07.02.19 / Oneworld / Short Stories / Paperback / 240pp / 978-1786074560
Target Audience: Readers who like short stories with plenty of themes, variety and atmosphere. Those who like unique windows into the world around them from bizarre, thought-provoking and unsettling perspectives.
About Samanta Schweblin
Samanta Schweblin is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into 20 languages. Fever Dream is her first novel. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.
About Megan McDowell
Megan McDowell has translated books by many contemporary South American and Spanish authors, and her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Paris Review. She lives in Chile.
About Mouthful Of Birds
A SPELLBINDING, EERILY UNSETTLING COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES FROM A MAJOR INTERNATIONAL LITERARY STAR
The crunch of a bird’s wing.
Abandoned by the roadside, newlywed brides scream with rage as they are caught in the headlights of a passing car.
A cloud of butterflies, so beautiful it smothers.
Unearthly and unexpected, these stories burrow their way into your psyche with the feel of a sleepless night. Every shadow and bump in the dark takes on huge implications, leaving the pulse racing – blurring the line between the real and the strange.
Q&A Session with Samanta Schweblin
Thank you Samanta for taking some time to answer a few questions about your latest short story collection, Mouthful Of Birds. Could you give us your own personal overview of what we should expect from it?
SS: Well, this book is a collection made up of stories taken from the first two short story anthologies I wrote. The majority are taken from Mouthful of Birds [originally published in Spanish in 2008], but there some, such as ‘Headlights’ (the story which opens this collection), ‘The Test’ or ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, which are taken from the very first book I had published, The Centre of the Riot [El núcleo del disturbio]. I wrote them between the ages of 19-21, which is to say that I was writing from a position of complete inexperience, of pure intuition. But the stories from these two books actually work very well together, not just in terms of the themes they address or the type of world that they depict, but also because in all of these stories I experiment with the fine line that divides the real, familiar world from the world of the strange and the impossible. Very often that line is crossed, but only in the reader’s imagination, not in the story itself. What I mean is that there isn’t really anything in the story that one can definitively point to as supernatural; there’s just something in the atmosphere, or in an idea that builds up over the course of reading the story, which means that you permanently toe that line. So ultimately, the decision of whether or not it has actually been crossed is up to the reader.
Where did the inspiration for the stories within Mouthful of Birds come from?
SS: Very often a story starts with an image, a complex image that I just can’t quite work out. I find that I come back to these images again and again, asking myself endless questions about them. For example, one afternoon I was flicking between different channels on the television. All of a sudden I realised that I had seen something extraordinary three channels before the one I’d just landed on. On a dark, overcast night somewhere in the countryside, a woman was in the middle of the road, bent over the engine of her delapidated old Citroen, possibly trying to repair it. She’s wearing a wedding dress, but it took me a while to realise that as the dress was so filthy. Was it covered in mud, or in motor grease? Or is it something worse? I flicked three channels back as quickly as I could but the picture had changed, and I couldn’t find anything similar that might be able to give me a clue on any of the neighbouring channels either.
So I ended up thinking about that image all week, asking myself who that woman really was; why she was on her own; why she was crying. She didn’t seem to have a phone- when her car battery gave out and the lights went off, how was she going to call for help in the darkness? A few weeks later, I’d written the first draft of ‘Headlights’.
Readers have called your work surreal, provocative and unsettling. What do you hope people experience when they read your stories?
SS: To be honest, hearing those three words used to describe my work, knowing that those qualities stand out in my writing, is a big enough prize for me. The truth is that when I write, I write a little like a reader. What I mean is that even though I largely know where I’m going with a story, I need to have a really strong sense of uncertainty that builds with every word I write. As a reader tension is really important to me, and as a writer I’m always trying to recreate that incredibly intense feeling of tension that I get from reading my favourite short stories. I’m not talking about the fear that comes out in horror stories or thrillers. I’m talking about something much more subtle, which can exist even in a very simple setting. Tension is knowing that something is going to happen, but at the same time not having any idea at all. It’s being able to anticipate the end of a story, but at the same time feeling the need to keep looking over your shoulder. Tension is the continual suspicion that, on top of the story which you are being told, there lies something else between the lines, something intangible, that must nonetheless be discovered and understood. Even more important than that, it’s the sense that your effort to do so will be rewarded, that the hard work that it takes to discover this secret won’t be in vain in the end.
How does it feel to have your writing translated into over twenty languages?
It’s always a little uncomfortable to think about your own work in translation. As a writer, I’m terribly controlling over the reader, over what it is that I want to say. I always have this idea that every single word should be in its correct place within a text, and that an author should be rigorous about the intention of every single syllable. So the idea of someone rewriting my work, which is essentially what happens in a translation, is always terrifying. Of course there are times when I work with extremely talented and trustworthy translators, like Megan McDowell, who translates my work into English, or my German, French, Danish and Norwegian translators. They’re all incredibly talented and respectful of my work, and I have a great deal of trust in them. But then there are those languages in which I can’t even decipher my own name on the cover of the book: Chinese, Macedonian, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese… It’s unnerving to hold a book that you supposedly wrote, but to have no idea what is actually written on its pages. It could be the Bible, or a cookbook or something for all that I know…!
How long did it take you to write all the stories featured in Mouthful of Birds?
Seven years. I wrote the stories while I was studying cinema and television at the University of Buenos Aires. At the same time, I had started to attend writers’ workshops in which we would read a huge amount of literature from Latin America and the US. I think this overlap played a major role in shaping the world of these short stories.
What sort of challenges did you face when writing about the darker side of humanity?
When you put it like that it sounds like some sort of crazy adventure. But I see it in a much more personal way. Both when I read and when I write, literature gives me the opportunity to put myself to the test in situations that I’m afraid of; to confront my greatest fears; to understand how much something might hurt me and then return to my ‘normal’ life armed with this crucial information, with a new understanding of myself and the world.
Did you always know you were going to become a writer and what authors, if any, do you think directly influence your work?
I’ve had this urge to write since I was about five years old. I was so young that I couldn’t actually write anything down myself, so I would dictate stories to my mother. Because I can’t remember not having this drive, I always assumed it would stay with me, just as naturally as one might assume you’ll still have all four limbs throughout your life. But I never thought that I could write for a living. Doing what I love and being able to live off that is a luxury that very few people enjoy, and I feel extremely grateful that I’m able to do that myself.
And as for other authors who have influenced me, the list just keeps on growing – it feels almost endless by now. But if I had to go back to my really early days as a reader, there would be five or six authors whom I read at 15 or 16 who just took my breath away and sparked my passion for writing: short stories by Julio Cortázar, Ray Bradbury, Patricia Highsmith and Adolfo Bioy Casares. I only really read short stories: I thought that novels were only for lazy people who had too much time on their hands.
What made you decide to move from Argentina to Germany?
I was awarded a bursary in Germany: a year as a Writer in Residence in Berlin. It was an incredibly intense, incredibly productive year: I made many friends, I found a job, and I felt an immediate connection with the city. So when that year came to an end, I felt that I still had too much going on and that it wasn’t the right time to just get up and leave: I was totally open to staying. I’d also been wanting to travel for quite some time, to get to know Europe and Asia better, and it’s pretty difficult to travel anywhere from Argentina: we really are miles from anywhere. I’ve been living in Berlin for 6 years now, and I think of it as my home, although Buenos Aires is still very much ‘my city’.
Have you got a hobby/ activity you do to wind down from all the writing?
I go to the cinema, I go on walks, and, although I know this is sort of cheating, I read.
Finally, have you read a book/ article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, Lost Children Archive, is absolutely wonderful. I’m waiting to find the right moment to go back and reread it.
Thank you to Samanta Schweblin for taking the time to answer these questions about Mouthful Of Birds. The answers were superb and the book is definitely worth your time. These stories reverberate around your head and ingrain themselves leaving you both unsettled and inspired. The story about the man in the toy shop who had to arrange everything by colour still sticks in my mind vividly and reminds me that not everyone views this world the same. That someone’s perspective might be more meaningful and beautiful than your own and you can learn from them. That is just one of many unforgettable tales in this book and it is a must-read. This Q&A gives a taste of what to expect and I am sure that everyone who picks up Mouthful Of Birds will be both surprised and engaged.