TOM LUTZ: Let's start with your first book of stories, War by Candleight. When did you write the first story in that collection?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: The earliest story in War by Candlight I probably wrote in college, at least a version of it, when I was a sophomore. It’s a story called "Lima, Peru, July 28th, 1979", and like a lot of the stuff in that book it was a riff on an actual event. In this case it was one of those amazing acts of agitprop and terror propaganda that Shining Path did, where they hung dogs from street lamps in central Lima. They killed dogs, cut their necks, and hung them. It's a powerful image. The part that I found fascinating when I was reading the history was that, for some reason, some ideological reason that we don't know, the dogs had to be black. And of course they killed a bunch of stray dogs, but they ran out of black dogs. So they actually painted dogs that weren't black.
Now when I think about that story it kind of makes me laugh because I decided to make the protagonist a painter, a former arts student, a fine arts painter, who’s been reduced to this — which now strikes me a little melodramatic and over the top, but I guess I was young so that was allowed.
A little on the nose (laughs)? Well it doesn’t come off that way, it’s a great story. So were you a writing student at that point?
I didn’t study writing in college, I studied anthropology. I was an anthropology major, and though I took writing workshops I didn’t do English or literature, which are the more traditional ways of getting into this hustle. However, I was a reader, I read everything I could get my hands on, and — well let me say it this way, one of the benefits of not having studied literature in a traditional sense is that my relationship with the cannon is not, um, a tight relationship, not an embrace. I didn’t have the cannon shoved down my throat, so I didn’t acquire or reject the prejudices of the cannon. I read widely and try to read without ideas of what literature has to be, or what it historically has been. It’s kind of a freeing way to read. But it also means I’m completely embarrassed by the things that I haven't read, and I’d like not to talk about that (laughs).
That's interesting, because I did the same thing. I was an autodidact, and a hippie, and I didn’t go to college until very late. So I have a sense of how my reading went well and how it wrong. I have all these words that I mispronounce, and author names that I mispronounce. What’s an example from your reading that makes it undisciplined?
The Victorian novel is something I know almost nothing about. I’ve often read authors — and I’m not proud of this — as if the book had been found in an archaeological dig and we’re unable to discern the context or the language it was written in, and we’re not sure if it’s about a made-up country or a real place. So reading Tolstoy or Chekhov without any historical context, reading War and Peace and not stopping to consider whether these wars actually happened. And that’s not necessarily a good thing, it’s just the purity of ignorance, and just the way that I’ve stumbled into this. I have gone back now with a little more knowledge and tried to contextualize some of my readings, but my first twenty-five years of reading was a lot about reading just for story, and not being overly concerned with, for instance, whether The Radiance of the King was part of some post-colonial African literature, or just a great story.
Funny you say that, because when I was trying to get credit in college for "life experience", which you could do back then, I made a list of all the books I’d read, which I thought was very impressive because it was much more than anyone else I knew had read. And I brought in this list of 100 books, and I figured I had it covered, and the guy said to me, “None of these books was written before 1950.” And I thought wow, that’s one of the ways you can assess reading? That was my introduction to the idea of periods.
Yeah, you know, when I was very young, like nine to thirteen, my reading was, and I think as it should be, completely wild and undisciplined: Vonnegut followed by Shakespeare, followed by Alice Walker, then followed by C.S. Lewis. And with complete disregard for notions of high and low, and disregard for time periods. And I miss that kind of reading! It’s reading without prejudice (and I would also throw books down without feeling bad about it). I think there’s nothing wrong with reading that way. Sometimes in the academy we talk about reading for entertainment as if it were a lower form of reading. But the fact is that it’s a perfectly legitimate form of reading, it’s just that what’s entertaining for some people might not be entertaining for others. That doesn’t mean that the snobbiest, most erudite reader isn’t reading for entertainment, it’s just that their definition of entertainment might be different from someone who reads romance novels or maybe wizard books. And when I was a kid, I was unabashedly reading for entertainment, for pleasure, reading because I liked it, and I want people to read my books because they like them, too.
Why were you picking the books you were picking?
Well, in my family we had a couple of rituals. I have two older sisters, nine and seven years older than me, and in my family we all had to do our homework at the kitchen table after dinner, and you couldn’t leave the table until everyone was done. I was the youngest and my homework was easy, it was cake, I was done after 20 minutes, while my sisters were doing algebra and geometry and science experiments. And so often I would just grab whatever book they were reading, and it happened to be Milan Kundera, it happened to be Shakespeare, and Vonnegut, whatever they had in their English classes, and thankfully they had good English teachers. It was the same way I got most of my musical education; my sisters listened to The Cure, and U2, and god-forbid Duran Duran, and those were the bands I listened to just because my sisters were older than me and cool. And it's how I felt about novels.
You were born in Peru, so I assume your family spoke Spanish at home?
I grew up speaking Spanish at home, it was pretty much a rule. My sisters and I spoke English, and still now when we talk we mix Spanish and English, but with my parents I speak Spanish.
So did you grow up reading Spanish?
I did, but I struggled with it. My mother sat me down one summer and sort of taught me to read Spanish, which I am eternally grateful for, but it wasn’t for a long time that I made it a priority. The first novel that I read in Spanish was,bizarrely, Love in the Time of Cholera. I was 20 years old and studying abroad during college, in Ghana, and it took me 3 months to read, and I had a dictionary with me. It’s kind of inexplicable to me when I think about it now — as if the world wasn’t weird enough already, to take a 20 year old American kid and drop him in Ghana, I added this extra level of challenge to read a 700 page novel in a language that, while it was my first language, was a language I’d never read a novel in before. And I could’ve started with something easier, but for whatever reason I didn’t, and it took me a very long time. But it set me along a path to start reading novels in Spanish.
Not the easiest novel to pick as your first, right? Spanish literary syntax is so interesting...
When I read that first Garcia Marquez novel in Spanish I don’t think I was even reading for syntax, or reading for beauty, I was just trying to decipher meaning. That’s been one of my struggles, reading in Spanish. In English I can talk about prose style with much more fluidity and confidence. But I don’t feel comfortable writing novels or literary language in Spanish, or rather I don’t have the same ease or confidence. In Spanish my prose style is more simple, more spare, more to the point — I can’t think of 7 ways to say something, I can only think of 3. But it’s a good exercise because it forces discipline on me. And in some ways that’s how I read in Spanish — my ear is not as attuned to the rhythms and subtleties of language as it is in English.
Can you tell us about your new novel?
My new book is called At Night We Walk in Circles. It's about a young man named Nelson, who’s kind of drifting through early adulthood. He has broken up with his girlfriend, he’s finished studying acting at the conservatory, and kind of hasn’t made any decisions about his life. He's been waiting for a Visa to come to the United States, the Visa hasn't come, and in the absence of the Visa he’s basically avoided making any big decisions.
He gets the opportunity to try out for a revival of a play by his artistic hero Henry Nunez, a play first produced 15 years earlier that was very controversial called The Idiot President. So he goes off into the countryside to perform this play with Henry Nunez and another actor. The novel basically centers around that tour and what happens on that tour, which is essentially that they run headlong into the past. They run into Henry Nunez’ troubled past and the person most affected by that collision is Nelson.
I spent seven years or so working on this book, a remarkably inefficient process, but it was and remains important for me to tell this story. I’m proud that the novel is finished, because so many times in the process of writing I wanted to quit. But you do fall in love with the story and the characters and the world that your novel describes, and that certainly happened in my case. Nelson is a character I have a lot of symphony for, and a lot of connection to. His dilemma is one that I’ve felt. There’s a stage in your life where you know that important things are about to happen, but you can’t really figure out what they are. And you know that the decisions you’re making now might be very weighty, but there’s no way that you can foresee the consequences. It’s something you’re only dimly aware of at a certain point, and then it becomes very clear to you later. Nelson is at that stage.
And what about your radio show, Radio Ambulante?
So about two or three years ago my wife Carolina and I founded a radio project called Radio Ambulante. I've been asked what the hell I'm doing, why as a novelist would I take on this other type of storytelling, and I have to say that it’s something thats been very fruitful for me and inspiring for my own work as a novelist, in part because it’s basically just about listening. What we do is tell Latin American stories in sound, and tell really human stories. It’s fun just to hear the human voices, for me. And it’s fun, in your 30's, to once again be confronted with absolute lack of knowledge, flailing and in fear of failure, and learning something new. At a certain age I feel like you stop learning, or you get good at what you’re good at and get comfortable, and Radio Ambulante was a process of shaking myself up, artistically.
I also think that radio is very complimentary to literature, because it’s so much like reading a novel. Reading a novel can often feel like having someone whisper a secret into your ear, and radio can almost literally be that. Radio is special that way, it has the intimacy of a novel.
The other thing is that for Radio Ambulante I write in Spanish, its the one place that I feel comfortable writing in Spanish. Because it’s the spoken, oral register, its not literary language, its like telling your friend a story over a drink. And that I can definitely do; I’m challenged by it, but not daunted by it. Whereas trying to write in the prose style of Borges or Garcia Marquez or Bolano, that can feel like too much.
Tom Lutz is the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books.