Interview with E.J. Van Lanen of Open Letter Books

The following are two interviews taken by Zdravka Evtimova during her residency at Open Letter Books (US) organized in the frame of the Literary Translators’ Residency project of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.

Interview with E.J. Van Lanen, Open Letter Books’ senior editor.
ZE: What are the selection criteria in accordance to which a book by an international author is selected for publication by Open Letter Books?
E.J.: I’d say our criteria are both broad and specific and can change from book to book and author to author. Since our territory is the whole world, the authors and the books we take on can vary widely in terms of form, content, and style, and it’s therefore difficult to apply a single set of criteria to everything we might encounter. For example, we publish “Zone” by Mathias Énard, a 500-page novel that explores the history of violence in the Mediterranean basin; it’s expansive, philosophical, hugely ambitious, it tries to capture the entire world in its pages. And we also publish “The Private Lives of Trees” by Alejandro Zambra, a novel that barely reaches 100 pages and is concerned mainly with the relationship of three people, a mother, a daughter, and a father-in-law--Zambra has described his technique as a pruning process, he’s constantly pulling away to see what remains, and “Trees” is a very self-reflexive, quiet, meditative work.

So we want our criteria to be broad in the sense that Open Letter can accommodate both of these novels, but also specific: there is something (even many things) that both of these novels have in common despite their apparent differences. There is an element of thrill in both Zambra and Énard’s novels; they’re both high-wire acts, in their own way to be sure, but like high-wire acts, while they seem dangerous, the authors are really exhibiting an exquisite kind of practiced control--or anyway they have the ability to drunkenly stumble across the void and arrive safely at the other side. From the ground, it’s hard to differentiate one method from the other, I suppose. I couldn’t say how you identify that feeling in a novel, but when it’s there it’s hard to miss. And it’s absence is obvious as well. That excitement, that thrill, is the specific criteria we’re looking for. Well, there’s more to it than that, and less, but it’s as good as a description as I could offer at the moment.