By Edward Nawotka
ISTANBUL: Selçuk Altun understands what it takes to market a novel. As the former executive chairman of YKY (Yapi Kredi Publications), one of Turkey’s largest and most prestigious publishers, he knew that if he wanted to bring his books to an audience outside Turkey, he’d have to do it on his own. So in 2007 he paid for the English translation of his literary thriller Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, out of his own pocket.
Altun reasoned that if the book was published in English, other translations would flow from that, as it was more likely to find a translator who could work with the English edition, rather than the Turkish edition.
“It was an expensive gamble,” he admits now, knowing full well that the gamble has already paid off: The English translation of Songs My Mother Never Taught Me was picked up by UK publisher Telegram Books and published in 2008.
Altun reports that various German, Swiss, Spanish and Portuguese houses have expressed an interested in buying rights. “But the global economic crisis seems to have stopped the process,” he says. Nevertheless, based on the 3,000 copies sold in the UK and high praise from the likes of poet John Ashbury, who said “Altun’s prose has a dreamlike urgency; his novel is a major achievement,” Telegraph has opted to translate and publish Altun’s latest novel, Many and Many a Year Ago. The book arrives in UK bookstores this week, and in U.S. bookstores in September.
Many and Many a Year Ago concerns a young Turkish fighter pilot who, after crashing his F-16, is set up with a generous stipend and an apartment in Istanbul’s Taksim district. In return, the convalescing daredevil must undertake a series of mysterious missions following in the footsteps of American writer Edgar Allen Poe, taking him from Istanbul to Buenos Aires, and beyond. Eventually, he arrives at Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore.
“It is part literature and part travel book, a little bit of Paul Auster and Bruce Chatwin,” says Altun. “It is a Sheherezade-like reading experience in that there’s a chain of eight stories within stories. Poe was himself a very rich character, though financially poor. He was polyglot, he had dreams, and if he had money he would have lived his life in a rich way, so what I tried to do was imagine what the life of a post-modern, well-off Poe would have been like.”
Money, Altun, admits is less of an issue for him than most writers. At the same time he was serving on the board of KYK, Altun was chairman of Yapi Kredi Bank.. That job eventually gave him the financial freedom to retire at the age of 54 and pursue his writing career full time. Even now, all the money he makes from his books goes to fund three scholarships at Boğaziçi University.
Altun’s literary career started at a milestone moment in his life. “My goal was to write a book by the age of 50,” he says. “Before that, I knew I needed to read, so I read some 4,000 books before I sat down to write. That, more than anything, gave me the confidence I needed.”
Since starting in 2001, Altun has published five novels in all, as well as contributed a regular monthly column “Kitap Icin” (For The Love Of Books) to the newspaper, Cumhuriyet. Still, Altun maintains he reads far more than he writes, often opting to work through some of the 9,000 volumes he has amassed in his personal library in Istanbul, 60% of which is in English and 20% of which is poetry -some of it poetry that he himself helped publish while at YKY — where his list included writers such as Louise Gluck and the aforementioned Ashbury.
Taking into context Altun’s passion for poetry and prose, his fascination with Poe makes perfect sense, since Poe is an example of a writer who was equally accomplished as both a poet and fiction writer. That Altun’ homage to Poe is published on the bicentenary of the writer’s birth is an extra bonus.
“I hadn’t planned it this way, but it’s very gratifying,” he says. “I take a lot of inspiration from Poe. While working on this book, I went to Poe’s graveside myself and I honestly believe he helped me with it. Now, I can only wonder what Americans, should they get the chance to read it, will think of my Turkish interpretation of this American master.”
BUY: Many Many A Year Ago
SEE: What people are saying about Altun on GoodReads.com