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American rive gauche: An interview with Tosh Berman

By Susan Tomaselli.


3:AM: TamTam Books has an impressive stable of writers – Guy Debord, Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian. How did a Los Angelian come to be interested in obscure, cult Frenchmen? And what lead you to set up TamTam Books?

Tosh Berman: Via my parents I was exposed to Brigitte Bardot at a very young age. My father took me to my first film in a theater in Northern California. I was four years old, and Dad took me to see Roger Vadim‘s And God Created Woman starring his then wife, Bardot. The theater at first refused to let me in with my Dad. Father refused to leave the line and demanded the right that he can take his son anywhere he wants to. So him being stubborn, I saw my first projected film – and it was Bardot on the huge screen.

Also I was raised in a household that pretty much loved the French Surrealists. And other French writers/artists of that era as well. My Dad had images of Bardot, Jean Cocteau and Artaud at his work place. So the images of these great people had a lasting and deep impact on me as a young tot.

As an adult, I read a lot of the works by the Surrealists as well as the others of that particular culture and time (1920’s). But what got me really started on the publishing is when I visited Japan in 1989. Through my wife Lun*na Menoh (who is Japanese) I was introduced to the world of Boris Vian, due to the fact that all his books are in print in Japan (in Japanese of course). At the time I was writing short stories and my wife told me that my work resembled Vian’s writings. Once I got back to the States I located some of his work in English, and realized two things. I did share a certain aesthetic with him and his work is much better then mine.

At the same time I discovered the world of Serge Gainsbourg. I had heard his name and knew his reputation, but sitting down and hearing his music for the first time was a moving experience for me. Around the same time I discovered his short novel Evguenie Sokolov. Basically I wanted to share that feeling with my fellow English readers and listeners. So that was the spark that led to TamTam Books.


3:AM: Those three were heavily involved in music – and TamTam’s logo embodies this. Was the music connection another part of the attraction?

TB: Yes, on many levels. I don’t separate music from literature. Vian was a major songwriter as well as being in the heart of the French music business – and Gainsbourg of course as well. In fact I actually like books by musicians. And beyond that I never have seen a bad performance by a pop star in a film. Even Paul Jones in Privilege! But yes I came upon the name TamTam via Josephine Baker, who made a film called TamTam Princess. And when I was working on Vian’s I Spit on Your Graves I wanted to have a name that expresses my culture reaching out to another culture. The Jazz scene in Paris, especially the post-war years was an amazing place for Black American musicians – and Vian was very much part of that world. And so Baker, as an American black who went to France to become an iconic star there, has great meaning for me.

3:AM: Music is pretty important to you, isn’t it? Not only are you working on a book on the Sparks, but TamTam’s designer is Tom Recchion. How did you hook up with him?

TB: Generally speaking, I think book covers are not that good compared to LP covers. I wanted to have a strong visual image to go with the nature of the books I publish. Tom Recchion is an old pal of mine from the Punk days, and he is also one of the top music composers in America, in my humble opinion.

Tom works at Capital Records doing the re-issues to a lot of classic recordings by the Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Beatles, etc. We share a common interest in contemporary culture but filtered through the past. Over the years Tom has turned me on to Martin Denny and other “exotic” artists. He has an incredible ear for music, and a great eye for graphics. He also has a deep understanding of the work that he’s designing for. And he gets it right away. He understands the culture where it came from – so he’s a natural fit for TamTam Books. I look at our relationship as an equal partnership.

And that goes as well with my translators: Brian Harper, Paul Knobloch, and Robert Greene (who also wrote 48 Laws of Power). All three of them love music, and it’s very important to me that everyone that’s involved with TamTam Books, love sounds passionately. Basically when we have face-to-face meetings, most of the dialogue is about our favorite records.

3:AM: Tom’s covers really help define TamTam, but does TamTam have any publishing role models?

TB: I am inspired by a lot of great publishing houses. In the past: Grove in the 60’s, Olympia Press, Gerard Lebovici‘s French publishing house, New Directions, and John Calder out of the U.K.

Current presses that turn me on: Atlas, Soft Skull, Exact Change, New York Review of Books (the publishing not the publication), and others. I think right now it’s a great time for publishing. When the world is turning into shit, it’s good for the arts. And publishing right now I think is going through another golden era. Music labels I am afraid are not at the moment. But I think publishing houses are like a great record label. You buy a record from Motown, Factory, 70’s Island, knowing that you are going to get something great from that label. As much as possible I try to keep TamTam Books on that same level. Each book should lead to another title from TamTam.

[Tosh by Wallace Berman, 1960]

3:AM: It would be remiss of me not to mention your father, Wallace Berman. He’s being undergoing a bit of a revival in recent years – there have been some retrospectives of his work, but also Stewart Home has cribbed the ethos of Semina for his imprint. How much of an influence is Semina on your work, if at all?

TB: My Dad is a major influence on me. He taught me to go against the grain and listen to that inner voice. I am surrounded by two geniuses in my life: my dad and my wife. Both are creatures of the creative, and I feel like I am in their shadow – but what a great place to be in. They both taught me to go by instinct. And instinct is the core of the creative act.

Semina is sort of the self-made ‘zine of its time. He just did it without thinking out the commercial aspect. So in one sense it was a pure piece of work. Very personal and therefore beautiful. I think of TamTam in that manner. I just want to show the public what turns me on. So in a sense, it’s a sharing feeling. I don’t care about the masses, I just want people who are interested in what I am doing. Ten people into Boris Vian is good enough for me.

3:AM: You ran a film series for Beyond Baroque and had a TV show, Tea with Tosh. Can you tell me a bit about that? Is Tosh Talks a return to this?

TB: Again it is the nature of sharing an interest with others outside my circle. I like blogs for that reason alone. To have an intense interest in something and sharing that is really beautiful to me. That is why I publish. Doing the film series at Beyond Baroque and Tea With Tosh is basically the same to me. With the film series I had strict rules at the time. The films could not be available on video or DVD. And it had to be works from great filmmakers, but not their most famous films. Also I wanted to mix it up a bit by showing a Buñuel film with a Buster Keaton work. When you see the films together one makes comparisons between the two works – and also connecting the dots between both artists.

Tea With Tosh was a cable talk show where I imagine myself as a character between William Buckley and Dick Cavett. They were my two role models for that show. But only on a very surface level. It had nothing to do with Cavett’s New York take on culture or Buckley’s Conservatism – just the style of a man who likes to chat with guess in front of a TV camera. Also I am kind of shy, and it was a good way for me to discuss one’s work where I wouldn’t do that in an actual private conversation. But again, I just want to share an interest I have or had with other people. And the people on my show were, or are, interesting. Philip Glass, Peter Case, Russell Tamblyn, Phranc and others were all outside the world in a sense – so I wanted to pull them into my world. But only for a half-hour.


3:AM: Getting back to TamTam, how long does each publication take? Could you talk a little about the process?

TB: The physical aspect of making a book is time consuming and intense. It takes me a while from signing the contract to getting the book to your hands. One reason is not only money issues, but also making sure the translation is top-notch as well as the design work. The beauty of being a publisher is working with people who are top of their fields.

Before buying the title for English rights, I talk to the translator first to see if they are interested in doing the work, and if they are a perfect match for the material on hand. A translator has to be totally tuned in with not only the author’s work, and its language, but also its culture. Right now Paul Knobloch (who did the Vian translations, except for Foam of the Daze which is by Brian Harper and I Spit on Your Graves – Vian did the translation himself) is working on a major biography on Serge Gainsbourg by Gilles Verlant. We’re spending a lot of time researching the French music world as well as getting the right translation or voice for Gainsbourg’s incredibly complex lyrics. Paul and I have deep and long discussions about language, the culture, and the importance of Gainsbourg not only as a creative genius, but also his impact on French culture. And the same goes for Debord and Vian. Often we put in end-notes talking about the language, text and culture that the work is based in.

The second major step is going over design ideas with Tom Recchion. As mentioned before, Tom is a composer and practically a music historian as well a great graphic designer. We have long conversations about the work itself as well as how it should look. Paper quality, the fonts, and color is detailed in our discussions. And like the translators, music is a big part of the TamTam world. So we often look at record covers as well as page layouts in magazines/books. The bottom line is that I work with really brilliant people.

3:AM: You’re a fan of Fantomas, which have slipped out-of-print. Does TamTam have any plans to republish any of these works?

TB: For years I have thought about putting a Fantomas book out on TamTam, but Penguin and Dover has released the first title in the series. I often think about the nature of Fantomas via the acts of terrorism from the past 100 years or so. To me he’s not only a fictional character but also a mood or a presence that makes perfect sense in the 21st Century. The closest thing I am going to get to Fantomas is by publishing Jacques Mesrine‘s memoir The Death Instinct. It’s being translated into English as we communicate.

3:AM: It’s not just French writers that TamTam is interested in. I read an interview where you talked about publishing Edogawa Rampo. Is that still on the cards?

TB: I am fascinated by Japanese 20th Century culture. And Rampo is a writer of great interest to me. He wrote most of his great works – all horror or detective stories – in the pre-war era of Japan. Most have a strong sexual, and I might add, an erotic tinge to the horror. I also like the fact that he chose the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe as his professional name. So yes, I am thinking of still doing Rampo as a TamTam project.


3:AM: There’s a new Boris Vian due out from TamTam Books soon – To Hell With The Ugly. Can you tell me a little about it? And your two-version release plan?

TB: To Hell With The Ugly is a Vernon Sullivan (Boris Vian) novel, and it’s a combination of the Hardy Boys meets HG Wells meets James Bond meets vintage porn. In other words, it’s Boris Vian’s world and you are welcome to it. The book reads like a pulpy serial to me, so on my blog I am putting up To Hell With The Ugly chapter-by-chapter. It has incredible imagery, and the hardcopy of the novel will expose that side of it. Jessica Minckley did the art and illustrations for it as well as with Tom’s book design. It’s going to be an incredible package.

3:AM: What’s next for TamTam?

TB: After Paul finishes the Gainsbourg biography translation, he’s going to start work on the next Boris Vian novel, The Red Grass. Which style wise, is in the same category as Foam of the Daze and Autumn in Peking. Also currently working on French gangster Jacques Mesrine’s incredible memoir The Death Instinct. Excitement ahead!


Susan Tomaselli is Editor-in-Chief at 3:AM Magazine and lives in Dublin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 2nd, 2009.