Sunday, December 21, 2008

Welcoming a “Dragon” Into the House

Following up on my recent talk with Erland Larsson, father of the late Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and in anticipation of next month’s release in Britain of that Swedish author’s second novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, I had the opportunity to sit down briefly with Christopher MacLehose. He’s a legendary, “patrician” publisher in UK circles and now heads up Quercus Publishing’s MacLehose Press imprint, which holds the rights to Larsson’s award-winning “Millennium Trilogy.” I wanted to know from him how Larsson’s work came to be translated into English and fall into his appreciative hands.

Ali Karim: Christopher, how did you discover Stieg Larsson’s work?

Christopher MacLehose: The English translation of all three volumes of the Millennium Trilogy came from Norstedts, the Swedish publisher, via a very experienced American translator, who was asked [by Norstedts] to translate all three books for a film company, which he did in the remarkable time of 11 months.

AK: All three volumes?

CM: Yes, … an astonishing achievement. But it needed a certain amount of editorial work, inevitably. And as [the translator] was now involved in another project, he didn’t have time to do this. It should be said that [the trilogy] came to me many months after the translator had finished it. Why? Because it went to five, six, seven British publishing houses, and then five, six, seven American publishing houses--and they all said “no.” Why? Because it needed great deal of editorial work, but also because there was this feeling of “What can you do commercially with a writer who has died; what can you do?” … This I felt was ludicrous. I will bet with you that 80 percent of those who received the original translated manuscript, and said no, didn’t read it, because the author was dead. The translator himself sent it out to American publishers but faced the reaction, “Come on, what can we do with this? We haven’t got an author!” Well, it is a tragedy in one sense, that Stieg Larrson did not see his work published in English nor see [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] reach number No. 4 in The New York Times bestseller lists. This is an astonishing achievement for a translated novel. Incidentally, Knopf, who published it in the U.S., did so brilliantly, and as you know it reached No.1 in Catalonia, and so forth, and all over Europe. I’m frankly only grateful it came to us in the form that it did, needing a certain degree of editorial work; otherwise, it would have been bought by somebody else.

AK: So tell us what, in your opinion, makes these books “unique”?

CM: Lisbeth Salander, no question. Because [her partner] Mikhael Blomkvist--well, I am very interested in what the film company makes of the material. Will they retain Salander as the main lead, or will they enhance Blomkvist and make them at the same level? My feeling is that people in all translations respond to the utter originality of Lisbeth Salander. No one’s seen anything quite like her. There was a time when people said James Bond was utterly original.

AK: That’s an excellent comparison.

CM: If the filmmakers get it right, Salander will leave James Bond in her wake. Salander is just so interesting and she’s much more intellectually stimulating than James Bond ever was. She is a woman of so many facets, aspects, the physical, the emotional, the history of her mental illness, where she stands in Swedish society, and her computer skills, her professional skills as an analyst. She is not a complete human being, because of her emotional wreckage. She’s utterly fascinating.

AK: The Girl with Dragon Tattoo was the first book to come from your MacLehose Press imprint. So tell us, how are you finding working with Quercus?

CM: Nothing will quite compare with my years at Harvill [Press], as that was an imprint that was devoted to translation of pure literature, but we did publish [Danish author] Peter Høeg, Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas, and many others who are also considered as European crime writers. … [T]here is no one quite like [the Quercus team]. They are young, work flat-out all day, all night. I’ll tell you what it’s like: When I left the old Chatto and Windus and went to Collins, who were then a tremendously vigorous young publishing house, I described it like free-falling downwards without a parachute. Working with Quercus is like getting out of the airplane and suddenly you are moving fast, very fast indeed, and there is no parachute.

AK: What other crime-fiction delights might you recommend from MacLehose Press’ catalogue?

CM: Crime fiction, hmm. I would indicate Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski, the Polish crime writer who I consider to be one of the world’s most original crime writers. There are five books I hope publish by him.

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