The Necessity of Influence: A Conversation with Damion Searls (Part I, Fiction)

Searls_backDamion Searls is definitely doing his part to serve the cause of literature. In a few years, he's gone from translating short nonfiction pieces on his own to translating works by Proust, Rilke, and other prominent contemporary writers for various publishers. This year alone, he has five books coming out: two translations, an abridged version of Thoreau's journal (NYRB, October) that he edited, and a special edition for The Review of Contemporary Fiction on Melville (entitled ; or The Whale), and his first collection of short fiction--What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going--which officially comes out next week.

The thing I like most about these five stories is the way Searls has subtly filled them with literary anecdotes and allusions, which are exciting for bookies to discover but never distract from the characters' humanity or the fun of the stories. It's simply an organic part of who he is as a writer, and who we are as readers of fiction.

In our recent email conversation, Searls had some interesting things to say about the writing life, and the necessity of writing through reading. You're an accomplished translator, and you have several, pretty high profile translations coming up. How does your fiction writing fit into this, chronologically?

Damion Searls: Chronologically, there’s a sort of slow alternating rhythm, but with lots of overlap and crossover because I like the stimulation of different things going on. Facing a deadline on one project is usually when I get my best work done on another one. There were four or five years when I wrote my book of stories and a first novel, Lives of the Painters, which hasn’t found a publisher yet; I’m now in a phase of focusing on translations and on getting things published. Of course that means I’m longing to get back to my second novel! Were you initially trained as a writer or a translator? How did you get into translation?

DS: I’ve never been trained as either, except by reading. I got into translation because there was good stuff in German--short nonfiction vignettes by Peter Handke--that I wanted to try in English. The same as most writers with stories to tell, I think, except that my stories were not particularly mine. (Handke would say that they weren’t his either: he sees himself as a reteller, not a storyteller.) Do you see yourself more as a fiction writer who translates, or a translator who writes fiction? How does translating inform your fiction?

DS: Dubravka Ugresic, a Croatian writer I’ve worked with and a good friend, once told me she thinks every writer should serve the cause of Literature before expecting anyone to read their own writing: serve as a teacher, a translator, an editor or publisher. That seems right to me.

I sometimes say that translation has all the benefits of being a writer--you get to exercise all your creativity--but it also has two extra advantages: you never face a blank page, and you never face a written page and wonder if it’s crap. It has already proven its ability to move the reader, because it’s already moved you. Translation is also excellent training because you get to write much higher quality prose or poetry than you would otherwise.

But ultimately, I think of the two activities as very similar. I have a translator’s imagination. I get inspired by what I read; I like hanging out behind the scenes; I’d rather share something I love with a reader than make the reader love me personally. (The great writer and artist Joe Brainard once said: “Art to me is walking down the street with a friend and saying ‘Don’t you like that building too?’”)

Both writing and translating really belong with a third activity, reading. Borges once said he thought of himself as a so-so writer but a great reader, and I identify with that; and Borges was also a translator too, like Proust, Rilke, Murakami, Handke, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and probably most great writers outside the English-speaking world. I like this response. It gels with my notion of you as a writer who is genuinely engaged with literature on a global, philosophical level, which comes across in your fiction. Have you always been a reader and a writer?


DS: I’ve always been a reader, but I read science fiction as a kid and went to college to be a physics major. (I ended up a philosophy major.) I didn’t imagine myself as a writer. Then again, I was a fan of the “Three Investigators” mystery series and I did try to write an installment when I was ten. Borrowing other people’s narrative forms already! It was about 10 or 12 pages long, and I got bored with the plot so the missing ruby fell out of someone’s bag in the subway and they caught him, the end. The stories in What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going are translations of a sort. Do you see them that way?

DS: I do see them that way. What I want from a book—what I want to find as a reader, and make as a writer—is another world I can lose myself in. And there are several ways a book can make you lose yourself. You can get caught up in a suspenseful story, which transports you; a book can create a vivid atmosphere, so that you feel like you’re somewhere else; and it can connect with other books, because if you make a sort of underground tunnel from your book to someone else’s, then your reader has access to all the space in the other book too. What’s more fun than a secret passageway! My desire to do that third thing, as I do in my book of stories, comes from the same place as my translator’s desire to bring a great book from another language to American readers.

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