Books as barrier breakers: Interlink Publishing turns 35

  • Michel Moushabeck, founder and publisher of Interlink Publishing in Northampton, talks about the business earlier this week. Interlink is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michel Moushabeck, founder and publisher of Interlink Publishing, discusses a new title, an illustrated history of PEN International, the worldwide writers’ group that turned 100 this year. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Interlink Publishing handles all aspects of its book production except printing. Founder and publisher Michel Moushabeck is seen here with a new biography of the Dalai Lama, one of the 50 titles the business releases each year. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michel Moushabeck gives a tour of some of Interlink’s inventory, which is stored in its Crosby Street building, a former wood shop originally built in the 1860s. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Michel Moushabeck, publisher and founder of Interlink Publishing, says the primary goal of the business has been offering readers a broad range of ideas and voices. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An Interlink Publishing title chronicles PEN International. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Among the many works of fiction Interlink has published is “The King of India” by Lebenese author Jabbour Douaihy, which was shortlisted in 2020 for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. 

  • This Interlink title on Ethiopian cuisine won a number of prizes in 2020, including the James Beard Award for Best International Cookbook.

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2021

In the late 1970s, Michel Moushabeck came to the United States to study history at New York University, escaping from war-torn Beirut and the Lebanese Civil War. It was, he recalls, “quite an eye-opening experience,” and he says he “immediately embraced American values likes freedom of speech and democracy.”

But Moushabeck, the founder and publisher of Interlink Publishing in Northampton, says he was also shocked to find out how little most people knew about the land he’d come from. And as a Palestinian, he says he was also disturbed at how “unaccepting some people were of the Palestinian narrative.”

So Moushabeck, who came to the Valley in the early 1990s with his family and today lives in Leverett, altered his plans. Instead of pursuing a career as an academic, he decided to start an independent publishing company — one that would showcase work from writers from around the world, ideally generating greater global understanding and breaking down national and cultural boundaries.

“That’s been an important mission from day one,” Moushabeck said during a recent interview at Interlink’s rambling building on Crosby Street, a converted wood shop originally built in the 1860s. “The idea was to bring the world closer to American readers in the hope that we could bring readers in the world closer to each other.”

It’s a business that started under modest circumstances, in Moushabeck’s former apartment in Brooklyn, New York. With a laugh, he notes that he had no background in publishing but thought “I’m going to give it a shot. I’ll learn as I go.”

Today Interlink, with a staff of 10, is marking its 35th anniversary, and the business has also weathered the bleak economic tides of the pandemic by rebooting its business model and expanding its online presence.

With a line of award-winning cookbooks focused on international cuisine, Interlink publishes 50 books a year, including fiction from Middle Eastern, African and Latin American writers, as well as children’s books, travel literature and guides, history and current affairs, art, and more. Moushabeck says Interlink also has plans to expand its production in the future.

The business also continues to be a champion for the importance of the written word. Interlink recently co-published a history on the 100th anniversary of PEN International, the worldwide group of writers formed in Great Britain in 1921. A forum on the group's work to protect fellow writers was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst earlier this week.

Interlink is largely self-contained, as well. Save for printing, the staff of 10 handles all aspects of book production: commissioning work and editing manuscripts, layout and cover design, marketing and shipping. Much space at the Crosby Street building is earmarked for inventory (Moushabeck says they had to place steel jacks at select points underneath the venerable wooden floorboards to offset the weight of pallets stacked with books).

Moushabeck notes that he originally envisioned his company focusing on international fiction and what he calls “radical left” books of social and political observation. But “I soon knew there was no way I could support a family with that,” he said — he had three young daughters — and so hit on the idea of something different, a “Traveller’s History” series of books aimed at giving tourists a basic understanding of the history and culture of countries and cities they planned to visit.

“The idea was to read it before you left on a trip,” he said. “It’s not about finding the cheapest hotel or the best place to eat.”

Fiction — “That was always my passion,” Moushabeck said — particularly work translated into English, was slow going at first. But Moushabeck says he built up connections with academics in programs such as comparative literature, convincing professors to include his titles in their curricula, and sales increased. (It’s generally believed that only about 3% of books published annually in U.S. are works translated from other languages.)

“If you’re willing to hang in there, over the years [fiction is] going to sell,” he said. “Some novels I published 25 years ago have now hit 40,000 copies, after I sold maybe 500 copies the first year.”

Transcending boundaries with food

Interlink has also weathered pushback for some of its books, notably for political titles critical of U.S. foreign policy and capitalism, and those that focus on Palestinian rights in their long-running struggle with Israel. Since 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Moushabeck said, “We’ve received our fair share of hate mail and threats.”

Most Interlink titles are sold in the U.S., but a good number of them are translated into other languages and sold overseas. Cookbooks are the “bread and butter” of the business, Moushabeck notes, as the company has focused on introducing American customers in particular to international cuisine and the cultures those recipes come from.

A book on Ethiopian cooking won the 2020 James Beard Foundation Award, a noted prize in the field, and other Interlink cookbooks have won major awards and favorable reviews in places such as the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.

One such work was “The Immigrant Cookbook: Recipes that Make America Great,” a 2018 book compiled and edited by Moushabeck’s oldest daughter, Leyla. The title was in part a rebuke to the anti-immigrant backlash that flared during Donald Trump’s presidency, and it also reflected Leyla’s own background: She has a Palestinian father, a British mother and a Colombian husband.

Leyla Moushabeck is in fact Interlink’s longtime cookbook editor, and the business is something of a family affair. Another daughter, Maha Moushabeck, is a co-managing director (with her husband, Harrison Williams) of the publishing house, and a third daughter, Hannah Moushabeck, commissions picture books for children (she also has a full-time job at Simon & Schuster).

“My entire family is in the book business,” Moushabeck wrote in a follow-up email. “My brother Gabriel owns Booklink Booksellers in Thornes [Market]; my sister owns a bookshop in Montreal; and the children have always been involved in the business from a very young age.”

Those kinds of family bonds likely helped the business weather the worst of the pandemic, Moushabeck notes; with bookshops shut, distribution at a standstill and even printing companies shuttered, Interlink had to expand its web presence, he said. Collectively, the staff developed methods to do that, such that Interlink’s email list of about 30,000 people now is approaching 80,000.

Moushabeck says he’s ready to hand more day-to-day business to his daughters, son-in-law and other staff members and do more editing. An author himself, he’s made connections to many writers over the years through talks he gives around the world on international literature; he’s also a veteran percussionist who plays with jazz and Arabic music ensembles and has lectured on music in the Five College system.

Whatever happens, he’s intent on Interlink staying true to its mission: producing books that promote more cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.

“Introducing American readers to leading African, Arab and Latin American writers, getting them to take a chance on a new novelist ... presenting them with books that inform, delight and entertain — as well as ones that counteract negative portrayals, hatred and fear of the unknown — have been key motivating forces in my journey,” he said.