Conversations

Peter Goodman, founder and editor of West Coast publisher Stone Bridge Press, talks to WaterBridge Review books review editor Gail Tsukiyama

Stone Bridge Press publishes everything for the Japanophile.

Gail Tsukiyama: Peter, you’re the founder and editor of Stone Bridge Press, located in Albany, California, the only West Coast publisher specializing in Japanese-related works. When and where did your fascination with Japanese culture begin?

Peter Goodman: It couldn’t have been the food, since there weren’t any Japanese restaurants in upstate New York in 1971. Actually, I was heading to my last year in college at Cornell and needed a literature class to finish out my major. Japanese Lit was open, I had a very supportive teacher and, since none of us students knew anything about Japan, we were able to free associate and imagine this foreign country full of import, mystery, and beauty. That is, we made Japan into what we thought it ought to be to satisfy our own sense of the exotic. And once we did that, I was hooked. I suspect that’s how a lot of Japanophiles start out.

GT: What were some of the Japanese Lit titles you were reading then?

PG: Let’s see… The Keene anthology, of course. Kawabata’s Snow Country. Poems by Kusano Shimpei. A couple of Tuttle books. An early book on Japanese gardens by Teiji Itoh.

GT: You learned to speak the Japanese language and moved to Japan in 1975 to pursue your publishing ambitions. What did your friends and family think at the time? And how long did you live in Japan? 

PG: That’s a bit backwards, really. I learned (or tried to) Japanese after I arrived. I had earlier written to various publishers in Tokyo hoping to connect with a job and avoid having to become a student again. But no one would hire sight unseen, so I had to enroll in a university in Japan in order to stay in the country long enough to find my dream job. My family didn’t seem to think I was crazy or particularly adventurous. My friends, I suspect, all wanted to be heading out someplace themselves. After all, Gerald Ford was president at the time, we were just post-Nixon, and the future seemed a bit dim. I was out of the country ten years, eight-and-a-half in Japan, the rest in London, England.

GT: What were you hoping to accomplish, then, going to work for publishers Kodansha and Tuttle in Tokyo?

PG: I had noticed that most of the books we used in my college Japanese Lit class had come out of Japan from Kodansha, Tuttle, or Weatherhill. These were wonderful physical specimens, beautifully produced. They gave me both a tactile and an intellectual pleasure, and I wanted to learn how to make them myself. I was a mediocre student, hardly a candidate for grad school. Plus, three years out of college I was tired of making donuts at the neighborhood donut shop. I went to Japan basically to learn to become a book editor. I thought that in my spare time I might also achieve satori at the local Zen temple, but frankly I didn’t even come close.

GT: What made you return to the Bay Area to start your own publishing house?

PG: I had been in Japan cumulatively for more than eight years. I observed that over ten years you run the risk of becoming a lifer. I didn’t want to grow old in Japan, at least not without a family. I was scared of marrying into Japanese society with all the obligations, commitments, and social ties. But, hey, I didn’t want to be completely alone either. So the main motivator was to start a family. Also, at the time I was working for Kodansha International, and they offered to set me and a business partner up in an editorial office back in the States to acquire projects and work with authors. We chose San Francisco because it wasn’t New York, it wasn’t Los Angeles, and it had a university with a solid Asian Studies program (thinking, I suppose that we would get a lot of submissions from professors, although that never happened). For someone from New Jersey, the transition to West Coast culture was challenging, more so than going to Japan in a way, since I expected Japan to be different but wasn’t prepared for cultural differences within my own culture. What I hadn’t realized, though, was that the Bay Area was a hotbed of independent publishing. So it was a fantastic place to locate and meet with other publishers, editors, and designers. Since all I knew about publishing I had learned in Japan, I had a lot to learn. For instance, American paper sizes and paper choices were different, and in the USA, publishers had schedules to keep and couldn’t just release books on the marketplace whenever they came out, which is often what happened in Japan. In Japan, too, we were used to printers coming to deliver and pick up proofs and artwork, and then sitting around and having tea and establishing a bond with the customer. Here, business was a much more cut-and-dry affair, and printers didn’t seem quite the publishing ally that we assumed them to be in Japan.

GT: With 90 plus titles related to Japan published by Stone Bridge, showcasing everything from anime and manga, calligraphy, and sumo, as well as guides to Japan’s customs, language, and Japan-related fiction and poetry, how do you go about choosing your eclectic titles?

PG: I used to just publish what I liked. Then I became more mature and analyzed the numbers so that I could then rationalize my decisions to publish what I liked. I can’t help being more businesslike now, I suppose, but still, there are so many possibilities for publishing that we’re able to choose largely from projects that appeal to us on levels beyond the merely financial. Sometimes it’s the challenge of doing a weird book about kanji, or working with a young author and a Russian artist, or taking plain text and doing something interesting with it on the page. Japan is so highly evolved in so many cultural areas that there is no shortage of material, most of it with a decorative component or an aspect that rewards introspection and diligence. A couple years ago we published a book called Suiseki by Felix Rivera. It was about finding stones in nature that you could take back, mount on a wood platform, and display in your home as a kind of nature in miniature. Over the years, the Japanese (there is a similar art in China) had codified the types of stones and materials "allowed" to serve as suiseki, and within these broad types were numerous variations. In the course of learning these rules the eye learns to see and appreciate broader forms of nature, to see mountains as new mountains and old mountains, and to penetrate into the landscape to find natural rock forms that, once unearthed, possessed the requisite aesthetic qualities that made them attractive to the human eye. One of our most influential books we published is Wabi-Sabi by Leonard Koren, about the Japanese aesthetic of plainness, natural surfaces, and understated elegance. We released it way back in 1994, and after over 50,000 copies it has attained the rank of a classic; it has been responsible for a number of similarly titled books, which I guess is flattering in a way. It’s a book that has literally changed the way many people view the world and pursue their art.

GT: Stone Bridge Press published The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing on Japan. How did Stone Bridge Press become his publisher for the book? What was it like working with the legendary expatriate writer?

PG: I knew Donald back in my Japan days, and we have stayed in touch, especially thanks to Leza Lowitz, a Berkeley poet (and Stone Bridge author) who now runs a yoga studio in Japan and has been a kind of cheerleader and muse to Donald for a number of years. Donald’s a consummate professional. He replies the next day (by fax, no e-mail yet), understands the business, writes fast and to form, and displays none of the crankiness you might expect from someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with people who know way less than he does. In our little segment of the publishing world, he’s a legend. Works hard, listens, loves what he does, erudite, proud, and modest. I don’t think there are many writers around like that.

GT: After 17 years, Stone Bridge has recently joined the Yohan family of businesses and taken on the imprint of Heian International, a Japanese publisher specializing in crafts and children’s books. Has it been a difficult transition to move from an independent, self-contained press to being part of a larger entity?

PG: Not really. Our staffing is unchanged. And frankly I welcome the opportunity to get feedback from other people with different points of view, like people who are more adept at looking at the bottom line than I ever was. Taking on Heian has been a real boon, since it opens us up to a whole new class of customer and expands our offerings into two areas that Stone Bridge had little exposure in. I also like the fact that whatever happens to SBP no longer depends solely on me. There is a whole support team in place with expertise, funding, connections, far beyond what I could ever bring. Yohan is an older company, but it’s all about books and lacks that cold and calculating heart that many Westerners associate with Japanese corporate culture. Plus, Yohan has recently acquired Cody’s bookstore in Berkeley and San Francisco, so we now have ties into book retailing as well. All in all, the purchase has been a move up.

GT: How would you describe the readers of your titles? Is there a particular audience you are targeting?

PG: Ah, that question again. From the outside it looks like we’re a niche publisher. You know, books mostly about Japan. In fact, every book we do has a completely different audience. We used to say that every Japanophile would buy a book and that there were 3,000 hardcore Japanophiles. But now, they’re all fragmented: some like sushi, some like samurai; some like Soseki, some like sumo. And 3000 aren’t enough to make a trade book profitable anyway. So every book we do has a different readership and needs to be published and marketed with that in mind. We do find "clusters" around pop culture and language, however, because those are active consumers driven to read and keep reading. But we’re working now on Richie’s A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics, a fairly esoteric book about the roots of Japanese beauty. We’d like to think that Japanese food fans will see the connections, but we don’t intend to advertise it in a fine dining magazine.

GT: What are some of the books Stone Bridge Press is currently working on?

PG: We’re busy! We’re doing a tie-in with the new Robotech movie, a "language-learning memoir" called Crazy for Kanji; the first book on Korean pop culture; Anime Classics Zettai!, a guide to the 100 top anime classics; China for Businesswomen, a practical guidebook; A Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms; two kids books of Indonesian fables in our Asian Folktales Retold series; The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear,the first book on the hip Japanese horror director. We’ve just published Patrick Galloway’s Asia Shock, a great guide to extreme Asian cinema, and we are developing projects in areas of travel, culture, and design. And we’ve just launched a new series called Stone Bridge Classics, where we are bringing great old Japan and Asia titles—like Things Japanese and The Book of Tea back into print in newly typeset editions. My real desire is to figure out how to get back into publishing translations of Japanese literature. That to me is where the heart of the press lies, but the costs involved versus the sales (and general public apathy) makes it ruinous without active support.

GT: How do you find peace of mind in your every day life? Are you a practitioner of Zen?

PG: Like I said, I got left behind at the temple gate in Japan. I don’t think I have much peace of mind, to be honest. But did I mention food and TV?

GT: What are some of these books waiting for you on your bedstand?

PG: I’m rereading The Great Gatsby. I keep Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony close at hand to dip into. Have a bunch of Steven Saylor books about his detective Gordianus to read. I recently finished Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, or should I say inhaled it like the froth on a mug of fresh beer.

GT: If you had to choose, which title that you’ve published would be one of your favorite books, and why?

PG: I really like Junzo Shon’s Evening Clouds, a long and rambling account of a family living on a hillside in suburban Tokyo. Not much happens. The narrator, the dad, describes his garden, his children’s hobbies, the walk up and down the hill to the train station. To me it represents what is most delicious about literature, stripped of the need to drive a plot forward to a conclusion. These are words that recreate the world and in doing so make us savor every moment; we are forced to focus on details that might otherwise escape our notice, and simply by focusing on them we endow them with meaning. The book says to me that we find meaning in our life simply by living it. Having chased the big answers at various times in my life, I find a lot of comfort in the task of pure observation. So I am proud of doing my bit to recognize the value in Shono’s work and contribute in bringing it to others’ attention. (Kudos too goes to Wayne Lammers, the translator, for deftly capturing Shono’s language.)

GT: Is there a particular character in one of the books you’ve published that most resembles your own personality?

PG: I kind of like the tormented Japanese garden designer in Wind and Stone (a "novel of aesthetic seduction," as I call it), but he’s a bit too dark. Maybe the protagonist Peter Meadowes in One Hot Summer in Kyoto, flummoxed by Japan, teased by its culture, tormented by love, what one critics calls "a monster of self-regard." Sounds like me in the old days!

GT: What’s the last movie you’ve seen?

PG: I just watched Oldboy, a Korean psychological terror film by director Chan-wook Park. Um, really creepy.

GT: If you weren’t a publisher and editor what would you be?

PG: We were just talking about that. I always thought I could have gone into acting, but when people hear that they snicker. My alternative would have been a structural engineer or a physicist. I was good at math.

GT: And lastly, what is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

PG: Clearly that was going to Japan in 1975 without any kind of support net. A very close second was voluntarily submitting to some very aggressive dental work in the mid-90s!

Read an excerpt from Junzo Shono’s Still Life and Other Stories.