Today I am thrilled to present you Natasha Perova, whose titanic efforts resulted in many English translations of great contemprorary Russian books becoming available for international readership. Natasha helped to show the world that Russian literature not only survived collapse of the Soviet Union, it is very much in blossom.
Natasha, what prompted you to become a publisher of Russian books in English translation?
In 1988, I was invited to edit Soviet Literature magazine in English translation (it was already perestroika times when formerly banned names were returning to the public, sometimes posthumously) and it was then that I practically “discovered” Russian writing for myself and fell in love with it. I felt I ought to share this newly-found treasure with people from other countries who only knew our 19th century classics.
Unfortunately the magazine was soon closed down and I started GLAS. My original intention was to publish samples from our best writers and try to interest publishers in the UK and US in doing the full versions. I thought the world will gasp with admiration but it did not happen very often. Both publishers and the public were slow to appreciate contemporary Russian literature. A good example is a recent review of Anatoly Mariengof’s “Cynics” that we published back in 1991 (after the review we reprinted it as an e-book.)
How do you choose what to publish? Do authors or Russian publishers submit their suggestions or you pick the titles first?
Initially I wanted to embrace the entire literary scene and published mostly anthologies. There was too much good material: contemporary texts and rediscovered classics from the 1920s and 30s. But young authors and critics in those days were enthusiastically helping with advice. I trusted my intuition and have never regretted a single publication – each of them is interesting and important in its own way.
My intention was not to make money on books but to make available the most interesting and vibrant texts to the reading public abroad. Russia was in vogue at the time and we managed to sell enough books to publish the next title.
I’ve been reading avidly all this time and each of my choices is a considered one. I only wish I had funds to publish all the books I admire.
I see that you have published several books that have a common theme: women’s prose or Russian communist revolution of 1917. Are there any sub-genres of Russian literary fiction that are particularly overlooked by foreign publishers in your opinion?
In imitation of the English-language magazine GRANTA our collections of diverse writers and poets were grouped around a unifying theme (e.g. revolution, fear, childhood, women’s views). Later issues have focused on the work of a single author in order to give the reader a better sense of his/her overall oeuvre. For three years we published a sub-series of young authors (the Debut Prize winners).
Many brilliant names have been overlooked by foreign publishers, but as for genres, they are the same everywhere, only the material and the settings are Russian. So basically, if you are interested in Russia and know at least some basic facts about it then you’ll enjoy and understand contemporary Russian fiction. I don’t know what Russia can do to win the former interest back.
You’ve published several young authors’ books recognised by the Debut literary prize. How can they compete with established masters of Russian prose for readers’ attention?
In the last few years a whole constellation of successful bright authors has come onto the literary scene. We should all read them if we want to know how they see their country and what they might do to it. They have a sober look on life but pronounce no judgments, they notice a multitude of details, and provide memorable portrayals. Most of them live in the provinces where we are unlikely to go, but we can read about those exciting places in their works – it’s like a virtual literary journey.
What are the most popular titles amongst those you’ve published? What’s the reason behind their popularity?
The most successful titles were always a surprise to me. For example, Nina Lugovskaya’s “Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl”, Arkady Babchenko’s witness accounts of his war experiences, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s newly discovered stories from the 1930s, Sinyavsky’s “Ivan the Fool”, “The Portable Platonov”, collections of women’s writing, and Michell Berdy’s “The Russian Word’s Worth”, which is a book about today’s Russia described through its language.
What do you plan to publish next?
Right now I had to put Glas on hold because due to the falling sales and rising prices I can no longer save enough money to continue publishing books without external support (which I have never had — I’m not eligible for any grants either in Russia or abroad.) But we have created an extensive database of translated texts which Slavists can use for teaching Russian literature and publishers can use for publishing ideas. I’ll continue promoting new writers as a literary agent and, who knows, help may come out of the blue some day.
But I must say that we have collected enough praise along the way to convince me that we have done a good job and it is only my lack of business skills that prevented me from turning this project into something more durable.
Thank you for this honest interview, Natasha. If you allow me to say – considering the enormous amount of books translated and published by Glas, you definitely left a durable mark . Now it is up to readers to discover these translated new Russian books. And bloggers like me will be helping to spread the word.
update: The Reader’s Mini Guide to Modern Russian Books is out now on Amazon Kindle/paperback here.