The art director Julien Rothenstein talks about the trials and tribulations of designing a literary journal in 1970s Britain.
What were your first impressions of Emma Tennant?
Julian Rothenstein: After I met Emma, within three days I was driving around in her ancient Mercedes Benz with The Supremes blasting out of the sound system. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life and was completely lost. She was not just encouraging but had the power to give you belief; Emma really got me going with my work, identifying that I knew more about printing than I realized because my father was an artist and a printmaker. She smelled the ink in my veins.
What do you remember about the beginning of Bananas?
Emma wanted to start a literary magazine and knew all these remarkable writers. The London literary scene was quite small and everyone knew each other. It was probably just as difficult to start a magazine then as it is now—always a loss-making venture. And, famously, the quickest way to lose money.
Emma was a brilliant editor who invariably got the best out of writers. She wasn’t a hands-on line editor, her style was to take a writer for a long lunch and discussion to work out an idea for an amazing piece, a sort of Socratic method of commissioning. She was a writer’s writer, always brimming with ideas, and infusing people with confidence.
What was Bananas like to produce?
It was a luddite process compared to today. A woman called Caroline McKechnie used an IBM machine to typeset manuscripts into galleys (long reels of paper), and then designing it was like a process of collage, sticking down long strips of paper alongside the visuals and so forth.
Corrections were the nightmare. If a writer wanted to make corrections you had to typeset the edits separately on another piece of paper and then stick them down over the changes. Invariably, the writers would show up in the office demanding changes that required exquisite cutting and pasting of words and so forth, as if we were putting together a ransom letter.
There was an incredible contrast between weeks and weeks of preparation, the design and layout, and then the actual printing. We printed it on newspaper and so the actual printing happened overnight. You had an adrenaline-fueled late night of final changes, go to bed, and then a huge van would arrive in the morning giving you the magazine fully printed.
Booksellers hated the format because it was so large on fragile paper, but it meant we could produce it cheaply—50p a copy.
Why was Bananas original, and how does it compare to literary magazines today?
I think a few things made it original. First, it was irreverent and had a sense of humor, a wicked one at times. We had a very serious ad from Faber and Faber for an academic book: Emma decided to send up the seriousness of our own advertiser with a spoof ad for Bananas which ran next to it. No academic publisher ever advertised with us again.
Second, it was mainly original fiction, creative writing, and poetry, as opposed to reviews. She also ran new pieces by writers largely unknown at the time, like Robert Meadley or Stephen Dixon, next to famous ones, such as JG Ballard, Ted Hughes and Angela Carter. The paper included unpublished poems by Sylvia Plath and remarkable stories by Bruce Chatwin.
Third, Bananas was produced well before the era of the PR-industrial complex, where pieces in literary magazines are often extracts from forthcoming books or promotions. The content was all original. When I look back at issues of Bananas now, I think it has a kind of timeless quality.
What do you do now?
After Bananas, Emma and I started a new publishing project called Next Editions publishing short fiction and poetry in a spiral-bound paperback format—but these were never properly distributed. In 1986 I started Redstone Press which publishes the Redstone Diary and two or three original books annually, and is still how I make my living today.
I also met Hiang Kee while working at Bananas: She was then a student at the Royal College of Art and not only produced a lot of beautiful illustrations for the magazine but got lots of her artist friends to contribute. She’s been my wife of 40 years.