This interview originally appeared in The Practicing Writer, August 2005.
The Tasks of Todd Hasak-Lowy: An Interview with the Author of The Task of This Translator
Todd Hasak-Lowy was born in Detroit and raised in its suburbs. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where he wrote on modern Hebrew fiction. Todd also started writing fiction in Berkeley. He is presently an assistant professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His debut story collection, The Task of This Translator, was published by Harcourt in June 2005. Here Todd graciously answers questions posed by your editor, Erika Dreifus.
Erika Dreifus: Todd, thanks so much for taking the time to “talk” with us. I know you’ve been busy! Your debut story collection, The Task of This Translator, was published in June , and you’ve been giving readings in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Ann Arbor. Congratulations on the book’s publication. Please tell us a bit about your development as a fiction writer?
Todd Hasak-Lowy: I started writing as an unintended side effect of my graduate study. I was struggling with academic writing while simultaneously coming to deeply appreciate (and for the first time understand the workings of) narrative fiction. One day, quite spontaneously, I tried writing a short piece of fiction myself as a way to make sense of a piece of theory I was reading, something by Dorrit Cohn called Transparent Minds. Her book is about various ways of representing consciousness in fiction. Rather than just underline the text, I started describing someone’s thoughts, using a few modes Cohn treated in her book that struck me as particularly compelling.
Also, around the same time, I stumbled on a couple writers–the Israeli Yaakov Shabtai and the American Nicholson Baker–both of whom had a somewhat unconventional (i.e.highly analytical, exacting, and plain wordy) approach to narrative that really spoke to me. Within a few weeks I had found my voice, as corny as that may sound.
There are definitely times I wish that I had more training in how to write fiction, but ultimately I have learned to trust myself. In graduate school I learned above all how to read fiction closely and systematically, and that’s the main tool I rely on in my own writing.
ED: For those who haven’t yet read it, the collection includes seven stories, only one of which, if I understand correctly, was previously published (“On the Grounds of the Complex Commemorating the Nazis’ Treatment of the Jews,” which appeared in the Iowa Review in September 2001). Many short story writers (and poets and essayists, for that matter) are advised to publish their work widely in literary journals before trying to publish a collection. What’s your response to such conventional wisdom?
THL: I don’t know much beyond my own experience in this case, but my hunch is that outside of a few widely circulated magazines (The New Yorker, Harper’s, etc.) getting published elsewhere is only marginally helpful. Again, I could be totally wrong.
ED: Please tell us about the process you went through structuring the collection, choosing and sequencing the stories, and so on.
THL: I had an agent, Simon Lipskar from Writer’s House, before I had a full manuscript. He explained to me how the whole process works, and over the course of about a year I was able to complete a manuscript. Once I had enough stories–in terms of overall word count–he and I worked together on coming up with a sequence. The editor who eventually bought it, Tina Pohlman, actually bought it under the condition that three out of the eight stories (thankfully the shortest ones) not be included, since she wasn’t as enthusiastic about those three. My contract with the publisher stated that I had to provide two new stories (again, for word count purposes) by a certain date. A fair amount of time (almost a year) had passed since the time Simon and I first started sending out the manuscript, so I was already nearing completion on a couple new pieces. It was fun to finish those two stories knowing they’d get published. Tina and I settled on the final sequence during the editing process.
ED: “The Task of this Translator” is really a standout piece in this collection. There’s a lot of mystery in this story, from the translator’s own inability to comprehend what’s being said to him (conveyed in such lines as “Ben listened intently and heard: My name is Goran Vansalivich and I blah you blah. Blah years ago my brothers (passive marker?) blah by blah.”) to the fact that the language (and even the genocide) at the root of the story remains unnamed. To what extent are you aware of what’s “not told” in your stories as you write them?
THL: Completing gaps in a text–that is filling in what is “not told”–is a central part of the reading process. When I’m writing and thinking of some abstract ideal reader, I’m always trying to leave gaps or other features in the text that require the reader to take a stand or be more active. I had some vague ideas of why I included so many “blahs” in that story when I was writing it, but I think the thing that made it most attractive to me was the feeling that the reader would have no choice but to try and fill in each specific blank and at the same time think about what it meant that there were many “blahs” in the first place.
I think a similar impulse fueled my decision to write a story that takes place at Yad Vashem–Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum–only to call it “the complex commemorating the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews” and then repeat this name about twenty times in as many pages. A lot of people have asked me why I did that, and I have some answers as to what I think it means, but I’m more interested in knowing that the reader is impelled to come up with an interpretation him or herself.
As for not naming the genocide in the title story, I didn’t, in that particular case, want to get bogged down with a specific historical event. Here I was trying to invoke ethnic violence as a type (or even a genre) of historical event (Incidentally, I don’t think of what happened to Goran’s family as genocide, but leaving it vague obviously allows the reader to call it just that). If I had referred to a specific historical incident, then readers would have, quite naturally and correctly, concluded that the story was saying something about that event. But what I wanted to do here was narrate the meeting of an unqualified translator with a certain kind of horrific, but ultimately remote and regional, violence that marked the twentieth (and, I suppose, early twenty-first) century.
ED: Short story writers often hear that agents are more interested in reading emerging writers’ novels than their short story collections. Tell us how you came to work with your agent.
THL: Agents, including mine, are indeed more optimistic (or less pessimistic) about selling novels. Short story collections are simply very hard to sell. I sent one story blind to Simon and about five other agents–the one that takes places at Yad Vashem–and Simon responded. While he was very enthusiastic about my writing from the start, he was also very honest with me about how difficult it would be to sell a
short story collection. And, to be sure, this manuscript was rejected by at least thirty publishers. But I know Simon believes that if he is really enthusiastic about something, then he’s likely not alone.
ED: In reviewing The Task of this Translator, Publisher’s Weekly called yours “a cogent new Jewish-American voice,” which is certainly a wonderful compliment. But not every story in the collection deals with explicitly Jewish-American characters, subjects, or themes. To what extent do you see the voice of this book as a particularly “Jewish-American” one?
THL: The Jewish or Jewish-American question is central for me, both as a writer and in terms of my identity in general. I’m an assistant professor of Hebrew literature, and as such I think a great deal about Jewish literature (and not just Hebrew literature) as well as Jewish history. But when I started writing I was trying to write away from the topics I was dealing with in graduate school, in part because being a specialist is suffocating after a while. I also didn’t want to write on themes about which I had clear, pre-existing views. I felt that it would be hard to say anything compelling if I knew exactly what I was trying to say from the beginning. As such, I exactly did not want to write about Israel or Holocaust survivors or intermarriage or any other obviously Jewish topic. I just wanted to write. I wanted to work out and sharpen my voice. I know, however, that my writing is deeply informed by Jewish life and Jewish literature, especially Hebrew fiction, which comprises my literary frame of reference. I think of the world of my stories as mostly Jewish, but probably not in easily or traditionally identifiable ways.
ED: What has surprised you most about the publishing process?
THL: One specific thing: outside of nixing three whole stories, my editor requested of me virtually no major changes to any of the stories. That was surprising and extremely gratifying. On a more general level, I’ve been amazed at how much luck (both good and bad) is involved. No manuscript or book, no matter how great, is for everyone. But you only get one shot (if that) at each publisher and with each place that reviews books. So you hope your writing winds up with the right person at each step of the way. This isn’t to say that all books are equal. The consensus that eventually forms around a book is typically, I’d guess, not arbitrary. But when you’re just trying to get something published, there’s no consensus to rely on. In short, there’s a lot that the writer doesn’t control.
ED: What advice do you have for short story writers who have yet to place their first collections?
THL: Be patient and keep writing, since that’s the main thing you have control over. Find a comfortable strategy regarding the unpleasant but unavoidable matter of self-promotion. Developing and taking advantage of connections can prove crucial, especially since getting a complete stranger’s attention is so difficult. But these connections are often friends or relatives or friends of friends, which means it’s never just about you and your book.
ED: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? (About your next project, other reading dates/venues, etc.)
THL: Nothing really. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about my writing.
ED: Thank you, Todd!
The Task of this Translator: Stories
by Todd Hasak-Lowy
272 pages, Paper, $13
(C) Copyright 2005 Erika Dreifus