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Head Land – Rodge Glass on the story so far

Rodge Glass, Associate Editorial Director at Freight Book
5th February 2017

In September 2016 Freight published Head Land: Ten years of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, an anthology of winning and shortlisted stories from the UK’s most prestigious story collection award. Contributors include world-class talents like Kevin Barry, Colm Tóibín, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Kirsty Gunn, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Zoe Lambert, Claire Keegan, China Miéville, Jon McGregor, Nicholas Royle, Helen Simpson, amongst others. Here we talked to editor Rodge Glass of Edge Hill University – and also Associate Editorial Director at Freight Books – about the project.

Jon McGregor, Rachel Trezise, Zoe Lambert, at the Manchester launch of Head Land, September 2016

Jon McGregor, Rachel Trezise, Zoe Lambert, at the Manchester launch of Head Land, September 2016

Q: Hi Rodge. You’re Fiction Editor at Freight Books. What does that involve?

A: I’ve been an Editor at Freight since 2013, when I was living in Chile, and I’ve worked on about twenty-five Freight titles since then. I enjoy the back and forth of editorial hugely. And I feel like, perhaps because I’ve been on the other side of that relationship with my own novels and stories, I can relate to how it feels to receive critique on something you care about so much. Also, most authors really enjoy detailed discussion about their fiction. Even great and popular writers rarely get the chance to talk about their work in that way. A decent Editor should care just as much about the work as the author does. And I’ve been lucky. Freight has such a keen eye for quality literary fiction, so I only work on books I genuinely like.

Q: Any Freight favourites?

A: Lots. But if you’re asking me to recommend some novels, then James Yorkston’s Three Craws is beautifully written, as wry and understated as his music. And I recommend The Alpine Casanovas by Toni Davidson too. What a rare talent he is. Also, I have a real love of short stories, and Freight specialises in it. Among my favourites are Vicki Jarrett and Lara Williams, who have both produced special collections recently, which were a joy to work on. As has Carl MacDougall, whose Someone Always Robs The Poor is timely, and is published soon. But I’m not sitting in the Freight offices. I’m more like an occasional Editor-Sort-of-at-Large. In fact, I am employed full time at Edge Hill University in Lancashire as a Reader in Literary Fiction, and working on Freight projects is my idea of a good time. (Or rather, time off well spent.) I’ve worked with Adrian from Freight on various one-off projects for the best part of a decade, and I trust him.

Head Land: 10 Years of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize

Head Land: 10 Years of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize

Q: Which brings us neatly to Head Land: 10 Years of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, the latest one-off. I see this is a joint endeavour between Freight and Edge Hill University Press. How did that come about?

A: Well, in 2015 Edge Hill University Press didn’t exist. It was an idea we had within our Creative Writing team, when we were thinking about how to provide promising students with meaningful experience in the publishing industry – employability skills, that kind of thing. It’s essential for new writers to work on their writing, that’s obvious. But many aspiring writers don’t know anything about the publishing industry and have no experience of it. The industry can seem intimidating, mysterious even, if you’re on the outside. And our students may go on to be writers, yes, but they might also choose to be agents, go into marketing, PR, events management, design, or editorial itself. In our staff we have quite a lot of experience of working with independent publishers, and we wanted to make the most of that. So myself and James Byrne, a fine, internationally respected poet who is also International Editor at Arc Publications, decided to set up an in-house University publisher who would publish one book a year, in partnership with different external publishers. Each year we would put together a team of students, appoint them to different publishing roles, and work on a book from the idea right through to publication and beyond. The first of those is Head Land. I approached Adrian because we wanted an independent partner who would help us through the publication process, work with the students, advise here and there, and most importantly make the book a beautiful thing which would be properly distributed and sold. I hoped Freight be interested in the partnership, but also thought they might be excited by some of the names in the book itself. And because of the design speciality at Freight, I knew they would be able to produce something stunning in terms of look. Which they have.

L-R: Robert Shearman, Adam Marek, editor Rodge Glass and Carys Bray, Edge Hill University launch, November 2016

L-R: Robert Shearman, Adam Marek, editor Rodge Glass and Carys Bray, Edge Hill University launch, November 2016

Q: So what is Head Land, and how did you choose who was included in it?

A: Head Land is a celebration really, of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. This has been going for a decade now, and is the biggest prize out there for a single-authored short story collection published in the UK and Ireland. (There are several related prizes give out at the same time, but the winner of the main one gets £10,000.) Short story lovers may have noticed that there are loads of great prizes out there for individual stories – the Sunday Times Award, the BBC Short Story Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, many others – but in terms of a full collection, there’s nothing else but us. And it’s a real statement of intent for publishers to pursue short stories, especially when there is so much pressure on prose writers to stick to novels. So the idea for Head Land was simple – we would put together a book featuring some of our favourite stories which have featured in collections which either won or were nominated for the prize over the last decade. A quick glance down that list shows you it’s a who’s who of the finest short story writers alive and at work in these islands. Some of the winners have been the likes of Colm Toibin, Sarah Hall and Kevin Barry. First class artists. And our shortlists have also included some wonderful names, including some short story specialists – Ali Smith, Tessa Hadley, Neil Gaiman, Jon McGregor, China Mieville….And that’s not counting the upcoming, younger talents – like Zoe Lambert and Adam Marek. We felt this list of writers was a gift. So we put together an anthology. Not a Best Of, exactly. More like a taster of the Edge Hill Prize. As well as celebrating this writing, and these writers, we also wanted to take the Prize to places who hadn’t necessarily heard of it. For example, you’ll notice Scotland is particularly well represented in Head Land: John Burnside won in 2013, while AL Kennedy, Kirsty Gunn and several others are represented too. Not too many writers or publishers north of the border had heard of us. So this book was a great way to spread the word. Every year we get more entries, and I expect that to grow again in 2017.

Q: And what involvement did the students have with the project?

A: The students did everything. It was exciting to see. We appointed a Project Manager, then two people working on a website and in social media, also two working in organising events, and another two people working in publicity. I oversaw the project with James, but much of the graft was done by the students in between their own studies. Everyone worked in tandem with staff at Edge Hill and the Freight staff, but students led the project, really. They also often chose the stories, copy edited and proofed the work, and liaised with authors. Much of what you’d do at a small independent publisher – many jobs at once! The team were a mix of undergraduates, MA students and PhD students, and as this was the first year, they had to start with finding a logo for EHUP, and take it from there. Really, we began with a blank page. It was a real leap.

Signing copies of Head Land at the Edge Hill launch, November 16

Signing copies of Head Land at the Edge Hill launch, Nov 2016

Q: What’s been the most enjoyable part of the process?

A: The same as it is for many publishing staff and writers I think – the launch! We launched Head Land at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, with three writers from the book featured in an event in the Spiegeltent, and a Freight party afterwards. Some of the students hadn’t been to a book festival before, so it was a real education, seeing the sheer scale and preparation involved. We had three past winners on in the Spiegeltent – Kevin Barry and Kirsty Gunn, both fantastic, confident readers, and with strong opinions on the short story form too. Then Jessie Greengrass too, a debut author who won the Edge Hill Prize in 2016. She and China Mieville were included in the book at the last minute, given that the 2016 prize-winner was only announced in July and the book was published six weeks later. (A tight production turnaround – more good experience for students!) Jessie is a huge talent, and since then has been named one of the Sunday Times Young Writers of the Year too. That’s one of the best things about all this. Being able to support the work of exciting new writers. Everyone knows who Colm Toibin is, but they haven’t always, have they? It really pleased me to see Michel Faber in the audience for the Edinburgh event, asking a question of the panel. He’s a great example of a brilliant, now popular and critically acclaimed writer who started out by winning short story prizes, and then with a debut collection. We need publishers to keep putting their faith in unknowns.

Q: What else have you done to promote the book since Edinburgh?

A: The Edinburgh event was a few weeks before the official publication date. The idea was that we would then do a short tour, with different writers from the book featured for each event. So next we teamed up with Bad Language, the award-winning live lit night folks, and did a sell-out event at the stunning Portico Library in Manchester. That one featured Jon McGregor, Zoe Lambert and Rachel Trezise. And next we did a launch at Edge Hill itself, featuring Robert Shearman, Adam Marek and Carys Bray. That was also a sell-out in our main Art Centre venue, and had a really warm atmosphere – those three writers all have genuine, meaningful connections to Edge Hill. So for example, we study Marek’s short stories in Fiction classes here. And Carys Bray is the only writer in the book who is an ex-Edge Hill student. Now it’s all Richard & Judy and Radio 4 adaptations of her novels (and I hope we name Edge Hill after her in years to come). But she started out as a brilliant short story writer, and it was really special to have her return as part of a Head Land line-up. After these three events, we’ve been invited to other places. Hopefully in 2017 we’ll be doing events in Dundee, Lancaster, and anywhere else that will have us! We want to give the book a good, long life. The Edge Hill Prize 2017 is currently taking submissions, and we hope it goes on on on for a long time to come. But this will always be a document of its first decade. We’re grateful to Edge Hill for backing the book, and to Freight for the partnership.

Q: So finally, what’s next for Edge Hill University Press?

A: Well, most of the student team who put Head Land together have moved on now, graduated, got jobs, and we’re just keeping in contact with them. It’s nice that they want to remain involved even after graduation. One is now in 3rd year, another in 2nd year. Meanwhile the next project is well underway. One of the things I like about the idea for the EHU Press is that each year the team will be working in a literary different form. So the 2017 book is an anthology of transatlantic poetry and poetics, edited by Professor Robert Sheppard and my Co-Director of the Press, Dr James Byrne, partnered with Arc Publications, a great indie poetry press who have been going for forty years. I can’t say too much about that project yet, but the list of contributors is really stunning. I can’t wait to see it alive and in shops, alongside Head Land. And after that, who knows?