Author of our March book, Umami, debut novelist Laia Jufresa tells us about writing, inspiration and telling stories…
Evocative, luminous and gorgeous, according to Vogue, Le Monde and Nylon. And that’s before we get to the three pages of rave reviews which open your book. Plus you’ve received an English PEN Award for writing in translation. Not to mention that your novel is being translated into various languages so that everyone across the globe can read it. And this is your DEBUT novel? Laia Jufresa, you’re what they call a ‘prodigious talent’. Let’s find out more about the writer behind Umami – our March book, and one which touched so many of you…
Where do you get inspiration from?
My family, the languages I`ve learnt and left behind, the things I see and feel and read. But mostly from the writing itself. Writing is like dancing. Once you start, a move leads to the next.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
For a very long time I loved writing but dreaded the “being a writer” thing. But I eventually came to terms with the professionalisation because I have tried many things in my life and nothing makes me as happy as writing does.
It feels like you have a really strong connection with Mexico City…
I don’t. Or if I do it’s the connection of misunderstanding. I was born in Mexico City but have lived there only about a third of my life. I get lost every time I visit. Umami happens in the Mexico City I do know and love: not the one with hostile streets, but the one inside people’s homes.
How do you come up with your characters – and their unique voices?
Through the writing, which – when it’s going well – is more like listening than like talking. It’s a bit like a radio. The voice is there, I just need to find the right frequency so I can catch it clearly. It’s about getting very quiet and humble, letting go of control and opening up to minds that inhabit us yet are not quite our own. Or at least it’s like that in the first moment of writing. Then of course one lets go of mystery and has to work hard to clean it all up. That’s the beauty of writing, it’s balanced: there’s play and rigour feeding each other constantly.
Tell us about your favourite books?
I love books that use language as a magic, malleable sword. Books that tell good stories but never forget that good wordplay – not only plot – is the essence of good stories. Books that transport me. Books I need to close every few pages because they make me want to write. I also love books where I learn things without noticing, and books that allow and encourage me to feel, to think and to play.
How did you feel about the translation of the novel?
It was a lovely and interesting process, I worked very closely with Sophie Hughes, the translator. She is British and my English is very American, so we had long chats about simple things such as “Should we say Mum or Mom? Rucksack or backpack? Bathroom or loo?” And I rewrote some passages and came up with new ones. Umami in English contains things that don’t exist in any other version, and I love that uniqueness of it.
Which writers inspire you?
Jo Ann Beard, Daniel Pennac, Fabio Morabito, Marie Ndiaye and Samanta Schweblin.
What would you say to anyone thinking of writing their first book?
Write, write, write! Maybe join NaNoWriMo next November. Don’t worry about the social media aspect, even less about the publishing. Worry about falling in love with your story. Keep it secret. Have an affair with it. It’s your adventure and no one but you can live it. Take care of it as you would a baby inside your womb. Above all, have fun. Once you’re done with a first draft though, become ruthless. Read it out loud and accept criticism. Most things can be cut out. That’s a hard and vital lesson.
If you’re more interested in the idea of having published than in the act of writing, I’d suggest you let it go. Because it’s not about being done or getting it out there, it’s about respecting your reader (even if it’s an imaginary one) and honing your craft. You wouldn’t expect to dance your very first choreography in a theatre or have an orchestra play your first composition. Books are just as hard an art to master. But if you let go of the idea of being a writer, and fall in love with the practice of writing, you will have a secret place where you can always, always, go to. All you need is pen and paper. In that place you can be yourself in a way we`re only ever allowed while playing at being someone else entirely. And it is the very best place I know.
Were for surprised by the critical reception to your novel?
It’s been a happy rollercoaster. And you can’t control or even guess where it will go. Umami has been widely read far from my home, mostly in European languages, yet a bit ignored in Spanish, go figure. It will soon be read in Asia as well, and that is something I wouldn’t even have dreamt about. At the same time, it’s no longer mine. It lives its own life, finding translators, publishers and readers to keep it alive. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, that slow but sure chain of solidarity, of contagious enthusiasm, something one could think extinct in these times or short lived, click-and-forget enjoyments.
Is there another book on the way?
Yes! I’m writing my second novel. And it is two novels in one. It’s a simple yet rich labyrinth and I have no idea when or how I will come out of it, but I hope I will, and I’ll be holding the thread for readers to go back down there and enjoy it as much as I’m enjoying writing it.
Published by Oneworld, Laia Jufresa’s Umami is available to buy online here.