Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fan letter from Spain

The Portuguese diaspora

It was almost two years ago that a visitor to this blog posted a comment:
You can't imagine how much I identify with you when you talk about your family. I'm Portuguese (living in Spain for the last 10 years) and I too have part of my family scattered around the world, mainly due to the big emigration that happened during the 50's and the 60's.
That was the beginning of a series of entertaining observations and comments by João Paulo. Last January, when I bemoaned my lack of success in getting a literary agent to take on the job of getting my book manuscript published, João Paulo gave me another thumbs up:
Por favor avisa se decidires publicar o livro. Sabes que adoro as tuas histórias de família.
For those of you who cannot read Portuguese (not that I'm particularly good at it), I think it says, “Please let me know if someone publishes your book. You know that I love the stories about your family.”

I promptly replied:
If it gets published, João, I will be sure to make it known. Perhaps it will need a translation into Portuguese!
That's when João Paulo took an exceedingly dangerous step:
I'd be honoured. And if you don't publish it, I would love to read it anyway.
You would? Really? I wrote João Paulo a personal e-mail message and offered to let him read the manuscript. He replied quickly, accepting the offer. I sent him the pdf.

Then, silence.


I was certain I had overwhelmed him with my 380-page tome. While several of my friends had read the manuscript and given me comments and suggestions, others found the effort too onerous and declined the honor. I figured João Paulo had not bargained on getting as much as he had received. And he was a busy man.

No problem. I understood.

But I was wrong. João Paulo was just biding his time, dealing with the demands of working in Spain while using his free time to visit family and friends in Portugal. He had printed out the manuscript and bound it for convenient reading, but it had to wait for a window of opportunity. The window arrived in November. Soon thereafter, a new message popped into my in-box. It was a fan letter!
I have just finished reading your book. WOW! JUST WOW!!!! I read it in just 4 days. I couldn’t stop!
I have to admit that I like the way this starts. He did, however, offer a cautionary note or two.
So, let me tell you my impression on your Masterpiece.

The book does not have an easy start, mainly because of the avalanche of characters. You deliberately included a list of the main characters in boxes on the page before page i (which is very handy and I used it constantly) and a list of the Dramatis Personae that is difficult to manage when you’re looking for someone while reading the book but it’s totally necessary. I just think it needs some categorizing instead of being a simple list of characters.
Yeah, I'm going to have to do something about those crowd scenes, and do a better job of distinguishing the characters. It's a family-based drama where characters have similar behavior patterns and similar names, but distinctions must be drawn—and not just the distinction between good guys and bad guys, both of which abound.
Apart from that, the book is absolutely brilliant. The court scenes are hilarious and if I did not know that it is a true story I wouldn’t believe that the petitioners' attorney could be that stupid (or incompetent). You have a done great job carefully delivering it piece by piece to keep the reader asking for more. I cheated a bit because I could not wait to know what happened when you took the stand (or rather, Paul took the stand) and skipped a few pages forward (but after reading it twice and laughing out loud I went back to read what I had skipped).
Yes, it is as obvious as it can be that the character Paul is based on me. (Paul is my confirmation name and a family name as well.) The novel is, however, a work of fiction. In real life I have never testified in a trial. The nice thing about fact-based fiction is that you can move the characters around to smooth out gaps in the narrative while the real-life history lends the story structure.
The whole book is a great story and looking back at it the feeling is amazing. You have created a coherent story out of three generations in a span of 60+ years with characters so well-defined that it’s almost like I’ve known these people all my life. Your extended vocabulary is a great treat but has forced me to use the dictionary more times this week than during the last few years.
I suspect that a potential publisher will be less than charmed by that last observation. Does “You're going to need a dictionary!” make a good cover blurb? Probably not.

João Paulo then gave me a lesson on Portuguese grammar and usage. Although he praised my rendering of Azorean dialect phrases (“I can’t read them without a grin on my face because you’ve written them exactly the way Azorean people pronounce and it’s almost as I can hear someone from Terceira or São Miguel speaking”), he pointed out the proper way to use the presente do conjuntivo and the pretérito perfeito. Now it's my turn to need a dictionary! João Paulo flatters me and does me a kindness when he assumes I can follow all that.

Although the manuscript has already gone through multiple readings and proofings, João Paulo picked out a few more errata (one peripheral character's name was rendered in three different ways!). He offered some more cautionary notes, suggesting that I had been unduly cruel in my descriptions of certain individuals. The cousins on whom they are based might take offense (or would, if they could read). I confess that he's probably right and I expect to drop a couple of paragraphs and pull a few adjectives before I'm done with the manuscript.

Then João Paulo closed on a high note:
All I all, I loved reading your book. As I said, I read it in four days and I just couldn’t stop. It’s funny, it’s got rhythm, great characters, a beautiful story and a perfect ending. I thank you for the opportunity you gave me to read it and I really hope someone prints it because it is well deserved. I’m saying this not only as a Portuguese emigrant (which has a special meaning to me, of course) but because it is very well written and is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I promptly sent João Paulo's entire message to the editor considering my manuscript. He needs to know about my European fan base!


Rob said...

I have a friend who self published a non-fiction book and was very happy with the result. So if you strike out finding a publisher and want to try self publishing, I can get the pertinent info.

Zeno said...

Thanks, Rob. Although I currently have my heart set on getting "published" rather than self-publishing, I have already gone so far as to produce a proof copy of a bound version of my manuscript (complete with a cover design by a professional). It sure looks like a book in that form. I am thus only one small step away from self-publishing if I decide I have to go that route.

Kathie said...

Zeno, there are a few other Portuguese-American oriented publishers in the US, in case your first submission doesn't pan out (it could be for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of your work, e.g., financial constraints, or having published another Azorean-Californian memoirist-type novel in recent years). So you can always submit your MS to one or more of them, if need be.

But if nothing else, João Paulo should be not only your translator but also your agent :-)))

João Paulo said...

Zeno, I never thought you could do a blog post based on my comments. I'm glad you did but it brings back the guilty feeling I had for not having read the manuscript sooner. And you're being too nice, as always.
Kathie, I don’t remember well but I think I volunteered to read the novel, not to translate it. I’m not sure Zeno would let that task in the hands of the first guy that comes along and makes a couple of comments in Portuguese. And now, after reading it, I’m afraid my translating skills wouldn’t make justice to all the subtleties, word games and the vast array of adjectives used by Zeno to describe many of his cousins. Nevertheless, I thank you for the compliment.
Now, excuse me but I have to go and tell all my friends that I’m famous.

João Paulo said...

After reading the initial posts again, I suppose I did volunteer to translate the novel. I stand corrected and reaffirm what I said initially: I'd be honoured.

Kathie said...

João Paulo and Zeno, I thought I'd learned my Portuguese grammar pretty well, but you guys scared the [bleep] out of me with that reference to the "presente do conjuntivo." I checked online and discovered that it's just a European term for what Brazilians call the "presente do subjuntivo" (present subjunctive, in English). Oh well, I guess that's what comes from studying Brazilian Portuguese!

JP, I'm convinced that in general it's better to translate INTO one's native language, because one has greater fluency in it. That's why I don't translate much into Portuguese -- and when I do, I try to run it by a native-speaker or someone with near-native proficiency first before putting it out there (unless it's something really simple that I know well).

Kathie said...

Zeno, is the 380-page figure you cite for your novel the length of the double- or triple-spaced typescript with generous margins, or how long the actual published result would be? If the latter, do you think you might face publisher resistance to the length of such a book, just on general principles? Is it amenable to being reworked into a novel and its sequel? Just random musings...

Zeno said...

The 380-page figure refers to the book-format proof copy, so it is longish. There are a few trims that could make it a bit slimmer, but it's definitely not a natural two-part novel.

Karen said...

Zeno, get the thing published and I'll read it with glee!

Alexandra said...

Oh dear João Paulo! Don´t be so modest! Your skills are perfectly perfect. Not just because you´re my friend, but because!
(I´m so curious about that book...)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Translators are supposed to work into their native language(s), not out of them. In fact, I believe professional translators in the EU are obliged to do that, though that belief is based on a fuzzy memory four-year-old conversation and could easily be wrong (or outdated!).

At any rate, I too would love to read the book.

David Ratnasabapathy said...

You should get yourself an agent! You're an author. Marketing the book to publishers isn't what you're supposed to be doing.

Zeno said...

Tell me something I don't know, David. Several agents have expressed to me their lack of interest in my manuscript. I guess Portuguese dairy farm novels are not viewed as the next great wave after vampire romance novels. Go figure!

Jeff Eyges said...

Could you make one of the dairy farmers a teenage vampire?

Ana Coelho said...

And here is another portuguese fan of your blog who would love to read your family story. =)

Zeno said...

Muito obrigado, Ana! I'm still waiting (impatiently) to hear from the publisher who has had the manuscript for months. (They take their time.)