McSweeney’s Books is pleased to present a Q&A with Alejandro Zambra and his editor, Daniel Gumbiner. Zambra’s latest book, My Documents, is available now. This interview was conducted via email.
McSWEENEY’S: The first time you handed me this book, we were eating pizza at a restaurant on Valencia Street in San Francisco. You kept saying that your English was terrible, but you also kept telling perfect jokes, and I remember thinking, My god, I can’t even imagine how funny this guy is in Spanish. Then I read My Documents and found out. So I guess my question is: How are you so funny?
ZAMBRA: I don’t have a funny answer to this question. But the truth is that the little English I know comes from listening to Nirvana songs, and from watching Seinfeld over and over. I’m sure a lot of the things that made you laugh were actually written by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.
I don’t feel comfortable when I speak in English, I constantly come up against language limitations. But when I’m talking to people who are willing to listen I loosen up, and I even enjoy saying many things with few words, which is a bit like what I try to do as a writer in Spanish, only with many more words.
McSWEENEY’S: This book is not a short story collection and it’s not a novel and it’s not fiction and it’s not nonfiction and it’s not memoir, but maybe, if you drew a Venn diagram with all those categories, the zone where they all intersect is where you’d find My Documents. How would you describe what this book is? Lately, I’ve just been calling it “a book”—as you can tell—because reducing it to one of those other categories just doesn’t feel right.
ZAMBRA: You’ve just described it properly… For me, those categories have never made a lot of sense. I think that My Documents is a book of stories; some of them are closer to nonfiction and others to fiction, but it would be hard to classify them even for me. Maybe the most important decision to be made about a text is whether to write it in first or third person. I have many texts in third person that I started writing in first, and vice versa, but that decision isn’t related in either case to how “true” or autobiographical the text is. It’s not just that. Fiction isn’t the same thing as a lie. Sometimes you can only approach truth by fictionalizing. In some texts I like to “inhabit” the first-person space, so to speak, but I don’t have, regarding that, any theories. I always just try out a voice and see where it takes me. I don’t necessarily have a desire to say anything about myself. Plus, these are everyday characters, they don’t have anything spectacular to tell.
Also, as a reader, whether a text is fiction or not doesn’t interest me much. Of course, some images have a force that leads us to think, “this happened, this cannot be made up,” but that force only shows that we like it, that we recognize the stamp of reality. I mean, it speaks more to your reading, to your own idea about what is possible, what is real, than about the “writer’s life.”
McSWEENEY’S: Nicole Krauss once described the experience of reading your work as like “receiving a call in the middle of the night from an old friend.” Do you agree with that? And, if so, what do you think gives your work that quality? And also, on a more personal note, why don’t you call me in the middle of the night anymore?
ZAMBRA: When I read Nicole’s quote I liked it a lot, and I called her on the phone to thank her, but she didn’t answer, maybe because it was the middle of the night…
To a certain extent, I miss the time when people called each other on the phone in the middle of the night, and maybe I also miss the time when there were no cell phones and a friend would show up suddenly and ring the doorbell and the evening would turn into an unexpected experience, open to adventure, free-flowing conversation, to endless confabulation. These days if someone shows up without calling first it’s almost an affront. And the first question on the phone is no longer “how are you,” it’s “where are you”: I don’t care anymore how you are, what I want to know is where. As for you, Daniel, I don’t call you in the middle of the night anymore because you’ve turned down my invitation to come to Santiago too many times.
McSWEENEY’S: Which stories in the book did you write first? And did you always conceive of the pieces in the book as related to each other? If not, when did you first begin to see them as connected?
ZAMBRA: They are all more or less simultaneous. I had the idea to compile stories I’d written earlier, but as “the book” emerged, they fell out one by one, and I wrote other stories that I hadn’t planned to write. The only survivors, though in radically different versions, are “True or False” and “Memories of a Personal Computer.”
I’ll talk a little about some of the stories individually:
“My Documents”: I started writing this story at the end of 2012, and it was with me throughout the first part of that year. I think it’s a text, above all, about the desire to fit in, which is so often in vain: first to the marching band, then the parish chorus, to a group of friends, to some kind of community, to a country. And the parallel desire, sometimes more pressing, to escape from parents, run away from everything given, everything stable. It’s a text constructed from childhood memories from the early eighties. Its tone is of someone trying to describe precisely, without cataloging the experience beforehand, without controlling it, manipulating childhood memories as little as possible, avoiding any embellishment or retrospective rhetoric. In a way, it’s a text that relates an awakening, or better yet, a personal history that sounds like pre-history, because of the great capacity for forgetting that we possess, and because of how foreign some spaces and situations sound now, at least for me, and which nevertheless, thanks to writing, we can inhabit once again.
“Camilo”: I wrote this story in 2012, in Brussels. I have a wonderful memory of that week I spent writing it, based on my own memories and the memories of others. Although their biographies don’t coincide almost at all, Camilo is for me Solano Núñez, a godson of my father’s who for years was, for me, an older brother. It’s also a story about soccer and the bravery of goalies, and the trauma experienced by those of us who grew up wanting to be Cóndor Rojas. It’s also a story about exile; in fact, I wrote it just after a long afternoon I spent talking with two exiled friends.
“Memories of a Personal Computer”: This story is a re-written version of an old story I wrote in 2008. It’s the story of a couple, developed with a focus on the computer they share, at the end of the nineties, back when computers were shared. I was very interested in showing the obsolescence of that world that seemed so stable and modern at the time. It’s also a story about the stubborn persistence of the masculine, or about the obsolescence of the traditional sense of the masculine.
“True or False”: This is also the re-written version of a story I wrote in 2008 or 2009, and here as well the changes are many and varied. This is above all a story, like the previous one, about masculine solitude, masculine ineptness, and most of all about a generation like mine: parents who still believe they are children.
“Long Distance”: Oh, I don’t remember the history of this story very well. But I know it was based on my horrible experience as a teacher at the Itesa Institute, which swindled hundreds of students at the beginning of the year 2000, when I was 25 years old and was also working as a telephone operator at a travel insurance company.
“National Institute”: These are four very different texts about that high school.
“I Smoked Very Well”: This is a text created from a lot of notes I’ve taken the various times I’ve tried to quit smoking.
“Thank you”: I think I wrote this in Mexico City, at the end of 2010.
“The Most Chilean Man in the World”: I wrote this in Brussels at the end of 2012.
“Family Life”: This story is more of a long-term project I’ve been exploring for years. It’s the story I love the most, maybe because it encapsulates all the subjects of my novels: imposture, the desire for roots, the shapes that love takes, generational disenchantment, solitude. I’ve just finished a script for the movie that Cristián Jiménez and Alicia Scherson are going to film this year.
“Artist’s Rendition”: This is a kind of false detective story about the limits of personal experience, about abuse, about the (im)morality of writing. It’s a very important story for me.
McSWEENEY’S: As we were editing the book, you joked that it could have been titled Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. What interests you about lonely characters? And are there any consistent challenges you encounter when writing a story about a lonely protagonist?
ZAMBRA: I had more stories, but I left several out, as I said, and without realizing I wanted there to be eleven, maybe because of Yates’s book, which I love, and maybe because of a Kafka story called “Eleven Sons,” which for me is at the center of the mystery of literature. About solitude I wouldn’t know what to say, except for some very personal things; for instance that these years have been solitary, especially the time I was writing these stories. But returning to literature, I think that solitary characters express a negation that I’m interested in. Because they aren’t characters who want to be alone, or maybe they do, but they don’t know it.
McSWEENEY’S: This is the third book you’ve done with translator Megan McDowell. What do you like best about working with her, other than the fact that she often includes Michael Bolton music videos with her edits?
ZAMBRA: I am truly impressed by Megan’s fanaticism for Michael Bolton. She told me that she listens to “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” at least once a day.
I think the experience with Megan has always been wonderful, better and better, because of her extraordinary understanding of the secrets of Chilean Spanish, which is one of the most difficult versions of Spanish to understand. And for her generosity, her willingness to engage in dialogue. Truly, the best part of 2014 was those days when Megan, you, and I spent many hours every day discussing the translations. It was an amazing moment of collaborative work.
McSWEENEY’S: One of the most compelling parts of this book, I think, is the way in which you capture the human impulse to hide and conceal. For example, in the title story of the book, the main character becomes an altar boy without telling his family. Similarly, in “Family Life,” the main character impersonates his cousin, whose house he is looking after. And then there’s the character in “Memories of a Personal Computer,” who tries to write a letter to his girlfriend, Claudia, but ends up writing several drafts in which he removes content, changes adjectives, and cuts and pastes phrases. When Claudia finds these drafts, he tells her that she’s not allowed to see them because they are “full of mistakes.” I wonder if you could talk about the role of transparency and concealment in the book. For example, in what ways—if any—do you see it as related to the act of writing?
ZAMBRA: I think that writing is more like telling the truth than lying. Or at least it’s more like revealing the tricks, the weaknesses, the masquerade. Or it’s a territory where honesty takes on a greater value, and it’s is no longer about “confessing,” but about showing a greater nakedness, the nakedness that no clothes could cover. The mere fact that a reader is willing to go along with that ambivalence of fiction makes fiction more productive. The most deceitful genre imaginable is autobiography; in fiction you are closer to the truth, because everything you say is, from the start, arguable. Because you are also speaking from uncertainty, from doubt, from arbitrariness.
I’ve always been interested in that limit, from Bonsai on, maybe because lying and hiding is a way of validating oneself, of avoiding solitude. In a way, my generation in Chile was always trying to fake an experience we didn’t have, because we felt the pressure of not having lived the country’s great history, of being secondary characters with no real experience. And later, those of us who studied, for example, literature, had never really read. We had to pretend that we’d read, for example, Proust. That double negation: our parents telling us “you all haven’t lived, you can’t speak because you haven’t lived,” and the teachers telling us “you all haven’t read, you can’t talk about literature because you haven’t read.” I’m extremely interested in reading those tensions in the present, now that we are parents and teachers ourselves.
McSWEENEY’S: When we were editing “Long Distance,” we had a hard time finding the right English word to describe the laughter of one character, Juan Emilio. Was it a chuckle, a guffaw, a snicker? You sent me an audio file to give me a better sense of what you meant. Can I share it with the world?
McSWEENEY’S: You just published a new book in Spanish, Facsímil, and it has an interesting and peculiar structure. What can you tell us about it? Also, what are you working on right now?
ZAMBRA: Facsímil is a book I love a lot, because it moves outside of literature. It’s fiction, but it would be hard to classify it as poetry or novel or stories, because above all it’s a test; it’s based on the Academic Aptitude Exam, the test that we all had to take in Chile in order to apply to college. I started out writing a novel about the time when we were taking the exam, which decided our fate forever, and suddenly I realized I didn’t like it, that I was writing a novel because I’m a writer and I write novels. So then I said to hell with that novel and I started to parody the questions, one by one, in multiple choice format. It’s a provocative book, it’s impossible to read it without making decisions, taking positions. I love that. It’s almost a refrain to say that the reader decides the meaning of a book, but in this case it’s unavoidable; this book has already been read in Chile in very different ways, and I’m happy about that.
I am, for the first time in my life, writing three books at the same time, and I don’t know which one I’ll finish first. One is called Personal Cemeteries, and it’s about personal libraries, about the construction of an identity through the accumulation of books (and the way it can change and become an encumbrance, until you arrive at the idea that you’re living in a cemetery of books). Another is a novel called Unsent Messages that’s turning out to be very long, and the other is a deceptively funny book that’s totally different from anything I’ve done, called Chilean Poet.
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