With White Nights 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

Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors and translators here.

Publication date and time: Published

Urszula Honek

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 Poland?

I still can’t quite believe that all of this is really happening. I am extremely touched and grateful. I very much appreciate being longlisted! I don’t even dare to think about winning the prize. Maybe I’m just cautious and reserved? Or perhaps it’s safer to be in a state of disbelief than to believe that something might happen? Polish literature is very rarely translated into foreign languages, English included. Perhaps the longlisting of White Nights could allow for this to slowly begin to change. I would very much like for that to happen. 

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

I wanted to give a voice to those who are unheard, to illuminate their lives and stories for a moment; to make them feel important and valued. The characters in my book are people who have been hurt: they experience violence, they are dogged by emptiness, loneliness and absence. Very often I write about people I have known. Some of them are dead and I only know snippets of their biographies. For many members of my family, no photographic records exist – for example, there was an infant and a girl who died in a fire. I have tried to reconstruct their story using my imagination. Above all, however, I wanted to give them physical bodies: to imagine the colour of their hair, eyes and lips. Other characters in the book – despite sometimes appearing rough – have a deep inner life. I wanted to show that every person, regardless of education or economic status, has the same needs and deserves to be heard; to be shown respect. Thanks to the English translation, my characters speak a language they never knew. I am happy that they are even more heard now thanks to the nomination. 

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 wrote one of the stories in 2016. At that point, I decided that I hadn’t yet found my own language, and I only returned to writing again a few years later. During that time, however, I travelled a lot to the place where I grew up, and I clocked up hundreds of kilometres on foot, walking from village to village. I also started staying in the Low Beskids more often. I did a lot of work related to the book: absorbing the landscape, observing the same spaces at different times of day, in different seasons. Sometimes I did specific exercises: I would climb the same hill at different times of day to see how the light fell, how the temperature changed. I like to write in silence and solitude. I also like to have continuity in my writing: to write every day, for several hours at a time. I write well in harsh conditions: without access to comfort or convenience. I knew from the beginning that the book would take the form of monologues and would be polyphonic. And I type on a computer. White Nights took me a year and a half to write. 

Portrait of author Urszula Honek

I wanted to give a voice to those who are unheard, to illuminate their lives and stories for a moment; to make them feel important and valued

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

Kate Webster is an incredibly independent, sensitive and vigilant translator. The book is polyphonic, made up of many monologues, the stories loop and swirl and complement each other. Sometimes seemingly insignificant small details turn out to be significant in the next story. I also write poetry and the melody of language is important to me. Kate captured that perfectly! The story we talked about the most was ‘Anielka’ – it’s the monologue of a little girl who actually invents her own language. This text is incredibly difficult to translate, but Kate did a wonderful job. I am eternally grateful to her. 

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

I often start several books at the same time. I have moments when I solely read prose, only to move to poetry at other stages of my life. However, for the past three years I’ve been more into prose. I’m currently reading Trilobites by Breece D’J Pancake. I appreciate his distilled world. There’s not a lot that happens there, and yet everything is happening. I think that in micro-stories, you can see the whole world, the inner cosmos of a person. Pancake doesn’t judge his characters, never puts himself above them, but empathises with them – a point of view I can relate to.

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 loved the gory tales of the Brothers Grimm. I’ve also watched horror films regularly since I was young. As a little girl, I used to beg my uncle to bring me ‘a little horror film [on VHS]’. And when I didn’t have any VHS tapes, I would sit in front of the TV at night and wait. I’d look through the newspaper to see what time the scary films were on. If my dad was asleep in the same room, I’d watch it very quietly so as not to wake him. I also tried to get the other kids involved in sharing scary stories. We would sit together on the stairs at home and everyone had to tell a story. That must have been when my desire to tell stories started. 

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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 wouldn’t be able to point to one book. As a teenager I read a lot of poetry. I grew up in a small village, with very limited access to libraries and books. However, I tried my best to read: in prose I enjoyed William Faulkner, then I really got into Herta Müller (and I still am). Before I start writing, I always read a lot. I absorb other worlds and languages. Sometimes I open a book I know well on a random page and read just a few sentences. I close it. I write my own. I believe that other writers have a gift that opens us up to ourselves. 

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

I will turn to poetry, because poets in Poland are quite underrated. I would like to recommend a book of poetry called Vacation, Specter (‘Wakacje, widmo’) by Magdalena Bielska. In it, the poet crafts a world on the borderline between dreams and real material objects and events. She seems to speak from these apparently incompatible sides. Bielska creates spaces immersed in the afterimages, unreality and, at the same time, tangibility of these worlds. I sometimes dream about this book. [Vacation, Specter has not been fully translated into English, but you can find a few of the poems on the Plume poetry website in 21 Polish Poems, edited and translated by Benjamin Paloff]

And prose? You should definitely try the books by Magdalena Tulli; for example, Dreams and Stones (‘Sny i kamienie’), published in English and translated by Bill Johnston. I don’t know any other Polish writer with such original language and imagination!

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

Again, I wouldn’t be able to name just one novel: I was certainly very pleased to see writers such as László Krasznahorkai and Dubravka Ugrešić on the list. They are outstanding authors.

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 really do value the work of translators enormously and I am very grateful to them. I always think of them with great respect. It seems to me that it is very important to discover unknown worlds through other languages. Translated literature not only expands the canon but – and I very much believe in this – it has the power to change us as readers. It can also be a source of salvation, as I have learnt. Do people need to be encouraged to read translated literature? Perhaps it’s enough to reassure them that they will be able to see themselves reflected in translated literature. Because no matter where we come from, we all have similar needs.

Wakacje, widmo

Kate Webster

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?  

It is very surreal, and a massive honour. Urszula’s book has already won a lot of awards and nominations in Poland, as have her poetry collections. Being shortlisted for the International Booker Prize is a magnificent achievement. For me as a translator, it is wonderful to be recognised alongside the author for the work that went into creating the book in its English version. Winning would be very unexpected, but a dream come true.

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?  

I had recently returned to work after maternity leave when I started working on the book. I didn’t have a lot of other work on at the time, so I was able to complete the first draft within a few months. I’d read the book and translated a short sample for the Polish Book Institute’s foreign rights catalogue the previous year, and it was partly on the basis of that sample that the publisher, MTO Press, became interested in the book. So when they contacted me about possibly translating the whole book, I was delighted as I’d been really intrigued and impressed by the book in Polish. Usually I read a book all the way through once before I start translating, then I tend to translate in the order it’s written. In this case, the sample I’d translated came from the second short story, so I was more familiar with that part of the book. The first story is entirely different, written in a very distinct voice, with a different narrator, so it took me a while to get into my stride. But translating those two stories set me up well for approaching the whole book – I remembered how many different voices and registers there were, and knew I had to be vigilant and sensitive when it came to setting the tone for each story.

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

I took a look at some of Urszula’s poems. Some of the characters in the book were originally featured in her poetry, so it was interesting to see what that added to my understanding of the characters themselves, and the author’s writing style. Her poetry covers some of the same themes as the book too – loss, identity, and rural life.

Portrait of translator Kate Webster

I knew I had to be vigilant and sensitive when it came to setting the tone for each story

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 read all sorts as a child, and was read to as well. My mum was very good at reading to us and making up her own stories with a vast array of exciting characters. I remember being captivated by the Narnia books, Michael Rosen, and Roald Dahl. When I was maybe 8 or 9, I read his short story collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, some of which I found strange and a bit frightening, but I was dazzled by the titular story about a man who masters a meditation technique that allows him to see with his eyes covered. There’s a description of staring at a candle flame that totally fascinated me, I’m not sure why. Other than that, I devoured the Asterix and Tintin books, and the Horrible Histories. Later, it was Judy Blume and Sue Townsend.

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

I started translating in 2012 while I was living in Poland and working as an English teacher. At first, I was translating little texts here and there, informally for friends and colleagues, then working with translation agencies. Throughout my teens and twenties, I’d read a lot of books in translation and loved the insight they gave into different places, thoughts, cultures, ideas. Memorable ones include Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite RunnerIsmail Kadare’s Broken April, and Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. I knew there were some good Polish books being translated into English, and wished I could be involved, but didn’t know how to get into that field. Then in 2017, I came across a book called Swallowing Mercury by Polish author Wioletta Greg, translated into English by Eliza Marciniak, which was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. I realised there was a group of talented Polish-to-English literary translators, of which Eliza was one, centred around Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and I learned about the Emerging Translator Mentorship programme organised by the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. I applied to the programme the next year and was thrilled to be awarded a place to be mentored by Antonia for six months. She helped me hugely with honing my translation skills and introduced me to a lot of important people in the publishing world, which was invaluable.

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

I read books in Polish and English. I’m rather a slow reader, so I don’t get through as many as I’d like. Since having a baby two years ago, I’ve particularly loved reading graphic novels – when you don’t have much energy or the ability to focus on a lot of text, it’s wonderful how a good comic can draw you in. Most recently I’ve read The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and Acting Class by Nick Drnaso. I currently have Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy on my bedside table, a book about a woman’s feverish inner world during the early days of motherhood that I’m finding eerily familiar. I’ve also just been to the London Book Fair, where I picked up a few new Polish books to consider for translation: two literary reportage books about Greenland by the author and photographer Ilona Wiśniewska, and Reneta by Barbara Klicka, a postapocalyptic tale that addresses the question of how many times it is possible to start over in life.

Broken April

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

I found a copy of Totally Not Nostalgia, by Wanda Hagedorn and Jacek Frąś, in a small bookshop in Kraków a few years ago. It’s a graphic memoir with a bright pink cover featuring the author feeding carrots to a rhinoceros. If, like me, you can’t help being seduced by a striking cover, you won’t be disappointed with what’s inside. It’s the story of the author’s youth – she grew up in the 1960s in Szczecin, a city in the north of Poland near the German border, at a time when there were major political changes going on. The societal turmoil is mirrored in her chaotic home life, where she and her three sisters try to evade their abusive father and overwhelmed mother. It was the first graphic novel I’d read in Polish, and I was absolutely gripped. It’s certainly reminiscent of Alison Bechdel’s books, but it has its own distinct style and sheds light on some of the major shifts that were going on in Poland during the second half of the 20th century, on the grand scale, and on a more intimate level too.

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

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith – the language is just so visceral and striking. It’s a phenomenal story, so tense and tender, and I was totally drawn into the protagonist’s world. It must have taken a lot of work on Deborah’s part to recreate those bizarre scenarios with such a fine mix of beauty and ugliness portrayed through the language.

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

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, translated by Ann Goldstein, was shortlisted in 2016. I adored the whole quartet of the Neapolitan novels and with each new instalment I revelled diving back into the saga and their exciting, brutal world. The intensity of the girls’ friendship, and how the dynamics shift as they move into adulthood, really rings true.

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? 

When we learn to read as children, we start to discover new worlds for ourselves through fiction in the language(s) we understand. And I think translated fiction just opens up more potential worlds for discovery. We are increasingly connected through the internet and other technologies, and globalisation is happening whether we like it or not; still, as individuals, we all have a story to tell – some of us have many! – so translated fiction means more of those individual outlooks, ideas and images become accessible to more people. In Poland, just like in many countries around the world, a far greater proportion of the published literature is literature in translation. It’s just the norm there. So I think when it comes to increasing the readership in the UK, rather than making a distinction between English-language fiction and translated fiction, it’s important to see it all, first and foremost, as fiction, as potential gateways to new worlds. The more translated fiction there is, the more normalised it will become. Perhaps it starts with funding – removing the financial barriers, enabling literary translators and publishers to do their jobs, so that great international fiction becomes available in English by default, as a matter of priority, with ease and regularity.

The Vegetarian

The author and translator of White Nights