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Industry Insight: Q&A Elena Lappin

By Liz Robinson on 10th September 2018

This month’s industry insight comes from one of LoveReading’s own, Elena Lappin is a writer, editor and presenter. Podcasting about books is her private passion which has now become public as Elena hosts the LoveReading Podcast, a monthly mix of book related conversation. She is the author of Foreign Brides, a collection of stories, The Nose, a novel, and What Language Do I Dream In? A memoir. She has contributed investigative journalism, features, essays, reviews and author profiles to Granta, Prospect, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Independent, and New York Times Book Review. She is former founding editor of ONE, an imprint of Pushkin Press where she published exceptional debut novelists including Olivia Sudjic, Rachel Elliott and Man Booker shortlisted Chigozie Obioma. 

The first time I met Elena I was immediately captivated by her book world knowledge, I could have sat and chatted books with her all day long! One of my favourite reads from 2015 was the truly gorgeous Whispers Through a Megaphone, published by Elena’s own ONE imprint. Elena is the focus of the new Lovereading Very Short Story Award Competition which was introduced in September’s podcast, do take a look at the competition page for more information. Elena's debut Foreign Brides was actually a short story collection, originally published by Picador, now available as ebook from Virago. 

Tell us about the different roles you have had in the book industry

I have worked as magazine and book editor, international literary scout, author, literary critic, investigative journalist and broadcaster. When I work in publishing I actually forget that I am a writer myself, and become completely immersed in other writers’ work. As a scout, I enjoyed the ‘game’ of literary matchmaking - connecting my publisher clients with the right books for their lists. This involved not only a lot of selective reading, but also developing a sense of where publishing is going, what are the trends, what type of book is likely to attract many readers. But the most important lesson I learned from working with many excellent publishers was to hone and trust your own instinct. It’s really exciting to come across a unique manuscript and feel in your gut that it’s going to be an important, widely read and loved book. Publishing is a bit like gambling: you take a chance on something you believe will be a success, and hope for the best. Of course, it’s not that simple: once a publisher becomes contractually committed to a book, there is a lot of work involved in making that hunch a reality.

I gave up scouting because I wanted to edit and publish the books I believed in myself. My imprint ONE under Pushkin Press specialised in exceptional debuts. I focused on selecting and publishing only one per season, in order to give each title the maximum amount of editorial, publicity and marketing attention, treating each book as a lead title. I absolutely loved editing talented debut novelists, discovering them early in their writing career and finding a way for each book to shine (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Whispers Through a Megaphone was longlisted for the Bailey Prize). 

Working with the brilliant book jacket designer Jon Gray was a revelation. I also really enjoyed interviewing my authors for our website. Perhaps it was this aspect of my publishing work that made me keen to explore the idea of creating a book podcast. I met Katherine Stroud as a wonderful publicist for ONE, and we had so much fun we continued to work together creatively after we both left Pushkin. Our first joint project was a pilot podcast called Words on the Street, which featured Louisa Young, Diana Athill, and the legendary Virago publisher Lennie Goodings. Alex Rayment was involved in co-producing, so when I joined LoveReading, it was wonderful to be able to start a podcast here with Katherine Stroud and Alex Rayment.  

The Lovereading podcast is a fairly new venture, from your first thoughts, how has the podcast progressed?

I wanted to create an entertaining, topical book podcast, as an exciting addition to the LoveReading website. After four monthly episodes so far, I feel that the LoveReading Podcast is evolving into a unique mix of in-depth, fun conversations about books and related topics. In addition to interviews, we have regular segments such as Book Post with critic Lucy Scholes (a lively preview of books to come) and Where Books Come From, a personal conversation with publishing professionals. We are trying to keep it very relevant to current themes, but we are also keen to explore beautiful books that may have been overlooked by other media.  Each podcast is conceived in such a way that one can listen to it in one go, or dip in and out according to one’s interest or time constraints. Although we try to record most of our sessions in our studio, we do also cover current events in the world of books. I love live events - as long as we can find a quiet corner to record a chat… 

What do you love most about your job, have there been any surprises since you started the podcast?

I love the intimacy of a personal conversation in the studio. This environment creates the kind of openness that translates into the sort of podcast people love to listen to - real and direct. I enjoy reading and discovering authors to invite, and I usually finish reading their books just before we meet, so I am really immersed in the world of their books. The biggest surprise has been to discover how much I enjoy the process of editing! We have to be quite selective - our producer Alex Rayment would say ‘brutal’ - and sometimes it’s hard to eliminate the wonderful things people have said. The quality of a podcast is very much dependent on the excellent work behind the scenes of the entire team, and this has been a real joy to experience.   

Which fictional character or person from history would you love to read a book by (why is that?) and what type of book do you think it would be?

I would love to read Anna Karenina’s own story, in her own words. She is a tragic and complex fictional character created by a man (Lev Tolstoy), but to hear her tell her own story, from a female narrative perspective, would be intriguing. I wonder if it has been done?

Who are your book world inspirations?

Diana Athill. I admire her life in publishing, as editor at Andre Deutsch (she has described this fascinating experience in her award-winning memoir Stet), and her own writing. She is 100 years old now and the most positive person I know! Publishing is an odd mix of business and a love of books. Diana admits that the business side has never really interested her, but her observations of how publishing works are incredibly astute and often hilarious.

Describe your favourite place to read (if you have a picture you are happy to share that would be great)?

I love reading in bed, so I won’t be showing you a picture of that...

What’s your favourite book from childhood, how did it make you feel?

In my memoir What Language Do I dream In? there is a chapter on my childhood reading… I was reading constantly, and not only did every book I read leave a lasting impression, I actually still have most of them. I think my favourite books would have to be those that predated my actual reading: books read to me by my grandfather, with characters that were a precisely drawn fantasy. Listening to those stories made me feel that anything was possible, and that I would love to read such stories myself, and to write my own. 

Any strange book habits?

I usually read several books at once. It’s almost a compulsion, and is never a problem as long as they are all different. It’s also a bit of a competition: one of them tends to drop out of my race to the finish line, ie last page.

Fun book fact?

I believe that anything invented by a writer as a complete fiction does in fact happen, once it has been written.

I am completely addicted to the Nero Wolfe detective novels by Rex Stout, set in a sort of timeless 1930s New York. I have read all of them and am constantly re-reading them no matter what else is going on in my life. There is something about Nero’s sarcastic genius and Archie Goodwin’s ironic storytelling that always draws me in. Frankly, I’d love to live in their world! 

How did the LoveReading Very Short Story competition come about, what is different about this competition?

The podcast was always conceived as a vibrant platform for bringing readers and writers together, and it occurred to me that a short story (600 - 1000 words) competition would be an interesting way of doing this. There are many short story awards out there, but ours is different in that it is open to any genre, and the winning story will be read by a professional actor on the podcast. And in addition to our five judges (Preti Taneja, Maxim Jakubowski, Alison Flood, Liz Robinson and myself), we are inviting the LoveReading community to be our sixth judge, by voting for their favourite story on the shortlist. I can’t wait to read the submissions, and to chat about this exciting new theme on the podcast.

Thank you Elena, for a fascinating insight into your world, I have sometimes been known to read more than one book at a time… you truly do need to keep your wits about you, don’t you?!