Interview with Sam Mills of Dodo Ink

dodo ink logo

It’s always exciting to hear of a new independent publisher, especially one committed to bringing ‘daring and difficult’ fiction to readers. I’m particularly interested in Dodo Ink because I’ve been following and reading editorial director, Sam Mills, who you might know as the author of The Quiddity of Will Self and MD, Thom Cuel, who blogs as The Workshy Fop, on Twitter for ages, so I know they have excellent taste. (They’re also joined by Alex Spears, Digital and Marketing Director.) It was an utter pleasure then to interview Sam about their new venture. At the end of the interview, you’ll see that Dodo Ink needs your help *does Lord Kitchener finger point* to help them bring brilliant books to us all. To whet your appetite, the interview’s followed by one of the books Dodo Ink will be publishing in 2016, Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen. Enjoy!

How did Dodo Ink come about?

Thom Cuell , Alex Spears and I chatted about setting it up throughout 2014. Stefan Tobler and Nicci Praca of And Other Stories were kind enough to give us some advice early on.

And then one day in the summer of 2014, am email popped into my inbox. It was from my friend Tom Tomaszewski. Tom has written and reviewed for The Independent on Sunday and has been writing fiction for some years. He’d written a novel called The Eleventh Letter, said his email, and he asked if I would read it for him. I spent the weekend completely engrossed in it. Then I tried to help him get it published. I got in touch with various agents on his behalf, but it was deemed a hard sell because it isn’t easy to categorise. It is a ghost story, a crime novel, a literary novel, a strange novel. It seemed a shame that such an original, disturbing and brilliant book would never make the bookshelves, so we thought we’d put it out there…

You’ve said you want to publish novels that are ‘daring and difficult’, can you give some examples of the type of work you’re hoping to find?

Books we love include F by Daniel Kehlmann, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, Zone by Mathias Enard, Great Apes by Will Self, Money by Martis Amis, The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Peron by Carlos Gamerro , Atomised by Michel Houellebecq, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt, Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson to name a few.

Although some of the novels we are publishing are experimental in their structure, they are all damn good reads. So a good example of a novel we’d love to have published is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall – for its originality, for its moving love story, for its wild imagination, for its readability. It’s the sort of novel you can give to a friend and know they’ll love it; it’s also like nothing you’ve quite read before.

We are keen on novels that are weird, odd, dangerous, and daring. I think we’d prefer a book that had energy and big ideas and was a bit rough around the edges than a novel that was polished, safe, traditional and conventional.

You’ve described the first book you’re publishing, Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen, as ‘a wild, psychedelic road trip of a novel’, can you tell us more about it?

We first discovered the book a few months after we’d announced that we were setting up Dodo Ink. The novelist James Miller emailed me and mentioned that one of his students had written a novel; he added that she was one of the finest students he’d ever taught. Seraphina had published a short story in The White Review, which became the opening of her novella. As you can see from the story, Seraphina’s prose style is surreal, imaginative and beautifully crafted. Thom and I immediately started chasing her for the novella, and we signed it up as fast as we could. It begins with the bizarre childhood of Eugenie – ‘We were told that our mother’s life was terminated by an attack of killer bees whilst vacationing in San Marcos, Mexico…’ Eugenie and her twin sister Camilla are abducted and raised by Dr Vargas, a charismatic Svengali-like figure who educates them according to his own philosophy, an esoteric blend of anthropology and psychiatry. The novel charts Eugenie’s childhood and later years, when she is on the run across North America and Europe. This road trip is a weird and wonderful one, involving encounters with Candy ravers; meditations on the nature of time; psychedelic Teknivals; an insidious Mothman; and a sweet and tender love story.

What I love about Seraphina’s style is that the writing is crafted, but there is a wonderful raw energy pulsing beneath the surface. Sometimes students of creative writing courses end up writing books that have lots of pretty sentences in them, but can feel flat, too polished; on the other hand, a book that is too raw and lacks finesse can end up too messy. Seraphina strikes that perfect balance between the two. Her ideas are wild but her writing is always very controlled. Also, Seraphina has cited her influences as William Burroughs, Hunter S Thompson and Carlos Castaneda. There aren’t many female authors writing in this territory, which also excites us.

Dodge and Burn sounds as though it would fit perfectly on the ‘Cult Fiction’ table in a bookshop. Despite the recent #ReadWomen campaign, this table is the one still dominated by male writers. Why do you think that is?

I find this very frustrating too. The very term avant-garde is a military one, derived from the French for vanguard, suggesting masculine power and might in marching forward to smash the conventional boundaries of fiction. Consider how often critics use the expression this author has mapped out a territory all of their own when praising a novelist they admire.  Men are seen as forging ahead, fighting a literary battle, whilst women can stay at home and be domestic. Historically, women have been penalised more than men if they flouted the conventions of everyday life, let alone in their fiction. Perhaps something of these prejudices still remain. However, there are plenty of women who deserve a place on a cult fiction table. A few suggestions: Zoe Pilger, Joanna Walsh, Anna Kavan, Rachel Ingalls, Kathy Acker. Thom also just discovered Joanna Russ, a wonderful female author who penned On Strike Against God, and other gems. She was previously published by the Women’s Press.

In June, Kamila Shamsie called for a year of publishing women in 2018 to attempt to address the bias towards men in prizes, reviewing and book lists. And Other Stories and Tilted Axis Press have already said they will take up the challenge, will Dodo Ink be joining them?

We admire the campaign; we admire And Other Stories and Tilted Axis for signing up to it. However, we’ve had submissions from male and female authors we’d love to publish in 2018. However, we will definitely aim to achieve a healthy balance.

I also think that the issue raised is not really one of quantity. You can go into any bookstore and see plenty of novels by women. It’s the way that novels by women are sometimes published and presented that is the problem . There’s nothing wrong with a pink cover on a romantic comedy (provided the author is happy with it); but a pink cover on an ambitious literary novel by a female writer is misleading and frustrating. I also think that there are still certain expectations about what sort of novels women should write. I have also noticed, in recent years, that there have been quite a few novels by female writers that are compared to, say, Angela Carter, or Margaret Atwood. There is nothing wrong with this at all, given that Carter and Atwood are greats, but I feel there is also something quite safe about marketing female authors in this way. I would also like to discover and champion the female equivalents (or betters) of Will Self, Martin Amis, Michel Houellebecq. Women who are being ambitious, daring, dangerous and challenging in their fiction. Women who engaging with politics, big ideas, surreal subject matter.

Why are you running a kickstarter?

We all decided that it was a great way of connecting with readers right from the start. I remember my perception of the publishing world when I was first trying to break in as a writer: it seemed like a distant castle, surrounded by a moat and walls, occupied by a privileged elite, defended by gatekeepers. In reality, most people are publishing are actually very friendly and passionate about publishing. A kickstarter is a good way of tearing down those perceptions and boundaries, so that everyone can be involved.

People can make a pledge and get goodies in return. They can back us for as little as £5 and get a bookmark, or sponsor £30 for some free books and their name printed in the back of our books.

The 3 of us running Dodo are all pretty broke and working very hard on our company out of sheer passion for our authors, but we won’t use a penny of the kickstarter to pay ourselves. It’s all going on our authors and their brilliant books. So far we’ve raised 20%. The average donation is around £30 and they all add up. We have a way to go yet, but have been very moved by the initial surge of support. Everyone can be part of the Dodo Ink family (without sounding too much like The Godfather!) and know they helped to make it happen.

Our kickstarter is https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1528815432/the-grand-dodo-ink-kickstarter

Extract from Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen

Hunt for American Heiress Continues With Manuscript Found in Cave in Altamira, Spain

By ALICE SHIFT 7:00 AM ET

A notebook, bearing a manuscript, and the fingerprints of Eugenie Lund, an American heiress missing since August 19–, has been found in a cave in Altamira, Spain. Dr. Erik Lund, Antarctic explorer and heir to the publishing empire established by his late father, has offered a $2m reward for any information leading to the safe return of his daughter. The notebook was found by a tourist visiting the famous Paleolithic cave paintings, two hundred meters from its entrance. No further information regarding Lund’s disappearance has surfaced. Below is an excerpt from the manuscript found inside the notebook.

We were told that our mother’s life was terminated by an attack of killer bees while vacationing in San Marcos, Mexico with Dr. Vargas at his family home. Vargas described how the insects had gone for the insides of her ears – a deliberate technique to destabilize the victim. Mother fell off the horse, waving her hands in the air to beat them off and hit her head on a rock. Vargas thought it more prudent to spring the brutal truth upon us rather than the fiction of a prolonged stay in a Mexican hospital followed by eventual death. He bent down close to our faces with a pained expression, miming the scene – Mother inert on the ground, Vargas swatting his way through the lethal cloud of throbbing insects, his eventual defeat as he was heavily bombarded in a kamikaze-esque onslaught he likened to the attack of the USS Bunker Hill. All the way through this pantomime, a small shifty spot in his account brushed my brow like the wing of a bat. Vargas assured us Mother was unconscious and had not suffered. The killer bee specialists informed him that the perfume she was wearing (Fleurissimo, commissioned by Prince Rainier III for Grace Kelly composed of tuberose, Bulgarian rose, violet, and Florentine iris) had incited the bees to violence. If she and Dr. Vargas had been smoking cigarettes, the attack would never have happened. Killer bees abhor smoke, even from one cigarette.

Our father was in the midst of an expedition to Antarctica and could not be found. Dr. Vargas adopted us – as was specified in our mother’s will in the event of her death and the inability to locate any kin. The adoption process was quick in light of the fact it took place in Mexico. We ceased to be Lunds and became Vargases.

We moved shortly thereafter, with our beloved Great Danes, Viktor and Shiloh, from Mexico to the coast of Maine with bruise colored squalls, milky blizzards, crystallized winter wonderlands and picturesque summers. The house in the forest reminded us of the Russian fairy tales and Tolkien epics our mother and father used to read to us at bedtime. For the first several weeks we wondered whether we had been swooped up into the hinterlands of Siberia but the fantasy was dispelled when Vargas took us for a drive into the Arcadian mountains where, along the way, we passed rambling farm houses, mobile homes, mongrel capes and ranches, all with American flags flying on the front lawns, along with a proliferation of various lawn ornaments — windmills, geese, deer, flamingoes, gnomes, the occasional exposed buttocks in the form of a painted wood cut out meant to resemble a person bending over, for those who wished to turn their lawn into a smutty joke.

The first two years we remained in hiding, confined to the house and grounds. The great rambling Queen Anne edifice was concealed in the forest – elaborate and irregular, made of stone and wood with numerous towers, turrets, verandas, gables and dormers adorned with patterned shingle roofs. Vargas had reason to believe we were at risk of being kidnapped. For this, there were also armed men Vargas brought from his home town in Mexico who patrolled the area and lived in a hut we were forbidden to approach. We were of course not to have any communications with them whatsoever, not even pantomimes.

A regimented life began. We quickly apprehended that a surface obedience must be maintained, or else suffer the consequences.

In spring Camille and I collected flowers to make tea in the forest behind the house. After checking the rabbit snares we would follow a path to a break in the canopy of trees where white, lace-like flower formations fanned out, seeming to hover in the air from a distance. The plant’s stalks were mottled an enchanting blood red and in the color there was a message. It became immediately apparent to us both that the plant had been placed there by forest spirits to turn humans into faeries. If we could transform ourselves, we would be free. Then we could find father. Surely his love for us was so great that our change in form would be of no consequence. In fact, it was quite likely he would be impressed by our feat. We made a tea with the leaves, flowers and stalks and christened it Pan’s Elixir. To our great surprise, nothing happened. There was no discernible change in us or our environment. Then it dawned on Camille that the plant alone had little or no effect, perhaps because it was meant to be used in an alchemy with other plants, rituals, or spells we had yet to find, but which would be revealed to us in time. There was also the possibility the potion had a cumulative effect. We decided to continue drinking the elixir, in hopes its power would eventually come alive in us.

If we were lucky, four rabbits would be caught in the snares. We rubbed pine pitch on our hands before skinning them. A knife was never necessary. You can just tear their hides off. It’s like they’re wearing a snowsuit. In torrential downpours we gutted them in the shed. It was cleaner to do the skinning and gutting outside. In the snow was best, on a clear day under the ice encrusted canopies with the sun coming through. The guts are easily jiggled out onto the ground once the rabbit is cut open and best left for an animal to eat. We tied the skinned, hollowed rabbits around tree branches straight as effigy poles and carried them home, pink in the sun along with handfuls of the Pan Elixir flowers.

Some days, before checking the snares, we would walk through the forest to higher ground where underneath eighty foot pines stood a small cabin. Curiosity and the thrill of exploration had driven us there. The first time we set eyes on the scene it reminded us of Gustav Doré’s etchings, wreathing and humming, flickering before us with the darkness and light of fairytales. Camille’s cheeks flushed. I felt the throb of her exhilaration and surprise, her wide eyes darting into mine as we made our approach through beams of sun and twisting, cool shadows, until we reached the front wooden steps where Camille grinned impishly, batting off the gnats, mosquitoes and other flying insects. I knocked on the door. Then we found a crowbar in a shed and popped a window open.

This cabin became our church. We made an altar, burned sage and performed ceremonies consistent with accounts of the Passamaquoddy tribe described in a social anthropological study we had found in one of the libraries. Inside this book was an inscription in black ink in our father’s fluid scrawl, a pseudo-haiku poem he had written for our mother:

Two fawns in the wood,

A fire rages,

I would kill for your love.

(It was unsettling.)

According to our maps the Passamaquoddy reservation was a twenty minute drive away but Vargas never took us there, despite our pleas. He said that the foray would only lead to disappointment as the natives were hostile to white people on their land. We had to make do with the books in the library.

Along with Passamaquoddy rites we delved into other sources of ancient knowledge from around the world. We prayed to the Great Spirit, to the gods and goddesses, to the ancestors, making a plea for Dr. Vargas’ deliverance from earthly incarnation, thrust into a death not even the Ba or Ka could survive – a total annihilation of his soul and essence. In return we offered ourselves as sacrifices, in the service of those legions of supernatural beings to whom we prayed for protection, signs and direction.

Camille and I often smoked sage in a pipe we’d found in the cabin. One day we had a vision. There was a man. He walked around the room but he didn’t pace. Everything he did, he did with purpose – there was intelligence behind it. He spent a long time cleaning guns. He looked sad and kind. After he had left we could still smell his spice scented aftershave and gun oil. We suspected he was the ghostly double (vardøger in Norse mythology) who precedes a living person, performing their actions in advance. We weren’t ever surprised to see the man’s spectral form pass through the cabin door with his dog behind him, or to find him anywhere in the vicinity of the pine forest that contained the cabin, for that matter. His presence elicited mixed feelings of angst and attraction. Each time he appeared it was as though a spell was cast. We would go dizzy in the head for a moment and all would seem as though something had shifted but what, we could not pinpoint exactly. In this altered state was the certainty that our destiny was linked to this man’s, that our paths would cross and that he was, for us, some kind of a savior. (This knowledge did not stop us from trying to save ourselves, however –we continued with the Pan’s Elixir tea, ancient rites, occult practices, et cetera.)

The man stayed with us for minutes or even hours. His image would flicker, like on an antique TV screen, sometimes returning to full force, inevitably flickering out again at the end of the transmission. We knew the dog’s name was Brigitte because on several occasions we had heard the man’s phantom call to her through the pines. But the man did not speak clearly otherwise – we did not learn his name. In the beginning we referred to him simply as the man. At one point we thought perhaps he should be called the hermit, but it seemed to us he was not truly that. He appeared to be searching for something – a memory, something inside of his head. We toyed with The Seeker, but that was not right either so we had no other title for him. Then one afternoon we had the occasion to follow him and Brigitte on one of their hunts and finally understood what it was we should call him. When the flickering phantasm of the deer came into sight he stopped dead in his tracks with Brigitte not five feet from him and slowly raised the rifle. The buck stood frozen through the trees at a good distance, perhaps a thousand yards away. Before the animal could turn its head and bound off in the opposite direction, it fell with the crack of the rifle blast. The man was very good, an expert. From that day forward we called him Deadeye. We longed for the day we would meet him in flesh.

In our cabin we discovered that time was not as immutable as Dr. Vargas had led us to believe. He used this illusory ‘fourth dimension’, among other things, to contain us but one day we came upon a passage in an anthropology textbook on Africa which supported our own observations and empowered us:

Africans apprehend time differently. For them it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, its course, and rhythm (man acting of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being).

Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistence, if we do not direct our energy toward it. It is a subservient, passive essence, and, most importantly, one dependent on man.[1]

Physics textbooks confirmed the fact that time’s rate of passage varies in perception, and also in reality, quite dramatically even, as one approaches the speed of light. For example, if a group of people were to travel in a rocket at ninety-nine percent the speed of light and orbit the earth for ten years, upon their return they would find that seventy years had passed down below. Because of the speed at which they were travelling, these rocketeers would have aged only ten years while everyone else left behind on earth had aged seventy. Dr. Vargas spent the many years of our captivity devoted to experiments which aimed to break the mechanism of time on earth. He used us as his subjects, as was the case for all of his investigations into the natural world. Vargas told us that if it were possible to travel the speed of light, one would be everywhere in the cosmos all at once. He said there was evidence to suggest that what we know as time is happening all at once, with all moments of one’s life accessible at any given point or node. Our biology creates the illusion that it is happening chronologically.

Camille and I applied the knowledge we’d gleaned from Dr. Vargas’ teachings to some of our own. Like this we were often able to steal time from Vargas, reaching states in which the minutes became hours. We sensed when it was time to leave – Vargas had a palpable, psychic radar he had acquired in India that would eventually find us like a heat seeking missile – a chill spooled up our spines and our palms began to itch.

On spring and summer afternoons we would go back to the white, clapboard guest cottage, our kneecaps and ankles pricked by undergrowth, over felled trees, through a meadow of forget-me-nots in the humid, fragrant wood with our rabbits on the effigy poles and handfuls of the white, lacy flowers. We didn’t bring the dogs because we weren’t allowed to hunt with them – only Vargas held that privilege. Vargas said we had to keep our hunting separate. He also told us that if we didn’t eat meat our teeth would fall out and we would grow hair all over our bodies like werewolves (facts we verified in one of his medical journals). If we wanted to keep healthy we had to learn to trap and hunt. Fishing would have been ideal because there was a lake an hour’s walk through the forest (according to our maps) but Vargas didn’t like us eating fish, or venturing that far off alone. We studied hunting manuals and practiced in the field until we were capable. The snares weren’t that difficult and the yield was adequate.

In the autumn we would accompany Vargas on deer hunts with the cross-bow. The cleanest kill was the one that hit the heart. If done correctly the animal would drop dead in its tracks. Once Vargas shot a charging stag in the chest. It died with its head down so that its enormous rack of antlers became stuck in the ground. Vargas called his men in with the walkie-talkie and they came with a four by four to pull it out. We were told to hide in the bushes until they left. Communication with the men was forbidden. The first deer we witnessed Vargas shoot down left us devastated. He told us we had to slit the throat and drink the blood. We both knew that there was no way out and obeyed. We tried our best to show no emotion, as that was one of the elements Vargas fed off, and did as we were told. The animal’s blood seemed to taste no different than our own. The bodies were cut up and stored in a freezer in the basement. Vargas ate most of the kill but forced us to eat it as well as the rabbits, for health reasons. He collected the heads and skins and gave us lessons in the art of taxidermy and tanning. We spent many hours perfecting his trophies and rugs. Out of the hooves and shins we made rattles which we kept at the cabin in the woods where we had crafted them according to an account in one of the social anthropology books on Midwestern Native American tribes. The rattles were used as instruments to cure as well as to call bison. Camille and I were allowed all of the rabbit pelts and made jackets and boots out of them for our Barbie dolls.

[1]Kapuściński, R. and Glowczewska, K. The Shadow of the Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Huge thanks to Sam Mills for the interview and the extract of Dodge and Burn. 

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3 thoughts on “Interview with Sam Mills of Dodo Ink

  1. Fantastic interview, Naomi. Fantastic publisher. Fantastic new novel, says this Spanish, crime fiction reader! Wishing you the best, Dodo Ink. Enterprises like this should rule the publishing world 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating. Thanks very much, Naomi for a peek behind the scenes. Dodo Ink deserve accolades & success! I wish them all good fortune.
    Brilliant article! I love reading you. xXx

    Liked by 1 person

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