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30 March, 2012  ▪  Спілкувався: Olena Maksymenko

Cockroach the Star of Vilnius Book Fair

Ukrainian author’s detective story becomes a breakthrough hit at the Vilnius Book Fair

Super Agent 000, an ironic detective story by Lesia Voronyna, caused a furor at the Vilnius Book Fair this year. This rarely happens to Ukrainian books abroad. The fact that both kids and teenagers love the story is the key to its success. When a throng of boys lined up for copies autographed by the author, local TV channels noticed Super Agent 000 out of thousands of other books, sending the number of its fans soaring. Lesia Voronyna spoke with The Ukrainian Week about her experience promoting the book in Europe and communicating with Lithuanian readers.

U.W.: How did your detective story end up at a Lithuanian publishing house?

Nieko rimto (nothing serious in Lithuanian), the biggest children's publishing house in Lithuania, and SigutѐAch, its talented muse, artist and writer, invited me to work with them.  It was spontaneous. Last year, I saw her book titled Ambrozijus, Purkius and Angel and we decided to publish it in the newly created Prudkyi Ravlyk (The Quick Snail) children’s publishing house in Ukrainian. This is a special book and it has been among the bestsellers at the Ye Bookstore chain for almost a year now. Last spring, Sigutѐcame to Lviv to meet with publishers and readers. That’s where we met. Later, she had the flu in Kyiv and the friends she was staying with were reading my Super Agent 000 aloud. It’s an ironic detective story, a parody of all thrillers, detectives and action movies with all kinds of hints, allusions and jokes. In bed with a fever and hot tea, Sigutѐheard her friends laughing over and over again and asked them to translate it for her. She liked my stories. Nieko rimto decided to publish the book in Lithuanian before the international book fair in Vilnius opened. We had a hard time finding someone to translate it. Eventually, we came across Irena Aleksaite known for her translations from Slavic languages. This was her first translation from Ukrainian.

U.W.: Did this considerable interest in your book take you by surprise?

I was surprised by how Edik, an intellectual yet extremely sensitive and timid cockroach, the assistant to the protagonist super agent Hryts Mamai, turned out a hero for Lithuanian readers. I can’t say why Edik got so hugely popular! They even put him on the cover. Well, you know the rule: perfect heroes rarely become favourites. They’re not as interesting to write about. It’s much easier to portray the main villain because she’s a grotesque character—a skilled nunchaku fighter heading an international gang of ninja grannies who dream of conquering the world. But it was the timid cockroach that really captured the sympathy of the readers. Dollmaker Olena Terekhova even made a doll of him and brought it to the book fair. Actually, Lithuania has great demand for adventure books. It has a lot of fairy tales and fantasies for younger kids, but far fewer adventure books for teenage boys. The key audience for my Super Agent 000 was boys aged 8-13.

U.W.: How are book fairs organized in Lithuania? What could Ukrainians learn from them?

The 13th Vilnius Book Fair was held in a huge showroom in the suburbs. It was well-attended despite bad weather, very comfortable and well organized. There were a huge number of stands, all easy to find in spacious rooms flowing into each other. Seating areas had cozy chairs and mini coffee bars. It was a place where people could talk without pushing each other despite the record-breaking number of visitors. Meetings with writers, autograph sessions, and master classes were held alongside interactive entertainment where kids and adults could draw and make a cover for their own books, learn to type on old typewriters and even try to write a line in Braille. Vilnius has no chaos, you have time to think and concentrate. Kids and teenagers aged 11-13, the difficult age, visited the book fair. In fact, children are welcome at the book fair in Vilnius. They spend hours wandering around the stands and talking to publishers, illustrators and writers. Choosing a book becomes a treasure hunt for them.

U.W.: What kinds of books are interesting for Lithuanians, other than adventure stories?

Historical books are extremely popular. They publish amazing and extremely pricy albums of art, architecture and ethnography, in addition to a lot of translated books. I didn’t notice any saccharine chick lit, the kind of eye-catching kitschy stuff that’s taking over book fairs and stores in Ukraine. Perhaps they just make it look different or hide it somewhere… I don’t think we can live without pop reading in our turbulent, soap opera obsessed world.

U.W.: How effective is book publishing policy in Lithuania? Does the government support the publishing business?

Writers, publishers and artists – everyone involved in book publishing – feel that their country wants and needs them. My Lithuanian colleagues complain that government support has shrunk lately due to the crisis. Still, I think their difficulties are hardly comparable to those our publishers face. I have never seen this much sincere and loyal interest in books among Ukraine’s top officials. Lithuania’s president and minister of culture both visited the book fair in Vilnius. It really was a big national event there.  

U.W.: What do you think a country’s booth should look like at a book fair?

There was no Ukrainian booth there. When Lithuanians arrived at the Lviv book fair last year, they brought a publishing army with them! The best graphic artists held master classes for children and interactive communication never stopped. We’ve never had superb Ukrainian stands to represent the best publishing houses. At a Paris book fair a few years ago, our ministry ladies decorated their miserable book stand with plaster busts of Taras Shevchenko. “What a charming little cat!” a visitor said in Russian. “How much are they? Three euro? Oh, that’s Shevchenko? Still, I’ll take three…” The best path to good management at international book fairs (as well as other fairs) is to kick all the fools out of the Ministry of Culture and replace them with decent, well-educated and talented people. Books should be chosen based on their true quality rather than who their publishers are and what kickbacks they’re offering. And of course there’s promotion, getting the media involved and training professional translators are all integral elements. Until we accomplish all this, we will remain voiceless and unseen in this very competitive world. Literature is business. We can’t expect anyone to meet our literature with an open embrace, no matter how “tender” or “beautiful” it is.

U.W.: What should be done to represent Ukrainian literature effectively abroad?

We talk about promoting Ukrainian books abroad while doing nothing to promote them in Ukraine. As long as there is no consistent, reasonable and well-funded program to support and develop book publishing at the government level, the publishing business will only live at the scale of personal contacts between publishers and writers.  

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