‘The shimmering light of everything that surrounds us’: An interview with Samanta Schweblin

by Guadalupe Gerardi

Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s fascinating novel Fever Dream was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017; her new book, Mouthful of Birds, is due for publication in English translation next year. I talked to Schweblin about her writing process, the ways in which her work opens up dialogues between different literary traditions, and the vexed question of what is gained and lost in translation. The interview has been translated from the Spanish with the assistance of Aled Evans.

In the English press, reviews of your work tend to qualify it as extraordinary, eerie, thrilling and fantastic. Literary trends or genres commonly linked to those adjectives, like fantasy and terror, are often mentioned. Are these characterisations pertinent to what you write?

I like those designations, mainly because they relate to the type of literature I enjoy reading. But those labels are utterly foreign to me. They are not determined by me, nor do they completely define me; it is for others to contend with those nomenclatures. As a narrator, I am constantly looking for what is unknown to me – that which occupies a void in my knowledge. It’s probably for this reason that the eeriness of my work has been talked about so much. What springs to my mind when I speak about the unknown are the obscure shadows as well as the shimmering light of everything that surrounds us, but which we have not yet learnt to recognise. I am referring here to the unknown, not the fantastic. The unknown that really exists and is hiding somewhere.

When you write, do you think about your precursors, your readers, or neither?

Firstly, I only think about the story. There is perhaps an idea of a reader, lurking in the background, but in any case that figure is no more than my own curiosity for what I am about to discover. Afterwards – that is, in the last stages of writing, in drafts that are nearly finished, when one is attending to aspects of style – then yes, some questions, doubts and decisions arise that relate to the reader. This figure is always an ideal reader, not a concrete or specific person.

Fever Dream is called Distancia de rescate or ‘Distance to rescue’ in the original Spanish. What do you think about the title to the English translation, and how did it come about?

It was an idea of one of my American editors from the Riverhead team. I like it, it’s strong, brief, attractive and specific. Its one disadvantage is that it drives the reader to think that everything occurring in the novel stems from a fever dream. That is, in fact, one of its possible readings, which I foresaw and is likewise part of the book, but it is not the only possible reading. In any case, it is merely a possibility that arises towards the end, a doubt of the narrator. But everything that happens in Fever Dream has a real and plausible background.

What is at stake in your titles? How and when do you think of the titles for your short stories?

The title is what I think about last, most of the time. It is the result of the writing process and often I think that if my writing lacks its title, it is because the work is not completely finished. I have to confess that titles are hard work for me; it is probably the aspect of the writing that I feel most insecure about. I have the feeling that, in general, there is something intrinsic to every story that dictates its own steps. When that is the case, I do not have doubts about the plot, nor the language, the narrator or the tone. I do have them when I begin writing, I have them during writing, but towards the end everything seems to be settled. The title, instead, has sometimes an arbitrary character that confuses me, that makes me hesitate until the last minute.

The thrilling aspects of Fever Dream are connected, at least in part, with an instinctive anxiety on the part of the carer, or the mother. Are there any traditions, literary or not, that influenced the anguished way in which motherhood is modelled in your novel? A connection, perhaps, with biblical figures such as the neglected or forgotten mother of King David, or with antiquity’s conceptualisation of monstrosity as biological difference?

Maybe – I like the idea of the relationship with biblical motifs. But none of those traditions are really intended. It is hard to demarcate the limits of what one thinks, or plans, in a story. I am a very controlling and perfectionist author, and although I am not necessarily sure this is a good thing, when I write I follow my characters very closely. I cling to them – it’s as if I am almost inside them – to the extent that my questions are centred more around questions like ‘What is happening?’ rather than ‘What is my text trying to say with what is happening?’

Both Mouthful of Birds and Fever Dream place a special thematic emphasis on the child’s gaze. What is it about childlike ways of looking at things that caught your interest?

Children are a bit crazy, in the best sense of the word. They have not yet constructed this big idea that we adults have of what is and is not possible, of what is and is not acceptable, and what we can and cannot trust or believe in. They are not conditioned by stigma and social conventions and their reading of the world is far simpler and sometimes, in fact, more sensible than ours. I admire that about children. It is strange, because that fascination connects with something that I, as an adult, do not have, and yet it seems to be a realm that everybody knows. We believe we know how children think, but I am not so sure that we actually preserve a true understanding of childhood, and that blank space is something which interests me a great deal.

Going back to the eeriness of your work, Fever Dream combines very concrete issues such as the use of pesticides on soya crops – which is suggested but not explicitly stated in the novel – and, simultaneously, intangible matters that are presented overtly but are more abstract and supernatural, such as the transmigration of souls. Is there something at stake in that combination?

To state it explicitly is a bit disenchanting, but yes, of course I believe there are connections. The ‘rescue distance’ – the mental calculation that a father or mother carries out to estimate how far or close they should stay to their child, how much danger there is around – is a mental calculation that you can apply to many things. In the novel the ‘rescue distance’ is broken, not only between mother and child, but also between the country and its inhabitants, between land and industry, between souls and bodies, between men and women; it is a rupture that runs deep in many corners of that story.

In Mouthful of Birds, is the transgression of the boundaries of normality in family environments linked to the tradition of fantastic literature? In particular, to the work of Silvina Ocampo?

I believe we ought to make a distinction between that which cannot possibly occur, which we find embedded in the literature of the fantastic, and that which is unlikely to occur but could feasibly still take place in our world, which is what we find embedded in the literature of the strange and the extraordinary. Sometimes the label ‘fantastic literature’ comes to comprise those two distinct aspects. Sometimes the extraordinary unnerves one so much – precisely because it can happen – that it is reassuring to think of it as fantastic literature. But it is not the same thing. In fact, I believe that Silvina Ocampo wrote both types of short stories, but they all tend to be grouped under the same label of fantastic literature.

What role does frustration play in your writing?

As a subject, I am really not sure I write about it. It is very present in my creative process, but it’s not a negative influence. Or at least I have learnt to deal with it now, and even to use it to my advantage. I am not saying that I am completely in control, nor that I have learnt an extraordinary secret. Frustration is still equally frustrating to everyone: it tires you out, it discourages you, it provokes disillusion. But it also has a lot to say about the relationship we have with what we are writing: it might function as an alarm or a trigger. I cannot exactly recall the name of the author who once said that every novel is a failure, that writing what one wants to write is an impossible undertaking, and that any novel is no more than the result of said failure.

Do you read the translations of your books? What do you think is gained and lost in translation?

Something is lost and gained in translation, of course, but there is no way to control how much nor where exactly this happens. Both Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds have each been translated 25 times already, so I do receive some copies of translations where I am not even sure from which side I should open them. At times I can’t even find my name on the cover. That is somewhat upsetting, but there is no other option but to trust the editors and translators. When it comes to the English translation I can have some involvement, and I have the pleasure of working with Megan McDowell, with whom the results have been outstanding. Translations are always uncomfortable for the author to think about. But as a reader, I think that translated languages are what I have read in for most of my life.

Do you get involved in the process of translation?

If the translators ask me to get involved, I do. I have worked very closely with some translators such as Megan McDowell, or Marianne Gareis, my German translator. I have had the pleasure of meeting some of my other translators, too, such as Signe Prøis (Norwegian), or Annakarin Thorburn (Swedish), and have a good working relationship with them. Some of my translators I admire as writers in their own right, as is the case with Peter Adolphsen or the great Lina Wolff. In general, it is when one receives targeted questions about certain details of the translation that one becomes aware how much a linguistic misunderstanding can deform a whole idea or situation. That is quite uncomfortable for the obsessive and controlling writer, but I suppose it is part of the deal of getting your work translated: learning to let go.

Living as you do in Berlin, what are your thoughts on the experience of living in one language and writing in another?

Well, my German is still not quite good enough to say that I live in that language. Something strange happened to my Spanish, which is a bit concerning, in that it has been substantially neutralised. My friends in Berlin are, for the most part, Latin American and Spanish, and our variants of Spanish mix: we borrow fantastic and irreplaceable words, sayings and tones from other variants of Spanish, and sometimes one abandons one’s own words to avoid misunderstandings. Then, when I am writing, I realise how my Spanish is changing. It is not the porteño (Buenos Aires) variant which I used to write six years ago, and yet the majority of my characters are still Argentineans who live in Buenos Aires or the surrounding areas. It is uncomfortable, because it does not feel natural, and at the same time it makes me constantly think about the issue of language.

As someone who writes in both long and short forms, what would you say to the idea that short story writing is a particular kind of ‘craft’ that is separate from other types of writing?

I think there is a lot of the craftsman in any writer, no matter which genre you write in. Above all, I think there is a lot of craftsmanship involved in the process of becoming a writer. This does not mean that I don’t believe in literary workshops or in the possibility of ‘educating’ a writer; in fact, I do believe all those activities really help. But that is not enough, and it is here where the idea of the craftsman comes to mind. I think that the struggle with the material is always personal and subjective, it always has to do with an experience from your own life, and with a unique way of seeing and thinking about the world.

What is the importance of personal experience when you are writing your stories?

I suppose it is from our experience of life that all the material emerges. Otherwise, where else could it come from? Though to the ‘experience of life’ one should add readings, dreams, the things people tell us – but it is all there, in our heads, filtered through ideas and personal priorities. At the same time, beyond the fact that we construct fiction with all that is so personal to us, it is very difficult to find this quality afterwards in the texts. For instance, I have a more or less clear idea of what moments in my life went into each of the stories that I wrote. But those moments are not part of the plot, so much as a certain feeling.