"I was never the rebel type so maybe it's some kind of delayed rebellion for me, something I didn't dare to do when I was that age. Somehow I managed to put my finger on something that bothers many people these days." – Benedek Totth talks us about his debut novel Dead Heat, soon to be published in English.
The book won the Margó Literature Prize (for the best debut novel of the year) in 2015. How did that feel?
It is a great honor, of course. However, I still feel odd about it because so many excellent books were nominated, many of which would have deserved the award. To tell you the truth, I was really surprised by the reception of the novel; actually, I was surprised by the fact that it was published by Magvető. I was working on it for more than ten years, and after a while the only thing I wanted was to finish it. It was a matter of life and death – at least for the writer living in me. So anything that happened after the moment I knew it would be published is icing on the cake.
Photo: Éva Szombat, Könyvesblog
Dead Heat is about rootless and difficult teenagers. What made you choose teenage characters? Are these reckless teenagers just characters or are they representative of more general problems in our society?
I didn't want to write the novel about any specific generation. I just had this story, these characters in my mind and I found a language, a style or diction that seemed to work, that had some kind of power, and it was good to use it for writing about these kids. I was never the rebel type so maybe it's some kind of delayed rebellion for me, something I didn't dare to do when I was that age. Actually, I didn't do any research about teenagers; however, at least judging by the reactions the book had, somehow I managed to put my finger on something that bothers many people these days. But, of course, this is not a documentarist novel, but rather pitch dark satire.
The relationships of the central characters are very superficial and aggressive – there's a violence in everything they do – the way they talk, love, and compete. What makes them so aggressive, and jaded?
I guess this is something the reader should decide. It was my intention not to give straightforward explanations, motivations since in many cases I don't know them myself. I didn't want to tell the readers what to think about these kids but, hopefully, you can find some traces if you can read between the lines. One of the most important authorial devices I used was exaggeration. The events, scenes, and characters are shown unfolding through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.
How did you capture the voice of these teenagers so well?
I'm not sure if I captured the voice of teenagers. I would rather say I created a voice based on spoken language, a vernacular that seems to work , or fulfill its function, and readers do not question its verisimilitude. But, of course, it's a constructed language, mostly of my own invention, and highly stylized. A kind of dirty stream of consciousness. Maybe that is why it's difficult to translate.
Photo: Gábor Valuska, Könyvesblog
You're a translator yourself; how does it feel to be translated?
It is strange, of course. Especially when the book is translated into a language I don't speak and don't understand a word of. It was also very surprising when the translators told me how difficult it is to translate Dead Heat. I never thought about the text from this aspect, this point of view never occurred to me while I was writing the novel, which might seem strange since I translate books all the time. But I do try and help their work, and I'm happy when I have the answer to their questions.
This was your first book. How did you find the transition from translating to writing? What's similar? What's different? Do you enjoy one more than the other?
These two were somewhat parallel, since I always wanted to write my own stories besides translating those of others. Translation is mostly re-creation in the sense that you re-create a text in a different language. First, you have to unravel the author's intentions and treat them with humility and humbleness. As one of my favorite Hungarian writers, Dezső Kosztolányi put it: translating is dancing bound hand and foot. Writing, on the contrary, is creation, and for me a more instinctive thing. But, of course, translating one's thoughts and feelings into language can also be a dangerous business. I have been working as a literary translator for more than ten years and have translated about 50 novels. I was beginning to develop symptoms of burn-out in the last few years. Writing my own novel helped me overcome these difficulties as well.
You translate a lot of literature from America and the UK. Were there any writers who had a particular influence on the writing of this novel?
It is really hard to tell whether any of the writers I translated had a direct impact on my own style but it's highly probable that, on a very deep level, every book had some kind of influence. When you translate a book, you really have to bury yourself in the original text and you can't do it without transubstantiation. While I was writing Dead Heat, the summer I finished the first draft, I was translating Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing which had a great impact on me; however, I don't think my novel has any resemblance in style to McCarthy's. Maybe its grim and dark atmosphere, but that could easily come from other sources.
Would you recommend this book to a teenage reader?
Well, this is a very difficult question. I was really taken aback when I first read in a review that Dead Heat is a YA novel too, or at least it can be read as such. I don't think that a novel that has young characters in it automatically becomes YA, but then I realized how much I don't know about this generation. They are absolutely open to this kind of writing and themes and not as easily intimidated by rude language and aggression as I imagined. And anyway, you can put down a book at any time if it bores or disturbs you. However, finally I was relieved by messages written by parents who had trouble getting their children to read– until they gave them Dead Heat and were very enthusiastic about the outcome. These moments really make me happy.