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St. Lawrence News

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November 1, 2006
Viggo Mortensen’s Unusual Role: Indie Publishing Mogul
By JANET MASLIN

Pity Viggo Mortensen, the director of the Center for Multireligious Studies at Aarhus University in Denmark. He edited an anthology called “Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue,” and all it does is make people angry. They order this $35 paperback by mistake. Then they grouse about it online, because they thought it had something to do with the “Lord of the Rings” guy.

It’s easier to mix up these two than it might seem. The Viggo Mortensen who acts also has his literary side. He is the author of art books that combine painting, photography, poetry, journal entries and whatever else he cares to include, with interests that also extend to fervently antiwar politics and music.

If his books and CDs seem remarkably free of constraints, that’s because they are. The dreamboat actor runs a fine little publishing house, too.

Indirectly, Mr. Mortensen’s Perceval Press is a “Lord of the Rings” offshoot. It began operations in 2002, soon after Mr. Mortensen had finished playing the warrior-king Aragorn in the movie trilogy. His first book, the poetry collection “Ten Last Night,” had been published nine years earlier. And by 2002, his art gallery exhibitions and books were arriving on a regular basis. Thanks to “the movie, you know, notoriety,” as Mr. Mortensen mumblingly describes his career trajectory, they were selling nicely too.

He noticed. So he asked a question of Smart Art Press, the publisher of most of his work: Could he reprint? “I’ll do the work of making sure they look right,” he remembers saying. “We’ll split the cost of reprinting each new batch. I’ll give you half the books, and you can do whatever you want with them.” And Perceval Press, which takes its name from a part of the Holy Grail myth that particularly appeals to Mr. Mortensen’s sense of independence, was born.

In 2003 Perceval’s roster included three books of Mr. Mortensen’s: “Miyelo,” “45301” and “For Wellington.” Their combined effect was to put the business in the black. When his own output is smaller, however, profits are low or nonexistent. Perceval’s print runs are small, Mr. Mortensen said, there is no real advertising, and its books are available primarily online from percevalpress.com. The point of the enterprise is to cast light on work that might not otherwise be published, and to present artists’ work as it was intended to be seen.

Recently, en route to a film festival with “Alatriste,” a swashbuckling Spanish-language film based on the popular novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Mr. Mortensen stopped in New York. He had preliminary versions of Perceval’s four forthcoming books in tow. Perceval now puts out about eight books a year, all shepherded by Mr. Mortensen in his typically hands-on, “nitpicky” fashion.

“I go over all the books with a fine-tooth comb before they go out,” he said. That includes accompanying the page proofs to Jomagar, the Spanish press outside Madrid that actually produces them.

On this particular day, Mr. Mortensen was ensconced at the Algonquin Hotel, where the main floor recalls the Round Table, and the upstairs wallpaper pattern is fashioned out of New Yorker cartoons. His own literary tastes are not so gilt-edged or mainstream. One of the fall titles, which are expected to be ready at the end of November, is a Spanish-language critical anthology devoted to new Cuban art, intended primarily as a university-level textbook. Henry Eric Hernández’s book “La Revancha/Revenge” is a bilingual alternative to official accounts of the Cuban revolution. A third new book, “Magical Meteorite Songwriting Device,” reprints a set of vibrant collages made by the singer Exene Cervenka of the Original Sinners — formerly with X, and formerly Mr. Mortensen’s wife.

Ms. Cervenka’s book demonstrates what Perceval does best: choose offbeat material and produce it with close attention to the little details. “I say the same thing to everyone: We will make a really beautiful book,” Mr. Mortensen said. “It’ll look the way you want it to look, and you’ll be consulted all the way.”

Not surprisingly, this attitude is attractive to the would-be Perceval author, but Mr. Mortensen is tougher than his soft-spoken manner suggests. “I don’t have trouble saying no,” he said.

Perceval’s specialty items — science adventures (“Land of the Lost Mammoths” by Mike Davis); portrait collections (“On the Way Home,” Anne Fishbein’s photographs from Yaroslavl, a port city northeast of Moscow); odd juxtapositions (“Supernatural,” fusing doll photographs by Lindsay Brice with a Flannery O’Connor short story) — arise out of quirky, unpredictable circumstances.

None are more serendipitous than the ones that yield Mr. Mortensen’s own books, which are often prompted by the globe-trotting that goes with his film career. His latest, “I Forget You for Ever,” is also due in November. It takes its strange title from a phrase written on the side of a bus in Iran.

Perceval will print 2,000 copies of “I Forget You for Ever” and sell them at $38 each. That print run is twice what other Perceval books are usually given, but for good reason: Mr. Mortensen’s books sell out. They also go into multiple editions: one book, “SignLanguage,” has had eight printings, while “Recent Forgeries” and “Coincidence of Memory” have each had seven. And as to the question of whether Mr. Mortensen’s own books bring in revenue, the manuscript for “Ten Last Night” (which was published by Illuminati) has found its way to the used-book site Alibris. Price: $16,499.95.

Perceval has a tiny staff in Santa Monica, Calif., that includes the youngest of three Mortensen brothers, Walter Mortensen. It also includes Sandra Fu, Pilar Perez and Michelle Perez, who is credited with many of Perceval’s sleek, imaginative designs. Asked who in this group has the head for business, Viggo Mortensen answered, “Probably no one.”

Mr. Mortensen, 48, says he learned about publishing from practical experience. He has seen what happens when small presses are bought by bigger publishers and then lose control of the decision-making process. He has also experimented with using a distributor for Perceval’s products, which include CDs and T-shirts as well as books.

“We had a distributor,” he said. “And it’s kind of become like the movies, where they’ll say, O.K., Barnes & Noble will take X amount. They put the books out, and then they get sent to the back of the store if they don’t sell. If it doesn’t do very well, boom, then you’re out. Plus you’re paying a lot just to get them in the store.” Perceval is now back to distributing its own books.

“I Forget You for Ever” is another of Mr. Mortensen’s eerily abstract photo essays, with haunting images that are titled in cryptic, oblique fashion. One street scene, “Arieto,” is named for the barely visible label glimpsed on a broken record. Less subtly named are pictures of foreign cities entitled “Bomb This,” intended as a form of deterrent.

“I do hear people saying I should keep my mouth shut and not say what I think about politics,” said Mr. Mortensen, who clearly has no intention to do so. One of his avowed aims is to find the humanity in faraway places, as he did on the trip to Iran that yielded some of the pictures here.

He went there to visit Sara Solati, a young Iranian author, actress and filmmaker who had woven him into her fiction. (Such is the nature of Viggomania.) Through a bizarre series of events, she had been stalked by an actor and wound up with head trauma. She had been in a coma for months. But when Mr. Mortensen showed up in Tehran to visit her, Ms. Solati had the good sense to open her eyes.

Next time Mr. Mortensen does a book, it’s likely to feature glimpses of Russia and London, locations for the not-yet-titled film he is currently making for David Cronenberg (who directed him in the 2005 film “A History of Violence”). After that, he has three more films planned.

And where does Perceval fit into this tight schedule? “I need to sleep more than I used to,” he said. “I’ve got to do less. There may come a time when it feels like too much, so next year we may not do as many books.

“Of course,” he added, “I said that about this year.”

Posted: November 3, 2006

 


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