An Interview: Héloïse Press and A Review of Thirsty Sea
By Caitlin Morgan
For this issue of The Publishing Post, I had the fantastic opportunity to interview Aina Marti-Balcells, founder of new and exciting Héloïse Press, and read a copy of their latest publication Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou, translated by Clarissa Botsford. Read on for news about an indie press you should be following and a novel that could be finding its way to your bookshelf sometime very soon…
Firstly, when was Héloïse Press founded, and what was the general motivation behind it?
Héloïse Press was officially registered in July 2021 but the idea came to me in late March that same year. Héloïse Press was very clear to me: it would bring together sophisticated fiction and women’s stories, in other words: it would create a space for sharing women’s experiences, while preserving literary quality. Female friendship was the model behind it: it’s empowering, it helps you go through everything, and stories are always at the centre.
Was the press being based in Canterbury, rather than London, a purposeful choice? Is regional diversity in the publishing industry important to the press and if so, why?
It wasn’t a purposeful choice; it was very simple: I live in Canterbury and Héloïse Press is here too. You just do things where you are, I suppose. Having said that, I think that regional diversity is very important and I am very happy to be able to contribute to this. I think that decentralisation is very positive for a country’s wealth and wellbeing. As much as I am in love with London, I find it beautiful to think that creativity spreads all over the place, just in any town or village, where life happens.
On the website, Héloïse Press promises to focus on “intimate, visceral and powerful narratives.” Could you explain what this means and how it is delivered in the literature published by the press?
By that description I mean stories that explore the most hidden, scary and contradictory aspects of ourselves; stories that expose our imperfections and contradictions in an uncompromising and non-judgemental way, and that somehow reflect many of our experiences. These kind of stories are the ones that, I think, have the power to touch you and unleash something inside you, they speak to you and can unsettle you. I think this is the best way to understand yourself and others. I hope that the books I choose to publish are this kind of books. Some readers of Thirsty Sea have already been in touch after reading the book, sharing with me how powerful they found the story and how much it has moved them. That is a success for me.
Readers will be interested to know, what was your journey into the publishing industry? Was it a more “conventional,” or more “uncommon” route?
I really don’t know whether my journey has been conventional or uncommon. I have never worked in publishing before but I have always worked with literature and storytelling. I completed an MA and PhD in comparative literature, I lectured in French literature for a couple of years and, what I think was a very important experience for me was to work in an indie production company, also based in Canterbury. I worked supporting scriptwriters and looking for stories for TV adaptation; working so close to my boss (we were five people in the office) was an inspiration and gave me some good inside knowledge about small creative companies. It also was a great time and good fun – I will never forget that experience.
Translators are featured on the cover of each of your books thus far, and personally I loved reading Clarissa Botsford’s “Translator’s Note” at the start of Thirsty Sea, being a linguist and language learner myself. What is your opinion on a translator’s visibility and is this something that Héloïse Press might be doing differently?
Well, many people have asked me about that, or made reference to the fact that I put translators on the cover, and I always find it funny. I am myself from Spain and I grew up seeing translators on the covers. For me, it wasn’t any kind of activist choice, if you see what I mean, for me it is natural and normal. Why wouldn’t you mention the translator? Is there anyone who thinks that Anna Karenina was written in English? I hope not! Literary translation is a massive project. A translator needs to be a very good translator and their work needs to be acknowledged. I remember being in bookstores with my mother as a child and her saying “Oh, I will buy this book because this person is the translator,” meaning, if that person has translated the book, it will be both a good book and a good translation.
I don’t really know if this is something that Héloïse Press is doing differently. I certainly can’t try to hide from my readers the fact that they are buying a text originally written in another language. Why would I? I work with excellent translators and it would go against the ethos of Héloïse Press: how can we learn about the story of a Moroccan woman, for example, if no one is there to make it accessible? Sharing women’s experiences across the world is central to Héloïse Press; it's a global enterprise, and so is translation.
Finally, what are you currently reading at the moment? Anything to recommend?
My favourite living writer at the moment is Rachel Cusk. Her work Arlington Park touched me deeply and the characters in the book triggered me to launch Héloïse Press. I would recommend any of her books. I am currently reading three books: Love Novel by Ivana Sajko, Arrival by Nataliya Deleva and a Spanish translation of Caesaria by Swedish writer Hanna Nordenhök. To be honest, I would recommend all of them!
Review of Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou, translated by Clarissa Botsford
We know, not long after starting the book, that Maria likes compound words: “we should really get a dishwasher (I like that word).” She may or may not have killed her sister twenty-five years ago. She is a creature of habit and absolutely hates talking about food. It’s redundant, she says. We also get to know so much more about Maria than we initially think we have access to. And it feels like a treat, albeit one that comes with a price.
With a lot of books, you hear a character’s words, their feelings, their train of thought, their reactions to the life that takes place around them. You get to know them, and in many ways you start to feel you are them. However, I have truly never experienced this to such a level as I did with Maria in Thirsty Sea. The depth to which Erica Mou goes to describe Maria’s thoughts, anxieties and obsessions was almost claustrophobic at times - there was no way out of Maria’s mind, no matter how hard you tried. And I mean that in the best way possible.
We get to know Maria on such a personal level, to a point where I mourned the loss of her by the end of the book. I mourned the brain that I had become so comfortable with. The thought processes and patterns that weren’t mine, but that belonged to me, somehow. The relationship with Nicola that wasn’t mine, but also somehow was. Mou’s expert writing and deep dive into the female psyche is the reason that I felt so attached to this book, and kept thinking about it long after I finished. The concept of promoting visceral, intimate narratives that Aina Marti-Balcells discusses in her interview is abundantly clear here. There is nothing more intimate than a character exposing all their flaws, thoughts, anxieties and problems to you, the reader. And the way Mou writes makes it all feel so delicate, yet so violent.
This book is not only good at the detailed exploration of one woman and her constantly-rolling mind. It is also a linguist’s paradise. Before the story even starts, we read Clarissa Botsford’s translator’s note. To come at the beginning of the book, rather than the end, feels strange, but also in many ways vindicating. For the translator to get such visibility on a book is exciting, but yet sadly still rare. In her note, Botsford details certain linguistic choices she had to make when translating the book, sometimes in collaboration with Mou herself - and as a linguist, I devoured it. The dedication to this publication to make it the best it can be is clear - the labour of love is not lost on the reader.
Furthermore, as Botsford mentions, there are small poems dotted throughout the novel, titled with the compound words that Maria loves so much. “Chokeberry.” “Your sour juice stains my hands.” “Goalkeeper.” “Anything you let in, gets to you.” In other cases, clever wordplay may have felt odd, out of place, a bit kitsch - in Thirsty Sea, it fits right in. It just makes sense. And it all adds to our inhabitation in Maria’s head. Nothing bypasses us. We get to see it all.
Lastly, and probably most painfully, we come to realise that Maria’s relationship with Nicola is something that occupies her head frequently. Too much, perhaps. More than compound words? Likely. An obsession? Absolutely. But what hurts the most is how awfully relatable it all is, applicable to any aspect of life. The numbness, the greyness, the despair but also no motivation to do anything about it. “I hadn’t stolen his heart. I’d simply found it in my bag and didn’t know what to do with it.” And that’s what makes this book a work of art. It stings; it hurts so bad, but also it hurts in a good way. It hurts because it’s a mirror, and it stings because Maria could be anyone. And to have a mirror shine your reflection back at you when you least expect it… it’s disconcerting, but it is also an unexpected thrill.
This book is genuinely brilliant and is out now!