A Conversation with Ethan Nosowsky of Graywolf Press

  • onAugust 3, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byLTI Korea


Ethan Nosowsky, Editorial Director at Graywolf Press, visited Korea in June for the Seoul International Book Fair. Though small in size, Graywolf is widely known for its list of award-winning writers and experimental yet trendsetting works. It is set to publish its first Korean book, The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, in 2017. Nosowsky shares his thoughts about Han’s book, about literature in translation, and about books that interest him.


LTI Korea: What brought you to Seoul?

Ethan Nosowsky: Graywolf is an enthusiastic publisher of translated literature, which occupies a significant portion of our list. And although we have published poetry by two Chinese authors, Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale is the first work of fiction we’ve published from Asia. This is a shortcoming of ours, and we hope to remedy it. After we acquired Ms. Han’s novel, LTI Korea offered Graywolf a generous translation and publication subsidy for The Impossible Fairy Tale and extended an invitation to me to visit publishers and writers in Seoul. I thought it would be ideal to visit during the Book Festival, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity.

LTI Korea: What made you decide to publish The Impossible Fairy Tale?

EN: Graywolf’s publisher, Fiona McCrae, first heard about the novel from Ms. Han’s agent, Kelly Falconer, at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India. As you might imagine, we have no editors on staff who read Korean, so when Kelly submitted a sample translation and a detailed synopsis, we commissioned two experts to report on the book for us. The reports were stellar and the sample translation was intriguing. The voice in the sample pages was extraordinary, and while the story was chilling and disturbing, we thought it was very powerful. I should say that we were initially a little concerned about the metafictional turn that the story takes in the second half. This has in some ways become a well-worn trope in Western literature, but we agreed that Ms. Han had done something very organic and original with it. In the end, we felt this debut novel presented us with an opportunity to collaborate with an author at the beginning of a promising career.

LTI Korea: Can you share your decision-making process of publishing a book?

EN: There are five editors at Graywolf, and when one of us finds a manuscript that he or she is interested in acquiring, we share it with the entire editorial team to solicit feedback and measure enthusiasm. This is a fairly informal process, and it doesn’t at all amount to the formal acquisitions meetings that are common at the bigger houses. We ask ourselves a series of questions: Is the book distinctive and singular? Do we have a vision for how we would approach the publication? Do we think we bring something to the table that another house couldn’t? And finally: Could we live without it? Our lists our very full, so we have been setting a higher and higher bar for our acquisitions. We’re a small company and we want to feel completely enthusiastic about a book when we decide to publish it.

LTI Korea: Do you think it is a good time for Korean literature to step into the US market?

EN: I don’t think there’s ever been a better time. First of all, a number of new independent presses in the United States have begun publishing international literature unapologetically and with renewed vitality. Along with a newly reinvigorated independent bookselling community they are finding a receptive readership for stories that are not simply reflections of the American experience.

Translation is never easy. Because editors often can’t read the languages of the books that are submitted, it makes them inherently more conservative about taking a chance on something. This can be especially so when there are cultural differences that might not travel very well into a new language. But I think that reticence is lessening.

As all of you likely know, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which has just won the Man Booker International Prize, has been met with rapturous reviews in both the US and the UK. Its success, following the warm reception of other Korean authors such as Shin Kyung-sook, are certainly convincing some publishers that these books can work.

LTI Korea: What kind of story are you looking for as an editor?

EN: I’ll read just about any kind of story as long as the sentences are interesting and I can feel a real intelligence at work behind them. The fiction we publish at Graywolf is always literary but runs the gamut from fairly conventional psychological realism to pretty far out formal or linguistic experimentation. Mostly I just don’t want to be bored. I like books that teach you how to read them. Books that set their own terms and build their own world. Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale did all of that. It’s not like anything else I’ve read.

LTI Korea: What do you think is the most essential element for Korean literature or any literature in translation to be widely read in the US?

EN: A distinctive sensibility paired with a powerful and original voice would certainly be a sweet spot for publishers like Graywolf. Additionally, we’re less interested in books that mimic or reflect existing trends in our own literature. Obviously it’s necessary that a story be “legible” to an American audience in order to work there, but telling us something that we don’t already know has enormous value. Beyond that, I don’t think we are all that different in the end: If you’re telling a human story well, about what it’s like to be alive in the world—in your world—today, it has the potential to resonate broadly.

LTI Korea: How did you come to know about LTI Korea and what do you think about the work we do here?

EN: I believe it was Han Yujoo’s agent who first told us that funds might be available that would contribute to the cost of our translation. I can’t tell you how valuable the work of organizations like LTI Korea is to American and British publishers. There are many barriers of entry to foreign markets, even more so with a language that is not widely read in the West. The more that LTI Korea does to erase those barriers—with sample translations, dossiers that describe a book and its reception in detail, funds to lower publication costs—the easier it will be for English-language publishers to take a chance on new work.