‘I sometimes find realism bizarre’ — An interview with Jen Calleja, by Thom Cuell

Jen Calleja’s debut collection, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, is a sharp and inventive exploration of relationship dynamics, social conventions and identity. Calleja’s work draws on fables to create a world which functions as an imperfect mirror image of our own – recognisable, but disconcertingly askew. She is also the author of two books of poetry, and the literary translator of numerous books from German.

This is your first collection of fiction, after publishing numerous translations – how does the experience of writing fiction compare with translating the words of others?

I started writing my own fiction years before I translated anything and have been writing alongside translating the whole time, but I guess it might seem like I’ve moved from one to the other from the outside.

Being a writer first is what made me believe I could become a literary translator. I didn’t do a degree in German, I learned it largely from reading books in German in my early twenties, so I had the ‘harder to learn’ skill first, that is, being a confident and competent creative writer in English. I see translating as one form of constrained creative writing like any other. You have parameters for your creativity, you have a form and minutely detailed plan before you, and you have to follow it on many levels simultaneously. I find translating literature exhilaratingly challenging, and it’s nice not getting writer’s block in the sense of not knowing what to write – though you can still get stumped and burnt out. A lot.

The process of translating and writing your own work is basically the same when you get down to it – you translate someone else’s text or your own abstract thoughts and ideas, you hone the voice of the text, you redraft, you edit, you test it out to see if a reader will find it believably a literary text. I feel equally happy and appreciative of doing both things.

Do you see a theme running through the stories in this collection? How did you go about bringing them together?

Themes came out of it once the final stories were side by side, my preoccupations of the last eight or so years became apparent all of a sudden. I write a story when I feel really strongly about something, and I become fixated on exploring an answer to a question or a worry or fear through fiction. Things like misogyny, xenophobia, class inequality and personal agency feature repeatedly, so they’re all naturally connected in that sense. Power dynamics and hierarchies come up a lot, identity and one’s sense of self versus how others perceive us, but also how all texts are fictions or have the potential to become narratives; the ways we fictionalise ourselves or are made characters in official documents, for instance.

I gave my editor Jess Chandler all the stories I felt good about and she agreed on all but one I think, then I gave her maybe three more I had been working on and she thought two of them would fit with what we had. Jess is open and fair but also decisive, which was great to have. I felt like I had to hand over that decision right at the end – I could go so far in saying which stories I felt were good enough, but needed Jess to complete the circuit and sign off, I could completely trust her decision.

We also noticed at the end that food comes up a lot, there’s nothing better than writing food into a story.

In Literary Quartet, you satirise the profession of writing, and the self-regard of the book world, through the Prize of Prizes Prize. Do you think there’s an increasing tendency for us to see literature as a game that can be won?

I think I’m less satirising the profession than the things going on ‘behind the scenes’ that many of us know about but rarely talk about openly – while trying to acknowledge, in terms of the central character in the story, why that might be. Then again, it is pretty fair to say that the story does also explore the main character’s doubt in her writing. She doubts her own writing because of the machinations going on around her, but also because she’s hyperaware of how she ‘built’ her own texts, so every last bit seems false and farcical somehow.

I feel okay admitting that, in one way, I do see literature or publishing like any other institution that is a weighted system with unwritten and unsaid rules. This became very apparent to me when I started out writing and translating as someone coming from a non-literary and working-class background. I had to learn the way things really worked, the language of it, the clues and the tells, and without going into how messed up and unfair a lot of it is here, I actually found it more freeing and motivating to understand that it’s often not down to the writing itself and that there are many other things at play that determine whether you get considered, deemed ‘worthy’, and ultimately published. It means I’m not hard on myself about my writing very often, I just keep going.

Unfortunately, it does often feel like there’s a ladder or checklist of things to do or places to be published in order to feel like you’re ‘being a writer’, which can only lead to disappointment – either you’re constantly after this one card to add to your collection, or you realise there’s always another new card in the mix.

The one rule I try and live by is to be kind and patient and not be a dickhead, that way you win even when you ‘lose’.

In Literary Quartet, your protagonist Hester says that she’s planning to stop writing in a few years, because she wants to be remembered as a Rediscovered Author. Which type of author do you want to be?

It might sound strange to some people but I wouldn’t want to be deemed a writer of ‘masterful, well-crafted, beautiful prose’ or a ‘master of the short story form’ – not that I have to be worried about either of those things coming to pass. I’m not interested in mastering writing; I like being a ‘minor’ writer of ‘little’ stories. I think this comes out of acknowledging that my stories and poems and essays, even when published, are just ‘attempts’ – like a translation is just one attempt at writing a story in another language. I also think it’s an acknowledgement and even a celebration of the fact that my writing is created under time and financial and, yes, motivational restraints. I don’t have endless time or money or high energy to hone my writing to the nth degree, and I see that as a good thing. I don’t want to be over-edited and have wrinkle-free prose. I want to be prolific over being precious.

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There’s a fable-like quality to many of the stories in your collection – what is it about that form that appeals to you as a way of describing the world today?

I love fables and fabulist fiction; it feels comforting and familiar. I’ve actually just written a pamphlet essay for Rough Trade Books called Goblins about how much fairy-tale-inspired things like The Storyteller, Angela Carter, Labyrinth and Return to Oz influenced me as a child. It’s been great getting to read and re-read books like Marina Warner’s A Very Short Introduction to Fairytales and Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster, and some of my favourite current writers like Camilla Grudova, Kristen Roupenian, Sophie Mackintosh, Carmen Maria Machado and Michelle Steinbeck (a Swiss writer I translate) write fable-like and fabulist stories.

Fables, fairy-tale and surreal stories filled with archetypes and extraordinary occurrences and didactic intentions feel right to me in how obviously not real they are, they wear their falseness on their sleeve. They’re the very essence of all stories, and stories are not real life. It’s also so much fun to subvert, like Carter does, what the reader might expect in a familiar-seeming story.

I sometimes find realism bizarre, absurd, even creepy in its attempt to be a simulacrum of lived life, especially in how narrow its view of life and the people within it can be. I suppose I like how fables give you the bare bones and you as a reader have to furnish the bones with your own flesh.

I think what makes it most appealing as a form is that the same narratives and messages and myths from very old stories created to teach children and especially young women still dominate our contemporary moment. A couple of the stories in the book explore the idea of ‘happy ever after’ for instance, or of leaving the small town for the big city, or the obsession with the ultimate prize of wealth and regard. These narratives surround us in the media, in film, and especially reality TV, and seep into the fabric of reality.

Connected to that fable-like atmosphere, it feels as though your stories are written to be read aloud – is that aural quality something you look for when you’re writing?

That might come from having written more poetry and subsequently done more poetry readings for a few years, and also from imagining that moment when people might read bits aloud to friends. Maybe the page is just a temporary home for them. I always read my writing and translations out loud, it really helps me feel if it’s working properly and has the right punctuation ‘clues’ for the reader.

I enjoyed your story Due Process, in which an artist hides the murder of her sister and creative partner in full sight, with clear references to the event in her work. Is this a comment on a tendency for seeking obscure motives and interpretations in the current climate, rather than taking art (or events) at face value?

I think the story’s directly inspired by one of the first short stories I ever read – ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ (1953) by Roald Dahl from his collection Someone Like You. A murder weapon is in sight and also readily ‘consumed’ by others in the story. The murderers in both stories are really brazen by having the weapons and other clues on show, but they do it because they know that no one will notice because the audience is hungry – literally in Dahl’s, and for a kind of shock factor in mine. The sister gets away with it because people like the titillation without connecting it to the possibility of real violence, and because they underestimate her sheer ambition.

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

My cat Ludo (if she was already dead too).

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

There’s a line in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan that’s always stayed with me since I read it when I was about eighteen. Near the beginning of the book it talks about how Mrs Darling always keeps a little bit of herself back from her family. That there’s a box deep within her, and a kiss hidden at the corner of her mouth. Of her husband it says “He got all of her, except the innermost box and the kiss. He never knew about the box, and in time he gave up trying for the kiss.” This line made such a huge impression on me and I think I’ve always lived by it.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

The self-portrait by my now husband (who did the drawing for the front cover of the book), which I saw at our mutual friend Stevie’s house. It gave me an in to talk to him properly for the first time just over ten years ago.

Jen Calleja is the author of I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype), Serious Justice (Test Centre) and Hamburger in the Archive (If a Leaf Falls), and the Literary Translator from the German of Marion Poschmann, Wim Wenders, Kerstin Hensel, Michelle Steinbeck and Gregor Hens, among others. She was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019.