A Thought-Provoking Interview With Nina Schuyler, Author Of THE TRANSLATOR: Annoying Characters, The Hierarchy Of Fiction, And Rewards For Reaching Goals

Translator_coverIf you hadn’t guessed, I love interviewing authors. Here’s a great example of why!

Today Nina Schuyler, author of THE TRANSLATOR, takes us into the world of fiction vs. women’s fiction, sympathetic vs. empathetic characters, and chocolate vs. cake. Nina really made me think about the book I’m writing because the main character makes some bad choices, but through it all she exhibits fierce love for her child and unwavering loyalty to her elderly next-door-neighbor. I’m working hard on making sure this character is able to be understood, even if she makes readers shake their heads. I want her to be empathetic, not pathetic.

Nina also mentions wishing for more female characters in fiction “who experience anger, raw ambition, intellect, sexual hunger, arrogance, a solid ego, authority, power.”

To me, that sounds like many of the women I know in real life—so I think Nina is onto something.

Please welcome Nina Schuyler to Women’s Fiction Writers.

Amy xo

A Thought-Provoking Interview With Nina Schuyler, Author Of THE TRANSLATOR: Annoying Characters, The Hierarchy Of Fiction, And Rewards For Reaching Goals

Translator_coverAmy:  I’ve found that people often ask authors how a book was inspired. I prefer to ask (and to know) what one thing, or person, or experience, sparked the idea? And where were you when this happened?

Nina: Thank you so much for interviewing me! I was flipping through an issue of The New Yorker, when I found an article by David Remnick, “The Translation Wars.” Richard Pevear, an English speaker, and his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, a Russian émigré, were re-translating all the great Russian novels into English. Finally, what Nabokov called a “complete disaster” and “the dry shit” of Constance Garnett who had first translated Russian literature into English could be set aside.

As a girl, I fell in love with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pasternak. I remember one summer when I was twelve, I carried Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago every day to the pool. Back then, I didn’t even consider that the stories were first written in Russian—what Thomas Mann calls, “the muddy, barbaric, boneless tongue from the East.” What I thought about was snow, sleigh rides, passion, betrayal, revolution, peasants, czars, love.

I hurried to my book shelf. All my Russian novels—all translated by Garnett! I felt betrayed. I’d read a watered-down, corrupted Russian translation, soaked in a heavy dose of English custom and sensibility.

It was November 2005. Rain, I remember rain that night. I stayed up late, writing, thinking about what constitutes a good translation? To whom or what should a translator be loyal? How does one translate fiction, with all its nuances and subtext? What if a translator thinks she does a good job, but, in fact, makes egregious errors? I was transfixed by the complexities that exhausted easy explanations. I was caught up and imagined willingly being caught up for years. The more I explored, the larger the pile of questions. I had, to my delight, the beginning of a novel.

Amy: In your Rumpus interview you discuss the buzz about women writing unlikable characters. For me, it’s more about understanding or wanting to understand a character than liking her. (But I do like to like characters.) Do you think there’s a difference in the perception of how characters *should* be based on the type of book a reader thinks he or she has picked up? I have found that even with my own reading, expectations play a part in how I feel about the book. (Therefore, I try to have no expectations and often read books I know nothing about.) 

Nina: I agree the issue is not sympathy, but empathy for the protagonist. The first chapter of a novel should do a lot of work to align readers’ expectations for the type of book that will unfold. Promises are made in that first chapter: here is the main character(s), the conflict, or at least hints of the conflict, themes, subject matter, tone and style, point of view, setting, and, importantly, pathways for a reader to emotional engage with the character. So, for instance, in The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, a reader meets Nora on the first page who says, “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” Messud prepares us for an honest, sometimes uncomfortable-making narrator. In the first chapter of my new novel, The Translator, the reader sees Hanne’s monomaniacal focus on her work and also hears Hanne say in a matter-of-fact tone that she hasn’t heard from her daughter in six years. A not-so-subtle hint that Hanne has fundamental flaws and huge blind spots.

Sometimes these promises are made explicit on the cover. Other times on the back of the book. I’m thinking of Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout: “At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher…” The reader knows Olive isn’t going to be a passive pushover.

As an aside, I’d love to read more novels with female characters that shake up and out of the stereotype. More females who experience anger, raw ambition, intellect, sexual hunger, arrogance, a solid ego, authority, power.

Amy: Would you share with us how you started writing and the steps you took to get your first and second novel published?

Nina: I first faced the blank page (the blank screen) as a reporter for a legal newspaper. I covered criminal courts, employment law, women and the law, and anything else that came up. I put my start line there, because as I gathered stories for the paper, so much was left on the cutting floor, so to speak. A newspaper article uses a specific form that delivers information efficiently and concisely to the reader. Yet I met so many fascinating characters, characters in the true sense of the word. So at night I began taking fiction classes. At some point, I got the courage to apply to San Francisco State University’s graduate creative writing program. When I was accepted, I got enough validation to keep writing.

Nina: My first novel, The Painting, was my thesis (revised many times). That novel had a speedy entrance into the world—in a matter of weeks, I got an agent, and she sold it quickly. Nine years later, (there’s an unsold novel, another baby, an editor who retires, an agent who leaves her agency, my mother passing, teaching on Tuesday and Wednesday nights) my second novel, The Translator, was ready to move out of the house. But who would help? Who would believe? Love it? Twenty query letters later, I found a new agent, who was enthusiastic and smart and savvy and lovely. Thankfully, she sold it.

Amy: Can you tell us what you have in the works now?

Nina: A new novel is taking shape. The Painting was sparked by an image—Japanese artwork floating in the air, finding its way to Paris. The Translator was inspired by ideas. This new one is loosely (very loosely) based on someone I know. A reminder, I suppose, that a novel can come from many different sources.

Amy: We talk a lot about women’s fiction here (obviously). The label doesn’t bother me because I realize that the bulk of my readership is female, and that works for me. Women’s fiction evokes the notion of a story that’s how a woman gets through something and to the other side, whatever that something may be and wherever that other side may be. Does the term women’s fiction bother you? And either way, how would you define it?

Nina: My first response: so if I write a novel about a man who gets through something and to the other side, have I created “men’s fiction”? In fact, my work-in-progress novel has two male point-of-view characters and one female. What should that be called?

On a more serious note, the term creates a hierarchy. There is fiction and then there is so-called ‘women’s fiction.’ When you add that seemingly benign adjective, you suggest there is a norm or standard, which is fiction. Everything that isn’t fiction, or the standard, is a subset. The not-so-subtle undertone is that “women’s fiction” is not as good, serious or important as “fiction.”

Now is probably a good time to mention the VIDA report (www.vidaweb.org), which tracks books written by men that get reviewed versus books by women. Prepare yourself. In 2012, Harper’s reviewed 54 books written by men and only 11 written by women. At the London Review of Books, 203 written by men, only 74 by women. New Republic, 80 to 16. The Nation, 92 to 27.

I don’t have hard numbers, but my guess is that women predominately write “women’s fiction.” If “women’s fiction” is subpar to “fiction,” then these books won’t be reviewed as often as books written by men.

The arc you describe—how a woman gets through something and to the other side—is true of all fiction, regardless of gender. A reader spends anywhere from eight to ten hours, reading a novel. If there is no crescendo, no epiphany, no change, the reader’s expectations will have not been met, and you’ll have a pretty angry reader.

So how would I define fiction written by women? Fiction. (Love it, Nina. Big time LOVE.)

Amy: What’s the best advice for aspiring authors (or someone like me, working on #2) of women’s fiction. I think there’s a fine line between an unlikeable character and annoying character. Do you have any specific advice for writing a character that just might get under the reader’s skin?

Nina:  Many writers like to romanticize writing, but in truth, it’s hard work. It requires the seemingly out-of-vogue word, discipline. You must be your own taskmaster. I teach creative writing at a university and tell my students to set up a writing schedule. Each week, set a goal. For instance, ‘I will write Monday, Wednesday and Friday, two hours each day.’ If you meet your goal, reward yourself. Chocolate is good. So is cake.

To me, an annoying character is one for whom the reader has no understanding or empathy. It means you, as writer, have yet to capture the complexities of human psychology. My husband’s Aunt Liddie, who died at the age of 90, was an iron horse of a woman. Things had to be done a certain way and done on her time schedule. She was strict, unforgiving of mistakes, quick to judge. “No! It must be done this way,” she’d say, her favorite refrain. Do you find her annoying?

Let me go on: As a young woman in Germany, she fell in love with an American soldier. She married him, went to America, and not long after, they divorced. Alone, without an income, she worked as a nanny and studied to become a nurse. When she married again, she continued working, not willing to be dependent on another man. When her younger sister was in the hospital for two months, Aunt Liddie, at age eighty-six, went every day to care for her. Do you still find her annoying?

I’m telling you this story so you experience one way to create empathy for a character (or a human being, for that matter). That is, provide a history that makes a reader revise her understanding of a character. I did exactly this for my character, Hanne. I also stole a technique from Marilyn Robinson in her novel, Gilead. There, the first person narrator is a pastor who doesn’t like one of the characters in the book. Each time he treats this other character poorly, though, he regrets it and promises to do better. In The Translator, as Hanne is remembering how she treated her daughter, she experiences regret, remorse, and often imagines another way she could have handled the situation.

Finally, when a character shows love—love of anything, a dog, a child, a beloved coin collection—the reader is more likely to emotionally engage with the character. Yes, she may be unlikeable, but she is also vulnerable and human and has a heart.

Thank you so much!

Schuyler_author photo2Nina Schuyler’s first novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and named a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize and teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.

Visit the author at http://www.ninaschuyler.com.

24 thoughts on “A Thought-Provoking Interview With Nina Schuyler, Author Of THE TRANSLATOR: Annoying Characters, The Hierarchy Of Fiction, And Rewards For Reaching Goals

    • Denise,
      I wish you good insight and good writing as you work hard on making your character come alive. One more thing to add to character development and emotional engagement: The element of surprise. This can happen on the sentence level, but also at the character level. So one good question to ask: what does your character expect to happen in this particular scene? Now, can you write the scene and have something happen that your character didn’t expect? I think what this does is make your character more vulnerable.
      Nina

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  1. Whoa! This is my favorite interview EVER, on WFW. So many truths to this article: “a novel can come from many different sources; defining women’s fiction as simply “fiction” (yay!); writing is hard work” — and the examples of Aunt Liddie are excellent — spot on about why, as readers, we have emotional connection to characters (or don’t).

    I am so fascinated by The Translator and your description of how the book came to me. When I was reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog (translated from French to English), I kept thinking: “Wow, these sentences are clunky and difficult.” And I had to keep reminding myself that it was a translation – but I wondered the very thing your novel questions: how much was lost via translation? Was it a GOOD translation? (Maybe it was since I still loved the overall story). Can’t wait to read! Thanks, Amy, for the introduction to Nina.

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    • Melissa,
      Thank you for your kind words! I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog, too, but also found clunky sentences. I think the big leap for me in thinking about The Translator was making translation a metaphor for how we navigate the world. And all the many mistakes we make along the way
      Nina

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  2. Fascinating interview, Nina and Amy! I agree that labeling something creates a hierarchy; it’s something I think about often, not just with terms like women’s fiction, but with categories like Latino Lit, because it implies “otherness,” as if these works will only appeal to certain kind of reader. On the other hand, I can see the need to help a reader find what they’re looking for, so I have to wonder if the problem isn’t so much in the label, but in the perception of that label, and all the cultural implications that come with it. For example, if we did have labels like men’s fiction and women’s fiction, we’d probably still see a lot of women reading both categories widely (because somehow a man’s experience is universal, right? ::insert sarcasm::) while a large majority of men would assume that women’s fiction is not for them. So I think a lot of it has to do with the value we place on women’s stories as a society, or how we perceive them.

    Still, I think there are times when labels can do more harm than good, and again, they reflect where we are as a culture. I often see books with Latino characters labeled as Latino lit…but books with characters from the Middle East, because it’s a region we are so much more culturally aware of, are usually placed under the umbrella of literary fiction. Such a complex topic—your post gives me so much to think about! Thank you, Nina (and I can’t wait to read your novel)!

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    • Natalia,
      Thank you for your thoughts and insights. I think you’re right: given our Western culture, our patriarchal society, the norm or standard is male. I remember learning in law school about the “reasonable person” standard, which, when we looked at case law, was clearly a “reasonable man” standard. If there is the norm, then everything else becomes “other.” And other quickly becomes less.

      To add to the discussion, here’s Jhumpa Lahiri from a recent NYT article (Sept. 5th)
      “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.”

      Nina

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      • Hi Nina,

        I rarely comment on my own blog, but this excerpt you shared really struck me. My writing always centers on the theme of alienation and assimilation, usually within a small community or nuclear family, yet I’d never thought of it that way. THANK YOU!

        You’ve brought much to light for me.

        Amy 🙂

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  3. Really smart, sharp interview. Coincidentally, in my book club this week, we were discussing whether a non-native can ever write as well as a native about a culture/country…then it came up that perhaps the non-native is a better candidate because they can write with more objectivity than a native. We never reached resolution/consensus. 🙂 (We were discussing this in reference to “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment” which was written by an American woman who’d lived in Japan for 5 years and held an undergrad degree in Asian studies, a masters in international relations.) In that same vein, I wonder about translations.
    Nina: Do you speak other languages? If so, how did this influence your writing of this book?
    Also coincidentally, I’m a native English speaker who learned Russian from my college roommate, a Russian emigre. As I experienced and witnessed the emotional components and historical context of words, it seems to me, sometimes there really is no exact/true translation.

    Great interview! Thanks Nina and Amy!

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    • Hi Sara,
      Your insight, I think, is spot on. We become habituated to whatever setting or landscape we find ourselves in. I know several writers who say they’ve been able to write about a place, only after years have gone by since they were there. They need “fresh eyes,” so to speak. They need place to become a bit foreign again.

      I speak enough Japanese to travel there alone (and land in interesting, unexpected places). My children are learning Spanish, so I’m revisiting that language, which I learned in elementary school. I think learning another language is akin to leaving your homeland for a while. You begin to see language, all language, as choices. So, for instance, in Japanese, the verb is at the end of the sentence. In English, the traditional form is placement of the verb right after the subject to create a more hard-hitting sentence. Yet, if you wait, separating the verb from the subject, you can create suspense. I’m also aware of how difficult it can be to translate literally. There are some concepts and values in language A that don’t neatly move over into language B.

      Nina

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  4. “Promises are made in that first chapter.” Such good advice, and so important to remember! This is actually very timely for me as I’m just beginning the second draft of my next novel, which is definitely one I need to think very carefully about what I’m promising.

    Nina, I have to say I LOVE your thoughts on the “women’s fiction” label, and agree completely! I love the genre for what it does, but I dearly wish they had thought to call it something else. I do have to wonder if those who first named it had that hierarchy in mind when they did.

    Amy, thank you for sharing this interview with us! 🙂

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    • Laura,
      Thank you for commenting. Your ending will “talk” to your beginning. So take a look at the events and images that are coming up at the end of your book. Can they appear in some form in your first chapter? In The Translator, the image of bridges is important. The etymology of the word ‘translation’ is to cross over, so I knew bridges would appear throughout. I made sure there was a bridge at the beginning of the book, and in my first draft, the one thing I knew about the ending was that there would be a bridge. (There are, in fact, several).
      Nina

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  5. Nina and Amy, thank you for this wonderful interview!
    Characters are why I read and why I write. The more complex they are, the happier I am. That they are a bit annoying at times, isn’t important. In fact, the contrast between the unlikeable and the likeable makes them intriguing.

    Like

  6. Really enjoyed the discussion, a great interview which gets to the heart of the challenges of writing women’s fiction. Another interesting stat Is that only 5% of WF writers are male and many of them write under a female pseudonym. How can this be broadened as it may help some rebalancing. Trying to change stereotyping in the literary business is hard – like Nina I will keep trying too through the channel of writing WF fiction. I certainly felt reassured that my female characters and protagonists pretty well fit the women which NIna advocates we should write about.

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    • Creativepubtalk,
      That’s an interesting statistic. I know some women have contemplated writing under an initial, ie, J.K. Rowling to try and take gender out the equation.

      Here’s a revision exercise: let’s say you’ve fashioned a female character. Now go back and question yourself–what cliches or stereotypical behavior have you given this character? If this female character was now a man, how would he act in the situation? Can you create complexity and a more alive character by upsetting the stereotypical female behavior?

      Nina

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      • I never understand the initials thing these days – usually used by female thriller, scifi or crime writers justified by old fashioned publisher pressure that the writer’s true gender acts as a barrier to readers. I think with the digital explosion of good indie writing and reader choice that notion is now irrelevant and insulting to the writer. The female protagonist in my Rhapsody series is a feisty and fashionable female nuclear scientist – with a built in propensity to challenge stereotypical female actions by naturally acting with so called male behaviour. So the answer to the exercise is very much yes – the interesting question for me as a male writer is how consciously I have done this and whether as a former male scientist it was easier to put together … Mmm ….

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        • Your series sounds wonderful! I love your self-exploration–how did this character come to be? I do think the pressure comes from publishers to use an initial. My writer friend (female) ultimately decided NOT to use an initial. She has two daughters and wondered what kind of message she’d be sending to them.

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  7. Oh my goodness, Nina, I think I stumbled upon that “translation wars” article when I was looking to buy Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’d read Anna Karenina in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, having bought the bigger book b/c it was easier on my aging eyes (in other words, I had no clue about quality of translations), and so I was just going to go with what I was already comfortable with. But then I started reading articles from people who were anti-Pevear/Volokhonsky for various reasons… and I got all confused as to which one would be best. Truly, if I’m not fluent in Russian, how in the world would I know which translation is more authentic? I’d have to take someone else’s word for it (pun intended). And furthermore, would it be best to read a literal word-for-word, Russian-to-English translation, or might it be better to read a more nuanced translation—interwoven with the poetry of English language and idioms—so I would understand it better?

    I knew the importance of translation was huge as far as the Bible was concerned (I’d just come off a major journey of learning better meanings for Greek and Hebrew words and it totally changed my faith). But I never thought about the translation aspect of literature until the whole P/V debacle. Needless to say, the premise of your book sounds VERY intriguing to me, and I can’t wait to read it!

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    • Barb,
      Yes, it’s complicated. I had an exchange with Larissa Volokhonsky herself on Goodreads. I asked her this very question–how can you decide if a translation is “good” if you don’t speak the language from which the book originates?

      Here’s part of the exchange:
      ” Translations do differ. However, Remnick’s article is too hard on Garnett, who is still one of the best and did invaluable service to the English-speaking world. But she did miss a lot of humour of Dostoevsky’s prose and sometimes simplified the syntax. But Remnick’s tone is too breezy, he dismisses her too easily.

      What constitutes a “good” translation is a vast question. Richard writes about it in all prefaces to our translations. I, too, will ask a question: Pasternak, for instance, was an extraordinary prose writer, using prose, in a way we’d not known before, to convey the illogic and mystery of a world/society/civilization gone crazy. Should we translate him into a smooth, ordinary, good prose (whatever it is), or should we at least try to reproduce it for an English reader? Did Dickens write “good” prose? Did Faulkner? Henry James?………” (from Larissa)

      Here’s the link to the full conversation: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1433392-interview-with-nina-schuyler. If you scroll down, you’ll see the exchange.

      Warmly,
      Nina

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  8. Pingback: Nina Schuyler: “Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day” | Bloom

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