The 59-year-old Altun, a former banking executive who also served as the executive chairman of the İstanbul-based YKY (Yapı Kredi) Publications, has published four novels and a book of essays since his debut in 2001 with “Yalnızlık Gittiğin Yoldan Gelir” (Loneliness Comes from the Road You Go Down).
Altun speaks about “Many and Many a Year Ago,” whose title was inspired by a stanza in a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, in an interview with Today's Zaman.
You had your 2005 novel “Annemin Öğretmediği Şarkılar” published in English under the title “Songs My Mother Never Taught Me” solely through your personal efforts. How was the English translation process behind “Many and Many a Year Ago”?
“Songs My Mother Never Taught Me” was not supported by a special promotion program when it was first published in the UK in the summer of 2008. But still it received mostly positive reviews. The book was particularly promoted at independent bookstores. It later had a second edition and was launched in the US this past spring. I also had my fifth and latest novel, “Many and Many a Year Ago,” translated into English. This is a novel that proceeds under the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe. It was sort of like its destiny that it's being introduced in the Anglo-American literary world in 2009, which is Poe's bicentennial.
“Songs My Mother Never Taught Me” was praised by renowned poet John Ashbery, and Western readers liked it -- a brief look on the Internet is enough to see this. “Many and Many a Year Ago” has just been published in the UK, but you must have received reactions. What were the initial reactions?
“Many and Many a Year Ago,” as literary critics put it, is a literary thriller like my other novels. It has the flavor of a travel book as well as elements of mystery. It also includes eight short stories that overlap with the novel's plot. They are told with an outlook similar to that of Scheherazade, the narrator of “One Thousand and One Nights.” Considering this additional aspect, “Many and Many a Year Ago” can also be regarded an “experimental mystery” book. I doubt whether such a book will receive much attention in the Anglo-American book industry. But I would be happy if it does not go unnoticed. Usually my foremost concern is the risk of my publisher losing money because of me. But as far as I can see from the first orders in the UK, it seems I will not be putting a burden on my publisher, Telegram Books.
You describe your novel as a “tribute to Poe.” Was the fact that 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth effective in shaping the novel's plot?
I started writing “Many and Many a Year Ago” in 2006, and it was published in Turkey in early 2008. I later noticed that 2009 was Poe's bicentennial. So actually, it neither had an effect on my decision to write this book, nor on its plot. I do not have such concerns as making money or fame off of these occasions. I must mention that I do not make a living on what I receive from my books. I transfer all royalties from my books to a scholarship fund I've founded at the university I graduated from. It provides scholarships to successful university students who study literature.
… In any case, I regard myself as a “person who writes” rather than a “writer.” Whenever I want to write, I feel the urge to read first.
You have traveled across many cities tracing your protagonists, who do not seem to care about what you tell them. During that time you must have also visited the Poe Museum in Baltimore. How did you feel while visiting the tomb of the poet whose work lies at the core of your novel?
In my novels, the setting is as important as the central characters. For this reason, I go on special voyages. These voyages nurture me; each time, I set on the road wondering how that particular voyage will nurture me. While I was walking rather hesitantly toward Poe's tomb in Baltimore, I had an ultra-interesting experience: It was at that very moment that I resolved the novel's finale in my head. I think that [moment] was an ultra surprising climax. Later I felt as though Poe was watching me allusively from his photograph on his headstone.
The protagonists in your novels are bibliophiles, which is very unusual for Turkish literature. Do you agree that this could surprise Western readers?
I believe that in both Turkish and world literature, bibliophilic protagonists and narrators in particular do not appear as much as they should. Besides, these characters do not like showing up in trashy novels that sweep the book market. Yet I believe the elite group called “literary readers” do embrace them.
You call Yaşar Kemal and Orhan Pamuk “global authors.” Should we take the number of these writers' books that have been translated into foreign languages as a criterion while making such a categorization? Who is a global writer?
In a statement announcing that Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk will give the Norton Lectures at Harvard in the fall of 2009, the fact that his books have been translated into 56 languages was highlighted. In my opinion, a quality author whose books have been translated into at least five major languages and been reprinted can be considered a global author.
Will your novels be published in other languages, too?
Three foreign publishing houses acquired the rights to publish “Songs My Mother Never Taught Me,” but that was it! I would love to see “Many and Many a Year Ago” published in Poe-loving France.
What are you working on right now?
I just started working on a novel that will be titled “Sultan of Byzantium.” I plan to get it published by the end of 2010. In it, I will tell of a young academic who spends his days solving mathematical puzzles and playing chess in Galata, the heart of İstanbul. One day this young man is visited by the representatives of a secret society who persuade him that he is actually the heir to the throne of the exiled Byzantine emperor. A mysterious task lies ahead of him.