The latest generation of writers are younger and closer to us than ever. I was able to talk over Skype in Spanish with Samanta Schweblin while she was at home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the age of just 22 she won two literary accolades in six months. Now she’s going to appear in the UK’s literary magazine Granta.
What are the origins of your surname Schweblin? It doesn’t sound very Spanish!
No, it’s not Spanish at all, it’s Franco-German, Alsatian. My paternal grandfather was French and came to Argentina when he was a teenager.
What inspired you to be a writer?
I have written since I was young. There was also a moment in my life when I thought about doing a degree at the Universidad de Letras. Many people told me not to do it and it was a good recommendation as it’s very academic, you learn a lot about history, philosophy, literary theory and criticism, but it’s not at all creative. So instead I started to study cinema. At the same time, I wrote a lot more and I realised I was more into writing than cinema.
Have you written for newspapers?
No, although I’ve been asked many times. I think there are two sides of literature, production and theory. I’m not sure it’s a good thing if those who produce also criticise.
Can you speak more about your writing, for instance why do you write only short stories?
I’ve never written novels and it’s something people always ask me. I read a lot of novels, I’ve got nothing against them, but I like the subtly and attention that a short story requires. When I have an idea it usually takes the form of a short story.
Is there a good audience for short stories in Argentina?
It’s still a more marginal sector, but compared to Europe and the rest of Latin America Argentina has a very important short story tradition, authors like Borges, Casares, Cortázar, Benedetto… All our great writers are known for their short stories.
Do you read a variety of books from different countries?
I’m really arbitrary in my reading; I don’t read one genre in particular. Actually, 95% of books I read are recommended to me.
Do you plan to buy an e-reader, a Kindle?
For now no because I really love the physical books. However, I’m not against it as I think it’s the future. Books are heavy, take up a lot of space and cost money as well as trees…But in Argentina the level of poverty in the street means you can’t carry valuables like techy gadgets around. Nobody is going to rob me with a paperback in my bag!
But don’t you think the internet and e-books offer advantages for young writers such as more accessibility and facility to publish themselves?
Yes, of course. At the same time I don’t think that literature is available online yet apart from bestsellers. But websites and blogs now help you get to know these authors. I think something really important is happening in our generation, compared to previous ones, and this is to do with the greater accessibility and immediate contact we have.
For instance, previously, if a Uruguayan novelist wrote a novel in the 1990s and it was good, they’d publish it in ’91 or ’92. If it was successful by ’93 it would be published in Spain the next couple of years. Finally, if it was popular in Spain it would be brought back to Argentina anything up to ten years after it was written! 10 years and we live two hours apart! Now this time lag has been cut due to more independent publishers and more economic books.
What has your experience with independent publishers been like?
Very good, I published my books in Argentina with Planeta and in Spain with Random House. I was really lucky with my first book when I was 22 years old. I won the two most important prizes in Argentina: Fondo Nacional de las Artes and the Concurso Nacional Haroldo Conti in less than six months. This gave me the publishers’ attention and they published my work, but not across Latin America so I published with independent publishers in these countries.
What was your reaction to the news of your selection for Granta’s first translated edition on young Spanish writers?
I was so happy! I already knew the magazine from old editions I had bought ten years ago. It was great to know I could publish my work in a magazine that has featured great writers like Martin Amis.
Why do you think there are just 5 women writers out of the 22 listed authors for Granta’s Spanish edition?
I think the gender thing is not a big deal. We’re in a moment of transition but we’ve already won! Here in Argentina the change is really notable as there are many women writers. They’re good writers too, fresh and original.
What are your future writing plans?
I’m finishing a new book of short stories, my third book. Actually I feel a little inadequate as I’m the writer with the least number of books published on the Granta list! They’re going to throw me off the list!
What do you want to do with the new book?
It follows the same line as Pájaros en la Boca. It’s dark, realistic and explores abnormal and strange themes.
How long does it take you to write your stories?
I’m a slow writer; Pájaros en la Boca took five years. I’ve spent two on this one and I’ll probably take three altogether.
Who’s your typical reader?
It’s hard to tell as I’m very new but mainly young people write to me. They’re very much from the literary world and write from all over Latin America and other countries where my books are published.
Do you know the translators of your books?
Not really, I know the Italian and German ones better as all my books are translated in these languages. However, only some are translated in others, for example English.
Does life in Buenos Aires inspire your work?
I don’t write about it particularly as I’m not an urban writer, but it gives me ideas all the time. It’s a city full of opposites, many absurd situations, strange and crazy people. Plus there are a lot of cultural events, at least 20 art shows a month, many plays and book readings.
***An exclusive extract from an unpublished story by Samanta Schweblin will be translated and posted here soon!***