I HAD lunch with author Chris Stewart last week. We discussed the fantastic success the Spanish translation of Driving over Lemons is having in Spain. Entre limones, Historia de un Optimista as it is called here, has only been out a few weeks and more than 70,000 copies have already been sold.
The book is quickly climbing up the best seller list and Chris has appeared on many of the major TV networks to talk about his book and his life in La Alpujarra. Articles on the book and interviews with Chris have also appeared in many of the national newspapers. I asked him why it took so long for Driving over Lemons to be translated into Spanish:
“Well… Driving over Lemons was first published in 1999. When it started to take off in the UK, foreign publishers got in contact with Sort Of Books (Chris’ UK publisher) for the foreign rights. Some of them took a little longer than others but, ultimately, the French, Italians, Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Finns, Danes, Estonians, Poles, Japanese, Arabs, Koreans, Chinese and the Israelis made up their minds to do local language versions. Also the Americans, who paid a wad of notes for the book and gave me a couple of stonkingly good literary tours around their country.
“I did wonder about the Spanish market but my UK publishers told me they thought a Spanish version wouldn’t be such a good idea at the time. Besides, no Spanish publisher had contacted them. Nothing happened for a while but so many local people were asking me if it was going to be translated into Spanish. So I decided, along with Órgiva bookshop Gallego, to make a local initiative out of it, translate it and print five thousand or so copies and hawk them round La Alpujarra and Granada. The Gallego family put me in contact with Paco Martín Morales, the well-known political cartoonist. Don Paco, by this time had read a translated manuscript, liked it, and knocked off a load of illustrations for free, saying if it really took off we could renegotiate. As it was, I paid for the round at local bar Cuatro Esquinas while he sat and sketched me… he’s amazingly good.
“I had decided to find my own translator but I was a babe in the wood, not really knowing anything about the business. First, I contacted a woman from Málaga, whom a friend from Madrid had met and seemed impressed by. The Malageña was thrilled to get out of medical and legal translation for a while and to do something literary. She set to work but when her stuff came through, it was truly appalling. The most unmusical Spanish I have read and a complete misunderstanding of the humour in my stories. The poor thing was utterly useless. Most difficult phone call of my life, to tell her she wasn’t up to the job. Anyway I did it, and invited her to join six other translators I had by then found to do the first chapter in a type of run-off. Sort of putting the book out to tender. The translators were all women except for an Irish guy and his Spanish wife from Granada who had already written to me about possibly doing the book. I offered each of them a hundred euros each and away they went… actually, most of them declined the money. I still owe one of the women, who lives in London, a dinner in lieu of fee.
“When the chapters came through there was an obvious winner: Alicia de Benito, a Granadina who has lived in Scotland for the past 25 years. I gave a copy of Alicia’s translated chapter to Pepe, my bank manager in Órgiva and an old mate of mine. After reading it, he agreed with me on her suitability. So, I engaged Alicia and paid her at the ruinous English rate. When she got to the end of the book, I checked it over, reckoned it was very good and set about hawking it around. I gave it to a number of friends. One said he thought it was boring, uninteresting and had nothing new to say… amazingly, we are still good friends. The others loved it and said it would be a shame to limit ourselves to the scant sales we would get in the province. So, I sent it to a publisher or two but nobody was remotely interested. So I sort of gave up. Occasional visits to the bookshop in Órgiva convinced me los Gallegos, although their hearts were in the right place, wouldn’t be the right people to handle it.
“I forgot all about it until I went to “give a paper” at a conference in Seville on 200 Años del Imagen de Andalucía (200 Years of the Image of Andalucía). Afterwards, I met a fervent Andaluz separatist, whose name I have forgotten, but I know he was a geologist from Almería University. He said he was surprised my book was not published in Spanish and he had a friend who was a publisher. He recommended I send it to him. I did and it came steaming back by return of post. They wanted it and they were going to put all their marketing muscle behind it and make it their number one book for the autumn. The boss, one Manuel Pimentel, read the manuscript on the plane on the way to Timbuktu, where he was going to clinch a deal to edit the Al Andalus library there. He rang back and shouted down the phone: “We must have this book. Get it.” The publisher is called Almuzara and by now they have sold, I think, about 70,000 copies, which is an enormous amount for this country. They’re good folks too, they nail me to the floor on the deals, but I like them. I have just sold them my other two books in the trilogy. They will publish one in September 2007 (A Parrot in the Pepper Tree) and the other in 2008 (The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society). Alicia is translating again. Anyway, it has to be said the whole thing is a ball of fun. Though I am not doing much serious writing at the moment – as I am preparing for a long trip overseas – at least I’m having a good time.”
I wanted to ask Chris if it was true what they say about literary groupies but, as his wife had turned up, I asked him instead about his forthcoming trip.
“I am going to South America for a month or so, visiting Peru, Chile and Bolivia. I will be with Michael Jacobs, a very talented writer, who has been engaged by Granta Press to do a book about travelling through the Andes. Michael’s journey will be much more extensive than mine as he will start in Venezuela and eventually end up in Tierra del Fuego, in the very south of the continent.
“For at least part of his trip I will play Boswell to his Doctor Johnson and we expect to travel on foot, on horseback, with local railways and whatever other means we can find to get ourselves through the Andes. It should be an exciting experience and I am really looking forward to it. Michael is a great traveller and reporter and I would recommend his books to you [In the Shadow of the Phantom Palace, the Pallas Guide to Andalucía, Factory of Light and Ghost Train to the Andes are some of them – Ed). I also cut my own teeth on travel writing, so who knows where this trip might lead to, in a literary sense, for me.”