Return of the native
Kyle Semmel comes home to lead literary center
It can be daunting to step into the shoes of a long-standing, beloved leadership figure, but Kyle Semmel, the new executive director of Rochester’s Writers and Books (WAB) literary center, is enjoying the challenge. Founder Joe Flaherty retired this past spring after thirty-five years of shaping, growing, and being the public face—and only leader—of the organization.
Joining WAB brought Semmel, forty-one, back home: He is originally from York, New York. WAB “was an opportunity to reconnect with family who are still here,” he says. “The job itself felt like a perfect fit for me, coupled with the fact that I really, really love being around a literary center.”
Semmel met his wife, Pia, who is Danish, in graduate school at Kansas State University. They lived in Denmark for a while, where he started what became his core career—translation work.
The Semmels returned to the states when “Pia wanted a PhD, and I wanted an MFA.” They were both accepted at George Mason University in the Washington, DC, area. Semmel took three fiction workshops and “stopped,” finding that he could “make significant money in translating.” He worked for the American Psychological Association before moving to the Writer’s Center of Bethesda (Maryland). He left there for a job with a nonprofit organization for low-income kids interested in college because “I felt like I had lost a part of me.”
The couple moved to Milwaukee when Pia received a teaching contract at the University of Wisconsin; Semmel was independent for three years, primarily doing translations.
Semmel also brings literary experience to WAB—he has been writing since he was about nineteen. His first acceptance was a story set in western New York and published in the Ontario Review, which yielded a cherished letter from Joyce Carol Oates. Around the same time (2005), he wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. Heady stuff for someone just starting out!
Nowadays, “I don’t send much out,” Semmel says. “I feel I shouldn’t send something out until it’s really ready. I’m in a period of discovery. These are the free-est times I’ve had with writing.” He also has put his translation work on hiatus to focus on WAB, although he has a translated book coming out in October.
For Semmel, “the thing about Rochester is the sheer quality of the literary scene, which doesn’t get enough credit. Pound for pound, Rochester is better (in literary terms). We have quality presses, publications, and a number of great writers.”
One appeal was Open Letter Press, “one of the top three or four translation publishers in the United States” and its affiliation with the University of Rochester. He became friends with Open Letters director Chad Post because they were both “radical” Saint Louis Cardinals baseball fans.
Semmel is aware that Flaherty’s contributions were “huge—an impressive display of pure generosity,” he says. “I’m trying to fix in my mind how I want to lead. My goal is to build on what Joe created in a way that works structurally. For now, I want to get a sense of the organization, understand it, master its mechanisms. There are a lot of moving parts. It’s going to take awhile—at least a year—to see the cycle go through. Programmatically, I don’t see much difference. I don’t want to push too far too fast. A lot of things I’m thinking of, Joe probably already thought of.”
Semmel is thinking of WAB in the long term. “A director for another thirty-five years? That’s my plan!”
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (writerruth.com) is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, and proofreader and hosts Communication Central’s annual “Be a Better Freelancer”conference (communication-central.com/category/conferences).
Semmel’s most recent translation—Thomas Rhydahl’s The Hermit, winner of the 2015 Glass Key award for the best Nordic crime fiction—was released in November 2016. Its protagonist, Erhard, is an out-of-swing taxi driver drinking away his life of self-alienation. When the unrecognizable body of a small boy is found on his ghost-town island of Fuerteventura, Erhard can’t stand for the underbudgeted police department to halt the investigation. How can a hermit with no knowledge of computers, phones, or current events solve a case the police are willing to drop?
Writing The Hermit, Rydahl consulted with “various sailors, taxi drivers, and piano tuners” to establish the setting and write his characters. Semmel, however, had no contact with the author throughout his translation. “I met Thomas in 2014, very briefly, in Copenhagen,” says Semmel. “After I finished translating, I emailed Oneworld Publications asking if I could email Thomas. I had five or six questions I wanted to ask him.”
Semmel deliberately translated The Hermit during his first read-through, so that his work was as fresh as possible. He felt a lot of pressure to do the novel justice, given its popularity in Denmark. In his translations, “I go through a book four times,” he says. “The first time, I just get the words down. I don’t worry about syntax or word choice, just plow through and put the words into English the best I can.” The second and third, he smooths out his translation, referring frequently to the source. On the fourth time, “I put the original book aside entirely and just work with what I’ve translated.”
According to Semmel, he had no trouble translating The Hermit without contacting Rydahl. “I really enjoyed working on it,” he says. “The book spoke to me.”
—John Ernst, (585) editorial intern