How an Indie Publishing House Brought Nobel Prize Laureate Jon Fosse’s Work to the U.S.

Acclaimed Norwegian writer Jon Fosse recently won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature. How did a small nonprofit publishing house become his US publisher?

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Adam Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy chatting on a couch in front of a bookshelf

Earlier this month, the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Norwegian novelist and playwright Jon Fosse for his “innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.” Although Fosse’s broad collection of work has been incredibly influential in Norway and has received widespread acclaim throughout Europe, the circulation of his writing in the United States is due largely to Transit Books, an independent publishing house based in California.

Newly Minted Nobel Laureate Jon Fosse

Nobel Prize laureate Jon Fosse was born in 1959 in Haugesund, Norway, and grew up on a rural farm near Strandebarm. He was raised in a family of Quakers and Lutheran Pietists, and his works often explore religion and morality, with a recent New York Times profile distinguishing him as “our age’s great writer of light and darkness.”

Black and white portrait of Nobel laureate Jon Fosse wearing a black coat and scarf

Fosse’s first novel, Red, Black, was published in 1983, and in the decades since, he has led a prolific career, boasting an expansive oeuvre filled with novels, poetry collections, essays, translations, and children’s books. Fosse began working as a playwright in the ’90s and is now considered one of Europe’s “most-performed living dramatists,” having written nearly 30 plays, including A Summer’s Day and Death Variations.

His work received widespread critical acclaim before his recent Nobel Prize win, including an impressive range of prizes and recognitions such as the Ibsen Prize in 1996, the Grotten — an honorary residence from the King of Norway — in 2011, and the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2015.

Grey book cover of Septology by Jon Fosse with white and black letters

His most recent work, Septology, is widely considered his magnum opus and includes three volumes — The Other Name, I is Another, and A New Name — and follows an aging artist’s complex relationship with the divine. Septology was a finalist for the 2022 National Book Awards and for the International Booker Prize.

Transit Books: An Independent Publishing House With a Nobel Prize-Winning Author

Transit Books was founded in 2015 by married couple Adam Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy. They are a nonprofit operation based in the San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to publishing international and American literature. They publish around a dozen titles per year and work from their home in Richmond, California. A recent profile of the couple from The Washington Post asserts that Transit Books “may be the only Nobel-adjacent American publishing ‘house’ that is like any other on its street.”

A collection of books published by Transit Books publishing house laid out on a wooden table

In just eight years, Transit Books has published a considerable collection of critically acclaimed narrative nonfiction, literary fiction, and children’s literature. A few of these works include Such Small Hands (2017), a novella from Andrés Barba, and I Who Have Never Known Men (2022), a dystopian novel by Jacqueline Harpman which Transit Books brought back into print for the first time since 1997. Aside from the recent Nobel Prize win, the publisher’s authors have been nominated for the National Book Award, the International Booker Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, and others.

Black book cover of A Shining by Jon Fosse with white letters and an illustration of a gold branch

The Levys published their first translation of Fosse’s work, The Other Name, in 2020. In the years since, they have released translations of the two other volumes that make up Septology, along with a hardcover compilation of all three volumes of Fosse’s masterwork, which was released in 2022. At the end of this month, Transit Books will release a new novella from Fosse entitled A Shining, which Adam Levy describes as comparable to “if Beckett had written the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos.” Fosse’s latest work of fiction tells the story of a man who reaches the end of a forest road and ventures into a shadowy wood, where he encounters a mysterious presence glowing in the darkness.

When a reporter from The Los Angeles Times asked the couple to describe their response to Fosse’s Nobel nomination, Ashley Levy Nelson responded, “It’s so thrilling to see this happen for Fosse — work like his is the reason we started the press, to champion truly original literature coming from around the world that so often gets overlooked.”

What’s next for Transit Books?

With the announcement of Fosse’s Nobel Prize win, there has been a predictable explosion of interest in Fosse’s work and in Transit Books. In the last few weeks, the publishing house has sold out of all their printed copies of Septology and A Shining, and they now plan to print an additional 10,000 copies of each book.

Yellow book cover of At Night He Lifts Weights by Kang Young-sook, with a red and pink illustration of a face

In addition to the upcoming publication of A Shining (October 31), Transit Books has another new title expected this year: an ecological dystopian novel from Korean author Kang Young-sook entitled At Night He Lifts Weights (November 14).

Black and grey book cover for Monster Scared by Betina Birkjær, with yellow letters and an illustration of a child playing with toys and a shadowy monster behind them.

Another recent venture for Transit Books is Transit Children’s Editions, a new imprint focused on producing bold, imaginative children’s books from around the world, which was launched last month. The imprint has recently published Monster-Scared, a unique monster tale written by Betina Birkjær and illustrated by Zarah Juul. They also have two upcoming titles — The Tailor Shop at the Intersection (October 17) and How Dreadful! (February 13).

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