On a January night at Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica, actor-artist-writer Viggo Mortensen reads the prose poem he wrote for an anthology about Iraq, "Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation." It is one of the quieter pieces in the passionate volume and the author reads so softly that the entire audience leans in to hear him.
But Mortensen, who played the heroic Aragorn in the "Lord of the Rings" films, is here not as a writer but in his capacity as publisher of Perceval Press. With his high profile, he spends quite a bit of energy deflecting praise to his authors.
After the reading and before the onslaught, Mortensen explains, "I just wanted to have a company that would publish writers and artists and poets," he says, "people I wouldn't have heard of -- the way that they wanted to be published, without compromising."
Editor Pilar Perez, a force on the L.A. literary scene, came to Perceval after years of organizing readings and exhibits at Santa Monica's Track 16 gallery. Perez, who co-founded the press with Mortensen, coordinates the production of each book and oversees the printing in Spain. She also scouts for new projects and brought in the first fiction from urban theorist Mike Davis -- two science adventure novels.
Mortensen got what Davis wanted to do right away. He understood how the book should look and feel. "Land of the Lost Mammoths," published this winter, has a very transporting, solid feel to it. If you had to use it to get to another world, with its thick, fine paper and blue binding, it would not let you down. It feels at once very old and very futuristic, exactly what Davis had intended. At $15.95 it is also affordable.
The name of the press harks back to the legend of Parsifal, the knight of the Arthurian legend who found the Castle of the Grail and saved the Fisher King.
On his way to achieve knighthood at King Arthur's Court, he and his knights choose to find their own paths. "If there was a trail," says Mortensen, "they wouldn't take it. They had to make their own ways. I wanted to provide that opportunity for artists."
Perceval, which has five employees including Mortensen and Perez, has published more than 20 books: "Trance," a photographic examination of voodoo; "Twilight of Empire," about Iraq; "Remember Me," drawings and photographs by Lola Schnabel; "The Horse Is Good" and "Coincidence and Memory," both collections of photographs by Mortensen; and "Miyelo," photographs from a film of a Lakota Ghost Dance, to name a few of the most beautiful.
Mortensen has a predilection for edgy books by controversial artists and writers. And he goes out of his way to support them. He is careful to let this reading be about his authors and the book and not about his presence.
"We take care with each book," he says, slouched against a doorway and looking down. "We try to keep the prices low. We're not operating with a goal in mind. We're not beholden to other people or to large companies. We don't have a plan. We just put out the books we want to. It's a kind of," he pauses, searching for the word, "thoughtful anarchy."