giovedì 7 dicembre 2017

Interview with Anne-Sylvie Salzman

Anne-Sylvie Salzman plays a very interesting role in the publishing world. She founded and currently co-directs Le Visage Vert, a literary magazine and small press on supernatural fiction. She is a translator from English into her mother tongue, French (she’s translated so far more than 80 books), she is a writer (of novels, Au bord d’un lent fleuve noir, Sommeil and Dernières nouvelles d’Œsthrénie, and of two story collections, Lamont and Vivre sauvage dans les villes), she is a translated author (Tartarus Press in Great Britain and Edizioni Hypnos in Italy have translated her story collections).
So many different facets which allow Anne-Sylvie Salzman to have a full understanding of this matter.

Here’s the interview we did at Stranimondi 2017.

How did you start your experience in this field? Is there any role you feel more comfortable in?

I started writing quite a long time ago, like a lot of people, writing rambling semi-psychological novels, and when I was in my early twenties, because I was always interested in narrative and genre literature, I had a momentous encounter with Xavier Legrand-Ferronnière, who was at the time an underground promoter of fantastic and weird literature in the world of fanzines. We became good friends and he gathered around himself a number of people who also were interested into that — for instance, a great translator from the German, Elisabeth Willenz, (she wrote her PhD on Gustav Meyrink, to whom we owe the name of the Visage vert, the quarterly Xavier launched later on). At the time I would read all the Victorians, I had something in mind which was more interested into genre or thriller, or this kind of things, and of course in fantastic literature, but meeting these people was really the starting point of a much stronger interest into that kind of literature and probably I would have at the end eventually reach that point, but meeting them was a sort of accelerator, in a way, and then I started also to write this kind of things. 

I was writing amorphous and boring novels before taking to translation. I don't know whether translating played a part in the novels getting better, but that is what happened. Reading was equally important--on top of that I was, for a while, reviewing English and Nordic literature for a French literary monthly and I guess this, too, taught me a few things. Editing came last. 

Writing / translating / editing: these are very different things. Translation is more like a craft to me--editing is a team work--and writing is a rather organic and almost unintentional process (well, that may be slightly exaggerated. But still...) And I cannot really envision them as roles or parts. I spent a number of years working as a PR / copywriter for sundry companies: now that was playing a part.

Here at Stranimondi Edizioni Hypnos presents – in a single edition – the Italian translation of your two stories collections, under the title “Lacerazioni”, translated by Barbra Bucci and Elena Furlan.

Artwork by Ivo Torello

These stories face the inner conflicts of their characters and explore their weakness, the disintegration of the surrounding reality, and they bring us inside a visionary world halfway between madness and instinct. We also perceive another “laceration”, that one between body (which often bleeds, which is already a carcass) and soul. It is left to the reader then the interpretive labour, even if, as it always happens in the best traditions: «In the end it is the mystery that lasts, and not the explanation».

First of all, is my reading correct?

Yes, any reading is correct. Most of these stories are also pretty instinctive in the way they were written. They always start with a small phenomenon, a real phenomenon, I would say. The first story I wrote was the one called Meannanaich, a Gaelic world, which indicates the bizarre noise of the wings of the snipe, when it performs its nuptial dance – it has a meaning which of course has to do with the story, I let it to the people to discover what’s in the story – but it was my first short story (I had only written novels before that). The story came to my mind because of something I saw in Scotland. It was really the beginning of the process of imagination, which is almost unconscious, and after a while I started saying to myself: Has it something to do with the thing I saw? And it also conflated into the phenomenon of the snipe, which was explained to me by a Scottish friend of mine, and also into a visit I made with the same friend one very weird evening along the beach. And all of a sudden this created the condition of being for that story. In fact, all the stories in Lacerazioni have a beginning in reality and this reality is being then embraced by the imagination and the imagination starts to create things around that and at one point is natural enough for me to make a story out of that. That’s how it works. A bit like the tiny foreign body which causes the oyster to make a pearl. As if the whole body of the writer, and not only the brain, was involved into the story-making process. As a matter of fact, most of the stories also contained a sort of… not obsession, but a strong theme around the body: body parts, body invasion, body deformation. Maybe it’s linked with how I think I make these stories, in my body.

During the presentation at Stranimondi, with the interpreter Selene Verri 

Then you follow a creative instinct when you write, and not a pattern.

I would say so. If nothing happens I don’t write. For instance, I haven’t been writing a short story for two years because nothing new has happened which made a story in my brain.

I really love the story called Shioge, which comes to mind right away.

Yes, that’s again linked with a few ‘real’ events. I saw something in Scotland, then another thing happened, not in Scotland but in the countryside of France. That kind of things you’re not really sure about. I was in a car with a friend, we were driving along woods and fields, and then we saw a number of people tending extremely hill-looking sheep. It was so bizarre, because many of these sheep were obviously affected by some sort of epidemic. But we couldn’t read anything about an epidemic later on the newspapers. So we doubted about what we saw. But I think it was that, an epidemic. Again, this matured into the story about the shepherd and his sheep, Shioge.

This illness is only in the mind of the protagonist, and then he makes it real.

Also yes, but maybe the illness is true, I don’t know. In any way the readers are right, I just give them something to read, they can think whatever they want. And that’s how I read as well.

Even in the great variety of settings, characters and tones, it is however possible in these stories to track down common themes and motifs, common aspects which recur intensely, both physical and internal, such as for example “the eyes”, the dreamlike and imaginative dimension.
We find the madness; the inside which becomes the outside; the incommunicability; the solitude; the maternity; the savage animality.  

Which is the relationship between the themes and the characters of your stories and how do they interact?

I wouldn’t know, because again there’s a very much of instinctive process, so I don’t know. I think, you do look for what you’re looking for, in a way, of course. If you’re interested, as I am, in “eyes” as a figure, I’m more obsessed with eyes that most people are, then the working of unconscious and of the brain bring eyes all the time in my stories even if I don’t want them. For instance, I’m thinking about the two ‘twin’ stories Memorie dell’occhio e La mano veggente: these two stories are about my grand-grand-grand-father in real life, and this man was, as it happens, a maker of artificial eyes. There was a secret about this man, which my family discovered only a few years ago, and it is that this man had killed his wife and two of his children. His baby daughter, the one who survived, never knew about that, because at the time of the murder she was six months old, and the family took her away to Corsica, where her father was from, she was brought into a convent and there nobody told her what happened to her family, they told her that her mother died when she was born and that the father died a few years later drinking himself to death. She never knew she had had siblings, and she never knew that her father killed everyone but her. Maybe some people would say that there’s a part of the brain of that child that remembered it, and so the knowledge of the story passed on to different persons in the family and so that’s why I am interested in terrible stuff, in horror, in eyes… who knows? This was one of the coincidences which were pretty troubling as well, and my stories are full of them.

Are you working on something new as a writer?

Yes, I’m working on two things: one is a novel I’m suppose to be writing since ages, but it’s a very slow process, I managed to write the first part, now I have to write the second and the third part and then all of a sudden I realized that things I was doing outside could also be part of that novel, so it’s going to be a fourth part novel. I don’t know exactly what its structure is going to be, at the moment it really looks like I’m in the kitchen with many boiling pots, and at one point I have to mix them. Maybe it’s going to be a huge catastrophe, maybe something interesting. And I’m writing an other novel with a friend, William Charlton [who translated Darkscapes]-- we already wrote a ghost story together, Double. Now we’re heading towards something which is more of a cosmic horror sort.

Is it difficult to write together with an another writer?

Not with him, because we’ve got similarities and also a lot of differences, we write completely differently, and this makes it easier. If we were a bit much more alike, it would probably be more boring, more difficult, because we would maybe compete. He writes a lot, he teaches Philosophy, he has a lot of interests, he’s a very good storyteller, he has an ear for dialogue, he can write really funny dialogues, he’s very gifted in “the fun department”. We are a sort of complementary writers. He wrote short stories as well, published by Tartarus Press. These are the two projects, these and-- yes, in fact there is a third one, a short and slightly over-the-top horror story. I don’t know how to manage all that at the same time, but I have to do all of these things. It’s been a long time since I haven’t finished something, so this is the good direction to get back in the field.

As a translator, you work from English using the pen name Anne-Sylvie Homassel.
Is there a reason why you underline this professional distinction with an onomastic one?

Anne-Sylvie Homassel is my real name. Yes, I think I wanted to make a distinction between the two me, the writer and the translator. I didn’t want the distinction to be that wide, in fact “Salzman” is the translation of “Homassel”, I don’t know if it’s really so, the origin of the name is obscure, “Saltman” being a kind of fake etymology. It describes alterity, which is a good thing when I think of myself as a writer. I’m the same person but slightly different, so it’s good to have slightly different names.

In your education as an author, how important were your translations of writers such as, for example, Mary Shelley, Lord Dunsany, Fritz Leiber, Arthur Machen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, Jack London, Oliver Onions and Thomas Ligotti? To cite just a few.

Hugely important, I guess. Probably the first ones, the first translation is probably more important than the rest.

The first was Fritz Leiber?

The first, the real first was not Fritz Leiber (but he was the first published translation of fiction). Before that, I have translated a philosophy essay, which was my real first translation, of George Berkeley, a really fine writer, extremely interesting, and also someone who is connected with vision and “the eye”, another interesting coincidence. And someone, who is not in the list: Max Beerbohm, he could be some sort of model, his English is so crazily refined, witty and at the same time so precise. Of course, the people you’re translating are also teaching you some of the tricks, you apply them or not, but still it feeds you. If you translate a lot sometimes you don’t feel so much the need to write, which can be slightly dangerous. If you do both, if you write and translate, you have to balance the two activities. Try not to let too much of the writers you’re translating invading you, try to learn things from them and try to be faithful to them and to yourself as well. Of course you also learn things from the people who write in your own language.

Does it sometimes become difficult to listen to your own voice?

You probably have less energy for your own things, so you have to balance, from time to time you have to stop. I have to stop translating things which get into me, and take on a lighter translation, a translation which is not so difficult or essay instead of fiction. But on the whole it has been all right. The benefits are really far bigger then the inconveniences, I think I’ve learnt a lot from, for example, Lord Dunsany, or Beerbohm, but also in how you narrate things. All these people are narrators. But of course you learn a lot of things also as a reader. Reading books remains the best way, how to keep on with your own language, not necessarily your imagination as I described the process of imagination. Very simply, reading and also translating teach you how to use words.

You have translated many English books of fantastic literature. What can you tell us about the present situation regarding this field in France instead?  Is it like in Italy, where we have a vibrant niche – even though with its difficulties – as, for example, this event shows?

Yes, I have discussed that with quite a lot of people here. I hope fantastic and weird are now far more back in the field. France used to be a country were fantastic literature, fantastic narration was very strong (Maupassant, Erckmann-Chatrian, Nodier, Nerval, Alexandre Dumas, Gautier, also a lot of women were in that field, also with the Symbolism, in music, in painting). All of a sudden you had this atmosphere, which was extremely nutritious for fantastic literature. And you get the impression it all died down after the First World War, not really died down but it went back to a niche. It left the literary field, it was expelled from mainstream literature and became a niche, and it also became mixed with the development of the American horror. All of a sudden: “Ah, it’s a foreign thing, it’s commercial, it’s not good quality literature”. This was the situation we had to deal with from the Sixties to now, fantastic literature was pretty marginalized, and it was supposedly bad. But I think even at that time it was good literature, it’s still good literature. It was just a way the publishing houses or the general public or literary critics or whatever wanted to organize the field. We still have a bit of that distinction, so that we have la grande littérature, or mainstream literature, which is not necessarily that great, and we have this genre, but it is not even acknowledged as such. For instance, one of the best selling authors in France is a writer of fantastic literature, Bernard Werber. People would say: “Yes, but it’s commercial literature. Can you name us one good French writer, who’s specialized in fantastic or in weird?” There are quite a lot of them. Someone like Antoine Volodine, who’s supposed to be a kind of mainstream, he comes from science-fiction, and what he writes is fantastic in itself, he built his own world of post-exoticism, inventing this concept because he didn’t want to be understood in a sort of limited genre and so he created a genre of which he’s the only representative. He’s one of the best writers we have. There’s also Céline Minard, she can apply to different genres, she’s a lover of the fantastic genre and she can write fantastic. There are a lot of young writers, -- Romain Verger comes to mind -- who you could classify into mainstream, but by their subjects, by their way of creating, they belong instead to fantastic or weird. The public never made so much difference, and the world of publishing is thinking about that, and making weird and fantastic not so extraneous. I think we’re getting back to a more interesting situation, where we still have niches, but the limits between niches are a little bit more fuzzy.

Thank you so much, Anne-Sylvie Salzman!

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