Six Questions for Peter Blackstock
Peter Blackstock, senior editor at Grove Atlantic and curator of the Festival Neue Literatur which took place March 2nd-5th, talks with our web editor Kristin Henley about the festival, getting American audiences to read translated books, and having passion for literature. Blackstock's authors include the Center's First Novel Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg, and the Booker-longlisted writer Eve Harris.
You were this year's curator for the Festival Neue Literatur—how did you get involved with them? It's a great line-up, can you talk about how you put it together and some of the challenges you faced?
It was a real joy to be involved with the Festival Neue Literatur for this eighth edition. The Festival was one of the first literary events I attended when I moved to New York from London six years ago and I enjoy it every year, so was delighted (and slightly nervous) at being asked to be involved as the curator this time. The Festival brings six writers from the German-speaking world together with American writers, translators, and critics. This year we were delighted to have Garth Greenwell as our Chairperson, and Darryl Pinckney and Francine Prose as the U.S. authors, plus writers and translators from Sara Khalili and Susan Bernofsky to John Freeman, Valeria Luiselli, and Rivka Galchen in our “Translation at the Margins” event.
I was fortunate in that the Festival’s director Brittany Hazelwood had already tentatively come up with the festival theme, “Queer as Volk,” so my focus was selecting which German-language writers to invite. I’m so pleased with our slate of writers—from Antje Rávic Strubel, whose newest novel moves from Sweden to the Mojave Desert and beyond as it explores sex, gender, and sexuality; to Marlen Schachinger’s “faction novel” centering around two women in contemporary Vienna linked by their exploration of the persecution of gay people in Austria, including during the Nazi period; to Simon Froehling’s depiction of the gay scene in Zürich and his story of two young lovers, one of whom is diagnosed with HIV. It was a challenge to put together a group that felt somehow representative of what is an enormous theme, but I’m very happy with our line-up.
You mentioned the Festival's theme is "Queer as Volk"—how do representations of queerness in literature differ in Europe versus America?
That’s a challenging question to answer—every author and every book is different, and I’m not an expert on the subject. But obviously literature is in dialogue with the society it comes from; gay subjects that might shock a Russian audience might feel everyday to readers in New York, and each European country has a different history with gay rights and gay writing. In the U.S., I think it’s a great time for queer literature, with writers like Eileen Myles, Alexander Chee, Garth Greenwell, Jacqueline Woodson, Alison Bechdel, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Tim Murphy, Darryl Pinckney, Sarah Schulman, Rabih Alameddine, amongst many others all producing acclaimed works in the last couple of years alone. And it’s heartening that for the most part these books have not been consigned as primarily for an LGBTQ audience—they have won major prizes, received big critical attention, and make up a big part of the literary culture.
There's been a lot of discussion about how few foreign authors are translated for the American market. Why do you think that is? And how can we change that? And on the other side, what's your advice to readers who would like to discover more work in translation, but don't know where to start?
Happily, I think the situation is slowly improving—partially because of the Knausgård and Ferrante phenomena, which of course are not the first translated books to develop a huge following (the list is long, from Stieg Larsson to Tolstoy). There are also recent big commercial books in translation like A Man Called Ove and The Little Paris Bookshop that have become huge sellers—overall I have the feeling that publishers are waking up to the possibilities of books in translation. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a good example of a translated book that broke through and found a big readership here. It does something new and interesting, and explores an intriguing psychology and a part of the world unknown to many Americans, and people were interested. Books like this change people’s reading habits. Readers might take a chance on Bae Suah, published by the fantastic Open Letter Books, after reading Han Kang, and there are plenty of readers whose eyes would light up at the prospect of reading a work of fiction translated from Marathi or Greenlandic or Macedonian. That said, it can be challenging to get reviews for books in translation and for readers to find them, and that can make things tough for the smaller presses, who are so critical to the ecosystem of how books in translation make it into English.
For readers who don’t know where to find books in translation—your favorite bookshop is a great place to start. Browsing the shelves with my husband at Three Lives recently, we discovered three books, all in translation and only one of which I’d heard of before, and bought them all. Bookshops are unbeatable for that kind of chance discovery, but there are so many fantastic ways to discover books in translation, from the peerless Three Percent blog, websites like Lit Hub and Full Stop, to the PEN World Voices Festival, to journals like Freeman’s, Granta, and n+1 and awards like the Man Booker International. I’m also happy that the NBCC includes translated works in its awards, as does PEN, and wonder if other award organizations here could do more to showcase translated works. I would also love to see a kind of VIDA count for translated books.
You have a great list including last year's winner of The Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize (and the Pulitzer!), Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer—what makes a "Peter Blackstock book?"
The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize is very special to me—that was the first award that Viet won and I’ll remember for my whole career the feeling of elation when his name was announced at the gala. I feel very lucky to have been able to acquire The Sympathizer and to work with a writer who is a brilliant mind and a genius on the page as well. As an editor, you can’t go too far wrong working with someone of that caliber.
I want to build a list with a diverse, international group of writers and am lucky to be able to acquire across fiction, nonfiction, and drama. I recently signed up a fantastic Japanese writer, Sayaka Murata, whose novel we will publish next year, because I loved the voice from the 50 pages I could read in English and because I trusted the taste of Murata’s German editor. I am happy that I have writers from France, Germany, Estonia, Albania, and Korea on my list. For writers working in English, I’m interested in works that explore experiences that we don’t often see represented in fiction, and in strong original voices. The Sympathizer is in many ways a deeply American book, but it provides a profoundly new perspective on the Vietnam War, as Vietnamese voices have been largely sidelined in America. I’m interested in fiction that explores history (like Charmaine Craig’s wonderful novel Miss Burma, coming in May) and culture. That’s also true on the nonfiction side as well—for instance, I have a book coming up about the flourishing of Russian art and culture just before the October Revolution. I hope that my list reflects the world, and feel lucky that I can often be the first person to publish a new literary voice, like Akwaeke Emezi, whose stunning debut Freshwater is coming early next year.
At the Center, we work a lot with writers who are just getting started. The process of getting a book published can be mysterious for people outside of the industry (don't worry I won't ask you to explain the whole system!)—what advice or knowledge would you like to impart to emerging writers?
Please don’t ask me to explain the whole system! I don’t have sage advice or deep knowledge to impart, but I would say that it’s important that a writer feel deeply passionate and convinced about their book—if you’re unsure on the subject or setting, that might be a sign that you’re not on the right track. And I think the other thing is to try to be zen about the mechanics of publishing. I truly feel that good books find good agents and good editors, sometimes in a circuitous way, but the good karma comes around.
And finally what are you reading these days? What are you excited about?
I often gravitate to nonfiction when I’m reading for pleasure, and to books that are completely different from what I would publish myself. I just read a biography of Mayakovsky by Bengt Jangfeldt over the holidays and just finished an out-of-print book by an English writer, J.B. Priestley, who I first read as a child. My favorite non-Grove book from the last couple of years was Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, which I encourage everyone to pick up, it’s extremely timely.
Peter Blackstock is a senior editor at Grove Atlantic in New York. His list includes fiction, nonfiction, and drama, with a focus on international writing and books in translation. Among his authors are the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg, and the Booker-longlisted writer Eve Harris, alongside house authors like Will Self, Tom Stoppard, and the estates of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. In translation, his authors include Julia Franck, Charlotte Roche, Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Andrus Kivirähk, Annick Cojean, Ismail Kadare, Isabelle Saporta, and Sayaka Murata. He has participated in editor fellowships in Jerusalem and Frankfurt, has been a judge for the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants and the Gutekunst Prize for Young Translators, and is part of the American Jury of New Books in German. He studied German and Russian at Oxford University and now lives in Queens.