Interviews

Manuel Puig, The Art of Fiction No. 114

Interviewed by Kathleen Wheaton

Readers of Argentine writer Manuel Puig have come to expect certain constants from this highly versatile novelist: innovative narrative techniques, dark comedy, and a preoccupation with the effects of popular culture, particularly film, on the human spirit. He was born in 1932 in General Villegas, a small town on the Argentine pampas, and began studying English at the age of ten in order to better understand the American movies he saw every afternoon with his mother. In 1946 he went to Buenos Aires to an American boarding school and then to the University of Buenos Aires, where his interests expanded to include literature, psychology, and philosophy. But his primary ambition was to direct films. In 1955 he went to film school in Italy on a scholarship. The school proved to be a disappointment; he left Italy and traveled to Paris and London, working on screenplays and supporting himself as a language teacher and dishwasher. Puig then returned to the Americas, going first to Buenos Aires and later to New York, and began writing fiction. His first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, an autobiographical account of his provincial childhood, was published in Buenos Aires in 1968.

Over the next twenty years, Puig lived in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, New York and Rio de Janeiro and wrote seven more novels: Heartbreak Tango (1969); The Buenos Aires Affair (1973); The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976); Pubis Angelical (1979); Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages (1980); Blood of Requited Love (1982); and Cae la noche tropical (1988), which has not been published yet in English. Puig's early passion for the movies is evident both in his narrative style, which relies heavily on dialogue, and in the lives of his characters, where the glamorous and idealized world of films serves as a counterpoint to their own disappointments.

Puig has lived very little of his adult life in Argentina, but all of his novels, with the exception of Blood of Required Love, are about Argentina or Argentines coping with exile. When we met in Puig's home in Rio de Janeiro, I was struck by his very Argentine manner: a grave courtesy and reserve that set him apart from the more free-wheeling Brazilians. He is slender, with a handsome, tanned face and expressive dark eyes. He doesn't care much for interviews, but he did agree to three meetings at six-month intervals. The first he agreed to on the condition that we confine it to a morning's conversation. The morning in question was a cool, rainy Saturday in May, 1988. We sat on comfortable sofas at one end of a pleasant living room with a polished tile floor, many plants, and a poster of Argentine tango idol Carlos Gardel on one whitewashed wall. The interview began somewhat formally in Spanish, and loosened up a bit when we switched to English. As we talked, I saw why it was that interviews exhausted him: he is attentive, thoroughly engaged, and careful about choosing precisely the word he wants, even in a foreign language. When he hits upon it, his face lights up.

 

INTERVIEWER

What is the difference between movie and book material?

MANUEL PUIG

In my experience, an epic story translates very well into film. Realistic novels—the kind made up of small details and constructed using a certain analytical approach—don't make good films. Films are synthesis. Everyday grayness, everyday realism is especially tough to translate to the screen. I remember discussing this once with a filmmaker, who said, “Yes, but look at the realistic films the Italians made, such as De Sica's Umberto D.” I disagreed. There's nothing of everyday grayness in Umberto D—it's about suicide, about deciding whether to kill yourself or not. It's an epic film disguised as an everyday realistic one. What I like to do in my novels is to show the complexity of everyday life; the subtexture of social tensions and the pressures behind each little act of ours. That's very difficult to put into film. I feel much more comfortable with films dealing with allegorical, larger-than-life characters and stylized situations. 

INTERVIEWER

Is that why you liked American films of the 1940s?

PUIG

Sure. They were dreams, totally stylized—the perfect stuff of films because dreams allow you the possibility of a synthetic approach.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever found that the dialogue of those 1940s films helped with fictional dialogue? 

PUIG

I learned certain rules of storytelling from the films of that time. Mainly how to distribute the intrigue. But what interests me more about those films is examining the effect they had on people.

INTERVIEWER

On the people you grew up with?

PUIG

Well, yes—on my characters. My characters have all been affected by those cinematic dreams. In those days, movies were very important to people. They were their Mount Olympus. The stars were deities.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously you were intrigued by movies as a child. What about books?

PUIG

One of the very first books I read was André Gide's Pastoral Symphony. In 1947 he won the Nobel Prize. At the same time a film had been made of the novel, so he had come into the territory of my immediate interest, which was, of course, film. I read the novel and was immensely impressed. Soon after, I remember being impressed by Faulkner's The Wild Palms. Such contrasting authors—Gide all measure and economy, and Faulkner sprawling all over the place.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read The Wild Palms in English?

PUIG

No, I read Borges's Spanish translation, which is a beautiful work. I read Faulkner's other books in English. I never went back to The Wild Palms, but for me it's always an example of intuitive writing. 

INTERVIEWER

So a writer's imagination is either calculated or intuitive?

 PUIG

It goes from one extreme to the other. In between you have all these shadings. I have trouble reading fiction these days. So I've lost that immense realm of pleasure. Thank God I still enjoy movies and plays.

INTERVIEWER

You mean you don't read any fiction now?

PUIG

Writing has spoiled the pleasure of reading for me, because I can't read innocently. If you are an innocent reader, you accept the fantasy of others; you accept their style. These days another writer's problems of style immediately recall my own stylistic problems. If I read fiction, I'm working; I'm not relaxing. My only sector of interest now is biographies. Those I read with great relish, because the facts are real and there is no pretense of style.

INTERVIEWER

Even your later novels are concerned with 1940s films. Do you ever go to contemporary movies?

PUIG

Rarely. I simply got tired of walking out in the middle. It's a pity, because I know I may be missing some good things, but the price of viewing hours and hours of trash is too high. Of course, I receive films from all over the world—very strange films from Barcelona, Rome, Los Angeles, London. I barely have time to see them. 

INTERVIEWER

People send them to you because they know you like old movies?

PUIG

Yes, I've established a network. There are many like me who are interested in certain periods and nationalities. For instance, I'm extremely interested in Mexican films from the forties and fifties. The world doesn't know what it's missing. There is a very silly prejudice against certain movie nationalities, so many films are simply discarded, though they're gems. In fact, I think the best Latin American films come from Mexico, at least from that very particular period. From a sociological point of view, the Argentine films are also of interest to me. 

INTERVIEWER

There isn't much news from Argentina in the Brazilian papers. I wonder if you feel as remote here, in a neighboring country, as you might in Mexico or New York.

PUIG

New York is totally removed. Mexico feels closer.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find it easy to adapt yourself to different cultures?

PUIG

I learn languages easily, except German. My experience in Rome, New York, and Mexico was that you have to either integrate yourself or leave. For me there's always this desire to belong and become part of the country. Here in Brazil I had a very bad experience with the literary establishment and at the same time a very positive one on the human side. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the bad experience?

PUIG

I published a book with a Brazilian setting called Blood of Requited Love; the literary establishment here decided to ignore it, as if it hadn't even been published.

INTERVIEWER

Wasn't the Josemar character in the novel a carpenter who worked on your house? 

PUIG

There are very few words in the book that are not his. I simply edited our conversations. Mainly my job was to bring all the material out of him, put him in a mood to talk and express himself.

INTERVIEWER

Did he ever read the book?

PUIG

He barely reads. It was odd because he received a huge amount of money. He made more money on that book than I did. I thought it was going to be a big success—here, especially—so we made a fifty-fifty arrangement. But then he preferred to get a fixed amount and with that he bought himself a new house. It was ironic, because his tale was about the loss of a house; by telling it he got a new and better house. I felt very good about all this. Not only had I written a new novel, but I had helped someone. I expected gratitude, at least to inspire a warm feeling. But it wasn't the case.

INTERVIEWER

He felt burdened by your help?

PUIG

He tried to blackmail me. After the book was published, he said he'd had threats against his life and had had to give people money. I reminded him of the contract, which said that he was responsible for any references made to living persons. I had changed the names of the people and places, there was no publicity about his identity. That was enough to dissuade him. What he'd said was all lies. If it had been true, he would have come to me in despair. Thank God I had a very good contract. I was really appalled. The fact of telling me the story, of unburdening himself, was already positive for him. What's more, I paid him per hour while he was talking.

INTERVIEWER

The reverse of psychoanalysis. 

PUIG

Yes. And on top of it all he got a house, which was so symbolic of all he had lost. The book is really about the loss of a father, so similar to my own Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. I felt terribly identified with him. I always write about people who somehow reflect my problems. In general they are similar to me, though I make many changes. In this case, the guy was Brazilian, not Argentine. He was thirty, not fifty. He was extremely strong and handsome; I am not. He has fantastic health, which I don't have. He was illiterate; I was supposed to be a writer. He doesn't question machismo, while machismo for me is the basic question of my existence. What we shared was this father problem—a ghost of a father. By the end there was such a brotherhood between us. It came to nothing as far as human relations go, but I'm very glad it happened because the novel has a certain interest; and I'm glad because I helped him.

 INTERVIEWER

Was the process of writing that novel different from that of your other books?

 PUIG

Very much so. I'd never worked with a tape recorder. With Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages there was also a real character present, but the writing process was different. I created a character myself—the old man Ramirez—so I could establish a dialogue with him. I didn't have much trouble feeling and imagining myself as Ramirez, because in 1978 and 1979, when I was working on the book, I was going through a very dark period.

 INTERVIEWER

So you wrote the novel from the dialogue that was going on between the two of you as one between Ramirez and this other person.

 PUIG

We practically wrote it together. He was beside me the whole time; it was a sort of psychodrama typed as it happened.

INTERVIEWER

Using this extraordinary method, how do you control your material? 

PUIG

If you know a character—as much as it's possible to know another—and you put that person into a certain circumstance, you should be able to predict the reaction, especially the verbal reaction.

INTERVIEWER

Doesn't the book take all sorts of unexpected turns?

PUIG

It should be the opposite. It should be a situation where, well, I know all about them and I can probably guess what their reactions would be in a given situation. So it's just a matter of watching. But of course, they are delicate relationships. You cannot impose anything on characters. They help you, they give you all, but you have to respect them.

INTERVIEWER

So you get to know your characters and then turn them loose? 

PUIG

You should be able to put a character in a situation that never happened in real life and predict what that character would have done or said. 

INTERVIEWER

What if a person you're interviewing says or does something different from what you had in mind?

PUIG

Both in Blood of Requited Love and Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages I didn't have anything that the characters hadn't said. Of course, I did my own weaving. The yarn is presented by the characters and I work with that.

INTERVIEWER

What most writers like about fiction is the idea of making up characters and having them do whatever they want. 

PUIG

Oh, no, no, no, no. I try to respect my characters. If you know them well, you won't make them do any nonsense.

 

INTERVIEWER

If you're reproducing real conversation verbatim, what is the difference between this kind of fiction and . . . well, documenting?

PUIG

My characters' ways of thinking and talking have their musical and pictorial qualities. I take these qualities and I do my own embroidery. In aesthetic terms, a writer can use any method he wants. What counts, and what makes it fiction, is how it's done. The writer who uses the third person in his fiction is using an orthodox, established method or code. I am interested in the individual kinds of speech, however flawed and limited, of real people. That may limit me, but the use the writer makes of whatever method is limited only by his talent.

 INTERVIEWER

What kind of characters do you pick as these “collaborators”?

 PUIG

I can only tell a story about a character who reflects my most burning problems. I believe in characters as vehicles of exposition. Their voices are full of hidden clues, and I like to listen to them. That's why I work so much with dialogue. What they don't say sometimes expresses more than what they do say. Mine is not the classic third-person voice.

 INTERVIEWER

Obviously you have to edit them.

 PUIG

In my novels I try to reproduce everyday language. Of course, there's a certain concern about length. You can't have people expounding on themselves forever in novels the way they do in real life.

 INTERVIEWER

Is it easier to write in the first person?

PUIG

Yes. When I deal with first-person dialogue and I know the character well, it's just a matter of lending an ear.

INTERVIEWER

You prefer not to have the novelist in the novel?

PUIG

I'm not interested in listening to my voice that much. I have no ego.

INTERVIEWER

But the voice of Manuel Puig is always there.

PUIG

My view of things comes out in the long run, let's hope. I remember at the beginning of my career a very nasty established writer said, “Oh, I know how Manuel Puig's characters talk but how does he talk? He doesn't have a persona.” I thought the world of movies and acting provided the pure height of vanity, but I was mistaken.

INTERVIEWER

There's a lot of jealousy among writers.

PUIG

They're supposed to be people with more insight and distance, but it's not always the case.

INTERVIEWER

In some of your novels, particularly The Buenos Aires Affair, it seems as though people live in an artistic world because they can't live in the day-to-day world. Do you ever yearn for a life that has nothing to do with art?

PUIG

It's not a solution. With that book I meant to suggest there are other sources of energy and strength. But a life totally devoid of the imagination would be very boring.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think fiction can show people how to live?

PUIG

Direct experience is best, but then you'd need a thousand lifetimes. Books have that wonderful quality of showing you other lives. They can be a great nourishment.

INTERVIEWER

What are the easiest and hardest parts of writing for you?

PUIG

The beginning is exciting because I get an idea. Then I start looking for the shape to use to present it. The content always comes from the form, in my case. I think it should be like that, but I know other writers work differently. Then comes the critical moment, when I look for the voices of the narrators. Sometimes it's easy; sometimes not. If I find the narrator quickly, that's great, but it doesn't always happen that way. I have to find a voice that convinces me, and that's very difficult. Only when I believe in the narrator does it fall into place. Actually, the hardest part of writing for me is the typing and tidying things up. I don't dare try a word processor. I find it useful to type the different drafts—going from the rough draft to the second. As you're typing a clean copy you make decisions. I have been writing novels for almost thirty years, and I'm used to a certain technique of polishing. I've been told, “Try that machine, that processor, you'll love it.” But not yet. Maybe next time. I like to keep track of the first draft. I like to see the scratching in ink. I do a lot of scratching.

INTERVIEWER

Are your revisions very radical?

PUIG

It depends. Kiss of the Spider Woman had almost no corrections. I wrote that novel with the greatest ease. The Buenos Aires Affair and Pubis Angelical were the toughest, because there were many changes in narrators. The last one, Cae la noche tropical, came out quite easily.

INTERVIEWER

How much of the book do you have in mind before you start?

 PUIG

Most of it. But with this last novel, something very peculiar happened. I was shaping it, working on a real character—Ferreira in the book—but then he just disappeared. I couldn't get all the information I needed from him. So somehow another interesting person—actually someone I was considering for another story—came into the picture. I thought perhaps I could shift him into this novel. Absolutely accidental. But then he disappeared. It was very, very strange. Both were people in the neighborhood whom I could talk to and both of them disappeared. But that gave the final shape to the novel. The fact that they would disappear was essential. It was their nature. At a certain point they couldn't take the responsibility and they would leave. So it was reality, absolutely dictating the course of the novel. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. But it wasn't a problem; it turned out to be an advantage.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that people are determined by their circumstances?

PUIG

This is the awful thing: we are all so determined by our culture. Mainly because we learn to play roles. For me it starts with the very unnatural and hideous sexual roles. I think that sex is totally banal, devoid of any moral meaning or weight. It's just fun and games, innocence itself. But at a certain point somebody decided that sex has a moral weight. A patriarch invented the concept of sexual sin to distinguish between the saintly woman at home and the prostitute on the street.

INTERVIEWER

And men have a very different morality applied to them?

PUIG

Men are subject to no morality! A man full of sexual energy is a stallion, a model of health. A woman with strong sexual needs, up to a certain time ago, was considered a victim of her glands. She was not trusted, because it was thought that if she had sex so easily there must be something wrong with her, physically and mentally. The minute sex becomes of moral importance, horrible problems are created needlessly. The principle of sex is pleasure, that's all. I consider sex to be an act of the vegetative life, vegetative in the sense of eating and sleeping. Sex is as important as eating or sleeping but as devoid of moral meaning.

INTERVIEWER

At the end of Pubis Angelical, when Ana realizes she's sexless, like an angel, she begins thinking about the people whom she loves. It seems like you're saying that once people get over sex they can begin to love each other.

PUIG

Yes, once that problem is settled—or you don't imagine it as a problem. Once you've eliminated sex as a means of superiority or inferiority, sex is of no meaning.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think eliminating sex roles is possible in this world?

PUIG

At this moment, it's only a utopian ideal. But I see it as the only answer. The changes since 1968 point to that. You're very young; you don't know what this world was like in the forties. I remember very intelligent women saying strange things such as, “I cannot enjoy sex unless I fear a little the man who embraces me.” There was all this myth of the macho superiority.

INTERVIEWER

Both sexes accepted it.

PUIG

Since you learned to enjoy sex that way, as an act of possession, it was something you wouldn't argue with. The general belief is that it was an unfair situation for women, but a natural one. If you went against it, you were unnatural. A woman had to be soft and surrender, and that way she would achieve pleasure. Afterwards, with experience, she would begin to find something phony in all this. So then she'd try to get even in some other way. We are so immersed in sexual repression, it's impossible to think of a world without it—but it will come.

INTERVIEWER

In The Kiss of the Spider Woman, there is a little utopia created under dire circumstances in the prison cell. Did you feel that Molina and Valentin transcended their traditional roles?

PUIG

It happens. I'm not just fantasizing; what I know comes from experience.

INTERVIEWER

If you weren't a writer, could you imagine yourself in another occupation?

PUIG

Something I'd enjoy? I'd like to sing, but I have no voice. Or maybe play an instrument. I'd enjoy anything creative. I wasn't bad at drawing, but I never developed it.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you become a writer? Do you feel it's something you need to do?

PUIG

For me it was a blessing. At first, I thought films were my thing, but I didn't like the work on the set and collaborating with lots of people. So I decided to write film scripts. I never sold them; they were training, preliterary practice. Later when I finally started writing novels I found them to be the great solution—because what I'd wanted to do all along was to tell stories. With images, or with words, it didn't matter; I like to recreate reality in order to understand it better. But writing was something I could do on my own. I could do all the revisions I wanted and without the pressures of budgets. I could make a living out of it, and also it was an enjoyable activity. Of course, there are the secondary aspects which are a little bothersome.

INTERVIEWER

Like being interviewed?

PUIG

Well, more or less. Even worse is the accounting, dealing with the publishers, all that. But what's really a bore and downright unpleasant is the relationship with the critics. They can be very irresponsible people. There are exceptions, but few. I've been rescued in a way by the colleges. There you find a different attitude. But it comes much later; when you've just published a book, what you feel immediately is the contact with the press.

INTERVIEWER

Universities don't pick up books for several years.

PUIG

No, and their reaction doesn't have much impact. But it's wonderful to know that somebody accepts your work. The reviewers from newspapers and magazines just want to amuse the person who buys the paper. They do it at the expense of the authors. Many, many times it's dishonest as well, because the critics belong to groups that don't like you—it's a horror. I'm published in twenty-four different languages, so I know critics. In Spanish I have to deal with the attitudes of the Mexicans, of the Argentines, of the Chileans. Each Spanish-speaking country has a special syndrome. I don't find it stimulating at all.

INTERVIEWER

Do you worry much about this?

PUIG

Well, critics have power, unfortunately. With time the book will outlive anything. But they have the power to retard it a lot. I've had a very bad relationship with the critics. I don't have to say thank you to them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that writing is something that can be taught?

PUIG

No, but you can discuss it. What I did when I taught at City College and at Columbia University was to discuss my own experiences and then suggest exercises. I don't like to go into a classroom and sit and listen to somebody reading.

INTERVIEWER

Did teaching help your writing at all?

PUIG

It always does, because you're always discussing the questions that plague you.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like for you to teach Americans?

PUIG

I found it interesting because I could see what their phobias, fears and problems were. I've found that in both America and Latin America, the young writer usually doesn't like the System, with a capital S, in his country. But in Latin America the possibility exists of actually shaking that system, because Latin American systems are shaky. Young writers who don't like the American way of life feel impotent, because it's really tough to shake Wall Street. You may not like Wall Street, but it works somehow. That's also the case in countries like Germany. Ironically, Latin American countries, in their instability, give writers and intellectuals the hope that they are needed. In Latin America there's the illusion that a writer can change something; of course, it's not that simple.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a reader in mind when you write?

PUIG

I could say that each novel has been written for somebody, to convince somebody in particular. It's almost an act of seduction. If not seduction, at least an attempt at explaining something to somebody.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about your schedule as a writer. Do you write every day?

PUIG

I adore routine. I cannot work away from it. It has to be the same thing every day. It takes a long time for me to wake up, so in the morning I write letters, revise translations—things that don't demand too much. At noon, I go to the beach and swim for twenty minutes. I come back, eat, and take a nap. Without that nap there is no possibility of creation. From four to eight I really work. Then I have dinner and that's it. I cannot work after eating. I stop and see something on the video machine. I hate to interrupt this for weekends. Then it's very hard to go back to work.

INTERVIEWER

You can't pretend that the weekends are weekdays?

PUIG

Friends take me out of my routine.

INTERVIEWER

Which of your novels do you like best?

PUIG

It's difficult to say. There isn't one I dislike more than the others. They all have their problems, but I must admit if I published them it's because I believe that there's something worthwhile in them. That I cannot hide from you.