Recently, Booktrust caught up with Heather Reyes, the editor of city-pick: Amsterdam, the latest instalment in the frankly rather brilliant city-pick series of alternative literary travel guides. We talked to her about the dark sides of cities, the headaches of compilation, and the importance of translation...
What initially gave you the idea for the city-pick series?
On our first trip to Athens, we had all the guide books but they didn’t quite ‘get under the skin’ of the city – a city somehow different to what we’d expected. My partner, Malcolm Burgess, said, ‘What we need is a modern anthology.’ No such thing seemed to exist so, spotting a ‘gap in the market’, we decided to fill it. The idea was literally born on the slopes of the Acropolis!
> What are the processes of selection that go into your choice of passages? What makes you choose a text, and what might make you leave one out? (I'm thinking in particular of the much-remarked lack of Joyce in the Dublin edition)
I’ll deal with Joyce first: it grieved me sorely (as a great lover of Joyce) to leave him out – but his estate is notoriously difficult to deal with and we were advised not to try. So there are pieces about Joyce as compensation. (In the Paris volume, we had to leave out Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast because his American agency asked a sum we couldn’t afford.)
The selection is partly personal, but the main criteria are good writing and relevance to the experience of visiting the city. The books are divided into titled sections and the extracts need to fit those. Variety is the keyword – variety of length, genre, tone, etc. (We even use blogs.) We also like to give opportunities to young and emerging writers, and to include writing by as wide a variety of nationalities as possible. We use writing from any period if it is relevant, but the majority is contemporary or near-contemporary - one of the main differences from many anthologies. Of course, it makes it more expensive for us because you have to pay quite a lot for material that isn’t out of copyright.
> One of the things I love about the city-pick series is that they refuse to shy away from the darker aspects of their subjects - Dubravka Ugresic's quite harrowing piece on the sex industry springs to mind. Is this something you think is important?
Yes, definitely. All cities have their dark sides and we wouldn’t be giving an accurate picture of the place if we ignored this. While our aim is to celebrate cities, we don’t want to be a glorified travel brochure.
> Were there any specific challenges in compiling the Amsterdam volume?
The fact that I don’t speak Dutch! But the challenges were tied up with the pleasures. We have more translated material in ‘Amsterdam’ than in the others: the Dutch Literature Foundation funded most translation costs – making this possible. I worked with an excellent Dutch co-editor, Victor Schiferli (himself a writer), who selected previously untranslated material for which I organised translators from the Foundation’s list of approved translators. Finding the right translators for the different kinds of writing - plus checking that they were available to complete the work within our time-frame - took time. (With Berlin, our main translator was also co-editor, which was simpler.) Only a couple of these pieces didn’t make it into the book. There was the problem of writers or publishers having to approve translations, and sometimes the translators wanting to change their original version, or checking details with authors. This took us close to the wire in terms of our print schedule!
> Would you recommend that anyone use city-pick as a sort of alternative guidebook?
A valuable supplement to a good guidebook: we don’t tell you how to get to the airport but give lots of different ‘takes’ on the city. We emphasise the contemporary, but cities are their history: you can’t understand it without getting to grips with its past. Why is Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge so called? Why does the renovated Reichstag emphasise ‘transparency’? The past is gathered to form the present.
> Do you hope to make any changes in how visitors experience these tourist cities?
Yes. We like to think we enrich their visit, turning it from a two-dimensional, picture-postcard experience into a three-dimensional one. The wonderful thing about cities is that there’s always something new to discover.
> Finally, what's next? Do you have more cities lined up?
I’m currently finishing Venice (due out November) and we’re collecting material for Istanbul (out next spring). Other cities planned include Mumbai, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, New York…