Monday, September 21, 2020

TBR: Look at Him by Anna Starobinets. Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

In this groundbreaking memoir, Russian writer Anna Starobinets chronicles the devastating loss of her unborn son to a fatal kidney defect. After her son’s death, Starobinets suffers from nightmares and panic attacks; the memoir describes her struggle to find sympathy, community, and psychological support for herself and her family. Look at Him ignited a firestorm in Russia, prompting both high praise and severe condemnation for the author’s frank discussion of long-taboo issues of women’s agency over their own bodies, including the aftereffects of abortion and miscarriage on marriage and family life.


What part of the translation process did you most enjoy? Why? And what part was most challenging, and why?

I loved working with Anna’s voice. For a memoir about the loss of a child, there’s a very great deal of wit and even humor in the book, most of it supplied by the authorial voice. In some chapters, Starobinets uses the device of “splitting in two.” Each of the two halves—the frantic, frightened one and the cool, detached woman observing her—will weigh in. Anna’s self-portrait is carefully crafted, but also apparently unvarnished. We watch a distinctly fallible, terrified mother face an impossible choice: kill her baby now, or watch him die in agony later?


The subject matter of pregnancy, not to mention pregnancy loss, was challenging. People who learn Russian as I did, in college, rarely learn terms for women’s bodily functions, childrearing, traditional women’s work, or basic domestic rituals—you have to pick that stuff up elsewhere. And how should one translate the cutesy names of children’s toys, diapers, and related items (by way of example, how would you translate something like “Linkimals Smooth Moves Sloth” into another language?)? But I think the hardest moment of this book for me to translate was the scene when Anna is in the hospital waiting for the hormones that will start her labor—and the termination of her pregnancy—to kick in. The nurse advises her to watch a movie, but the only thing she has stored on her laptop is an old Soviet musical version of The Three Musketeers: lots of prancing horses and plumed caps and singing cavaliers. The title of the chapter in Russian – the chapter in which Anna will lose her son forever—is taken from a line in one of the songs that literally means “It’s time, it’s time.” It took me forever to wrestle that short verse of the song into anything approaching song lyrics in English that could supply an appropriate title for the chapter—I finally came up with “Bye-bye.”


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The book deals forthrightly with an impossible dilemma: what to do when your unborn child is diagnosed at 16 weeks with a fatal birth defect and, moreover, likely to die in excruciating pain no matter what you choose. One option: late-term abortion. I was pretty sure no major American publisher would touch such a book—there are only a handful of books on this topic in existence, in fact. In the end, I was lucky to find the small wing of a university press that specializes in Russian literature. However, going with a university press has meant a great deal of do-it-yourself work to publicize and market the book. Fortunately, the greater Russian-language community in the US has enthusiastically embraced this project; most have already read the book in the original. The virtual book launch will span continents and time zones—it includes author Anna Starobinets (Moscow), scholar Muireann Maguire (Exeter, UK), and the amazing Russian émigré literary bloggers Olga Zilberbourg and Yelena Furman of Punctured Lines (California)—and me in the Washington, DC, area. (NOTE: You may register for the 9/26/2020 book launch here.)



What's your goal when you start a new translation project?

I want to make something beautiful. I’m a poet myself, and a lot of my translation work is getting Russian-language poetry into English. There are many different schools of thought about what translation should be, but my goal is pretty simple: I want to make the work sound as if it had been written in English. In terms of larger prose projects, I choose books that I love myself, and authors I admire. My last book project before this one was the fiction of a political prisoner in Azerbaijan, a book called Farewell, Aylis. Its author, Akram Aylisli, is being persecuted today in his own country simply because of the fiction he chooses to write. I seem to gravitate towards controversial projects—as if by translating them I could write a wrong or negate an injustice. In the case of Look at Him, I’m hoping that both sides in the abortion debate will find a little bit of common ground in this beautiful and heartbreaking memoir. That’s a pretty quixotic notion of the power of translation—but it makes me very proud of what I do.


Some people think of translation as the mechanical transmission of words from one language to another. What makes this particular translation a work of art?

I suppose it’s possible to make even a sublime work in the original language tedious and unpleasant in English—that’s on the translator, of course. Any good translator takes into account things like tone, the sort of language used in the original—are the insults witty or vulgar, for example? If the narrator is a child, do they speak in a child’s voice (and if not, why did the writer make that choice, and how can it be conveyed in English)? A particular problem in translating from Russian is that Russian grammar lends itself to very long sentences, much too long for the tastes of most native English speakers. So, translators try to shorten those sentences. But in the last book I translated, every time I tried to shorten a sentence, I discovered that I was hacking apart one of the classical figures of speech—climax, antimetabole, chiasmus—so I had to find a way to keep those rhetorical units together. Translating is very much a kind of handicraft—the original author gives us the raw material, of course, but it’s up to the translator to shape and polish the work in English.


What kind of accommodations, if any, have you made for English-language readers? Did you change the book's title in translation?

There was obviously a bit of contextualization needed—the system through which medical care is accessed and delivered in Russia is very different than the systems familiar to American readers. Some of that context was delivered in the translation itself—inserting a clarifying adjective or phrase, for example, where none was needed in the original—but in the end I wrote a short translator’s introduction with a basic outline of how things work in Russia. The title is the same in both languages, but I had to adapt things like the song lyrics I mentioned before to make music in English.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?

There’s a terrifying episode in the book when Anna suffers a severe panic attack during the short walk to pick up pizza at her neighborhood café. And for months after the loss of her son she’s unable to swallow food—her throat just closes up. She finally starts to recover her health and her spirits when she follows a therapist’s advice to go to Greece and eat olives and feta cheese. “Olives and Feta Cheese” is the title of that chapter, in fact.











Monday, September 14, 2020

TBR: Clutter: An Untidy History by Jennifer Howard

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

A few years ago, it fell to me to clean 50 years’ worth of hoarded stuff out of my mother’s house. As I dug through it all, I realized I was far from alone—and I got to wondering why so many of us wind up drowning in clutter. Contemporary society likes to shame clutterbugs, but clutter has been around since at least the Industrial Revolution—and it’s a systemic problem more than a personal failing.

What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?

To get at the bigger problem of clutter, I had to start with a painful private experience—the squalor my mother wound up living in. Early on, it felt like a betrayal to take that hidden shame and put the squalid details out there for the world to see. As I heard more and more cleanout stories, though, I realized that my mother’s situation, which felt uniquely awful to me, was part of a much bigger problem. I took heart from the idea that by sharing it, and sorting out how it got so bad, I might help lighten the load for other families. That gave me the courage to keep going, even when the going was painful.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

So many twists and turns! Nothing about the process unfolded the way I expected it would, and I’m sometimes amazed the book exists at all. I started work on it as a lifeline of sorts while I got my mother’s house cleaned out and ready to sell. I was stuck in a terrible job. It was a miserable time all around, and it was only out of sheer desperation I managed to finish the proposal. I worked with an agent for a while and we got nowhere. Friends advised me to drop the project. But I felt compelled to keep going, and wound up taking the proposal out on my own. A friend put me in touch with Dan Crissman, my wonderful editor at Belt Publishing. He’d been through a similar cleanout with his parents and understood why I needed to write this book. Working with him and with Belt has been a dream.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

There’s so much wisdom out there—I’m a big fan of Jon Winokur’s @AdviceToWriters Twitter feed, which serves up great quotes from lots of writers worth listening to. The two pieces of advice I give myself most often are “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done” (a somewhat kinder version of the “butt in chair” mantra) and “Get out of your own way”— meaning don’t let that inner critic get to you while you’re writing.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

How hard it is to write a book—even one that is “refreshingly concise,” as Kirkus described mine. And at the same time how satisfying it is to be able to stretch out and really explore ideas in a way you just can’t in a shorter-form piece of writing.


Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is anybody who has struggled to bring order out of domestic chaos, and has wondered why it is such an ongoing fight. You are not alone in the struggle, friends.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

 My mother was a fabulous cook and baker. She probably owned 500 cookbooks and all kinds of specialized cookware, most of which I donated. One of her specialties, though—and one of the things I most miss her making—was Swedish coffee bread, from an old recipe handed down from my grandmother Alberta. The pecan-roll version was a staple of family Thanksgivings as long as I can remember, and the smell of cardamom still makes me nostalgic for Mom in the kitchen.




2 cups milk, scalded*

6 Tbsp. shortening, melted

2 packets dried yeast or 2 yeast cakes

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. salt

2 beaten eggs

5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

12 cardamom seed pods, seeds removed and pulverized


*Note: If using dried yeast, scald only 1 2/3 cups milk and use 1/3 cup warm water to dissolve yeast.



 Dissolve sugar in scalded milk and let cool to lukewarm. Add yeast, beaten eggs, melted shortening, salt, and ground cardamom seeds. Add flour gradually, beating a long while after each addition to develop gluten. Dough should be soft, not too stiff. Knead gently. Place in a greased bowl and let rise til double in bulk. Shape into two rings or braids and bake at 375 degrees on lower rack for 23 minutes. [My mother would sometimes sprinkle coarse sugar on the loaves before baking.]

 For pecan rolls: If you want to make pecan rolls, leave out the cardamom seed. Take a muffin pan and put some light brown sugar, melted butter, and chopped pecans in the bottom of each muffin tin. Add a ball of dough to each, let rise, and bake about 12 minutes.





Tuesday, September 8, 2020

TBR: Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

Road Out of Winter is a novel about a young woman who’s grown up working on her family’s marijuana farm. In an extreme winter, she leaves home, only to become the target of the leader of a violent cult because she has the most valuable skill in the climate chaos: she can make things grow.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

There is a young single mom in the story, like me, but unlike me she’s very outspoken. I loved writing her anger. I have a tendency to keep things in, but she lets you know, and I love that. It was therapeutic, writing her. A friend of mine who is also a survivor pointed out that she behaves as survivors sometimes do—no survival is the same, as no person is the same—lashing out, keeping people away to protect herself. She is what I want to say but wasn’t strong enough to at the time.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

We actually got an acceptance right away, which shocked me. We had a big list of publishers to try, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about MIRA Books, and that first phone call with Margot Mallinson. I knew she was the editor for my book. She saw it and she saw me.

I was very nervous about gate-keeping. That’s something that has happened a lot to me, and to many other writers who are poor or disabled, women writers, writers of color. I’ve had editors tell me I didn’t understand the words I used, editors that inflicted negative stereotypes into my writing about poverty, that changed my storytelling and therefore my story. But Margot told me straight-off as an editor the most important thing for her was to preserve my voice. She trusted me to write the book with my language, my intensity, my emotion. MIRA allowed me to tell the story the way it needed to be told, and I don’t think some editors or publishers would, especially with me being who I am.

I live below the poverty line in a rural place, I’m physically disabled—I’m never going to be accepted by a certain establishment, no matter how or what I write or am truly capable of. So I’m going to keep going, and do it how I can. Doors open in many different ways. Some of them are held open, some of them open with keys, some of them are pried open with knives. Just get in and hold the door for others.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

The story didn’t go where I thought it would. I really planned Road Out of Winter to be cross-country book. But the characters just got stuck. What I intended to be a small scene, an encounter with a dangerous group, ended up being a huge deal. And I was so surprised, I actually left the manuscript and walked away for almost a year. Then I came back, re-read it, realized: oh, they never get out of Appalachia. And finished it. It finished itself.

Sometimes it takes that time to complete a piece. Sometimes you have to walk away for a time. I don’t usually write about where I am—emotionally, anyway—but where I have been. Books need that reflection. Books, for me, are about looking back.

How did you find the title of your book?

I owe my title to the writer Jennifer Key. She came up with it in a brainstorming session. My title was originally The Grower, which I liked because the novel starts with the main character’s stepdaddy—so the reader might think the title is about him. He’s the grower. But it turns out, no—it’s this young woman. She has the power. She has the skill in this new winter world that people fight over, kill for.

My publisher wanted a title that was more dynamic, implying the journey that this book takes, and the danger. I fell in love with Road Out of Winter because there IS no road out of winter, no way out, nowhere to go to escape climate chaos—just like there is no road out of poverty. All my characters live in intergenerational poverty. And there is no one cure. No one way out.  You keep moving to survive.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Deer meat and fried potatoes, which I ate soooo much of when I was spending a lot of time out on a farm! The characters get sick of it, as I did. That said, potatoes fried in butter with onion is probably my favorite dish of all time. My fiancé is Chicano, and we joke that we’re going to open a restaurant that blends Mexican and Appalachian cooking. I like simple, “trash” foods, things you can find in the woods like ramps, ground cherries. Ground cherry pie is the best thing I have ever baked. Chicken of the woods mushrooms also make an appearance in Road Out of Winter. They’re my favorite. You can spot them because of their bright orange shade. Fry them in butter.



DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.