To celebrate the relaunch of Black Balloon Publishing, an imprint of Catapult, and the launch of Flying Couch by Amy Kurzweil, we decided to take a look back at how it all began. Co-founders Elizabeth Koch and Leigh Newman share the story of why they started their own publishing imprint, what they look for in future titles (Hint: Think innovation with heart), and their hopes for what the future holds for Black Balloon Publishing.
1. The founding story of Black Balloon is so charming. Could you fill our readers in on the story of why you decided to create your own publishing house?
Elizabeth Koch: In the beginning . . . it was a dark and boozy night in New York City. At the time I was living in San Francisco, visiting to supervise (I guess) the Literary Death Match, which I co-founded with Todd Zuniga (a wildly more talented host than I ever was). Leigh was one of the judges. Afterward I begged her to join me at French Roast, my most favorite 4 a.m. ward-off-the-hangover spot from when I lived in the city and only slept on Sundays. I told her I wanted three things. A) to move back to New York while I applied to grad school, B) to get into grad school, and C) to start something new—something that would support my own writing (rather than stymie it), but also help other writers. Something born out of books, but beyond books—a collaboration among musicians and artists and storytellers and filmmakers and gamers . . . something un-cliquish, un-tribal, un-categorizable, and . . . and . . . uuuuuuuuuhhhh . . .
“I’m in,” Leigh said.
“You’re talking about a publishing house, right? I’ll do it with you.”
Shit. “I think I was speaking theoretically.”
The next morning she texted: “My husband wants to know if we really started a publishing company last night over chicken. Did we?”
Fast forward two years—of grad school for me (an MFA in fiction at Syracuse), of getting slammed by Oprah.com for Leigh, of countless meetings and hiccups and belches and potential partnerships and regrettably premature blurtsomenesses—and Black Balloon was born.
Our first book: The Recipe Project was sort of a hardback magazine featuring funky recipes and essays about food and interviews of rock star chefs with a CD in the back of recipes-put-to-song, plus an app and music videos like this brain and eggs one with Chris Cosentino . . .
Breaking the boundaries of what a book can be . . . and then some.
2. A little algebra: X is the problem, Black Balloon is the solution. What is X?
Leigh Newman: X is actually X, Y, Z.
Problem X is that in the current climate of bookselling, writers are forced into giving up their most creative ideas in favor of what will sell or will not sell according to outdated categories.
Problem Y: The publishing world’s narrow notion of what storytelling is, as if only prose could tell a story, excluding print, art, video, animation, video game, film, poetry, graffiti, smells, music.
Problem Z: When people talk about experimenting or innovating with storytelling, they often become fascinated with experimenting and innovating and forget that there must be an emotional component, some heart in play. Or there’s not reason to play.
Elizabeth Koch: Agree, agree!! Another equation:
X = Feeling like a freak and sort of liking it, but also wanting to die, except for the times (much less frequent) when the sensation of flying takes over. Black Balloon is for writers and readers who feel unfit for what everyone else calls life; who only come alive between the lines of it.
3. Black Balloon’s books always seem to innovate a form or blur genres. Why do you think this is an important quality for a book to have?
Leigh Newman: We blur genres by ignoring them as the dated rubrics they are. Blurring them—a.k.a. erasing them—is a natural byproduct of thinking differently, of collaborating and experimenting. If you have a graphic memoir and use the voices of the real characters to narrate an animated version of the book, why not? If you’re doing a food and music book and want to make an app that lets users punch in ingredients in their fridge which result in a song, why not? If you’re writing a novel and want to slice in chapters of photojournalism, why not? I think it’s a question of thinking differently, of allowing your imagination to roam through all possible channels of storytelling. How can you tell that story more expansively, more truly, more fully, in all its complexities?
Elizabeth Koch: It’s not at all necessary for a book to blur or eschew genres. Genre books are great. Totally fill a need. Sci-fi, fantasy, spy books, even literary novels all satisfy a desire to walk into a universe with a recognizable code, and experience something wildly exciting within the boundaries of that code . For example, as a reader, if I’m eager to learn about the dietary habits of Benjamin Franklin’s mistress (historical fiction), and instead I find myself inside the head of a talking unicorn (fantasy, to most people), I’m going to be perturbed. In terms of Black Balloon, the excitement for us was wandering into a world with an unknown code. We sought books that seemed as unique and magically conceived as Athena from Zeus’s head. That offered such a new way of seeing, and languaging, interior sensations that an authentic code emerged as almost a byproduct; if there was a code, it ONLY fit THAT world. If that makes sense?
Isaac Babel, Virginia Woolf, Leonard Michaels (his short fiction), Stevie Smith .
Dotter of her Father's Eyes , by Mary Talbot.
The Yellow Book , illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley .
4. You just published Amy Kurzweil’s debut graphic memoir, Flying Couch (out today!). What is it about Amy’s work that you find so compelling?
Leigh Newman: Amy is just the kind of author we’ve been looking for. She was someone who came to us—a first-time author—with a story that wove in personal history and world history, specifically the Holocaust and its personal and global aftershocks. She was able to use different styles of illustration to express the different emotional tones of the book, from comic to heartbreaking. Only after she’d experimented with the book and created a visual story about memory, about loss, about grandmothers and mothers and grandchildren, did we begin to explore how to use oral histories— her grandmother’s voice —to add richness to the project.
5. What is your process like for choosing which projects you want to work on with Black Balloon?
Leigh Newman: Right now we're reaching out to writers, artists, animators, and programmers whose work we like and developing projects from the ground up. That includes our new book with Deb Olin Unferth, I, Parrot and a text-based literary video game. We’re also looking at more fully formed projects from agents and the general community at large.