Interview: Daniel Alarcón
Things went well for Daniel Alarcón last year. His debut novel, Lost City Radio, was named a best book of 2007 by the Washington Post and the LA Times, and he was recognized as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists.
Born in Lima in 1977, Alarcón was raised in Birmingham, Alabama. After teaching posts at a public school in New York and then in Peru, Alarcón attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and completed a collection of short stories, War by Candlelight, which was published in 2005. He is also an associate editor of the Lima-based magazine Etiqueta Negra, which he describes as ‘Harper’s but written in Spanish, obsessed with culture instead of politics and with much better design’.
When we spoke, Alarcón was at home in Oakland, California, packing for a trip to Buenos Aires to meet the Peruvian artist Sheila Alvarado with whom he’s collaborating on a new project – City of Clowns – a Spanish-language graphic novel.
A new short story by Daniel Alarcón, ‘The Bridge’, appears in Granta 103.
HG: I was wondering what drew you to the idea of a graphic novel? As a writer it’s a form that’s new to you…
DA: I didn’t grow up reading comic books but at some point I came across the work of Joe Sacco and I’m a big fan of his stuff now. The literary graphic novel is an interesting way of telling a story and the form is largely unknown in Latin America so I wanted to expand the readership.
Do you have a particular audience in mind?
Originally I was going to work with an independent publisher. We were going to do a nice version to sell in Peru for the equivalent of ten dollars and then a very cheap version on newsprint to give away in schools. But the thing about the independent was that they couldn’t get things together and so instead I showed the proposal to my regular Spanish publishers, Alfaguara. They’ll publish it for, you know, ten dollars, and at that price in Peru it will be for college students, high school students, middle class people.
Because books are luxury, or at least middle class, items in Peru?
They are and that also means that there’s a huge pirating industry. Last year I went to give a talk at a prison, for instance, and everyone had copies of my book even though it hadn’t actually been published at that point. Piracy is the equivalent of the bestseller list in Peru: if a book is well-publicized and well-received and makes any kind of splash then the people who pirate books will take notice...
So in some sense it must be flattering to find that your books are being pirated?
Yes, I do see it like that but then I also have the luxury of not needing to get upset about the pirating because I don’t actually make money from Peru. I’ve never been paid for my work at Etiqueta Negra and the book advances one gets are minimal – certainly not enough to live on in the United States. I think that when Peru’s a middle class country we’ll have to re-evaluate the industry but the way things are now it’s natural that these luxury products are going to be copied. And of course it’s not just books that are pirated and it’s not just Peru. I remember walking round a market place in Ghana about ten or eleven years ago and getting totally lost and stumbling across a bunch of men stamping logos on to T-shirts using Nike swooshes that they'd carved out of wood... Just flabbergasting really.
With ‘The Bridge’, your short story in Granta 103, you return to the capital city of the unnamed Latin American country that provides the setting for Lost City Radio…
Yes, and that city is also where the novel I’m currently working on is set. In fact both ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Idiot President’, a story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year, first started off life as parts of the new novel but then changed to take on this independent existence.
And in previous interviews you’ve said that this city is based on Lima, the action based on the civil war in Peru in the 1980s, so I wondered why you have been reluctant to actually name the place, to situate the events specifically in Peru?
My city is very much Lima but by not tying the fictional city to any specific place I could have more fun playing around, creating new details. When I was writing Lost City Radio I had a map of Lima in front of me that I drew all over, renaming the districts, marking on bus routes, making the environment more alarming, more vivid... Having said that, the strangest parts of a story are not necessarily the fictional elements. I mean the anecdote that forms the basis of the Granta story – the blind couple walking off a broken bridge – that’s completely true. One of my friends was the reporter who covered the story in Lima and he spoke to the blind couple who, in the real event, survived the fall. The whole thing sounds unbelievable and bizarre but the very basic kernel of the story did actually come from reality – I just built something else around it.
So having freed yourself from the restrictions of geography and history, were you able to draw usefully on the experiences of other nations and other conflicts? To create, perhaps, a more widely inclusive story about the nature of war?
Yes, I think that’s true, and I think that when you start studying conflicts in the developing world you discover a lot of overlaps. I certainly found Joe Sacco’s books on Bosnia and Palestine very helpful when I was writing the novel, and I read an amazing collection of Anna Politkovskaya’s work, A Small Corner of Hell. Chechnya and Grozny, from her descriptions, seem like Eighties Lima – but Eighties Lima on methamphetamine. Then, as another example, there’s something in the novel called tadek, which is described as a primitive form of justice carried out in jungle villages after, say, a theft…
This is where the village elders choose a young boy, stupefy him with an intoxicating tea, and let him wander the village until he picks out a culprit?
Yes, and then the ‘culprit’ has his or her hands cut off. This practice actually comes from a Kapuscinski book on Ethiopia (The Emperor) but I just thought that it fitted perfectly and allowed me to make a point about government justice in the novel actually working in a very similar way to that of tadek. At the time I was thinking also about Guantánamo and about racial profiling in the United States… Interestingly, when I was in Lima I found that people had just assumed that tadek was something I’d discovered during my research into the Peruvian jungle.
As someone who’s published both this novel and a collection of short stories, is there a literary form that you’re more drawn to?
I prefer to read novels. There’s something about the big canvas and the possibilities it allows that’s really exciting.
So do you see your short-story collection as a sort of apprenticeship?
It’s hard for me now to read those stories and not think that…they seem incomplete in certain ways. But then I don’t think that one is necessarily the best judge of one’s own work. I do think that those stories had to be stories and that every set of characters you encounter just seem to decide their own form.
And how do you actually start writing? I mean the physical process of getting the words on to the page?
I type everything directly on to a laptop and I take a lot of notes. Right now I’ve just finished the first section of my next novel so I’m taking a lot more notes as I gear up to write the second part.
Thinking about these ‘notes’, would you say that there’s quite a strong journalistic element to the way you work? In the acknowledgments at the end of Lost City Radio, for example, you talk about the ‘many people who have shared their stories of the war years with me’…
Absolutely. In terms of my fiction, I think it’s partly a reticence to write about my own life – not out of any kind of shyness but because I just find other people’s lives more interesting. Journalism is a form I’m definitely drawn to because it allows you to talk to other people and ask them questions that might otherwise sound stupid.
You’ve mentioned the work of Kapuscinski, Sacco and Politkovskaya in connection to your novel, but I wondered more generally which writers have influenced you?
Early on it was the Russians – Dostoyevsky specifically – and then when I was living in New York after college I was reading a lot of contemporary English language writers. That was when Zadie Smith came out, Arundhati Roy, Jonathan Safran Foer... And in Peru I read Latin American writers – Borges, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa – and a lot of Peruvian stuff. Then later, at school in Iowa, I was introduced to all these American writers - people that I really just hadn’t come across before. I never liked Carver all that much but I found John Cheever to be an absolute revelation, mostly because he talked about people I don’t really care about but then made me care. I don’t, politically can’t, worry too much about the problems of white, upper middle-class suburban professionals, but the way Cheever writes about them they just become life and death…
And what are you reading at the moment?
Right now I’m helping to put together a Zoetrope issue of Latin American writers so I’m reading a lot for that. There’s a great collection of short stories by this Cuban writer Ronaldo Menendez, for instance. I don’t think the book’s been translated yet though.
Are you frustrated by the lack of translated fiction that’s available in Britain and United States?
Yes, definitely, but it’s also something that I think I’m in a particular position to help change and I take that position seriously and with a great deal of humility.
And finally, why a graphic novel about clowns? They seem to be something of a recurring motif in your work – I’m thinking now of your short story ‘City of Clowns’ that appeared in The New Yorker debut fiction issue back in 2003…
Clowns have just had such historical, literary significance and symbolism over the years – Pagliacci and the sad clown, that sort of thing… When I was living in Lima where the graphic novel is set, one of the things I found most impressive (and I mean this in the real sense of the word in that it made an impression) was the cacophony, the visual spectacle, the dress up of the city compared to most places in North America. There was a lot of gathering in the plaza to see religious charlatans, sex gurus, magicians, amateur comedians, comic transvestites and, of course, clowns – there just really are a lot of clowns in Lima. I wrote very little while I was there because I was always out in the streets. And every time I’m not writing I feel just awful but now, looking back, that was exactly what I needed to do. I needed to see the clowns.