Posts Tagged ‘Kyle Semmel’


Recommendations: Kyle Semmel & Ryan Effgen

June 2, 2009

I’ve been giving lots of bandwidth here to my friend and fellow writer Kyle Semmel — but only because he’s been publishing so much new and noteworthy work lately. His latest translation, of the short story “Phosphorescence” by Danish author Simon Fruelund, appeared yesterday in the online mag A River & Sound Review. Kyle says of the story, “In lean, spare prose… Fruelund dramatizes the simultaneous closeness and distance of human relationships.” If you want to read another recent translation by Kyle, check out his stories in the current Redivider, linked here, and don’t miss my interview with him here, from earlier this year.

Additionally, another friend and fellow writer, Ryan Effgen, recently had one of his own works “translated” in a way. His short story “The Inappropriate Behavior of Our Alleged Loved Ones” — originally published in the anthology Best New American Voices 2007 — has been adapted into a short film by director Tegan Jones. Ryan gave us the chance to preview the film recently, and I was mightily impressed by how the director adapted the story to the screen, particularly her use of brief images and snippets of scenes to foreshadow, flashback, and generally augment our understanding of the story unfolding before us. I wish I could point readers to a place where they could see the film now, but it’s currently being prepped for the festival circuit; I’ll encourage people not to miss it if it plays a festival near you and to look for it later as it becomes more widely available. For more info on Ryan’s work, visit his website here. And watch for Jones in general; she’s sure to be a talent on the rise.

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A Quick Recommendation — With An Eye Toward Literary Journals And Translations

May 21, 2009

Given all the recent talk about the potential closing of literary journals (including both the New England Review and the Southern Reviewand about the lack of interest by Americans in fiction from beyond our borders, here’s a quick recommendation. My friend and fellow writer Kyle Semmel (interviewed here earlier this year) has not just one but two translations of stories by Danish author Simon Freuland  in the current issue of Redivider, and he gets prime placement for them, since the stories essentially bookend the rest of the issue’s contents. One of the stories — “What Is It?” — is available online, but I’d encourage readers to pick up the full copy, not just for the other story, but also for works by a fine list of other authors, including Chris Abani and Dan Beachy-Quick, the latter’s poem online as well.

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Sportswriter Brett Friedlander Discusses The True Story of Field Of Dreams’ Doc Graham

April 10, 2009

Today, I’m hosting not just an interview — with Brett Friedlander, sportswriter for the Wilmington Star-News and co-author of Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams’ Doc Graham — but also a guest interviewer: Kyle Semmel, a fellow writer and a big baseball fan to whom I’d passed along the book, figuring he’d enjoy.

Kyle chatted with the author about the genesis of the book, about the benefits of collaborating with another writer, and about Graham himself, and  I’m pleased to turn the program over to him now:

chasingmoonlightChasing Moonlight, by Brett Friedlander and Robert Reising, is the true story of Archibald Graham, a native North Carolinian and brother to former University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham. Known as “Moonlight” Graham during an all-too brief baseball career, he was a career minor leaguer until he got one chance to play for John McGraw’s New York Giants in 1905. That chance turned out to be one game, and he didn’t make it to bat. Sent back down to the minors shortly after, he never again spent time in a major league uniform. 

But Chasing Moonlight isn’t about a minor league baseball player. It’s the story of a remarkable  journeyman ballplayer turned renowned country doctor in a small northern Minnesota town, far from his North Carolina home — a man whose careers in baseball and medicine provided the inspiration for one of the characters in W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe and who was then immortalized by Burt Lancaster in that book’s film adaptation, Field of Dreams

Chasing Moonlight seeks to find the man behind those depictions, and early chapters from the book have already won a 2007 N.C. Press Association Award. 

Kyle Semmel: How did you and Robert Reising write this book? As co-authors, how did you determine who would write/research what?

Brett Friedlander, co-author of "Chasing Moonlight"

Brett Friedlander, co-author of the new biography "Chasing Moonlight"

Brett Friedlander: Since I am a sports writer by trade and Bob is a college professor, I did the bulk of the writing while he did a great deal of the research, though we both made contributions in both areas. The great thing about our partnership, however, is that we worked so well together. We made several trips to Minnesota together and spent many combined hours in the research libraries in Fayetteville, Chapel Hill, and Charlotte, as well. As for the writing, whenever either of us was finished with a chapter, it would be emailed to the other for any additions, subtractions or other revisions. The most cooperative effort came on the final chapter, which was written over the better part of two days together at the Fayetteville main branch library, where we bounced ideas off one another and wrote the conclusion as we went along.

This is a book whose genesis, you write, begins with W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe — which, of course, later became the popular film Field of Dreams. Because its subject is a career minor leaguer, it’s easy to see the book’s appeal for baseball fans. What considerations, if any, did you have for those readers who might not know Shoeless Joe or Field of Dreams

Not as much in the original draft. But thanks to the persuasion of a great editor, Steve Kirk of John F. Blair, we eventually included a lot more background and basic facts that were covered in the novel and movie into our text. I think these were important additions, because without the context of Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams, the significance of Graham’s accomplishments and the depth of his many sacrifices would have been lost on the reader. By going back and providing that context, I believe we broadened the appeal of this book to an audience beyond that of a typical “baseball book.” As is the case with Field of Dreams, baseball is only one aspect of Graham’s life story. It’s a hook, if you will, that leads you to a much more inspiring and complex subject.  

When reading the book, I was struck by a couple instances when you substitute the fictional Graham’s dialogue for the real Graham’s. Oddly, those passages seem very fitting to the person you portray in Chasing Moonlight. Can you talk about the difficulties you faced in discovering just who this remarkable, yet largely obscure man was? Here, I’m thinking especially of the gaps between the facts of his life and the fiction.

The most difficult aspect, by far, in researching and writing this biography is that virtually no records or writings remain pertaining directly to Graham. I remember going to Chisholm, Minnesota for the first time hoping to find some sort of journal or diary or even just a pile of notes he made during his 44 years as the town’s school doctor and being disappointed when I was told that they were all lost or thrown away either after Doc had died or a few years later when the school that housed his office was torn down. No one thought to keep any of that stuff because at the time, there didn’t seen a need. It was only after his death, when Kinsella stumbled across his name and decided to include him in Shoeless Joe, that Graham became famous and people outside of Chisholm began caring about him. That forced us to to rely on personal recollections of his friends and former patients to fill in the gaps of his story. What we couldn’t get from them, we had to find by going back through nearly five decades of newspapers archives in Chisholm, Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. Most of the quotes attributed to Graham in the book are from those sources. The others came from the fictional Graham created by Kinsella — who like Dr. Reising and myself, got a feel for Doc’s personality and characteristics through extensive interviews with the people of Chisholm. 

While Moonlight Graham was playing ball with the New York Giants and pursuing his medical degree, he’s described as a soft-spoken, almost genteel Southern gentleman. A year later, after Graham’s contract is sold to Scranton in the New York League and the Giants come to town for an exhibition game, this quiet man challenges one of the Giants speediest players, George Browne, to a footrace. This seems to me the most powerful moment in Graham’s baseball career; he’s at the height of his confidence and playing very well. But this brash move seems out of character for him. Do you think Graham was trying to prove his skills to Giants manager John McGraw, or to himself? 

While it is true that Graham did not often call attention to himself, something he learned at an early age from his parents and a trait he carried through most of his life, I think he understood that this occasion was different and called for bold action. By this time, Graham had come to the realization that, though his minor league career was flourishing, his chances of ever getting back to the majors and getting that elusive at bat were rapidly slipping away. In other words, desperate times call for desperate actions. While this episode was clearly out of character for Graham, the feeling is that this was one last-ditch effort (that failed) on his part to show McGraw that he was fast, aggressive and confident enough to play for his team.

Though a career in professional baseball was frowned upon by many — as you write — Graham continued to play the game. Did you find any information on what his family thought of his ballplaying career? especially since he continually interrupted his medical studies to pursue it?

There is really no record of how his parents felt about his continued flirtation with baseball, though there’s a very good chance they tried very hard to get him to give it up and concentrate on medicine. His siblings, however, probably encouraged him since they were all very close and frequently participated together in athletic endeavors during their youth. Frank, in particular, was likely the most supportive of Archie because he idolized his other brother and secretly dreamed of being good enough to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he went into coaching and then later, become a staunch advocate for college athletics during his time as president of UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Do you think Moonlight Graham’s pain at not getting another shot at the majors was mitigated by his success in the minors, particularly at Scranton?

Absolutely. He knew he had the talent to play at a higher level if only he would have been given the chance. The hope, no matter how faint, that he might eventually get that chance continued to drive him, at least until his final season, when he was persuaded to come back by the Scranton team owner because of his popularity with the fans there (and his potential for selling tickets).

Once Graham’s career as a ballplayer was over and he emerges as a doctor in northern Minnesota, he seems to have settled into a life as a beloved small-town eccentric. For all his quirks, Doc Graham was the very first physician to recognize the importance of taking children’s blood pressure, and his report on the matter garnered him widespread acclaim in the medical field. Was there any indication that Graham would have left Chisholm, Minnesota had a big league hospital come calling?

No, once Graham established himself in Chisholm, he became too entrenched in the community to go anywhere else — especially to a “big-league hospital” where the expectations and pressures would have been much greater than he preferred. I’m sure he had several opportunities to join his colleagues in the blood pressure study at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (his wife’s hometown), but he chose instead to stay in a place in which, as Kinsella put it, “the wind never blows so cold.” I think he loved the people and the pace of life in Chisholm too much to look elsewhere, the old big fish in a small pond concept. He also owned so many properties and had so many other things going on in Chisholm that at a certain point, it would have also made his life much to complicated to leave.

Much of Graham’s success was earned beyond North Carolina’s borders, but he was born and bred in the state, and the brother you mentioned earlier, Frank Porter Graham, earned fame in both the educational and political arenas. To what degree would you say Moonlight could be considered a North Carolina figure today?

Though he spent the majority of his adult life in Minnesota, I believe that he is still just as much a son of North Carolina because of the roots he grew here. For one thing, there is his family legacy. Not only did he spend his formative years in both Fayetteville and Charlotte, but because his father and brother made such significant names for themselves here, there will always be that connection. Furthermore, his success on the baseball diamond at UNC and with the record-setting 1902 Charlotte Hornets helped him carve out his own niche in our state’s history’s history books.

Note: Brett Friedlander will make several appearances in North Carolina over the next few weeks: Thursday, April 16, at the Fayetteville Barnes & Noble; Friday, April 17, at Wilmington’s Pomegranate Books; Wednesday, April 29, at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books; and Saturday, May 2, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop.

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The World Is Fat (And The Schedule Is, Too)

January 7, 2009

9781583333136hLast night, Tara and I got sucked into a reality television show: NBC’s The Biggest Loser — a show which, needless to say, reinforced our recent resolutions to eat less and exercise more (and my own private resolution to watch less bad TV). With the new year already a week old, lots of folks are making — and maybe already breaking — similar resolutions. The new year is also bringing us a new crop of books and bookstore readings and signings. And somewhere in there is a transition to this week’s schedule of events down in North Carolina and up in the D.C. area, because first on my list of things to recommend is an appearance by Dr. Barry Popkin, talking about his new book, The World Is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race. 

Popkin is a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of UNC’s Interdisciplinary Obesity Center, and he has written widely on issues of nutrition and obesity for a variety of newspapers of newspapers and magazines ranging from the New York Times to Scientific American. Popkin declared a couple of years ago that there were more overweight people than undernourished people worldwide (1 billion compared to 800 million), and his new book explores some of the causes and consequences of the global obesity epidemic. He’ll be speaking at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, N.C. on Thursday, January 8 at 4 p.m. — the first event of the store’s 2009 reading series.

Other venues are also gearing up the new year’s readings, signings and discussions. See selected highlights below.

North Carolina

coverIn the late 1990s, Sheri Reynolds delivered an impressive trio of books with Bitterroot Landing, The Rapture of Canaan and A Gracious Plenty — the middle of which became an Oprah Book Club pick and earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Seven years passed between her third book and her fourth, 2006’s The Firefly Cloak, but Reynolds seems to be back on track, touring now with her latest novel, The Sweet In-Between. Boston Globe review of the new book called Reynolds “a gifted writer with a deceptively simple style and a keen ear for dialogue” and it’s those qualities that make her upcoming Triangle appearances such a draw for readers. The author — a South Carolina native and Virginia resident — will be reading from and signing copies of the new book on Friday, January 9, at 2 p.m. at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village, and again later that day, at 7 p.m., at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop

The same night at 7:30 p.m., NYT bestselling author Kate Jacobs stops by Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books to discuss her latest novel, Knit Two, a sequel to The Friday Night Knitting Club

On Tuesday, January 13, at 7:30 p.m., Quail Ridge hosts N.C. State University professor Rob Dunn, with his book Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys. 

And next Wednesday, January 14, at 7 p.m., the Regulator welcomes Jill Conner Browne with her latest book, American Thighs: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Preserving Your Assets. (See my review of Browne’s previous Sweet Potato Queens book here.)

Northern Virginia, D.C., and Maryland

A couple of the authors above are also swinging through the D.C. area en route to North Carolina. Kate Jacobs, for example, will appear at the Borders at Baileys Crossroads on Thursday, January 8, at 7:30 p.m., and Jill Conner Browne visits the same store next Tuesday, January 13, also at 7:30. 

But amidst these and many, many other writers bounding through the area over the next week, it’s a trio of other events I want to call to your attention now.

First, Kyle Semmel, interviewed here just before Christmas, joins fellow staff members at the Writer’s Center this weekend for a reading of their own original poetry and prose. Semmel, for example, will be reading his translation of a story by Danish author Simon Fruelund, and other readers will include Charles Jensen, Carol Cissel, Abdul Ali Abdurrahman,Caitlin Hill, Janel Carpenter, Peter O’Brien, and Sunil Freeman. The reading takes place Sunday afternoon, January 11, beginning at 2 p.m. at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Then, poet Nikki Giovanni — who delighted standing-room-only crowds two years ago at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason — will visit Politics and Prose in D.C. on Monday, January 12, at 10:30 a.m. to discuss two new books for children:  Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship and  Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry With a Beat. (That last one comes with a CD too!)

And riding the Roberto Bolaño wave: P&P also hosts Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor Lorin Stein for a discussion of Bolaño’s overwhelmingly acclaimed  2666. That event takes place next Wednesday, January 14, at 7 p.m.

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Kyle Semmel Talks Translations

December 21, 2008

kyletrimmedKyle Semmel’s work as publications & communications manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is unquestionably a full-time job. Semmel handles all of the marketing and advertising for the Center’s fine offerings (classes, readings, and other programs), helps to network the Center to other arts organizations in the area and beyond, and also heads up the organization’s blog at First Person Plural. But his work at The Writer’s Center is only part of Semmel’s life in the world of literature.

An accomplished writer himself, Semmel has long been committed to the craft of fiction. His first published story, “Lake Effect,” appeared in the Ontario Review, and “The Throw,” a fictional take on Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals, is forthcoming in Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine. His interest in the novella has recently prompted him to work on a connected series of them (a project that continues to evolve) and to write on the novella in his posts for First Person Plural.

In publishing, Semmel has also been closely involved in recent years with the Santa Fe Writers Project, helping to produce and promote books including Ray Robertson’s Moody Food, Alan Cheuse’s The Fires, and Pagan Kennedy’s The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other Stories. 

And most recently, Semmel has found success as a translator — particularly helping to bring Danish authors a wider American audience. His translation of Danish poet Pia Tafdrup’s essay “Medellín Illuminated: Poetry and War at the 14th Annual Poetry Festival” was printed in Aufgabe: Journal of Poetry, and he’s been involved in an extended project translating a number of stories and a longer work by brooklyn-review-cover25Simon Fruelund, several of which have already found publishers: “Tide” appeared in The Brooklyn Review (full issue downloadable here); “Unsettled” was included in The Bitter Oleander; and  “What Is It?” will appear in an upcoming issue of Redivider: A Journal of New Literature and Art. As a result of his success so far, Semmel has recently been awarded a Translation Grant from The Danish Arts Council.

Semmel will be sampling his work at a Writer’s Center Staff Reading on January 11. In advance of that, he talks here about the art of translating and recommends several recent and upcoming translations. 

How did you first get involved in translating? And why Danish in particular? (A particular demand for Danish literature? A niche market? Some personal tie to the country perhaps?)

My father was fascinated by the German language and so I kind of absorbed his interest. It started there. In graduate school I met my wife, who is Danish. The two languages are very different, but they share enough similarities that it was easier for me to learn.

I don’t think there’s a “demand” for Danish literature, any more than Ecuadorian or Korean. There are a number of great Danish writers — a few Nobel prize winners, mostly forgotten today — but you do see very few of them in print over here. Peter Hoeg is probably the most well-known Danish writer living today after the success of Borderliners (a great book), 2316720789_763bee30d1but Christian Jungerson published a big book here last year, The Exception, that got great reviews (I haven’t read it), and this year Hawthorne Books published Peter Fogtdal’s The Tsar’s Dwarf. I don’t know how the translation reads — though since Tiina Nunnally translates, I suspect it’s wonderful — but the original is terrific and fun. Fogtdal has quite a few books, so there’s plenty more to mine there. 

I think I do it simply because I love doing it, it’s a neat challenge, and there are a large number of great undiscovered Danish writers out there.

How has your training and your skill as a fiction writer helped you with translating another person’s stories into English? And vice-versa, how has translating impacted your work on your own fiction? Can you do both at the same time, shuttling between projects?

These days I’m writing very little of my own fiction. I’m working on the manuscript by Simon Fruelund, and that’s taking the bulk of my time. I might — it’s entirely possible — be trying to avoid writing my own fiction by translating. Has it helped my own fiction? I don’t think so. For me, at least, it seems like two totally separate mind-sets. When I translate I’m taking a form that already exists and shifting it into another language. There’s something almost businesslike about it. You get in a groove, but the story is pretty much all set for you; you’ve just got to do it justice in a new language. When I write fiction I’m out in new territory, making up the story as I go along. There’s something both liberating and terrifying about that — which is probably why I’m not doing it.

But if I were writing fiction right now, I could shuttle back and forth between the two. It goes back to being two different mind-sets.

In advance of this year’s Nobel Prizes, committee member Horace Engdahl made some comments about American writers’ and readers’ insularity — particularly commenting that Americans don’t translate enough or read enough in translation. You’ve already written (passionately) about this controversy, and so I don’t want to revisit it too much, but I am curious why YOU, as a translator yourself, might encourage American readers to check out a new French or Japanese or (since you mentioned it) Ecuadorian or Korean or, of course, Danish writer? What might we get from those works that we won’t find in American novels and short stories?

bolanolastevenings_sI think this is the million-dollar question. Why, when sifting through the hundreds of thousands of books published each year in the U.S. alone, would we pick up a translated book over a domestic book? Marketing is the key. New Directions has been publishing Roberto Bolano’s books these past few years [even before The Savage Detectives and 2666] and doing a fantastic job of marketing them. He was a great literary talent — and it helps (from a marketing perspective!) that he died young — and he deserves to be translated into English. My gut feeling is that he’s going to be read in the same way as Garcia Marquez, and treated as a classic Latin American writer.

But the short answer is that American readers don’t read many translated books because they never hear about them. I don’t for one second think that Americans wouldn’t love to pick up more books by foreign authors. If publishers gave a little marketing shove to some translations then you could see more translated books being read.

By the way, I read in the Washington Post that Horace Engdahl stepped down from his position at Nobel. This might be stemming from his lame-brained comments. I don’t know. In either case, I think he’s a representative of an old world belief that needs to be replaced.

What recent (or even not-so-recent) translations would you specifically recommend to others?

Anything by translators Barbara Haveland or Tiina Nunnally. They translate Scandinavian books and they are very good. Barbara Haveland translated Jan Kjaerstad’s The Discoverer into English (which will be published in the spring by Open Letter Press), and Tiina Nunnally has done some of Per Olov Enquist’s books. Jay Rubin’s translation of Murakami’s After Dark is great. Rubin and Philip Gabriel both translate Murakami, and it might be worth seeing the difference in Murakami’s “voice” as it’s filtered through two different translators.

coverIn a separate but related aside, I recently heard a program on NPR’s “The World” about Linn Ullman’s new book A Blessed Child. Linn Ullman is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman, and she’s a pretty important Norwegian writer. The new book is apparently a riff on her father’s famous film Wild Strawberries. What was interesting about this program was how the reporter and her guest — a man who directed the international literature division of, I think, the University of Iowa — never mentioned the translator even once. It sounded as though this guy, who describes the book’s plot, had read it in the original, and that sounded fishy to me. So I checked online and found that the translator was a woman named Sarah Death (yes, Death).

Now it IS possible that he read it in the original, but the fact is the book has been translated into English, and that’s a moment when it’d be very helpful for listeners to know that they don’t have to understand Norwegian to read the book.

Translators don’t get much respect. But a good translator can make or break a book, and they should be recognized for the hard work they do. I don’t think I’m just writing that because I’d like to do a lot more of these translations. I think it’s a legitimate concern, because the translator IS responsible for making the thing as right-sounding as possible.

In that regard, what does make for a “good translation”? How can we readers who may not have access to the original for comparison (or the language skills to make that comparison even if we had the original) — how can we judge whether a translated work is successful or not?

I think a successful translation should read smoothly. Readers don’t need to know a language to know that something sounds off. Or if something is written that you know is wrong — calling a medical doctor a medic or something like that, when you know the author must’ve meant something else. Of course, some things are simply impossible to translate, and it may come across as a translator error. Stilted dialogue in the translation may in fact be stilted dialogue in the original. So it’s not a perfect science. My best indicator of a good translation is fluidity: Do we forget this thing is translated? Does it read like something written in English? The same rules should apply for a translation that applies for a book published in English. It should flow, and the language should be exact.

 — Interviewed by Art Taylor

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