A passion for spreading the word, and words, of Turkish writers has seen Kalem Agency founder Nermin Mollaoglu amass an enviable reputation. Tom Tivnan meets her.
Tom Tivnan You are up for Agent of the Year at the LBF International Excellence Awards. Can you go through the past year or so, and explain why you think you have been shortlisted?
Nermin Mollaoglu You can’t imagine my reaction when I saw the shortlist! It was quite a big surprise for me. I have been in this business for 15 years, and we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Kalem Agency during the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair. We have come a long way in 10 years. Representing Turkish literature abroad used to be an unknown issue; there were only 300 [foreign rights] deals before Kalem Agency, but now I represent 150 authors, [and titles] ranging from classics to contemporary. Turkish authors are being published in Mongolian, Danish, Arabic...
Being the “ambassador” of my culture is my fundamental mission—creating a culture bridge through literature is what I put my heart into. Therefore, we started the Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival (ITEF), which has hosted 450 authors in nine years and introduced Turkish publishing through the ITEF Fellowship Programme.
I have to say that I could not have been shortlisted without my team. I am shortlisted due to my passion for literature, my wonderful colleagues from the international publishing sector, and my team.
TT And can you tell us about the founding of Kalem, why you set it up, and some of the highlights over the last 10 years?
NM I was working at Yapi Kredi Publishing, as rights co-ordinator, before founding Kalem Agency. When people ask my education, I say I graduated from Yapi Kredi Publishing School because it was the stepping stone that launched my career... though I have two undergraduate and PhD degrees, and a previous career as a nurse! I put my heart into this job. I believe in the healing power of literature, so I set up the agency to heal myself and the readers all around the world with literature.
TT In terms of your publishing calendar, how useful or valuable is LBF for Kalem?
NM I value each book fair, even if it is small or local—it can be in Canada or Kyrgyzstan. I try to visit as many book fairs as possible, and LBF is one of the biggest to check the pulse of the sector. I have been doing 15-minute meetings [at fairs] for two years, and I started these 15-minute meetings in London. Last year in the Agents Centre, I remember the sun was shining all the time, and I think that brought me success during the year. LBF is a valuable and successful place to make deals and meet new people.
TT Turkey has been the Market Focus/Guest of Honour country at both LBF and Frankfurt recently. Has it had an impact on your agency, in particular, and on the Turkish book trade in general?
NM We were at the bottom of the ladder when we were Guest of Honour in Frankfurt— many of the writers did not believe Turkey had been chosen. They thought that the only way to expand readerships abroad was to say something bad about Turkey. We could not shine while the sun was high on us during [the programme at] Frankfurt in 2008. When we were Market Focus in London, it was much better, because we had experience from Frankfurt.
However, if you invite a Danish author to a festival, for example, the Danish Arts Council supports the writer to make them known abroad. Turkey still does not have this kind of funding, so the big steps are left half-finished.
TT Obviously, the political situation in Turkey has been difficult in the last couple of years. How has that affected the publishing industry?
NM The colour of the news coming from Turkey has recently become greyer and greyer. Many of my meetings go: “What’s going on in Turkey?”, “Pitch me a book telling of the political situation in Turkey”.
I am not happy with this situation. Turkey is not the capital of grey, Turkey has a riot of colours from east to west that you can only experience through art, and literature is a good way to understand Turkey.
For example, The Pasha of Cuisine by Saygin Ersin was our success of last year. What made this book [a hit] was not the political issues but the colour—the story was like a delicious food that we fed to the market.
TT In terms of selling rights abroad, have any territories been particularly good for your authors in the past few years?
NM I do not have a specific territory that’s good for my authors. However, my authors are popular in our neighbouring countries. For example, Soraya by Meltem Yilmaz, the true story of a young woman who seeks refuge in Turkey after fleeing from civil war in Syria, was published by Soft Press in Bulgaria— and it became so popular that the author was invited there for three days of events.
Poland, the Market Focus country at LBF 2017, is another region we are strong in, thanks to our sub-agent and to Polish readers. I do not want to have a particular area, I want to expand as much as possible to make my authors’ works more visible.
TT Can you tell us about a few of the books you are bringing to LBF that you think might do well?
NM I have been listening to Riff Cohen’s album for a month... She’s become widely known in Turkey, and I started to think why she is becoming known all around the world. I guess the reason is that she does not forget her Hebrew roots, but she also has the courage and the talent to open up to the world.
I want to focus on my young authors who have talent, the courage to write and a story to share. I will be talking about Nermin Yildirim’s novels, in which you’ll find issues of family, life and love in a way that’s beautiful and also riveting. I’ll be talking about
The Pasha of Cuisine, which has excited me ever since I saw the cover, and a delicious but turbulent journey of the Master of Tastes, Antabus by Seray Şahiner, a tragic human story telling of the envi- ronment in which we live, the roots, the situations of humanity created by the violence imposed on women, and more...