THE WRITING LIFE ... Richard ZIMLER
RICHARD ZIMLER is a New York-born novelist who has been living in Porto, Portugal, since 1990. A professor of journalism in Porto, he is the author of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Unholy Ghosts, The Angelic Darkness, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, The Search for Sana and The Seventh Gate. The English edition of his new novel, The Warsaw Anagrams, will be published by Arcadia Books in February 2011. Zimler is the co-editor (with Raza Sekulovic) of an anthology of stories, The Children’s Hours: Stories of Childhood (Arcadia Books, 2008).
INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HERNANI PEREIRA AND ALEXANDRE QUINTANILHA
Richard, tell me something about yourself?
I’m a very lucky person: I’m doing what I want—writing—and I can make a living at it. I also get lovely emails from readers all over the world. And my partner and I are still in love after 31 years together. Like most people, I’ve had my share of difficult times, but I’ve managed to survive. And I’m grateful every day for all the good things that have happened to me.
The only advice I usually give to students—if they ask me—is, follow your passions. I mention that because it’s pretty much my personal philosophy. Of course, it isn’t always easy trying to follow your passions. Among other things, being yourself can get you into trouble with all those (generally bitter) people who’d prefer you be someone else! For better or worse, my novels, stories and screenplays are my contribution to the world. I think that all that’s best in me is contained in them (though they aren’t particularly autobiographical).
I met my partner, Alexandre Quintanilha, in 1978, in San Francisco. He’s a scientist. He grew up in Mozambique. We live in an apartment near the sea in Porto, Portugal, the country’s second city after Lisbon. We also have a house with a big garden at the northern border of the country, near a very nice small town called Caminha. Happily, the Portuguese climate allows us to grow lots of exotic plants and fruit trees, because we love to garden. When I’m not writing or gardening, I play the guitar, draw and paint, read, watch CSI and some sporting events on TV, cook and bake. Alex and I also travel quite a bit, mostly around Europe.
You have lived in Portugal since 1990. What led to your move to Portugal?
I really like living here now. But our first years in Portugal were extremely difficult. To explain why, I have to talk a little bit about why my partner and I moved here.
Back in the late 1980s, one of my two older brothers got ill with AIDS. His name was Jerry. He was very unlucky and had become infected with HIV quite early on, probably around 1981. He was living in New York, so I had to fly in from San Francisco fairly frequently in order to help him. Spending so much time fighting to get him decent medical care in a variety of hospitals—some of which were surprisingly disorganised—was very stressful and often exhausting. AIDS was a death sentence back in the 1980s, but I worked very hard for many months—along with our parents and his close friends—to try to save his life. I spent a lot of time talking with researchers and doctors, trying to obtain experimental drugs for him and get him admitted into medical trials. And simply defending his interests with hospital staff, who often seemed indifferent to the plight of their patients, possibly because they were so overworked. After a couple of bad opportunistic infections, he died on May 6, 1989.
My brother’s death was devastating. It wasn’t that we were so close, but he had a dynamic—and often difficult—personality, and I simply couldn’t imagine a world in which he wasn’t around. We’d shared a room as little kids, so I think we’d developed a close identification with each other. Also, the death of a young person has psychological repercussions that are very different from those that affect us after the death of someone who is 70 or 80 years old. His death was a lot more painful and disturbing to me than the death of my parents, many years later. He died at the age of 35. In my experience, when someone you love dies at that young an age, you start to question the justice of the world. You feel cheated. Also, in my case, I became constantly aware of my own mortality. For a long time, it was as if I were carrying Death around in my pocket, and I found it hard to go on with my life. Of course, I did everything we all do to survive—I went to work, made dinner, watched movies on TV ... But I felt disoriented and fragile—and terrified of dying young, like my brother. Complicating things was the devastating extent of the AIDS epidemic in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was impossible to go to lunch or dinner with friends or work colleagues without someone discussing a family member or friend who had recently tested HIV-positive or who was ill. It was as if the Bay Area were slowly losing all its energy and beauty. Alex sometimes says it was like the movie, A Clockwork Orange, where the first half is all shot in beautiful colours and the second half is grey. Well, San Francisco faded to grey during the “viral eclipse” (as I call the AIDS epidemic in one of my novels). So Alex suggested we start over somewhere new. Porto, Portugal, was a natural choice, since he had received an invitation to become a professor at one of the medical schools there several years earlier. We moved there in August 1990.
When I arrived, I was completely exhausted. In addition to my brother’s death, my father had recently passed away after a year-long depression. Happily, when we got to Portugal, people there weren’t talking all the time about AIDS. So I wasn’t constantly reminded of my brother, and, slowly, I stopped feeling the presence of death all around me. Metaphorically speaking, I was able to finally wave goodbye to Jerry (though without forgetting him, of course).
What’s it like living in Portugal?
The cultural shocks of living and working in Portugal were enormous, and—in hindsight—were exacerbated by my own feelings of vulnerability. I started teaching right away, since I’d gotten a job at the College of Journalism. That was a good thing, of course, since it gave me a purpose and forced me to mix right away with the locals. And it brought me a small—very small!—income. But I hardly spoke any Portuguese. And I quickly learned that my students didn’t understand English very well. So I learned Portuguese as quickly as I could. I gave my first year of classes in a mixture of English and Portuguese. I sometimes say that I made more grammatical mistakes in my first year of teaching than anyone in the history of the country, and I think that’s probably true! I often doubted that I was doing a good enough job in my classes, but I did my best. In hindsight, getting through the first couple of years in Porto seems like proof that we all do what we have to do in order to survive.
When I arrived in Portugal, I thought I was a sophisticated person, because I had been to college and had read a lot of books, and had travelled extensively around America and Europe. But I was very provincial in one important sense; I didn’t realise that people from other countries thought differently from Americans about all the important things—life, death, love, sex, solidarity, tolerance, etc. It took me many months to realise that. And to realise that there are many valid and legitimate ways to approach all the important issues in life. The most difficult challenge was making friends. The Portuguese have a different approach to friendship. They are much more formal and guarded than Americans. They protect their personal lives. They will happily talk about subjects like politics, art and soccer, but they won’t talk about themselves—about their regrets, difficulties and joys. They build high walls around themselves, just like they do around their houses. I often say that the distance between “outside” and “inside” is very large in Portugal—both physically and mentally. I’m sure this is due, in part, to the Inquisition, which—over the course of about 250 years—forced those who were free-thinkers, or different, to wear a mask in public and never reveal what they truly felt and believed to anyone outside their family. I also quickly discovered that my Portuguese acquaintances felt very uncomfortable when I talked about my own life—about my difficulties at teaching, for instance, or about my phone conversations with my grieving mother. They didn’t want me to talk about my emotional life. For better or worse, it is impossible for me to establish a solid friendship without being able to discuss my feelings and thoughts, and without the other person reciprocating. So I was simply unable to make close friends for many years. I focused on my writing, my teaching and my partner. I grew very isolated. And lonely.
This need to wear a mask in public—and the inner conflict that such secrecy provokes—is a subject I explore in my novels quite a bit. In general, my experience of moving to Portugal—and getting used to different ways of thinking—has had a huge effect on my writing. And a lot of the effect stems from the kind of culture shocks I suffered during my first few years here. And what I learned about myself is thanks to them.
After the Inquisition, Portugal had a right-wing dictatorship that also forced tens of thousands of people to live inauthentic lives or to go into exile. So the country didn’t start opening up until the Revolution, in 1974. When I arrived, in 1990, the country was still quite isolated, and, in many respects, very backward when compared to the rest of Europe. The illiteracy rate must have been about 20 per cent at the time, and there was a lot of child labour, mostly young boys working on construction sites. It was nearly impossible to buy an international newspaper. And there were no ethnic restaurants of any quality (not even a good Italian restaurant). Virtually everything in Porto—people, food, magazines, TV shows—was Portuguese. Having come from New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, this lack of diversity often made life here seem very limited.
Over the last 20 years, however, Portugal has become a lot more diverse and modern, and the education system has expanded to include most of everyone. The standard of living is much higher than it used to be. These days, it’s much easier for any foreigner to live here. For one thing, we have great ethnic restaurants now: Indian and Italian, in particular, and even good Japanese restaurants. And thanks to the internet, it’s easy for anyone here to keep up with the rest of the world. Also, I learned to speak Portuguese fluently, which helps me feel at home, of course. Happily for me, my writing was accepted right away, which made a big difference. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, my first novel, forced a great many people here to reevaluate the country’s Jewish history. I’m quite proud that it spurred the government to put up a memorial to the Jews killed in the Lisbon Massacre of 1506 (a pogrom in which 2,000 converted Jews were murdered and which serves as the background for my novel). The monument was inaugurated in Lisbon’s central square in 2006, 500 years after the massacre.
I took Portuguese nationality in 2002, and I now have dual citizenship. Living here seems quite easy and natural these days. It’s my home. I love the small towns with their cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses, and the countryside is beautiful, especially the hills covered with olive and cork trees. Portugal is blessed with everything from beautiful beaches to rugged mountains. And it has a mild climate, very much like Northern California. Also, the food and wine are excellent. And I have quite a few good friends. The country is no longer the least bit isolated. I’m grateful that I have been accepted by the people of another country—and that I now have the confidence to be who I am. The experience of making a home outside of America has enriched me in many ways. And speaking a second language fluently has opened up channels in my brain that weren’t there before. Learning another language well is the best hallucinogenic drug—much better than LSD, I think!
When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
My mother saved some of the poems I wrote when I was very little, maybe six or seven years old. So I know I always liked to write. But I also liked to draw and paint, and to sing and play the guitar. So, while I was growing up, I wasn’t sure which creative direction I’d go in. Or if I wouldn’t do something more academic—like study ornithology (I was a crazed birdwatcher as a kid).
As a young adult, I lacked the confidence to believe I could be a novelist. And I lacked the maturity to write something good and important. I’m always amazed when an author who is 25 or 30 years old writes a wonderful novel, because I could never have done that. I wonder how they became so mature!
My lack of confidence was due, in part, to my own personality, and also due to the kind of household I grew up in. My mother lived for books, particularly novels. She had a library of 3,000 or more books. She venerated her favourite novelists—Marcel Proust, Stendhal [19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle], Jane Austen ... For my mother, the great novelists were far more important than the prime ministers and presidents of our world. This had a positive effect on me, in the sense that I always felt comfortable with books and had easy access to a wide variety of novels and history texts. But it also had a negative effect; due to my mother’s veneration, I never thought I’d ever be able to measure up. Who was I to think I could come anywhere close to Saul Bellow or Charles Dickens?
So I only started writing fiction seriously—short stories at first—around 1987, when I was 31 years old. By then, I had acquired more confidence about my own abilities, in part because I’d gotten my master’s degree in journalism at Stanford and then worked for five years as a journalist in the Bay Area. And I knew myself well enough to begin to turn out good work.
It was while writing The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon back in 1992 that I realised that being a novelist was what I wanted to do. I would start writing at around 8:30 in the morning and the next time I looked at the clock it would be 11 a.m. or noon. I felt I was right at the centre of where I needed to be. In general, I think that when someone loses all track of time, that’s a pretty good clue that the person has found what he or she should be doing.
What does it mean to be a writer? What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
Being a writer means dedicating myself to exploring my own relationship with words and storytelling. It means thinking poetically, and putting myself into the mind and body of other people (and seeing the world from their point of view). It means trying to write the best books I can and committing myself to contributing to the world through them.
I love the process of writing—of discovering what the novel wants to be (and what each sentence wants to be!). I say that because when I start a book, I know more or less what’s going to happen in the first chapter, but after that I have very little idea of what’s going to happen. And I haven’t a clue about the ending. So the writing process for me is a process of continual discovery, and because of that, of surprises (some of which led me to unexpected difficulties and dead ends!). Characters can suddenly appear whom I didn’t plan on having in the book. And they can say and do things that I could never have predicted. Of course, I have to control all this to a certain extent—to put all my discoveries at the service of the story—but after writing eight novels, I feel I know how to do that pretty well.
Was it difficult getting your first novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first novel? What about your subsequent novels?
Yes, it was enormously difficult. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was turned down by 24 American publishers. I still have all the rejection letters. Mostly, editors said it was a unique and well-written novel, with great characters, but that it wouldn’t sell. Lisbon in 1506 seemed just too far away to the marketing people at American publishing houses. This was before the time when historical novels started to get really popular. One editor even wrote that he had bought his “Jew book” for the year! (I adore the smug stupidity of that statement.) After getting the novel turned down by every major publisher in New York and many minor ones, I was very depressed, of course. I’d spent a year researching the novel and two years writing it, and then another two years waiting for 24 rejections—five years of my life. I figured I’d written the best book I could and no one wanted it, so obviously, I wasn’t going to be a novelist. But what else could I do? In desperation, I got the names of some Portuguese publishers from two acquaintances of mine. And I sent the manuscript off to the one name that was common to both lists. To cut a long story short, the chief editor there, Maria da Piedade Ferreira, loved my novel and had it translated, so the book came out first in translation in April 1996. After two weeks, it was #1 on the Portuguese best-seller lists. After that, I was able to get a German literary agent to represent me (my New York agent had lost all interest in me and had even stopped returning my phone calls). At the Frankfurt Book Fair that year, my German agent sold rights to publishers in Italy, Brazil and Germany. Later, we were able to find good publishers in England, America and many other countries. By now, The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon has been a best-seller in 13 countries, was named 1998 Book of the Year by three British critics, and has come out in 22 languages. And Maria still publishes my books in Portugal. She says she’s the godmother of my literary career!
You’d think that such success would have made my career go pretty smoothly, but I made the “mistake” of not wanting to repeat myself. In general, publishers prefer “clones” and “sequels.” And so do marketing people and literary editors. It makes their lives easier. But I wanted to write different sorts of books and to explore other themes. And that’s what I’ve done. So getting published hasn’t always been easy (except in Portugal). Some of the subsequent books have sold very well and have been published in many countries, and some have done poorly. It was a huge disappointment to me, for instance, that my novel Hunting Midnight didn’t do well in the U.S., because I really love the characters in that book and the way the story develops. And when a novel does poorly, publishers lose interest. There’s almost no loyalty in the industry. But there’s nothing I can do about that. I have to feel passionate about my characters and themes in order to write a book. That passion gives me the energy it takes to sit at my computer eight hours a day for up to three years or more. I would be completely unable to write a book just to please someone else or to try to fit into a literary trend. I suppose that’s a limitation. But the older I get, the less ambitious I become, so it doesn’t much matter any more. It’s great to have loyal readers all over the world, and their emails are very encouraging—and sometimes extremely moving. I’m happy to sit at home and write every day. I really don’t expect a book of mine to make it into the New York Times best-seller list, or to have success everywhere a book comes out. I no longer have those sorts of goals. Getting everything from glowing reviews to vicious personal attacks has taught me that I have no control over how my work will be perceived. Or whether it will achieve commercial success. So I do my best to let go. It’s been a hard lesson, but mostly I’ve succeeded in learning it.
Your novels are all set in the near and distant past except for Unholy Ghosts and The Angelic Darkness which are set in contemporary Portugal and San Francisco respectively. Which do you prefer: the past, the present, or both?
I need to feel passionate about a story and its characters in order to sit at my desk eight hours a day. So whether the novel or story is set in the past or present doesn’t matter much. All that matters is my curiosity about what the novel wants to become—my absolute need to tell the story. And the feeling that I’m being challenged and having a new and important adventure. Having said that, I do sometimes like to write about the past because I feel I can gain a perspective that is harder to achieve than when I’m writing about the present. When I write a historical novel, I am able to tell a very specific and detailed story, but also to explore big themes like slavery, as I did in Hunting Midnight, or the effect of a repressive political system on love and friendship, as I did in Guardian of the Dawn. The distance from the present time helps me achieve that wide focus. Also, I love reading history books, so doing the research is an added plus.
Tell me a bit about your new novel The Warsaw Anagrams? What was the seed of the novel? How did you go about creating the characters that people the landscape of your fictional universe? Did you know where you were going with the novel as you were writing it or did it evolve on its own? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
The original idea for The Warsaw Anagrams was to write about the day-to-day life in the Jewish ghettos created by the Nazis and, more specifically, to explore the life of an elderly Jewish psychiatrist who survives a labour camp and returns home to a city where he no longer has any friends or loved ones. I was—and am—very interested in how we find the courage to go on with our lives after suffering great traumas. It seems to me a very important topic.
Over the course of my life, I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust, but I knew very little about the ghettos. The more I read about them, the more they seemed like “Jewish islands” cut off from the rest of the world. That image fascinated me. Also, my family’s European relatives were all interned in ghettos before being sent to the death camps, so researching this novel became, in part, a search for how they spent the last years of their lives.
While writing the very first page of the book, the novel changed, however. I was writing from the point of view of Erik Cohen, the elderly Jewish psychiatrist, who is making his way back to his hometown—Warsaw—after surviving a labour camp, and I wrote: I’m a dead man. I meant it metaphorically—that he’d lost his loved ones and his profession and had no more reason to go on with his life. But as soon as I wrote it, I had a revelation: Erik was indeed dead. He was what we call in Jewish tradition an ibbur—a spirit that remains in this world to fulfil a duty or obligation that he failed to fulfil in life. But what was that duty? Why was he still here in our world? After Erik returns to Warsaw, he discovers one visionary man—Heniek—who can see and hear him. So Erik tells the story of his year of life in the Warsaw ghetto to Heniek in order for them to figure out what he still needs to do.
While researching the Warsaw ghetto, I learned that it had a thriving black market, and that many children were forced into a life of smuggling. It seemed the perfect place to set a noir mystery. So the story of Erik’s last year also involves the mystery surrounding the death of his beloved grand-nephew Adam.
One of the books I read to research the novel was Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. In it, he uses anagrams to refer to his friends and to ghetto officials. In part, this was to avoid their getting into trouble (if his writings were ever discovered by the Nazis). But I knew from my studies of Kabbalah that the practice of creating anagrams also fit very well into an old and important Jewish tradition: that certain words and names—like the secret names of God—are so powerful that they can be dangerous. So I decided to explore that connection in the book, as well as another idea that interests me a lot—that the Holocaust has forced us into developing new ways to express the previously inexpressible. So The Warsaw Anagrams also became a book about words and language and—in between the lines—related Kabbalistic traditions.
I am a writer who is very focused on character. I love Erik and several other people in this book, particularly Izzy, Erik’s best friend, who has a great sense of humour. Like many people struggling against an unbearable situation, they aren’t aware of just how brave they are. So through them, the novel also becomes a story of heroism.
So far The Warsaw Anagrams has come out in Portugal and Serbia. It will come out in Brazil in November 2010, and I’ve been invited to the Pernambuco Book Festival to launch it. Then, in 2011 it will be published in Britain, Italy, France and Poland. I’m particularly excited that my Polish publisher has invited me to do a book tour when it comes out. I wonder how my novel will be received there, especially because there remains a great deal of anti-Semitism in Poland.
My local readers and a few key journalists have been especially supportive of the Portuguese edition, and it was named 2009 Book of the Year by our main literary monthly. Our best daily newspaper also named it one of the 20 Best Books of the Decade 2000-2009. And I’ve done about 20 talks at schools over the last six months about the book and the Holocaust. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to talk to young people.
How do you know when a manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text any further?
With experience comes a kind of intuition about your own writing, about when to let a book go, about when the book has ended its journey. As the book gets closer and closer to completion, I begin to envisage the ending, to see what needs to happen—and be said—on the very last page. So when I get there, I know it. It’s like finally arriving at a destination you’ve long imagined. You see the landscape you pictured and you recognise it. Of course, it can take many rewrites to get the ending just right, but I take as much time as I need to make it exactly what I want.
Yes, there is a sense that you’ve done all you can to make your novel as wonderful, moving, thought-provoking and captivating as it can be. There’s nothing more you need to say or do. It’s all there.
I never impose a deadline on myself when I’m writing a novel, and I never give my literary agents or publishers any idea of when the book is going to be done until I’m less than a couple of months away from completing it. I don’t want the extra pressure. And I don’t need stress to motivate me. I guess I’m lucky in that way; I’ve always been an extremely disciplined person, so I don’t need other people’s expectations to get me going at 8:30 in the morning or keep me writing at night.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your novels?
Most importantly, I learned what I want to do with my life: to write, write, write. I’ve also learned a great deal about what provokes my emotions—what kinds of things move me, make me enraged, and make me feel joy. And how to use that knowledge to create works that will have an emotional effect on my readers.
I’ve learned that I’m pretty good at entering the minds of other people and seeing the world from their point of view. And that such a talent can be helpful for my life beyond writing—for understanding my relationships with other people, for instance.
I’ve learned that I can be wrong about a great many things. I’ve discovered what my creative limitations are.
I’ve also discovered that I don’t want to lose time doing things that aren’t important to me, my partner or my writing. So I turn down a lot of invitations to write articles about topics that don’t particularly interest me, for instance. I think part of growing up is learning to say no. In general, I’ve learned to apportion my time so that I have at least several hours a day for my writing.
Now that you have written a novel for young adults, what are the challenges—and pleasures—of writing for this segment of the market?
The biggest challenge for me was to write from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old girl. Teresa, my narrator, is intelligent and witty, but she’s not an adult by any means, so I had to forget just about everything I learned after I reached her age. I had to make use of what I experienced when I was fifteen and apply variants of those emotions and thoughts to her. In essence, it involved quite a bit of personal “time travel”—of going back to when I was in high school, and reliving the difficulties I had making friends and fitting in, and my arguments with my parents and brothers. Of course, I had to relive some good and happy experiences, too, in order to feel the kind of joy and excitement she feels—at making the girls’ basketball team, for instance. The second challenge was bringing everything up to date. The novel takes place in 2009, so Teresa couldn’t talk like a student from the 1970s, when I was in high school. That required a shift of language. And a shift of references, too. For instance, at one point in the book, I had Teresa say that one of the basketball players on the opposing basketball team looked just like Steffi Graf. But then I realised that a girl today probably wouldn’t know what Steffi Graf looked like. So I had to change the reference. My metaphors, too, had to be brought up to date. For instance, Teresa uses quite a few technological metaphors because she is growing up in an age of laptops and cell phones.
Another challenge was looking at the U.S. from the point of view of a foreigner. I think that the 20 years I’ve spent living in Portugal helped me do that. I think I have a perspective on America now that I wouldn’t have had if I were still living there.
Once I finished the sixth or seventh draft of the novel, I showed the novel to two young friends of mine, both in their early twenties. I wanted to know from them if anything Teresa said or did seemed contrived or out of place. Did her sense of humour seem right for a girl in 2009? Were her arguments with her mother believable?
My two young readers challenged some of my word uses and a couple of my references, which was great. I felt much more confident about the book after they had both read it and given me their criticisms.
I had a great time writing the novel because I love Teresa. She’s got a wonderful and wicked sense of humour and she is very brave. It was a great experience to be able to inhabit her mind and body, and to be able to write about America—both its positive and negative aspects—from her point of view.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age? Have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
I started with comic books—Flash, The Fantastic Four, The Justice League, The X-Men and many others. Then, when I was nine or 10, I discovered Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire’s D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths in the dungeon-like basement of our house. The stories about gods and heroes made me want to be able to fly, or turn into a centaur, or look down at my life from a mountaintop in the clouds. So, in a way, they weren’t so different from comic books. But they had a surprising effect on me: as I read more and more mythology over the years, I also started to grasp—in a tingling, childlike way—that these ancient stories were about the potential for transformation, courage, cowardice, sacrifice and love inside me (and in all of us!). From that moment, mythology—and the study of myths—became a big influence on me. Much later, I got my bachelor’s degree in Comparative Religion at Duke University, largely so I could study the ancient stories of other religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, etc. I still love reading the myths and legends of other cultures. One of the reasons I got so much out of writing Hunting Midnight was that it gave me a chance to read stories of the San Bushmen. The great mythologists—authors like Mircea Eliade—also became big influences on me.
Part of why I love to read about the Kabbalah is that it embodies the mythological side of Judaism. Gershom Scholem—who single-handedly made Kabbalistic traditions and practices accessible to non-specialists like me—became an enormous influence on my writing, beginning about 20 years ago. I think I’ve read everything he’s ever written.
Without intending to, some of my novels have achieved a myth-like quality, even while telling a very detailed and specific story. At least, that’s what I’ve been told by several readers, most often with regard to The Seventh Gate and Hunting Midnight. It’s something that I don’t consciously strive for, but I must have put something of my familiarity with ancient storytelling techniques into my books without being aware of it.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction? What do you think distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
I’m very interested in writing at the level of words and sentences, but the entire sweep of a story is also important to me. So I think a great novel is one which has: (i) wonderful and surprising sentences, original metaphors, intelligent ways of expressing emotions and thoughts; (ii) a great story about complex characters; and (iii) something important to say about the world. I often read books that have one of these ingredients, but not the others. It’s particularly common these days to have writers who love to show off their technique—that have sparks flying in every sentence—but who simply can’t tell a story. Or who have nothing to say. Or who have very superficial characters. They love to draw attention to their own skills and talents through their use of language, but there’s nothing deeper in their writing. That irritates me, but it’s a surprisingly popular strategy for success. They get enormous praise from literary editors, but their books bore me after 20 pages. And I suspect their novels will disappear and never be read again in 10 or 20 years’ time.
Tell me a bit about a few of the contemporary authors and books you enjoy reading?
I rediscovered Philip Roth recently after giving up on him about 20 years ago. In his “Nathan Zuckerman” books, he seemed to be writing the same novel over and over again, about a sexually driven and cleverly comic middle-aged Jewish man (usually a professor) who has difficult relationships with women and who feels he is terribly misunderstood by his latest lover, a younger woman ... So I stopped reading him. Then, about a year ago, a close English friend told me to try his more recent novels. So I read I Married a Communist and thought it was great. Then I read Sabbath’s Theater and thought it was even better. It seems to me that Roth has achieved a new maturity. He has stopped writing about only himself. His characters have a new complexity and believability. And he doesn’t always rely on comedy to show how clever he can be and keep his stories accessible (as he used to do). It seems to me that he’s also gained a new faith in his readers: that we don’t need his usual schtick to appreciate his books.
I discovered William Maxwell about 10 years ago and love his writing. He is excellent at expressing feelings and emotions that are hard to put into words. And he is very economical and intelligent. I recently reread They Came Like Swallows. It’s a beautiful book. And I used brief excerpts from it in a young adult novel I just finished writing. I’m really glad that someone rediscovered his novels and put out new editions. I have a feeling that there are dozens of great writers whose books were ignored or forgotten during their lifetimes who deserve to be republished.
Recently, I also discovered Patrick Hamilton. I think The Slaves of Solitude is a great novel. He never draws attention to his own writing, and yet he expresses difficult feelings and thoughts in insightful and original ways. I sometimes think that if Proust had been English and alive during the 1940s, he might have come up with something like The Slaves of Solitude.
In the young adult market, I don’t think David Almond can be beat. His novel, Skellig, is wonderful—very inventive and moving. All of his novels are worth reading. Also, I really enjoyed Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now.
I managed to find a Portuguese publisher for André Brink quite recently. I think he’s a great writer. I recently reread A Dry White Season and loved it. Brink is extremely observant and intelligent, and he creates great characters.
Who are some of your favourite American authors? Why?
Philip Roth and William Maxwell. And William Faulkner. Reading Faulkner taught me a lot about constructing a novel. I’ve always been very grateful to him for that. His Light in August was particularly influential.
For a brief course on American writing that I taught here in Porto, I used Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I love all three of those authors for very different reasons. Miller had a particularly strong effect on me when I was about 25 years old. He’s amusing and quirky, and his use of language is powerful and original. He writes well about sex, which isn’t easy. Discovering Miller was great because he blew the lid off American Puritanism.
As for poets, I love Walt Whitman. And when I was an adolescent, Edgar Allan Poe had a strong effect on me.
Suggest a couple of good reads that you think haven’t got as much attention as they should.
I think Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay’s A Student of Weather is a small masterpiece. She is definitely a writer to keep reading. Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude is a very quiet but brilliant novel. And everything by William Maxwell. Also, there’s an American writer who has published a lot of great short stories and who is enormously talented, Katherine Vaz (Our Lady of the Artichokes and Other Portuguese-American Stories). And everything by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński; The Shadow of the Sun is a masterpiece of intelligent journalism.
Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoy the first time round?
I don’t really have a favourite book. Novels that influenced me a lot include Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Stendhal’s Red and the Black. In terms of nonfiction, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism changed my life.
I reread books fairly frequently. Sometimes it can be extremely disappointing, however. For instance, I recently picked up John Fowles’s The Magus. I read it when I was about 20 years old, I guess, and I thought it was spectacular. This time, I couldn’t get through it. I thought it was poorly written and extremely juvenile in its outlook. On the other hand, the opposite can happen. The first time I picked up Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard about 20 years ago, I stopped after about 20 pages. I thought it was boring. I must have been in the wrong mood, or too young, because when I picked it up again about five years ago, I thought it was beautifully written and extremely insightful.
Do you enjoy reading nonfiction? What kinds?
Yes, I read nonfiction all the time—maybe even more than fiction. I particularly love to read about Jewish and Portuguese history, mysticism, and ancient civilisations. I’m a sucker for anything like Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. When I’m researching an historical novel, I read everything I can get my hands on about that time and place. For instance, for The Warsaw Anagrams, I read journals and diaries of people who lived in the Warsaw ghetto, as well as general studies. And since my main character was a psychiatrist, I read a lot of Freud. Peter Gay’s The Freud Reader was very helpful. And I reread a lot of Gershom Scholem’s books about the Kabbalah, particularly with regard to the power of letters and words.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished a very good book by a Portuguese foreign correspondent and friend. It’s called Caderno Afegão (Afghan Notebook) and it’s by Alexandra Lucas Coelho. She has done a lot of reporting from Afghanistan in recent years—serious and intelligent pieces. Before that, I read André Brink’s recent memoir, A Fork in the Road, which was particularly good on his early years and the difficulties facing post-Apartheid South Africa. Before that, I read an excellent anthology of stories from South Africa called Touch (edited by Karina Magdalena Szczurek), and To the End of the Earth, a history of Jewish settlement in New Mexico. I’ve just started Blake Morrison’s memoir, Things My Mother Never Told Me. So far, it’s very good.
Your new novel, The Warsaw Anagrams, will be published in February 2011. So, what are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished writing a young adult novel about a Portuguese teenager who moves with her parents and younger brother from Lisbon to New York and who has a great deal of trouble adjusting to her new environment. Her name is Teresa. She’s wickedly funny. The worst part of her new life is that she can’t make any good friends. The kids at school make fun of her Portuguese accent and don’t accept her. When she starts drinking, things go from bad to worse. Her one friend is a Brazilian young man named Angel, who also doesn’t fit in. The two of them form a united front against the world, but it isn’t enough.
I also wrote and acted in a short film that was made in July and August 2009 year, and that has just begun to be shown at film festivals. It’s called The Slow Mirror, and it is based on a short story of mine. In early May 2010, it won the Best Drama award at the New York City Downtown Short Film Festival, which was a great surprise. I’ve also written a feature film, but it’s very hard to get money to make movies in Portugal. One good thing: Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros (Pulp Fiction, Henry & June) wants to play the main role. So maybe she’ll be able to find a producer.
At the moment, I’m working with a Portuguese rock star Pedro Abrunhosa, who has asked me to write English versions of the songs on his latest CD. I’m going to his studio tomorrow, in fact, to see how well he can sing the first two versions I’ve written.
Do you think more creative writing programs are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I’m not sure. Living in Portugal, I’ve lost touch with the writing scene in the U.S. and Great Britain. Back in the 1980s, when I was living in California, it seemed to me that the problem with creative writing programs was that they tended to turn out writers who believed there were formulas you could use to write well, and who ended up defining “good writing” the same way. There are lots of possible definitions of good writing, of course, and it varies from one culture to another. I know that now that I live in Portugal and read a lot in Portuguese. But the graduates of American writing programs whom I spoke to didn’t seem to realise that. They came to believe that to write well, you had to write like Raymond Carver or Richard Ford, or like the authors who were getting published in The New Yorker. So they did their best to write just like them. And they thought that anyone who didn’t write like that wasn’t any good. Or wasn’t contemporary.
As for what is happening now in writing programs, I really don’t know.
In general, I think that to become a good writer, you have to read a great deal and write all the time. You have to find your own voice. I think some people will be helped by writing programs and others will simply be stifled. And in any case, most of the novels sold in bookshops—and featured in the book sections of our newspapers—are superficial and poorly written. I don’t think writing programs are going to change that, in part because publishers and editors all over the world have lost their self-confidence—they no longer believe they know what a good book is. So they end up publishing 500 clones of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Stephenie Meyer’s vampire books. It’s easier and safer than discovering and promoting great books.
Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
Yes, absolutely. In a short story, an author has to be very concise, of course. You can’t go off on tangents. You have to exercise more control. When writing a novel, you can allow yourself more freedom. You can take off into unexpected territories. I like both forms, though I prefer to write novels, probably because I like taking off on tangents. I like letting my imagination go. I like discovering the unexpected in my work.
For better or worse, we are now in the age of the e-book. What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
I think readers who are under 25 years of age have a different relationship with technology compared to people who are older. They grew up with sophisticated computers and cell phones and computer games. So they probably like being able to store 50 books on a small device and carrying it with them wherever they go. And they probably don’t mind reading a 400-page novel on a screen. In general, for someone my age, that would be impossible. I can’t read a book on a screen. I like holding it in my hands. So I think that for at least the next 20 years or so, till my generation of readers is in our 70s, physical books will still dominate. After that, maybe e-books will take over, at least in the highly developed world, where high-tech devices are easy to purchase and affordable to the middle class. What all this will mean for countries that are less developed, or ones that are developing quickly—like India and Brazil—I haven’t a clue. Perhaps all this will lead to a more egalitarian world, in terms of access to books and other forms of cultural transmission, which would be good. But perhaps it will make things even more unfair.
I would say that good books tend to have complex and believable characters and exhibit a keen sensitivity to the poetry of language. Bad books tend to be written like television dramas—with cliffhanging scenes of suspense and superficial characters, and a rhythm designed to keep the attention of readers with very brief attention spans.
I have a theory that literature is a lot like fast food: if you grow up on bad hamburgers, then you come to appreciate their taste and think that anything fresher and with less sugar and fat isn’t any good. Or is elitist. In other words, your taste buds adapt to constantly eating fat-filled meat products. You never develop the ability—and good sense!—to appreciate better food. It’s the same thing with readers who think that quality literature doesn’t have a plot, or is snobbish, or is just no good. Their “taste buds” were formed to appreciate the literary equivalent of fast food—Danielle Steel, Dan Brown and hundreds of others. Sometimes, by accident, they pick up a better book, and they realise that literature can be more complex and beautiful, and slowly, they wean themselves off fast food. So I think that we need to make such “accidents” occur more frequently—to make good literature available to kids everywhere. Not force it on them. But make it an option. Some of them will enjoy the experience right away. And the others who don’t, well, they’ll keep filling up on junk food.