FOR THE SAKE OF THE WRITTEN WORD. Vera Michalski-Hoffmann spent her childhood in the Camargue, France, then studied at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. Together with her husband Jan Michalski, a Polish native, she founded the publishing company Éditions Noir sur Blanc. Together they developed the Libella group, which now comprises a dozen publishing houses in Switzerland, France and Poland. Jan passed away in 2002, and Vera created the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature to perpetuate their shared commitment to the written word, to support literary creation and encourage reading. Vera Michalski-Hoffmann has received Polish and French prizes and distinctions, an honorary doctorate from the University of Lausanne, and is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, why did you dedicate your life to books and writing, creating publishing houses and a Foundation in the Swiss countryside with a wide range of activities for writers and general public?

My husband and I decided to start the publishing house together in 1986, because we thought there was a need for mutual understanding between East and West. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain there were lots of stereotypes about Eastern Europe and Western publishers didn’t publish any younger authors. We thought it was important to overcome political differences using books as the best tool for communication. We started with Polish and Russian writers, and extended the profile to publish people from all over Eastern Europe, not only Slavic but Hungarian, Romanian languages as well. In 2000 we bought Éditions Buchet-Chastel and started publishing general fiction and non-fiction, French literature, travel writing and many other things among them a strong illustrated books list dealing with photography and drawing.

You really have a passion for books.

I won’t deny it! And I read as many as life permits.  

Why did you create the Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher, Switzerland? 

We had spotted this piece of land close to where we were living, and the idea was to establish a centre of dialogue, to organise talks and seminars between different people, always East and West. When Jan died in 2002 we had not started anything, so I decided to make this Foundation and to give his name to it. It’s no mausoleum, not at all something which is turned toward the past. On the contrary, it’s geared toward the future. What was supposed to be a small project became bigger and bigger, as the architect called it, “a small city, dedicated to writing.”

“We try to host as many events as possible that bring people back to the written word.”

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann

View of the Jan Michalski Foundatio, Montricher, Switzerland

© Leo Fabrizio

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, today there are two main buildings, and also little houses designed by different architects where writers can stay? 

It has always been very difficult for writers, especially young ones, to live from writing. Unless you are a very big bestseller there’s no way you can finance yourself by just publishing books. By having many conversations with authors and translators, we realised that what they needed is, once in a while, a place where they could work in peace. We would take care of their basic needs, like food and lodging, so they could really concentrate, and not spend all their days in alimentary work. We were hoping to host people for five or six months, but we’ve been overwhelmed by success in a way and now get over 2200 applications a year, so to allow 55 writers and translators a year to come and stay here we have shortened the stay to an average of 1 or 2 months.

You have an important library of around 75,000 French and international books, with spaces where everyone can work and read?

The idea was to have 80,000 books. Some are still being catalogued and registered, but we have now around 75,000 and the concept of the library has evolved. People can read the books here and also take them home, the library is open to the general public, not only to the residents. The main focus is literature in the major languages of the world of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the odd important non-fiction book is there as well. We also have devoted a whole floor to what we call Varia: photos, calligraphy and experimental literature, and in the room called La Salle du Jury we have the meetings for the Jan Michalski Award.

What is the Jan Michalski Award?  

It is an international literary prize. The jury is only writers from different countries, with one of the writers having a special interest for art, and so we’ve had photographers, video artists and sculptors in our jury. Each jury member stays a maximum of three years, very different from the usual French jury where people grow old in their seats, and can present two books from any literary genre – fiction, non-fiction, poetry – written in any language. We’ve even had a book by Chris Ware, the famous graphic artist from Canada. We have to translate some of the books so that all the jury members can read them, and we’ve come up with some original work that has been overlooked by major juries, although sometimes we have anticipated success. So we are very proud to say that we had already given our prize before she had the Nobel Prize to Olga Tokarczuk. We also gave it to a non-fiction book written by members of Memorial, the Russian NGO who then got the Nobel Prize for Peace one year before, since dissolved by the Russian regime.

Does a financial amount come with the Award?

It comes with 50,000 CHF, and every year a different work of art which is specifically picked by me. I try to find out what the tastes of the winner are, so we usually decide who the winner is in September and then give the award at the end of November. In that way we have time to commission the art work if we need it, or for me to find it.

In the other building there is a cafe on the ground floor, and an underground auditorium. What do you do there?

The general aim of the Foundation, is, as one of these pompous mission statements would say, “to halt and reverse the eroding of reading practice.” We try to host as many events as possible that bring people back to the written word. They can be performances, or little concerts – because the stage is not big, and readings of course. We organise a literary festival once a year called Bibliotopia, inviting about 15 international authors to come and discuss specific topics that we pick in advance. Then we try to have a cycle of talks in relationship with the topic that we have in the exhibition space on the first floor.

Now you have a show there about Georges Simenon, special photographs, documents, manuscripts, and interview tapes in which he talks about the life and work of a writer. Do you also show films?  

Yes, there’s a whole movie program, because Simenon was a prolific writer of the Maigret series. Another part of his work is called Les Romans durs. He is a very atmospheric writer in the way he describes places and people. Together with this exhibition, we will have a series of talks and conferences in the auditorium. One will be on how to adapt his work to the movies, so we will have actors and movie directors and specialists of his work conversing.

It seems you really have created a little city dedicated to writing.

The architectural concept of the Foundation was to go back to a little boy’s dreams of tree houses. My first idea was to build it in the forest, but we could not buy the forest since it’s public land so we reproduced the trees in concrete. You have these pillars all around the place, and a concrete canopy to symbolize maybe more a tropical forest than the local forest. The writers’ residences, the office of the Foundation and a conference room have no foundations – they hang by cables from these pillars. The library, the auditorium and an exhibition space do have foundations, and are related underground by the foyer. There are these two building categories.

Who are the architects? 

Vincent Mangeat did a general conception with some of my input, and then all the other cabins for the writers are built by different architects from around the world, proceeding from Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Japan or Scandinavia. It looks a little bit like a campus, and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want one single man’s architecture to dominate.

“Unless properly controlled, the use of AI in the creative process could mean a great impoverishment of the world.”

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, do you have links with other libraries?

We do. We do work a lot as well for the exhibitions and we would like them to travel to other places, but until now it’s only happened twice, and on different scales. We had a very big Colette exhibition, and Salon de Livre Rare invited us to show it in Paris in Grand Palais Ephémère. They invited us only for three days, but many people saw it because there was no major Colette exhibition in Paris, in spite of the 150th birth anniversary. The second time one of our exhibitions travelled, we were invited to a festival on translation to show our exhibition on graphic novels. Our Nabokov exhibition didn’t travel, sadly enough, but maybe it will.

Is it true that you help many other institutions and have 350 to 400 projects?

One aspect of the foundation’s activities is giving grants to literary projects all over the world that are working in the same direction to reverse the eroding of reading practice. Many small private initiatives and even bigger festivals rely on private help. It’s a general trend that public money is getting scarcer and scarcer, and some of these things would never happen if we didn’t step in. From a small festival in remote village about unknown poetry, to a big literary festival which is helped by many public subsidies, still they lack the extra to be able to invite foreign writers, including Le Livre sur la Place in Nancy, Étonnants Voyageurs in St Malo, and many other places. Then you have people who just have small residency programs. Then you have mobile libraries. Then we have writers for theatres, creative work including adapting a book or screenwriting. We help the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival for all that part which is devoted to photo books, because photography is actually another way of writing. It is writing with light.

Many of your publishing houses work in the French language, which is spoken a lot in Africa. Do you have many contacts with Africa?

We have contact with some literary festivals. We helped one in Conakry, Guinea, and one in Nigeria. We don’t get that many requests from Africa, but we have hosted a few African writers here.

Do you sell your books globally?

Yes. It’s a dream for French publishers to sell a lot in Quebec, and in Africa, but the price difference is so huge that most people cannot afford it. The French Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to chip in money to finance the transport of books to French bookstores all over the world, but they drastically reduced that, so now French language bookstores all over the world are in great difficulties because of lack of subsidies.

Do you also have to have strong relations with Britain and English language writers?  

Yes, I go to the London Book Fair very year and we have many British writers in our publishing list, including William Dalrymple and Giles Milton. We work quite closely with the English PEN club and I went to a lunch with the London Library not too long ago, because some of our writers are on the board. I love the London Library.

Nowadays newspapers are in trouble but by all account people still buy a lot of physical books?

Last time I was in New York, I was told by different publishers that it’s now very sexy for young people to go to their first date with a book in your hand. The mere fact of having it with you is a sign of belonging to the same club. Still, all the recent statistics show that people read less. People buy more comics, mangas and paperbacks, cheaper books. Tastes have changed. I go to literary festivals and book fairs a lot, so I see what type of books are interesting the people who sell or buy foreign rights. Nobody would have thought that really uninteresting, and for me badly written, romance and books would draw crowds, but they do. You see lines of people wanting to have their book signed. Still, some young people really like to buy a big fat Tolstoy novel and will enjoy it, so publishers are investing lots of money retranslating old classics.

Is the future of writers threatened by artificial intelligence (AI)?

For the time being, the most threatened profession is translators. The big international bestsellers have to come out on the same date everywhere, so they usually employ several different translators, each one translating one part of the book. Sometimes this might produce really strange sort of jigsaw puzzle books, unless somebody at the end takes the time to harmonize the different tones so we don’t feel that it’s a patchwork. Some publishers do it, but they might decide to give it all to AI there to reduce costs and there will be an even bigger loss in quality of some of the big texts.

Would you publish a book written by artificial intelligence?  

No, and I have refused to have any speech writing done like that. Last year there was not a dinner or a party you went to where somebody would not say, “oh, I asked ChatGPT to write my speech, and this is what they have produced.” Unless properly controlled, the use of AI in the creative process could mean a great impoverishment of the world.

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann

A view of the Jan Michalski Foundation

© Leo Fabrizio

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann

The Jan Michalski Foundation at dusk

© Leo Fabrizio

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann

An area of the Jan Michalski Foundation

© Tonatiuh Ambrosetti

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann

The Library of the Jan Michalski Foundation

© Tonatiuh Ambrosetti

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann

The Jan Michalski Foundation Exhibition on Georges Simenon

© Leo Fabrizio

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann

The Jan Michalski Foundation Exhibition on Georges Simenon

© Leo Fabrizio

“For the Gulag evening most of the people in attendance were older, and I would bet that more than half of young people simply don’t know what Gulag is.”

Vera Michalski-Hoffmann, do many people participate in the Foundation’s activities?  

We have more and more people coming to exhibitions or talks. In February we initiated a cycle of five conferences about the Gulag. It is the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Our first session was devoted toliterature that was produced by the Gulag and many people came for that. Next time it will be about the memory of the Gulag, and after summer we will have a session on the Chinese version of the Gulag. It is not the core of our action here, but many people feel concerned by history, so we’re trying to cater to those needs.

Is the interest mostly from the older generations?

Yes. The big challenge in all cultural institutions is to bring younger people in. When you look out and see only white hair, you say: “we’re not serving the purpose.” For the Gulag evening most of the people in attendance were older, and I would bet that more than half of young people simply don’t know what Gulag is. We had two young comedians from a theater school in Lausanne who were reading excerpts of the books. They were 22 or 23, and you could see that they had never heard about the word gulag but they were moved by what they were reading. Thanks to us, these two comedians will have found out that things like that happen in the world.

Do you also have a hotel in Warsaw, the Raffles Hotel Europejski 

Yes, it is a hotel that was built in 1857 and has followed, by the series of destructions, the whole troubled history of Warsaw. Warsaw has become a very Western, vibrant and interesting city, with lots of culture going on. I wish I could spend more time there.

Do the Poles fear invasion? 

Some do, because the war is right at their doorsteps. In spite of the government being not very open to foreigners at the time, they have managed to welcome a huge number of Ukrainian refugees just after the invasion. At one time in Britain most of the people painting the walls were Polish, but many of them went back because of Brexit. Now if you take a taxi in Warsaw, or you go for coffee in Krakow, you would recognize a tone in the wording and in the accent, and many of the drivers, or waiters, are from Ukraine. A lot settle down and this cohabitation is harmonious.

Would you advise young people to work in publishing?

You would be amazed at how many CVs we get spontaneously. Publishing still is a dream job for many people, but most people have a really wrong idea. They don’t realise that you have to put your head into the engine. They think that publishing is going from cocktail party to book launching party, meeting fascinating authors, and have somebody else do the dirty work of correcting the sometimes horrific language. It’s really strange how people make up ideas of their ideal professions.

Would you like the Foundation to be better known around the world?

Being well-known is good, but we already are, as I was saying before, the victims of our success. So we cannot accommodate more writers.

You could build other houses?

I don’t think so, because we are in the agricultural zone, and they told us that we exhausted – in the language of administration – that we exhausted our possibilities to build. Perhaps we could open an antenna in Vladivostok or in a “normal place” like Tuscany.

Thank you very much.