In 1996, Michael Curran ran an online bookselling platform from a small office in Battersea, London. More than twenty years and a carpentry career later, he now publishes some of the world’s most adventurous literary voices from a workshop down the road in Tooting Broadway. We caught up with Michael to hear more about the fascinating evolution of Tangerine Press and its plans for the future.
Culture Trip: Tangerine Press is a fascinating combination of using old tools to promote new writers. Can you tell me how your two vocations – carpentry and literature – led you to founding Tangerine Press?
Michael Curran: To answer this properly we will need to go back to 1996 when I ran Tangerine Books, a mail order company specialising in small press oddities, particularly from the USA. I rented a small office on an industrial estate in Battersea, south London. An odd, disturbing, isolating yet exhilarating period in my life. I was spinning financial plates. A second job was always needed to get by: kitchen porter in seedy west London hotels, telephone surveys in Elephant & Castle, cleaning aeroplanes at Heathrow.
Tangerine Books did not work out, so two years later I wound up the company, threw a knackered PC and hundreds of unread catalogues into a skip and entered the construction industry, first as a labourer, then as a self-employed carpenter. But the literary itch was still there. This time it was different. I did not just want to sell the books, I wanted to publish them and present them in the best way possible. And what was the best way? To bind the books myself. In 2006 I founded Tangerine Press, publishing and binding books after work, at weekends. All from my front room, often stitching and gluing till midnight, then up at 6.30am with only a screaming foreman to look forward to.
A serious back injury at the start of 2013 meant I had to leave ‘The Building Game’. It was my body letting me down: years of neglect, drink and drugs, poor diet, not taking care of myself, lifting steels into place on my shoulder, stupid shit like that, had caught up with me. At one point I lost all feeling in my left leg, was in constant pain, in and out of hospitals for three months, seeing doctors, consultants, the works. Gobbling Tramadol like they were smarties. At 43 years of age I suddenly had to reassess everything. Tangerine Press was all I had, so I took the plunge and went full-time with the press in November of that year.
Let us extend that that old tools/new writers vibe a little. It sometimes hits me, in the workshop: looking around to see a 1960s Marshall embosser here, an Edwardian nipping press there, numerous hand tools and on my wooden Ministry of Defence desk sits an iMac with the vast and magnificent dullness of the internet at my fingertips.
CT: When holding a Tangerine book in your hand, you can feel the loving and dedicated work that has gone into it. From the smooth silk cover to the satisfying sounds of flicking through the pages. Can you take me step-by-step through your production process? What is the most satisfying part of making a book?
MC: With the way Tangerine works, as publisher and bookbinder, it really is the whole process I get a kick out of. Right from the flexing of muscles at the start of a project, where writer and publisher jostle for position, stake out their territory, their limits, their character.
Once that is over, we get to the part I particularly enjoy, when you begin to shape the book into a publishable form. Editing and going through the manuscript for James Kelman’s A Lean Third story collection was especially satisfying. He is a man I have admired greatly for many years: his passion and commitment to his art.
Other books can be more traumatic. Working with Billy Childish on his first book with Tangerine, for example. Billy is dyslexic and likes to keep the spelling (or lack of it) as written by himself. Subsequently, the large poetry collection The Uncorrected Billy Childish (which we will be republishing this summer) nearly blew my head off. I started to mistrust my own grip on the English language, double-taking and doubting everything else I was reading. I was driving through red lights, pissing in my wardrobe. Insane.
As regards the binding of the book itself, it starts with the basics: a lot of trimming and guillotining; cutting greyboard to size; selecting the colour and texture of endpapers; what text paper to use. All acid-free of course. Then you consider the presentation: fully bound in cloth, or quarterbound with a Japanese silk spine and paper covered boards. This is followed by long periods staring at the screen setting out the text, designing an interesting colour title page. Next, the text block goes off to the printers and while that is being taken care of, I will be making up the cases (ie. hardcovers for the limited editions), foil embossing the front covers and so on. On their return from the printers, the text blocks get stitched together and glued – conservation glue, of course – to the cases.
After a brief experiment with mass production paperbacks, I decided to go back to the original plan. That is, make the first run of paperbacks acid-free too: the text paper, coloured endpapers, textured card cover. Not forgetting the designed, colour title page.
All these processes are done in this country. The printer and paperback perfect binder are both local, and of course I am here in Tooting Broadway, south London. But I cannot resist using vibrant Fabriano papers or the beautiful Japanese papers like Moriki Kozo. So Tangerine Press books are really the best of both worlds, I think.
The bottom line is I get to work with all these terrific writers and artists. It is the glorious blend of publishing books by the known and unknown, lost and forgotten, dead or alive, that I love. One minute I will be on the phone to Dave McKean discussing artwork, the next stumbling across a singular voice in an obscure lit mag or website that nobody knows about. It is a drug all of itself.
CT: Overlooked or under-appreciated writers exploring the darker corners of existence make up a considerable chunk of your publications. Korean War veteran William Wantling, visual artist Billy Childish and Canadian writer Stephen Hines feature amongst your impressive catalogue of work. What draws you to writers like these?
MC: William Wantling’s poetry was actually the reason for starting Tangerine Press. When I discovered all his books were out of print, I felt compelled to get his work back out there, find a new audience. Wantling was a Korea War veteran, ex-junkie and ex-con, and was a university lecturer when he died in 1974 aged just 40 years old. He was a contemporary of Charles Bukowski, with whom he had an unusual and ultimately destructive friendship.
Billy Childish is a phenomenon. He is involved in all aspects of the creative arts: poetry, novels, paintings, woodcuts, music. Very inspiring to work with, very independently minded. Billy is always open to ideas, trying new things, not being afraid of the ‘darker corners of existence’ as you say.
Stephen Hines I know less well, but again a fascinating, underrated writer. His style is very different to say, Chris Wilson, with whom I published The Glue Ponys in 2016. Chris’ writing is very spontaneous, needs much editing, but with Steve the stories come pretty much as they end up being printed. You can see the craftsmanship in his work. I think on the late season, I probably suggested losing two words, and altering perhaps three lines out of the whole manuscript he sent.
Then there are other writers like Jeanne Bernhardt in New Zealand. We will be putting out a small chapbook of her stories as part of the new Walking Wounded Series in September. Again, an utterly individual, slightly mysterious character. As far as I can ascertain, she lives in the middle of nowhere in a caravan on the South Island. But she has that indefinable quality in her writing.
It is all about authenticity, the telling of stories in a unique way. The buzzline for Tangerine is ‘publishing misfits, mavericks and misanthropes since 2006’ and I hope that sums up what is going on here.
CT: Recent statistics have shown that the rise of digital publishing has in no way sparked a decline in print. In fact, in 2016, sales in printed books in the UK rose by 7% whilst curiously ebooks fell by 4%. Why do you think the appetite for physical books is higher than ever in an overwhelmingly digital era?
MC: To me the answer to this is very simple. It’s still a physical world. Folks talk about virtual this, cloud that, forgetting that what all these things amount to is essentially a gently humming warehouse in California. Millions of tonnes of goods cross the oceans every year. People still walk around and talk to each other, want to possess things, pick books up in a bookshop, flick through, touch, feel and even smell these things. I really believe it all adds to the reading experience.
My workshop has a vast amount of cast iron in it, but an iMac is quite at home here too. It is the same with the ebook/physical book debate. They can work in harmony, in the sense that it is all about choice, whatever is best for the individual. Not everyone can afford a handbound, limited edition book, which is why we started putting out paperbacks. But we do not get involved with selling ebooks or pdfs. In my opinion they are a dull, inadequate version of what a book should be. Plus they are book shaped, weigh about the same as a book, so why settle for a light grey screen set in dark grey plastic?
CT: What new releases from Tangerine Press can your readers look forward to? Are there any authors you’re looking to collaborate with in the near future?
MC: The next major release is the revised edition of Billy Childish’s The Uncorrected Billy Childish in June. It was first published in 2009 as a ‘Penguin Art Edition’ by L-13 Light Industrial Workshop, in tandem with handbound, limited editions by Tangerine Press. Penguin’s lawyers intervened, insisting that all paperbacks were destroyed, resulting in an infamous book burning event in central London. This new edition will be fully updated and redesigned, with new poems not included in the original.
Then in November we have what is arguably the reissue of the year by the enigmatic 1960s/70s counterculture icon Oscar ‘Zeta’ Acosta. Acosta was most famously depicted as the 300-pound, pill-popping Samoan attorney in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo was his wild, moving first book, originally published in 1972. A converted Baptist missionary in Panama, bar hopper, psychiatric patient, struggling writer, heartbroken lover, maverick lawyer, great imposter, connoisseur of excess, Chicano activist, Brown Buffalo – Acosta did it all, then disappeared like a puff of smoke off the coast of Mazatlan, Mexico in the spring of 1974 at the age of 39 years. The book will be introduced by Acosta scholar Ilan Stavans and will include specially commissioned artwork by Ralph Steadman.
In between those we have the Walking Wounded Series of chapbooks of new poetry, prose and graphics. The series will consist of 53 titles, released sporadically over the coming years. The first batch of ten titles in September will include Jeanne Bernhardt, Benjamin Myers, Adelle Stripe, Jim Gibson, John Dorsey, Lyn Lifshin, Meena Kandasamy, Ford Dagenham and others to be confirmed.
And just before Christmas we will be putting out a limited edition photobook by Kevin Cummins. I cannot say too much about this at the moment, but it is Joy Division related. Looking even further ahead, amongst many other exciting titles, next year will see Tangerine working with Jenni Fagan on an unusual publication.
CT: And finally, what are you reading at the moment?
MC: As usual, quite a variety. Meena Kandasamy’s Ms Militancy; rereading The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo; Anna Akhmatova poems; an old Mick Guffan poetry manuscript; Medieval Pirates by Jill Eddison and A Bibliography of the Black Sparrow Press 1966-78 by Bradford Morrow and Seamus Cooney.
Visit www.thetangerinepress.com for more information on Tangerine Press and to purchase Michael’s books.