Episode 057: Daniel Alarcón


Daniel Alarcón is author of the story collection War by Candlelight, a finalist for the 2005 PEN-Hemingway Award, and Lost City Radio, named a Best Novel of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. He is Associate Editor of Etiqueta Negra, an award-winning quarterly published in his native Lima, Peru, and a Contributing Editor to Granta. Alarcón was awarded the 2009 International Literature Prize given by the House of World Culture in Berlin, and was recently named one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40. His fiction, journalism and translations have appeared in A Public Space, El País, McSweeney’s, n+1, and Harper’s. Alarcón lives in Oakland, California, where he is a Visiting Scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies.

Alarcón read from his work on September 29, 2011, in Cornell’s Goldwin Smith Hall. This interview took place earlier the same day. The audio was plagued by technical problems, so I’ve transcribed this interview to be read as text.

J. ROBERT LENNON: You’re starting a new radio show, Radio Ambulante—can you tell me about it?

DANIEL ALARĆON: Like you, I’m sort of a junkie for microphones and recording stuff—in 2007 I was asked to do a long radio documentary for the BBC about Andean migration to Lima. It was a great project, but I was disappointed that some of the best voices didn’t make it to the final edit. They were in Spanish, and you can’t have an entire hour of radio in English with voiceovers; it doesn’t sell. So for a bunch of years I had the idea I’d like to do a project like this in Spanish, and my wife and I finally decided to give it a shot. The idea is to have something like This American Life, but transnational, and in Spanish. We want to collect stories from all over the US and Canada, and also Mexico and South America and beyond. Our idea is that the Americas are a very large and diverse cultural region united by Spanish. At a time when a lot of people are trying to harden the concept of borders, we believe the opposite. We’re very excited, and getting a lot of amazing stories—more than 50 pitches from a dozen counties.

JRL: This leads me to some questions about your ficiton—you’ve said in interviews that the city in Lost City Radio is inspired by Lima, but you chose not to identify it in the novel. As a result it feels as if you’re trying to universalize some of the problems of the developing world. Is this so? What other reasons did you have for making it anonymous? Your novel-in-progress is also set there, isn’t it?

DA: Yeah, it’s a place I go back to again and again. It wasn’t so much to universalize, but to make it specific to my imagination, as opposed to the reality of Lima. I took liberties with the geography and culture—I didn’t want to be beholden to what actually happened to the actual city. An unintended benefit is that it does make it more universal. One of the greatest and most exciting things about all this was going to different countries and seeing how they interpreted it—in Germany the book became about World War II and the legacy of the Nazis; in Chile the book is about Pinochet; in Spain it’s about the Franco era. And in Peru, of course, it’s about us.

JRL: Do readers in Peru think of you as a Peruvian writer? In America we think of you as an international writer—are you a local writer at home?

DA: I think! I go to Peru a lot, I spend a lot of time in Lima; I try to stay involved in discussions there—which is easier now than it used to be. But I also consider myself an American writer. I don’t think there’s any kind of contradiction between the two.

JRL: Do you see yourself the way Nabokov might have seen himself? As a transplant who can see perhaps more about his adopted country than people who have never been elsewhere?

DA: Any comparison to Nabokov I will retreat from! Of course not, John, how could you possibly say something like that. [laughs] I do think there are benefits to being an outsider everywhere, if I can get at the part of your question I can accept.

JRL: Well, I think of you as being a cultural chameleon, the way Nabokov was, or Haruki Murakami—

DA: You have any more big names I can try to live up to?

JRL: [laughs]—these are writers, I mean, whose international appeal depends upon their ability to straddle boundaries, to say something relevant to many at once.

DA: That’s certainly an important thing to ask of international writers. But the fact of being incredibly specific—like, say, Faulkner—doesn’t mean that Faulkner isn’t an international writer. There are just different ways of being international.

JRL: I read in the acknowledgements of Lost City Radio, and in interviews, that you gathered a lot of stories from people for the book—when you research a novel, do you go out looking for ideas for stories, or do you know what you want to write about and search for the material that will enable you to do it? What’s the relationship between the research and the fiction?

DA: That’s a good question. I’ve done a lot of research by accident. I hear a lot of stories, and I just follow the things I’m interested in. When I went to go live in San Juan de Lurigancho, a district on the outskirts of Lima, I wasn’t necessarily expecting that I would write a novel about that place, or that it was going to be a setting for fiction for years to come—I was just fascinated by this developing culture, and how Andean communities were integrating into the quote-unquote “city.” The tension between rural and urban playing out in a metropolitan area—I thought it was interesting. It ended up being a theme in my first two books. Nowadays I’ve been doing a lot of journalism about the prison system in Peru, so there’s a lot of that in the new book. But when I started going to the prisons five or six years ago, for three years I didn’t write a word about it. I was daunted by the idea. It’s only in the last year or so that I have managed to write about what I’ve been seeing.

JRL: Can you talk a little bit about the novel you’re working on?

DA: Very little, actually! Considering that I’ve been working on it for five years, it’s remarkable how little I have to say about it. Excerpts have been published, there’s some stuff that’s out there—but it’s been changing so much. I finished a draft of the book in December and read it, and I was pretty unsatisfied. I spent a bunch of time, five months or so, thinking about it, and then decided I was seeing the characters from the wrong point of view, that I’d chosen to narrate the least interesting part of their story. I know the characters very well, but sometimes you make an early misstep, and you find yourself writing about the wrong material. I have this real commitment to not leave money on the table: if the material’s there, and it’s speaking to you, you gotta go where the heat is. So I’ve done a complete reformulation of the book in the last few months.

JRL: Was the process that led to the published version of Lost City Radio similarly intricate?

DA: No, Lost City Radio was much, much different—the published version is almost the version I first wrote. I have no idea how it happened.

JRL: It’ll probably never happen again!

DA: I tell this to my students—it’s not like riding a bike. The fact that you’ve written one book doesn’t mean you can write another—instead, it’s like having to engineer a new bike out of materials you find in this new universe that has different laws of physics. And then creating this bicycle, and then pedaling as hard as you can and trying not to fall over. There’s very little that you can take from one project to the next, and then say, lesson learned, now I know how to do it. Maybe it’s different if you’ve written twenty novels, but having written one that’s done, and five that are abandoned along the way, I’m pretty certain that this is going to be my process until I’m too old to type.

JRL: If you do learn a lot from a novel that you can carry to the next one, maybe it isn’t the novel you ought to be writing. Or, as I always tell my students, if you know what you’re doing, you should do something else.

DA: I agree—the only novels worth writing are the ones that seem impossible when you start. Maybe there’s a time and place to set yourself achievable goals, but it’s a great feeling to look at the mountain, to see the size of it, and say to yourself, there’s no way I’m going to get to the top of that.

JRL: Do you find short stories more straightforward to write?

DA: Not at all. The process is much the same—a mixture of intuition and momentum. The times I’ve set myself an achievable goal, I’ve failed miserably. Other times, when I’ve stepped aside from the work and let things happen, it’s worked. It’s rare that I say to myself “I’m going to write a story,” and it happens—it’s more like, whatever is going to happen, happens. It’s not in my control.

JRL: Could you describe the relationship between story and language in your work? You mostly write in English, right?

DA: I do. I’ve written some in Spanish, have have sort of a medium-term project to continue to do so as a secondary literary language. For Radio Ambulante, I’m doing a lot in Spanish—scripts and stuff.

JRL: Do different ideas, narrative forms, naturally assume the shape of one or the other language, for you? Do they inform each other?

DA: If so, it isn’t particular to the language so much as to my command of the language. My Spanish is fluent, but it’s different from my English—my command of English is better. If I have an idea and ten ways to phrase it occur to me in English, in Spanish there will be five, or maybe three. Or maybe I simply can’t say it, and have to play with the idea until I can. I do find that to be an interesting lesson—it’s nice, you have to be sharp, trying to write with half the words pulled out of the dictionary. Stylistically, my voice in English is very different from my voice in Spanish—which makes you wonder how much of your style is your style, and how much is due to your limitations.

JRL: I think about this when I’m reading translations, to what extent it’s even possible to evoke the feel of the original.

DA: I have a very good friend, a brilliant friend in fact, who once said to me that he didn’t read anything that was translated, because he thought of himself as wanting to be a prose stylist, an aesthete of prose. His prose is exceptional in English, and he felt like reading in translation was a waste of time, for his particular literary goals. But I find that self-defeating—there are so many amazing writers you would be depriving yourself of. It doesn’t seem like a great way to learn any kind of aesthetics.

JRL: I suppose you have to treat a translation as a separate kind of literary artifact. I read the recent translations of Proust—a different writer did each one. And they were fairly different—I was very surprised at how they felt like, though they were of a piece, they were filtered so differently. It was disconcerting, but interesting.

DA: What was the famous quote? Borges said that Don Quixote was not faithful to the translation? He thought the English was better. Some things are just better in translation!

JRL: I read that you’ve been working on a graphic novel project, based on a story of yours. Has this come to fruition, and can you talk about the process of repurposing a narrative of yours for a different form of art?

DA: Yes, it was published last year in Peru, and is available in the United States, in Spanish only. I hope we’ll be able to release it in English at some point. The project was an idea I had, and I had an illustrator in mind, Sheila Alvarado. Sheila and I worked together at Etiqueta Negra for a while, she’s a good friend of mine, and an incredibly talented artist. And I was intrigued by the possibilities of the visual language, and really excited by the idea of publishing the first graphic novel in Peru—and that’s what it was.

JRL: Really?

DA: Really! Peru has a long history of illustrators—the Vargas girls were Peruvian—and there is a great comic book tradition. But there hadn’t been a graphic novel, in the sense of an American graphic novel—Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, books that are not for children and are not pornographic. We thought it would take us six months; it took a year and a half. We started working on it in Argentina, and we worked on it in Lima, and then while I was Oakland and she was in Lima, on Skype. I would do a sketch and hold it up to the camera, and she would do the real sketch, because I can’t draw. It was a true collaboration.

JRL: So you didn’t just give her the text, and she added pictures…

DA: No, no. We composed all of those pages together. We had the idea that every double—every two facing pages—we wanted to be able to put in a frame and hang on the wall. I think that’s what we achieved. We actually have an exhibition coming up, of the pages from Ciudad de Payasos—City of Clowns—in Lima, I think next month. It was well received, but I don’t think people know what to do with it yet, in Peru—the genre is not yet understood, I don’t think.

JRL: Are you going to continue working in that form?

DA: There’s a question of time—I would love to work with Sheila again, to do another one of these. But it was a very long process, and she is also incredibly busy. But at some point, I’d love to.