Interview with Matteo Codignola, head of Orville Press
In its series of interviews, newitalianbooks has decided to give a voice to the new publishing realities on the Italian scene. Today we meet Matteo Codignola who, after many years at the Adelphi publishing house as editor, translator and artistic director, has created the Orville Press brand. We ask him our usual question: “How do you explain the Orville Press publishing project and its identity to the foreign readers of newitalianbooks?”
Anyone who has the bright idea of opening a publishing house, or a publishing brand, in 2023 must also be prepared to be asked if he has gone mad, or if he was mad before. In my case, I already have been, which allows me to evade the question. I’ve been making books for longer than I care to admit, although I never found myself looking for a place to make them – I already had that. But then it happened, and for a few weeks I didn’t really know what direction to take. Publishing has high costs and low revenues, and I had neither a fortune to squander nor a friend foolhardy enough to entrust me with his – no wonder. So the situation wasn’t simple, and it probably would have been even more complicated if a highly unlikely white knight hadn’t suddenly turned up. I’ve known Stefano Mauri for a long time and we’ve often discussed our respective professions. So when he heard what I had in mind to create a small publishing house that would publish a dozen or so titles a year, of more than decent quality, mainly focusing on contemporary fiction – Stefano immediately suggested that I do it with them. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting it. It was – is – GeMS, Italy’s second-largest publishing group, which means a number of things – not least of which was the desire to add a brand, and with this kind of ambition, to the not inconsiderable number of those that already make it up. What’s more, I had three decades or more of independent publishing behind me, and changing my skin seemed a little late. But in reality, the prospect of opening a small brand that would behave like an autonomous entity within an editorial machine that has the connotations of an industry was an appealing experience from a number of points of view – such as the fact that I was able to verify in the field the rather exhilarating distance between the meaning that Stefano attributes to the word margins and that which I attribute to it. So, without thinking too much about it, we set off.
The first difficulty, as always, was to find a name. In fact, as far as I was concerned, there was already one, right from the start: Orwell. I chose it out of devotion to the author, of course, but also for two less solipsistic reasons. The first was the type of books Orwell wrote, texts that were very different from one another, but always capable of finding an extraordinary resonance with the world that had generated them – unless, as in the case of Animal Farm and 1984, that world had been generated by them. But there is a more hidden reason. With the exception of the novels themselves, Orwell always wrote texts that had no genre or genre section, which forced him to find the most appropriate form for almost every book. This is perhaps one of the realisations that publishers have lost over time and should regain – the importance of form, I mean. And even from there, I said to myself that we had to start again.
A few days after the launch, we discovered that the name could not be used. It is now a registered trademark, which is not licensed. For a moment I wondered what the notoriously touchy stakeholder would think, but the next moment I had to concentrate on a more pressing problem: what on earth to call the publishing house that was going to be born any day now. In these cases, you fish in your own fixations, and for a worrying number of hours, the name was likely to be that of a tennis player who hasn’t won anything important, or of one of the many three-masters sadly crushed by the ice. Fortunately, not all idiosyncrasies are harmful, and after looking at a postcard from the early 20th century that I’ve carried with me since a long-ago trip to Hungary, I began to think that this image might make a good logo – for who knows what publishing house. It’s a line drawing of the first jalopy in which the Wright brothers took off for a dozen seconds one morning in December 1903. Among the brothers, the one at the controls in the drawing, and also in reality, was Orville. Before trying to fly, Orville had done other things that I liked. Bicycles, for example. And a newspaper, buying a few Monotypes from a printer who was closing down. Orville had even published a few books before moving on. But he hadn’t left everything behind. With his characteristic pragmatism, he named the banger Flyer. In other words, something that flies. But also, in typography, a flyer.
Perhaps the pieces were falling into place. Or I could put them in place.
Up until June 2023, Orville published three titles. They are few in number, but I think they give an idea, if you go by the image, of the path I intend to follow. The first, Box Hill, by Adam Mars-Jones, is simply a love story between two men, stripped of the absurdities we often think such stories need to be clothed in to be told. In fact, it’s a story stripped of almost everything except the facts, not all of which are pleasant, that make it up. It’s like one of those little independent films made with a few pennies, a crew of seven and a twenty-five page script, and one of the reasons I’ve always loved it is precisely the relationship between the amount of things said and the tiny space in which Adam has managed to say them. For one of the tricks that publishing catalogues often play, and from which they derive their interest, Box Hill is next door to a book that couldn’t be more different. La tempesta è qui, the superb report in which Luke Mogelson recounts the year leading up to the storming of the Capitol – and the storming itself, seen at close quarters – is a real kolossal. With a sumptuous cast – half stars, the other half ordinary people – locations scattered over half the United States, and scenes, for better or worse, that are highly spectacular. But above all, it’s a test of the possibilities of documentary writing: taking facts, characters and ideas about the world that we all thought we knew and (also) transforming them into a novel about the America of those years that nobody has written before. Then there’s Jo Ann Beard’s Le forze della terra, which is perhaps the most unique book of the three. I don’t want to say much about it, except that it contains one of the greatest short stories of recent decades. It’s called Il quarto stato della materia and it recounts an episode of heinous violence in a way that is so different from any other that one suspects that what Jo Ann is describing to us is, in fact, the fourth state of the matter of fiction, in other words the grail that, in recent years, everyone has been looking for and that nobody, or almost nobody, seems to have found.
I’ll stop here, I think I’ve said too much. I like making books, I repeat, but much less talking about them – it would be better to talk about them. And even when it comes to future books, I prefer to limit myself to guaranteeing that they will indeed be books – a status which, in the context in which we are forced to live, sounds more or less like a statement of principle, if not a battle cry. But in reality, enough is enough. As the other Wright, Wilbur, said, the only animals that talk are parrots: and they don’t fly that high, as far as I know.