Interview: Doire Press

Doire Press is an award-winning publisher, based in Connemara. The press publishes poetry and literary fiction, including a number of incredible debut authors. Doire Press is owned and run by partners Lisa Frank and John Walsh and 2020 marks 10 years since the official launch of Doire Press

In this interview, co-founder Lisa Frank speaks to DBF’s Grace Kelly about this milestone, the effects of Covid-19 on small publishers and not caring about “Commercial no-no’s”.

Grace: 10 years is a big deal, congratulations. When you moved to Ireland and began Doire press, could you imagine this day would come?

Lisa: No, I didn’t, it really just happened. My partner got a publishing grant to do a second book and it was a poetry collection. We thought, why not do it ourselves because I had publishing experience and that went well, and then my partner also MCd a poetry slam here in Galway and we thought for an annual prize to do a publishing prize. And it just went well. The next one was, we published a friend of ours who we thought should be published, and then we started getting submissions in. We absolutely did not plan this and we had no idea. Some days I think oh God what have we done, other days, most of the time we’re really happy with it.

G: Amazing, and as a small press, I expect you and John both do a bit of everything. Do you enjoy the variety that that brings?

L: I do. I can’t say I enjoy all of it. The one thing, like having to do a website. Yano, we needed a website, we didn’t have the money. And I thought ok I better figure this out. And I hated it and I still hate it.  So I’m happy to say we just got a grant to hire a real company finally after 10 years. A lot of the other parts have been good. One thing I never expected to like so much is doing text layout. When I started doing that I just absolutely loved it. And I like doing cover design a lot also. At some point I had to give some of my jobs to other people. We hired a graphic designer. I was really happy to let her do the cover design but no way would I give out my text layout because there’s this zen kind of thing you get into.

From the very beginning when we started out, I would say with every single thing we did with the press, we asked ourselves as writers, “is this fair?”

G: It’s great that you found something new that you love within it. I have a quote here from an Irish Times article you wrote in May this year: ‘The proudest moment for us is one that happens again and again: that of first presenting the published book to a writer, an occasion made even more special if that writer is a debut. It’s a transcendental moment that sees us channelling between parent and midwife, but always feeling a bit like Santa Claus.’ That’s a powerful description of what must be an incredible moment.

L: Yes, it really is.

G: And has the pandemic affected that experience between you and your authors?

L: Yeah, I mean like, in this group we would have two debut writers, Linda McKenna and Aoife Reilly. Usually, what we used to do, we would get really into it. We would hand the writer the book but we wouldn’t just hand them the book, we would wrap it in about 15 layers of wrapping to make the moment as torturous for them as possible because they’re dying to see it. You know, debut writers are so excited. They just think when we hand it to them that it’s one wrap and they open that and there’s another one, and another one and anyways we used to get a great kick out of it. So, we lost that this year. And we do get emails and photos on Facebook holding the book excitedly, but yeah, this year has been hard for a number of reasons.

G: Hopefully we’ll get back to those kind of moments in the coming months. I’m really curious about the relationship between you as a publisher and your authors, partially because you’re a small press, but also because both you and John are accomplished and celebrated writers in your own right. Do you think your experience as a writer and as a teacher of creative writing influences the way you interact with your authors?

L: Yeah, from the very beginning when we started out, I would say with every single thing we did with the press, we asked ourselves as writers, “is this fair?”. Everything from cover design. With covers for instance, we wanted the writer to have input in it. For a lot of publishers, at most they’ll allow a writer to submit a photo or a piece of art. A lot of them don’t, but we thought, ok let’s do more than that. Let’s allow them to do that. At the beginning, I did five cover options, and they had different styles and different fonts, and I would sit with the writer and we’d go back and forth mixing and matching the font and the styles, and where things go, to let them have a little more say. We’ve had to let some of that go right now because that got a bit time consuming, so now the writers get two choices, but that’s still probably more than most presses would do. And then in terms of editing, my partner does the editing, and especially with debut writers we want to give them a lot of support. So I would say with each little bit we try to think of things from the writer’s point of view.

Sometimes you have to realise that it’s not all about the money. They still deserve to be published.

G: Amazing. You’ve made a point of prioritising art over business. In 2017, Books Ireland described books of poetry and short stories as ‘commercial no-no’s’. Do you think that statement still stands? And more importantly, do you care?

L: It definitely still stands. I always make a joke if we’re meeting people for the first time and they say “what do you publish?”. I always say “poetry, short stories and things that make money”. You know, they’re the two things that make the least amount of money. Do we care? Probably not. We’re lucky in that we run the business out of the house which is paid off. Basically, we found our niche. We thought at some point, “do we want to do novels?”, things like that. We actually did one novel. We didn’t love the process of it, so we thought let’s keep it small and do what we’re good at. We’re not big spenders of things.

G: And because of that focus, you have some incredible debut authors that may not have reached the commercial mainstream, so I personally appreciate it and I’m sure others do too. 

L: Yes, thanks. And one thing to say on that, one really good example is there’s a guy named Adam White that we published. We noticed him first at the poetry slam that we ran, and that’s where we saw him. Basically, we knew he wouldn’t sell that well but we thought his poetry was absolutely amazing. And we applied for an Arts Council grant and we didn’t get it, but we published the book anyway. We didn’t sell a huge amount of copies, we knew we wouldn’t, but that book was shortlisted for The Forward Prize. And that made us think “Oh my god, it is worth it” and sometimes you have to realise that it’s not all about the money. They still deserve to be published.

G: We’re very fortunate to have you publishing in Ireland with that focus and those values. You’ve already answered my next question, which is whether there is another novel in Doire Press’s future?

L: My partner is just reading manuscripts and he’s in talks with the writer, Rosemary Jenkinson, for her next book. It would actually be interconnected stories but more a novel in stories, and that’s the closest we’ll get.

G: Wow, I’m intrigued.

L: Yeah, I haven’t read it but John loves it! He says it’s fantastic.

G: That’s very exciting to hear. So then, what’s next for Doire Press?

L: We’re trying to get a bit more settled. We got this grant from the Arts Council which has been really really great. And one of the things it’s allowing us to do, besides building a website and getting someone to do it, is that Covid has brought in how important live virtual things are. So we decided, “Ok, yes we’ll probably need to do more virtual launches in the future, but why can’t we do actual live launches as they’re taking place in real time?”. And that way let’s say we have a Dublin launch, people in Germany or the States can watch it if they want to. So that’s one step we’re taking. The website people are developing that on their end. We just got a grant for a nice video camera and are looking at all the various bits. I mean Sasha [de Buyl, Director at Cúirt], she inspired a lot of that, through Cúirt. I think Cúirt was one of the first festivals to go online and we were thinking oh my god there’s so much possibility here that we’ve been overlooking.

G: I’m very excited to see what happens post-Covid in terms of blended events, I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. Lisa, thank you so much for joining me today. I really look forward to the Doire Press anniversary event next week.

L: Thank you!

Dublin Book Festival will host Doire Press 10th Anniversary Cross-border / Cross-genre Reading & Panel Discussion on Sunday, 29th November at 7pm. 

Registration is now open: