Monday, March 28, 2011

The Power of Persistence

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

-Calvin Coolidge

It happens to all of us. When we least expect it, Self Doubt shows its ugly face. Anything can trigger it: a harsh critique, a rejection letter, months of silence from an editor or agent, a sarcastic question (“you’re still not published?”) Maybe it’s the blank page on our computer screens, or the awful realization that our manuscript presents serious problems and needs a major rewrite (and many of our beloved characters must be eradicated from the face of the Earth.)

With the visit of such an unwelcomed character (whom we shall call SD), it’s no surprise that so many writers give up their dream of seeing their names printed on the cover of a book. After all, there are easier, more practical and instantly-rewarding professions. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just quit and save yourself the heartache?

Yes, it would be simpler.


There will always be that little splinter stuck inside your heart that from time to time—in the middle of a sleepless night, chopping vegetables in your kitchen, standing in the line of a grocery store—would make you wonder:

‘What if I had finished that novel? What if I had pursued more agents? I could have been published by now. After all,’ you think as you pick a copy of a new paperback from the nearest magazine rack, ‘if so and so got published (and as I can see, this is not a work of art) I could have done this. My writing and my plot were much better than this!’

“Yes,” Mr. Coolidge reminds you with his thunderous voice, “you may be more talented and educated and creative, but YOU ARE NOT PERSISTENT, while Mrs. So and So IS!”

President Calvin Coolidge, a very persistent man.

It is persistence that pushed Margaret Mitchell to continue pursuing publication after Gone With The Wind had been rejected by 38 publishers.

Margaret Mitchell typed all 1037 pages of the first edition of
Gone With The Wind without the assistance of our friend, the PC.

The same persistence that Louise May Alcott had after they told her to “stick to teaching.” Or Judy Blume after two years of rejections; or John Grisham after 16 publishers said no to A Time to Kill.

If Jodi Picoult had listened to her SD monster, she would have never sent another query letter after more than 100 agents refused to represent her.

All the books we would have missed if this
prolific writer had quit after 100 rejections.

It must have taken a lot of determination and persistence for D.H. Lawrence to continue seeking a publisher for Lady Chatterly’s Lover after one of them told him: “For your own sake do not publish this book.”

Or Stephen King, who got dozens of rejections for his first novel, Carrie, but didn’t believe the publisher who claimed that “Science Fiction with negative utopias doesn’t sell.” (It was also a good thing that his wife—another persistent cat—recovered his crumpled manuscript from the trash bin.)

First edition of Carrie (thank you Mrs. King for
picking through your husband’s trash!)

Without persistence, Gabriel García Marquez would not have typed every day for eighteen months, sold his car and pawned almost every household appliance to provide for his family before he emerged with the thirteen-hundred-page-manuscript that would become his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Don Gabriel García Marquez and
the first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

(Eighteen months of writing that must have felt like a hundred years.)

And we all know where persistence took J.K. Rowling. (And a certain publisher’s daughter who couldn’t resist the charm of Harry Potter and persuaded her father to publish his story.)

There is no other profession where President Coolidge’s words prove more true than in writing. The publishing world is filled with inspiring stories of now-famous authors whose dreams may have seemed hopeless and foolish at first. But where would literature be now had they not persisted?

What about you: Have you ever felt like quitting? How did you find the motivation to continue writing? Can you think of other examples where persistence paid off?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why stories?

Why do we write? Ask a writer and you’ll probably get an answer like this: “Because I have to.” I would answer the same way, but it’s not a very interesting response, really, so I’m going to back up and ask a different, more basic question: Why stories?
People have been producing and consuming stories since the dawn of humanity. Our children, from the time they comprehend language, demand stories. Where does this drive stem from? This question is more central to the storyteller, I believe, than the “why write?” question. If we know why humans crave stories, that helps us understand our role as storytellers. I have some ideas, and I’d like to hear yours, too.

My first thought is that stories are about disseminating a society’s values to its young people. Aesop’s fables have the moral nicely laid out for the reader at the end, in case she is too dense to get it on her own, but every story contains some moral message, even if it’s a subtle one. Pick up a book of fairy tales and notice how often you come across a decrepit beggar woman or old man requesting assistance. The first young person who meets the beggar refuses to help, and is usually rude about it to boot. The hero of the story, however, stops and is kind and generous, giving up his or her cloak and some much-needed food rations. The old man or woman turns out to be a magician in disguise, and the young person is rewarded or punished accordingly. The moral of the story? Help the old people, dagnabbit. (A useful if self-serving moral for the older generation to impart to the next one.)

Second, stories serve the purpose of giving readers practice at dealing with tragedy. Every story has to have a conflict, as we know, and as we watch the protagonist grapple with the problem, we experience her suffering vicariously. Many stories center on not just a conflict, but a massive crisis or great loss. If we’ve already been through such a thing, we feel a sense of solace and companionship: someone understands our grief. If we haven’t been through such an event yet, stories give us a clue what it might be like. And when tragedy befalls us (as it must, because we are human), stories give us a roadmap for how to survive it. Kids are usually required to read tearjerkers like Bridge to Terabithia or Where the Red Fern Grows for school, and these stories might be the first taste of loss and tragedy they have. It’s like a dry run. A fire drill. You go through the fake thing enough times and, when the real thing happens, you have at least some idea what to do.

A third purpose of the story, no less important than the other two, is to build bridges of empathy between individuals and even cultures. I have no idea what it’s like to be an escaped slave facing a man trying to regain ownership of me and my children, but after reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I have some small sense of that horror. I don’t know what it’s like to be a grindingly poor Indian peasant living under an oppressive caste system, but Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance gives me a glimpse into that dark world.

I suspect this is why we associate a well-read person with a wise person. In understanding our world, we need facts (what nonfiction is for) but we also need the emotional framework to understand those facts (what fiction is for). When I meet people who hate, despise, and fear others, I assume I’m meeting someone who is under-read. Someone who hasn’t had the advantage of stories, which allow us to experience another life, feel another pain or joy or sorrow than our own. We won’t cure racism by insisting everyone read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Invisible Man, but it would help. I have a hard time believing anyone could get through Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and not see Afghanistan in a whole new light than the one we get from the evening news.

How does this help us as writers? If we think about what the consumers of our products really hunger for, what they’ve demanded from storytellers for millennia, we have a more focused reason to write than “because I have to.” We do it because stories really matter, and we know it. Storytelling is one of the deepest, oldest, and most important aspects of humanity.

So, why do you write?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Interview with Author and Translator Tiina Nunnally

The Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood would like to welcome author and translator Tiina Nunnally to our blog today!

Tiina proofreading a manuscript -- with 
a little help from her cat.
Tiina Nunnally has translated more than fifty works of fiction from the Scandinavian languages into English, including Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, and The Royal Physician’s Visit by Per Olov Enquist.  She has also done new translations of Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. She lives in Albuquerque and makes her living as a full-time literary translator.

What languages do you work with when it comes to translation?
I translate from Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish into English.

How did you get your start in the writing industry?
I started translating in my free time because I wanted my friends to read some of the great Scandinavian books that I was reading. My first translated book was a memoir called Early Spring, written by the Danish author Tove Ditlevsen. I was lucky enough to have it published by Seal Press in 1984. It also won the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize, so that really encouraged me to continue translating. That same year, at a conference on Scandinavian literature in Seattle, I met Steven T. Murray, the editor in chief of Fjord Press. We ended up getting married the following year, and we ran Fjord Press for twenty years, publishing mostly Scandinavian and German fiction in translation. We never made a profit (and always had to have other jobs to pay our bills), but our books received excellent reviews in major newspapers. We met a lot of authors and editors, and we learned so much about the publishing business.

What is the process of becoming a book translator?
Like any art, it requires practice, practice, practice. I always encourage beginning translators to try their hand at essays and short stories, just because they’re a manageable length. And it’s best to choose a work that you really love, with a writing style that suits you. Doing technical translation is also great practice — translating financial, legal, and corporate documents. It teaches you to meet deadlines, to do the necessary research to learn the appropriate vocabulary for the job, and to adapt to different writing styles.  And technical translation pays better than literary translation! In the US there are very few translators who can make a living by translating fiction.

When it comes to translation, how do you get your foot in the door with publishers (in other words, do you query them or do they seek you out to translate specific works)?
The US or UK publisher chooses the translator for any given work. Once you’ve established a track record by having a few books published, editors will seek you out for new projects. By the way, translators don’t have agents, which means that we have to negotiate our own contracts. Over the past 25 years, Steve and I have made a point of requesting a royalty clause in our contracts with both US and UK publishers. The translator plays an essential role in the success of any translated work — so if the book is a hit, the translator should benefit financially.

Do you ever get the opportunity to meet with or have a conversation with the author of a novel you’re working on?
It’s always great if an author is willing to answer questions. These days it’s so much easier, because we can send queries via email — although I’ve worked with one Swedish author who doesn’t “believe” in email! So we’ve had many long phone conversations about specific passages in his books.

What have been some of the most difficult scenes to translate?
Humor is one of the hardest things to translate. Something that is funny in one language may not be at all funny in another language.  Swear words are also a challenge. In the Scandinavian languages, all of the worst curse words have to do with the devil. In English, we usually make reference to God or to sex when we swear. I once translated a Danish novel that was filled with swear words, and the author (whose English was not very good) sent me a frantic email asking me why I’d put all those “gods” in his book!

How does a translator weigh the lyricism/cadence of the original language with the meaning of the words? Is there ever a point where you sacrifice literal translation to try to get the poetry of a passage across?
“Literal translation” has no place in a work of fiction. Translating “word for word” will produce a flat, lifeless text that no one will want to read. Translation is an art, and the translator is rather like a musician who has to “play” the work, trying to get as close as possible to the “music” of the original composition. This involves paying attention to the style and tone. For example, if the book is written in a very colloquial style, you need to match that appropriately in English. You wouldn’t want a 17th-century monk using 21st-century slang! As a translator, it’s also important to understand the nuances and cultural references of the language that you’re translating from — but it’s even more important to be a good writer in your own language.

Is there one specific genre you prefer working with or do you enjoy translating all kinds?
I prefer to translate prose. These days Steve and I both translate a lot of crime fiction, which we enjoy because we get to use a lot of current slang (and swear words!). I’ve also translated a lot of classic novels, which can be difficult because you need to match the tone and style from a past era. In general, I like to take on projects that challenge me as a translator and a writer. I rarely translate poetry, which requires a whole different approach. I usually say that you need to be a poet yourself in order to translate a poem successfully.

Since your husband is a translator as well, do you ever work on a project together?
We always edit each other’s work. After I finish my first draft of a translation, I sit down and read through the whole thing again, making changes and corrections with a green pen. Then Steve reads the manuscript, marking changes in red. I look over his changes, either accepting them or not (using a third colored pen!), and then all the corrections have to be entered in the computer before the manuscript goes off to the publisher. When Steve translates a book, the process is reversed. So you can see that each translation is read at least four times before it leaves our house.

Do authors ever get angry about how their works are translated? Do they have any say before the translation is published?
Some authors get more involved in the translation process than others. Most Scandinavian writers speak English well, which can sometimes create problems for the translator, because the author may want to “correct” the English. We diplomatically try to discourage this type of “help.” It’s really a matter of trust. The author needs to trust the translator to present his or her novel in a way that gets as close as possible to the style and intent of the original. I always say that the translator’s first loyalty is to the author — not to the publisher or reader. It’s my job to “speak” for the author in English, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

If a writer wanted to translate his/her own work into a second language, would you encourage them to do so or caution him/her against translating their own work?
It’s usually best to have a professional translator take on that task. A bad English translation can ruin the author’s chances in the US and/or UK market.

There has been some discussion over the original translation of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter after your translation was published in 1997-2000 (published in one volume in 2005). Can you explain a little why the original English translation fails to capture the essence of the story and what Undset was trying to get across to the reader?
Because the book is set in the 14th century, the first translators apparently decided to make the English sound archaic to match their idea of how people would have talked during that time period. The result is a stilted and awkward style that bears no resemblance to the beautifully clear and straightforward style of the original Norwegian. The early translations are also marred by mistakes and misunderstandings, and for some reason entire passages were deleted from the text (especially in the second volume of the trilogy). Sigrid Undset is one of my favorite authors, and I was dismayed to see her work so poorly represented in English. So I was thrilled when Penguin asked me to do a new translation of Kristin Lavransdatter that would restore the missing passages and try to get much closer to Undset’s style.

What novels are you currently working on?
I just finished translating a Danish suspense novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen called The Keeper of Lost Causes, which will be published by Dutton in August. It’s the first in a series (exciting plots, great characters, plus a sense of humor) that should really appeal to readers.

* Join me over at the Random Book Review this weekend where I will be reviewing the first novel in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Wreath!

♥ Mary Mary

Monday, March 7, 2011

Age and blood-ties: Do readers impose their taboos on the industry?

Oscar Wilde did not believe in "dangerous" books

The publishing industry claims there are no forbidden themes in fiction, agreeing with Oscar Wilde´s quip that there is no such thing as bad books, only badly-written ones. But we, readers, know very well what topics disturb us. What happens when the public refuses to read novels dealing with controversial topics? Won´t the industry budge to its clientele´s tastes? What are the once safe subjects that now upset modern sensibilities?

I begin by saying that my comments are on the American scene, since the United States is still the leader in book-publishing in the world. Other publishing industries have their own idiosyncrasies and prohibited subjects, but to all of us who write in English, it´s the American industry that matters.

I am fifty-one years old, and like most people my age, I am painfully aware of the distinction between Twentieth Century’s and contemporary cultures. Our way of thinking has evolved tremendously and that applies to literary tastes as well. A Third Millennium reader might be shocked and offended by the way classical works of literature dealt with love in times when spousal rape, underage sex, and sibling marriage used to be the norm.

As modern critics applaud the erasure of racist epithets in Huckleberry Finn, so they show antipathy towards certain subject matters in current fiction. Exploring user´s comments on Amazon and other sites, I have come to recognize what issues are considered “icky” and elicit the most “how gross!" and ”eeews!” from readers. Among those controversial scenarios are cousin-marriage and May-December affairs, even when they take place in historical settings.

From Jane Austen to Louisa May Alcott, “kissing cousins” were frequent romantic elements in Victorian novels. Over a hundred years, and several medical and social misconceptions later, marriage among cousins disgusts American audiences. Unless it is shown as illegal, incestuous and negative, such a relationship in modern literature is unthinkable. Not surprising since the only Western country that bans those unions is the United States (and it´s unlawful just in thirty states).

Cousin-marriage a la Austen

The British YA novel How I Live Now, has been widely criticized on the Internet for depicting a love affair between a fourteen-year old and her first cousin. Users and critics agree that books should carry warnings signs to alert readers about unsavory content. Not even children’s literature is safe from such displeasure. I heard that copies of the well-loved Babar series now have been censored so there is no mention that Celeste, the elephant’s wife, is also his first cousin. Are they doing the same with Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit? Because if I don’t ill recall, Peter married his first cousin, Topsy.

The same distaste applies nowadays to that old romantic staple: May-December love affairs. Even if it happened in days of yore, the idea of an underage wife makes readers flinch. It’s no use telling people that until World War I, men married old and women married in their teens. Just remember Scarlett’s fear of becoming a spinster like 20-year old India Wilkes. But perhaps, Gone with the Wind is, by present standards, a dangerous novel.

May-December romance in GWTW

I was nine-years old when I came across my first copy of Gone with the Wind. It took me two days to finish it and less than fifty pages to turn it into my favorite novel of all time. It might come as a surprise that Melanie marrying her first cousin or Scarlett marrying the much older Rhett Butler did not shock me. I am embarrassed to say, I was not even offended by Rhett raping the heroine. I guess, many felt that way because in 1987, conducting a poll among my high-schools students, I found that GWTW was still a YA bestseller. I wonder if that would hold true today. Do teen readers, and adults, still fall in love with GWTW, or are they uncomfortable with it´s racism and sexism, not to mention the odd matrimonial customs of the Old South?

Gigi and her much older paramour

With that in mind, I can understand why modern sensibility cringes at films like Gigi, based on Colette´s novel, which has a fourteen-year old reforming and marrying a bored womanizer. How do people feel about Jo March marrying old, but loving, Professor Baher? And how many complaints have I read about Twilight because 100-year old Edward is a tiny bit older than teenaged Bella? The fact that Bella is an “Old Soul”, who would much rather cook and read Jane Austen than do drugs at the nearest disco, should be taken into consideration.

Bella messing around with an "older man"

As I wrote once, Fantasy and Science Fiction offer great refuges for taboo-breaking. George R.R. Martin became a bestselling author after creating a world, in his saga Song of Ice and Fire, where incest is not a crime, thirteen-year-old brides are acceptable. The hottest craze for vampire romances lets May-December thrive as long as, quoting a reader, “the hundred-year old vampire looks good!”

Must add, so this doesn´t sound like an attack on people´s preferences, that certain novels do disturb me , even if set in fabled worlds or historical settings. Today, many of us are uncomfortable with early bodice-rippers that dealt with “rape fantasy” romances (i.e. heroine raped by hero). Visiting a romance forum, I sympathized with comments repudiating Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodwise’s works for including that scenario, but then I was appalled when the same readers embraced Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander that has the villain raping the hero. Talk about a double standard!

To anyone that asks, I wholeheartedly recommend Jacqueline Carey´s Kushiel series. It offers elegant prose, plenty of intrigue and adventure stories, and Carey has created a wonderful parallel world that mirrors the European Middle-Ages. Having said that, I confess that after reading the first book in the series, I gave up on it. I found it excessive , not to mention sickening, to read about a society that made sex the number-one priority, where girls were trained to become sacred prostitutes , and where the heroine’s greatest gift was to experience pleasure through pain.

I realized that only the “Historical Fantasy” label permitted the Kushiel series to become part of mainstream literature. I don’t believe it would have worked if masochist Phedre had been the protagonist of a contemporary romance or a historical novel, because reader tolerance does not encompass historical settings. And one of the best examples is The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littel’s award-winning novel.

American- born Littell chose to write this novel in French, he had it published by the prestigious Gallimard publishing house, and eventually went on to get Le Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize. The Kindly Ones is an exploration of the Holocaust written from the point of view of an SS officer, a highly educated, but deeply-disturbed human being.

Although vastly praised, The Kindly Ones has come under fire by several critics that begrudge its historical inaccuracies, the handling of the Holocaust, and last but not the least, the almost pornographic juxtaposition of sex and violence. Add to the fact that the protagonist is homosexual and has this obsession with somodizing his sister, and you´ve said it all.

There´s even a story that Littell, having been rejected initially by many American publishing houses, eventually rewrote his novel in French. What fuels the possibilities of this rumor being true is that The Kindly Ones’ translation, bought by HarperCollins, did very poorly in the American market. Which shows the industry knows its readers and their likes and dislikes.

Now it´s your turn to tell us what subjects you find repellent? What novels have made you cringe? And should the industry stay away from controversial themes?