At Work With: Seb Emina, The Happy Reader
We start the new week in Paris with British writer/editor Seb Emina, who was recently named one of ‘the 100 most influential and innovative people working across arts, culture and the creative industries in the UK,’ by the Hospital Club. This week he’s visiting London for the launch of his new project, The Happy Reader, a beautiful new magazine about reading published as a collaboration between Penguin books and Fantastic Man. Each issue focuses on a classic piece of literature.
Where are you today?
At my desk, in Paris. I have been living here for just over a year. I’ve been back and forth between Paris and London constantly, and that’s even more the case now with The Happy Reader, but it’s not a bad way to live. Paris is beautiful, the Eurostar is comfy, and digital technology means I don’t feel distances so much anyway.
What can you see from the window?
We’re in a small flat and, as is the way with these buildings, I can see through the windows of the two or three similar buildings across from us. There’s a cat on a windowsill, a guy doing the washing up and someone’s watching the news on TV. I always wonder what they see when they look this way, as I have no idea what the flats above or below me look like.
Are you a morning or evening person?
I’m fine with both. I’m less keen on afternoons. Often I catch the train to London at the crack of dawn so as to get a full day’s worth of meetings and, having dragged myself out of bed and through security, I really enjoy zooming through the sleepy French countryside with a cup of coffee. Then when I’m writing, the words come more easily in the evenings. They always have. It can be frustrating.
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
When I moved, someone bought me a subscription to the Paris Review and I’m just catching up on the last one I received before my subscription ran out. It’s the one with Matthew Weiner.
As a reader, which novel has made you happiest recently?
It sounds a bit suspect what with it being The Happy Reader’s first Book of the Season, but the honest answer is ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins. We chose it for a good reason. It’s a completely addictive book. I was utterly lost in it for a weekend.
A collaboration between Fantastic Man and Penguin Books seems a natural match. Tell us how the partnership came about.
Fantastic Man had worked with Penguin on a book called ‘Buttoned-Up’. It’s one of a series of books that Penguin commissioned, each of which was inspired by a different tube line (the East London Line in this case). Afterwards they discussed how it’d be if they took Fantastic Man’s way of making magazines, which has worked out rather well, and applied it to the world of books, especially with respect to classic literature – books that would never normally get that kind of treatment. Eventually these conversations coalesced into an idea, The Happy Reader, which would contain, among other things, a freewheeling conversation with a well-known avid reader (it's the actor Dan Stevens in issue 1) plus a sequence of original features based around, but not necessarily 'about', a single Book of the Season.
Another publisher might have gone for a website or app to promote reading. Why a print magazine?
Penguin do a lot of impressive projects online (see the brand new Pelican site) so I don’t think it’s an either/or thing. But the huge success of magazines like Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman has shown that print is not in fact a spent force but is actually in the beginnings of a resurgence. It’s really starting to sink in that paper has, and will always have, certain qualities that a screen does not, and our reading lives can happily encompass both. I think Penguin have sensed that the time is just right for a magazine like this.
Your editors letter refers to ‘loose-knit reading groups’ and Happy Reader events. What are your plans?
We’re still talking about what kind of official events we’ll do, but I’d love the magazine itself to give rise to reading groups that we aren’t at all involved in and haven’t the slightest idea about. Or for the Book of the Season concept to really take off to the point where whatever the chosen book is, it’s just kind of in the air for a few months. When I’ve been a member of reading groups, half of the excitement comes not from what’s said but from just knowing that everyone in the room has been completely immersed in the same world as me. It’s a very inspiring feeling, and it’s there even when you stop talking about the text and just chat about whatever’s on your mind – somehow the book and its world are still lurking there in the background.
What are you most looking forward to this week?
Why, the launch of The Happy Reader, of course. It’s available as of today, and we’re going to mark the occasion in a couple of days by retracing part of the famous walk through Hampstead that opens ‘The Woman in White’, followed by a trip to the pub. It’s been a lot of work and it’s really exciting, and nerve-racking, waiting to see how it’s received.
What are you least looking forward to this week?
Getting a haircut.
What will you be doing after this chat?
Issue two is looming and I’ll be talking to a few potential contributors about the next Book of the Season, which is Kakuzo Okakura’s ‘The Book of Tea’. There are so many possibilities with this one, it’s dizzying.