Ten Questions for María José Ferrada and Elizabeth Bryer

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features María José Ferrada and Elizabeth Bryer, the author and the translator of How to Order the Universe, which is out today from Tin House. At seven years old, the narrator of How to Order the Universe, M, begins to assist her father in his work as a traveling salesman. Shadowing her father, her sense of the world becomes defined by his philosophies and his inventory of hardware tools. “While my classmates wrote poems about trees and the summer sun,” she recalls. “I wrote odes to door viewers, pliers, and saws.” But cracks begin to appear in what M initially presents as an idyllic arrangement. Through the eyes of her young narrator, Ferrada subtly reveals the true precarity of M’s family life and Pinochet-era Chile. “How to Order the Universe is a dreamscape of a book,” writes Tara Conklin. María José Ferrada is also the author of numerous children’s books, including the forthcoming Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile (Eerdmans, 2021); she lives in Santiago, Chile. Elizabeth Bryer is an author and translator whose previous translations include The Palimpsests by Aleksandra Lun (Godine, 2019) and Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez (Deep Vellum, 2016).

María José Ferrada and Elizabeth Bryer, the author and the translator of How to Order the Universe. (Credit: Ferrada: Ignacio de la Cuadra; Bryer: Percy Cáceres)

1. How long did it take you to complete work on How to Order the Universe?
María José Ferrada: It’s a short novel, but it took me three years. I think partly this had to do with the fact that it draws on my own life. Writing it meant finding myself in the company of people who were dear to me, people who became characters. I knew that finishing the novel would mean saying goodbye to the traveling salesmen once more, and I think that some part of me wanted to take all the time in the world to do so.

Elizabeth Bryer: Around six months, spread across a couple of years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about the project?
María José Ferrada: The most challenging thing was finding the narrator. I only identified who that would be once I’d written half of the first version, so I had to retrace my steps and start over from the first word. It has taken me a long time to learn that changes in plans—identifying the narrator, eliminating characters, eliminating entire chapters—are not necessarily setbacks, but part of the writing process.

Elizabeth Bryer: Getting the precocious voice of the narrator right. That and the humor! Humor can be such an intricate puzzle to translate, especially those instances where a play on words is involved. Sometimes what does not read as a play on words in one language can look like one when viewed from the perspective of another. The constellation of meanings encompassed by a single word in one language rarely matches exactly that of the word’s closest counterpart in the other language, which is part of what makes translation so creatively and intellectually stimulating.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
María José Ferrada: I write in the living room—the only part of my apartment where a desk will fit—or at a café when possible. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, the café no longer counts as one of my “offices.” I try to be methodical, leaving periods for writing—a month, for example—and then a couple of weeks for revising and thinking about where to take it from there. Sometimes this second period—seeing where the text is going, if it’s going somewhere—can draw out. Mornings are much more productive for me than afternoons, so I try to keep them for writing.

Elizabeth Bryer: Workflow for translation can be intermittent, so it depends on when you ask me. If I have signed a contract to translate a work, I try to keep the early morning for my own creative writing, and then translation work is the next thing I do, starting around 9:30 AM. Ideally I do this five days a week, though this is not always possible around other commitments. As for where: inside a second-story flat in Birrarranga/Melbourne, on unceded sovereign Wurundjeri land, wearing expensive noise-canceling earphones to dim the drone of the frame-making factory next door.

4. What are you reading right now?
María José Ferrada: Cosmos by Alexander von Humbolt, a treatise in which the German naturalist and explorer attempts a “physical description of the universe” that incorporates all the things that he observed on his travels around the world. It is so interesting to see how he links biological and physical phenomena, until he arrives at the hunch of “nature as a whole,” interdependent, which three centuries later we are yet to fully comprehend. There are some poetic moments. He wonders, for example, at the number of phenomena that must have disappeared long before our eyes perceived them, or about changes that have already occurred and are yet to make their effects known. In those moments the perspective of this man of science reverts to that of a child asking why things are the way they are. That perspective interests me because I think it is the driving force behind many things.

Elizabeth Bryer: Currently I have two books on the go, a classic novel and a recent-ish essay collection: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, which has been a balm during confinement; and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick: And Other Essays, which is so intelligent and generous and sublimely written.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
María José Ferrada: I think that Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, isn’t remembered as she should be. We don’t hear about her when we start learning the history of literature at school. We hear about Cervantes, but not about her, the person who, ten centuries ago, wrote what is now considered by many to be the first novel. She observed behavior in a way that was so profound and so free at the same time, that she not only wrote a classic, but also took the first steps into a genre that a thousand years later we are still reading.

Elizabeth Bryer: Adania Shibli. It’s a few months now since I read her novel Minor Detail, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, yet I still think about it at least once a day. And Alexis Wright. Carpentaria and The Swan Book are mesmeric novels of the highest order.

6. What is one thing you might change about the literary community or publishing industry?
María José Ferrada: I think that in the publishing industry everything is too rushed. I always wonder how many good books never got a chance to be read—and perhaps never will be read—because they were discarded when the next month’s titles arrived. Literature, in contrast, operates at a slower speed, not only in terms of production, but in terms of reception. How did a novel do? That is something we only know a good deal of time later. There are novels that go unnoticed when they are published, only to be discovered later by a reader, and then they are reborn and attract a lot of attention. There are also best-sellers that we know nobody will remember in ten years’ time. Publishing and literature are two different things, and they operate on different timescales; I think it’s important not to lose sight of that and to recognize the times when you are working for one and the times when you are working for the other. I am not saying that you don’t need to sell your novel, because you do, especially if you want to make a living from your work, but you need to be aware, for better and worse, that the result, especially in terms of reception, doesn’t solely depend on the work you did. There are many factors involved; the pace of the market and the times we are living in are just two of them.

Elizabeth Bryer: Far more literature is translated out of English than into it, which of course means the flow of economic and cultural capital operates mostly in the inverse direction. I really like the idea—which I am pretty sure came from Michael Henry Heim, though I haven’t been able to relocate the source—for a system whereby a small percentage of earnings destined for each English-language author is automatically diverted to a pool of funds, and then these funds are dedicated to bringing into English more works by authors who write in other languages. I would also add a corrective bias towards underrepresented languages, regions, and intersections.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
María José Ferrada: This has to do with my previous response. Once I’d delivered the manuscript, I asked my editor Juan Manuel Silva what would happen if it didn’t do well. He responded that if that happened, he would be buying the beers. Which meant, he continued, that if it did well, I would be buying them. What he was saying, I think, is that after doing the work—in this case, after writing the story I wanted to write—I had to do what any worker would: crack open the beer that meant I’d made it to the end of my shift. I also think he was trying to warn me about what is and is not important in this trade. Literature and best-sellers are two different things. Sometimes as writers we confuse the two.

Elizabeth Bryer: It’s something the author, María José Ferrada, told me, and I know I can share it because she spoke about it in an interview: How to Order the Universe is very autobiographical, a gift for her father and his friends. I think this came as such a shock not only because of how endeared I had become to the characters, but also because of how crafted and almost fable-like the novel’s setting of 1980s Chile is, not to mention its picaresque tone. Translating means to inhabit the world of another author’s novel in such an intimate way, which always feels like an enormous privilege, but Ferrada’s revelation about the novel’s origins enhanced the privilege that I felt immensely.

8. What is the biggest impediment to your creative life?
María José Ferrada: E-mails, phone calls, the washing machine I must turn on, the food I must buy at the supermarket, and that long to-do list, which is never-ending and which you can’t ignore if you are alive in this world. But I also believe that literature is nourished by these acts, so I welcome all those small, and sometimes tedious, impediments.

Elizabeth Bryer: Financial uncertainty, and/or having too much on my plate, with the latter often a direct consequence of the former.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
María José Ferrada: A poet friend who has a remarkable ear and, most importantly, an enviable sincerity.

Elizabeth Bryer: For translation work, the editor of whichever book I am translating. In the case of How to Order the Universe, this was Masie Cochran. Often, rereading a translation that I am working on or have recently worked on means triggering a palimpsest in my head that includes all the turns of phrase I chose in earlier iterations. For this reason, it is incredibly valuable to have an editor’s perspective.

10. What’s the best piece of creative advice you’ve ever heard?
María José Ferrada: A piece of advice that Akira Kurosawa gave young people who wanted to make films. He told them that they could understand the details of how to structure a film by writing a screenplay. That to do so, they didn’t need a big budget, only paper and a pencil. He acknowledged that writing is certainly hard work, but that the only way to do it was to put one word down and then another. He insisted that you needed to be patient and, if you found the patience, after a few hours, even if it had been a challenging few hours, you would have a whole page. I think he was saying that it is a process that you can’t rush.

Elizabeth Bryer: To give whatever you are working on more time, care, thought, and creativity than you think you are able.

Editor’s Note: María José Ferrada’s answers appear in translation from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer.