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Today, I’m happy to have a chat with Trevor Steele, a famous Esperanto author from Australia. He had his first success with his novel Sed nur fragmento in 1987. His works are heavily influenced by his travels in Germany and Eastern Europe. In 2002, he served two years as the General Director of the Universal Esperanto Association. As of 2010, he joined the Akademio de Esperanto. So, on to the interview.
It’s quite impressive to see according to your official website that you’ve published books not only in Esperanto, but also in English and French! How did the experience differ in each language? In which language was your first book?
All of my books but one were first written in Esperanto and later I translated them into English. But these days I write parallel versions, always a chapter in Esperanto, then the English version. I say “version,” because I feel free to vary the text if I think it sounds better to do so. After each chapter I read the work to my wife Katja, whose first languages, Hungarian and Slovak, give her a different linguistic taste from mine. Her criticisms are often useful.
The experience of actually getting the books published is a very different story. I was lucky in that my first novel in Esperanto, Sed nur fragmento (the English version is called Fatal Empires) immediately established me as a name. I could probably offer my manuscripts to any publishing house in the Esperanto world and have them accepted.
But in English I had to submit myself to the humiliation of sending manuscripts to many publishers and receiving the same bland replies that betray the fact that nobody has actually read the work. I was also a victim of at least three scams – I’m pretty naïve!
Most publishers tell you they won’t touch manuscripts from unknown authors; you have to find an agent who “filters” for the publishers. But even finding an agent is difficult. I was lucky enough to find a reliable publishing house in Somerset, England called Mirador.
How did you come to the idea to publish in Esperanto? Were they translations or did you write originally in Esperanto?
Only one book of mine appeared originally in English: No Butterflies in Bergen-Belsen. The rest, as I said, were original works in Esperanto. Why did I choose the international language? That’s a long story, but to make it brief: I always wanted to write, but thought I had nothing new to say in English. But the fledgling literature of Esperanto has wide gaps for any new writer. Having gained recognition for my Esperanto books, I found I could add something to the enormous English literature as well.
For someone who wants to start reading your literature, where would you recommend that they start?
That’s hard to answer. It would depend on the interests of the reader. Most of my novels have a definite historical background: the colonial empires of the 19th century, Germany between the wars, Germany in 1968, Australia from 1939 on, Palestine in the first century (the Jesus novel Reluctant Messiah). There are a couple of collections of short stories with an Australian background (Remember and Forget and Australia felix – the latter not yet available in English). One book of mine is a series of travelogues involving many countries, Falantaj muroj, but mainly about the Soviet Union in its last year. It is sold out in Esperanto and not yet translated into English.
From what I remember, you once told me that even though you spoke fluent German, you would never feel confident writing in it, since it’s not your native language. So, to my surprise, I saw a French book among your bibliography. How did that come about?
The French book is a translation by a team of French Esperantists, so that’s no credit to me! I can write in German, and have done some original stories in that language. However, there is often a tiny doubt as to whether I have used exactly the right expression, so I have to check and check again, a wearisome process.
Also, I can’t forget that we first met in 2002 when you worked as the Director General of the Universal Esperanto Association and I was the World Esperanto Youth Organization’s full-time volunteer. What was it like working at UEA and what are you doing today?
Yes, in those days you were an ardent translator for the Esperanto version of Wikipedia, that I remember quite well. My time in Rotterdam is not one I look back upon with great nostalgia. After two years I had had enough, for various reasons. One reason was that I felt that as the director general in Rotterdam I was, paradoxically, not able to do much for Esperanto. When I was in Lithuania, for example, I taught the language to probably a thousand people, but in Rotterdam there was nothing doing in that regard. From afar it seems as if the director general is in a position of power, but I felt the opposite. And I am not fond of meetings, budgets, and other facets of administration, therefore not a very good manager.
On returning to Australia I went back to teaching German, then medieval and modern history at a Steiner school, but I’ve been retired for a couple of years owing to a breakdown in my health. However, I’m now fit again and launching another career as a writer in English – perhaps the hardest job of my life!
I wish you the best with your new career and thank you very much for the interview!