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Very Fine Print

© Geoffrey Sokol

Part boutique publishing house, part ad hoc literary salon, Turtle Point Press and its sister imprints are a throwback to a bygone era.

Helen Marx, Jeannette Watson, and Jonathan Rabinowitz get together several times a year on New York's Upper East Side. It's hardly publishers' row. There, in Marx's office over tea and sandwiches, the trio of literary partners plans their list of books for that season. Their three imprints—Helen Marx Books, Watson's Books & Co., and Rabinowitz's Turtle Point Press—appear together in a smartly designed catalogue that's small enough to hold in the palm of one well-manicured hand.

The partners share a distributor (Consortium, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota), occasional projects (right now Watson and Marx are coediting German writer Beatrix Ost's memoirs of her childhood during World War II), and, most important, a sensibility: an avid dedication to the unusual new fiction, poetry, memoirs, translations, chapbooks, and rediscovered titles that are their spécialité. They've been pooling their rarefied resources since Watson joined up with Rabinowitz in the early nineties, having made friends over a sale one day at Books & Co., the much-lamented Madison Avenue bookstore that Watson—whose grandfather founded IBM—owned from 1977 to 1997. Marx, an acquaintance of Watson's, was soon on board with her own publishing endeavor after her kids flew the coop. Like elegant swells of Manhattan past, the three have managed to create their own ad hoc literary salon, offering up a good-humored challenge to the big-boxification of publishing.

On such contrariness best sellers are not made, mind you, but there have been some hits. When, over lunch (of course) a number of years ago, they asked one of their authors, the late Hannah Green, to recommend her favorite book, she cited Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, which they've since turned into a strong seller. Another is Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize, published in conjunction with the Academy of American Poets. And in 2000 Brian O'Doherty's novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize.

A key to their success is that most of the titles are softcover, which are cheaper to produce and sell, making it possible to publish more of them. The look of the books is thought out carefully by each, and the three often act as their own designers when they're not recruiting artists for the job.

But, ah, the trials and tribulations! Orders for the new Turtle Point title by Wayne Koestenbaum, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films (actually a poetry collection by the literary critic and scholar of camp), "keep landing in spam filters," Rabinowitz says. "It's a promotion nightmare." The copies that do get through reveal a jaunty yellow cover image taken from John Tremblay's abstract painting Harpo Marx.

More literary promotions include deftly executed events such as the concert-cum-reading for Turtle Point's fall title I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone, a poetry collection by Anna Moschovakis, a rock violinist who teaches classics at Queens College and is an editor at the sports network ESPN. Rabinowitz has also decided to mount art shows in his office at the Woolworth Building ("more Grolier Club than art gallery," he says). Watson organizes the exhibitions and lectures at the New York Society Library.

Marx now divides her time between Paris and New York, where earlier this year she finished up a new edition of The Letters of Marcel Proust, translated by Mina Curtiss and originally published in 1978. Curtiss "took off for Paris [in the late forties] with two dresses Mainbocher made for her and a case of bourbon," Marx says. "When she arrived she realized that a lot of people who'd known Proust were still alive, and she got the letters he had written them." For the new edition, released in May, Marx enlisted Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker to write an introduction. And this fall Marx is publishing her translation of The World of Jules Verne by French writer Gonzague Saint Bris, whose family owns Château du Clos Lucé, the place where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years.

Other highlights from the Turtle Point list this season include Michael Friedman's eccentric debut novel, Martian Dawn, with a cover illustration by painter Duncan Hannah, who brought the book to the team's attention. "It's a riff in which Star Trek meets Pretty Woman," Rabinowitz says of the story of a Hollywood couple shooting a science-fiction movie together. From retired Columbia literature professor George Stade comes Love Is War, a follow-up to his 2005 academic romp, Sex and Violence: A Love Story. And The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O'Hara is bound into the prettiest of little volumes, which was designed by the young poet Jeff Clark.

The making of every title is an adventure. Rabinowitz recalls tracking down Michael Burn, the former English war correspondent who penned Childhood at Oriol, a 1951 novel recently reissued by Turtle Point. To get the rights, Rabinowitz visited the author in Wales, where the aristocratic nonagenarian was then working as a mussel farmer. Burn told him, "I haven't been to New York since thirty-seven, when Tallulah Bankhead threw me a party!"

Should he return, the Turtle Point troika will be there to serve him sandwiches and tea.

To order a catalogue, call 212-285-1019 or visit turtlepoint.com.