Nichola Smalley interview: ‘I listened to the music the characters in the book listen to'
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, translator Nichola Smalley talks about A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding in an exclusive interview
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, author Amanda Svensson talks about A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding in an exclusive interview
Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors and translators here.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning mean to you?
It’s absolutely insane. To be on the list with these 12 other wonderful writers feels like such an honour, and I don’t think I have really processed it yet. Writing in a small language like Swedish (with only about 10 million speakers/readers), and being translated into a large language like English is a dream, because of the numbers of new readers it allows. The mere thought of winning seems almost forbidden, I haven’t allowed myself to go there, so I’m not sure what it would mean for me personally. But I assume it would make the book reach a lot more readers, which would be fantastic.
What were the inspirations behind your book, A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding? What made you want to tell this particular story?
How much time have you got? Writing is a very organic process for me, a winding road, and it’s often very hard, not to say impossible, for me to remember what got me started once I reach the end. Especially with this book, since there is so much going on in it. But I think A System… started with the thought that I wanted to challenge myself to do something I hadn’t done before, which was to write a big, sprawling and intricately plotted book. Partly because these are the kind of books I enjoy reading, and partly because I wanted to see what would happen if I allowed myself a lot of space to let the story and the writing go where it wanted to go. I have a tendency to fall in love with my supporting characters, and in this book I could really let them do their thing. In terms of the novel’s actual themes, the story – for me at least – has always been about fear versus safety, chaos versus order and control. The world is such a huge, fantastic, wonderful, mad, and terrifying place, and I wanted to explore different ways in which people cope with this – through love, family, science, or simply by allowing oneself to go slightly mad.
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 or sudden bursts of activity? Is the plot and structure intricately mapped out in advance?
It was an on-and-off process of around six years. Some of the first things I remember writing were about the ‘Institute’ where one of the siblings, Sebastian, works, as well as some bits about his lover Laura Kadinsky, who can only see in two dimensions. To be honest, I immediately felt I was on to something great. And then it all developed slowly from there. I always write quite haphazardly at the beginning of a new book, according to some kind of pleasure principle – if it’s not fun I simply move on to something that is. But once I get to a certain point, I am very disciplined and stubborn. I wrote probably about a third of the book (not the best bits, though…) during the last six months, in a sort of mad but organised frenzy. This novel was very different from anything I had written before, in that I couldn’t possibly keep everything I wanted to edit, change or rewrite in my head, so I had long lists and charts and what have you, to make sure all the puzzle pieces came together. It was exhausting, both mentally and physically, but still probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing.
My family live in quite cramped quarters so I write in the kitchen, in the bedroom, on the sofa – and occasionally at my desk
Where do you write? What does your working space look like?
Wherever I can find some privacy. I work from home, and at the moment me and my family live in quite cramped quarters so I write in the kitchen, in the bedroom, on the sofa - and occasionally at my desk. We’ve moved around quite a bit the last few years, but during the years when I wrote A System… we lived in Cornwall, UK, where I had a messy, dusty and secluded study on the top floor looking out over immense cauliflower fields. It was the perfect set-up for me and one I aim to recreate at some point (albeit in Skåne, Southern Sweden where I am now, and not in Cornwall).
What was the experience of working with the book’s English translator Nichola Smalley like? How closely did you work together on the English edition? Did you offer any specific guidance or advice? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges?
Working with Nicky has been an absolute treat – she’s the best. We were in quite close contact, especially towards the end when there were question marks to straighten out, as a Swedish saying goes. One thing that was a bit challenging was the fact that large parts of the novel are set in London. I am a writer who is not very concerned with factual accuracy, especially not when it comes to environments – I can happily rename a street, move a square or invent trees where there are none if I feel like I need or want to. This was of course not a problem when writing for Swedish readers, whose knowledge about e.g. London’s bus routes or the colour of the tiles on the Mornington Crescent underground station is limited, but for English readers there were quite a few of those things that I had to rethink, since factual ‘errors’ of that kind would just be annoying to readers. That said, A System… is a work of fiction, and quite fanciful fiction at that, so a lot of these discrepancies remain. If you can’t use fiction to move a tree, I’m not really sure what fiction is good for.
Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?
Because there is so much amazing literature being written in so many languages, and we would all be poorer for it if there weren’t so many amazing translators.
If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, or really anything by him, because reading him proved to me what I long suspected, which is that hilarity and sincerity are not juxtaposed, but closely related. Everything by Ali Smith (who I also translate into Swedish), because she is the best kind of rule breaker and, again, someone who pairs humour with poetry. But I think the author that made me one is Swedish children’s author Maria Gripe, whose books enthralled me throughout my childhood. After reading her turn-of-the-century mystery Agnes Cecilia 14 or so times, I wrote my first rip-off, and then it just went from there.