Every time I have to start all over again

Interview with Mikhail Shishkin
March 22, 2012

By Olga Ro

One of the most prominent names in modern Russian literature, Mikhail Shishkin, will have his novel Maidenhair, translated by Marian Schwartz, published by Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester in October.

It is thought that literature is becoming more and more shaped by fashion and molded by consumerism. Against such a landscape, what prospects do you foresee for Russian literature?

Russian literature is marked by one overriding tradition, that is, never compromise and never become subservient. Any writer who is too concerned about marketing issues and who starts writing a novel by calculating its readership ceases to be a writer and becomes a slave to the market instead. You cannot simply go out and join some kind of “ism” and write according to its rules. You cannot give birth to somebody else’s child, but only to your own. Writing is always a ritual, an application or repetition of a magic formula. I call it magic for I never know how it works, and it all seems like chemistry to me. Only when my book is finally in print and gains reader approval do I know that I have found the right recipe. Then the next time I have to start all over again, right from scratch. In Russian literature these days there are a number of strong and talented writers out there, but who defines its contemporary face will only become clear in 50 years’ time, say. At the moment we all stand as a group at the feet of Tolstoy.

You’ve been translated into 20 languages. This year your books have made a breakthrough into the English-speaking world with Maidenhair in the U.S., and British Quercus has bought the rights to Letter-Book. Is this an opportune moment for quality contemporary Russian prose?

In general publishers are afraid of serious literature in translation. There is a real risk of investing significant amounts of money into projects with unclear sales prospects. A good publisher is not the one who only publishes mass market bestsellers, but the one who is also able to turn quality literature into bestsellers. Translations into English are long overdue, and literary agents and book fairs have certainly played a very significant role in this process.

Your books use allusions and linguistic experiments. Do you think that your style presents a challenge for translators?

I have always been intrigued by the legend of 70 independent people who translated the Bible into Greek and they each produced an identical text. My experience is quite different: a sample translation of Letter-Book made by three independent translators had no single phrase alike. This does not mean to say that the translations are good or bad, it is simply how it is. I can only help the translators with an overall understanding of a Russian text and then I have to leave them alone to struggle with their own language.

What should an American reader be prepared for when picking up Maidenhair? What is the book about? Where did the idea come from and how much of your personal experience does it reflect?

When people open Maidenhair they see some of their own life set out before them. It is not simply about some exotic Russian problem but about a human being, a knot of entangled human lives and corresponding destinies. It is also all about my life. My experience as an interpreter for refugees in Switzerland at their “Ministry of Defense of Paradise,” as we could call it, is woven into the novel. Even though there is much cruelty in the narrative, the novel is really about humanity and love, both of which help to overcome violence. The title of the novel, Maidenhair, is taken from the name of a fern, Adiantum capillus veneris. This fern grows like a weed in the Eternal City of Rome, the setting for the end of the novel. In Russia this type of fern is a houseplant that would perish without human love and care. My novel is about love and care in its various guises.

Will there be a promotional tour in the U.S.A. coinciding with the release of this book? Will you be coming to BookExpo 2012?

Yes, I have been invited to New York for BookExpo, there will be galleys, and there are planned readings and presentations in various cities. I know and I love the U.S.A. for I have visited quite a number of times, and on two occasions I have taught a semester at a university.

Source: PW