Alta Ifland, author of Death-in-a-Box (Feb 14-22)

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Alta Ifland, author of Death-in-a-Box (Feb 14-22)

Edited: Feb 16, 2011, 8:45 am

Please welcome Alta Ifland, author of Death-in-a-Box. Alta will be chatting on LibraryThing until February 22nd.

Feb 14, 2011, 1:52 pm

Thank you, Dan. Since (I assume) no one has read Death-in-a-Box yet because it has just been released, I could answer questions about literary influences and similarities with other books. I should add that the book is not available on Amazon yet, but it should be soon. For now, it can be obtained from the publisher, Subito Press, by emailing

Feb 14, 2011, 3:12 pm

Hi Alta,

Thanks for dropping by Le Salon Litteraire and leaving a note, alerting us to your chat.

Intriguing title for your book there. What's it about?

Feb 14, 2011, 3:34 pm

It is a book of short stories—some of them very short. I guess they could be characterized as “flash fiction,” but I don’t really like this label. I would rather call them fables. There isn’t much “action” going on in them… But there are also some stories in a more traditional form, and these are inspired by life in Eastern Europe under communism. I grew up in Romania.

Feb 14, 2011, 3:38 pm

I am intrigued. I also see that you have a gift for titles. Death-in-a-Box and Elegy for a Fabulous World are both pretty snappy!

P.S. Your touchstone for Death-i-a-B is takng us to some other book.

Feb 14, 2011, 4:04 pm

Sorry about the touchstone problem--not sure why that happens. Both titles are also titles of stories in the books. In fact, the publisher of Death-in-a-Box tried to convince me to change the title because, apparently, there was a Saturday Night Live joke, Dick-in-a-Box. "Death-in-a-Box" was, actually, inspired by "Jack-in-the-Box."

Feb 14, 2011, 4:31 pm

Alta, did you write these in English originally, and regardless of that, did you wrestle much with the question of whether to write this for an English-speaking audience (the majority of whom presumably do not have experience of life in the Eastern Bloc) versus a Romanian or other audience with more direct experience? Or is part of the challenge for you to share something your audience isn't likely to know about personally?

I'm intrigued by the setting, and my only experience of "life behind the Curtain" was an hours-long visit to East Berlin a few months before the Wall came down.

Feb 14, 2011, 5:00 pm

Yes, I did write them in English originally—though I do have a book of prose poems, Voice of Ice, I originally wrote in French (Voix de glace), then translated into English. Now, regarding the audience: this question is solved by the language I am writing in. I mean, if I wrote in Romanian, I would (implicitly) write for a Romanian audience. Since I write in English, my audience is implicitly American—not necessarily because I intend it this way, but because I think in a different way depending on the language I speak or write in. However, when I write, I don’t explain things, so I know that some of the references about life in the Eastern bloc won’t be understood by many American readers. I know some readers may have a problem with that, but when I read books set in societies I am not very familiar with I don’t expect to “understand” everything. For me, part of the pleasure of reading comes from a certain quality good books have—the fact that there is always some unresolved mystery behind the words.

Edited: Feb 14, 2011, 5:12 pm

I once had an acquaintance who escaped Romania by swimming across a river with his son on his back and bullets splashing water all around. Did you escape from Romania, and if so how and what stories do you have to tell of the experience, or did you emigrate in an orderly manner after the Ceausescu regime fell? Do you ever think of going back? As it turned out, my acquaintance didn't like life in America very much. He missed the regimentation and certainty that Communism brought to peoples lives. Do you have these feelings, too?

Feb 14, 2011, 6:04 pm

Yes, there are many stories of people who escaped in similar ways. I left after the Ceausescu regime fell, and I am very glad I was able to witness it. There is no experience than can compare with living through a revolution. I understand the reservations your acquaintance had about life in America—I have my reservations too, but I never thought of going back. I absolutely DO NOT miss the regimentation and certainty of Communism. I know some people who are nostalgic about “the good old days,” but they aren’t nostalgic about communism as such, they are probably feeling nostalgia for their youth. And many people have very short memories… They have forgotten how horrible it was. If you are interested in stories about life under communism, Elegy for a Fabulous World is better than Death-in-a-Box from this point of view. But the stories are set in the Ukraine—though they were inspired by my life in Transylvania.

Edited: Feb 14, 2011, 10:36 pm

>8 Ifland:

I also like to encounter new things when reading, so much of the enjoyment is not knowing everything about the setting or culture or whatever.

You point out that my answer was (if only implicitly) answered by the fact the book is in American English. Given that you have at least three languages and broadly speaking, three audiences to write for: why not French? Is it as simple as the fact you live in the United States now?

These questions probably do not have an answer, but I'm curious simply because I have no such choices. Were I to write anything, it would be in American English because it's the only language I can write or express myself in. It's intriguing to me to think of people who know multiple languages and either select one for different situations ... or, the selection is done for them, either by circumstances or unconsciously!

Feb 14, 2011, 10:49 pm

Yes, I agree, much of the enjoyment comes from NOT knowing.

Why not French? Well, part of the reason is because I live in the States. But there is also an objective reason. When I used to write in French it was at a time when I taught French, and I read and wrote in French all the time. At the time, my English was considerably worse than my French. Once I switched to English, a change must have occurred in my brain, because ever since I find it very hard to write in French.

Feb 15, 2011, 12:11 am

You noted above that the stories in Elegy might be better for illustrating life under Communism, and that the stories in Death-in-a-Box are like fables.

Frankly, I like myths and legends, and modern retellings of these, but also like more historical stories set during the Cold War. I'm not sure which title to start with. Any other comments you'd like to make about the two to help me decide?

Feb 15, 2011, 3:44 pm

I apologize for the slow response (I just got to my computer…And I live on the West coast, so there is a time difference). So: Elegy for a Fabulous World is divided into two parts: the first part is set in the Ukraine during communism and it has stories that are somewhat linked because several characters are recurrent; the second part has more eclectic stories; some are about recent immigrants in the States, others are very short fables whose setting is rather fantastic. Death-in-a-Box is a shorter book, and although it’s not divided into two parts, the first half is mostly fables, and the second half is made of stories vaguely inspired by life in Eastern Europe. Most of the fables don’t have much “action,” and some of them are essay-like. On the other hand, the “Eastern European” stories have some action, but they are at the same time fable-like because they have some fairy tales motifs here and there. Now, I realize my descriptions may not be very helpful, so let me just say that, in my opinion, Elegy... is an easier book to read. Death... has a better style, but it’s a harder read.

Feb 15, 2011, 3:45 pm

Are you related to Clarice Lispector?

Feb 15, 2011, 3:51 pm

>15 slickdpdx:

That's another author on my wishlist. I sense a trend developing: along with challenging fiction, we have challenging author identities. I like!

Feb 15, 2011, 4:25 pm

Thanks for asking this question because it gives me the opportunity to disperse a certain misunderstanding. In Elegy… I have a story, “All My Aunts and Uncles,” in which an unnamed famous author who immigrated from the Ukraine to Brazil, is presented as the narrator’s aunt. The reference is, obviously, to Clarice Lispector, an author I admire and with whom I somewhat identify. Part of this story is also on my website, under “Biography,” so for this reason some people have inferred that Clarice Lispector is my aunt. But no, she is not related to me, and couldn’t be because I never lived in the Ukraine (where she is from)—I grew up in Romania.

On my website I illustrated my “biography” with short stories I wrote—like the one mentioned above—which are, obviously, fictional (though most of them are also “fact-based,” as fiction often is). Now, some people don’t like this because they want to keep the distinction fact/fiction (and that would require a longer, different discussion). I should also add that when I wrote that story, Lispector was a very obscure writer in this country, and I imagined that very few people would get the reference (so I did it a little bit playfully, thinking that no one would care since she was so obscure). Meanwhile she became a lot more famous because of a biography written on her… So, one never knows what the consequences of a story can be.

Feb 15, 2011, 9:27 pm

Who are some other writers you've identified with and/or been influenced by, and what writers are you really high on right now?

Feb 15, 2011, 10:09 pm

Other writers: Fernando Pessoa, Yasunari Kawabata, Witold Gombrowicz, Magdalena Tulli (a contemporary Polish writer), and, among the very famous, Kafka, Borges and Calvino. Most recently I've read The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser, one of my favorite contemporary American authors, and Snow Plain by a contemporary Chinese writer, Duo Duo. I recommend both.

Feb 15, 2011, 11:15 pm

Your review of Tulli's Dreams and Stones also prompted another addition to my wishlist. A danger of LT is reading about reading, so much that it eats into my reading time. As it were.

Feb 16, 2011, 1:53 am

Tulli is, in my opinion, one of the greatest--unfortunately, very little known--contemporary authors. And Dreams and Stones is one of her best books.

Yes, you are right about the danger.

Feb 16, 2011, 1:56 pm


thank you for inviting me. I found the questions and your answers here illuminating. Although your Elegy book has been on my TBR mountain for a long time, I will confess I have not read it yet, but now must and will.

I left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet occupation in 1968 and for the last two years have been writing intensively stories set there, which are beginning to find publication. I, too, write in English, even though the writing is rooted in Bratislava, my hometown. Soon, I think, I will have enough to be thinking about tying them together into a collection.

Two authors who are really resonating with me these days (who have written work that I wish I had written) are Ursula Hegi and Per Petterson. Are you familiar with them? And, more author recommendations, please.

Feb 16, 2011, 2:55 pm

Hi and thank you for joining the group. So, you left in 68... We are from different generations.

I am familiar with Ursula Hegi, though I haven't read any of her books, but not with Per Petterson. I noticed Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi among your books--a book I really loved. Kosztolanyi is a great writer--another writer almost unknown in the West. New Directions just published his novel, Kornel Esti; I have it and it's on my reading list. Another great Hungarian writer is Laszlo Krasznahorkai. His publisher is also New Directions. I read Melancholy of Resistance, a very good book, though hard to read.

Feb 16, 2011, 3:30 pm

Since there were some people who asked how they can get my books, this is the information: my book of prose poems, Voice of Ice can be obtained via Small Press Distribution (SPD), on Amazon, or directly from the publisher, Les Figues Press. My book of short stories, Elegy for a Fabulous World, can be obtained only on Amazon or by writing to the publisher ( My latest collection of short stories, Death-in-a-Box, will be available at some point on Amazon and via SPD. For the time being it can be obtained from the publisher, Subito Press, by writing to I hope this helps.

Feb 16, 2011, 4:27 pm

Thanks. :-)

Feb 16, 2011, 9:14 pm

I get the sense that many of stories in Elegy for a Fabulous World are at least to some degree autobiographical. There are also strong links between the stories. Have you considered revisiting the material and weaving it into a single narrative and making those links explicit?

Edited: Feb 17, 2011, 2:51 am

Yes, you are right, many of the stories in Elegy for a Fabulous World are to some degree autobiographical, and many of the stories are linked, but I don't see them as a single narrative. I conceived them as being part of the same universe, but, at the same time, each story is an independent entity. I like the reader to make the connections on his/her own. I think this gives the book a certain ambiguity.

Feb 17, 2011, 9:28 am

What you say is true. I found the stories in the second half intriguing because I tried to place the consciousness created in the first half with the, for me, more familiar settings of the second and that focused my reading. I like short narratives -- I notice that you mention Yasunari Kawabata as an influence --; at the same time, pushing on through a single situation can lead to great depths (and here I think of novels like "The Apple in the Dark").

I look forward to reading your new book.

Edited: Feb 17, 2011, 4:48 pm

Yasunari Kawabata is an author I admire very much. I like the dream-like atmosphere of his world, the fact that there is no clear difference between reality and the dream-world.

I haven't read The Apple in the Dark.

Let me know if you encounter problems ordering my new book.

Feb 22, 2011, 5:50 am

I'm sorry this chat is almost over. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Death-In-a-Box?

Feb 22, 2011, 9:29 am

Can you please also tell us about your adventures in publishing? What I mean is, how difficult was it first of all to get your stories now in Elegy published as short stories, then how difficult was it to get them published as a book, and how difficult was the new book to get published? Were your publishers ones you would recommend? How good are they with publicity for a writer? How approachable are they to new writers? What is your ebook experience? Why or why not?

Do you teach? Writer-in-residence sort of thing? Meaning I suspect you do not rely on your income from writing to put groceries on the table. And if this is too nosy, ignore me.

Thank you for being here.

Edited: Feb 22, 2011, 2:13 pm

Well, we can always continue this discussion (or another discussion) via personal messages. Death-in-a-Box is, in my opinion, a more interesting collection than my previous collection of short stories, but the reader needs to be more open to various realities, and to accept different premises for the construction of a story. For instance, some of the stories don't have a specific character. And many stories don't make a clear distinction between "real/non-real," and aren't written in a linear way. Or, they mix the structure of a fairy tale with elements of a realist story--and this may be confusing for some readers.

Feb 22, 2011, 2:22 pm

I can tell you more on this subject in a private message. What I can say here is that, initially, Elegy for a Fabulous World and most of the stories in Death-in-a-Box were the same collection, but the publisher of Elegy wanted a shorter, more coherent collection. And luckily, the publisher of Death... wanted a very short book too. The latter won a contest for innovative fiction (the 2010 Subito Press fiction prize), and this is how it was published. It was a surprising prize, and because the press is very small, the book was out in 3 months and a half (a record in the publishing world).

No, I don't teach, though I used to. But I don't rely on income from my writing because I would starve. Very few people rely on income from their writing.