However, the native of Elizabeth, N.J. bears no ill will towards the institution with which he credits the start of his literary activities. “You don’t come to understand the real value of having studied at a place like Amherst until well after you’re gone and you realize how privileged those days were,” said Applefield. “College is a time when you have the opportunity to devote a lot of energy to your own mind, which becomes more difficult as you head out into a world of commerce and practicality … At Amherst I was always writing, mostly poetry in those days, and I was the editor of A Review. It was a pretty incredible collection of people, since Amherst has always had very strong literary talent floating in and out.”
Even in College, Applefield was exploring the boundaries of what was considered poetry. His favorite episode of “Poet’s Corner,” Applefield’s radio program on WAMH that featured writers available in the Pioneer Valley, was an interview with folk singer Pete Seeger. Years later, Frank would publish poems by rock and roll legend Jim Morrison and lyrics from gravel-voiced crooner Tom Waits, similarly placing songwriters on equal footing with other creators of verse.
Applefield also dabbled in journalism, as The Student’s 1976-77 features and 1977-78 opinion editor. His greatest success at muckraking came during his junior year when William Webster ’45 was named F.B.I. chief at the same time his classmate Stansfield Turner ’45 became head of the C.I.A. Seeing that the free world would soon be under the secret control of these Amherst alumni, Applefield did a little detective work of his own.
“I called up all the members of their classes who were still alive and asked them for stories of what they remembered, especially about Turner,” he said. “I also dug up the only existing photo of the two guys-America’s top snoops-together, in a fraternity shot from Chi Psi.” But the pièce de résistance was an entry in the minutes of the Chi Psi meetings in the GOTE Room. “It said, ‘Brother Turner was seriously reprimanded for snooping on Brother So-and-so and his girlfriend,” said Applefield.
By the time Applefield graduated, he had not only sold a piece on Webster to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but he had also been asked by Turner to work for the C.I.A. “I didn’t take that route though I’ve done a lot of international traveling and writing since, and some people probably think I have,” he said. “Instead, I took a job as an apprentice at École de Cuisine La Varenne, a cooking school in Paris. I spent about six months there ripping the heads off shrimp and doing other prep work, sending freelance articles back to American newspapers and trying to write.”
Sick of shellfish, Applefield landed a six-month stint as a publications department assistant for UNESCO in Paris, then spent another year traveling around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East before heading back to the U.S. for graduate school.
It was while completing his masters’ degree in English at Northeastern University, where he was also a teaching fellow, that Applefield conceived and founded Frank, the artistic and literary journal over which he has presided for nearly 20 years. “I always thought that it was important for writers to be publishing other writers and not to be caught in the trap of a rejection generated by market pressures, as opposed to literary merit,” he said.
The artist’s vision
The idea germinated from a letter Applefield had received from Lawrence Durrell, a writer whom he was studying for his graduate work. “He sent me a letter from the south of France saying, ‘I can’t get anybody published, the bottom has fallen out of the fiction market and even my publishers of 40 years have turned down a manuscript,'” said Applefield. “‘Anaïs Nin and I started a press in Paris and published each other. Have you thought of that?'”
Applefield named his venture Frank, because, as the journal’s website explains, the word “looked like what it meant: direct, sincere, to the point and the etymology of the first name Frank implies freedom,” he said. “The journal was conceived from the start to be open to diverse genres, voices, persuasions [and] language groups.” Small wonder then that, when Applefield returned to Paris to continue his graduate work at the Sorbonne, Frank followed him to a capital that has always been a legendary crossroads for writers and artists.
The relocated review seemed blessed from the start when its first European issue (published summer 1984) featured a previously unpublished poem by Jack Kerouac that was taken from a recently discovered, 25-year-old tape. Since then, Frank has survived and thrived in its cosmopolitan atmosphere. It is the longest-running anglophone literary review in Paris, was presented at the city’s prestigious Pompidou Center and is racking up an impressive list of published works, including letters by Henry Miller, poems by Allen Ginsberg and Octavio Paz and interviews with Raymond Carver, Vaclav Havel and Rita Dove.
While, at the outset, Frank’s success might seem serendipitous, by now it’s clear that more than luck was involved. “I’ve always been attracted to creative work that doesn’t fall into slots and genres-maybe sort of like my thesis,” said Applefield with a smile. “I’ve taken risks. I’ve published things you wouldn’t find in your average literary journal … It’s pretty unusual to see a telegram from James Baldwin, a chat with Deepak Chopra and poems from a Seattle poet who’s never been published before all in the same place; and that makes for the sense of surprise.”
Finding the unconventional literary work for Frank is not a simple process. “Part of publishing Frank is just being frank. I receive over a thousand unsolicited manuscripts for each issue and, beyond that, I usually just call people up, or write to them or knock on doors … I keep my eyes and ears open; I read pretty widely. I go to the most obscure spots of book fairs, the non-commercial spots where no one else is looking and I discover all sorts of things. I also travel a lot and meet a lot of people. I collect stuff and that’s what’s fun. It’s part of the way I continue educating myself.”
Every issue of Frank also includes a “Foreign Dossier,” which Applefield described as “the writing and art of a particular country or culture that’s fairly unknown to English readers.” Previous dossiers have featured writers from the Philippines, Switzerland and Pakistan, and Chinese dissident poets. Upcoming dossiers will include writers from areas as diverse as Egypt, Korea, Poland and Hawaii; far more than mere pieces of literary exoticism, he regards them as crucial tools for the comprehension of diverse human realities. “Today, mainstream America understands-though maybe not in the right way-that to know little or nothing about foreign cultures is dangerous,” said Applefield. “I’ve always thought it was important to combat ethnocentricity; now it’s actually come into style. Culture and literature are great conduits for understanding and that’s one of the underlying themes of the publication.”
A ‘Parisian Prowler’
Besides putting out Frank, Applefield has been kept busy in Paris and elsewhere by his activities as a literary jack-of-all-trades. The author of two novels (Once Removed and On a Flying Fish) and three Paris guidebooks (Paris-Anglophone, The Unofficial Guide to Paris and Paris Inside Out), whose several versions have emerged as “standard fare” for Americans in the French capital, Applefield is also a columnist for the monthly anglophone magazines Paris Voice and Paris Notes and the designer of an English language teaching method, Américain sans peine.
He has taught courses on American civilization and culture at two Parisian universities and the French Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, as well as creative writing at the American University of Paris and at a workshop run by major American literary journal Ploughshares.
In recent years, Applefield has become increasingly involved in the marketing aspects of publishing, managing commercial and advertising projects in francophone Africa, most notably for The Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune and even the U.S. Department of State. “A couple of years ago, the State Department asked me if I could do some lecturing in French-speaking Africa about American writing, but it kind of grew from there into publishing,” said Applefield.
“I realized there was an important niche-the guerrilla marketing of media and cultural products-to be talked about. That’s one of the days I define what I do as being different from other editors or publishers. You have to figure out commercial strategies to maintain your economic independence.”
Economic independence is necessary for Applefield to freely choose his literary content. “I’m always looking for innovative ways of funding things that are inherently financially poor. Not too many accidents happen in publishing and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it actually works. It’s all a matter of creating stories that have a publicity hook to them,” he said. “I try to plug as many highly commercial marketing techniques into highly uncommercial content as I can.”
Though not cynical, Applefield likes to cite the fact that 60 percent of all books sold in the U.S. are written by only 10 authors. “That means everybody else is vying for the other 40. Big chains like Barnes & Noble not only dominate the outlets for books in North America, they also own over a thousand university bookstores, so it’s kind of a pyramid selling-even then, tastes are being modeled by what’s commercially available.”
For Frank, competing with the Goliaths of the publishing industry has sometimes meant obtaining the support of other giants, such as past corporate sponsors Delta Airlines and Absolut Vodka. Applefield also hopes to take advantage of the Internet’s freedom in order to widen the journal’s accessibility to both readers and contributors. “I hope to have what I call a ‘foldable Frank’ going soon. The idea is to turn everybody’s printer into a Frank print site, so you can print one page as a PDF file, fold it in fours and create a little mini Frank to carry around with you.” At www.readfrank.com, Frank may also begin publishing art and writing not included in the printed edition. Applefield knows from first-hand experience how influential such on-line endeavors can become. His website www.paris-anglo.com, launched in 1995, now clocks over 300,000 visitors per month and his e-newsletter “My Mercredi” goes out to 40,000 subscribers.
Applefield will soon be returning to the airwaves for the first time since his college days to host a radio show on the Parisian-English language station in May.
His second novel, On a Flying Fish, set on a fictional island in the West Indies and due out this summer, has been a long time in coming. It’s the finished version of a work Applefield began 20 years ago. But the origins of its predecessor, Once Removed (published in 1997), go back even further to the history of Applefield’s own family and to a conversation with legendary Yiddish storyteller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, at Amherst College.
Based on a diary left to Applefield by his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor and immigrant to the United States, the book is, according to Applefield, “related to my experiences living in Europe, because I didn’t quite realize to what degree the act of writing is an attempt to understand and rediscover one’s identity. In my case, my mother was born in Poland and came to the U.S. as a girl after the war. I was born nine years later, so the entire depth of my Americanness was only that old on one side of my family. In that kind of situation, it shouldn’t be surprising you wonder sometimes who you really are.”
Wondering how to keep his ancestors’ Jewish heritage alive in America, Applefield appealed to Singer for enlightenment after a talk Singer had given at Johnson Chapel. Their exchange is reprinted just before the prologue of Once Removed.
“I asked him, ‘What can I do to maintain this cultural identity, my roots?'” Applefield said. “And he looked at me, and in his heavy accent said, ‘Sonny, where were you born?’ I said, ‘Elizabeth, New Jersey.’ And Singer said, ‘Your roots are in Elizabeth. Write about New Jersey; you’ll never know the shtetl.’ I was really disappointed by what he said and it took me 10 years to figure out what he meant. By the time I figured out I was ultimately and exclusively American, I had already set down new roots in Paris. My wife is European, my kids were born in France; to them, America is the old country.”
Fortunately, as Applefield likes to say, “Life isn’t either/or; it’s and/and.” And, as an expatriate writer and editor, a collector of the meaningful and eclectic that transcends nationality, he continues to enjoy the best-not of both, but of all-worlds in France.