern Ireland, Turnpike also publishes a series of the selected short stories of the major English writers of the twentieth-century. What made you decide to branch out into short stories?
I wanted to publish writers I admired, even if they didn’t come from Fermanagh or Antrim. I briefly lived in Bradford and after walking past a statue of J.B. Priestley repeatedly, I read his work. There have been no collections of his short stories published in decades and it seemed important to make them available again. I’m particularly proud of publishing an edition of Priestley’s The Town Major of Miraucourt, one of the best short stories ever written about the First World War but virtually unknown now. Also, the books by non-Northern Irish writers sell in larger numbers (they have a larger market and it’s easier to get review coverage) so they fund the books that sell fewer copies. My favourite of the English writers is Barbara Comyns, especially The House of Dolls where some elderly women engage in a little light prostitution to make ends meet (it’s one of those rare comic novels that are actually funny).
- What is striking about Turnpike’s output is the quality of the writers whose work has been allowed to go out of print. Does it surprise you sometimes when you realise that such important novelists haven’t had a wide audience?
Publishing economics are unforgiving when taste changes and writers lose a wider market. Many of the writers published by Turnpike, such as St John Ervine, were household names in previous decades but few writers are remembered for any period of time. Turnpike Books is just me, and my only business expense (really) is a laptop and, even then, most of the publishing work is done via emails on my mobile phone. I can afford to publish books in small print runs and make a profit from selling a few hundred copies. No publisher who has to pay salaries, rent an office and all the other overheads could even consider many of the writers I publish.
There are some, Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream (in particular), where it seems almost impossible to believe they could ever have been allowed to go out of print. However, HarperCollins, for example, have to sell a lot more copies than I do to make a profit. If a novel, or short story, has something to say then there will always be a market. I am more interested in reaching the generations of readers who were born or grew up after some of the writers, such as Ian Cochrane, slipped out of public consciousness and are interested in discovering them.
- Of all your publications, which title has been the most popular?
I’m glad to say that the title that has sold most copies is a book that means a great deal to me, Benedict Kiely’s Proxopera. It’s a novella about a teacher who is forced to drive a bomb into his local town. Colum McCann has described it as “maybe the greatest book about what we call ‘The Troubles’,” Though, it’s about Irish history and its recurrent cycles of violence over centuries. At its heart is Kiely’s typically generous, and erudite, understanding that Irish culture, mythology, landscape and music are bulwarks against the violence. You can often sense a writer’s personality through their writing, and to read Kiely is to glimpse that he must have been an exceptionally loveable (and loving) man.
- Can you give us any hints as to who you might be publishing next?
Coming in 2022 is an edition of Brian Moore’s Cold Heaven and two books by Ian Cochrane. After that, a friend has unearthed poetry by a major Irish writer that I had never known existed and I have long wanted to publish poetry (though, it has to be admitted, the best Northern Irish poets are in little danger of going out of print). I am very aware that many of the writers in Sinéad Gleeson’s brilliant anthology The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland should have more of their work in print. And the publication, last year, of thin places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh made me wonder what other nature, or landscape, writing might there be about Northern Ireland?
Many thanks to James Doyle for taking part in my Reading Ireland Month celebrations. If you’d like to learn more about Turnpike Books or order some of their fantastic titles (which I can heartily recommend!) then do visit their website. Have you read something from Turnpike Books? Do you have a favourite title from them? Do let me know in the comments.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!