This post is part of our Editor Spotlight Series.
For this year’s virtual American Historical Association conference, we connected with UC Press Premodern World History Editor Eric Schmidt to talk about our program and what new projects he’s most excited about. Eric also shares how he became an editor, how our unique World Literature in Translation series came about, and his favorite part of working with other departments on publishing a book.
You’ve worked at UC Press for a number of years. Can you tell us about your career trajectory and your favorite part of your current role as our Premodern World History editor?
I actually started out in production, not acquisitions. I had a fine arts background, and I was originally hired to assist the art history editor, the wonderful Stephanie Fay, who oversaw the initial development of her projects all the way through copyediting and printed books. I learned so much from Stephanie about being an editor and what it takes to make a good book, and when she moved full time into the acquisitions department after a few years, I went with her.
The Press had been publishing in Classics since its founding, but the list had shrunk significantly over the past few decades. So when I applied to become the editor, my “pitch” was to grow the program back up. To do that, I decided late antiquity would be the best place to focus. We had already published some really important books in the field, there was a high concentration of major scholars on the west coast, and although other presses were publishing good works in the field, none had really made a concerted effort to highlight this area. As the program grew and we reestablished ourselves, we expanded the remit even further to include the middle ages.
Generally speaking, my list now covers some 2,000+ years of history and places and cultures around the world. And that’s exactly what I love about my job. It’s often said that publishing is a dilettante’s paradise because you get to learn a little about a lot, and that’s definitely true for me.
As you mentioned, your list is one of the most wide-ranging lists across time and geographic region. How do you choose books for your list?
My approach builds on the strengths of the Press by emphasizing a cross-cultural approach and my books span from antiquity up to the early modern period. Late antiquity in particular is an important area of focus, and as I initially began to grow the program, it was where I first concentrated. Because scholars of late antiquity come from diverse institutional backgrounds and departments, we have been able to bring out books on wide range of topics and approaches, from social history to experimental treatments to books that incorporate underutilized sources.
Although Christianity is the explicit focus of much work in late antiquity, I also acquire actively in early and postclassical Islam, which extends into the middle ages, and in rabbinic Judaism. Research on the early middle east—before and after the rise of Islam—has seen huge growth over the past ten years, with cross-cultural approaches coming to the fore here too. A dedicated portion of the list similarly explores aspects of Judaism in the larger cultural context of the Mediterranean. My acquisitions in the middle ages period center on books tackling Mongol Eurasia, the networks known as the “Silk Road,” and the Islamicate world, all of which all lend themselves to this approach.
Another important component of our premodern history program is translations, whether of complete classic texts or readers of diverse primary source materials. New or updated translations with annotations provide an important spur to scholarship, giving new students and seasoned academics alike access to key evidence for studying world history.
Speaking of translation, can you talk more about our unique World Literature in Translation series and how it aligns with the progressive mission of the Press?
I’m so excited about this program, which grows out of the mission of the Press to “drive progressive change by seeking out and cultivating the brightest minds and giving them voice, reach, and impact” as well as my own personal interests. I’ve always loved reading books about the past and far away, especially works of ancient “literature.” The problem was, if you wanted to read beyond the so-called classical traditions or read works not considered “canonical,” it was often difficult for laypeople—which includes me!—to access good quality translations.
Penguin Classics and Oxford Classics have been around a long time and have put out many a great translation, but they have always been strongly European and “Western” focused. They are certainly working to increase the diversity of the traditions they represent, but it was clear to me there was room for a competing program that did two things: understood the category of “literature” broadly to include everything from epic to lyric to folktale to history, and represented a truly inclusive view of literature from around the world, with works from neglected, marginalized traditions sitting beside more recognizable works.
So in late 2018 we launched our program in World Literature in Translation. We started by repackaging many of the bestselling translations on our backlist, like the The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga, the Dao De Jing, the Mahbharata, and popular anthologies like Ancient Egyptian Literature and the Collected Greek Novels. Since then I’ve been acquiring new books for the program at a great pace and with great relish. One of the first new titles to publish will be Prisoner of the Infidels: The Memoir of an Ottoman Muslim in Seventeenth-Century Europe, a classic of Turkish literature, forthcoming this fall for the first time in English. And in upcoming seasons you’ll see an even broader array of titles from traditions around the globe coming out, including—take a few examples—a Kalmyk Mongol epic, an anthology of the traditions from the Sakha people, a novel of Ming China, a Persian epic The Kushnameh, all of which have never before been translated into English.
As our program continues to grow, I’m particularly interested in bringing in works from indigenous traditions around the world. Although many of the works we’re publishing have been coming from around Eurasia, I want this program to celebrate works from North and South America, Africa, and Oceania, all of which have vast, extremely varied traditions unrepresented in translations geared to readers of different backgrounds. I’d particularly welcome the chance to work with translators who come from the tradition they are working on. Given the remit of my program overall, the World Literature in Translation program is similarly focused on works from the premodern world, rather than modern poetry. Since many works and traditions were often only transmitted orally, however, it will sometimes be the case that these “texts” were not put into written form until the eighteenth or even nineteenth centuries.
Every book is a labor of love, that involves not only the acquisitions editor and the author, but many different teams and departments at the Press. What is your favorite part about working with other departments on your books?
As the acquiring editor, I get to work closely with most every department. It’s one of the best parts of my job, getting to collaborate with super-smart people who are all deeply invested in the books we produce. I don’t have the space here to talk about everyone, sadly, but one of my closest partners is Cindy Fulton, one of our project editors. We have an amazing team in EDP—that’s what we call the combined groups of people working in editing, design, and production—and the quality of the physical books we put out, inside and out, is in large part due to their efforts. I’ve worked with all our great project editors, but I join forces with Cindy the most. She knows the premodern history program list inside and out and she’s cultivated a great group of copyeditors that our authors love. Outside of the mechanics of making books, Cindy’s just a lot of fun to hang out with and is an unbelievably good cook.
What hobbies are getting you through the pandemic?
I love to eat, but sadly—and unlike Cindy and many of my other colleagues—I am not a great cook. Happily, one of my favorite foods is the baked potato, which is hard to get just right but also hard to mess up. I like to make them “jacket style,” which requires several hours of cooking, so I never usually get to eat them when I’m out and about. With working from home every day, however, I just put one in the oven in the early afternoon and it’s ready by dinner time. Add some hot sauce and sour cream, and you have the perfect food. Then I usually watch an episode or two of a tv show while I’m having dinner. Right now, I’m re-watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show. So yeah, eating potatoes and watching 50-year-old sitcoms. I’m thinking of moving up to the 80s next and watching the Golden Girls.
How would you like potential authors to get in touch?
Feel free to send me an email at email@example.com.