Wrecking Ball Press published Isabel Tallysha-Soares’ I, From Nothing, the English translation of Eu, do Nada, today (22/04/21). We caught up with Isabel to find out more about her book, her writing process and a whole lot more besides.
Can you give us your ‘elevator pitch’ for I, From Nothing? What’s it about? What can readers expect?
I, from Nothing is a sort of heightened reality biography of my maternal family over the course of the last 200 years and its intersection with Portuguese history from 1800 onwards. The main plot encompasses events from World War I until the Portuguese Colonial War in the 1960s although the life of the main character crosses the millennium to the 21stcentury.
Readers can expect a lot of mystery and tinges of magical realism. It’s a story taking readers to a place on the edge of reality and human emotion. It’s also about seemingly insurmountable trials of life and the different prisms in which love is felt and shared. Tears can be expected…
What reception did Eu, do Nada receive in Portugal?
My Portuguese publisher, Porto Editora through its outlet for emerging authors, Coolbooks, published I, from Nothing because the manuscript’s Beta-readers compared it to Isabel Allende’s writing. It was a great honour to be published by the Portuguese main publishing group without having to query other publishers. I got an instant “yes” when I submitted the original. The book has also been well-received among the Portuguese Bookstagram and blogging communities with a lot (and only) very positive reviews so far.
How was the translation process for you?
I know how difficult translation is and the amount of loss it brings so I decided to do the translation myself because the writer of the book was inside the mind of the translator. In the case of I, from Nothing there is a lot of emphasis on Portuguese rural landscapes and agriculture which renders translation even more complex not to mention the fact that characters speak in a Portuguese language that evolves according to historical moment and is not the same in the early 20th century and now. After I completed the translation, I had the great fortune of working with Marcia Prior-Miller who has had a brilliant career in print media editing and is also a scholar at Iowa State University. I had worked with her on an academic project when she and David Abrahamson from Northwestern University edited the Routledge Handbook of Magazine Research and, for all my luck, she said she could be the translation editor of I, from Nothing. Although she speaks no Portuguese, which is a phenomenal thing if you think of it, she helped Anglicise the text (and corrected more prepositions than I can count). Reading from an outside, English-language perspective, Marcia was instrumental in detecting instances where we had to fine tune the text to render it more “understandable” to English-speakers and it was she who got the idea of the genealogy, the maps and the italics for the stream of consciousness dialogues. It was great team work.
What is the importance of place to you as a writer?
Place is a character. Luísa is a child of Nothing and constantly aware and in awe of the pace of the seasons and the changes they bring. The rhythm of Nature is the rhythm of Nothing and the same for me because, although I was born in a big city in Germany, I am also a child of the real Nothing and much in tune with the rural place where I still live. Place is the source of inspiration. In my second novel The Drawer, place is overarching because no places in that novel have names but though unnamed, they are the driving force of the whole plot. After all, a drawer is a place…
Could you tell us something about your creative process when writing fiction?
I once wrote a text to my Portuguese publisher about my writing process. In it I said I write every single day of my life. I don’t always write novels but I write academically, I write lots of admin, I write in social media, I write diaries ever since I can remember, I’ve experimented with literary journalism, and I write stories, piles and piles of stories most of which at an interstice between real and fictive. I think I cannot write 100% fiction, there’s always some element of reality either in situations or travels or life circumstances that have happened to me (trauma, death and war being major catalysts) or to people near me. Even the characters in my novels are, for the most part, based on true people. In I, from Nothing I didn’t even made changes to the names of the characters and in my book The Tame Man I was inspired by the larger-than-life personality of a very real Don Rui de Siqueira de São Martinho to compose an adventurous, also larger-than-life, fictional Don Rodrigo. This said, I write my novels compulsively when they are already fully formed in my head and bursting to come out. When that happens, I take every free moment available and can write for stretches of 12, 14 hours a day until the story is complete. Then a sort of appeasement takes over and I go back to my daily routines. As an academic, I am a very slow writer because science reins you in more tightly.
How and when did the idea for Eu, do Nada / I, From Nothing come to you?
In the 1990s, a Portuguese columnist, Miguel Esteves Cardoso, wrote an article about strange place-names in Portugal. The real Nothing has an even stranger name and was included in that article (it has, in fact, always been subject to curiosity as to why it has that name). Cardoso traced the first mentions of the name, referred to its location but was left at a loss as to why the name. Some years later, on a casual conversation with a journalist friend, Pedro Rolo Duarte, I told the story of my family and explained why Nothing has that name. Duarte, who passed away in 2017, was a good friend of Cardoso and I might have told him to let his friend know the reason for the name. A few years elapse and I get a phone call from Duarte telling me he wanted to talk because he had had an idea. We met for coffee near the magnificent site of the Monastery of Jerónimos in Lisbon and he told me I should commit the story of my family and of Nothing to writing because that was a story worth telling. When I got home, the 50-odd kilometre commute from Lisbon had operated an idea in my mind. Two weeks later I had written a book. It was one of those “twilight zone” moments.
Why this story, now?
The now is the serendipitous moment when the original has been translated, is ready to go out and about in the world and meets a publisher. When I signed my publishing contract with Porto Editora, I asked to keep translation and international rights so I could have freedom to translate. When Marcia Prior-Miller and I decided the translation was finished, I set out searching for a publisher and came across an article in The Guardian in which Wrecking Ball Press was mentioned. The first instant notion I had of Wrecking Ball was that they dealt in quality and took chances on new authors. I browsed their site immediately and, having greatly liked what I saw, got in contact with editor Shane Rhodes all the while bracing myself for the long journey of denial I was in for I don’t even have an agent (the Portuguese market is very small for writers to have agents). Shane took less than two weeks to reply and here we are. I confess I am still processing all this and my gratitude to Wrecking Ball transcends words.
What experience do you want readers of I, From Nothing to have?
I hope readers can feel. I hope they can relate. This is a story that takes you to confront (im)mortality right in the eye, it’s about how you go on when loss is all you have and love and strength come from the most unsuspected places, sometimes from darkness itself. I am always surprised when readers tell me they were shaken to the core and cried their eyes out because what they were reading was what they had already felt or were feeling. I once had a reader who told me she read the book almost as if she was reading about her own feelings. It’s not a sombre story because there’s always courage but it’s not a story on lightness. It’s also a story about our being entitled to suffering and despair. No matter your walk of life, you don’t suffer more or less because of status or circumstances, you just suffer. I think this is something we can all relate to, more so at a moment when we are struggling to comprehend reality around us.
Who do you think the audience for your fiction is?
If you like family sagas, historical novels, magical realism, strong women and enough mystery to keep you wondering, you’ll have an audience for this book.
You live in a beautiful part of the world – how do your surroundings inspire you?
My main, most constant, intellectual reference has always been Sir David Attenborough. Once I read an interview with him on Time magazine, at around the release of The Life of Plants series, in which he said that even something as simple as a garden slug is fascinating to him. Same here. I cannot imagine living in a place where I was not surrounded by Nature. Its sheer vitality is contagious. There’s always so much happening, always so much to pay attention to. As an intrepid globe-trotter, I also enjoy visiting urban places. However, never have I felt more grateful and humble than surrounded by Nature in all its majesty and glory. Gratitude is, to me, the most fulfilling feeling. That I am privileged enough to live in a geography that is still abundantly natural is a case for permanent gratitude. Besides, life in small communities means we are closer to what makes us human: interaction. We didn’t feel the brunt of lockdown because not all our connections were severed. The baker still delivers bread to our door every day. Neighbours give you eggs and vegetables from their gardens. You talk to the mailperson from the safety of your garden (you can have a garden!). In a place like this, you just have to open your soul and absorb your surroundings…
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
Coming from the experience of mainstream, big publishing conglomerate in Portugal to an independent publisher what I can say is that there is much more proximity between writer and the publishing house itself. Although I established an excellent relationship with my Portuguese editor and never felt any of my creative work was being curtailed, the fact is that my particular publisher, Coolbooks, was just one among many and more established publishers within the group. My relationship with the mother-house was more distanced so to speak whereas, in this case, I’m in the mother-house. What I can say, nonetheless, is that independent publishers are gaining momentum and have been for the past few years. What I see on social media, namely, is that there is appetite for talent outside the world of the “what everybody’s reading now” and what I am seeing is a lot of indie publishers coming up with incredible projects that feed book and reading marketing niches not covered by more mainstream outlets. As an observer, albeit a participant one, I see that Literature, not to be confused with writing, is finding a safe haven in the independent publishing market. The roster of Wrecking Ball is a case in point.
Who are the contemporary writers of fiction that you admire, and why?
Always the tough question…
I like William Boyd to bits. He always manages to superbly combine humour with the most unexpected, tough circumstances. He has a way with making his characters go through the direst straights in a way that we suffer for them and laugh at them. The first of Boyd’s books I read was A Good Man in Africa. I was at college and one of our professors, I think English III, asked us an essay about some dreadful subject we had been studying and that, honestly, I felt no inclination to do. I asked if there was anything else I could do instead and he told me to write a 3,000 word new end for a book from among a list. I chose A Good Man in Africa. So, I can safely say I literally finished one of Boyd’s books.
Needless to say I like Isabel Allende, whom I got to know better, after I, from Nothing had been compared to The House of Spirits. She has an elegant way of putting Suffering to writing and then there’s that very Latin-American combination of reality with über-reality. If I could add to this list Gabriel García-Márquez, that would be great. Does death preclude one from being considered contemporary?…
I have recently taken to Amélie Nothomb after reading her Pétronille, coincidentally published in the same year I, from Nothing came out in Portugal, 2014. We know it’s a woman writing but it could be a man’s writing. I find that as fascinating as her ability to write the weird.
Maybe because I don’t write total fiction, answering this question made me realise that most my contemporary reading is in the non-fiction department (I’m smiling as I answer this after my eyes glanced at the shelves in my study).
Can you tell us more about your academic work?
In academe I am Isabel Soares and I don’t usually mix those two instances of my existence. My Tallysha surname (that you find in I, from Nothing disguised as Boshoff) allows me a space of freedom that does not coincide with the gravitas of science. I hold a PhD in Anglo-Portuguese Studies that analysed how late 19th-century Portuguese literary journalism looked at Anglo-Portuguese relations in Africa and the conflicts over imperialist territorial disputes. Portugal and Britain are the world’s oldest allies through the Windsor Treaty of 1386. Because of the Scramble for Africa, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance was strained to the limit and it’s very interesting to see how it survived the clashes over occupation of Southeast Africa that stemmed from the clause of effective occupation in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference, 1884-85. You cannot imagine the hours I spent in the library of the Senate House in London doing my research! This work came after my MA dissertation where I had looked at the adventure novel, namely by Rider Haggard and John Buchan, as instrument of imperial discourse. Imperialism was a historical moment, shameful and controversial as it is, that shaped our contemporary world and I like to go back to understand the present. My main field of research currently is in literary journalism as a journalistic ecosystem on the borders of literature. I am very honoured to have been present at the moment the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies was created in 2006 and even more honoured to have been its president between 2016 and 2018. Professionally, I am an associate professor within the ranks of the University of Lisbon and am currently serving as Vice-President of one of its colleges, the Institute for Social and Political Sciences, where I am responsible for the Quality management system. However, what I really enjoy doing in academe is… teaching.
Tell us more about House of Tallysha?
House of Tallysha is a YouTube channel that functions as a supplement to my other social media platforms. I’ve always liked blogging because it’s a platform that invites intimacy and is very protective of writing (actually the first money I ever made from writing was when my blog was discovered and I was asked to write texts with my blogger persona to the Portuguese press). However, social networks are incredibly volatile and blogs have meantime fallen to relative obscurity so I thought that a YouTube channel could be a creative outlet akin to a visual blog. I love documentaries and House of Tallysha allows that kind of experimentation. A lot of episodes are about travels and touring places. For example, there’s an episode in the Spanish town of Ronda where I go on a quest for the great creative minds that were inspired by it like poet Rainer Maria Rilke, writer and journalist Ernest Hemingway and film-maker Orson Welles. But I also talk about books, I interview writers and people coming up with interesting cultural projects and, of course, I take viewers to the geographies of my novels (there are episodes in which you can see the landscapes of the real Nothing and the places of particular scenes and their importance in the (hi)story of Nothing). I try to have a YouTube channel that is a place where people can go to learn things and not just to be passively entertained. Besides, it’s a team project I can share with my husband because he films and does the editing. In fact, House of Tallysha is only possible because of this symbiotic partnership.
What else are you working on and what does the future hold for you as a writer?
Right now I am working on the English translation of my second novel The Drawer which starts with the enigmatic sentence “Mother lived in a drawer”. Then there’s The Tame Man, which also requires translation and this just to talk about the novels already published in Portuguese. Besides this, I’ve finished two manuscripts on travels. One is the account of my coast-to-coast road trip in the United States that took place in two politically distinct moments, the final year of the Obama administration and the first year of the Trump era. The other is an East-West, South-North road trip in Germany, where I took my husband not only to meet my German family but also to show him a Germany outside the stereotypes and beaten tracks. It was a sentimental voyage of sorts, going back to my roots and reckoning with a past of immense happiness and irreplaceable loss and the manuscript is written in a rather confessional tone.
Simultaneously, I’m working on a cookbook with recipes for solar ovens and, roll drums,… have finished a prequel to I, from Nothing. This was actually an idea I got from readers of I, from Nothing. Many times I got feedback that the main character’s mother, Máxima, was a force to be reckoned with and people longed to know more about her story and what had made her be the way she is in I, from Nothing. I am a good listener of my readers so I wrote Máxima’s biography and, very imaginatively, titled it I, Máxima. As you can see I’m nothing short of projects and intentions whose materializations are, of course, contingent on having a publisher and public. Writers, after all, only exist after their writing is published.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Because I, from Nothing was so challenging in terms of translation, I would like to submit it to translation awards if for no other reasons than to cast some light on the Portuguese language at the international level and to show that independent publishers are doing an amazing work in bringing other writing traditions to the realm of the world’s global language.
I, From Nothing can be purchased direct from Wrecking Ball Press at https://wreckingballpress.com/product/i-from-nothing