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Pints, Chapters and Verse

Veterans of S.F.'s Edinburgh Castle pub make a mean gin and tonic. Now they're on tap to become the city's newest independent publishers

Alan Black makes it all sound so easy. Maybe it is. In his thirteen years at the famed Edinburgh Castle, , Black has given a leg up to many writers and performers and is now ready to add "publisher" to his long list of credentials. No doubt his natural charm and wicked wit have also helped to knit together a group of people ready and willing to help out when called upon.

September 2004 brings the launch of Public House Press (PHP), founded by Black, former Castle bartender Sean O'Melveny, and writer Luke James. Black, a seethingly funny writer himself, has curated and produced literary events for over a decade at the Castle, located on a dank block of Geary Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

PHP's first release will be Public House, an anthology of writers, many local, who have read at the Edinburgh Castle, and the bonus gift-with-purchase will be a CD featuring spoken-word performances by Irvine Welsh (doing Begbie from Trainspotting at a past Litquake event) and others.

SF Station spoke with Black between a Castle plumbing disaster and a relaxing three-week holiday about why the Edinburgh Castle is a good homebase for PHP, the importance of public space for literature, and what he's got dog-eared right now...

Q: The Edinburgh Castle has been a significant literary space for many years. Tell me about the creation and development of PHP.

Well, the Castle is where myself and Sean O'Melveny, one of the PHP partners, have worked as bartenders. Sean's no longer there but he was instrumental in the mid-nineties in organizing Castle events. Having had many memories of great literary nights at the pub, some of them wild, drug and booze affairs, and some very sober and civil, the time has come to transfer memories and reputation to a concrete form, that be books.

PHP is not the Edinburgh Castle Pub's press; it's a separate entity that happens to be based there. We plan to expand to other venues where the public gathers to socialize. Bookshops are good for buying books but not the best place for hearing writers read, and publishers are good for making books but remote when based in tower blocks and corporate steel. So we're putting the pub in publishing to make things better.

The public house in Scottish society, where I grew up, is the hub of the nation's identity. The pub is a gathering of exchanges and patter, ideas and conflicts, mashed in the drink. There are transient moments of greatness, and powerful moments of disaster, everything from the joyous consumption of life to the alcoholic slaughter of slow death. It sounds like a plot in a book, and when you work in a pub for fifteen years you see the stuff of fantasy fiction come to life. Monsters and mermaids, it's all there in the public house. So it makes sense that literature would flourish in the boozer. God Bless the punters! They're the inspiration. As long as the Castle stays in business and gives me a paycheck, then the Press will be based there.

Q: How is the down-and-dirty business side of starting a company going?

We've scraped together a few coins to get it off the ground, and we're right at the beginning of the learning curve when it comes to business, but if you can handle making a gin and tonic, you can publish a book. More importantly, the support from the writers connected to the Castle scene and others in the wider world of publishing has been truly special. We've got lots of help and advice and we're truly grateful. It would not be happening if it were not for the scribblers.

Q: All modesty aside, what's been your proudest "Castle moment"?

Producing Trainspotting, the American premiere of the stage play, was a great experience, taught me how to wing it with scotch tape and blag. And the show I wrote with the talented Claudio Aronica, Josh Hudson and Luke James, We're Going Down the Pub.

Q: You must have quite an oral archive of literary history. Do you record every event that happens in the Castle?

No, only in the last couple of years did we start that, archives never entered into our thinking, which is too bad because there was plenty of great early material. The early Welsh readings, Kelman, Patrick Mc Cabe, I saw others recording film of them, so they're out there, somewhere. We are planning a Live at The Castle CD series as one of our next projects.

Q: What are you reading now?

The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook, magic stuff and Peter Plate's new novel, Fogtown, , his best so far.

Q: So what's on the horizon for PHP?

A couple of writers from the Castle scene are working on books we'll publish. Amy Itzert, great talent, and Katherine McWilliams are on the list. The live CD will probably be next up, and we have a bunch of other ideas. We need more people to get involved in order that we can move up. Calling editors, writers, ideas, merchants! Call us!

For more details about the Public House Press and its launch, visit