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Publisher Focus:

Alison Hennessey, Senior Editor at Harvill Secker, talks to NBG


The Role
As senior crime editor at Harvill Secker (an imprint of the Random House Group), Alison Hennessey is responsible for commissioning and publishing crime, thrillers and suspense in the English language and in translation.
The List
Hennessey is always on the lookout for the very best homegrown and international crime and thrillers, which can range from a straightforward police procedural to a terrifying psychological thriller or a more literary novella with a strong suspense element. With some illustrious names including bestsellers Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankel on the programme, new authors have high standards to live up to. ‘For me’, says Hennessey, ‘the best crime and thrillers are well paced and structured, with an original premise, strong writing and believable characters that hook you in from the very first page. What I’m always hoping to find is that rare book that keeps you reading into the small hours and then has you running into work the next day to press it into the hands of your colleagues and make them read it too.’
When deciding whether a book is worth translating, a number of factors come into play: ‘Does the book have an interesting, original premise; has the book or author won or been nominated for any prizes in their home country, or do we believe they have the potential to win prizes; are they doing something different to our existing authors; and crucially, can we see a readership for them?’

A sample translation helps enormously with the decision. But before Harvill Secker acquires a book in translation it will usually commission a report from one of its readers to provide a sense of the plot and the quality of the writing as well as the potential appeal to English readers.

‘We are very lucky to work with a range of excellent translators’, says Hennessey, ‘many of whom we have been working with for years, although we also love to discover new translators. This was, in part, why my colleagues set up the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, as we appreciate how difficult it can be to establish yourself as a translator.’ Each translator works in a different way and many have a very strong relationship with the authors they translate, going directly to them with any queries. ‘Some of our translators start out by writing readers’ reports for us and they are often an excellent source of recommendations for authors we should be considering for Harvill Secker, as they know our tastes and our list and what we’re generally looking for in a potential new author.’

A particular issue in dealing with works in translation is that there is still a perception amongst some readers that translated works are automatically more difficult or somehow more literary than works written in the English language, but Hennessey thinks this is definitely something that’s starting to change as people become more accustomed to reading in translation or watching subtitled television.
The Future
On the translated side of the Harvill Secker crime list, in 2016 we can look forward to a very creepy and claustrophobic Brazilian thriller called Perfect Days which, says Hennessey, ‘I have been raving about to colleagues since I read the translation. I was so unnerved by one particular scene that I had to put the book down for at least an hour.’ There will also be a very dark Scandinavian thriller called The Crow Girl which has already been a huge sensation across Europe, particularly in Germany, as well as more books from Harvill Secker’s established authors, including Fred Vargas, Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell.

Interview with Jackie Smith

Alison Hennessey Photo: private