Sara Interviews Sara Kramer of New York Review Books

For the month of May at Brazos Bookstore, we’re championing Basic Black with Pearls as our Brazos Best. It’s a fever dream of a book, featuring a surreptitious affair, world travel, an undocumented main character (Shirley), mathematical codes in magazines, a mysterious organization known as The Agency, and a momentous visit to Toronto (Shirley’s childhood town). It’s poignant and disorienting, and yet incredibly readable.

Author Helen Weinzweig published Basic Black with Pearls in the 1980’s, and it has since become a cult favorite, culminating in its US re-release this year thanks to New York Review Books. Basic Black was brought to NYRB by Sara Kramer, managing editor of the Classics Series. I had the chance to chat with her at length the other day about the intricacies of Basic Black and its author, small presses, and finding great books to publish.

Sara Balabanlilar: You have a fairly small staff at NYRB. Can you talk about your role/roles?

Sara Kramer: I'm managing editor, which I think means something different from publisher to publisher.

In my case I'm really a project manager. I establish and maintain schedules (at least in theory), and get the book from raw text to final product. So that means taking a text from a previously printed book (or new manuscript) digitizing it if necessary, dealing with proofreaders, designers, etc., and then delivering the book to print production, who deals with the printer. And from that point, reviewing proofs for the cover and text, and fervently hoping there are no typos.

SB: Ha!

SK: There’s also trafficking between the editor, who in most instances is the series editor, Edwin Frank. But the other editors are Susan Barba and Jeffrey Yang, and now and then—me.

I'm the easiest to work with and always hit my deadlines.

SB: Were you editor for Basic Black?

SK: Yup. Although the text was of course originally printed in the 80s, so there's no editing to be done to the text proper.

SB: What role does the editor have –– and I guess, what is the general process, too –– in sourcing the books that y'all end up publishing? So much of it is out of print, or was never introduced to the US, and you all are so amazing in introducing us to wonderful new-to-us favorites.

SK: We rely on readers of all sorts to recommend books to us –– and in this case, I lucked out in that I knew that the person who recommended this book, Sarah Weinman, would also be a fantastic person to write the introduction.

Often it is tricky to solicit introductory essays for books that no one has heard of. But in this case, Sarah sent me a really enthusiastic note recommending Basic Black after it had been republished by Anansi in Canada.

As usual, I thought, that sounds great, and proceeded to put the book on a very long to-read-for-the series list. But then Sarah also included Basic Black in her year end roundup in her Crime Lady newsletter and the book jumped to the top of that list. I was immediately smitten.

SB: I can imagine!

SK: Also, you'd be amazed at how many out of print or legendary books are discussed everywhere. Once you start looking, the world turns into nothing but great and obscure book recommendations.

Agents who know the list often approach us as well. Translators with projects, too. And of course, Edwin has an encyclopedic knowledge of all literature—including who published what and when it went out of print (or not). So he's an unreproduceable resource.

SB: Sarah Weinman is big into crime and suspense... This book is certainly suspenseful, but in a really unexpected way. It's not a traditional mystery or crime novel or anything (Or at least, I don't think of it as being such).

SK: Yes. It's a tricky line to draw in describing the book. I myself was initially drawn in by the espionage elements of the book, but I didn't want to emphasize them too much, given that they're really not at its heart, and hard-core crime readers will likely be disappointed.

Now, if you consider mystery to be the mystery of the human soul and all that, then this book will be perfectly satisfying because Shirley remains an enigma.

SB: There’s such an emphasis on the interior, though... I'd just recently read another suspense NYRB published, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. There are so many noir elements... Shirley wandering around Toronto alone, in a hotel alone, all these small strange moments.

SK: Also I will say: much crime writing is a hell of a lot more predictable than Basic Black. I defy anyone to figure out where it's going at any point.

We’ve published a fair amount to crime novels in the series over the years, and the cardinal rule has so far been: no solutions.

SB: Ha ha!

SK: Even In a Lonely Place has that quality because you know who the killer is pretty early on. The book is interested in something else entirely.

I would say that for Basic Black, it's so interior, that despite all the non sequiturs it hangs together by Shirley's voice and specific perspective.

SB: I love that Shirley is, as you said earlier, a total enigma. Legally, she's missing paperwork. She exists outside of space and time a little bit.

SK: Ah—I love that. And like Billy Pilgrim, she's a bit unstuck in time. Sometimes she goes places that seem to have been imported from 40 years earlier. And her husband is rather Edwardian.

Basic Black reminded me of Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine in that once you realize the narrator's tenuous hold on reality it's too late. You're already entranced. Madness exists but it's beside the point.

SB: And talking about enigmas, Helen Weinzweig seems similarly fascinating and particular. Emigration from Poland? A sanatorium? The book is iconic, Shirley is iconic, and Weinzweig is no different!

SK: And despite being a very loyal wife, she seems to have carried on a long-term affair, somewhat like the one depicted in the novel. When she died she founded a fund for underprivileged and immigrant children at the library that had been so important to her as a destitute kid.

SB: In the brief biography you provided at the front of the book, she said of her two years in the sanatorium, "I read myself silly for two years." Obviously reading carried her through hard times. Did she talk much about what kinds of things she read? I'm curious about the research process in creating this bio.

SK: As Sarah talks about in the afterword, she was very fond of writers of the nouveau roman, and I detect an Oulipou-ian influence on Basic Black as well. And the epigraph for the book is by Ann Quin, who's recently been republished in the UK. So she was very in tune with avant-garde writing of the twentieth century. Though I must say that Basic Black is not as cold or as impenetrable as those writers can be.

SB: NYRB Classics has been publishing since the late 90's, right?

SK: Yes—we published the first books in the series in September 1999.

SB: Okay, brief question: anything coming up from NYRB that you think we'd like to know about, especially those of us who are such huge fans of Basic Black?

SK: We’re about to publish the FIVE HUNDREDTH book in the classics series. A literary thriller called Sand. It's unreal.

SB: What! That's so exciting! When is it coming out?

SK: June 12th, so in just about a month.

I'm also currently immersed in reading Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries—you know, that small 1800 page two-volume book? I do think that people who like Basic Black will like Anniversaries. In not dissimilar ways, it's about women's experiences. I have to keep reminding myself that it was written by a man.

It's about cities and the way the landscape and mundane places become the stuff of our lives (not unlike Basic Black, come to think of it). It’s about war and memory and motherhood. But it has a much greater global view—which isn't to denigrate Basic Black, it's just not exactly Weinzweig's concern there.

SB: I can't wait to share it.

Last question of all, (I sourced this one from our staff): "How are you all so dang awesome all the time?”

SK: I’m going to take that as a rhetorical question, because much of the time we're being reminded with how small we are in comparison to companies large and small with much bigger marketing (hype) budgets. You end up feeling small, so I'll take any and all praise.

Note: Humility aside, NYRB is huge in terms of the impact they have on our literary knowledge. Pick up a copy of Basic Black with Pearls at Brazos Bookstore and chat with us about this wonderful read!

Basic Black With Pearls Cover Image
By Helen Weinzweig, Sarah Weinman (Afterword by)
ISBN: 9781681372167
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: NYRB Classics - April 17th, 2018

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