SAMANTA SCHWEBLIN’S COLLECTION of short stories Mouthful of Birds opens bleakly:
When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, as if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon. In the flat darkness of the countryside, there is only disappointment, a wedding dress, and a bathroom she shouldn’t have taken so long in.
It’s an opening that conjures the mood for the entire collection, introducing motifs that thread through Schweblin’s unsettling stories: the paucity of human connection, the strange trajectories of fate, and the fragility of life in an indifferent world.
The stories are peopled by characters often caught up in the complications of domestic life. Parents are parents too soon, siblings are controlling and coercive, children inherit the flaws of their fathers. Like the butterflies that adorn the book’s front cover, each is fragile, separate, and alone, but together they comprise a mosaic of interconnected life that is messy, absurd, and complex. Against this backdrop of disconnection, the rare moments of human intimacy are profound and disarming. Schweblin’s prose can both unnerve and stir. The settings are often familiar and everyday — a roadside, a white room, a railway station — but remain almost placeless, empty stages on which the scenes play out. Schweblin’s stories are theatrical, distant relatives of Beckett and Kafka, and are as gripping as they are psychologically dense.
Originally from Argentina, Schweblin now lives in Berlin, where she continues to write novels and short stories that reveal the strange atmosphere of existence. Her debut novel, Fever Dream, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, while Mouthful of Birds, her second collection of short stories, was longlisted for the 2019 prize. A second novel, Kentukis, and another short story collection, Siete casas vacías, will be published in the coming years, cementing Schweblin as one of those rare writers who can command both the novel and the short form. In between her busy schedule of appearances in Reykjavík and across South America, Schweblin speaks about how to write bodies, her literary inspirations, and reading Kafka in German.
MATTHEW JANNEY: Mouthful of Birds is a collection of gripping short stories, as funny as they are eerie, as stimulating as they are unnerving. But why do you think commentators focus so heavily on the unsettling sides to your stories?
SAMANTA SCHWEBLIN: Perhaps because that’s what all these stories have in common. Even if it’s not in the main plot, you can feel it in the atmosphere or in the way the narrator breathes. The unsettling is something that I am constantly looking for in what I read and in all of my personal experiences with art. Lynch often says that a work of art can only say one thing: the world is a strange place. There is something in the imminence of that strangeness that I associate with the truth, the absolute truth, the one that cannot be grasped in words, but from which perhaps, in a narrative journey, something could be reached.
The opening story, “Headlights,” alludes to the concept of a recurring nightmare. To what extent is this story — and the title specifically — a warning of what is to come in the rest of the collection?
The original title of that short story was something like “Desperate Women,” and it was not the opening story in the Spanish edition. But when my editor, Laura Perciasepe, and my translator, Megan McDowell — I couldn’t have had a better team on my side — proposed to translate it as “Headlights,” I absolutely loved the idea of using it as an opening. The title is shorter and more powerful, and the story starts step-by-step. It has something almost theatrical, and all the genres of the book are contained in that one story. As readers, but also as spectators of real life, we tend to see what is in focus. This is a powerful fact in the story but also in the book. So, headlights were an interesting way to start.
Many of your stories are preoccupied with what it means to live within a body, to be both in control and be controlled by it. “Preserves” and “Olingiris” are particularly poignant examples of this. How do you go about transforming the complexities of embodied experience into fiction?
For me, writing is thinking about what matters, exposing myself to my darkest fears, testing my own limits, and learning precious lessons, vital lessons, things that could really change my point of view, personal behaviors, or decisions. Fiction is a place to test myself; fiction transforms me. So when you ask me about transforming the complexities of embodied experience into fiction, I can’t avoid thinking that I almost work in the inverse process, as a writer but also as a reader. I have the feeling that I use the extreme advantages of taking the complexities of fiction and bringing them back to real life as vital information about the world and myself.
Your story “Toward Happy Civilization” has a humorous absurdism that reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s work. Has the Theatre of the Absurd ever been a direct influence of yours?
Yes, absolutely, and in a very deep way. When I was a child, my grandfather took me to see the play Waiting for Godot. I was 10 years old, so I am sure that watching this extreme, violent, existential, and long wait left a strong impression on me. I dreamt of whips, damaged flesh, and fat nude men for weeks. But I loved the play. We kept the visit to the theater a secret, and I was sure that, even if I wasn’t capable of understanding everything, my world changed at some point during that play. I had seen something dark and confusing but was filled with a new kind of truth that I had never experienced before.
Which writers have had the greatest influence on your writing? Was there a first one you can remember?
There were three of them when I was around 12 years old. I read them all at roughly the same time: The October Country by Ray Bradbury, and two other short story collections, one by Julio Cortázar, and another by Kafka. Those were fundamental readings, and everything I write has kept something of the violence, the surrealism, and the intensity of these three authors. Some North American authors followed: Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff. Those were authors who I studied with devotion, reading their stories over and over again, trying to understand why, and at which exact point, the story folded in on itself and reflected in all directions.
Mouthful of Birds is your second collection of short stories to be published, though your debut novel, Fever Dream, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, and your novel Kentukis will be published next year. How does your writing process differ when writing novels as opposed to short stories?
I work on the short stories in my mind; it could be a year of murmuring to myself about a situation, an atmosphere, an emotion, but once I sit down to write, the first draft is done in no more than two or three days, sometimes just one long single day. When I write novels, I work more during the process, I use the process itself to figure out what is going on. I know where I am going — I wouldn’t be able to move forward without knowing what I am trying to grasp — but I still don’t know how it is going to happen. I just know the final destination.
In your stories, animals, including butterflies, birds, and dogs, are the objects of both human compassion and brutality. To what extent are they used metaphorically, to reveal the beauties and terrors of humanity?
I think we see and treat animals as a devoted mirror of ourselves. We hold them, we assume their feelings, we speak their supposed thoughts out loud. I love animals, and I have always had pets. But reflecting on it, I think sometimes these relationships have a lot of craziness, autocompasión, and abuse, and they say a lot about us as people. In fact, Kentukis, my latest novel published in Spanish, has a lot to do with these kinds of relationships with animals.
How has living in Berlin affected your writing, both in terms of your process and indeed the substance of your work?
Well, I didn’t think it would, but it happened. For example, I hadn’t written any novels when I arrived in Berlin and I used to think of myself as a short story writer. But the cost of living in Berlin is only a third of what it is in Argentina, so I got one of the most precious things a writer could want: free time. And it was in that first year in Berlin that I wrote Fever Dream. It was a good lesson: for a writer, even something as strong as gender could not be a real personal decision, but more a matter of time, circumstances, and opportunities. I am sure there are many things that have changed in my writing from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Also, seven years have passed, and these kinds of changes are almost imperceptible to oneself.
And finally, what are you reading at the moment?
I always have a lot of books on hand. I am reading Kafka’s diaries in German. It is my first attempt at reading in German, so it is hard work but absolutely worth it. I have just finished Sánchez, a wonderful tiny book by a Spanish writer named Esther García Llovet who I have just discovered. Oh, and No Time to Spare — such a brave, sincere, and profound nonfiction book about the olden times, spare time, and what really matters in life — by my beloved writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
Matthew Janney is a literary journalist and short story writer from London. Formerly Culture Trip’s literary editor, he has had work appear in the Times Literary Supplement, Coda Story, and The Calvert Journal.