Broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel talks about how British books have a different smell than North American ones and the importance of intuition when selecting books for the longlist

Eleanor Wachtel, co-founder and host for more than 30 years of the flagship programme, ‘Writers & Company’, on Canada’s CBC Radio, is rightly known as one of the world’s finest literary interviewers. Five books of her interviews have been published, including Random Illuminations (Goose Lane Editions, 2007), a collection of reflections, correspondence and conversations with Carol Shields, which won the Independent Publisher Book Award; Original Minds (HarperCollins, 2003); and, most recently, The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis, 2016). She has received numerous accolades for her contributions to Canadian cultural life, nine honorary degrees and Officer of the Order of Canada. She is the Chair of judges for the International Booker Prize 2024.

Publication date and time: Published

Why do you think the International Booker Prize matters, and what’s special or unique about it?    

Over more than 30 years of interviewing the very best international authors, I’ve come to understand the power of translators to open borders of the imagination and to create a worldwide community of readers.   

Alongside those writers who speak to us of the culture of their homelands, many of the finest voices also come from diasporic experiences, of displacement and exile. They bring us a bifocal image of the world – where they’ve come from and where they’ve landed: langue de départ et langue d’arrivée. The translation of their work into English carries this movement forward, enhanced by the dedicated attention that the International Booker Prize provides.  

Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to?    

I haven’t been reading ‘under normal circumstances’ for decades. As the host since 1990 of a CBC Radio book show with an international focus, I’ve been guided by what is new in the literary world in the most wide-ranging way. It’s only during the summer that I’ve been able to read dead writers or those, such as Elena Ferrante (see below), who don’t speak English or do interviews.  

Portrait of Eleanor Wachtel

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?    

I grew up in a house without books. But it didn’t take me long to grasp the power of reading. I shared a room with my sister at the end of a long hallway; my brother’s room was halfway down. On Saturday mornings, my mother would shout down the hall from the kitchen for us to get up, get out, do things. ‘In a minute,’ we’d answer, and turn the page.  

Books came from the library. Growing up in 1950s Montreal, my reading was haphazard and I managed to completely bypass all the children’s classics, such as Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh. The English critic, Sir Frank Kermode, who grew up in the 1920s on the Isle of Man, once told me about his own stumbling upon Dickens and ‘good books’ only by accident, and never quite catching references to Eeyore. Exactly.  

What I did know was that British books had a different smell than North American ones. It must have been the glue or the binding. The children in those English books seemed more autonomous and adventurous, so I came to favour that scent. And although the very first thing I can remember reading on my own was pure description – the squeaking sound of a bear crunching along hard-packed snow (how atavistically Canadian) – I read for the stories. I only became aware of an identifiable author and voice a few years later when I encountered James Thurber and Edgar Allen Poe – ‘The Night the Bed Fell on Father’ and ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’. Laughter and horror.  

What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the prize? Has anything surprised you so far?   

What I’m most enjoying – and being surprised by – are the discussions with fellow jurors. When I think I’m advocating a title that is obscure or quirky that I’m sure no one else will favour, I discover that two (or more!) other jurors have also selected it. But it’s not consensus per se that’s gratifying. I also find it stimulating to hear about a book that I may or may not have chosen discussed from a different angle and in a most articulate way.  

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?

I don’t have specific criteria; I think it’s more intuitive. If I may quote my fellow juror, William Kentridge, who said that what he looks for is ‘to be complicit in the making of the meaning of the book’.   

What I hope to find are books that I could recommend to English-speaking readers, to be able to say, ‘Here, we’ve scoured the world and brought back these gifts.’  

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?  

To quote the renowned translator, Edith Grossman, who died last fall, translation ‘permits us to savour the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.’  

Indeed, literature questions the lines we draw between people and places, our expectations, revealing an interiority that can change everything.  

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe.

What I hope to find are books that I could recommend to English-speaking readers, to be able to say, here, we’ve scoured the world and brought back these gifts

— Eleanor Wachtel, International Booker Prize 2024 judge, on reading for the prize

In recent years, translators and their working relationships with authors have become more visible. Why do you think it is important to shine a spotlight on this role?    

It is astonishing to realise that for so long translators have been taken for granted. And that it has taken prestigious prizes like this one to jolt readers’ consciousnesses, making them aware of the talent and sensitivity required for the task.  

This relatively recent recognition is being felt and appreciated. As one translator, Oonagh Stransky, recently observed: ‘One of the most exciting novelties is that we are writing about our work. We are speaking out. No longer are we wallflowers or merely “very careful readers”. And we have an audience! People are listening to what we have to say. With each word that I write about the love I feel for my work, I am literally revealing something of myself, stepping out of the shadows, and coming into a new existence.’  

What does the future look like for translators with the broader trend of AI and machine-led alternatives displacing workers? Could a bot ever replace a human translator of fiction?    

My answer can only take the form of a wish – that those dratted bots stick to more mundane preoccupations. Leave imaginative writing to writers with imagination!  

Finally, what are your top three favourite works of fiction in translation that you would recommend to readers of the Booker Prizes, and how have they influenced you?  

It’s not easy to choose favourite works of fiction in translation. For instance, as is common, I grew up reading the Russians – Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov – and the French – Flaubert and Stendhal, even Saint-Exupéry – and on it goes. As I was immersed in these worlds, I didn’t think much about the fact that they were translations. That awareness only came about later.  

In relation to this question and this prize, I feel I should focus on contemporary writing although even with that limitation, I find it difficult to name only three and declare them favourites. Each of these books revealed something to me at a particular moment.  

I spoke to Orhan Pamuk before he won the Nobel, through his work My Name is Red (1998; translated in 2001 by Erdağ Göknar). An ambitious novel about 16th-century Ottoman miniaturists, it’s a book of fable, philosophy and mystery, deftly combining Islamic themes and traditions with western modernism.  

I’ve been reading Natalia Ginsberg for a long time but only recently encountered her 1952 novel All Our Yesterdays (translated by Angus Davidson and recently reissued with an introduction by Sally Rooney, who described it as ‘a perfect novel’ that ‘touched and transformed’ her life). Set in 1930s northern Italy, it revolves around domestic life but fascism and war are subtly ever-present.  

For sheer enjoyment, I’d include a very different voice from Italy: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, translated by Ann Goldstein, starting with My Brilliant Friend. Like many others I was seduced by the mix of social history, compelling narrative and melodrama.  

And since I can’t limit myself to three, Tomas Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita (translated by Helen Lane) gave me insight into Latin American politics and sensibility in the most entertaining way. A journalist and film critic, like so many Argentine novelists, he wrote a mix of fact and fiction, reality and myth, as illustrated by his first major success in English translation, The Peron Novel, inspired by extensive interviews he conducted with Juan Peron. I had the pleasure of talking to Martinez when I was doing a special series in Argentina twenty years ago.  

Book cover of My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk depicting an old asian painting of a murder seen through a window.