Interviews

Talking Travel with Seal Press Founder Barbara Sjoholm

From Gadling—the traveler’s weblog
Posted May 30th 2007 1:50PM by Kelly Amabile
Filed under: Books, Talking Travel

Soon after I finished backpacking around Europe last year, I found myself thumbing through my journals, delighted with all the details I had captured, but frustrated over how best to distill and write meaningful stories from my travels. At about the same time, I came across Barbara Sjoholm’s latest book, Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer, a memoir about her own wanderings in Europe and the parallel writing journey that she experienced during that time.

Barbara Sjoholm is a novelist, memoirist, travel writer and co-founder of Seal Press, a leader in producing books by and about women. Barbara has published fiction, non-fiction and mystery titles of her own (some earlier ones published under legal name Barbara Wilson), and has also translated several works of others from Norwegian into English. Her book The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and other Legendary Women of the Sea was a finalist for the 2005 PEN USA Award for Creative Nonfiction.

Earlier this month I had the chance to ask Barbara about Incognito Street, her writing and travels, and the groundbreaking publishing company that she helped create over 30 years ago.

In this memoir about your early writing life, you focus on the three years spent traveling, studying and working in Europe, including stays in Spain, Norway and the U.K. How often have you made return visits to the places you lived during that period? And where else do you enjoy traveling besides Europe?

Those three countries in particular ended up being very important to me—I don’t know exactly why, but they all have a compelling quality or allow me to express some necessary aspect of my character—and I’ve returned to them often. I lived on and off in London for three years in the late 80s. I went back to Norway a good dozen times after I began to translate Norwegian literature. And I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in Barcelona, especially when I was doing research for my mystery novel, Gaudi Afternoon. I would love to go to Africa and India, but although I’ve been to some countries off the beaten track-Greenland, Iceland, and South Korea—I keep gravitating back to Europe, once or twice a year. It’s partly that my writing, research, and good friendships draw me there. I’ve been writing a book about Lapland in winter and also translating a book from Denmark so that’s why I’ve been in Scandinavia a lot in recent years.

I’m very drawn to Norse and Celtic history, and I have relatives in Ireland, so I often end up in Ireland and Britain, It used to be I was mainly in Dublin or in West Cork, and in London and the south of England. Then, a few years ago, I traveled for four months around the maritime countries of the North Atlantic, collecting tales and histories about women and the sea for my book The Pirate Queen, and visiting the west coast of Ireland around Clew Bay, the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, and the Faroes. That’s certainly Europe, but it’s a Europe many visitors never get to. I would love to go back to Stromness in Orkney or the Shetland Islands. Or spend more time in the Baltic on one of the hundreds of Swedish and Finnish islands.

Incognito Street introduces us to wonderful characters from your early traveling years. When traveling, do you find that your writing is shaped or influenced more by the people you meet or by the places you visit?

When I imagine traveling, I always imagine a city or a landscape and in some places that’s all I ever get to know. I love traveling in Italy, for instance, but I don’t know many Italians. Yet in other countries my experience is completely shaped by friends there and the people I meet. Writing travel journalism, translating, and doing research, I’ve many opportunities to get to know people. It really changes the sense I have of being in a foreign country, to spend time in homes, to understand what it might mean to be Catalan or Danish or an expatriate living in Greece.

During this nomadic evolution of your writing self, you expressed frustrations that you were accumulating lots of material, but unable to produce or complete any polished pieces. And you spoke about the need to strike a balance between writing and living. What advice can you share with beginning writers on how to achieve that balance of time to work on writing while also simply being present in the travel experience?

A good start would be to take a notebook everywhere, and find ways to pause in the midst of life and scribble down notes, even if it’s just fifteen or twenty minutes day. Take note of your fears and curiosity, but don’t just fill pages (as I once did!) about your inner confusion. In five or ten years it won’t seem all that riveting, believe me. Learn to observe. Write down what things taste like, what they smell like. Write down conversations, incidents on the street, newspaper headlines, funny signs, weird menu items, misunderstandings, what it feels like to try/fail to speak another language. When I look back at early journals, I’m delighted when I find paragraphs of great description or the fragments of a conversation. Even if it’s not much, it can still jog your memory and provide an image or emotional snapshot you can use later to write a story or essay.

Of all the writers you mention throughout Incognito Street (like Dickens, Thoreau, Blyth, Borges, Nin, Basho, Lessing) is there one that you feel has influenced you most in your own writing journey?

I took in all their stories and ways of writing, rejected lots of things, absorbed certain others. Borges made me interested in translation, the Icelandic sagas, and detective fiction. Thoreau made me see the details of the natural world. Two writers, Colette and Virginia Woolf, were really crucial. They wrote so well about women’s lives and explored the boundaries of fiction and memoir in much of their work. Although they weren’t strictly lesbian, both had women lovers and I knew that and it helped me understand my own complex yearnings for both men and women at the time and smoothed the way for me to become a lesbian eventually. Woolf was and is so important to me as an essayist; she has wit and elegance and originality. I read A Room of One’s Own for the first time when I was London at twenty, and I’ve read it many times since. It still seems discerning, amusing, and right-on, all these years later. Of course her work setting type and printing at the Hogarth Press was also inspirational. I wanted to have a press just like Virginia and Leonard.

While traveling in your 20’s, you were not a guidebook user and took no photos. How do you travel these days? With guidebook, digital camera, Seal Press anthology or with none of these travel aids in tow?

I’m often sorry I have almost no visual record of those early travels and though my memories are strong, it’s not the same. Now I have two digital cameras, a point and shoot, and an SLR. But I still like best to make sketches or paint small watercolors. Drawing gives you license to sit and stare at things for a long time, which is a kind of memorization. People don’t wonder what you’re doing if you have a paintbrush or pencil in your hand. I do read guidebooks-I’ve found Lonely Planet and Rough Guides not only useful for alerting me to out-of-the-way spots, but also providing smart cultural backgrounds. When I was traveling, say, in some of the islands in the North Atlantic I’d always go to the local library and root around in their shelves for local histories and literature. I love old travelogues for their (sometimes unwitting) humor and a glimpse of how things used to be. When I was traveling in Arctic Scandinavia in winter I took the books of three British travelers who’d gone to Lapland in winter in the early part of the 20th century; they were my companions.

In Incognito Street, I enjoyed learning about the “connect-the-dots-on-the-map” method that you and Laura used to move around Spain. Are there other creative navigational tactics you used then or nowadays while traveling?

I used to go places out of curiosity. It seemed important to know every main city in Europe and all its monuments and museums. I wanted to travel to most countries in the world. Now “shoulds” don’t tug at me that much. I’m thinking I’ll probably never get to Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, and all those places you’re supposed to see before you die. I’d like to go to Buenos Aires, but more because of Borges, and some of the politics and history. I’m more likely to go odd places, quirky places, places that are connected with a historical person or a time I’m interested in. When I was researching The Pirate Queen, about women and the sea, I went to a lot of places that don’t’ have much to recommend them now, but were still fascinating to me. I traveled to the tiny island of Papa Stronsay in Orkney for instance, just to see the old wharves where the herring lassies used to work. I visited a really remote island in the Faroes because a medieval woman once owned fleet of ships there. These places don’t have tourists, so you don’t have a tourist relationship with the people you meet. It’s quite poignant to travel to places that don’t have attractions-only past associations.

You mention Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA as one of your favorite bookstores in Incognito Street. Do you have any others?

We’re really lucky in the Northwest to still have an abundance of independent bookstores, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Every one knows the great bookstores of Seattle and Portland—Elliott Bay Books and Powell’s. But several other favorites are Port Book and News, a big, well-stocked store in Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, Village Books in Bellingham, run by the most dedicated book people in the world, and Lucy’s Books in Astoria, Oregon, on the Columbia. I feel inspired whenever I’m in these stores. I also love William James Books in Port Townsend where I live. It’s a second-hand store with narrow aisles, armchairs, a vast maritime section, in a turn-of-the-century building. An ideal bookstore.

Writer, publisher, translator, editor—Can you share some thoughts about the greatest rewards and challenges of wearing these different “hats” throughout your career?

All have been deeply satisfying, though probably writing—telling stories, making meaning—has been the greatest satisfaction-the loneliest compared to the other occupations, but the richest from an imaginative, soulful standpoint. From childhood on I wanted to be involved in the book arts in anyway I could and I feel blessed to have been able to do so much.

I did feel conflicted sometimes during my eighteen years at Seal Press because I wanted to travel and live abroad at times, but had a lot of responsibilities at home and in the office as a publisher and editor. My business partner Faith Conlon was incredibly supportive, even though I know I made her tear her hair out with my dashing about the world. I did introduce a number of foreign authors—Gerd Brantenberg, Tsitsi Dangarembga—via my travels and participation in the international women’s publishing scene, however, and I’m pleased about that. I loved everything we did at Seal, and was so proud too of pushing the envelope in terms of our subject matter: Domestic violence! Black women’s health! Lesbian writing!

But being in publishing can be stressful year after year. It involves taking financial risks and the odds aren’t great of making a success of it. I would have liked in some ways to keep Seal Press smaller, and yet we had to grow in order to keep our stability and pay the bills. As we grew we moved away from fiction and translation because they didn’t sell as well and into non-fiction books of travel and women’s studies. After I left my position as co-publisher and editor, I was the director of the non-profit Women in Translation, which did women’s fiction in translation, for a number of years. Although WIT is gone, these days Seal Press is still going strong, publishing amazing books that still push the edge. I’m delighted by the fact that 30 years after I co-founded the press, Seal is still focused on creating a forum for women writers from many different backgrounds.

Seal Press celebrated 30 years in 2006. Congratulations on founding what has become a groundbreaking and vital feminine voice in the publishing world. Can you shed some light on how the name “Seal” came to be?

There’s no particular story attached to the name Seal. Rachel da Silva was interested in printing and bought an old Chandler and Price letterpress and set it up in her mother’s garage. A few months later—this was in 1976—I met her at a party. I was eager to learn to print, and that’s how we started. Seal seemed to suggest joy and flexibility—it went together with Seattle somehow too.

And can you tell us a little bit more about your next book, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, that is due for release in fall 2007?

I went to Lapland in Northern Scandinavia in November of 2001 and spent the winter there. I was so enchanted by the experience of the dark polar winter that I went back two more winters. I’d been to Scandinavia, particularly Norway, quite a lot, but I didn’t know the far North well and in early and mid winter not at all. I’d been very taken with the story of the “Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen as a child growing up in California (and unsure of what snow felt or looked like). I took as my starting point the building of the Icehotel outside Kiruna Sweden. I watched the construction and went back to the hotel at various times over the winter months to observe it in all its touristy glory, until I finally watched it start to melt one April. On my first trip I ranged very widely around the North, trying to retrace some of the steps of earlier travelers and to understand winter tourism and the way the North was being sold as “Untouched Lapland” or “Europe’s Last Remaining Wilderness” when it clearly wasn’t untouched or a wilderness at all.

That first journey I went up to the North Cape by ship, crossed the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, spent time in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. I grew intrigued with the small mining town of Kiruna and began to write about its history. My second and third visits were mainly focused on Sweden. I also began to understand that the landscape was more contested than was apparent on my first visits. In fact, the indigenous Sami people had been living up there for several thousand years, and still were very much part of the picture, whether they were grazing reindeer in the traditional way or exploring new forms, like film festivals and literature, to express their culture. I got to know Lillemor Baer, a woman reindeer herder, and Jorma Lehtola, the artistic director of an indigenous people’s film festival. In the end I came to see the North as a kind of home for me, with a livelier and more challenging culture than I could have imagined.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Barbara. We’ll be sure to keep an eye out for your new book later this year.

Barbara Sjoholm’s Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer (Seal Press, $15.95) was published in September 2006. Her next book, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland (Shoemaker & Hoard) will be released in October 2007.