Interview with John O’Brien of the Dalkey Archive Press

An interview with publisher John O’Brien about his visit to Prague last September, about Dalkey Archive’s further plans in promoting Czech authors, and about the blessings and pitfalls of publishing innovative literature in translation.


John O'Brien with his interviewer David Vichnar, at the Slavia Café, 24 September 2012

John O'Brien with his interviewer David Vichnar, at the Slavia Café, 24 September 2012

Last September you came to Prague in order to find out which contemporary Czech authors to include in Dalkey’s publishing plan. How often do you make such trips and where to? Are they limited to Europe? Was there anything memorable about this particular one?
This will sound like I am trying to dodge the question and indeed I am. We are reviewing several authors, and I really don’t want to say who is on the list because it is quite a work-in-progress. I of course met some very interesting writers, and then got recommendations for even more. And then there are the writers I have to get back to who were kind of enough to contact me after my visit there, but it wasn’t the right time for me to say very much (and this is one of the reasons writers have good reason to resent publishers: I have often said that all writers should spend time working in a publishing house, and they would have a better sense of why manuscripts can sit around for so long. I almost always tell writers to start harassing me—somewhat gently—if emails go unanswered: this just means that the crisis of the day has interfered with good manners. And typically, I receive about 150 emails each day, all of which are requiring an answer of some kind). There. Have I dodged the answer enough?

So far the Dalkey catalogue includes six books by Czech authors – two for Ajvaz and Ouředník, respectively, and one each for Škvorecký and Gruša. Could you briefly talk about these six books and why they caught Dalkey’s fancy?
The Škvorecký and Gruša are very old favorites that I first read many years ago: both strange, peculiar books that I have admired for decades. When they went out of print, I sought them out. Ajvaz and Ouředník: well, how to explain? With both of these writers, I immediately related to them. With Ouředník, it is his way of looking at the world: which is always with a great deal of irony, and I think comedy. He makes me laugh, even while he is up to some very serious things in his work, chief of which might be the exploration of human folly. With Ajvaz, I don’t know if I can explain this easily. I have told him this: for the first hundred pages or so I wander around wondering what he is possibly up to! Aside from the sense that this is a journey well worth taking, I am confused for quite a time, and yet enjoying the confusion. And then around page 100, it all bursts forth, one is inside these worlds that he creates from one book to the next, it all makes sense (well, in a way it all makes sense) because you are in this world that he has carefully put together, usually by way of pulling one out of the world that is overly familiar. In each case, I knew I was in the presence of a genius. This is inadequate, I know, but it’s the best I can do.

Your travels abroad and meetings with many authors of different national backgrounds also entail dealing with local cultural authorities. In your experience, has there been anything specific to the Czech environment?
I will be candid here, and I don’t intend to be complaining or criticizing, though I will probably come off that way. Despite trying, we haven’t been able to make many inroads with the cultural authorities in the Czech Republic, and we have tried in a number of ways. Most countries have programs by which publishers, in some capacity or another, are invited to spend 4-5 days in the country meeting with writers, critics, and publishers. The Ministry of Culture usually takes the lead on this, and one or two meetings are held with that office to see what might be possible. CzechLit was very generous in helping with the recent trip, but I did not meet with the Ministry and that is a key to many things. I am not just talking about funding here: I am talking about finding out what mutual interests there may be and how the two parties can work together. In about a twelve-month period, we will be publishing 25 literary works from Korea: that came about through talking about their interests and what Dalkey Archive does. You cited the six works that we have done from the Czech Republic, and I am the first to admit that this is a very small number. It should be much higher, but much of that depends upon a level of cooperation and discussing common interests. That is what hasn’t happened thus far, but I hope that it will.

What is the key according to which you have selected / are going to select (Czech) books for your press?
An editor relates to books on a very personal level: one likes a book, or doesn’t like it. In this way, an editor can be just like any reader. As always, we are looking for the “best” books according to our lights, and Dalkey (so I am told) publishes a certain kind of book: I accept that view, even though I have yet to find an adequate way to describe this “certain kind of books.” Our range is usually from the Modernist period up to the present. I don’t think of books as getting old: for a new reader, the book is always new. So, our interests are not tied to what may sell the best, but rather to what is the best, whether that be a work from the 1930s that has never been translated, or a work published a year ago. We are a very odd publishing house.

What response (critical attention, reviews, prizes) have these six books elicited? Have you got a personal favourite among them?
Europeana of course did quite well and received a great deal of media attention. It is essentially a brief history of the twentieth-century as seen through the eyes and ears of “the common man” who of course cannot make sense of it, but proceeds by way of rumor about what happened and why. It’s a very funny book, but it is also a book that calls into question the validity of any work of history, or versions of history. Ajvaz seems to baffle the reviewers, or they don’t stay with his books long enough, and so he has received less attention. I am quite dedicated, though, to doing all of his work, but fiction and nonfiction. He is seen, at least in the States, as a science-fiction writer. I was rather shocked when I saw some of the reviews, and the award that he received. That is not how I read him, but then I don’t lay any special claim on how he or anyone should be read.

Dalkey ranks among publishing houses that devote most attention to publishing literature in translation – what, to your mind, are the reasons behind it?
I could write a book on this subject, but never will. As a teenager I read indiscriminately, and usually not what was being taught in school (British and American classic and “safe” writers). My first serious book, I think, was a Dostoyevsky novel. And then I was reading Camus, Americans like Hemingway (who couldn’t be taught in high schools then) and Salinger and Fitzgerald, authors whom the priests would tell me I shouldn’t be reading. So, I began my reading with literature from around the world. When I became a professor, I frequently taught these writers, and tried to break down the artificial barriers the academy created between works in English and works that were translated. Then when I started publishing, American culture was becoming insulated and ignoring foreign literature; translations, even then, were disappearing from the publishing lists of major commercial houses. So, I published American and British writers (and of course the great Flann O’Brien) but published them alongside either well-known foreign writers (Queneau) or unknown ones (Albert-Birot). I believe that readers do not care whether a novel is a translation; they judge any book on the basis of quality and whether it interests them.

But there are many biases out there in the larger world of publishing that work against translated literature, aren’t there?
Yes, and one of those is that it won’t sell very well, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. My view is that serious literature, at least in the States, doesn’t sell very well, and that this is not a problem that belongs to translations. My belief is that serious literature, with some obvious exceptions, should be looked upon the way that classical music, ballet, opera, or almost any avant-garde art form is looked upon: they are all in danger when reduced to marketplace value, and they are all in need of outside financial support. For whatever reasons, literary publishing isn’t viewed this way, and the belief is that there is some inventive marketing tool that will make the biases go away. So, let’s put it this way: the world of literary publishing is filled with pitfalls. At the same time, if one is willing to have many sleepless nights, so many books are now available to small literary presses that would never have been available thirty years ago. Unfortunately, because of the lack of financial support, many of these presses are very limited to in what they can do and how many books they can publish each year still survive. And here I am talking about presses that publish as few as ten books a year or even fewer. At that level it’s difficult to do very much, but even so, some of these publishers manage to have an impact, but others are virtually unnoticed. This is where philanthropy could make an enormous difference in the literary world, but at present in the United States, there is only one private foundation that supports translations.

What about the current situation in the U.S. as regards critical/readerly interest in publishing (Central) European fiction? It’s of course related to funding opportunities, but I wonder how closely…
A quick answer is that there are no funding opportunities. You have the National Endowment for the Arts whose budget is always being knocked about in Congress, you have a few State agencies with very limited funds, and you have major foundations that do not have programs for literature and frequently do not even want to talk about such things as translations. One wishes that a Soros had not stopped funding literary projects once the Wall came down. That Fund on its own could change how much gets published from Central Europe, and there is so much that should be translated and published. To answer the other part of your question, the readerly interest is there, but the major difficulty is having enough money to invest in getting word out to people about the books. Most funding agencies in countries feel as though they are doing more than enough to partially fund the cost of the translation itself. More money needs to be invested, and countries need to start including publishers in discussions about funding. It is quite rare that publishers are asked what the problems are and what the solutions might be. So, these agencies decide for themselves what should motivate publishers to take on books and then are surprised when the publishers say no. They simply do not understand that paying for half a translation is not a great motivator; that still leaves another half, in addition to all of the other costs the publisher must absorb while knowing that sales will not make up the difference.

Insofar as you can tell, what consequences has your Prague trip had (or will have)? Was there any single author standing out from among the many you met? What are Dalkey’s plans as regards future translations of Czech authors into English?
Again, I can’t really answer this without offending someone or announcing what I do not yet know: which writers will we be pursuing, which relates to financial issues as well. My safe answer here is that I want to go on publishing Misters Ouředník and Ajvaz. But then there are about 15 other writers I want to publish as well!


Interviewed by David Vichnar