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Swallowing Mercury interview

Swallowing Mercury interview

Wioletta Greg tells us her writing process involves spontaneously making notes and putting them together, whilst translator Eliza Marciniak describes her strong emotional reaction to the last three chapters of Swallowing Mercury.

This is the first in our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews.

Wioletta Greg, author of Swallowing Mercury

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It’s a big honour for me – when I found out I felt happy and very surprised! I would’ve never thought that my modest story about a family in southern Poland would be noticed by judges in a country which I moved to a decade ago. One of my poet friends who had to escape his country during the Cold War commented ‘Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize? In my time we could not have dreamt of it’. I praise the work of my translator, Eliza Marciniak, as I think the amazing nomination was largely due to her hard work. She drew the world that I described with unmatched precision because, like me, she grew up in a Polish province.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel Swallowing Mercury?

Over more than twenty different scenes, the reader follows the adventures of a sensitive and perverse girl – Wiolka. She goes through childhood and then adolescence, and like Tessa d’Urberville from Thomas Hardy’s novel, she comes from a poor, rural family. The stories take place in the 70s and 80s, Hektary (a village in The Jurassic Uplands in Poland) is surrounded by forests and rivers – its inhabitants live a slow life governed by the Catholic calendar, nature and ancient Slovian traditions. The stone houses are heated by iron stoves, water is supplied from a well, the only telephone is in the burgomaster’s house, and chandeliers are decorated by sticky fly traps. Political turmoil is brewing, and the end of socialism is nigh. People still attend the parade on the first of May to celebrate Labour Day, but they can sense the end of this political era. This world, where people lived together in unity, close to nature, has disappeared for ever, along with its traditions and languages.

Swallowing Mercury is your debut novel. How do you think your career as a poet has affected your prose?

Poetry had a huge impact on my prose, it taught me discipline and how to control rhythms and words. In times where publishers and agents urge writers to over-develop their novels, because a brick-book will sell better, I prefer to use the self-control of a poet. What’s interesting is that poetry also made my work harder, when writing Swallowing Mercury, I spent a long time distilling almost every sentence. When I write and want to express something, I don’t start by thinking about the literary genre or the form of the story, I spontaneously make notes, and later put them together. It seems as if the genre chooses me and not vice versa. Poetry and prose mix together inside of me, since I started writing in notebooks made from recycled paper, or later on a Polish typewriter ‘Łucznik Predom’. Often, a poem becomes the beginning of a story and the other way around.


Eliza Marciniak, translator of Swallowing Mercury

What has it been like to be longlisted?

Fantastic! It’s a great honour for a translator, of course, but the most gratifying thing is that the book has found new readers who may not have heard about it otherwise. I think Wioletta Greg has a very original way of looking at and describing things, and I hope that being longlisted will help ensure that people pay attention to whatever she does, both as a prose writer and as a poet.

What did you like most about translating Swallowing Mercury?

I loved spending time with Wioletta’s prose, which is very poetic and very concrete at the same time, and I enjoyed trying to convey its rhythm as well as meaning. Also, I should say that when I read the book for the first time, I had a very strong emotional reaction to the last three chapters, and I was worried that the process of working on the translation would somehow annul that. But no matter how many times I read the original, no matter how hard I worked, those chapters remained as powerful and moving as that first time.

The book traces Wiola’s journey from childhood to adolescence. What was it like translating this shift in language?

While the overall progression is chronological, Wiola’s exact age is not always crystal clear; sometimes she seems very precocious, while at other times she’s a bit childish even though we know she’s a teenager. In terms of language, the shift to adolescence was less a matter of a style change than of certain nouns making a sudden appearance – disco, high heels, first love, wine – to signal that Wiola is getting older.


Swallowing Mercury