Meet Camilla Zuleger, the Woman Bringing Experimental New Nordic Literature to Germany

With her publishing house, Nord Verlag, Camilla set out to conquer German hearts with emerging Scandi prose.

Camilla by Frej Rosenstjerne
Interviewed & written by Monique Schröder

You’d think that anything print in times like these would be something that less and less people invest into. But in fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The industry has actually never seen so many independent magazines; some even speak of an indie revolution. If you look closely, there’s a new magazine out (what feels like) every day, and stores are packed with tons of hyper-designed magazines fighting for your attention. In this industry, few people take on an even bigger challenge than making a print mag that aims to be successful. But Camilla Zuleger, founder of publishing house Nord Verlag, is one of those upping the challenge.

More than being a passion or a field of study, literature is serious business for Camilla. Combined with her love for everything German, she’s set out to introduce German-speaking countries to new, wild and experimental literature from young authors of the Nordics. Her background in PR, copywriting and journalism has been a blessing in disguise in establishing the publishing house: it’s definitely not easy to know what you’re doing, but that background gives her at least a bit of an edge.

With the first two books—GOLD and Warum bin ich so traurig, wenn ich doch so süß bin?—on the verge of being published, we caught Camilla in what’s probably her busiest period ever. But she was definitely not short on words. In fact, she convinced us that (contemporary) poetry is not something niche; instead, it’s something we should pay more attention to because it speaks closer to our hearts than we’d anticipate.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: First things first: how do you wake up one day and decide to open a publishing house by yourself?

Camilla: To be honest, it wasn’t my idea. Throughout my time at university, I always dreamed about working at a publishing house. I was thinking about giving it a try and eventually applied, but didn’t even get considered for a position. At that point, I knew a few people working at publishing houses who could give me insight into what it’s like. Hearing their stories, I quickly realised that I couldn’t see myself working there. I always wanted to be my own boss. So, when my friend suggested that I should open my own publishing house focusing on Nordic literature in Germany, I was convinced and thought it could actually work even though I’m not a native speaker. I do speak German well enough to run my own company in German; I just need to find people to work with who I trust. Of course it helps to have a German boyfriend who has a very strong sense of language, ha!

And that was the beginning of Nord Verlag. How did you develop the concept?

Having spent a lot of time in Germany and also leaving my heart there, I quickly found that everything Nordic has had a momentum for a while. But from what I could see, the Nordic lifestyle is expressed in either “hygge”, “lagom” or “Nordic Noir”—and that’s a pretty limited approach of defining what is Nordic. To me, there is more to it than light oak, reindeer fur and rye bread. I understand why people are attracted to this but it’s not a trend here; that’s just the way it is. I wanted to go beyond all that and, especially within literature, show pieces other than Nordic Noir crime fiction.

Other publishing houses, such as Kookbooks, do new Nordic literature as well, and I admire them a lot. But I felt that a common platform for the Nordic countries would be a strong way of communicating the tendencies here instead of just the good individual books. That way, I wanted to give people who are interested in the Nordic countries an option to see what is really going on right now; something other than the bestsellers and even a little more underground than what you usually see from Nordic authors in German book stores.

How do you think that’s gonna fly in Germany—do you think people are prepared to see something else than what they are used to?

From my experience, some of them are not, but you never know. Maybe I will fail big time, but since there is some kind of increased attention on anything Nordic right now, I think I have a chance. It may not be a Spiegel Bestseller but I want to offer a window into the subjects that are being discussed right in this moment. I am definitely not alone on that mission—and I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal—but to me, it’s important to publish books that are crucial in society. I’m never interested in just a good story; it’s just not what gets me up in the morning. I like stories that make my heart pound like crazy. Those are the books that make me think for days or years; the kind of books that change your life.

I know it sounds intense but from what I can see, a lot of bestselling literature at the moment is just a good story. Of course I also like reading them and they definitely have (and should have) a space in this world. There’s enough sad news out there already, but I believe that sometimes you just have to take it in. For some reason it’s easier to cope with it in the format of a book, and these are often the ones that will make a difference to you and the way you live. Some of these books have already reached Germany; for example, Karl Ove Knausgård’s auto-fiction series which has been a bestseller in many countries. But there is so much more—and that’s what I want to show with GOLD and Warum bin ich so traurig, wenn ich doch so süß bin?, the first two books that Nord Verlag is publishing.

Are the books you choose also part of your private collection?

The books I am about to publish are books that I read and liked a lot. But that’s not the only reason why I chose them: they actually mark the beginning of something new and relate to society, which was also what I concentrated on when studying. I never understood the tradition of New Criticism because it looks at literature without considering the time, circumstances or society. I always thought that if you can’t do that, then what’s the point of literature? To me, literature is amazing since it can actually shape its contemporary surroundings and affect the way we see the world or even influence the way we live our life tomorrow. That’s also reflected in the first two books I chose to publish.

Victor, for example, was debated for his new approach of language when I finished up my literary studies at university. It’s always been a discussion what language you can use and which words are too ‘ugly’ or ‘unpoetic’ for poetry. Him and Caspar Eric were among the first in Denmark who took on the language of the internet and, in doing so, brought .gifs and memes to the world of literature. They didn’t make a clear cut between the real world and the poetic world and kept a down to earth tone of voice. It was easy to connect and relate to.

In GOLD, Victor talks about how to live in a world that you know is fucked and how you cope with that. It is called GOLD because of the gold inside the iPhone that is put together by little children’s hands. It’s a very interesting way to explore what it feels like to be young in a world that has so many problems, without making a distinction to the reader. He just writes how you’d speak; he’s not focusing on taking on a ‘poet’s language’. This way of using everyday language in poetry is interesting. Ingvild’s book is different, but she also includes this element of processing. Her collection is about young women relating to their own bodies, growing up against all odds—and being in the world with their bodies.

Have you always been interested in poetry?

I personally really like poetry but for both of these books, I try to avoid using the word poetry. Strictly speaking, it is what it is. But then again, it isn’t because the way that contemporary poetry in Scandinavia is written right now has nothing to do with the way people who didn’t study literature perceive poetry. There are no rhymes or old-fashioned words—it’s prose poetry that uses spoken language. I think some people are afraid of poetry because it can be very difficult and not accessible. The books I chose are the complete opposite. They are able to use the genre in a way that feels youthful.

Sometimes I think authors take on a language that doesn’t match their own. That’s when bad poetry happens, because the words don’t add up. But within the new movement that Victor and Ingvild are part of, the reader can easily feel what the authors are feeling. To me, good poetry happens when you can really sense what’s on the agenda. There has been a whole debate around that in Denmark. Young authors of generation ethics have started to care about political matters in their works. It’s super interesting to take current debates in society and process them on a poetic level—which you can also experience in GOLD.

What are some of the things you didn’t anticipate before you started your one-woman-band?

90 percent of what I do, but everything is so new still. It’s difficult to talk about how it’s going because I haven’t gone through the entire publishing cycle yet. When I started Nord Verlag, my boyfriend had a contract that was running out soon and I thought that it might take him a while to find a new job based on my own experience. I really wanted him to be my Head of Sales in dialogue with book stores and journalists so I could just concentrate on the actual publishing work. But two weeks later, he got a job. That was of course a good thing and I quickly changed my attitude to, “how hard can it be”? Well, it is pretty hard, haha! Especially when you don’t have a lot of money to start with. Even though I always wanted to be my own boss—that’s what I’ve been looking forward to the most—I was almost paralysed coming face to face to situations where I had to take on the responsibility to make the final call. I would doubt my own decisions and all of a sudden feared to publish one of those books that everybody laughs about. Or thought, what if I make a typo on the first page, or nobody ends up buying the books? I quickly came to realise that all this anxiety came from a place of caring: for the first time in my life, I do something that REALLY matters to me. If you feel that connection between who you want to be and what you do, then you can easily start to doubt yourself.

If I wake up one day and nothing has happened the way I wanted it to to, I will make the decision to close it all down. For now, I hope it doesn’t come to that and I’m fine with Nord Verlag being a big hobby or side project; it doesn’t necessarily have to grow into my main gig. It could and I would love it to; I really started to connect with this whole identity, “hey, I’m Camilla from Nord Verlag”, but I also know that literature is a difficult business.

Now that you run your own publishing house, was having a physical copy a conscious decision?

Hmmm, not necessarily. In that way, I think literature suffers a bit because it hasn’t managed to learn from other businesses that went through the same challenges of digitization. There was a point in the music industry where the people running it insisted on consumers buying physical copies of music—until they gave in and realised they lost the battle with the digital. But that meant that they had to step up their game. And that’s when streaming or downloading music adapted qualities apart from what a physical copy could provide: it was easily accessible, transportable and could attract a new, paying audience.

Right now, there are few people who have taken on the challenge to turn e-books into greater versions of the physical copy. When I started Nord Verlag, some suggested that I should just do e-books because it’s cheaper and just means exporting the file as a PDF. But I don’t think that’s the way it should be, and the reason why e-books haven’t revolutionised the industry yet. To me, an e-book is a shitty book, and nobody wants to read it unless people really have to. Even though I’m not a digital designer, I think there are options to make them even better than the physical copy. Until the current design of e-books changes, hard copies will be the better choice. I haven’t found the right way to do e-books yet, but why isn’t it the standard that e-books have hyperlinks or videos? If there’s somebody out there who could help me on that mission, for sure reach out.

On that note, which books have actually changed your life and what are you reading at the moment?

There are a lot of books that shaped my life in many different ways. I really feel like a different person after writing a thesis about three crazy poetry collections: Theis Ørntoft, Ursula Andkjær Olsen and Lars Skinnebach. Doing something for half a year is an insane thing to do. It’s super corny, but if I had to chose one book that shaped my life, it would be the one I would read at my grandma’s house when I was a child. It was a big children’s book with a lot of images that she had by her couch to use it as a padding for her crossword puzzles. It was a dictionary made in the format of Richard Scarry’s Busy World, which was a popular cartoon when I was younger. I read that book so many times, even before I could actually read.

Later in life, with Anne of Green Gables, I experienced being into something without letting it go for the first time ever. I read the whole series in one summer vacation and was basically unattainable for six weeks. Not to forget Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, which got me into philosophy. At that point, I only read fairytales and good stories. I was presented a whole new world that I didn’t know of. I’ve also read a lot of German books that shaped me. I had this German thing even before I had German boyfriends; I just read my way into everything I could lay my hands on, especially the ones with a political meaning or controversy to it. Right now I’m actually reading a good story because I’m super busy. It’s a Spiegel Bestseller and it’s called Was man von hier aus sehen kann by Mariana Leky. What I really like about it is the naive and lighthearted but nuanced language. On a more serious note, I’m also reading Der er et jeg der taler by Lone Aburas, a new Danish book that just won the Montana price.

Thanks, Camilla.