Penguin Random House acquires Ennis Cehic’s debut satirical fiction collection
Penguin Random House will publish SADVERTISING – the debut collection of satirical short stories by 2018 The Next Chapter recipient Ennis Cehic – in early 2022. We spoke with Cehic – and with Penguin Random House publisher Justin Ractliffe – about the news.
Ennis Cehic, author
Tell us about the work you’re publishing. What draws these stories together?
SADVERTISING is a collection of stories that, for me, are about the absurdity of the modern condition. Until recently, I’ve been a full-time adman for most of my working life – pursuing writing after hours and weekends. While it wasn’t planned, somehow the first book I ended up writing is about this industry.
While satire and surrealism draw these stories together, they are very much about the world of advertising, consumerism and technology – with each story playfully and sometimes tragically taken to its most absurd conclusion. I also think the collection opens up the other aspect of what fuels my writing: the classic predicament of the migrant experience.
As a refugee from Bosnia, who found himself working in advertising – I couldn’t help but see the inherent absurdism of the whole industry. Advertising is a such victim of its own arrogance. This is why I began to write and dream up these fleshed-out contemporary fables that I knew anyone who’s felt the existential dread of office life would relate to. So even though they are informed by my outsider eye, these stories – I hope – really subvert the kind of literature you’d expect from a so-called migrant writer.
What drew you to writing satire?
I love its ancient spirit. Satire has been a part of literature for likely as long as we’ve recited and written stories. From Ancient Egypt onwards, so much of what we’ve grown up with – from the East to the West – has been satirical. This struck me when I first began to write and read more seriously. Writers like Voltaire, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Bohumil Hrabal, Aldous Huxley, Bret Easton Ellis. Even shows like The Simpsons were all bound by satire. This early exposure informed my interest in it stylistically.
Also, I can’t deny its influence from my Balkan roots. Black humour is a cultural trademark where I’m from. I guess it speaks to my hopeful cynicism.
Where were you up to with this collection when you started The Next Chapter scheme?
Just six months before I applied for The Next Chapter, I published a small set of early SADVERTISING stories in an issue of Going Down Swinging. I knew that I definitely wanted to develop the idea into a full body of work but I didn’t have a solid plan for it. I think The Next Chapter was sort of a perfect coincidence then. The moment I learnt what it was about, I had to apply.
I only had those seven stories I published (which together were less than 1,200 words) so I got to work hard and fast to get it to the 10,000-word length the submission required. I remember writing stories within hours of the deadline, laying them out, figuring out the order on my apartment walls, running the cover letter past my friends. It was scary and exciting, but I was so determined to make an impression on the judges.
'The collection opens up the other aspect of what fuels my writing: the classic predicament of the migrant experience.'
Tell us a little about your process of working with your mentor, Nam Le, and how your work has changed over the past two years.
Working with Nam has been life-changing. The Boat is one of the books that made me want to become a writer, and for much of the mentorship I couldn’t believe I was working with Nam. He’s so inspiring and definitely made me a better writer – there’s no doubt about that.
When I won the award, I decided to quit my job and move to Sarajevo to concentrate on writing the manuscript for the whole year. A few days before I left, I met Nam for the first time and we talked about how to get the best out of this mentorship in the distance.
We basically decided that I’d write stories in batches and send him a completed set every second month. He reviewed and edited them, sent me written feedback, then we talked through the batch over the phone for a couple of hours. It was a simple, but extremely effective method. Priceless in so many ways, as Nam became very involved with the world-building of the book. I always appreciated how much he respected my hunger. I was very willing to put in the time and effort and I think he used this understanding to push my work from every angle – he didn’t hold back, even if it hurt sometimes.
How does it feel to be bringing this work into the hands of readers?
It’s cliché, of course – but I feel incredibly lucky. To bring a book into the world is a dream – and it feels exhilarating to do it with my first manuscript. It appeases so many of those restless, anxious, uncertain doubts we writers face constantly.
But to be doing it with PRH – that’s really next level. Not just for the brand name and heritage, but for the relationship I am building with Justin [Ractliffe, publisher] and Genevieve [Buzo, editor]. There’s an enormous amount of encouragement from them and I can’t wait till we get stuck into the work together.
All in all – it is an absolute honour.
Justin Ractliffe, publisher
'I saw echoes of so many writers I love: George Saunders, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Lydia Davis, Jia Tolentino and Jennifer Egan, to name just some.'
How has your awareness and interest in Ennis’ writing developed – and what drew you to these stories, this writing?
My colleague (and now Ennis’s editor), Genevieve Buzo, described SADVERTISING as ‘late-capitalist millennial alt-lit satire’, which I loved but doesn’t completely capture the sense of dislocation and loneliness that pervades much of the work – even though it is also very wry and funny. The stories are frequently absurd and surreal but also devastatingly emotionally true.
Ennis messes with genre and form; his work is subversive, disruptive and fresh, with just the right amount of meta. He is both detached observer and passionate participant. His fables of our hyper-connected post-postmodern consumer society are informed by his migrant experience of dislocation and otherness, but in ways that are uniquely Ennis. I saw echoes of so many writers I love: George Saunders, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Lydia Davis, Jia Tolentino and Jennifer Egan, to name just some.
In a bookselling/publishing climate that can be circumspect about short-story collections, what drives you to choose and publish this kind of writing?
Short stories can sell very well; Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection Foreign Soil springs to mind. Many of Ennis’s stories might be termed ‘flash-fiction’ (in some cases ‘micro-fiction’) and I like how they speak to our collectively irrevocably shortened attention spans. What matters most, though, is not so much the form; it is the talent and skill of the writer – what they have to say and how they say it.
As publishers we are always looking to find, invest in and develop talent. I think that Ennis is very talented and he’s also very committed to his craft – he’s in it for the long haul. He brings a really unique perspective to his work and we don’t have anything like SADVERTISING, nor an author like him, on our list at PRH. I think we can do really exciting things with the book and tap into an audience that we perhaps don’t often cater to. I have a background in marketing and am fascinated by advertising, brands, copywriting, the workings of agencies, consumer behaviour, how and why people buy etc., so that was also part of the appeal. I felt I could work with Ennis and bring something to the publishing process that was unique to my experience. We met for coffee in March and, I think, both felt a connection and a shared sense of excitement about working together.
Has The Next Chapter scheme been a part of your connection to this book? If so, how?
In late 2019 two members of our team, Publishing Manager Lou Ryan and Senior Editor Johannes Jakob, came and spoke to the inaugural intake of The Next Chapter writers about Penguin Random House, the publishing process and our approach to it. Ennis felt that what Lou and Johannes had to say about our process and list resonated with him and was keen to continue the conversation. Former Wheeler Centre Director, Michael Williams, thought it might be worth sharing a sampler of SADVERTISING with a select few publishing houses that Ennis was excited by. Lou passed on the material to me and the rest is history! I loved what I read and immediately wrote to Michael to express my admiration for the work and request more material when it was available. It was a nice connection that Nam Le was Ennis’s mentor for The Next Chapter and Penguin published his ground-breaking collection of short stories, The Boat, back in 2008.