“Books Find Their Way to Readers”: The Barcelona Literary Agency Casanovas & Lynch

By Nathan Scott McNamaraMarch 6, 2020

“Books Find Their Way to Readers”: The Barcelona Literary Agency Casanovas & Lynch
I SIT WITH María Lynch and Sandra Pareja in the sixth-story office of Casanovas & Lynch, a literary agency in the Gràcia neighborhood of Barcelona. Lynch is a partner at the agency, Pareja does foreign rights, and both of them are also literary agents. We talk about the many roles an agent plays in getting a book to publication — editing, sales, contracts, translation, production and reproduction, the list goes on. Pareja says it’s a tremendous responsibility “being the first in line of the chain, in between the author and all those who follow.”

It’s mid-November, 2:00 p.m. Cloudy light pours through the tall windows and schoolchildren play on the rooftop of the opposite building. Lynch represents writers such as Mariana Enriquez, María Gainza, Elvira Navarro, Andrés Barba, Rodrigo Fresán, Pola Oloixarac, Javier Marías, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and many more. Pareja works on getting those writers published into English, Italian, French, German, and all other languages; she also represents some writers of her own, like María Sonia Cristoff, Roque Larraquy, Pilar Quintana, Chantal Maillard, and Carlos Fonseca. “I find that our list of authors works a bit like a publishing house,” Lynch says. “There’s a way I could make a dotted line to connect them all together. Sometimes there’s great synergy that we promote, or sometimes it just comes spontaneously.” Mariana Enriquez recommended María Gainza’s book El nervio óptico to them, for example, and in Elvira Navarro’s forthcoming (to English, translated by Christina MacSweeney) story collection La isla de los conejos, Navarro wrote a story inspired by Enriquez.

A week prior, Mariana Enriquez had won the Premio Herralde, a major Spanish literary prize, for her new novel Nuestra parte de noche, now available in Spain, Enriquez’s home of Argentina, and other parts of Latin America. A 600-page book featuring a father and a son fleeing Buenos Aires to northern Argentina during the military dictatorship, Nuestra parte de noche is also a supernatural horror story. Enriquez’s story collection Things We Lost in the Fire (translated by Megan McDowell, who will also translate Enriquez’s next two books into English) has already hauntingly demonstrated how she weaves together political allegory and terror. “She’s one of a kind,” says Lynch, who has worked with Enriquez for years on Nuestra parte de noche. This is on another night while we talk over Bloody Marys at the Belvedere. Velvet sofas, wood and burgundy, lamplight. “While [Enriquez] fits into the literary tradition of Argentina, she stands out by herself,” Lynch continues. Enriquez first encountered and began writing horror when she was 10 years old and read about the political crimes in Argentina. At that time, Lynch says, “journalists started publishing pieces where they explained what happened during those years.”

Lynch says that part of what she and Pareja both represent — what the agency represents — is a capacity to move between worlds. Lynch’s parents are Argentine writers and intellectuals who left Buenos Aires in 1976. They escaped to Barcelona after Lynch’s uncle was disappeared; he was one of between 9,000 and 30,000 people who were lifted off the street and never seen again. Her parents intended for the move to be temporary, but as the political situation in Argentina worsened, Lynch says the family “realized they would not be able to go back.” The impact Argentine history has had on Lynch’s personal life makes her read Enriquez’s writing differently: “In a way, I also read as an Argentine.”

Pareja’s mother is Italian and immigrated to Toronto in the late 1950s as part of the postwar wave. Pareja’s father was Peruvian and at a young age latched onto the idea of the American Dream. He left Peru for the Georgia Institute of Technology for college, then went to Toronto, and eventually to Detroit, drawn by its car industry. Pareja grew up between Toronto and Detroit, spent two years in Argentina, and now has been in Barcelona for a decade. “She’s very good at selling our books into the [United States] because she can change hats very easily and she can read as a Canadian sitting in Toronto, or as a New Yorker, and she also understands the books from a local perspective,” says Lynch. “She’s a bridge from the way I read the book to the way an American editor will.”

Casanovas & Lynch was started in 1981 by Mercedes Casanovas. Lynch started working at the agency in 2001, at the age of 22 — “doing all the basic stuff like phone and mail,” Lynch recalls. “I made my way up through different stages. First, I started doing the foreign rights and then representing other publishing houses into the Spanish and Portuguese. Slowly, I started signing up my own authors.” Lynch became a partner with Mercedes Casanovas at the agency in 2010.

Lynch was drawn to Pareja’s application for a job at the agency in 2013 because of Pareja’s language skills: English, Spanish, Italian, French, Catalan, and some Portuguese. Lynch says being an agent at Casanovas & Lynch isn’t really a job you can study for. “It helps if you know Latin American literature, but it’s more knowing how to read. It’s intuition and social skills and curiosity and enthusiasm: being able to see something very special in a book and [being] able to find the person who’s going to find that as special as you do.” Lynch says that Pareja has also been an asset in how she has cultivated relationships with literary translators, harnessing the passion that translators bring to the writers they translate and championing them together. Pareja says they do whatever they can to support their translators alongside their writers: “They’re not interpreters; they’re not legal translators. They’re artists as well.”

I mention that it seems like over the past five to 10 years there has been a surge in Latin American and Spanish literature translated and published in English. Pareja says they have been prioritizing it — because many of their Latin American authors seek or have close ties to the United States, but also because the English translation allows so many other people to read the book. “It’s extraordinary the impact that getting published in English has,” Lynch says. It opens up a book to an international market; many of Casanovas & Lynch’s books — Mariana Enriquez’s new novel, for example — sell in more than 20 countries.

Pareja says editors have slowly begun to open up to literature in translation and that the success of writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Elena Ferrante has made people more curious. “But it’s still a struggle,” Pareja says, “because we can place our authors — 90 percent of our authors are in English — but then the larger struggle is getting the book to sell and breaking the psychological ice.”

Lynch points out that some of their writers do sell a huge number of books. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling, translated by Anne McLean and winner of the 2014 International Dublin Literary Award, sold over 100,000 copies — an “extraordinary” achievement. Another one of their long-standing best-selling writers is Laura Esquivel, whose iconic novel Like Water for Chocolate continues to be a “massive best seller” 30 years after its initial publication.

It’s a Friday and we go for a late lunch at Il Giardinetto, an Italian restaurant with green ornamentation that extends from the carpet and across the walls, climbing up the pillars onto the ceiling. Upstairs, on matching velvet couches, we have red wine, arugula salad, and steak. Lynch tells me she is committed to building careers for her writers. “Sometimes it takes time for an author to break through,” Lynch says. “Most of the time, it’s really not about the money; it’s about building the career. I try to think: where is this author and my relationship with them going to be in 10 or 15 years?”

Lynch says that across the agency’s nearly 40 years, an organizing aesthetic has been maintained: “I don’t have a huge gap from Sandra, but in some ways we’re a different generation and in some ways her vision completes mine, and it’s the same way I used to work with Mercedes. You work and talk together, and you develop a much more creative view on things.”

She quotes a line from the Italian novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

There are eight staff members altogether at Casanovas & Lynch, and between them they represent significant and diverse literary markets: Nathalie Eden Jornales is Venezuelan, born from Filipino and Colombian parents; Sarah Guilloret has a French father and a German-Dutch mother; Marina Penalva’s parents are Spanish and Irish. “It’s quite an international team,” Lynch says.

By the end of 2019, awards and accolades for Casanovas & Lynch writers were pouring in. In addition to the Herralde for Enriquez’s new novel, Manuel Vilas won the Prix Femina étranger for his book Ordesa. María Gainza’s La luz negra won the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize, and Pilar Quintana’s The Bitch was named a winner of PEN Translates. Chantal Maillard’s poetry collection Killing Plato, translated by Yvette Siegert, was a finalist for a PEN America Literary Award. Pareja says that two Casanovas & Lynch book were among the top 10 fiction books of 2019, according to Publishers Weekly: Optic Nerve by María Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead) and From the Shadows by Juan José Millás (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn).

Casanovas & Lynch also have an immense number of electronic books coming to English in 2020 and 2021. In February 2020, Melville House publishes Martín Caparrós’s Hunger (translated by Katherine Silver), a big piece of reportage that chases after the question of why, in the 21st century, most of the world’s population still goes hungry daily. Also in January, Paul B. Preciado’s An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing (translated by Charlotte Mandell), a recounting of Preciado’s transformation from Beatriz into Paul B. Meanwhile, Gabriela Wiener’s Nine Moons (translated by Jessica Powell), her follow-up to the popular essay collection Sexographies (translated by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves), will be published in May 2020, and Ordesa by Manuel Vilas is being published by Riverhead in December 2020, translated by Andrea Rosenberg.

Another of their significant releases in the spring of 2020 includes Andrés Barba’s A Luminous Republic, his fifth book in English, translated by Lisa Dillman. Lynch says that when she first started working for the agency in the early 2000s, Barba was a finalist for the Herralde Prize with his first novel, at 25. Barba caught her eye — she thought to herself, “If I were to sign an author, it would be someone like Barba.” Sixteen years later, they now work together. “He came at the right time,” Lynch says. “República luminosa won the Herralde Prize, and we sold the book into 20 languages. You can think it was just chance or hazard, but maybe not. Maybe they come when they have to come.”

Lynch says that many of their writers write stories about specific places and circumstances that can be read across countries. She mentions La perra (The Bitch), forthcoming in English in August 2020, which is about a middle-aged woman who adopts a puppy because she is frustrated that she cannot have children. “It’s set on the Pacific coast in Colombia, and the jungle and setting have a huge influence on the narrative, yet it’s also a story that reads universally.” Then she talks about Ordesa by Vilas: “It may seem like a very Spanish book because it’s an excellent portrait of his generation in Spain during the transition after the Franco dictatorship. But it has also been an extraordinary success in other countries like France, Portugal, or Italy.” It’s another one of their books that has sold over 100,000 copies, and it has not yet arrived in the United States. “There’s something really universal about [the protagonist’s] experience,” Lynch says. “Books find their ways to readers.”


Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes to Literary HubThe AtlanticThe Millions, The Washington PostElectric Literature, and more.

LARB Contributor

Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, the Atlantic, the Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more. Follow him at @nathansmcnamara, or read more at nathanscottmcnamara.com.


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