Photo credit: Sergio Bastani
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes.
I’ve spent the last seven years moving. Only recently, after the seventh new home, have I begun to ask myself if there might be something a little perverse in this constant relocating: a curious addiction, a mysterious symptom, or just a really dumb habit, which, by the looks of things, I share with my wife. In any case, the motives all seem reasonable enough (a roomier and more affordable apartment in the same city, a new job somewhere else), and we accept them gladly. Later, as we settle into each new place, there’s almost always that mixed sense of disarray and excitement. Of course, when you move house you also move neighborhood and city, even if it is the same city. Before even unpacking the first box, my wife and I will head out for a walk around the nearby streets looking for the closest café and some sign of how our lives might be there. I guess we enjoy the feeling of wonder that comes with being new to a place, the thrill and also the solace of novelty, even if the novelty is thrown into question by our own presence, and by the things we carry with us: our furniture and books, say, or the three or four pieces of art for which we’ll find a space over the next few days, and which offer a certain sense of continuity among all the strangeness.
I mention all of this because I often think of writing in the same terms. When I’m working on a book, I also go and live in it, and each one has windows that face out onto different neighborhoods and cities, and each one is inhabited by characters with whom I live for as long as it takes, until I really know who they are, what makes them tick. I don’t think there is anything more difficult than creating characters who feel alive, and lately I’ve begun to think that this is what sorts the good novelists from the rest. In this sense, one of the worst things about books written by the book — that is, most of what ends up getting published nowadays — is the insistence on “characterization,” that most schematic and impoverishing concept. A character isn’t just a way of speaking or dressing. She isn’t the sum of three or four characteristics, or a traumatic past. The best one could hope to get out of such a formulaic blend are unobtrusive caricatures, inoffensive and predictable creatures who leave us the second we put down the book. To my mind, a book’s longevity has to do with the kind of connection it establishes with real life (“art is what makes life more interesting than art," Robert Filliou used to say), and how better to establish that connection than by means of its characters, their nuances, contradictions, and silences, their ways of inhabiting the present and the past, of making themselves visible or invisible, of dealing with themselves and others?
I don’t think there is anything more difficult than creating characters who feel alive, and lately I’ve begun to think that this is what sorts the good novelists from the rest.
To go back to my earlier point, the only real way for me to get close to my characters is to spend as much time as possible with them. In practice, this means that sometimes I have to write 10 scenes that don’t end up in the book just to begin to discern something about them, or that I carry on writing a scene that’s already given all it can give just to see how the characters act when the party is over and all the guests have gone home. Many filmmakers work along similar lines: they film hours’ worth of scenes, or repeat the same one a 100 times, waiting for a revelatory moment that justifies all of that material, the vast majority of which will be tossed out. Economically speaking, it’s a disastrous method, the least efficient. And yet, it’s also the only one that understands the wait, the false starts, and all those seemingly wasted hours as an essential part of the process. Perhaps that is why I like it, for life is made up of the same stuff.
As for books conceived as houses, what you really need to build them, and to live in them while you do, is a healthy dose of patience and conviction. You also need a whole arsenal of materials that all come together to create the finished product: bricks and pipes, cement and water, steel, and all the rest. That is, desire, memory, and imagination; other people’s stories and your own stories, and the twisting of these stories; curiosity, frustration, rage, fear, and love; the certainty that time ravages on and that we are powerless to stop it. There is no observable formula, no perfect amount of this or that. Every writer decides the dose to mete out, and in that meting out we appreciate the contours of his understanding and sensibility. Some writers' houses are austere, and others full of adornments and useless nooks. Some are dark and others lighter. Some look like they are sure to crumble at the first sign of rain. Many look too alike.
The last move my wife and I made was a couple of weeks ago. "Please, no more for at least a few years," she said, and I, who’d been thinking exactly the same thing, agreed. I’d also been thinking that it’s time, too, to go and live in a new book. A small pile of them, a little mountain of houses, sits beside me on my desk as I write this: Elizabeth Costello
by J. M. Coetzee, The Little Virtues
by Natalia Ginzburg, a collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit
, one of poetry by Claudia Rankine
, and a Spanish translation of Boa Tarde às Coisas Aqui em Baixo
(Good Evening to the Things From Here Below
) by António Lobo Antunes
, the only one I haven’t read, which didn’t stop me from stealing the title for this piece. I envision it as a kind of mantra that I could recite every time I sit down to write.
Good evening to the things from here below, I could say. Good evening to the hours of writing to come, to the aching knee, to the cup of coffee. Good evening to the things that get lost or break, but also to the things that endure. Good evening to the minute details out of which immense books are made. Good evening to the stories that multiply and shift, and which, sometimes, show us what it means to be human. Good evening to all those characters who show or hide their faces. Good evening to the first word, which brings with it another, and then one more.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a Bolivian novelist living and working in Texas. In 2007 he was selected by the Hay Festival as one of the Bogotá39, and in 2010 he was chosen as one of Granta
’s "Twenty-Two Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists." He is the author of Affections
and a collection of short stories. His work recently appeared in the Latin American issue of McSweeney’s
, edited by Daniel Galera, and Words Without Borders
has translated novels by several contemporary Latin American and Spanish authors, including award-winning Laia Jufresa and Rodrigo Hasbún. Her translations and writing have been published in The Guardian
, The Times Literary Supplement
, Literary Hub
, and The White Review
, among others. In 2017 Sophie was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant.