Where do you write? What does your working space look like?
At the very beginning, when I’m writing in my notebook, I can be anywhere. It might seem strange to see someone using a notebook and surreptitiously jotting down thoughts in some random place, in the afternoon. I love afternoons. Then, when it comes to the real writing, I prefer to be in the same place, for it to be morning and to be alone. I never managed to get a ‘room of my own’, so I write in the living room when my family isn’t there. I used to smoke a lot, but I don’t anymore, I’ve found that if the story grabs hold of you, you don’t need anything else around you: coffee, cigarettes, nuts. Your only goal is to not lose the flow of the language.
What was the experience of working with the book’s translator, Angela Rodel, 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?
I love working directly with my translators, getting their questions and answering them. I’m always suspicious of translators who have no questions about the text. I know I’ve left a lot of traps in my writing; references, quotes, allusions. As an author for whom language itself is paramount, I suspect my books are not at all easy to translate. I think Angela Rodel did truly impressive work with her translation, because she often had to translate not only the text itself, but the context of all the stories inside the novel. The novel plays with the reenactment of different decades of the twentieth century, and there are many subtle places where the slang of a given era must also ring true. In this new construction of the past, different layers of language and memory are activated. How can the past be translated at all, personally and collectively? And how can nationalist kitsch be translated for the different countries in the novel?
I recall that English was happily indulgent towards the title, which is a neologism. In French, Spanish and Danish the play on ‘bomb shelter’ didn’t work as well. Another problem was with the direct speech, which in the original is not marked as direct speech. In Bulgarian it’s somewhat easier to follow, but in English not so much. We also had a long discussion with the editor about whether to mark speech with quotation marks or follow the logic of the original. We decided to risk it, hence Angela had the difficult task of translating the two voices – Gaustin’s and the narrator’s, which run in parallel, like two threads, intertwining and separating. This blending and diverging of voices is logically important to the novel, so I’m glad we kept the original approach to the speech.
Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?
Let me put it simply. When we have ears and eyes (and a translation) for the story of the Other, when we hear and read it, they become a person like us. Storytelling generates empathy. It saves the world. Especially a world like the one we live in today. We write to postpone the end of the world. And the end of the world is a very personal thing. It happens in different languages. Translation gives us the sense that we are working towards this postponement together. It gives us the sense that in my Bulgarian story of sadness and anxiety, in someone else’s Peruvian story, for example, and in your English story, we are hurting in a very similar, human way. There is no other way to tame that pain and respond to it than to tell it. And the more languages we tell it in, the better.
If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?
My grandmother’s stories that I listened to as a child. Stories that blended fiction and reality, with no clear end to one and beginning to another. Stories that had voices and whispers, and miracles at the end. Plus, the characters lived in the same village as us. Then there was the first Andersen story I read on my own, ‘The Little Match Girl’, and the magnifying glass of the tears through which I opened that story each time. I don’t trust writers or storytellers who haven’t cried when reading that story. Over the theme of death and childhood there. I think it influenced my writing afterwards – as well as my character Gaustine, who says, ‘There is only childhood and death, and nothing in between.’ And third, I’ll point to two works that are key to Time Shelter and to the theme of time and memory in general: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Borges’ Funes the Memorious. I find Mann increasingly important, a kind of Einstein of literary and historical time. Whereas with Borges, you get the private hell of memory, though I’ve always dreamed of having such a super-memory for all perishable things, a memory of clouds and dogs at three in the afternoon.