17th May 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Honno Press
The independent Welsh women’s publishers, Honno Press, are celebrating their 25th birthday! We caught up with Stephanie Tillotson and Penny Anne Thomas to find out more:
Happy Birthday, Honno! You began with a group of volunteers around a kitchen table in Cardiff: how does it feel to have reached 25 years in publishing? Is there a sense of achievement in your offices at the moment?
To be honest with you, we’re in the mood for a party! Popping the corks on a few bottles! And Honno is feeling strong – still growing after twenty-five years, which isn’t bad, especially when you consider how far we have come.
As you say, Honno began in 1986 when a group of friends met in a flat in Cardiff, over a kitchen table and a cup of tea. Their motivation was to promote women’s writing in Wales. Slowly they began to publish, at that stage only one book a year: one in English, the next year, one in Welsh.
There wasn’t much cash available – let’s face it, there still isn’t – but in 1986 none of those women were going to let a little thing like money or the lack of an office or equipment, deter them.
They wrote to everyone they knew, asking them to donate to the new venture and what more proof was needed that a dedicated women’s publishing house was needed in Wales than the 250 women who paid £5 a share into Honno. Within twelve months £4,000 had been raised. These days we call it crowd funding!
Looking back, those first women’s hopes and dreams have been more than realized. Honno is now funded and continues to grow and win prizes and awards.
For many years the office was situated in the ‘Merched y Wawr’ building here in Aberystwyth – which was exciting as the place was always full of community groups and there was always something going on.
But it had its moments too! Mainly because the office was only big enough to accommodate two people, so if anyone else needed to use a desk – well, let’s just say, it was a case of “one out and one in”!
We have much more space now that Honno has moved up to the university campus. We feel we have become more and more professional over the years and it is nice to be part of a bigger creative community clustered around the Arts Centre.
Why did you decide to bring out an anthology of previously published stories instead of asking for submissions from new writers? How did you choose which stories you were going to include?
We wanted to celebrate and commemorate our achievements over the past quarter century. And bringing out a collection of twenty-five pieces to represent the past twenty-five years gave us a chance to look back and acknowledge that it has been an astonishing time for women’s writing in Wales.
There was a heady rush of excitement when we first came up with the idea – then reality set in! How on earth were we going to choose from such a vast output, how could we hope to ‘represent’ such a variety of work.
We had published over a hundred titles, classics and contemporary work, in English and in Welsh. Should we include some of the beautiful poetry, what about all the novels, biographies – from the full length, highly successful crime novels by Lindsay Ashford to the important autobiography Walking to Greenham by Ann Pettitt?
In the end we decided to concentrate upon the twenty-eight anthologies, both fiction and non-fiction, published in the period between 1987 and 2012. These are collections of short stories, articles and biographical pieces.
One of the ideas for these anthologies was to give women the first opportunity to see their work in print. Some included authors who never submitted again – others now have rich and rewarding volumes to their names.
That’s the point of Honno, to provide a dedicated space for women to see their experiences in print: to find their individual voices, to tell their own stories and to be heard. And by doing so, Honno has changed the landscape of writing in Wales.
Faced with such a wealth of work from which to select, we knew we could never really do our writers complete justice – there was just too much excellent work to choose from.
We didn’t, however, set out to create a ‘canon’; All Shall Be Well: 25 at 25 is a very subjective selection, purely and simply our choice and one we are extremely proud of – apart from anything else, we think it is a fabulously good read!
Do you have a favourite story from the anthology (or another Honno publication)?
Penny enjoyed the fiction as that is her main interest whilst I found the autobiographical stuff – particularly the political writing – really eye-opening. It made me feel proud to be part of such an amazing community of Welsh women, past and present.
But I think, if you pushed us, we would both agree that the collection Safe World Gone was our favourite – the writing is of such amazing quality; real skill in drawing in a reader or creating a sense of atmosphere or place. Cracking good story-telling all round!
Why do you think it’s still so important to have women’s only publishers?
In many ways, we wish we didn’t need to exist any longer. Sometimes we ask ourselves, how is it that in 2012 there is still a need for an independent women’s publisher?
We have even wondered how it is that we are celebrating the fact that, in 1986, women felt so under-represented that they put huge effort into creating a dedicated space where their experiences could be put on the page. Wouldn’t our greatest achievement have been to contribute to a culture in which Honno was no longer required?
But Honno is still here and needs to be here. The number of books we sell, the readers and writers we attract testifies to the desire for a women only publisher.
One thing the new anthology All Shall Be Well shows, however, is just how that life has changed for women over the past century and a half, and how women’s writing has responded to the changes that have taken place.
Honno has mapped that changing landscape. The sense of lives half-lived has receded, powerlessness and poverty has diminished. We, as women, don’t appear to be under the impression that all social, religious and political odds are stacked against us any longer.
Yet, though much has altered, much still remains the same. We may have grown in confidence as women writers – thanks in great part to women’s publishers such as Honno – but there is still more to say. And just as importantly, more to enjoy by readers, both in Wales and beyond her borders.
How have other women’s publishers influenced you in the past?
Other women’s publishers have influenced us enormously. Especially their commitment to excavating novels that, through neglect, have fallen out of print, making sure those authors’ voices are heard again.
We haven’t tried to re-invent the wheel, we are carrying the baton that houses such as Virago and The Women’s Press began to pass twenty, thirty years ago. We have published classic novels in both English and Welsh, and intend to continue doing so.
We also want to invest more energy in biographical work, resurrecting the stories of amazing women from the past and sharing their experiences with a new generation. This is terribly important: a body of women’s work, past and present, helps to build a sense of identity and self-belief.
Do you plan to produce more titles in Welsh?
Oh yes: in fact we are publishing another Welsh title this August. At the moment we are funded to produce 7 books a year in English and have to apply for separate funding if we want to publish in Welsh.
As a consequence, we are presently committed to producing a Welsh title bi-annually. If we get the opportunity to expand our output we would like very much to do more in the Welsh language.
This year’s Welsh classic will be a collection of stories by the nineteenth century writer, Sara Maria Saunders. Her fiction presents a lively image of poor, rural mid-Wales, where problems are solved by neighbour helping neighbour – but also through unbending faith and a belief in the power of prayer.
It is the women characters who dominate the stories. They are confident, determined and original, and play a central role in the chapel and the community. Male characters are there – such as Shon the Cobbler and Benja the Tailor – characters that were hugely popular when the stories were first published. Sara’s voice is humourous, never sanctimonious and, interestingly, written in the Ceredigion dialect of the time.
Why is it so important that Honno remains an independent publisher?
Because we at Honno want to remain true to our vision, to our principles which have won us such a dedicated following of readers and authors. We want to continue to give a voice to women’s writing from Wales, both in English and Welsh, to remain a co-operative enterprise with Wales as our community. It has worked for us so far, we want to keep control of that vision.
The Honno Classics have proved incredibly popular despite the fact that everyday life has changed quite dramatically for Welsh women in recent history. Why do you think they can still relate to these stories?
We can still relate to these stories because of their excellent quality. The Honno Classics have survived purely and simply because of their class!
Also, we think people want to read the Classics series because these books help to give us all that dimension of the past tense, especially our creative past, to our present sense of identity. It is our history.
Whilst the historical lack of education and neglect of women’s writing cannot be unwritten, Honno’s Classics series allow the voices of the few to be heard, when so many will always remain silent.
You run a lot of events including creative writing workshops and opportunities for people to discuss their work with editors. Are you trying to find new writing talent or just trying to encourage people to tell their story?
Both really. Of course we want people to be aware of us, authors to choose to come to us. We are always on the look-out for outstanding talent that we hope we may be able to help along the way, especially when it is just starting out.
Also, many of the authors who have been published by Honno – and the dedicated bunch of staff who work, or have worked, so hard for Honno – want to pass on what they have learned to new writers.
Honno has always seen itself as a community co-operative: that is part of the vision we were talking about earlier on. We see Wales as the community to which we belong and to which we wish to contribute.
Tell us about some of the other celebrations you’ve got planned to mark this anniversary?
We will be launching All Shall Be Well at Ty Newydd in North Wales on the 29th May 2012 and it will also be at the centre of our event at the Hay Literature Festival on 4th June this year.
We are holding our big, anniversary party at Hay, which includes a chance to take part in a debate with some of our key authors and editors – such as Patricia Duncker, Catherine Merriman, Sian Melangell Dafydd and Professor Jane Aaron.
Later in the year there will be a rather posh fundraising dinner to re-launch our Classics series, whilst the new Welsh classic and the Welsh e-books will be launched at the Eisteddod in August.
Our writing workshops continue along with ‘Meet the Editor’ sessions and, importantly for us, there will be a presentation of our archive to the National Library of Wales.
The editors and writers who contributed to All Shall Be Well will be attending book festivals during the year, such as the Dinefwr Fesitval in July and PenFro in September. Penny is also planning a women’s writing festival to be held at Chapter in Cardiff in October, so watch out for that.
What does Honno have planned for the next 25 years? Will changes in technology affect the way you operate?
We expect so but who really knows what the future may bring. We hope to keep on publishing the best in Welsh women’s literature and attracting top quality authors to our list, both established writers and new talent. We want to reach ever wider audiences both in Wales and beyond.
Inevitably there will be change. We launched our e-book programme in time for Christmas last year with Lindsay Ashford’s The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. All our new titles now come out as print and e-book versions and we are in the process of digitizing our backlist – so there will be twenty-five (that magic number again) books from our back list available in the next couple of months.
For the immediate future – as well as the paperback, we are publishing a limited number of hardback gift editions of All Shall Be Well. And, of course, we have other new titles coming out this year such as Time for Silence by Thorne Moore – whilst we are busy planning the publishing schedule for 2013/14. Twenty-five years may just be the beginning!