Portal del Sol

Author Salon, Fiction, Novels, Editors, Books & More

Barcelona Review Interview

Sexuality, Missouri, and Martinis

by Elizabeth Bernardi

An Interview with Jill Adams of “The Barcelona Review”

Jill Adams taught English as a Second Language and English-language literature in Portland, Oregon, before moving to Spain in 1987 where she continues to teach language and literature. She is also a publisher¹s reader for the Spanish house Ediciones B. She and her British partner, Michael Garry Smout, who is the web designer for The Barcelona Review, live in the Barrio Gótico in Barcelona.

EB: How did The Barcelona Review come about? Who founded it, when was it founded, when and how did you become involved?

JA: TBR began World Book Day, April 1997. Having been exposed to a lot of new fiction living abroad, I had long wanted to start a literary review, but my time was consumed by teaching at an American institute here in Barcelona. I had just become tenured there when all hell broke loose – contracts broken; teachers on strike. The upshot was that almost all of us walked out; and with my severance pay, my partner Michael Garry Smout and I had just enough money to travel to London, do the bookstores, and buy our first computer, an Apple Mac 6200, which I’m still using.

With a little free time on my hands I began to plan the review and gather editors for the Spanish and Catalan. I considered publishing a print review – and talked to several local editors – but our goal was to put out an international, multilingual publication, and print distribution was hardly possible unless we limited ourselves to Spain. Net publication was new and happening then and perfectly filled our needs, so Garry quickly learned his way around the Mac – he does the lay-out, design, all the work of putting the review online – and we were (shakily) on our way. Steven Kelly, editor of London’s The Richmond Review, the first net review that I knew of, was very helpful, answering questions, offering advice. It was a struggle in those early days – expensive phone lines limited our net time and we couldn’t get the Spanish punctuation to stay on the page – but we persevered. We’ve put out a new issue every two months since then.

EB: You bill yourselves as “the Web’s first electronic review of international, contemporary cutting-edge fiction in English/Spanish/Catalan multilingual format.” What do you hope to offer readers by being international and what might you offer that other literary reviews lack?

JA: Quite simply, since the net offers us a global readership, our aim is to present the best fiction we can find internationally; by offering translations – from English to Spanish or Catalan, for example, or vice versa; as well as other languages – that broadens our scope, and that’s our edge, I think. Many reviews offer the occasional translation or writing from abroad, but we do it regularly. I’m as in touch with British fiction as I am North American – one advantage of being an American living in Europe – so there is usually something from each side of the Atlantic in every issue. Very rarely will all of our fiction be from one country, though if it happens that the best fiction comes from one area, we’ll go with it. We’re after quality above all. But I don’t feel competitive with other reviews. Each has its own special style and selection; ours is formed by being based in Europe.

EB: Publishing international fiction in multiple languages must present its own special challenges – translation itself can be burdensome, and addressing such a wide audience creates the need to bridge cultural and literary gaps. You’ve probably also discovered some creative ways to meet these challenges. Would you talk about some of the difficulties you’ve faced (the sort that might not apply to a monolingual journal, for instance) and how you’ve dealt with them?

JA: Well, I don’t think we have encountered any special difficulties. Literature and film have long crossed language and cultural barriers and even helped break down some of those barriers. And it’s a smaller world today, thanks partly to the net and technology in general, and to the ease of travel. Occasionally, one may be stumped by a word or cultural reference – and I don’t always mean from translations – but that enriches the reading. If an American or Brit is still puzzled by the other country’s use of “fanny,” it’s time they learned the difference! These days, though, we’re more familiar with American vs. British English, and with the customs of different cultures, from our mass exposure to it through the media.

Translations, of course, can pose problems, but our literary translators – all of whom freelance for the big houses – know how to deal with that. The Scottish dialect in some of our stories, such as the one from Irvine Welsh, is a real challenge, and our translator had to be quite inventive, trying to capture the tone and humor and to create some kind of equivalent speech in Spanish, but she did it.

The real difficulty is in the sheer amount of work that’s involved – and that includes chasing grant money to pay for the translations. Also, we don’t only publish one review every two months, we put out three – English, Spanish, and Catalan. They’re each a separate review with their own style and content, but we work closely together, sharing the best fiction we find in whatever language, deciding what to translate, etc. Then there’s the actual job of designing and publishing three separate reviews. It’s a lot of work.

EB: You also say that the idea for the review came from a desire to present your favorite authors to a large audience. Who are your favorite authors? Where do you discover them? How has your list of favorites evolved over the years? At the moment, whose work enthralls you most?

JA: I taught literature in the States and here in Spain, so to begin with I’m always reading. And obviously, just living abroad in an international city like Barcelona has brought me in contact with people and writing from all over. I have another special advantage and that is that I read for a big house publisher here. Hardly from a slush pile either, quite the opposite. I get English-language manuscripts and books from all over the world, which I read and recommend (or not) for translation. These usually already have an English-language publisher, but we get them early. I got to read The Corrections, Everything Is Illuminated, Middlesex and Life of Pi, for example, several months before they came out in English. These I might review also for TBR.

Of course the biggest thrill is discovering a short-fiction writer. I read George Saunders back in the mid-nineties before hardly anyone knew his name, and the same goes for Adam Haslett last year. By the time I got permission to publish a story from them, they were being hailed in the New York Times – just where you don’t want to see your favorite “cult” discovery! – although, of course, I was happy for them. But it did give me great pleasure to bring their work to the attention of our readers, many of whom discovered them in TBR.

Favorite authors? I adore Alan Warner from Scotland (Morvan Callar, a particular favorite); there are many fine writers coming out of Scotland these days. From England, Dan Rhodes (Timoleon Vieta Come Home) and Rupert Thomson (The Book of Revelation); Haruki Murakami from Japan (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). From Canada, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi; and from the U.S., A.M. Homes’ first novel, The End of Alice; and, of course, Saunders and Haslett for short fiction; and Charles D’Ambrosio (“Her Real Name” is an all-time favorite.) Dennis Cooper still excites me. And I wish Pinckney Benedict would continue writing (D’Ambrosio, too). Benedict’s two short-story collections and novel are superb. These writers, in their diverse ways, break from familiar patterns and make something new of fiction, and their plots are rich and engaging – great stories, if you will, and I love a good story; many divine character creations in these works. Originals, all.

As for how my reading has evolved . . .well, I was into Carlos Castaneda in the ’70s! And the Beat writers – a stage you go through in your youth, I think, along with devouring Hesse, and I don’t care to revisit that territory now, although I have a soft spot for Burroughs and Ginsberg. Still enjoy reading Ginsberg; he’s fun to teach and the Spanish love him.

EB: According to submission guidelines on your site, most of the work you publish seems to be solicited directly from the authors. Still, you accept unsolicited material. What is your process for garnering manuscripts? How often does an unsolicited piece find its way into the review?

JA: We accept unsolicited submissions, year round. We now receive thousands each year and have seven readers. I haven’t done any exact figuring, but I imagine we publish about one to two per cent of them. I would gladly publish more each issue if more material met our standard, but that standard is quite high. To maintain quality, therefore, we also solicit favorite authors, but not mainly, no. A typical issue might have one or two established writers and three to four new and emerging writers. It makes for a nice balance, I think. And new writers appreciate being showcased alongside an established writer.

A word about “known” writers: many of the writers we solicit are well known in their own country or region, but not necessarily beyond that. In this sense, they’re new writers, too, for the majority of our readers, and it’s a pleasure – and an obligation on our part, I think – to bring these authors to the attention of a wider audience.

EB: Each month you publish selections from back issues. Is this meant to suggest continuity among your issues? Why do you bring back pieces from previous issues and what do you hope to accomplish by doing that?

JA: Our “picks from back issues” is there to bring the readers’ attention to the fact we have a wealth of short fiction in our archives. Nearly everything we’ve published since we began is there under ‘TBR archives.’ The authors are listed alphabetically. In the way that you keep your favorite print fiction on your bookshelves, we keep ours electronically, as do many net reviews. I want to make sure our readers don’t miss some of those great stories, so we pull out two each issue and encourage readers to browse through the list.

EB: The Barcelona Review certainly doesn’t shy away from publishing what might be called “edgy” fiction. (Particularly, I’m thinking of Alicia Gifford’s “Surviving Darwin,” from your last issue.) How would you describe your aesthetic vision for the review? Where did it start artistically and where is it headed? Has the review’s development matched its intended course or has it developed in ways you never predicted?

JA: We do certainly have a preference for cutting-edge fiction, by which I mean writing that doesn’t follow a formula of any kind; leans towards marginal themes; has no parameters in terms of subject matter and language; shows originality and imaginative distinction. By no means, however, do we exclude more traditional fiction if it contains some element of surprise or says something in a new way. Above all, we look for good fiction, full stop.

I think we’ve stayed on our intended course and I hope, simply, to build on that. In issue 1, I wrote about the kind of fiction we favored, and cited 6-7 representative authors to give readers an idea of our direction. I went after all of those writers and eventually published each one, although it certainly took a lot of work and sometimes much waiting. Took me three years to get Welsh; I’d practically given up when he called me up out of the blue. That’s what I want to keep doing, looking for the best writing I can find, from known names as well as new writers, and getting it out there to our readers.

Discovering previously unpublished writers is, of course, an editor’s dream, and I’m very proud to have published those we have – Marc DuBois in this issue, for example. In seven years there’s only one writer I’ve pursued that I can’t get, due to a difficult agent who stands between him and me like the old Berlin Wall, but I’m on the case – you’ll see him in TBR eventually.

About the Interviewer

Elizabeth Bernardi is the Interview Editor at Portal Del Sol. She can be reached at elizabeth.bernardi.1@bc.edu

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