Frederick Studemann talks about growing up surrounded by thousands of books - and why the International Booker is challenging him to read outside the familiar
Frederick Studemann is the Literary Editor of the Financial Times and was also a founding member of FT Deutschland. Studemann spent his early years in Cork and Dublin, before moving to London, with later postings in Berlin, the Soviet Union, Greece and Austria.
Why do you think the International Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it?
The IBP’s profile has put translated fiction on a new footing - not just in the relatively narrow confines of literary London, but also internationally where the ‘Booker’ name and brand resonates strongly, as I’ve found out on my own travels. There are scores of prizes, here in the UK and around the world, but few bring together such a broad international range of writers in an effective way (thanks, in no small part, to the English language, of course). And obviously the decision to put translators on equal terms as the authors in terms of the prize and the prize money has been an important and welcome move.
Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to?
Like many - most? - people I tend to have a number of books on the go at any one time. I like a mix of non-fiction and fiction. My tastes are quite wide-ranging - contemporary, old, some re-reads, history, current affairs, memoirs, novels, thrillers and so on. I usually have at least one German-language book in the mix. My job requires that I do a lot of sampling of new books, checking out which ones we might want to send out for review, so there are lots of books that I dip into and browse through, though do not necessarily ‘properly’ read.
Tell us about your path to becoming a reader - what did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading?
Cliche alert: I grew up surrounded by books (as I have recently been reminded, following the death of my father, which has left my sister and I confronted with some 14,000 books). My mother worked in publishing, translated and wrote poetry, so reading was always there. I guess I began with classic childhood adventure-type stories and those historical novels for kids, which I loved.
Tell us about your favourite International Booker Prize-nominated book from previous years, and why you like it.
Hmm. So much to choose from. But if you forced me to name one, I really enjoyed Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann. Why? Beautifully written and captivating in the way he takes you back to a pre-modern, pre-rational time in relatively recent European history and recreates a magical, comic and disturbing world of its own.
It has certainly opened up my eyes to other, different worlds of writing and, as ever, it is nice to be taken away from the familiar and recognisable.
Judges of the Booker Prizes have to read several books multiple times. Away from this year’s prize, is there a book that you’ve re-read more than any other and, if so, what makes you keep returning to it?
I’ve probably read The Great Gatsby more times than is healthy - though less so in recent years. Lockdown took me back to P.G. Wodehouse.
What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the prize, and is there anything you’re not looking forward to?
I love the sheer range of what we are reading. It has certainly opened up my eyes to other, different worlds of writing and, as ever, it is nice to be taken away from the familiar and recognisable. I have mixed feelings about the point where we have to get down to the hard decisions involved in choosing a long- and then shortlist.
What does translated fiction offer readers than fiction written originally in English doesn’t, and how can we encourage more people to read it?
Most obviously, a different perspective. Different places, different issues, different, characters, different stories and so on, yet in the hands of a good author and translator something accessible and sometimes universal in appeal. Also different views as to what constitutes ‘a novel’. So, all in, it’s eye-opening and refreshing. How to encourage? Spread the word!
What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the International Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?
Great writing, great stories, great characters. And ambition - it’s interesting to see authors experimenting with innovative ways to approach a novel. And something new and unfamiliar. I could tell you about what I’m not looking for, but that might be a bit of a long and grumpy list…