Front cover of What I'd Rather not think About with images of the author and translator.

A Q&A with Jente Posthuma and Sarah Timmer Harvey, author and translator of What I'd Rather Not Think About

With What I’d Rather Not Think About longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024, we spoke to its author and translator about their experience of working on the novel together – and their favourite books

What I’d Rather Not Think About was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024 on 9 April 2024. Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors and translators here.

Publication date and time: Published

Jente Posthuma

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024, and what would winning the prize mean to you? Would it also have an impact on literature originating from your country?

I can’t say it feels bad. In fact, it was a big surprise and it still feels amazing and unreal. I can’t even imagine winning the prize, so my thoughts haven’t gone that far yet. But being translated has always been a big wish of mine. It opens the world for me. In the same way, I hope that my book will expand the world a bit for readers outside of the Netherlands. I remember well when Lucas Rijneveld won the International Booker Prize in 2020, how happy I was about that. No Dutch writer had achieved that before. And it had a huge impact on the reception of Dutch literature abroad. 

What were the inspirations behind the book? What made you want to tell this particular story?

For me, each book begins very personally, with something happening within myself. For this book, it was the emotions I experienced when the one person I thought would always be there withdrew from my life. It was as if suddenly I had no ground beneath my feet and was falling into an endless abyss. My situation was very different from the protagonist’s situation in my book – nobody died – but the feelings were similar. It was a grieving process. I don’t believe in family anymore, is a statement from the book. I felt that way for a while too. It’s a cliché, but this experience gave me a profound awareness of my loneliness and, at the same time, instilled in me a confidence in myself that I didn’t have before.

How long did it take to write the book, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts? Is the plot and structure intricately mapped out in advance?

Writing this book took me about two years. My writing process is exhausting: I spend a lot of time watching reality TV until I feel so bad about myself that I have to do something about it. My favourite shows are The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Real Housewives of NYC but I also watch Special Forces (SAS), Survivor, and Summer House, to name a few. I like to say I use the shows to study human behavior but, if I’m honest, I think they’ve just become a fixed part of my procrastination routine. In that sense, I could actually consider them as work. I find writing extremely difficult, it fills me with dread. This is an existential fear that I’m trying to explore in my next book. Still, there’s nothing I’d rather do than write and I feel privileged to be able to do this. I work intuitively, never making a plan. I just start. Well, not ‘just’, but when I finally begin, I never know where I will end up. By now, I have enough experience to know that this yields the best results. It almost never happens to me that I find myself at a dead end.

What was the experience of working with the book’s translator, Sarah Timmer Harvey, like? How closely did you work together on the English edition? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges?

I loved working with Sarah Timmer Harvey. The initiative for this translation came from her, so I owe her a lot. She is incredibly driven and professional, and also a delightful person with a great sense of humor, which was very nice because we worked quite closely together. My English is good, but not good enough to understand all the nuances of the language, although sometimes I thought I could. Sarah remained very patient about that. Our only persistent point of discussion was about punctuation. For the right rhythm and tone, I wanted as few commas and question marks in the text as possible. Especially about the commas we exchanged many emails. I understand now that Dutch can do without commas better than English. Sarah fought to keep them. She’s very good at what she does.

Portrait of author Jente Posthuma

I find writing extremely difficult, it fills me with dread. This is an existential fear that I’m trying to explore in my next book. Still, there’s nothing I’d rather do than write and I feel privileged to be able to do this

— Jente Posthuma on writing

Tell us about your reading habits. Which book or books are you reading at the moment, and why?

I read every day, usually in the evenings. Right now, I’m rereading My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman. I’m a big fan of her work. She wrote extensively about family relationships with just the right mix of humor and misery. Her style is phenomenal. ‘She’d wanted to smack me and she’d said so. I felt happy without knowing why but I knew that something real had happened. I’d felt like I might faint but I was happy.’ Sentences like these, they make me very happy.

What was your path to becoming a reader – what did you read as a child and what role did storytelling play in your younger years? Was there one book in particular that captured your imagination?

As a child, I often went to the library, took five books, and finished them all in one afternoon. I remember well how it felt to wake up with my face in a book. It wasn’t comfortable. There were always a few drool stains in my books. When I was very young, I had a book that I carried around with me all day: Virgilius van Tuil by the Dutch writer Paul Biegel. Virgilius was the hundred-and-first gnome on the heath. Humans didn’t believe he really existed. He was the only chubby gnome and he was constantly reminded of that by the other gnomes. I convinced myself that I was actually a gnome too, the only oblong gnome on the heath - I was always the tallest child in class. By the way, Virgilius was also the only gnome who wasn’t afraid of anything, he didn’t even know what the word meant. As a rather anxious child that must have drawn me to this gnome as well.

Tell us about a book that made you want to become a writer. How did this book inspire you to embark on your own creative journey, and how did it influence your writing style or aspirations as an author?

I most enjoy books that have something strange about them, writers that have a language of their own. For example, the book Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, which I recently read. But the work of Deborah Levy has that quality too. And that of Rachel Cusk and Chantal Akerman and Witold Gombrowicz and Clarice Lispector, and the Dutch writer Maartje Wortel. These are writers who dare to take risks. When I read them I always think: I didn’t know this was possible, apparently, this is allowed too. It’s very liberating, it broadens my perspective. And it makes me really want to write. For a moment the fear is gone. Before I started publishing myself, Lydia Davis was one of the writers who had that effect on me. Her Collected Stories were like a bible to me. Some of those stories consisted of just one sentence or one seemingly trivial thought or observation that she would fully elaborate on. Apparently, that was allowed. Apparently, I was allowed to do this too. Not surprisingly, my first publications were flash fiction.

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Tell us about a book originally written in Dutch that you would recommend to English readers. How has it left a lasting impression on you?

I would recommend Goldfish and Concrete by Maartje Wortel. It’s one of those weird books I love. It’s about the sea, her father, the city of Tilburg, a love, an unfolded duvet, and Anish Kapoor’s black hole where space and time disappear. This story is impossible to explain, it says on the back cover. And it doesn’t need to be. You just have to dive in. One of the characters in the book says that in a painting, sometimes more than in a face, more than in a pair of loving eyes, you can see, no, feel, that someone understands you. Her stories have the same effect on me. They’re strange and familiar, liberating and comforting. 

What role do you think translated fiction plays in promoting a more inclusive and diverse literary canon, and how can we encourage more people to read it?

Every novel is an attempt to understand ourselves better. Sometimes people on another continent understand us better than our own family. That’s an added value of translated fiction. It can give you the feeling that you’re not the only chubby gnome on the heath. And translated fiction is of great importance for the polyphony of a literary canon. But so is fiction from our own country. Why praise a Moroccan writer for her masterpiece, so to speak, and dismiss a novel by a Dutch Moroccan as ‘migrant literature’? That is something that still happens too much in the Netherlands. In any case, prestigious prizes such as the International Booker Prize are a good way to give translated literature a more prominent place. Let’s now also change the criteria and committees that provide access to the canon and maybe we’ll get somewhere. 

Goldfish and Concrete

Sarah Timmer Harvey

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024 – an award which recognises authors and translators equally – and what would winning the prize mean to you? 

It feels incredible! I have always drawn so much inspiration from the International Booker Prize nominees and winners. It already means so much to be able to share Jente’s novel with readers around the world, but to have What I’d Rather Not Think About nominated for an award that recognises both the writer’s brilliance and the translator’s artistry is so gratifying. To win the prize, judged by a jury I admire, that so many translators and writers I idolise have also won would be beyond my wildest dreams! I’m so grateful to the jury and all the readers who have loved Jente’s writing as much as I do. 

How long did it take to translate the book, and what does your working process look like? Do you read the book multiple times first? Do you translate it in the order it’s written?  

It took me around six months to translate What I’d Rather Not Think About, but I didn’t do it all at once. I believe an essential part of translation is putting away the manuscript for a bit so you can come at it again with fresh eyes. For this particular book, I read and fell in love with the writing before deciding I wanted to translate it. I translated almost half the book as a sample for potential publishers, and then when Scribe acquired the English language rights, I translated the rest of it. I was in close communication with Jente throughout the entire process. We’ve worked together on a few projects, and she’s always so generous with her time and has such a fascinating mind. That’s not always how I approach a translation, especially if a publisher approaches me to do a book I haven’t read or the writer isn’t as involved. But in either scenario, I always read the book and try to understand my connection to it before beginning to translate. 

Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation? 

For What I’d Rather Not Think About, I was searching for a particular voice in English. It’s Gen X/elder millennial, darkly humorous, covertly anxious, a little jaded and occasionally quite oblivious. That balance can be difficult to strike, but I was definitely inspired by Halle Butler’s Jillian and The New Me, as well as Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Aside from translations, I’m always reading contemporary novels originally written in English for inspiration. I think it’s so important for a translator to keep up with how language and humour are changing and evolving in various parts of the English-speaking world, and with each generation. The other thing I’m always inspired by is the sound of the original text. Whether it’s poetry or fiction, I like to replicate the sound of the original Dutch wherever possible. It’s the greatest compliment when a writer says my translation sounds like theirs when they read it aloud. 

Portrait of translator Sarah Timmer Harvey

What was your path to becoming a reader – what did you read as a child, and what role did storytelling play in your younger years? Was there one book in particular that captured your imagination?

I was a voracious reader when I was a child. My parents taught me to read using billboards on long car trips when I was around four, and I haven’t stopped since. I grew up in Australia and quickly realised that books could help my imagination travel the world. I was always sweltering as a kid, and I loved reading about people in colder climates who had to stoke fires and wear coats when they went outside! Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye was one of the first books that truly captured my imagination when I was young. I must have been 11 or 12, and it was the first ‘grown-up’ novel I read that truly resonated with me. Cat’s Eye is about an intense, all-consuming relationship that spans decades but isn’t romantic, and now I come to think of it, that’s something I also love about What I’d Rather Not Think About. I’m still really into fiction about significant friendships and relationships with family because these relationships can form and fracture us just as much – if not more – than romantic relationships.

Tell us about your path to becoming a translator. Were there any books that inspired you to embark on this career? 

I’d always wanted to do an MFA in fiction writing, but that didn’t exist in the Netherlands, where I lived, so I had to wait (and work and dream) for many years before I could actually pursue it. I applied to programs as soon as I immigrated to the United States and ended up at Columbia University, partly because their MFA has a translation track. Back then, I thought translation would be an excellent way to use my Dutch language skills and continue engaging with Dutch-language literature, but fiction writing was definitely my primary focus. However, once I started the MFA, I fell completely and utterly in love with translation. I had the opportunity to take classes from some of the best translators in the world, including the legendary Edith Grossman, and it completely changed my life and the way I read and approach literature. I started with poetry, learning by translating the work of poets like Ramsey Nasr, Lieke Marsman, and Lucas Rijneveld, so that was the writing that first inspired me. The first novel I remember wanting to translate was also one of Jente’s books. I read her debut novel, Mensen zonder uitstraling (People with No Charisma), and immediately thought her style was unique, hilarious, and would really appeal to English-language readers. It was the first novel I approached a Dutch publisher about translating. It didn’t work out at the time, but I’m quite pleased it didn’t, because I’m working on a full-length translation of it now for Scribe, who I adore working with. 

What are your reading habits under normal circumstances? Which book or books are you reading at the moment, and why

I’ve always got at least two books on the go at any time. I alternate between regular books and audiobooks, so I can ‘read’ even when I’m cooking or driving, but nothing beats the smell and feel of an actual book, especially a book that is beautifully printed and bound. Right now, I’m reading Jennifer Croft’s The Extinction of Irena Rey, which is about a group of translators, written by one of my favourite translators, so I had to read it! Unsurprisingly, Croft’s fiction is just as flawless as her translation work. I’m also reading The People Who Report More Stress, a short story collection by Alejandro Varela, whose debut novel I loved. And of course, I’ve also started reading all the other books on the International Booker Prize longlist, I just started the first, and I want to try to get through them all before the winner is announced!

Cat's Eye

I was a voracious reader when I was a child. My parents taught me to read using billboards on long car trips when I was around four, and I haven’t stopped since

Tell us about a book originally written in Dutch that you would recommend to English readers. How has it left a lasting impression on you? 

This is such a difficult question because I have long lists of Dutch-language books I like to recommend to English-language readers, but if I had to narrow it down one, it would be We Had To Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault. I think that Hanna is one of the most exciting contemporary writers. Her work explores universal themes, but there is a particular slant to her language and storytelling I think is typically Dutch, while at the same time utterly unique to Bervoets. Her narratives are always extremely emotionally intelligent. She has a real talent for delving into the psychology of her characters and exploring their worst flaws in a way that’s both tangible and irresistible for the reader. We Had To Remove This Post is a slim novel about the dangers of digital life and is an excellent gateway to the rest of Hanna Bervoets’ oeuvre. I’ve also read it in the original Dutch, but Emma Rault’s translation is outstanding and a real inspiration to me.   

 Which work of translated fiction do you wish you had translated yourself, and what aspects of this particular work do you admire most? 

I wish I could have translated Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine. It’s a remarkable novel that was written in the early 1950s, yet it is unapologetically queer and written in a style that still feels fresh today. I’ve read many books about the beginnings of the Second World War in the Netherlands, but de Jong’s book has always stayed with me. I’ll admit I felt pangs of jealousy when Transit Books announced they were publishing a new translation – which didn’t surprise me because the publishers at Transit have impeccable taste – but I ended up loving Kristen Gehrman’s translation so much, and it is one that I keep re-reading. 

Do you have a favourite International Booker Prize-winning or shortlisted novel and, if so, why?

It has to be Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur, which was shortlisted in 2022. I’m really into both books Hur translated that made the International Booker Prize longlist that year. If I’m honest, I’ll read anything Anton Hur translates, I love and trust his eye and know that if he’s agreed to translate it, it’s going to be amazing. Cursed Bunny is no exception, the writing is phenomenal and thought-provoking. It’s a fierce collection of genre-defying short stories, both things mainstream publishing seems to be perpetually saying aren’t interesting to readers, yet Bora Chung and Hur are out here proving the opposite! 

What role do you think translated fiction plays in promoting a more inclusive and diverse literary canon, and how can we encourage more people to read it? 

It’s clear to me that today’s readers want a more diverse literary canon. People are seeking out, reading and listening to voices from around the world, and thanks to social media, they’re able to access and share these voices more easily than ever before. What’s the role of translated fiction in all of that? It’s difficult to answer because translated fiction isn’t a monolith. In some respects, English-language readers are already buying and reading tremendous amounts of translated fiction— books by Murakami, García Márquez, Allende, Ferrante and Stieg Larsson to name a few – but readers don’t always think of it as translated fiction because it isn’t always framed that way by the institutions who publish and market it. Obviously, not all writers and translators are afforded equal spotlight. Publishing houses definitely play a role in teaching readers how to perceive each work of translated fiction. If the publisher wants to ‘hide’ the translator’s work, then is that implicitly telling the reader that translation is something to be hidden and not valued, that all reminders of the writer’s original language should be swept under the carpet? That seems the very opposite of what we should be doing to promote a more diverse and inclusive literary canon. Ultimately, it’s a choice. If the institutions publishing, funding, promoting, and reviewing fiction show how much they value diverse voices and the art of translation, then readers are likely to do the same. Though I suspect readers are already much further down that path than some institutions would have us believe.

Cursed Bunny book cover (close up of purple rabbit).

The author and translator of What I'd Rather Not Think About