Shaun Randol is a pretty serious guy. But once you break through the RSF (Resting Stern Face…[Resting Shaun Face?]), you’re surrounded by warmth, charm, humor, wit, and, well, yeah, still a lot of seriousness, because you can’t achieve your dreams if you don’t take them seriously. And Shaun takes his dream of running his publishing house, The Mantle, full-time extremely seriously. The Mantle, a for-profit indie press, is dedicated to finding and publishing emerging writers from around the world whose voices might not otherwise be heard. The majority of The Mantle’s catalog consists of new literary talent from the African continent — Kenya, Botswana, Nigeria — with the aim to broaden focus to South and Southeast Asia within the next year. Shaun founded The Mantle as an online magazine in 2009 as a place to publish the critical thinkers he wasn’t hearing elsewhere. The Mantle expanded to include a publishing arm in 2014, and currently has 9 books in print with a 10th coming out this fall. In his non-Mantling time—he calls working on The Mantle “Mantling,” as in, the antonym of dismantling—Shaun works 55+ hours a week overseeing Editorial Strategy in Corporate Communications at Bloomberg. Shaun, a traveler at heart and a New Yorker by choice, hails from Mattoon, Illinois. If asked for a passage of a book that stuck with him long after reading it, he’ll tell you it’s the opening chapter of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, because of the accuracy and respect with which DFW describes the Midwest. I went over to Shaun’s apartment, a.k.a. The Mantle’s headquarters (at least for now), in Astoria, Queens, to chat with him—while he cooked dinner—about “passion projects,” life choices, Greek mythology, and the absurdity that is being alive. Our conversation is best experienced with Death Cab For Cutie’s “Soul Meets Body” playing in the background.
Montana Agte-Studier: The other day after yoga, we were discussing Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill, and how maybe that was a relatable feeling, being an independent publisher. Can we chat a little bit more about that?
Shaun Randol: I wasn’t talking about Sisyphus in terms of only publishing, I was talking about the general struggle of living life, regardless of what it is you do for a living. And I think, the rock everybody pushes, every single day, begins when they wake up, or what goes through their head when they go to sleep, or when they’re stuck in traffic and there’s nothing on the radio, wondering, “What’s the point of all of this?” Those moments when you are married and you’re with your spouse and your dinner conversation slowly sort of stops because you’ve kind of run out of things to talk about, and you just look at him and you suddenly hate the way he chews his food, and you wonder, “What am I even doing with my life?”…or your kids are screaming, or your boss is an asshole, or you have to take three busses to get to your job…The struggle of being alive. That’s the Sisyphean rock that we push every single day. And the goal is to find meaning in that. It can come from several different places, and publishing is one of those things that brings meaning.
Right. And then we were also talking about Camus’s take on this bit of Greek mythology in his essay about the Sisyphean struggle, and how he actually thought we should try to see Sisyphus as happy, or at least understanding his fate…
Accepting his fate.
Accepting his fate…
‘Cause he has to. ‘Cause Sisyphus has no other option ‘cause he’s condemned to repeat the same tasks over and over, and sometimes…maybe even most of the time, for most humans around the world, they don’t have a chance to select what they want to do with their lives, because of external circumstances…
…they grow up in a dictatorship, they grow up impoverished, they grow up disfigured or whatever it is, and they are condemned to some sort of existential hell. Everybody has to go through some sort of that. Camus said, Well, if you can’t change it, accept it, and try and find the meaning, whatever it is in your station in life, whether it’s in your job or your family or in your community…because the easiest way out for all of us in this eternal Sisyphean struggle is just to kill ourselves.
Yes, but he says that that would defeat the whole idea, because there’s no absurd without man, man’s existence creates, or is one with, the absurd, this search for meaning in potential meaninglessness, in life. We’ve gotta live, but while doing so acknowledge the contradiction of trying to find reason in an unreasonable world.
He definitely acknowledges that we should embrace the absurd.
And that a live thinking being is absurd.
Interacting with one another is absurd. Isn’t that crazy? We should embrace that.
Yes. He says the realization of this absurdity does not require suicide, it requires revolt.
The only thing we can do is revolt.
Yup. That’s right. Revolt. Not give up. [Pause] We’re renaming our press to Sisyphus.
[Laughs] Sisypress. Can you imagine? [Pause] So if you imagine yourself as Sisyphus, do you imagine yourself happy, or at least content in your daily struggle?
I imagine myself aware.
Not content. In whatever I do and what I’m doing.
Well, that’s good, though, I think, isn’t it? Because if you were content then you would stop striving for something, stop looking for whatever it is you’re looking for, stop revolting…wouldn’t you?
Yes, I imagine so.
I think maybe.
Then I’d have to find a new rock.
Hmm…There’s another part that interests me, in what Camus talked about, regarding the in-between, right, the part where Sisyphus has to walk back downhill, hmm I wrote it down…he says, “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end.”
Yeah. The thing is, how long did it take you, or Sisyphus, to push that rock up that first time? And each time after?
Do you think it takes the same amount of time each time?
Do you think he walks slowly downhill?
But is he allowed to?
I don’t remember reading anything in the myth that said he had to run back down…
Yeah, there’s nothing. What if he takes, like, a year to walk back down?
Doesn’t matter, that’s nothing in eternity.
Yeah, I know, but at least he’s then got that time to—
To think about what a shitty deal he’s got.
Yeah, he’s got room to think.
That is for sure.
Yep. Well Camus did also say that “what counts is not the best living but the most living.” Maybe the point is making the most of that time when you walk back downhill.
Okay and one more Camus-ism as we move on: the three consequences of fully acknowledging the absurd are revolt, freedom, and passion. And I feel like the word “passion” comes up a lot in terms of small enterprises, such as publishing, for example… Like how The Mantle was recently referred to as a “passion project” in a Publishers Weekly article…
Mmhmm [chopping carrots].
And so how much do you think passion actually plays a part in what you’re doing and why you do it? And why you continue doing it?
100%? Hmm okay I would say…75% passion, with the rest being a mix of economic and moral motivation. And there’s no way, just because of my financial circumstances, just because of our station in the publishing sphere, there’s no way I’d get up every single day and do what I do…you can see it all around, there are so many web magazines that started up that have now gone away, you can see it even more with even bigger name stuff…I can’t remember the name off the top of my head but there’s a major literary journal that is now done, it’s just over, they’re exhausted. The Awl? The Hairpin? Gone. You have to have passion because, especially if you’re not making money, it keeps you doing what it is that you do. What is passion but an unquenchable thirst for something? [Pause] Also. I just want to be clear. If you’re doing a piece that involves some sort of reference to this, to Camus and Sisyphus, that my rock is a pebble compared to the rocks that most people have to push around. And I’m fully aware of that. I don’t say what I say with any sort of self-pity. I’m one of the most privileged people that’s ever lived in the history of humanity, and I recognize that. So, I just needed to say that.
Yup. Understood. Thanks. [Pause] So okay I lied, one more Camus quote about the passion that drives you: “From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all.” So, this is your passion project, this is a project that you started a long time ago…
Nine years ago.
Nine years ago, and you started publishing books four years ago. So before we start talking about when you came to New York, there’s this quote that you know that I’ve shared with you before, in E.B. White’s Here Is New York.
Mmhmm, about how the settlers, the people who come to New York in quest of something and make the city their destination, their goal—how those settlers give New York it’s passion. So…when you came to New York, what did you come here for? What were you in search of? And is it the same passion that you have now? Or was it a different dream?
I came here because I didn’t have a dream. I was in a place in my life where I was lost, and had no direction, had no meaning, had nobody to share it with…I didn’t come here with a dream, I came here to find a dream.
Mmm that counts. And you chose New York as the place to find that dream. That definitely says something.
That’s true. [Pauses, cutting peppers] I really like cutting peppers. It’s so satisfying.
[Laughs] Okay, so you came here to find a dream. But what does that mean? What were you doing before you came to New York, that you felt the need to move across the country to find that something?
I was broken hearted, I was educated and living in a small town, doing odd and menial jobs that had no meaning, I was living with my parents, I was desperate for some sort of connection with people who acted and thought and spoke like me, so…I was—again, there’s no need to take pity on that position—but I was just not in a good spot, in my head and in my heart. So I was looking for a way out, and I saw an advertisement for…the year before, I was reading The Nation, and saw an advertisement for The New School.
I had never heard of it before, and I thought any college that is advertising in The Nation is the college for me. And so I applied. I went to graduate school there, for International Affairs. [Pauses to read recipe directions] “Chop parsley!” So why did you come to New York?
Mmm well. I was in quest of something, for sure. I had gotten basically a full ride to USC, and was pretty convinced I should, and would, go there. It was for music and acting…
ACT-ING!! Exactly. That was my audition tape. Wait, hold on, this Mantle bookshelf is almost empty, shouldn’t it be full of Mantle books?
Yeah, well I’ve been sending them out. I usually keep it full, as a reminder of what I’m doing, what I’m publishing, but the rest of the inventory is currently under my bed, so when I’m packing books for bookstores and whatnot, I just grab them from here and I’ll refill it from the boxes under my bed when I have time.
Mmkay, fair enough. So yeah I was gonna go to USC. I was basically thinking that I would go to California, but I don’t know, I was feeling kind of angsty about music at that time, because classical music had been, you know, what I was doing, what I had been doing, for years, and I was in a mood of not wanting to pigeonhole myself or take advice on what to go to school for, and I was wanting to explore…it’s of course ridiculous because looking back it probably would have made the most sense…
Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes.
So anyway, I wasn’t thoroughly convinced I wanted that, and then I was on tour with an orchestra throughout eastern Europe in the spring of my senior year, and we spent this one day, just one day, in Prague — I was on the bridge, and there was the light and the people and the essence of something that I wanted, and I thought how much more similar New York is to that feeling, than a campus in California, and I couldn’t at that point honestly picture myself on a campus…and so I made the decision to go to The New School.
[Singing Sufjan Stevens] “I made a lot of mistakes.”
[Singing in unison] “In my mind, in my mind.”
You went to The New School.
Yeah we both went to The New School, and we both started the same year, but I was undergrad and you were grad.
So did Sufjan.
Oh he went to The New School too?
He lived in my dorm.
Stop. Were you guys friends?
No he left before I got there.
Like on purpose? [Laughs] He’s like…
He’s like, “WHOA!”
“…Oh shit, this guy’s coming’ in, lemme get outta here!”
“Oh shit, the Mad Gasser from Mattoon’s comin’!”
[Laughs] Is that your nickname? Can I put that in the article?
It is now.
Okay, cool. So you’ve been in New York now 12 years, as of this month. Did you find that dream?
“Add one tablespoon lemon juice…” Uhmmm, wow, has it been 12 years?
Yeah, August 2006. Math! We moved here at the same time!
Oh yeah. No, I haven’t found it.
You haven’t found it?
But I can see it. I mean here’s the thing, Montana, the dream is not just the job. It’s about family, it’s about friends, it’s the total package. It’s not just one narrow scope of life. So, I’m well on my way to a significant aspect of the dream, and I’m further away on others. So, uhm…‘cause you don’t publish books in a vacuum. So the answer is no, I haven’t. [Pause, reading instructions] Sugar, huh, sugar.
Sugar…are there tomatoes in this? I’ve only ever put sugar in a dish if it has tomatoes in it.
I think it’s to cut some of the bite from the shallots and lemon juice.
Huh. Okay, so besides “passion project,” how would you describe The Mantle, in your own words, in your own life?
I would describe The Mantle as all-consuming—much-consuming—of my life. It is something that I think about when I wake up, throughout the day, in my down time, and when I go to sleep. Because I love doing it. Uhm, it does not consume all my time, but it consumes a significant amount of my time.
Not all your time, but all your thoughts?
No not quite all of them. What was your question? How would I describe it? I would describe it as…like being…The Mantle is one of the monsters in Monsters, Inc. It’s a monster, but a lovable one. And one day I will tame it, because right now it’s sure as hell riding me around. I would describe The Mantle as an emerging project. I would describe The Mantle as something that has immense potential to make significant impacts on the lives of the writers and readers who participate in it.
Right. And so far how many of your authors that you’ve published as emerging artists have gone on to publish works with bigger houses?
I’m gonna count…5 or 6.
Out of 5 or 6?
[Laughs] Out of…10 or so.
Yeah, and I’m so happy for them. And I hope that their rising tide lifts my boat. I’m very proud of them, and I think they’re very grateful for The Mantle. I mean, Ayobami Adebayo now has a major smash hit of a novel. In 2016, when I was in Uganda, she gave her very first public reading ever. And she did it from Gambit.
And now look at her. So. I’m not going to pretend I have a great deal to do with Ayobami’s success, I’m not even going to claim that. But I am going to say that we were there at the beginning.
How do you find your writers?
Now they find me.
Mmhmm but how did you find them originally?
So that’s part of the…I’m sorry, let me just read this…”In a small bowl, whisk together a large pinch of salt, two tablespoons of olive oil, and remaining lemon juice.” Okay. Uhm. So, part of the beauty of The Mantle’s operating model is that we have a website that is our bullhorn, that advertises our existence to the world. And we’d been busy building up an archive of more than 100 writers from more than 50 countries, that word spread that we are a place that accepts [Alexa timer goes off]—Alexa, stop—unformed writers and helps them. So, I worked my networks to find our writers, I simply just worked the networks that we had built with good faith through the website.
So had any of your first writers written something for the website?
The most important one is Emmanuel Iduma.
When did he write something for the website? When did you become aware of him?
2012, I want to say? And he found us on Twitter because one of his favorite Nigerian journals had published a piece on The Mantle, and he said, “Hey, I like that guy, I like what they publish.” So he reached out and said, “Can I write?” I said, “Sure, what do you want to write about?” He said, “I want to write about writing and the literary scene in Africa,” and I said “Great, I don’t know anything about it, do it,” and so he started writing about writing in Africa, and then soon after that he said, “Might you want to do a series of ten interviews with emerging writers who come from across the continent?” I said, “Okay, that sounds cool.” And about the third one in, I replied to Emmanuel and said, “Emmanuel, these are great. Let’s publish an anthology. Ten interviews. Side by side with ten original short stories.” And he said, “That sounds like an awesome idea.” And that was how the first book came to be written. We had never met.
Did you meet while you were editing it, or not ‘til after it was all done?
He ended up getting into SVA to go to school there in 2014. So the book took two years to do, and by the time he got to New York, we were in the final stages of putting it together.
How were most of the interviews conducted?
He did them all. I was the editor. He did the heavy lifting of doing the interviews. And I edited the anthology. That was the deal we struck.
What’s your favorite story in it? [Laughs] Who’s your favorite child?
[Laughs] I have some that I like better than others.
And now, word’s gotten around, especially with African writers, that we are a publishing house for African writers, so I get new manuscripts sent to me often.
So much so that you have to put a note on your website stating that you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts?
There was a note like that on up until about three days ago.
Oh, you took it down! Why?
Because we have nothing in the pipeline at the moment. Because I rejected all of the manuscripts that were submitted to me, so now I’m ready to read some new ones.
What do you look for when you’re reading a manuscript?
I have to be enthralled by the story, because I’m going to be spending months and years of my life with it, knowing every single nook and cranny of that story. And I have to get along with the author. That’s it. We’re too small to waste time with asshole authors with great novels.
Have you ever found a manuscript you love from an author that you hate?
Uh, I have found short story collections and submissions by writers with whom I would prefer not to work.
How much of a manuscript do you read before you know whether or not you like it or not?
I read, uhm, page 99.
[Laughs] Mmhmm. Do you read that before the first page?
You skip right to 99? Then do you go back to the beginning?
Yeah, then I go back to the beginning. So I read 99, or whichever closest page has the full text, because sometimes chapters end or begin on 99. And then I go back to the beginning and I read the first one or two chapters and if I’m feeling good there then that’s when I ask to see more.
Who was it that you got the page 99 thing from?
The page 99 test. Nobody knows about it.
Should I not publish it?
No, you can. I’m just saying it’s a fantastic secret.
It is. Or, it was. But now everyone’s going to read this interview and be like, “oh, shit,” and page 99 will be a whole thing, it’ll blow up.
Well, if it does, give credit to Gass. But, yeah, when people ask me what they should read next, or if they should read a certain book, I’m always like, “Well, make sure you read page 99 first, because you don’t want to take the wrong book on vacation.”
That’s so true.
What am I supposed to do with this freekeh? It’s boiling. “Boil until tender, then drain.” Well, okay. Alexa, set a timer for 4 minutes. Okay, “and then in a third bowl, stir the yogurt, feta, and remaining za’atar.” Wow I’m a hot mess—I’ve never been interviewed while I cook. It is in shambles over here.
This is fascinating to watch.
This is a 20 minute dish that has taken 60 minutes.
You’re gonna write them a complaint letter…“Look, you said this would take 20 minutes, sure I was speaking while I was cooking, but it took me triple that time…”
I just hope that my guest finds it delicious.
I hope so too. I’m so hungry.
Well, you do everything late anyway, so, I figured that this was actually your normal dinnertime.
What time is it? Oh, yeah, it’s actually pretty close.
This is the part where I stop cooking and I’m like, “Ahhh I’m gonna go read in my chair, or in bed, catch you later.” [Laughs] Usually I’m in bed reading right now for about 30 minutes.
[Laughs] Oh nooo! [Pause] What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom—”stir in water,”; how much water? Oh, “one teaspoon at a time until it has a consistency that’s still thick and creamy but stiff.” Okay.
Teaspoon…that’s a very small amount of water.
Yeah. So Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom because I’m moderating a panel with him on it for the Brooklyn Book Fest, and I am reading Your Money Or Your Life so I can figure out how to become financially supportive, and that’s all I have time for right now. Usually one fiction and one non-fiction. So I had to put other things on hold.
Like My Struggle?
Ha yes like My Struggle, and like Rebel Publisher, about Grove Press.
Yeah, that’s normal, I mean I’m in the middle of like six books right now. How many books do you think most people are in the middle of?
What about publishers?
That’s a good number.
I mean, if we’re counting the books I’m reading for publishing, I’ve got two or three more to add to that list. But that’s work.
It counts. You’re reading them.
“Pour lemon dressing over freekeh in pot and stir to coat.” So I have to drain this thing. Okay.
While I watch you finish cooking this…what’s one thing that you do, without fail, every day?
[Alexa timer goes off] Alexa, stop. I check to see if my best friend has sent me a WhatsApp message. Besides that, what’s the one thing I do without fail every day, aside from the usual stuff? I mean, honestly, I check my financial accounts Monday through Friday, at the end of each day, so I understand what my financial position is in life and how much money I owe and how much money I’ve saved…because let’s face it, the dream ain’t free. So I check it, every single day.
How much does it change every single day?
Uhm, it changes enough to make it interesting. Because I have a dashboard that has all my stocks, 401ks, bank accounts, life insurance, mortgages, student loans, all in one spot. So, it goes up or down half a percent or something every day. It’s a big bold reminder of where I’m going or where I’m not. So I’m supposed to pour the lemon dressing over the freekeh. We’re almost done!
“Then, arrange veggies on top, dollop with feta, garnish with shallot, pistachio, and parsley.” So basically just put it on a plate and put everything on top. [Pause] Have you found your dream?
I have found my dream, dreams, yes, but same thing, it’s not like it’s fully achieved yet…I know of some things that I’m certain that I want and I am working toward those. Other things I’m not so certain of. I definitely don’t have it all figured out.
Can I help?
No, but thank you for asking.
Okay, so let’s wrap this up like that interview that’s on the back of that very first copy of the New York Review of Books that you have, where the interviewer is like, “Any last words?” And the guy is like, “Buy my books.” And the interviewer goes, “That’s not very subtle,” and the guy just goes, “Uh huh, so yeah buy my books.” That’s not a direct quote but it’s close. [Laughs]
It’s almost absurdist.
Yeah, exactly! [Pause] Where do you want The Mantle to go from here?
I want it to go, in the short term, to three to five books a year, growing to ten. I want to have positive income and I want to be able to pay and have a staff. I mean where else do I want to go? Up. I want to succeed, ‘cause I don’t want to feel like I’ve wasted…so much.
Yeah. [Pause] Okay, so we can wrap this up with…what’s one thing you’d like people to think about or know about The Mantle?
I want people to remember one person, and to look at the picture of another, because I think that tells you what The Mantle Publishing is about. One, remember Ayobami. How many Ayobamis are out there in the world? They need a platform, they need an outlet, to share their craft with the world. They have something to say, and the reaction to Ayobami, and The Mantle’s catalog is evidence of that. The other thing I want people to do is look at the beautiful picture of Stanley Gazemba that he posted on Twitter when he finally got copies of Forbidden Fruit in Kenya…He took copies of his book and he drove out or took a bus out to western Kenya where he grew up, in a village where people have…each other…and he showed his mom his book and he posed for a picture with her and him holding the book, and she was extremely extremely proud. And he tweeted that she was, you know, just bursting with pride and happiness that her son had created something that some American in New York City found worthwhile. And the smile on her face and the smile on his face reminds people that authors are people too. And that they deserve…they’ve found their meaning, so I’d like for us to help them keep it. That’s what I would want people to remember.
Montana Agte-Studier is a writer, musician, and artist based in New York City. She is the Director of Membership and NYSCA NYTAP at CLMP and is currently working on a novel and pursuing a private pilot’s license.