An Interview with Daniel Alarcón

Erin Berman

Daniel AlarconDaniel 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. His fiction, journalism and translations have appeared in A Public Space, El País, McSweeney’s, n+1, and Harper’s, and in 2010 The New Yorker named him one of the best 20 Writers Under 40. Alarcón is co-founder of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish language storytelling podcast, and currently serves as a Fellow in the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Switchback spoke to him on the campus of the University of San Francisco, where he is currently a visiting writer.

Switchback: What are your thoughts on narration? Your new book, which I heard you read from, seems interested in exploring POV. How does this book’s POV function differently than your narrator in Lost City Radio.

Daniel Alarcón: The original narrator of Lost City Radio was someone who, on the surface, was much like me. That character ended up being totally boring after fifty pages. So the entire beginning of the novel was rewritten without this character. The original character was going to be a relatively young guy, working at a radio station, dealing with the situation around him. Now he’s minimized to the point of being only mentioned on page two. His big gesture is to give the boy a glass of water, and then he doesn’t exist anymore. It’s interesting to me how novels change. Characters who are on the surface like you aren’t necessarily the ones who are the easiest or the best to narrate the book.

The new book has a couple of characters who are at least, on the surface, people that I know very well. One is the narrator and one is the protagonist, and they are not the same person but they are very related. The narrator has spent a considerable time investigating the life of the protagonist. It’s a very intimate relationship, even though they aren’t personally friends. It’s basically the fruit of an obsession, which is like most novels are.

SB: In Lost City Radio there is a certain level of universality. Was this a conscious choice?

DA: It was not so much keeping universality as not being constrained by reality and details. I wouldn’t say that the reason I didn’t name the country in Lost City Radio was to avoid the map, but not be constrained by it—keep a little bit of wiggle room. There were other decisions I made that were nods to universality, like not using Spanish. Keeping names ambiguous— not ethnic but random.

SB: How do you use, or reject constraints in your writing?

DA: Constraints absolve you of certain responsibilities. People put boundaries on themselves because you have an infinite number of possibilities and you’ll never get anything done. It’s important when you are starting a book or story to make a series of arbitrary decisions and stick to them. Otherwise you’ll blather about for six-hundred pages and no one will want to read it. As soon as you settle into [constraints] you can make your own rules and then break them, of course, as you should. But at some level you take a certain amount of stress off yourself by giving yourself structure.

SB: Lost City Radio deals with location and migration into the city, is this something that your new novel addresses as well?

DA: In the new novel, there’s quite a bit about the city, but a lot more about the countryside and small town life—as seen from the perspective of outsiders. The people from the city who’ve gone off into the countryside for a variety of reasons. The first book, there are two settings, the city and the jungle, and in this it’s the city and the mountains. I spent a lot of time in the mountains and I think there’s a strangeness to the places I’ve visited in the mountains. There’s been a lot of out-migration. There’s a culture and then there’s the memory of a culture, and they exist side by side. You have the rituals of the place that might have made fifty years earlier but make less sense now, but people still continue to adhere to them, so there’s this strange echo. In the years since I wrote Lost City Radio, I went on a lot of different trips to the mountains and all those trips have helped place me while writing this book.

SB: People often associate Latin American writing with Magical Realism. You are more of a realist writer. What are your thoughts on where Latin American writing is headed?

DA: Latin American literature hasn’t been stuck in magical realism at all, not for thirty years. The small amount of Latin American literature that gets published has been, but that’s very miniscule. That’s not indicative of what’s being written. There are very few writers who are self-consciously imitating [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez anymore. It’s more of an invention of editorial marketing than it is a literary movement. First of all, Garcia Marquez is too good to copy. So deciding that you are going to copy him is one, a losing proposition artistically, and just destined for caricature. What we’ve gotten is a whole bunch of bad caricature of Garcia Marquez. But in terms of what’s actually happening in Latin American writing—we are far beyond that.

I would even argue that Garcia Marquez’s most important contribution to Latin American culture and writing has been his journalism. He founded a journalism foundation called the Iberoamerican Foundation for New Journalism in Cartagena. Every journalist of note in Latin America studied there in the last fifteen to twenty years. If there’s a boom happening in Latin America right now, it’s creative nonfiction. It’s counterintuitive to think that Garcia Marquez’s influence is in nonfiction, but if you look to the crop of writers today, so many of them are students of the foundation. The whole idea of Marquez being a magical realist is called into question, because he’s also a really great journalist. His “realism” in the form of nonfiction is just as powerful.

SB: Speaking of realism, you are currently teaching a seminar called Not Realism. Why, as a realist writer, did you decide to teach this class?

DA: I’m teaching this class because it’s what I’m not good at. There’s an Argentine writer, Rodrigo Fresan, who said, “your style is basically the collection of things you don’t do well.” So you’re known for writing spare dialogue because you’re no good at dialogue. You’re known for writing great descriptions of setting, because you’re no good at the mechanics of plot. You’re style is really a collection of your deficiencies. I’m basically a realist, everything I’ve written has been in a realist vein and I find that somewhat disappointing in my own work. I wanted to do a class that made me think as much as it made you [the students] think. I’m interested in these issues, but the stories that come to me tend to be conventional in some way, like the conventional premise that gravity still exists, day is still day, night is still night. It’s silly and gimmicky to be a writer you’re not, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to teach a class where I learn something myself.

There’s nothing in Lost City Radio that is surreal or inexplicable by conventional rules of reality that we all adhere too. Not in the way that some of writers that I really admire—the [Donald] Antrim we read [The Verificationist]—tweak reality. The way Bruno Shulz looks at the world. I just sometimes wish I could see what they see. So it’s not so much I’m teaching the class because I’m propagating the style or theory of writing. Quite the opposite, I’m pushing myself–or attempting to–to be in dialogue with these writers and learn something from them.

Realism in the rest of the world isn’t admired the way [in the U.S]. The naturalist model here—everyone’s amazed by it. It wins awards. People say, oh my god it’s so real. In painting it’s not that way. You would never say, Wow, that is a really realistic still life of a fruit bowl, let’s give it a fucking prize. So why is it in literature we’ve settled on this convention—seeing it as the correct way to write, the highest standard of art? Why should an accurate representation be what we all aspire too—opposed to a reimagining of the world.

It calls into question: What is art for? Why do we go to art?