In the first of our new TOAST Insider profiles, Laura Barton interviews Berlin-based publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove. In this series, we talk to creative thought leaders across the globe to gain insights into their passions and process.
Following on from Sharmaine's Flux & Flow Podcast episode, she discusses leaving the UK for Germany, the value of the self and the book releases she's excited to be publishing next.
Even a cursory glance over the list of places publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove has lived gives some indication of her ability to adapt: a childhood spent in South West London was followed by a stretch when she became estranged from her parents, moved out of home and stayed across the city with friends and with family, in Soho hostels, and even a period of homelessness. Later there would be flat shares and houseboats, stints in Edinburgh and Berlin, and more recently a spell in Bristol. What has persisted has been her love of books: their insight, their liberation, their capacity to transform. Whenever she speaks about writing she loves, or the books that have mattered to her, Lovegrove's face lights up.
Sharmaine was a furious reader in her younger years, and for a time sold books under Waterloo Bridge, later taking jobs at Foyles, the LRB bookshop, and Waterstones, before a period working in arts communications, being appointed Elle magazine's literary editor, and opening an English-language bookshop in Berlin. Today Lovegrove's party trick is to ask someone to name three books they love and two they hate, from which she will be able to recommend ten books she is sure they will love.
In the summer of 2017 she founded Dialogue Books, an imprint of Little, Brown, with the mission of showcasing voices often excluded from the publishing mainstream, including those of the LGBTQI+, disability, working class, and BAME communities. Titles have included Dr. Pragya Agarwal's Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking to Children about Race, Mitchell S Jackson's Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family, and Brit Bennett's New York Times bestselling novel, The Mothers.
This summer, Lovegrove and her family once again returned to live in Berlin, fleeing the UK before Brexit began, safe in the knowledge that in the modern age one could quite reasonably run a publishing imprint from anywhere. Still, the relocation has confused some of those who know her; she tells of a colleague who described the move as seeming really whimsical. Lovegrove looks mildly frustrated. I said I don't have the luxury of being whimsical. Everything has a strategy and a reason round it.'
She is used to being misunderstood. In her younger days, still working as a bookseller, she grew accustomed to the friends and acquaintances who told her that her job was sweet' or that they would love to work in a bookshop.' Meanwhile they took jobs in the city or corporate law. And now they're totally burnt out and they've had to reinvent themselves and they haven't known how to, she says. A lot of my friends are really unhappy, and it's because they didn't have the confidence to choose themselves.
When she first moved to Berlin in her mid-20s, she was struck by how many people seemed envious, how many told her they wished they could do the same, but already on the trajectory of careers and relationships, deemed it impossible. They thought they couldn't do something like that because, ultimately, of the traditional values of what you should have: being married, with children, having a house, having all of these trappings of what success looks like. A lot of people are on this path. But that's just not where I place an emphasis. For me, the emphasis is on personal happiness as the greatest thing you can achieve.
Though she is married, with a son, and a much-loved Parson Russell Terrier, and a beautiful home, she is not particularly traditional. I'm not trying to deny that we're middle class and we like nice things and we don't like things to be comfortable, she says. It's just that I see the world as a process of constant change. And I don't see that as being brave, it's just a different way of thinking. The only thing I have control of in my life is my life. And anything else you can't control.
With the success of Dialogue Books, it has been strange for Lovegrove to see the shift in people's perception of her. Those who have known her a long time can finally see the fruits of her labour and her persistence. People who haven't known me as long, who meet me fully-formed, can make assumptions about who I am and what my motivation is, she says. And with Dialogue that was really typical - people not understanding what I meant by diversity'. But now the books and their success speak for themselves.
Her face lights up again as she begins to talk about forthcoming releases: An Ordinary Wonder, she says, about a young intersex boy growing up in Nigeria. And The Sex Lives of African Women And She has come to realise that the books she has published and promoted all have one thing in common: Which is about the value of the self, she says. And I think that's the thing that I'm most interested in: not about falling into line, but about your own sense of self worth, and how that can influence the next steps in your life.
And while it is vital to understand your own worth, it is also crucial, Lovegrove believes, not to overestimate your own importance. I think a lot of people centre themselves in the narrative of the world, she says, with a laugh. My obsession is politics and history, so what I understand is the ebbs and flows of humanity, and that everything is much greater than me. I don't put so much emphasis on myself. If I move or change, then the world doesn't change, it doesn't stop spinning on its axis. It just keeps going, but maybe I'll be happier.
Interview by Laura Barton.
Photographs by Robert Rieger.
For more information on upcoming releases from Dialogue Books, see their website. Listen to Sharmaine discuss her move back to Berlin and further expand on her route to becoming one of the most influential figures in modern publishing over on our TOAST Podcast Series 4.