DANIEL OLIVAS and DANIEL ALARCÓN talk about his new novel.
DANIEL OLIVAS: In your new novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, you introduce us to Nelson, a “moody, thoughtful” boy growing up in a suburb of the capital of a war-torn, unnamed Latin American country. He becomes obsessed with a radical theatre company known as Diciembre that puts on a politically incendiary play titled The Idiot President resulting in the 1986 arrest of Henry Nuñez, the lead actor and playwright. Flash forward 15 years and Henry is out of prison and the aging members of Diciembre decide to take the play on tour again. Nelson successfully tries out for a key role that leads him on a tragic trajectory. What inspired you to place the play at the center of a novel such that it is the connective tissue for all of your characters and their particular narratives?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: The play in the novel is based on a real play called El Mandatario Idiota, by the Peruvian playwright Walter Ventosilla. I’ve adapted it here (with his permission, of course) but it wasn’t originally such a central part of the book. Nelson has been kicking around in my head for many, many years, as has Diciembre, and I knew I wanted to have a character who was in the theater. But my first full draft, completed in late 2010, was a mess. The more I worked on the novel, the more helpless I felt watching it wander off into dire and uninteresting narrative territory, and just hang out there, dawdling, waiting to be put out of its misery. It was awful. I got utterly lost in that book, and eventually found I had no choice but to throw it out and start over. The first half of 2011 was really difficult, and when I began to rewrite, I felt I needed an organizing event to structure the narrative. I went back to Diciembre, back to The Idiot President, and re-imagined the novel. The tour, which was only briefly mentioned in that first draft, gave me narrative momentum. The decision was structural, and everything else came afterward.
It succeeded — as a narrative gambit, I mean — in so far as it allowed me to move Nelson out of his element (the city was absolutely stultifying the first draft), and force Henry to crash into his past. The text of the play gave me plenty to riff off of. Like so many things that happen in the writing of a novel, this was an accident that now feels inevitable and entirely logical. I can assure you that it didn’t feel that way at the time.
DO: In a compelling and quite moving section of the novel, Nelson is called upon to impersonate Rogelio, a man who died years before and who had been Henry’s cellmate at the notorious prison known as Collectors. Though forced to do this by Rogelio’s powerful (and somewhat violent) brother for the benefit of their senile mother, Nelson seems to relish the chance to flex his actor’s muscles and play a role for an audience of one who does not know it is all pretense. What, if anything, does this say about Nelson’s connection to reality and our own attempts at role playing in our everyday lives?
DA: Of course that’s one of the themes of the novel — this playacting we all do. Henry is pretending, Patalarga [a member of Diciembre] and Nelson, too. They’re actors, but they’re not the only ones. Everyone in the novel is performing versions of themselves.
The chance to play Rogelio is thrust upon Nelson — he doesn’t choose it — but once immersed in it, you’re right, he does seem to enjoy aspects of the challenge before him. He learns some of Rogelio’s past, he creates a character, and he sees it, for awhile at least, as a game. But keep in mind the circumstances: Nelson’s heartbreak, his disappointment, is profound, and I think it’s only this which allows him to embrace the role of Rogelio, the exile that it implies.
As for what it says about us, I’m not sure I know how to answer that. I never think about what a novel or story says about anything or anyone who is not inside the world of the book. Meaning, I’m concerned with Nelson, Patalarga, Henry, Rogelio, Ixta, Mónica, Francisco, Noelia, Jaime, etc.; but I find it hard to tease out lessons from the lives of those characters that would have relevance for anyone else. I suppose that’s the job of a reader, to see how a work of art does or doesn’t influence or comment upon their own life.
DO: Your novel is told by an unnamed narrator whose connection to the action becomes apparent as the mystery of Nelson’s tragedy is slowly revealed through the narrator’s investigation. The result is a novel that is difficult to put down because the reader is anxious to know what ultimately happened to Nelson and why the narrator cares. Why did you decide to tell this story through the eyes of person who is trying to unravel the circumstances of this mystery?
DA: I spent years not really knowing who the narrator was, trying to figure it out, and failing. This novel was written as two very distinct projects: a very bad first draft with an entirely different set of plot points, and the one that is being published now, that was born from the wreckage of the first. The narrator came to life in the course of tossing out the first book and starting over, and it happened by accident. An “I” just popped in as I was working on the first chapter, and it felt like a nice mystery, a hint of something, a raised eyebrow. Cool. If I’d only known how difficult it would be to resolve that mystery… Certainly, a strict third person omniscient would’ve been easier. The further I moved into the book, the more I struggled with the narrator; and every chapter raised the stakes. Is the identity of the narrator a big deal? If you reveal it on page 20, probably not. If you withhold the information until page 275, then yeah, it’s a big fucking deal, and the reveal better not be disappointing. I was putting tremendous pressure on the story, and on myself. Eventually, I came to see the narrator as you describe him: a second source of narrative tension within the novel. I hope the reader will ask him or herself: (1) what’s going to happen to Nelson? and (2) who the hell is telling this story and why? I wanted that second question to pick up the slack whenever the front story needed a moment to breathe. That, in any case, was how I imagined it, what I hoped for, and it’s up to readers to decide whether it works or not. I always think that my experience writing might mimic the experience of reading the finish work. If I’m having fun with the book, then hopefully it will be fun to read. If I’m intrigued by the identity of the narrator as I’m writing, I hope the reader will be intrigued as well.