With Not a River 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

Not a River 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

Selva Almada

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024, and what would winning the prize mean to you?  

For me, personally, it is a great honour to be part of the longlist, and for my novel to be under consideration together with the other twelve. But above all, this recognition is very important in light of the political, social and economic situation that my country is currently going through. It is now governed by an ultra-right-wing movement which has set out to supress and destroy our cultural heritage, a heritage for which Argentina is renowned throughout the world. 

There are constant threats to close state institutions that protect and stimulate cinema, literature, theatre, music and the arts in general. These are prestigious institutions that have a very long history, which Argentinian artists rely on to promote our work both inside and outside of the country. Since December 10, 2023, when the government of La Libertad Avanza – in the figure of President Javier Milei – took office, we, the cultural workers, have been constantly under suspicion and treated with deep contempt. All government support for culture has been fiercely cut back, if not directly removed. The Programa Sur, an exemplary programme to support and encourage the translation of Argentinian literature – and thanks to which Not a River was translated and published by Charco Press and is now on the longlist of the International Booker Prize – was recently condemned to receive just 10% of last year’s funds, which to all intents and purposes means its disappearance. On top of this loss of funds, the long-established Marea publishing house, with its catalogue focused on human rights, recently suffered cybernetic attacks that damaged part of its work. 

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

The characters in my novel, men and women who live on what the river can provide, are a reflection of what the neo-liberalism of the 1990s has done to Argentina: impoverishing it, condemning a significant part of its citizens to poverty and marginalization. That same ferocious process of devastating regional economies, of hollowing-out the public sector, of plundering the natural wealth, is today being rebooted and reasserted by La Libertad Avanza.  

I finished writing this novel four years ago, when it was unthinkable that Argentina could be governed again by the right wing; much less by one like this. I wanted to write this story because it is also part of my own story: Not a River is inspired by the territory where I was born and raised, by the people who inhabit that land and who, in many cases, were marginalized by neoliberal policies that condemn the majority to poverty and to an absence of minimum rights such as the right to work, to education and to health. This is my humble tribute to my land: to its rivers, its animals, its trees and the people who live in it. 

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?  

I started writing this novel around 2013; I remember that at that time I wrote about thirty pages in a single stretch. A few months later I put it on pause in order to write another book, Dead Girls (Charco Press, 2020) a non-fiction work about cases of femicide in Argentina in the 1980s. The following year, at a writing residency in Tuscany, I went back to the draft of the novel. I didn’t like the tone. I decided to start over. More years went by, returning to this draft from time to time: I liked what was emerging quite a lot, but was still not completely convinced. In the meantime, I kept thinking about those characters, about that universe that was suggested every time I reread the few pages of the draft. In between I wrote other books, a movie script, and so on. Finally, I went back to work during the summer of 2020 and then I spent two full months devoted only to the writing of the book. That is to say, between the first lines and the final version, about seven years passed.  

I write on the computer. I correct a lot while I am writing and, of course, again when I complete the first full draft. I don’t usually know too much about what I’m writing, I don’t have a writing plan or an outline of the work; somehow, the plot, the characters, the universe of the story is revealed in the course of its own writing. 

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

This is the third book Annie has translated and we have always worked very well. I feel comfortable and confident with her, because I see her efforts to capture the music of the writing, the lyricism, the colloquial aspects, which are very important to me in the construction of my narrative. We exchanged emails about issues that came up. I really enjoy following the translation work: trying to explain in my own language words that are very local or very regional idioms and expressions. In that sense, it is always a joy to work with a translator as sensitive and meticulous as Annie. One challenge was trying to explain to her the name of a building material that appears at one moment in the novel: chapas de ondalí. When her query arrived I thought it would be easy to find images on the web to illustrate what I was referring to, but the search proved fruitless. So I had to find a way to explain what it was, not knowing if there is really an equivalent of that material in the UK. 

Portrait of author Selva Almada

Not a River is inspired by the territory where I was born and raised, by the people who inhabit that land and who, in many cases, were marginalized by neoliberal policies

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

I’m always reading several books at the same time. I like to have several on hand and, depending on the occasion or how much time I have, I pick up one or the other. I am disorderly in my reading. This often means that books that I like a lot remain unfinished. But I always try to read narrative and poetry at the same time. Now, for example, I am reading a novel by Diego Zúñiga, Tierra de campeones (Land of Champions). Zúñiga is an author I admire very much. I am also rereading the complete stories of Alberto Laiseca, my teacher, a book that has just been reissued with some previously unpublished stories. An essay on writing by May Sarton; and Atardeceres marinos (Marine Sunsets), by the poet Niní Bernardello, which I rediscovered recently: Niní had sent it to me through a mutual friend a few years ago, before she died, but because of the vicissitudes of life and distance, it only reached me recently. They are all readings that interest me and move me for different reasons… although in this case, this group of books has the added bonus that they were written by people I know or knew and whom I love and admire. Except for Sarton, whom I admire from afar because we have never crossed paths. 

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 started reading when I was very young: even before I knew how to read, reading seemed like the best thing in the world for me. At school there was a very well-stocked library, with classic novels of literature for young people, so in those years I read almost all of them: Louisa May Alcott, Ryder Haggard, Mark Twain, Jane Austen… and in my adolescence I read authors from here: Julio Cortázar, Silvina Ocampo, Horacio Quiroga. Perhaps the one who fascinated me the most with the fantastic worlds he created in his stories was Julio Cortázar: Bestiario was on my bedside table for many years. And Quiroga too: that darkness mixed with an untamed landscape held a lot of attraction for me. 

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? 

When I was beginning to write, around the age of twenty, I discovered Juan Carlos Onetti. His books were a kind of beacon for me during those early formative years. Juntacadáveres (The Body Snatchers) and El astillero (The Shipyard) are my favourite Onetti novels. He influenced me above all in the construction of characters: his characters are full of nuances, no one is simply good or simply bad; in the invention of a city like Santa María; and in his prose, which is so sharp and meticulous, his way of punctuating it… I don’t know if there are still traces of him in my more consolidated writing in recent years, but there’s no doubt he was a great inspiration and a great companion for me. At the age of twenty, he made me determined to become a writer. And a few years later I met my teacher, Alberto Laiseca, who turned out to be fundamental for me and for my life. 

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

I would recommend with much love and admiration Enero (January) by Sara Gallardo. It is a short novel, written with great intensity and lyricism, about a peasant girl, pregnant from a rape, who doesn’t know how to have an abortion. It was a book written in the 1950s, when the author was just 25 years old. It is her first novel. And it is a book that lacks nothing. A novel that seventy years before abortion was legalized in Argentina already spoke of it as an urgent necessity for the life and health of women from the most vulnerable classes. It is a book of great lucidity and sensitivity. 

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

I really like two novels by two Argentinian women writers who were finalists in recent years: The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara and Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro. But to avoid being too inward-looking, I shall mention another novel that I enjoyed very much: Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel. It is a strange book, where motherhood appears as that odd, terrifying and mysterious thing that I – not having had children myself – suppose it must be. In any case, I believe Nettel to be one of the best Latin American writers today. 

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?  

I think it is fundamental for those of us who write, but above all for those of us who read! Translations, access to books written in other languages, with different points of view and from cultures and contexts very different from the ones we know, the ones we belong to, is the best thing that can happen to us when reading. Reading is a creative and at the same time tremendously liberating experience. What would have become of me, who was born in a very small town where our lives seemed to be defined from the beginning, without novels, without literature that came to tell me that no, there was not just one path, there were multiple possibilities, and that the world was enormous. For me, reading made me a more understanding, less prejudiced person. I believe that bibliodiversity should be promoted, encouraging readers to take risks with unknown authors. And of course, good translations have a huge influence on this. 

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Annie McDermott

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

Being longlisted is an honour and a treat – I’m a great Selva Almada evangelist and always keen for her to find more readers in English, and it’s exciting to feel like that’s happening as a result of all this. Obviously winning would do even more, but I’m quite happy just basking in the longlisting. 

How long did it take to translate Not a River, 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? 

I forget how long it took to translate the whole book, but I remember it taking what felt like several days of research into ray-fishing techniques and terminology to translate one line of the opening – Enero’s ‘Pump and reel, pump and reel. She’s hugging the bottom. Get her up, get her up.’ Translating the rest of the book was a long process as well, especially considering how slight it is – I read my version aloud countless times as I worked, and there are some passages I still know off by heart. 

I often don’t read the book at all before starting to translate, instead producing an extremely rough draft full of gaps and question marks at the same time as my first reading, which I then revise and revise. And I don’t always revise it in order – a musician friend once told me that he sometimes mixes up the sections of the piece he’s practising, to make sure he comes at each part of it fresh, and ever since hearing that I’ve tried to do the same with my translations.  

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

So much! This is always a major part of the process when I’m translating Selva Almada – the voices in her novels are so distinctive and so far from my own that I have to go looking for them elsewhere.  

For Not a River, I read a whole stack of fishing-related books, from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to The River Why, David James Duncan’s genuinely wonderful account of a life spent trout-fishing in Oregon, and I also spent hours trawling (no pun intended) through fishing forums and YouTube videos. But the fishing side of things was only part of it – I also read everything I could think of that would help with the oral language that’s used in the novel, and for the spare, stripped-back way the characters and narrator speak. This included William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Bryan Washington and Sophie Mackintosh, and most of all Cormac McCarthy, without whose books I might never have found Selva Almada’s English voice.  

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? 

My dad was a great teller of bedtime stories – lots of retellings of Robin Hood’s exploits (I remember being a particular fan of Friar Tuck), and a made-up series that took place in a so-called ‘municipal burrow’ inhabited by a community of rabbits in Australia. 

As for books, it was a wild mix, as I guess childhood reading so often is. There was an illustrated children’s version of The Odyssey that I loved, and from which I now vividly remember the picture of Circe and the pigs and learning the word ‘suitor’. A lot of Dr Seuss, and a little later James Thurber, PG Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde (Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest was my hero when I was about ten – make of that what you will). Adrian Mole. Sherlock Holmes stories at Christmas. And truly unhinged quantities of books from series like The Babysitters’ Club and The Saddle Club, of which my dad despaired so much that at one point he quite uncharacteristically paid me £10 to read Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. 

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

My path went via Mexico, with a brief stop-over in Uzbekistan. A few years before I learnt Spanish, I went to see the Russian translator Robert Chandler talk about his translation of The Railway, by the great Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov. I remember him describing how Ismailov had used repetition in a particular passage and what he’d done to recreate the same elegiac effect in English. I think that was the moment I learnt what literary translators do and thought wistfully that I’d very much like to do it myself, if only I spoke another language. 

Then, after finishing my MA in English Lit (and backpacking through Uzbekistan, but that’s another story), I moved to Mexico on a bit of a whim. While there, I learnt to speak Spanish and experienced the joys, intrigues and comical misunderstandings of living between languages, and that was when I first began to think seriously about translation as a career. Once I did, it was a revelation. I’ve always loved to write, and here was ‘pure writing’, as Nabokov has called it: dealing entirely with the words themselves, while someone else takes care of the characters and plot. 

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

My reading habits at the moment are anything but normal because I have a ten-week-old baby, and in the strange underslept life of leisure that is maternity leave I seem to have somehow both more and less time for reading than ever before. One consequence of this appears to be that I keep grandly buying new books (even sometimes in hardback! So decadent!), and am currently in the middle of Jennifer Croft’s wild and mycelial eight-translators-in-search-of-an-escaped-Polish-author novel The Extinction of Irina Rey. I recently finished Undiscovered by Gabriela Wiener, in Julia Sanches’ translation, and have also finally gone back to Zola’s Germinal, translated by Leonard Hancock, which I had to break off halfway through in the first trimester of pregnancy because something about the murky tones of the cover were making me nauseous. 

Portrait of translator Annie McDermott.

My dad was a great teller of bedtime stories – lots of retellings of Robin Hood’s exploits (I remember being a particular fan of Friar Tuck), and a made-up series that took place in a so-called ‘municipal burrow’ inhabited by a community of rabbits in Australia

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

I’d like to point everyone in the direction of the truly unparalleled Cristina Morales, whose novel Easy Reading is a raucous ride through the squats, courtrooms, supported housing units and experimental dance classes of contemporary Barcelona. It’s radical, provocative and very, very funny – and Kevin Gerry Dunn’s heroic translation even involved him collaging his own English versions of the anarcho-feminist fanzines in the original. 

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

Like so many translators of Spanish, I’d have to say the great Mexican novel Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo. It’s the story of a young man turning up in a town in search of his father, who he’s never met, and finding that it’s a town populated by ghosts, where the air is thick with the voices of the dead. I just love the tender, playful use Rulfo makes of slang and oral language – for him it’s not just ‘local colour’, but the raw materials of a kind of poetry. (And if that sounds familiar, it’s not a coincidence – Selva Almada has named him as an influence on her work – and now I come to think of it, the town in Pedro Páramo has more than a few things in common with the island in Not a River…) 

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

I have a huge soft spot for Olga Ravn’s The Employees – or, to give it its full title, The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century – translated brilliantly from the Danish by Martin Aitken. It’s told in a series of statements given to a kind of HR body by the crew of a spaceship, who are a mix of humans and robots. The writing is at once chillingly precise and eerily sensual, and I’ve never read anything like it. 

David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar is also extraordinary, and a magnificent feat of translation on the part of Jessica Cohen. Translating jokes is hard enough, but translating jokes in a way that gradually reveals the unravelling mental state of the person telling them, and sustaining that throughout an entire novel, is something else entirely. 

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?  

I think indie presses like Charco, Tilted Axis and Fum d’Estampa are really leading the way here. Whether they’re confounding expectations about what, say, a ‘typical’ Latin American novel might be, or publishing books from languages rarely translated into English, their success shows that the way to get readers interested in translated fiction is to show how thrillingly multifarious translated fiction can be. 

Front cover of A horse Walks Into a Bar.

The author and translator of Not a River