Monday, May 23, 2016

Katarina Bivald in Oakland

Katarina Bivald
One other highlight of the trip to Oakland was catching a presentation by Swedish author Katarina Bivald at Laurel Bookstore. I was unfamiliar with her work, but my dear friend and former colleague Jennifer DeVere Brody, who lives and teaches now in the Bay Area, had read Bivald's brand new novel Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016), and suggested we check it out. I imagined the standard reading followed by Q&A scenario, but Bivald instead spoke to the audience, taking many questions, for an hour or so, and did so with aplomb. She unfortunately did not read from Readers, though many present at the event already had done so and were quite familiar with the characters and plot.
A few doors down from Laurel Bookstore
Though she writes in Swedish, Bivald is fluent enough in English to be able to walk all of us through many aspects of her writing life, including her experience with repeated rejections followed by eventual purchase of her manuscript; the differences between Swedish and US publishing (think scale, no agents until you are already famous and seek to sell foreign rights, and the comparative lack of diversity of voices there); her interest in 20th and 21st century American literature; her fascination with US small towns, including the eponymous Iowa hamlet "Broken Wheel," where her novel is set; and the absence of anything like US MFA programs and the institutionalization of creative writing in Sweden.
Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is set in a small Iowa town, but it turns out Bivald was writing more from her imagination than any real time spent in the state, and one of the errors she got wrong, she laughingly shared, was having the characters wear cowboy hats (!), instead of the more likely baseball caps. When her book was translated into English and published in the UK, the British editor and readers had no problems with this factual solecism, since they were as unfamiliar with this sartorial peculiarity of the American Midwest as Bivald, but when the book was to be published in the US, Bivald shared, the headwear had to change. She has subsequently had the opportunity to tour in Iowa, and, it turns out, readers there are quite taken with the book.
No caption needed
Some of Bivald's most illuminating comments came when she was discussing her pre-publication view of how writers should create versus her changed perspective. As a beginning writer she had the idea that you should issue a book on a yearly basis, and not dither around, yet having made it onto bookshelves as a published author she now believed that authors should take their time and aim to produce the best book possible, however long it required. What she also emphasized was that authors should writer for themselves as opposed to the market, and challenge themselves in terms of their work. For obvious reasons, I appreciated all these comments.
Laurel Bookshop, on the right,
City Hall on the left
I asked her about how she saw herself bridging Swedish and US, recalling as I did so Tim Parks' eloquent discussion of non-US writers aiming for an American readership and the global (Anglophone) literary market. We discussed the differences in translation between Sweden (which, as a small country with a vibrant literary culture undertakes a sizable number of translations, particularly from the US) and the United States (whose publishers, as I've argued elsewhere and as Bowker's surveys point out, issue only a tiny fraction of non-English titles every year). Bivald pointed out that in Swedish, even the nomenclature was different; it was rare to hear "translated" work or "translation" there, whereas in the US, despite the frequent elision of translators in reviews and discussions of writing, publishers must highlight, sometimes to the detriment of a book's marketing and sales, its "translated" status.
A cathedral near the restaurant
Afterwards Jennifer, Katarina, and several others friends (Tanya, Maceo, and Emily) went out for drinks and a meal at Plum Bar, just down the street from Laurel, and I had some of the best cocktails I've drunk in a while. Their Boulevardier, which included barrel aged liquor, was so smooth you could have skated a figure eight across it! Thank you, Jennifer and Tanya, for a delicious meal, and thanks to Sean Hoskin and his friend Alex for the dinner fun at Duende the following night)!

Although it isn't the sort of novel I tend to read, I enjoyed Katarina's presentation so much I am looking forward to her book, and wishes her the best as she continues work on a new one, set in...Oregon!

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