I’ve always been interested in subtle darkness in stories. Years ago, I used to listen to the soundtracks to The Twilight Zone and marvel at how effective they were out of context from the show. One minute pleasantness. The next, peculiar dread. With no film to accompany these sonic mood swings, they became even more disturbing, leaving me to wonder, “what is happening?!” The less something is able to be explained, or the less it is intentionally explained, creates an unknown that, when done right, can spiral directly toward a profound terror that only we ourselves can build.
Even since I was young, I sought out stories that functioned like this. Around 2010, I came across a book that caught my interest. It was called The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales, written by Rosalie Parker. I was familiar with a few publishers that produced books such as this, but I had not heard of this one before. It was called The Swan River Press, located in Dublin, Ireland, which also raised my curiosity.
Before the book arrived, the publisher, Brian Showers, wrote me directly, thanking me for the purchase and commenting on my location, Wisconsin. He was originally from here, and not too far away from me. A nice coincidence, I thought. This, his friendliness, and my enjoyment of the book kept me paying attention to what the press produced next.
From there, I bought Ghosts by R.B. Russell, and Strange Epiphanies by Peter Bell, both highly recommended titles. Around that time, I was preparing for a tour that would take me to Dublin. Because of Brian’s friendly correspondence after my first purchase, and my interest in his press, I wrote him again, letting him know I’d be passing through, and invited him to the concert where we could have a chance to meet and talk in person. He accepted and it was a great meeting.
Since then, we’ve started an annual tradition. Brian returns home to Wisconsin each December for a visit, and we meet at a coffee shop between our two cities, catching up on the woes and joys of the past year. I very much look forward to these visits as it’s always a great conversation.
Recently, I asked him if he’d consider doing an interview that I could post at my site. Whether you’re familiar or not with his work as an author or publisher, I hope these words lead you to look a bit further. The Swan River runs deep.
What brought you to Ireland and is it a place you feel you’ve adapted to well?
Ireland is a country I wandered over to shortly after finishing my undergrad degree at the University of Wisconsin. I’d lived in Madison pretty much all my life and wanted a change of scenery. Dublin seemed like a sensible place, and after a brief interval in Stockholm, I’ve been here ever since. People ask me sometimes if I’m going to live the rest of my life here, which is a rather grim question. It’s like asking if I’ve got my death bed all picked out, or in what part of the country will my tombstone be quarried. But, yes, I’m happy enough here for the moment, but wouldn’t rule out leaving the country if it suits me to do so.
I think I’ve adapted as much as I ever well. I’m constantly reminded by indigenous Irish that I’m not really Irish (even though I hold an Irish passport and have lived here for nearly two decades). Some people go to such subtle lengths to remind you you’re an outsider, which is ultimately a pointless and exclusionary endeavor.
Identity is an interesting issue for me because Dublin very much feels like where I belong, despite people indicating otherwise or sometimes even telling me outright. Dublin is where I live, where I work; it’s a city I’ve studied and written about; I did my masters at Trinity College, and I’ve made a fair share of cultural contributions to the city. I don’t necessarily feel American either—that place gets weirder and weirder every time I go back. I occasionally worry that I’ll be neither here nor there. But for now I’m a Dubliner.
How did you first decide to start publishing books?
Becoming a publisher was something that happened gradually; it was never a decision that I made consciously, but rather the sum result of numerous smaller choices.
I suppose it started with the palm-sized, hand-bound chapbooks I used to make as Halloween and Christmas gifts for friends and family. Those were the first Swan River Press publications—a designation that was tongue-in-cheek at the time.
Then I started publishing booklets with stories by other writers, because some of them wanted to work with me and that sounded like good fun. But there were two main factors that really pushed me to publish hardbacks: I enjoyed working with people to design books, and I’d had such negative experiences with other publishers that I felt I could do better, if not certainly be more civil.
What was the process of getting the very first book published like?
The first hardback book I published was Rosalie Parker’s debut collection The Old Knowledge in September 2010. It was a book that had been slated for production (for a very long time) by another publisher, but as with a number of that publisher’s projects, Rosalie’s volume never saw the light of day. But I’d read her stories in advance, and because I liked them so much I decided I wanted to be a part of making them available for others to read too. And that’s pretty much what happened.
In those early days I had a lot of questions about publishing, and my colleagues and Tartarus Press, who are still more than generous with their time, guided me through the process. In fact, one of my favourite aspects of the small press is the camaraderie shared by a number of my colleagues. It’s a genuine pleasure to be a part of it. Although we sell mainly to the same audience, I never feel as though we’re in competition, but rather that we’re all working with the same love and passion for literature.
I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to make the decision to become a publisher outright—to jump in the deep end. I’ve seen other small and mid-sized presses do that, and it’s common enough for some to flounder and eventually sink under the weight of their own aspirations. It’s a pity because it gives small press a bad name. I’m a cautious person by nature, so I try to keep my own passion for books well-grounded. And even though I occasionally make decisions that are not themselves financially viable, they’re still manageable from a production perspective. But that’s a balancing act I’ve learned to maintain.
What inspired the imprint’s name, Swan River Press, and what is the logo from?
I wrote a blog post about that earlier this year called “Our Riverine Head“. Very briefly, the Swan River is a subterranean waterway that flows through Rathmines, the part of Dublin where I live. I wanted something that reflected the neighbourhood—and a subterranean river appealed to my interest in presences unseen—but I was also keen to give the press a name that wasn’t a horror cliché. I avoided words like “bloody” and “dark”. Similarly I try to eschew horror iconography on our covers: so no wicked clowns, evil scarecrows, leering jack-o-lanterns, tentacled masses, or gratuitous gore. At risk of sounding pretentious, I wanted to define the press as something decidedly more literary. The logo, the mascaron face with the scallop crown, is the keystone from the Rathmines town hall, which overlooks the “banks” of the underground river. I like to think that it’s the personification of the Swan River, but it’s probably just Saint James.
What led you to work with the kinds of authors and subject matter you do?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in the supernatural and broader fantastical, be it in the form of dinosaurs, robots, or ghosts. I was allowed free reign of the library (thanks, Mom!), so it was usually straight over to the UFO, Atlantis, and Bigfoot section. By age seven I was an outspoken fan of John Bellairs, Alvin Schwartz, and Greek mythology.
Having no understanding of how television programming worked, I also recall scanning the TV Guide every week for The Wizard of Oz or a Halloween special or something equally interesting. You can imagine my disappointment when, after nothing else in the TV Guide looked interesting, I tuned-in to an episode of Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Hey, I was desperate and a show about a scarecrow sounded promising.
Suffice to say, I always felt drawn to the fantastic.
What effect do supernatural stories have on you personally?
A colleague here at work (I’m a civil servant by day) just sent me a link to a haunted house attraction in which people are pushed to their limits of the grotesque and distasteful. The sort of thing where folks have to put their faces in a vat of worms or endure close quarters with aggressive actors in graphic, blood-drenched make-up. That doesn’t interest me, at least not intellectually or artistically. I like what unsettles on a cerebral level as opposed to visceral. The sort of literature that causes the reader to pause and think. Even better if that thought lingers into the early hours . . .
For me, at its best, the supernatural tale in all its guises speaks to the subtler emotions of wonderment, awe, and dread—it appeals to that sense of engagement with what is ultimately unknowable. This doesn’t always translate into horror as it is popularly understood either—the supernatural isn’t always about the repellent or the grotesque (although sometimes that’s a part of it too). Stories of the uncanny should be an exploration of mystery, without the “solution” to that mystery being necessary for a satisfying resolution.
I once visited the grave of Arthur Machen in Amersham, just a short distance outside of London by train. Machen is widely considered to be one of the pillars of the genre, and I would agree with that. Anyway, carved into his tombstone, filled in with now faded red paint, is the inscription, “Omnia exeunt in mysterium”—Everything passes into mystery. I think that sums it up nicely.
Bringing back some of Le Fanu’s work was a substantial focus for Swan River Press. Are your interests more with authors from the past or current writers? In either case, I imagine there’s quite a depth of material.
Le Fanu and his work were quite big for the press in 2014—but that should come as no surprise as that year was the bicentenary of the author’s birth. So we published a rediscovered work, Reminiscences of a Bachelor, with an introduction by Matthew Holness; as well as a tribute anthology to Le Fanu called Dreams of Shadow and Smoke, which picked up a Ghost Story Award that year for best anthology. Both issues of The Green Book—a journal we publish to facilitate the exploration of Irish genre literature—focused on Le Fanu that year as well.
I try to strike a balance between both contemporary writers and those who are in need of rediscovery. It’s imperative for the survival and continued strength of the genre that new authors continue to be published. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s my primary duty as a publisher, even though my catalogue so far is heavy on rediscoveries.
Reprints are important because there’s some great stuff out there that people should have access to, but don’t because they’re unaware of it. I spend a reasonable amount of time in libraries and in archives searching around for . . . well, sometimes aimlessly. It’s one of the true labours of love as sometimes I come up with absolutely nothing.
However, if I’m reprinting a book like Dorothy Macardle’s Earth-Bound, I’ll spend some time in the library searching for contemporary reviews or uncollected stories or even advertisements for when the book was first released. I often find insight or inspiration in these elements, and they sometimes get incorporated into the fabric of new editions as well (See my essay on Lafcadio Hearn’s Insect Literature).
Books by contemporary authors are different still in the way they’re created. I pay attention to journals and simply read as much as I can, often from other small presses. I don’t formally have a slush pile due to lack of time. Generally contemporary writers query me, and if they’re someone I want to work with, then I’ll have a look at a submission. I’d love to have an open submission policy, but for me, at least for the moment, it’s impractical. There’s simply not enough time, and no one is more frustrated by this than I am.
Getting that right mix between rediscoveries and new authors can be a tricky one to balance, especially given that I’m also trying to balance that with a certain quota of Irish authors. But I’d gradually like to shift the focus of Swan River Press from rediscoveries to new writing.
Leave it with me, as they say.
You’ve organized the Ghost Story Festival in Dublin. What was the experience like and will it happen again?
Yeah, the festival was great fun. It was basically something I’d been talking about doing with John Connolly for at least year before we actually did it. And finally in August 2016 we pulled it off.
Adam Nevill was the guest of honour—which was really cool. Adam’s a great writer and good fun to hang out with, so he was really the perfect choice. Also it was an excuse to invite over other friends as guests like John Reppion, Sarah Pinborough, Angela Slatter, Paul Kane, Marie O’Regan, and a bunch of others. Dublin’s a fine city with authors who have made indelible marks on fantastic literature, including Maturin, Le Fanu, Stoker, Dunsany, Bowen . . . so it seemed only natural to host a ghost story festival here to celebrate that.
The whole idea for the festival was to get like-minded people together to talk about a mutual passion: ghost stories. The weekend consisted of panel discussions, interviews, book launches, a trade hall, and a fair whack of free booze (we had some really expensive whiskey donated)!
We wanted the event to be the best we could manage, so we put a lot of work into planning it. And since we were paying for the festival out of our own pockets, we started small, though with a wish list of things we could add as the pre-sale for tickets increased. That worked really well for us as it kept the budget under control, and we made no promises until we knew for sure we could fulfill them.
I think we were both delighted when the weekend took on a really good vibe. You can do all the planning in the world, but it’s only when the weekend starts and the guests arrive that it takes on an atmosphere. And it is what it is, you know? We were fortunate that we had such great guests and attendees. Despite the exhausting amount of work, we’re looking at doing it again in August 2018.
How has the press evolved since it began, and where might you see it going from here?
Now that Swan River has got a good catalogue of books published (twenty-six hardbacks to date, plus eight issues of The Green Book), and I’ve made a start at defining what the press is and can do, I’d like to shift the emphasis slightly from rediscovered authors to contemporary ones.
One of my main challenges is that the daily operations of the press are run primarily by me. This isn’t a gripe, as I love the involvement and the opportunity to learn all aspects of the job—which includes no small amount of grunt work. But it does mean that I can’t produce books as quickly as I’d like simply due to lack of time. I’m limited to maybe six to eight publications per year. I should admit that I don’t run Swan River entirely on my own either. I have loads of help: Meggan Kehrli designs the covers, Ken Mackenzie typesets, Jim Rockhill proofreads, and all three give general input for which I am very grateful. But even still, I don’t think we’d be capable of producing any faster than what we are.
We’re also completely independent, which means we don’t get funding from the government or any other source apart from books sales. I’m proud of that.
I’m also proud of a pair of books we launched this past summer, which I think will help take the press in a new direction: the first two volumes of an anthology series called Uncertainties. The series features new writing by contemporary authors, and the aim was to explore the various nuances of uncanny literature: from the ghost story to the strange tale to the downright surreal. There was a self-indulgent element to the production as well as it provided me with an excuse to work with authors whose writings I admire. Both volumes have been received quite well.
In any case, hopefully I’ll just continue to do what I do best: publish books that I think are worthwhile and that I’d like to share with others. I hope Swan River Press continues for a very long time.
More information can be found at www.swanriverpress.ie