Friday, June 12, 2009

An Interview with Peter Rozovsky

Peter Rozovsky is the creator of the popular and award-winning blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, which focuses on crime fiction written outside the United States. For those not familiar with Peter or his blog, an anecdote from last year’s Bouchercon will give an idea of the regard with which he is held in the crime fiction community. No less an authority than Ali Karim found himself stuck for the name of a foreign (to Americans) writer, and solved his dilemma by asking if Peter Rozovsky was in the house. Peter was, and he knew the name Ali was searching for. No one was surprised in the least.

His encyclopedic knowledge is matched by his generosity of spirit. Upon learning I was at my first Bouchercon and feeling a little uncomfortable at not really knowing anyone, his response was, “Do you know Scott Phillips? Scott! Come here. This is Dana King. Dana, this is Scott Phillips. Scott wrote The Ice Harvest.” And, just that quick, I knew someone.

Peter recently was gracious enough to take the time to submit to some questions about his blog and international crime fiction in general.

DK: How did Detectives Beyond Borders get started?

PR: Traveling had long been my preferred recreation, and I'd been reading crime fiction from outside the U.S. for a few years. I don't remember what spurred me to begin the blog in 2006, but once I did, my ex-colleague Frank Wilson, my newspaper's book editor at the time and a relatively early entrant in the field of blogging about books, helped me out. That was my first example of camaraderie among bloggers.

DK: You post every day, sometimes more than once. How do you find the time and energy to keep up that pace along with the demands of your full-time job as copy editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer?

PR: Novelists will tell you that the way to get anything written is to write every day. Blogging is my writing; I write every day. I lavish great care on it, but it does not take all that much time. Even a longish blog post is not all that long. Neglecting domestic responsibilities also leaves me more time for writing.

DK: What provoked your interest in international crime fiction?

PR: I mentioned that I'd long enjoyed traveling, so my interest in international crime fiction came naturally. More specifically, love played a role. About eight years ago, I had a Dutch girlfriend, and I happened to notice a book called Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering, the late Dutch crime author of the Grijpstra and de Gier (Amsterdam Cops) novels. His cops took a relaxed, sometimes detached philosophical approach that attracted my interest. Soho Crime published many of his books, and that led me to Soho's other authors, people like Seicho Matsumoto, Garry Disher and Qiu Xiaolong.

DK:Which countries currently produce the most interesting crime fiction?

PR: Every country has the potential to produce interesting crime fiction. Recently a lot of good writing has come out of Ireland.

DK: What authors should readers be aware of if they aren’t all that familiar with international crime fiction, both past and present?

PR: That's a tough question because the field is so vast. For a North American reader, the answer might depend also on whether one considers crime fiction from England "international." It is, of course, but when I started DBB, English crime fiction somehow felt too close to what I was used to. Recently I've been reading more of it.

I suppose a hypothetical course on international crime fiction might begin with Georges Simenon and with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels. Henning Mankell looks on them as seminal figures, and many of today's Swedish crime authors in turn regard Mankell the same way.

Build a global reading itinerary, and you could read forever. Qiu Xiaolong, Jean-Claude Izzo, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Yasmina Khadra, Naguib Mahfouz (yep, that one, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner) and Karin Fossum are some of the authors who stand out for me for what they do with that vast form we call crime fiction. I'll also throw in a few heaps of praise for those marvelous prose artists Bill James and Peter Temple. And that's obviously just the beginning of a long list.

One should remember also that crime fiction was international from its beginnings. Poe's C. Auguste Dupin was a French crime solver created by an American. This is no mere accident of history. There is reason to believe, as one Poe scholar says, that an older society such as France was more prepared than the young United States to accept a writer who probed the dark side the way Poe did.

DK: What books do you believe should be on the shelf of anyone interested in getting into international crime fiction?

PR: Criminy, that's a hard question. The words "must-read" will never cross my lips. Note some of the names I've mentioned, and assume that all of those people are good.

DK: The late Stieg Larsson received a great deal of posthumous acclaim for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The book has prompted quite a bit of discussion, as there are many who are confused by its enthusiastic reception. What are your thoughts on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and what do you think has caused all the controversy?

PR: A colleague today accused me of avoiding The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo because of its popularity. She was right. I'll probably wait til the hullaballoo dies down before I make a serious effort to read Larsson. His premature death obviously enhanced his celebrity, and he touches upon some controversial themes. The current fight over his inheritance also will keep his name in headlines for a while. But I'll reserve judgment until I've read him.

DK: It seems to me that the translator is almost as important as the author when producing fiction for a different language, and is especially true of writers who write in a distinctive style. This is kind of an open-ended question, but what are your thoughts on the pros and cons of translators? Are there writers you think are hurt more than others in translation, aside from readers’ lack of familiarity with the location? Are there some writers who are actually helped by their translators?

PR: Translation may be harder than authorship because at least the author is in total control. A good translator, who must be a good writer also, is responsible to the author as well as to the prose styles of both the original language and the language of translation.

Each language presents problems of its own, and I have the highest respect for translators who can find creative ways to deal with this, whether it's Sian Reynolds coming up with English counterparts to Fred Vargas' French wordplay or Mike Mitchell's elegant English solutions to Friedrich Glauser's switches between different dialects of German.

I once complained about clumsy and vague passages in a translated Spanish crime novel. A reader who apparently knew the work of both the author and the translator said the problems were probably the author's fault.

Outsider in Amsterdam, which I mentioned above, has the occasional odd sentence where the translation applies Dutch grammatical practice to English. For example, you'll get one cop saying, "I wonder if he has done it" rather than "I wonder if he did it." Van de Wetering is an interesting case because, at least later in his career, he did his own translations, which he called "versions." But the point is valid no matter who the translator is. The translator needs to be a graceful, elegant prose stylist in his or her own language and have an intimate knowledge of the original language. That's a demanding set of requirements.

I’d like to thank Peter for his time and for the thoughtfulness of his answers.


Paul D Brazill said...

Damn good interview with a gentleman and a scholar.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Many thanks for that generous introduction and for some good questions, though I fear the first comment goes over the top. Gentleman? Scholar?
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

pattinase (abbott) said...

I also remember reading Freeling's books early on, especially those set in Amsterdam rather than the later ones in France. Nice time with both of you.