Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s 10th novel, ‘Fish Have No Feet’, has just been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. For the author, returning to a book can be a strange experience. “I almost never think about books I’ve already written,” he says. “I empty myself out, and put everything I have into the book during the writing, but afterwards you quickly move on.” Even so, he’s pleased that his books live on through their readers. “I’ll never know how they experience and interpret that which consumed me so during the writing,” he says, “and there’s something beautiful about that; that the books have a life beyond me.”
Jón Kalman’s writing has appeared in numerous languages already, but this time he shares the nomination with the book’s translator, Philip Roughton, whom Jón says “has all the qualities one could want in a translator. A good translation must capture the feel of the book; the style and the atmosphere and the rhythm of the language. A good translator must therefore have a poet’s sensitivity for language and that’s where Philip’s strength lies.”
The sequel to the novel is yet to be published in English.It was only halfway through writing ‘Fish Have No Feet’ that Jón discovered the story could not be contained by a single volume. “At first I was afraid that it would end up as a trilogy,” he says. “I’ve written two trilogies already, and I wasn’t quite ready to add a third. That’s always the way with my writing though—the world of the story grows larger each time I sit down to write. New characters and events appear from the depths. I’m grateful for that. That way it feels as if I’m creating something larger than myself. All decent works of art are greater than their creators, and have within them something that we don’t understand but only sense, almost like a dream.”
This process of discovery is a familiar one for Jón , who makes allowances for such changes during the writing. “Getting started on a book can take months of preparation and guesswork,” he says. “A novel has a grand anatomy, so you must be thoroughly prepared. However, as soon as I begin writing, the story starts to change–often quite drastically. I always end up with something completely different from what I started with. Thank God, I say. Fiction is the art of the unexpected. It’s irrational; you shouldn’t be able to predict it or prepare for it. If you could predict everything, where’s the wonderment? Where’s the unexpected? Where is the fiction?”
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