Mara Gulens
October 20

Playing his own game: An interview with Juris Jurjevics
Rigas Laiks

When I read that Latvian-born author Juris Jurjevics would be participating in the Toronto International Authors’ Festival, I sent off e-mails to all my literary friends. But none of them knew anything about him.

It turns out we do know the author of last summer’s thriller The Trudeau Vector – but as a publisher. Soho Press, which was founded by Jurjevics, published Agate Nesaule’s A Woman in Amber in 1995, and the book was later published in Latvia with the title Sieviete dzintara.

Jurjevics had flown in from New York to read at the University of Toronto’s Convocation hall and to take part in a radio interview. Our conversation took place in a Lettieri coffee shop – “a strange Latvian Italian combination,” joked Jurjevics.

 

Mara Gulens (MG): Right now you’re finishing off the Canadian tour for your first novel, The Trudeau Vector [Viking, 2005), which has been published in 11 countries. Did you know it would be so intense?

Juris Jurjevics (JJ): I’ve been publishing for 37 years, I know the drill quite well. Essentially it’s done now. Christmas Eve posterity is over.

MG: Your first book has done rather well.

JJ: The book has navigated through the rapids. Also, incredibly, National Geographic has signed it for film adaptation. Now they’re shopping for a film writer, director, financing.

MG: I don’t know if you want to go backwards in what made you make the leap from publishing to writing, or forward in that you recently made a decision to let go of publishing? 

JJ: The serious answer is that I needed a third act. I’d been in publishing for so long and I had always wanted to write. 

MG: What had you done in terms of writing?

JJ: I had ghosted some really awful autobiographies of football coaches and that sort of thing. Mostly it’s all been professional writing. You do a lot of it in publishing.

MG: Like the cover copy of books?

JJ: And that’s not to be underestimated. You have to write very tightly – it’s like copywriting. And you’re forever synthesizing and defining books in catalog copy and advertising. And you’re editing constantly, structuring and solving writing problems. 

I had a lot of exposure to writers. And I was married to a writer. My second wife passed away in 1992 and I became the single parent of an eight year-old girl, so there was no possibility of writing full time. My daughter is a senior in college now, so dad can play a bit. 

I had the idea for the book 20 years ago. In selling a book of fiction, you need a full manuscript. I thought I could get around it by writing a partial for what I hoped looked like a commercial book, and submitting an outline for the rest. I smugly presented this to colleagues through an agent and they instantly rejected it.

The reasons were interesting. One of them was that it was too shrill in terms of the medical alert and the alarm about epidemics and outbreaks. There hadn’t been any real scare since the 50’s polio epidemic and before that the 1918 flu pandemic, and who remembered that? Canada didn’t race their engines as a setting for a thriller, either. 

So I put it away and kept researching and coming back to Canada. Then the stock market tanked and wiped out about two years of my kid’s college tuition. Then I got hit with some other really nice bills and I thought – now what do I do? 

The one way I knew how to make some really large money was writing. In the course of my publishing I had sold other writers’ books for small fortunes. I thought – time for me to try for the brass ring.

MG: I can’t imagine anybody who has written a book saying, this is how I’m going to get rich. 

JJ: I know. It’s usually heartfelt and sincere and all that, and one shouldn’t say I did it for the money. And in truth, you have your dreams and fantasies of youth and so on. But I absolutely did it for the money, Charles Dickens and I.

Even to finance my writing ambition, I couldn’t just say – I had a vague dream last night and I’m going to turn it into a book and hope something happens. I had to pretty much know how I was going to pay for my kid’s college education, my rent, etc. It was very much planned out.

The basic idea isn’t commercial enough. It’s a little too fancy. You have to really dumb it down to be really successful. You need an albino monk with pink eyes, coshing people with a candelabra, as in the Da Vinci Code, which amazingly enough includes flat-out lectures by a character who is a university lecturer. 

I knew the money would be good but not that huge, so I needed the maximum number of countries. That meant the details in the book involving other countries had to be absolutely accurate. I love little historical cracks and things not recorded or commonly known. 

The material about Norway and the Russians is right on. Even the wildest element in the story, which is those abandoned items under the ice, have a basis in fact. And here I will start to sound like a crank, because after 20 years of researching and talking to knowledgeable people, I have come to think it’s true. That the Russians have left us these little nuclear goodies underwater, which they haven’t bothered to clean up.

I was fascinated as to how the Russians would react to the book. I thought they would be wary, but they are actually publishing it in Russian [by the publisher AST], so that was a nice surprise. Hopefully, it may turn out to be a bit of a Trojan horse when they do publish it.

The other thing that you’ll understand is that the Latvians have not taken it for publication. 

MG: Any ideas why?

JJ: There aren’t that many commercial operations in Latvia, the book is long, it’s going to be hard to translate and it’ll be expensive. There are only two or three publishers that could seriously publish it. Maybe they will. 

MG: You’re a Latvian-born US citizen and part of the book takes place in the former USSR. What part of you made you write it?

JJ: It’s definitely coming out of your history, every book would. Even my fascination with the Inuit goes back to Latvia – I see them as Latvians on the ice. They’re stoic in the same way, mystical, don’t have a great time sense, they’re quite poetic.

The Inuit are pretty intuitive. Their culture has lasted 9,000 years. They can sit by an ice hole for hours, waiting. I can imagine the Latvians doing the same thing. The climate is not dissimilar. 

Their attitude towards art. The Inuit would make their art and just leave it. There’s a similar purity in the Latvian idea. The Latvians are not extroverted like the Russians or the Irish. But in the writing and the poetry it all seems to burst out. Latvian poetry is just wildly expressive and revealing in ways that that no poet would ever be in public life. 

I’m fascinated by the effect of Canadians on the Inuit, as I am by the Russians on the Letts.  

I once was dealing with the most famous writer I was ever associated with. I was the editor on James Baldwin’s last novel [Just Above My Head]. He was desperately depressed one night and I had to shake him out of it. I accused him of being a member of an amateur minority group. I was matching him: 700 years of Latvian slavery to 300 of the black. He went from depression to surprised amusement.

I made a pretty good case on its effects on personality. Blacks grew to be openly resentful, after years of subservience. But it seems the opposite for Latvians – they seem able to turn themselves into wallpaper and vanish. The other defense mechanism is a patronizing attitude toward the oppressor. It’s the little Russki boy with his little gun, is how they will describe some menacing Russian soldier. They diminish with diminutives.

MG: Are you connected to Latvia or Latvians?

JJ: I have been back to Latvia several times. I was never connected to the New York community on a regular basis, no. My family pulled out of the Latvian community as it quickly dispersed in New York. I have never gone to Latvian school. 

MG: You’re not involved with the Latvian literary community?

JJ: Not at all. The thing that has surprised me over the years is that I don’t know a single Latvian novelist who has been published in the mainstream English press.

MG: We have historians.

JJ: Like Modris Eksteins, author of the brilliant Walking Since Daybreak, which suggested Letts were involved in the actual execution of the last tsar and his family,  and touched on Latvian complicity in the Jewish genocide. Likewise Andrievs Ezergailis’ book on the holocaust in Latvia. But these remain super sensitive subjects that are not spoken of. Latvians desperately need some air and some airing out.

MG: How do you do that? 

JJ: You see if some spark will draw them out. You publish work that addresses people’s most heartfelt concerns. I published a memoir, Agate Nesaule’s A Woman in Amber. Like Eksteins, she and I knew there would be trouble from the emigre Latvians, I just didn’t know how or what.

MG: One older Latvian woman I knew was so angry at Agate Nesaule for airing our dirty laundry. There were things she thought should have been kept silent.

JJ: We had Agate on a tour like I’m doing now. And it was close to a battle in New York when she read.  Some Latvians were criticizing her on the most trivial and tiny points that had nothing to do with their real objections. The real objection to some degree involved her personal revelations about problems with her family.  And also that she expressed sympathy for Anne Frank. But that never really came out. The objections were oblique, never direct. 

Agate didn’t have to say much of anything that evening, because half the room – mostly female – went on the attack and pretty much quashed the criticism. The book spoke to them, and in some ways for them. At that event she won out.

MG: So you’re familiar with all the twisted stuff.

JJ: I was stunned when researching one of my next books, which is my Latvian novel. I came across the most incredible story of mindless courage, self-sacrifice and total disregard for one’s safety by this Latvian man who, during the war, risked all to save Latvian Jews. It was beyond exemplary. He constructed secret shelters. He was sneaking into the ghetto when people were trying to sneak out. He marched Jews away under the Germans’ noses. It was breathtaking.  Just sheer bravery.

I had never heard this story from any Latvian source – ever. So the question was – why not? 

I think Latvians are afraid of a couple of issues. My parents’ generation and myself by extension were faced with a moral choice of either Stalin or Hitler or of leaving the planet. What, having taken that option – escaping west  – is so sensitive about it? Instead of dealing with it, there’s both resentment and guilt associated with it instead – and about their relationship with Jews. 

A great many immigrant parents, including Asians and Latvians, try to cut off that experience. They deliberately do not teach their kids the language and don’t tell their kids their own history. They try to make the baggage and the history go away. They want to launch the child into this new place and culture. End of the old.

MG: And we know that baggage doesn’t just go away.

JJ: No, you leave your child unable to deal with his or her heritage. They are denied real knowledge. They just have a feeling of there being a void. This makes some of them really desperate to get the truth of a situation, to find themselves in the picture.

MG: Does your daughter know Latvia’s language or history?

JJ: No. My wife was American. Her family had been in America for 11 generations. I couldn’t see indoctrinating her in Latvian language and culture. And the arch conservatism in much of the Latvian American community didn’t encourage it either. Like the ostracism of non-Latvian-speaking kids at Latvian camp. But it is no less her heritage; she is very curious about Latvia and wants to visit. 

MG: So now you’re making a living off this book?

JJ: Yes, I’m leaving my job in January after many years to write full time. Either I’ll be a successful writer or be driving a taxicab.

MG: Now that you have one under your belt, can you get a contract?

JJ: Yes, but if you can finance a book without doing so you’re much better off, because then you surrender too much control. Avoiding that is to your benefit, because it can drive you crazy dealing with endless suggestions. 

MG: You now know you can do it, you can be a writer. 

JJ: I’ve known it for a while. It’s hard to yearn for the life if you’re a social being. In fact, I’m amazed authors do so well coming out into the world after they’ve been sitting for a couple of years off in the woods by themselves. You expect them to be half mad, but they’re really quite amiable.  Obviously, I’ve known the problems intimately and literally lived with them for a long time.

MG: But it’s still different being on the other side. You forget.

JJ: The editor becomes really desensitized after a while. You spend your life rejecting. For every 10 things you sign, you are on average rejecting 1,990. The last time we counted at Soho Press we were clearing 7,000 manuscripts a year, and I don’t even know how many query letters. We publish 40 books a year.

MG: Where does Soho Press rank among publishers?

JJ: We’re tiny. They look at us like a boutique. Really it feels like a guerilla warfare operation. The big firms have gotten ever bigger through conglomerate mergers. Bertelsmann in the US controls over 50 percent of the US market. It is 32 companies in the UK, and 82 acquired companies (with 112 imprints) in the US. Holtzbrinck owns another large grouping, as does Pearson (Penguin).  The American independent publishers are now way down in the food chain.

MG: Does it hurt to leaving publishing?

JJ: In January it will be the 20th anniversary of Soho Press, and 37 years and eight months of publishing for me. I thought I would last 40 years, but it’s not going to happen. You get worn out. The contending forces are so contrary and arbitrary. It makes it interesting and exciting, because it’s practically like dealing with Chaos Theory. But it’s also very frustrating.

We started off a lot of writers and now we can hold them for fewer and fewer books. The very large companies come in quickly, as soon as we publish, with extremely large cheques and take them away. We might pay, let’s say, I’m making up a number, $5,800 for a first book. That next cheque, from elsewhere obviously, might be half a million dollars. The contrast is beyond night and day, and we can’t hold onto the writers.

That old idea of building an author and then that writer staying with you just can’t happen anymore. And that’s changed the whole tenor of dealings with writers in the industry. There’s much less loyalty expected and much less loyalty given. It’s really a business.  

Bertelsmann, when it bought Random House years ago, became fixated on a study which said that in a 10-year period in US sales, 63 of the 100 best-selling titles were written by six writers. So the whole organization is looking for the next half dozen. In the largest mega conglomerate house, a single book like one on Bill Clinton will devour the attention of the place for an entire season.

Everyone is after that half dozen. The good news is that they’ll gamble. Last year according to RR Bowker, there were 450,000 books published in the English language. 195,000 of those in the US and 180,00 in England. 

There’s a glut of material, but there’s also a huge demand. It’s like television – the material is being used up at a phenomenal rate. The ultimate goal, however, is to find those rare half dozen writers who will sell in the millions.  

MG: We generally hear that people don’t read. 

JJ: I think people don’t know where to go. You are presented with 450,000 choices.  Even so, two million readers recently found Kite Runner, for instance. 

MG: From a writer’s perspective – what do you think when you’re up against that many titles?

JJ: You have to totally blank it out. You have to have the confidence that you can get through a whole bunch of layers. In publishing you have to have all the steps for a book to succeed completely. So “completely” is hard, but you can strategize through a good many. You can get it placed in 11 or 12 countries, you can get a movie option, and now, sort of fate has to step in. You have to try and manage as much of the process as you can. After that, you have to say, I’m just going to dream and write. You have to shut it out. 

MG: Is it the same for writers in Europe, or Latvia?

JJ: Europe, yes, except for France. Latvians writers, no, they are very much at another stage. Part of what’s being published in Latvia is pure and good and true and fine. The other part is loaded with literary pretension. Refinement and propriety are prized over art. Celebration of national themes likewise brings rewards and a certain stature. But commerce is closing in. Free market forces are as relentless as commissars.

MG: Are you saying that in the US writers don’t think of themselves as godly?

JJ: Oh my, yes, they do, especially if you’re Phillip Roth, otherwise known as Prince Philip. If you ever get the chance to interview him – run the other way. He’s a great writer and insufferable. But commerce now dominates. You’ll be hard pressed to find a literary work in the top 15 of the American bestseller lists.

Even people coming out of MFA (Master of Arts) programs have learned what New York is looking for. But there are people who are writing brilliantly and with abandon. Nicole Krauss, A History of Love, published in May. On the basis of 200 pages of manuscript, Norton gave her a contract for two books for half-a-million dollars. Literary work is still sought after. Did it make the bestseller list? No, but it’s certainly up there.

Daniel Duane’s Mouth Like Yours. Brilliant book, took him seven years to write. It’s about male sexuality. Guys don’t write about this stuff. He is a fantastically good writer. Reviewers, unfortunately, trashed it.

Writers may have all the natural gifts – that isn’t enough. You really need the skills too. 

Working  as an editor and publisher – you realize that many writers envision writing as a gift from God. And I end up having to tell them that it’s not a moral failing if they can’t write. You may have a very nice voice – that’s not going to make you an opera singer or rock star. It doesn’t fall on you from the sky and you either receive it or you don’t. If you have the basics you then have to develop the skills. It requires craft. You wouldn’t want to go to a dentist who received his or her skills from on high somewhere, or attend a concert conducted by someone merely anointed. 

I have known a lot of really good writers who never write anything. They don’t have the patience. Because it does require such endless rewriting and editing. 

MG: And now you’re doing it at 62.

JJ: I’ve been coaching forever. And now I have to play the game myself.

 

***

Juris Jurjevics (1943)

- 1943 flees Latvia

- 1961 attends various colleges

- 1967 sargeant in the American army in Vietnam

- 1968 - 1976 editor at various publishing houses

- 1976 Editor-in-Chief, Dial Press

- 1986 President and publisher, Soho Press Inc.

- 2005 publishes first novel

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