Lorin Stein is an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Paris Review, The Salon Guide to Contemporary Fiction, and elsewhere. He's also the American editor of Ticknor and I recently conducted this email interview with him.
TEV: Ticknor was published in Canada last year by House of Anansi. In a case like this one, is the role of the editor strictly one of acquisition? How much work, if any, was done on Ticknor between its Canadian and American iterations?
LS: Actually, FSG acquired US rights in the book before the Canadian edition appeared. So what little editing I did (and it was little) is reflected in both editions.
TEV: How did you become aware of the book?
LS: Sheila's agent, Anne McDermid, sent it to me.
TEV: In our correspondence, we talked about the miracle of "ventriloquism" that Sheila pulls off and we acknowledged that it drew both of us to the work. What other factors drew you to Ticknor?
It's tricky to talk about factors besides ventriloquism, or voice, don't you think? Voice is character, but it's also humor and worldview and sense of the language. In a book like Ticknor it's also what the character *does,* and why he does it, so in a funny way voice is plot. Or the DNA of plot. Take those first few sentences:
There were no books when I was a boy. Books were hardly accessible, yet there were some books. That is why I did not develop literary taste. I read what I found and it was for fun. You read mostly for idle pleasure. I did not read for fun, nore was I cultivating my mind. I cannot imagine cultivating anything as a young boy. It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy. Other boys had books and other boys had libraries. No, the whole country lacked books then. Comparatively few were published here, and they were borrowed with difficulty. There is no possible way I could have read good books.
Each sentence takes us closer and closer to nonsense--and yet each seems to follow organically, necessarily, from the one before. That's voice. It's also the story. And you can't fake it for a dozen sentences. The guy's alive--he's as alive and unpredictable as an auditory hallucination. When I finished the first page of the MS. I remember passing it to a friend and saying, Read this. I was pretty sure this was something we'd want to publish.
TEV: I can see the meetings now ... "It's a short novel in the first person, told in the voice of a 19ht century Boston historian. He's late for dinner, carrying a pie, and it's about thwarted expectations." How did that go over, and how much of a struggle (if at all) was it to bring Ticknor to the US?
LS: No struggle at all! My colleagues felt the way I did. Of course the book is peculiar, even a tiny bit insane. It's not Oprah material, but its quality and originality spoke for themselves. Besides, some books are hard to publish in a fun way. I think this is one of them--it wins people over one at a time, the way it won you over, and that's great to watch. In some ways it's the most fun part of the job.
TEV: I was struck not just by the beauty of the language and the vivid rendering of Ticknor's interior life but also by some of the deeper, mischievous questions the books poses. It assumes a bitter rivalry where, in fact, there was a warm friendship. One of Ticknor's best known titles was his glowing biography of Prescott but Sheila turns this all on its head, and we're asked to reassess that biography in light of all this hidden bile. What did you make of this provocative little detour?
LS: I didn't make anything of it, really. Ticknor was just a name to me. It's true that Sheila's Ticknor turns out to have very little to do with the real biographer--or with early nineteenth-century Boston, for that matter. It's full of anachronisms. But how much do Shakespeare's Henry V or Marlowe's Tamburlaine have to do with their historical antecedents or their periods? This kind of fooling around is a very traditional way of making up characters--much older than what we usually mean when we talk about "historical fiction."
But tell me, doesn't Sheila's Ticknor love Prescott? Isn't all love a little bit love-hate? (Maybe these are the kinds of mischievous questions you mean ... )
TEV: When you sent me the book, your letter included an acknowledgement of the general superiority of Hungarians (beyond chess and physics). Tell us a bit more about your affection for my people.
LS: The Hungarians rock! Here's a country slightly larger than the state of New Jersey, one fourth the size of Poland, whose people speak a basically unlearnable language and yet (when they're not checkmating the pants off other rocket scientists) churn out one major piece of world literature after another. Sure, New Jersey has Philip Roth and Sam Lipsyte--but you guys have Arthur Koestler, Sandor Marai, Imre Kertesz, Peter Esterhazy, Ismail Kadare, Peter Nadas. These are the ones even *I*'ve heard of! There's even another Canado-Hungarian, Stephen Vizinczey, who managed to make Communist Hungary sound almost as swinging as Kundera's Czechoslovakia. Coincidence? Or yet more evidence that Hungarians are extra-terrestrials whose giant brains tremble on their stalklike necks?
TEV: In addition to your editing duties, you're also a translator. You've got a forthcoming translation of Gregoire Bouillier's memoir The Mystery Guest, which you've translated from the French, even as you've conceded that your French is lousy. So how does that work, exactly?
LS: My French was *just* good enough for me to fall in love with the book--it kept making me laugh out loud. So either I was making up funny jokes, which seemed unlikely, or else I was hearing something there in the original. That's what made me sit down and translate the first few pages.
Also, I had a brilliant and sensitive first reader and editor in Bouillier's US agent, Violaine Huisman. She caught actual errors, but any French person with good English could do that. What was really useful was her ear for tone and nuance in both languages. She could tell me when she thought I was missing the feel, the sparkiness of the original. She turned me on to the book in the first place--without the nod from her I'd never have dared to do it myself.
I had other readers too: a couple of Bouillier's friends in Paris, plus my colleagues Annie Wedekind and Jonathan Galassi and my friend John Jeremiah Sullivan, all wonderful writers and editors who've thought a lot about problems of translation. Jonathan, who's my boss, is well known as a translator of Italian poetry. He was by far the toughest critic of my prose. He caught a bunch of rookie mistakes in the first chapter. They were enough to make me revise the whole thing.
Lorin will be reading a story by Veronique Ovalde which he translated from the French, this evening at KGB Bar. Details here.