Interview by Tara Tober
Laurence Laluyaux, longtime literary agent and now director at Rogers Coleridge and White, represents an impressively diverse list of international authors, particularly out of Central and South America. Born in Paris, she studied French literature and taught French in the US before moving to England where she took an MA in Comparative Literature at University College London. She worked as a translator and joined Rogers Coleridge and White seventeen years ago, becoming a director in 2001. Publishing Perspectives interviewed her by email in March 2015 and is featured our new, free White Paper: “Global Perspectives on Rights & Licensing,” where excerpts from this interview first appeared.
What brought you to agenting? How did you come to work for RCW?
I met Deborah Rogers, the founder of RCW, when I worked in an independent bookshop near the RCW offices whilst I was studying for my MA. I had tried my hand at translating but quickly realised that I was no good at it and I knew that I did not want to go into academia. I didn’t know what an agent was until I met Deborah and started working at Rogers Coleridge and White; I was instantly fascinated by the foreign rights department. The RCW list of authors is incredibly rich and in the last seventeen years I have found it hugely rewarding to be part of representing them internationally. A few years ago, our MD, Peter Straus, who has a keen interest in international fiction, suggested that I start building my own list of non-Anglophone authors alongside my work in the foreign rights department. It started with a collaboration with Luiz Schwarcz and Companhia das Letras in Brazil, which is still extremely fruitful and enjoyable, and has expanded since.
Many were saddened to hear of the passing of Deborah Rogers in April of 2014. Is there anything you would like to say about her, or about her influence on you as an agent?
Deborah had the most extraordinary taste, and she was completely selfless – all that mattered were the authors and their work. Much has been said about her ability to be supportive and inclusive of all involved in the publishing process, the authors but also the publishers, whilst retaining the ability to be steely when necessary and ensure that the authors got the best in all situations. This is all true, and she taught me too many things for me to be able to list them all here. One, I would say, was to look after the author and not the individual book, and always have the long-term picture in mind.
You represent an extraordinary list of international authors in translation, including several—particularly Valeria Luiselli and László Krasznahorkai—who have seen great bursts of recent critical acclaim. How would you characterize the market for literary fiction in translation going in to 2015? Do you feel that the recent plaudits for Luiselli and Krasznahorkai reflect a larger shift in readerly appetites?
László Krasznahorkai is in a league of his own. New Directions have published him brilliantly for years and shown that serious literary fiction does not frighten readers: his readings in New York sell out. His recent shortlisting for the International Man Booker Prize 2015 indicates that his international popularity is growing. That said, I think that we are at an exciting crossroad. There is a greater appetite from readers in translated fiction than before, and authors are famously achieving cult status: Karl Ove Knausgård, Elena Ferrante. There is a greater curiosity about experimental fiction, from translated authors like Alejandro Zambra and Jenny Erpenbeck, but also English-language authors who are interested in the form as much as the content: Adam Thirlwell, Jenny Offill, Eimear McBride. It is noticeable in the fields of essays too, with Valeria Luiselli but also Leslie Jamison or Eula Biss. I firmly believe that a writer can say as much through structure as through plot, and that there is an immediacy in the approach of these writers to experience and emotional life that effectively constitutes story. Their playfulness and humor also helps dispel the myth that this kind of literary fiction is intimidating (look at Juan Pablo Villalobos for instance). I think that this change of attitude has been hugely helped by great literary journals such as Words Without Borders, the White Review and Asymptote, as well as by independent publishers who are doing a fantastic job of introducing new writers in translation: And Other Stories, Pushkin Press and Fitzcarraldo in the UK, and Coffee House Press, Deep Vellum, Graywolf, and New Directions in the US.
Could you speak a little to the challenges and the rewards of representing literary fiction in translation?
Representing literary fiction in translation is proving more rewarding and exciting than it has been in the past decade. The focus used to be on local color: how representative is a novel of the country where it was written? I would get rejections for books I loved because they were “not Brazilian enough,” for instance. This happened particularly in the English-speaking world, but it happened in other countries too. A translation had to be justified: it had to be a window into a different world, it had to offer something that writers from other countries couldn’t convey. It felt to me that this desire for reportage overshadowed purely literary concerns. I would say that this is no longer the case and that is a cause for rejoicing. Amongst the authors I represent, I think immediately of Michel Laub, whose novel Diary of the Fall is an extraordinary look at history and identity through three generations of men in one family, including a grandfather who survived Auschwitz. It is a short, elliptical book, which was published to great critical acclaim in more than ten countries – published, I should add, as a great novel, and not a great Brazilian novel.
As for challenges, we are still very much dependent on having full English translations in order to reach some markets outside Western Europe. Very few English-language publishers read foreign languages and those who do get a deluge of submissions! However, there are very strong networks and it is a rewarding community: translators play a key role in recommending international authors, as do the literary journals mentioned above. And translation grants such as those the Brazilian government have been awarding for the last few years have helped too.
What were your best success stories from 2014?
2014 brought many excitements: László Krasznahorkai won the Best Translated Book Award in the US for Seibo There Below, having won it in 2013 for Satantango. Valeria Luiselli rightly got a huge amount of attention when Coffee House Press published her in the US and she was chosen by the National Book Foundation as one of the 5 Under 35. It was the year Daniel Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard was published widely in translation, as well as Michel Laub’s Diary of the Fall. Chico Buarque delivered a new novel, The German Brother. I was very fortunate last year in that I also signed some exciting literary writers from other countries such as Portugal and Turkey.
Are there any new clients whom you’re particularly excited to be representing at the London Book Fair this year—perhaps clients we won’t have heard of before?
Yes! I have just started representing a Bolivian novelist called Rodrigo Hasbun whose work had not been translated before. We are taking his new novel Los Afectos to the LBF and have already sold rights in eight territories (including Pushkin Press in the UK) before it has even been published in Spain. It is a short, mesmerizing novel about a family of German adventurers who moved to Bolivia in the 1950s. Los Afectos is set in a tormented, radicalized Latin America: it is written in a series of snapshots, and its alternating strong voices and its atmosphere reminded me of a Herzog film.
As you know, Mexico is this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair, and your client Valeria Luiselli will be featured as an Author of the Day. Do you have other Mexican clients of whom you’d particularly like publishers and editors to be aware?
Valeria Luiselli is an extraordinary talent and I am delighted that she will be Author of the Day at the LBF on the Wednesday. Someone recommended her essays to me a few years ago, Sidewalks, and I was instantly fascinated. They felt both effortless to read and intellectually very rewarding. I signed her up there and then and still have a very strong memory of the paragraph she sent me on the novel she wanted to write – I remember realising immediately how excellent that book would be if she could pull it off. She did: that novel is Faces in the Crowd. Beside Valeria, I will also be talking about two other Mexican novelists this year: Eduardo Rabasa and his critically acclaimed first novel Zero-Sum Game, which is currently being translated into French, and Daniel Saldaña París whose novel Among Strange Victims is being translated into English for publication in the US by Coffee House Press.