The Rumpus Book Club chats with Transit Books founders Adam Z. Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy about Wioletta Greg’s novel, Swallowing Mercury, which they published in North America in September 2017, the ways they work with translators, and the challenges and rewards that have come with starting a small independent press.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Carmen Maria Machado, Jon McGregor, Kate Braverman, Katia D. Ulysse, Melissa Broder, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Adam Z. Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy, about Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg!
Adam Levy: We’re here!
Marisa: Welcome! Glad to have you both with us. First, a quick note: we were very sorry Wioletta couldn’t be with us tonight, but are excited to talk with you both about the book!
Adam Levy: We’re sorry she couldn’t join us, but Ashley and I are excited to be here with the group!
Marisa: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you first learn about Swallowing Mercury?
Adam Levy: We learned about Swallowing Mercury from Max Porter, Wioletta’s editor in the UK. We met him at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and he said that he was publishing a strange little book he thought we might love.
Ashley Levy: So, we took it back home to Oakland and I read it one sitting, without bathroom breaks. I came into the office and told Adam we had to publish it before he’d even read it.
Marisa: Wow! Love at first sight.
Adam Levy: I did read it in the end, and Ashley was right—we fell for it right away.
Marisa: How did you come to be the American publisher? Which is to say, what are the steps to acquiring a book in this way? And does that vary, book to book?
Adam Levy: It does vary from book to book. In this case, they had acquired World English rights, that is, the right to publish the book in all English-language territories around the world, including the US and Canada. Very often a publisher tries to find a publisher in that market to bring out a North American edition, say. With Swallowing Mercury, we were lucky to read Granta/Portobello’s full manuscript (in Eliza Marciniak’s wonderful translation), and acquire the book to publish it here in the US.
Ashley Levy: We find our books in a number of different ways: we found our first book, Such Small Hands, from the translator, Lisa Dillman. Lisa read the project, fell in love with it, and translated it on spec, without a contract from a publisher. We found Kintu through a friend and critic who had read the book in Kenya and longed for it to find an American readership.
Marisa: Working with translators must be fascinating. I am always so interested in the art of translation (and I really do think it’s an art, that balancing act of staying faithful to the original work but also working within the constraints of a different language and culture).
In this instance, you worked with Eliza to help craft language that would resonate for an American audience. Can you share a little about that process, and maybe also other experiences you’ve had working with translators?
Adam Levy: We didn’t do much to craft the language for an American audience. Eliza is Canadian and lives in London and, in fact, tried to tailor her language for her UK publisher. There was something wonderful about the “Britishness” of Wiola’s voice, something almost inseparable from the world she animates, so we decided to keep the language very much as it was in the UK edition. We’re suckers for a Chicago Manual em-dash, though.
Ashley Levy: We had a fascinating role in working with Lisa Dillman on the Spanish translation of Such Small Hands. Suddenly we were having intricate back-and-forths about the crossing over of certain metaphors from Spanish to English, and would often return to the original description to discuss how it might best be carried over to maintain the same melody and meaning in English.
Marisa: Did either of you have a favorite section of Swallowing Mercury? I really loved “The Jesus Raffle” chapter toward the beginning. Some things—what it means to go through certain childhood experiences—are universal. Wiola is a wonderful, weird little protagonist to follow through the book.
Adam Levy: I think “The Belated Feeding of Bees” is my favorite, the one about her father. I recently reread that section, and it made think about how much this is a book about her father. He appears with such mystery in the first chapter, and then quirkiness later on, with his stuffed rodents and birds lying around the house. And Wiola describes him and his curiosities, even his ambitions, with such tenderness. By the end of the chapter, we’re ready to mourn him and their small-town way of life.
Ashley Levy: Oh, so many! I loved “Waiting for the Popemobile” and basically any time the village women showed up; I liked communing in their prayer and gossip. I also loved how strange and unexpected “The Dressmaker’s Secret” was, too. There is so much happening in that small section, even politically, as Eliza mentions in her lovely translator’s note.
Marisa: Yes! Wiola’s relationship with her father is such a unique one. And Ashley, I agree very much about the village women and the individuality of each of these side characters, like the dressmaker. The book is slim, but a lot goes on between its pages.
Marisa: When/how did you find out the book was longlisted for the Man Booker?
Adam Levy: Ashley and I were in different places when we found out. I think this was back in March, so we hadn’t even published our first book yet! Needless to say, we were freaking out a little bit on the phone.
Ashley Levy: There was a lot of jumping up and down. It was wonderful news to share with Eliza, too—this being her first translation!
Ashley Levy: There might have even been some moonwalking.
Marisa: Transit Books was founded in 2015, and is a small non-profit press based out of Oakland. We love small independent presses here at The Rumpus! Can you tell us what led you to found Transit?
Adam Levy: Ashley and I both were working in publishing in New York, and we’d always noticed a divide between readers of international and domestic literature. It seemed like readers of one group never read the books that those in the other did. And when we moved out to Oakland, we really wanted to take a stab at starting a press that might do something to bridge that gap: publish books that challenge assumptions about what books could do, either in translation or otherwise.
Ashley Levy: Though we greatly value our ties to New York publishing, it’s been wonderful to start the press out of Oakland. The Bay Area has an incredibly smart, talented, and passionate community of indie bookstores, booksellers, and translation presses, including our friends at The Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco.
Adam Levy: It was also important to us to found the press as a nonprofit. Our mission helps steer our ship—and allows us to take risks on projects that might otherwise be overlooked by larger, corporate houses.
Marisa: Is the press a full-time job for both of you? Does it pay the bills? (I’m always interested in frank talk about the business of this literary world we all operate in.)
Adam Levy: The press is absolutely a full-time job, but you may not be surprised to hear that after four months of publishing it doesn’t yet pay the bills. When I’m not working on the press, I work at an arts education nonprofit in San Francisco.
Ashley Levy: While we’re a small house, we’ll be growing to five books next year, and plan to publish up to eight over the next few years.
Ashley Levy: We like to think of ourselves as small but mighty!
Marisa: The list of books you’ve put out thus far is immensely impressive! In addition to Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury, Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, and the forthcoming Lessons for a Child Who Arrives Late by Carlos Yushimoto… It’s wonderful.
What has been the most challenging part of all of this? The most rewarding?
Adam Levy: One of the most rewarding things for me has been our relationship with our authors. Andrés Barba came out to Oakland for the last leg of his tour. One evening, he was cooking us dinner in our apartment (we think it best to put our authors to work). We were talking books and drinking a nice bottle of Spanish wine, and I remember thinking what a strange and wonderful journey we had all taken, with the press and with his book, to make that possible. Plus, he’s a great cook!
Ashley Levy: For me, one of the most rewarding parts is moments like this, when the books you love, promote, and publish suddenly become a part of a larger conversation. That’s an incredible feeling. A challenging thing is that there are a lot of great books in the world waiting to be published. Adam and I spend a lot of time thinking about how each individual project, and our year’s list as a whole, fit into our mission, and part of the exciting challenge is getting that right.
I might also say that it’s a challenge to work a full-time job with the person you’re married to, but that’s actually not true. I think we challenge each other in productive ways and make a good team. Plus, the press keeps the conversation going.
Martha Ruderman: Many thanks—I enjoyed reading this book, and the discussion tonight is very interesting.
Adam Levy: Thank you, Martha! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
Marisa: We’re just about out of time, but one final question: what’s next for Transit? Can you tell us anything about what you’ll be working on in 2018?
Adam Levy: Yes! We’ve got some great books in the works for 2018, five, in fact. In February, we’ve got a book of four novellas by Andrés Barba coming out, and in May, a fantastic, strange, delightful collection of stories by David Hayden called Darker with the Lights On. It’s just come out in the UK, and we can’t wait for readers here to get a hold of it.
Ashley Levy: We’ll also be publishing our first work of literary nonfiction in the fall! Stay tuned!
Marisa: Wonderful! I can’t wait. Thank you both for the great conversation, and for bringing Swallowing Mercury to an American audience—and all these fantastic books we might otherwise not read. I think, especially right now, we need to be reading across cultures and borders as much as possible.
Feature photograph © Jennifer Baquing.