Interview: Janis Jonevs

The publication of Janis Jonevs' debut novel Jelgava '94 in 2013 caused an immediate stir. Some said its depiction of teenage life in small-time Latvia was not to be encouraged but far more acknowledged that Latvia had found an important new literary voice. 

With the announcement on October 8 that he was one of 13 authors to win a major prize, the European Union Prize for Literature, that take on Jonevs' work received final confirmation. LSM talked to Jonevs (JJ) and his publisher Janis Oga (JO) live from the Frankfurt Book Fair where the prize was announced.

LSM: Congratulations. Were you surprised to win the award and what will it mean to you as an author?

JJ: Yes, I was surprised when I first found out. It's pretty nice I can now be referred to as 'award winning'! The biggest thing is it will bring a great opportunity to have a translation of the book. That's the most important thing for me, that someone will translate our adventures.

LSM: You book has a very specific time and place. Can it appeal to people in other countries and cultures?

JJ: It might be problematic but it's not impossible. It's very local and very specific but I am interested in specific, local things in other countries so it could work.

 It's very local and very specific but I am interested in specific, local things in other countries so it could work in translation.

LSM: Are you working on a follow-up?

I've done a little bit on a new book but it's really too early to say anything about it...

LSM: A rather obvious question, but what will you spend the €5,000 prize money on?

JJ: Paying debts, paying off my credit card and paying for my flat. Nothing very impressive...

LSM: Turning to you Janis Oga, what does this mean for Latvian literature and the publishing industry?

JO: It puts a focus on us for the moment. On the one hand this a fairly 'formal' award, but it has steadily gained prestige and attention over the last four years so it really is a major thing now, on a par with the other major literary awards.

It's good for the author because of the prize money but it also gives recognition to the publishers and it shines a light on Baltic literature in general ahead of 2018 when the Baltic states will have 'special guest' status at Frankfurt.

LSM: When will we see an English-language translation of Jelgava '94?

JO: The good news is this should make the process of getting the translation done and published a little easier. Books that have won an award like his have extra 'points' when it comes to getting access to translation money.

A translation of the text should be complete by January. There was a lot of interest in this book even before today, particularly from Scandinavia and Estonia. It seems the subject matter, which we might compare to something like The Catcher in The Rye, is quite topical at the moment and people are interested in such stories.

LSM: What is it about Jelgava '94 that gives it this extra appeal?

JO: I think we could say this is the first Latvian novel that shows the period between the end of the Soviet Union and the arrival of 'New Europe' in a realistic and convincing way. And I hope it will act as a catalyst for not just Latvian literature but Baltic literature in general.

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