Q & A with Andy Leach and Hannah Persaud, Founders of Seventy2One
November has flashed by since my Reading Round-up early on. I’ve made a decent start on my new novel (by my standards – who cares how long it takes) and so thrilled to be writing again that my loathing of first drafts may be a thing of the past. Last week I attended the absolutely joyous launch of Queer Live, Queer Love, an anthology containing my first published poem alongside 42 other contributions. Staying with both indie publishing and collaborative ventures, I was delighted to accept a pitch from Hannah Persaud and Andy Leach in response to my call for someone to keep the Sofa warm while I’m so busy. Sunburnt Saints is a beautiful, if often terrifying, anthology addressing climate change. Contributors include Salena Godden, Carmen Marcus, Billy O’Callaghan, Jane Roberts, Antonia Honeywell and an impressive showing of new talent – I recommend it highly.
Hannah: What inspired you to create a small independent press?
Andy: You did! We spoke about it in the last pre-Covid autumn, about how much we’d like to do more than ‘just’ write. You said what fun it would be to have one’s own small press. We were both already frustrated by the mainstream publishing landscape. The idea grew from that. And then when I parted with my agent over the summer, I suddenly felt this huge wave of freedom and thought Why not? I’d spent some years in corporate publishing, including running my own agency publishing corporate magazines and books. So I knew my way around a press. Plus I thought there were ways in which it could be done differently, by not jumping into the same old publishing model that everyone else uses. I guess I’m arrogant enough to think that we could do things different and make it work!
Andy: You’ve had a novel out with Muswell Press. Why did you agree to come onboard and be 50 percent of Seventy2One? Why not just keep writing and go for the next book deal?
Hannah: When we had that first conversation two years ago about starting an independent press I knew that if there was anyone I wanted to do this with it was you – your energy, drive and passion are contagious and I loved the idea of us creating something that embodied both of our passions, writing, reading and talking about the publishing industry. Before my debut novel was published I thought I had it all figured out, I would sign with a literary agent, write my debut novel and it would get published as part of a two book deal. I’d make enough money from it for writing to become my day job and the rest of my days would be spent doing book tours and writing. It was my dream. The reality was very different. I did get a good agent and I did get my debut novel published by the lovely Muswell Press, but there was no two book deal and no advance, and though there’s been a small amount of money generated, it’s certainly not an income. I then wrote and re-drafted two further books which are now in drawers for various reasons. My confidence plummeted. I was trying to second guess what my agent wanted me to write, trying to magically predict what publishers would pay for, and I lost sight of what I wanted to write. I lost sight of me. So earlier this year I left my agent to fly solo for a while and to re-discover my self-belief. I had to write for me, primarily, and I needed to rely on my own judgement as I had in the early days when I was starting out. That self-belief had won me competitions, it had got me an agent, it had written me a debut novel. It was lying dormant and I had to reawaken it. Over the next few months I dabbled in memoir, I wrote some stories and brainstormed novel ideas. I fell back in love with writing. And into this hiatus and this time of new found freedom you proposed to me that we follow through on our dream to create something dynamic and exciting. I’d spent a long time feeling powerless and passive, (the publishing industry is good at doing that to writers) and Seventy2One was a chance to take back control and to create beautiful books!
Hannah: Where did the inspiration for the title of your launch anthology Sunburnt Saints come from?
Andy: Sunburnt Saints ultimately came from a holiday in Seville in 2017. I became fascinated by all these peeling fly posters on the walls of the beautiful old stone buildings; some were for raves, some were for church services, and they all featured these images of saints and religious icons that were getting attacked by the heat, which was up in the mid-thirties most days, all in various states of decay. So, I took a load of photographs of them, a couple of which are featured in Sunburnt Saints. I knew then that they were the backbone of some sort of creative project, and since then they’ve inspired a couple of short stories. When we decided on a book of climate fiction, they spoke to me again, and the actual phrase ‘sunburnt saints’ came out of nowhere and wormed its way into the story I wrote for the anthology. As I wrote it I knew we had a title.
Andy: Seventy2One has set its stall out to only publish works that are under 70,000 words. Why do you think that shorter books are the way to go?
Hannah: I think far too many books are overly long, using 100,000 words to say what would be said in 70,000. Coming from a short story writing background I’ve had to become good at shaving off every inessential word, and when I started writing novels and was told that novellas (less than 70,000 words) were hard to sell to publishers I thought that was a great shame as I’ve read some brilliant short novels, better than if they were longer because of their brevity and clarity. There’s no room for lazy writing in the short form. Also, from a practical perspective, as a parent who juggles looking after my family, a paid job and my writing career, as well as working on Seventy2One, often the only time I get to read is in bed late at night when I’m tired, and so when I do read I don’t want to meander slowly into the story but to be flung straight into it.
Hannah: Why do you think it’s important for the arts to reflect and explore climate change?
Andy: I think the arts have always been at the heart of making sense of the world, even the universe; it’s philosophy and the arts that tends to start the conversations that scientists then take further into physical exploration. And storytelling lies at the heart of that. We seem to live in an age in which provable truths are denied, in which facts get changed if they don’t suit a convenient economic truth. What was that Al Gore film called, An Inconvenient Truth? And so we need a different way of setting out those truths. Storytelling allows us to do that, to engage with people in ways that become directly relatable. It can be hard to grasp what 1.5C means in a warming world, but if someone reads about someone being affected by a flood or a house being endangered through cliff top erosion as sea levels rise, that’s relatable, that’s more likely to get emotional traction.
Andy: Sunburnt Saints was mooted at the end of July 2021 and it’s out today, 30 November of the same year! What does that say to you about the pace of mainstream publishing?
Hannah: Ha. I think you know my answer to that. It is painfully slow. The downside of a 12 – 36 month lead time from commitment to publish to publication is that things move on during that time – market trends, politics, the world within the writer too. As we know from covid, everything can change beyond recognition within weeks. Sunburnt Saints is a collection of stories through which the authors explore the climate emergency, written now, published now. There’s power in the writing and publishing of this moment in time before it has passed.
Andy: When was the last time you read a book and were blown away by the writing? And who was the author?
Hannah – I’ve read some brilliant books recently, but one that has stuck in my mind is called My Coney Island Baby by Billy O’Callaghan. I am planning to read all the novels that have been written by contributing authors to Sunburnt Saints, and his was the first. Impossibly beautiful, it focuses on two lovers and spans a single afternoon in a hotel room. Billy writes with breathtaking tenderness about love and the fragility of life and the choices that we make. The book has so much depth and so much wisdom that it made me want to cry. Every single word is perfect.
Hannah: Where do you see Seventy2One five years from now?
Andy – Bigger, better, broader, stronger. Actually financially viable would be nice! I’d like us to have shown what being an independent publisher can achieve, and that that doesn’t always have to mean ‘just’ putting out books and hoping someone buys them. I’d like us to be seen as innovative, forward-thinking, open, honest. I’d like us to have won a couple of awards, too. Not too much to ask, is it?
Thank you so much to Hannah and Andy for allowing us to listen in on their candid and illuminating discussion about the origins of Seventy2One and the swift delivery of Sunburnt Saints. I completely agree about Coney Island Baby, by the way.