May 16, 2013

Editor Drenka Willen wins new international literature prize


These past few years have been good ones for awards honoring international literature: prizes have mutated in and out of sponsorships fairly successfully, gained traction and publicity, honored translations and new work. And now there’s a new prize in town, the James H. Ottaway, Jr. Award for the Promotion of International Literature, which will be given out annually by the nonprofit organization and online magazine Words Without Borders.

Its first recipient, announced earlier this week, will be Drenka Willen, senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Willen is the editor of no less than four Nobel Prize winners (Günter Grass, José Saramago, Wisława Szymborska, and Octavio Paz, who all won their Nobels in a dizzyingly short period of time in the ‘90s) and many, many other authors, among them Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Stanislaw Lem, Charles Simic, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kiš, Margaret Drabble, Cees Nooteboom, and Ryszard Kapuściński.

She’s been in publishing for a long time, a fact that was brought home to me when I first met her in her office on 26th Street in late 2003. On the shelf was a copy of Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand, which is the first book I remember buying on my own, as a teenager, let loose in the mad, bad streets of Princeton, NJ for the afternoon. I also remember reading it on the train to New York, alone, so there must have been some context, some trip into the city to see a play or an exhibit. I can’t, realistically, have just gone into Princeton, bought View with a Grain of Sand, gotten on the train to New York, and read it all the way there and back. And yet that’s what I remember, reading “Brueghel’s Two Monkeys,” an absolutely clear and indelible reading experience from 1995.

I now know that Willen was about fifteen years into her time at HMH, known at that point as simply Harcourt. She’d arrived, after many years of work as a freelancer, to take up legendary editor Helen Wolff’s list, and found on her desk the translation of a novel by an Italian semiotician about a series of murders in a medieval monastery.  It was The Name of the Rose, and it was a very good start for a new editor.

In 2003, I came to work for her, first as an editorial assistant, then as an assistant editor, for eight years, and I learned many things, heard many stories, lived with her through deaths, mergers, firings, and the complete publication cycles of around 200 books. The experience gave me a lifelong to-read list from Drenka and the Wolffs’ backlist, which I will probably never get through: damn you, Georges Simenon! “Max Frisch,” she’d say, “is wonderful,” and I’d nod. I’m sure, I’m sure, but there are new books I have to write copy for, due tomorrow, I’d think. “Roads to Santiago,” she’d say, “You would like Roads to Santiago.”

In the meantime, we worked on the new books. They’re out in the world now. I see them in bookstores, on the subway, on people’s bookshelves. They seem to have always existed. And the editor’s role is so odd, so evanescent: we didn’t write the book, our names aren’t on them anywhere, the decisions that Drenka made, in pencil, on stacks of manuscripts, aren’t obvious.  I boxed up some of those manuscripts and sent them to the archives: no one asked me to, no one, in fact, seemed to care, including Drenka, whether we recycled the manuscript of the new translation of The Tin Drum or it went into climate-controlled, researcher-ready, deep storage.

But we were so close to them. Actually, literally, so close, Drenka leaning over the pages, doing one of the things she likes to do most in the world—editing sentences. I would be called in occasionally to give an opinion on something, to hear something read aloud, to read something aloud, to go over tipsheet copy, catalog copy, galley copy, jacket copy (sometimes, copy sessions actually put me to sleep, sitting up at the table). All those little pieces of a book, as inglorious as they often are, and the glorious parts too—our collective hands, side by side, are all over them. And it’s hard to throw those pages away.

In part, I think it’s just because I want to go back to them someday: now that I’m a full-fledged editor myself and having to make most of these decisions solo, I don’t wonder what Drenka would do in certain cases—each book is pretty much its own world, each editor more or less their own guiding brain. But I’d like to look at those edits and see my old boss at work, in daily engagement with a giant range of international literature. She “promoted” it because she likes it, on a line by line level, enough to read and re-read it, to read it out loud, to wait with great excitement for a translation to come in, to grouse and mutter over phrasing.

So it was especially satisfying to be walking up 42nd Street last year towards the Public Library and to look down and see a quote from one of the books Drenka edited, Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, set in bronze in the sidewalk. It might even be a good description of the way she reads and feels about literature, how completely involved she is in the books she has spent so much of her life with. Here it is:



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.