Interviews

Luisa Valenzuela, The Art of Fiction No. 170

Interviewed by Sarah Lee, Ksenija Bilbija

Luisa Valenzuela, the oldest daughter of a prominent Argentine writer, Luisa Mercedes Levinson, was born in Buenos Aires in 1938. The Levinson home was a gathering place for Argentina’s literary community—Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, among others, were frequent guests—and Valenzuela, an omnivorous reader, started writing at an early age. She published her first story, “Ese canto,” in 1958.

Later that year, having married a French sailor, Valenzuela moved to Paris, where she worked as a correspondent for the Argentine newspaper El Mundo. Her daughter, Anna Lisa Marjek, was born in France. In 1961, Valenzuela returned to Buenos Aires and went to work at another Argentine newspaper, La Nación. She penned a regular feature on the provinces, “Images for the Argentine Interior,” for the paper, and continued to write fiction—her first novel, Hay que sonreír, was published in 1966 and a collection of stories, Los Heréticos, appeared the next year. The two books were translated into English and published as Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel in 1976.

Having been awarded a Fulbright grant to participate in the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, Valenzuela left Argentina again in 1969. While in the program, she wrote El Gato eficaz—portions of that novel have been published in the States as Cat-O-Nine Deaths. After Iowa, she spent a year in Mexico and a year in Barcelona. “I am traveling everywhere. I am too much a gypsy,” the author has said. She returned to Buenos Aires in 1974—the year of Juan Perón’s death and Isabel Perón’s ascent to power—and published a second collection of stories, Aquí pasan cosas raras (Strange Things Happen Here), in 1975. With the 1976 military coup, the political situation deteriorated further—repression became more pervasive, and Valenzuela, whose work until then had escaped the ire of the military, found her next novel, Como en la guerra (He Who Searches), censored.

Valenzuela moved to New York City in 1978, but her fiction continued to be informed by Argentina and the political turmoil of the 1970s. She lived in the city for the next decade teaching at Columbia and New York universities. Cambio de armas (Other Weapons), which includes the autobiographical novella “Fourth Version,” was published in 1982. In 1981 she started work on Cola de lagartija (The Lizard’s Tail), a roman à clef based on the life of Perón’s minister of social welfare, José López Rega, who appears in the novel as the Sorcerer, a man with three testicles. The novel was published in 1983, and was met with immediate and fervent praise.

Valenzuela settled in Argentina again in 1989, and currently lives in the Belgrano neighborhood where she grew up. Her living room is open and warm, its ochre walls adorned with numerous paintings by Puppo, Raul Alonso, Batteplanos, and Lea Lubins. In the background, the patio—overgrown with tangles of vines, roses, and ficus—looks out onto looming skyscrapers. Off of the living room is Valenzuela’s study, where she does all her writing when in Buenos Aires. Two walls of the study are lined with books—written in Spanish, English and French. Another wall is covered with masks, which Valenzuela has collected over her years of travel. Her desk occupies the heart of the room, and seems almost alive with the words and images encased under the glass cover. A computer, as well as piles of open books and letters, sit on top of the desk.

This interview took place over several meetings during the past year. Valenzuela has a beautiful, expressive face, which is framed by dark, unruly hair; she speaks slowly and deliberately, with an unmistakable Argentine accent marked with both sophistication and grit. The first conversation was conducted last September in Wisconsin, when Valenzuela was the guest lecturer at the Midamerican Conference. (A multimedia performance based on her story “Other Weapons” premiered there.) Additional conversations took place during Valenzuela’s frequent visits to New York City: at a restaurant in Soho, over several glasses of sake; at a Chinese restaurant in midtown; and over a brief breakfast in the East Village this September, when she came to the city to write about the World Trade Center attacks for La Nación. In between the meetings, occasional e-mails were exchanged, some in English and some in Spanish, all of them signed abrazos—hugs.

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

LUISA VALENZUELA

I dictated my first poem to my mother at age six. It was about death. Funny I would connect so early with the one unavoidable subject. The poem describes a beautiful woman with all the obvious metaphors of the time; then a bird comes to her window and says, Hacia ti viene la muerte (“death comes toward you”). It came to me just like that—influenced by Poe, no doubt—and my mother wrote it down. My older sister used to read scary stories aloud to make me eat, so maybe that’s where I got the inspiration. In my early years I never thought I would become a writer. Maybe those tales of terror made me decide to write—after all, it’s always better to be on this side of the production line.

I published my first story at age twenty—which was also about death. Death is the ultimate mystery, which, alas, love isn’t, so it’s more enticing as subject matter. We are always trying to have the last word over what will finally have the last word over us.

INTERVIEWER

Your mother was a well-known Argentine writer. What was it like to grow up surrounded by literary figures?

VALENZUELA

One time my mother and Borges composed a story together. I remember the laughter coming from the room they were working in. The story, “La Hermana de Eloisa,” was published in 1955, but neither one of them liked that story much after a certain time, and it was never reprinted in a book. My mother said that the experience taught her how to edit. Borges would come out of the dining room where they were writing and laughing, and say, Today we made significant progress—we wrote one full line. Now I am grateful for that experience—they were so happy writing the story that it impressed upon me that writing is a joyous activity. And it is, for the most part.

INTERVIEWER

What was Borges like?

VALENZUELA

He was a walking system of thought. You could see the way his mind worked, since he was offering it so generously—also in a self-centered way, because he didn’t care to listen much. He monologued in the most splendid and humorous fashion—he seemed so serious, but was full of wit and naughty humor.

I remember the last days we spent in New York with him. Daniel Halpern would be driving us back and forth from NYU to Columbia, and Borges would be posing impossible questions: In what version of what year of this poem did Auden change such-and-such word for another? Things like that. We took care of the frail old man, protecting him from the students, and then in the evenings his future wife, María Kodama, would call and say, Borges wants to go listen to some jazz, or, Borges wants to take a ride in the park. By the end of the stay we were exhausted.

INTERVIEWER

As a child, were you aware of his greatness?

VALENZUELA

Not then. The people who surrounded him—the group that visited our home during those years—were all great. Borges didn’t stand out among the rest; he was so shy. What I do remember are his lectures. I went to every one of them. At times, there would be sudden and long silences; the public suffered, thinking he had lost the thread, but he was simply searching. The minute he opened his mouth again, the exact term emerged like a gem.

INTERVIEWER

His talks were on literature?

VALENZUELA

Yes. Those were Peronist times, and Perón felt threatened by intellectuals. Borges was transferred from his obscure job at a municipal library to inspector of poultry in municipal markets. And since intellectuals do need to earn a living—in spite of the common belief—an organization called Pro Arte organized lectures and courses in private homes such as my mother’s. The feeling was great in spite of the fear—everybody felt like conspirators, keeping all the windows closed, the meetings secret.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a little more about the Pro Arte movement?

VALENZUELA

Things here get lost so easily. There is virtually no trace now of Pro Arte, an association born—honoring the name—to help the artist. Pro Arte started by organizing exhibits, concerts, and lectures in public spaces in the forties. During Perón’s regime, they had to go underground, or at least into the private domain. Many of the great writers were involved—Borges, Ernesto Sábato, Eduardo Mallea, Manuel Peyrou, Conrado Nalé Roxlo, the poets Amelia Biaggioni, María Emilia Lahitte and Eduardo González Lanuza. Also the émigrés from the Spanish Civil War—Arturo Cuadrado, the publisher of Botella al Mar; Clemente Cimorra; Amparo Arbajal. I was very young at the time, but remember them vividly. It was a moveable, motley crowd. They were an impressive lot.

At least once a week they would get together, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. Empanadas, sandwiches and red wine was the usual fare. I remember the ongoing arguments between Borges and Sábato—around politics, around the value of the short story versus the novel. I remember at some point (because of politics and, perhaps, a secret literary rivalry) the situation got out of hand. Pipina Diehl offered a splendid peacemaking dinner, at the end of which she urged Georgie (Borges was called by his nickname while his mother was alive) to apologize. I wasn’t aware that we had quarreled, he answered for everyone to hear, and went on sipping his soup.

INTERVIEWER

How would you compare contemporary literary life in Argentina to literary life back then?

VALENZUELA

Literary life then was passionate. Literature was really alive; it was something to be taken into account, both in the media and the public sphere. Now we run with the times. Individualism is rampant among the writers, and the media pays much more attention to politicians, starlets and comedians—one and the same—than to intellectuals.

INTERVIEWER

Having lived for many years outside of Argentina, what is your conception of home?

VALENZUELA

I lived for over three years in France, one in Normandy and then in Paris. Practically a year in Barcelona. And ten glorious years in New York, from where I moved back and forth to Mexico and, at least once a year, with trepidation, home to Buenos Aires. I don’t miss anything anymore, neither people nor places.

Many writers say that language is their real home. I am all for that notion. During the last military dictatorship it was said that the writers who had left the country would progressively distance themselves from their roots until one day they would no longer be Argentine writers. It was a way of dismissing those voices, the only ones capable of being critical and objective about the regime. I, for one, don’t need my roots deep in the ground; I carry them with me—like the aerial roots of our local clavel del aire.

Anyhow, you can never really return home. Buenos Aires has changed so much that it is no longer my city. It is a good place to clam-in and write, and the mother tongue is crucial. One thing I discovered in coming back is the importance of your own intonations as background noise. I left New York when I started dreaming in English, talking to myself in English, thinking in English. The Argentine language is a home I don’t want to lose.

INTERVIEWER

How has your identity as a writer been influenced by having homes in both New York and Argentina?

VALENZUELA

I always have written on that bridge between two places. For me, it is a necessary position—the displacement and decentering of a single perspective. I often write about Buenos Aires when I am away from it. I know for sure that Clara came to life because I was missing Buenos Aires so much. That novel is so Buenos Aires of the 1940s—the lowlifes, prostitutes, and pimps, the carnivals. Being away gives me a good perspective. Now I am elated writing about New York in Buenos Aires. It’s a way of being in two places at the same time, ubiquity being one of my big dreams in life.

INTERVIEWER

When you lived in New York in the eighties, you taught creative writing at New York University. What was that experience like, considering the fact that you were teaching in your second language?

VALENZUELA

I enjoyed my classes in New York precisely because of the strangeness with the language. It was good both for me and for the students, since we were sharing a frontier. We were breaking boundaries together.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that Argentine writers—Latin American writers in general—have a different way of writing fiction than their American counterparts?

VALENZUELA

Oh, yes. I always am quite disturbed when American reviewers call my fiction surrealist. I consider it realist in excess. Latin American writers think of reality as having a wider span, that’s all—we explore the shadow side of it.

But the real difference has to do mostly with the origins of language. Spanish grammar is different from English grammar. This means that we have a different approach not only to the world, but to the word. At times it is something very subtle, a more daring immersion into the unknown. Un día soprendente, to give a very specific example, doesn’t mean exactly the same as un soprendente día. In English, you cannot even turn around a phrase or leave a dangling participle. Joyce needed to explode the English language to allow its occult meaning to emerge; Cortázar just plays around with Spanish words and grammar for the same purpose. Ours is a much more elastic grammar. English is onomatopoeic, beautifully strict, clear cut. Spanish, on the other hand, is more baroque and allows for ambiguity and metaphor. Does it have to do with the speaker’s character; or is character, as we may surmise, a construction of language?

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about the idea of women’s language?

VALENZUELA

I openly fight for it. I think there is a different charge in the words—women come from the badlands of language. Women know a lot about ambivalence and ambiguity—which is why, I think, good, subtle political writing by women novelists is dismissed in Argentina. Women are expected to console, not disturb the readers.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

VALENZUELA

I think of myself as somebody who is a born feminist but doesn’t like any isms. I don’t want to be obliged to anything. I hate labels. But ever since I was a little girl, I fought my way as a woman; I saw the oppression too clearly. I think of myself as a casualty of that war and I bear my wounds with pride, though I avoid banner waving.

INTERVIEWER

Going back to your time at NYU: what do you think a writer who teaches can offer to a writer in a creative-writing class?

VALENZUELA

You cannot make a writer—it is an innate way of seeing the world, and a love of language, and a lifetime commitment. But the students in those classes already had a writer’s mind, so you could teach them to see what they didn’t see in their own work and move them beyond their own limitations—force them, push them inside the darkest corridors of their imagination, and also motivate them.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever taken a creative-writing class?

VALENZUELA

Never. The streets, journalism, and travel were my classes. I love to roam on my own in the bad neighborhoods of foreign cities. But who knows, a good writer’s workshop could become the equivalent of that, and it might even put you on the right path when you are blocked. Though I’m too proud, too old, and too lazy to even consider such a thing.

INTERVIEWER

You started out as a journalist. Do you think journalism has contributed to your fiction?

VALENZUELA

Not necessarily. Both worlds run parallel for me, but never—as yet—converge. Journalism taught me to be very precise and brief, very attentive to language. At La Nación my boss, Ambrosio Vecino, was a very literary man, a real teacher. He had been Cortázar’s best friend during their college years together. But journalism requires a horizontal gaze; it is absolutely factual. On the other hand, fiction requires a vertical gaze—delving deeper into the nonfacts, the unconscious, the realm of the imaginary. These are two very different ways of seeing the world.

Fiction, for me at least, is the best way to say things. I can be much more clearminded if I allow my imagination to take the lead—never loosing the reins, of course, but at full gallop. I also believe that, if you are fortunate, you can access the unconscious through fiction; in my case, elaborate ideas emerge in a very organized manner. Fiction for me is a way of “writing what you don’t know about what you know,” to quote Grace Paley.

Borges has this wonderful phrase in a short story: “La falta de imaginación los mueve a ser crueles” (“the lack of imagination moves them to cruelty”). Though cruelty with imagination can be the worst of all—just think of certain torturers in our respective countries. As a tool, imagination should only be used by writers, in their writing.

INTERVIEWER

What was Cortázar like?

VALENZUELA

I saw Julio Cortázar for the last time in December 1983. We spent a long afternoon together, and he confessed a strong need to write a novel. I asked him if he had any idea about the plot of his future novel. No, he didn’t, but he had a recurrent dream in which the publisher handed him the printed book, and he glanced through it and found it perfect—he finally had been able to say what he had wanted to say all his life. And it didn’t surprise him at all that the book was written not in letters, but with geometrical figures. He died the next year, on February 14. I remember thinking that the writers who had been honored with his friendship should bring his book into existence—one writer could write the triangle, another the cube, the circle, or sphere, and so on.

INTERVIEWER

How does the writing process work for you? Do you know, for example, when you are starting a novel as opposed to a short story?

VALENZUELA

Yes, absolutely. Well, except for my first novel, Clara. Back then, I never thought I would be able to write a novel, and suddenly the idea I had for a short story needed to branch and develop.

Otherwise the division is clear. You inhabit another realm when you are writing a novel. It’s like being in love—being “in novel.” At times, the need is unbearable. During those periods, I don’t want to write short stories. On the other hand, I might get a spark or an idea for a story; then I need a certain willpower to start pulling the thread, with the exact tension and patience so as to discover what lies behind the glimpse. Cortázar said that when the moment came he had to go to the typewriter and pull the story out of himself as if he were pulling out some kind of creepy creature, una alimaña. It sometimes feels like that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing schedule?

VALENZUELA

Each work finds its own time. For many years I wrote at night. Then I became scared of writing at night, probably on account of the ghosts that you call to mind when you are writing, mostly when dealing with the subject of torture and other dark political issues. I’ve returned to the night shift just recently, and am rediscovering the pleasure of total silence. But I still enjoy jumping out of bed and onto the computer—from dream to word, with no time to repent.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t have any rituals or routines that prepare you for writing?

VALENZUELA

I don’t have a ritual, but I like them a lot. With this postmodern contraption, the PC, I just do a few hands of solitaire as a warm-up. I wish I could play the piano instead.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write straight through from beginning to end?

VALENZUELA

In general, yes. When I don’t write straight from beginning to end, even if doing so takes a couple of years, I know I’m in deep trouble.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise much?

VALENZUELA

This last novel had many versions. It probably has to do with the fact that I write on a computer now. I find it quite degrading, but times are changing. Before, I wrote by hand with a soft fountain pen—I still regret the loss of my old Parker 51, a gift from my father when I turned thirteen. If I needed a certain rhythm, I went to the typewriter. Writing by hand forced me to retype each page at least three times, and each time I retyped it I would hear the pound of the words, and polish them until they reached the perfect intonation.

INTERVIEWER

How does a book start?

VALENZUELA

El Gato eficaz, for example, just started pouring out of me. It was a very intense experience. I was a writer in residence at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and after a couple of blank months, this strange text came into being—and with such unusual language, so wicked and crazy. The words I used in telling that story were so unfamiliar to me that I had to write them down the minute they came. I was writing in elevators, I was writing in the streets, I was writing all over the place, on little notebooks and pieces of paper, trying to get hold of every phrase.

INTERVIEWER

What about Black Novel with Argentines? How did that start?

VALENZUELA

I was in New York and I thought I wanted to write a detective novel à la Chandler, but by the second page my intentions had flopped. I already knew who the killer was and who the victim was and how he had killed her. I knew, and I couldn’t lie to the reader. I realized then that the real, and only, search had to be for the motive of the crime. I went on writing, and not getting any wiser about it. Many times I thought I would have to throw the whole thing away. All the while, these flashes about repression in Argentina kept popping into the mind of my Argentine protagonist, Agustín Palant. Finally, I saw the complete picture—the return of the repressed—and knew I had to be very careful not to spell it out bluntly. Since the story deals with repression it is also about what cannot easily be said. Argentina, like Agustín, needs to know, but doesn’t want to hear.

INTERVIEWER

How do you deal with politics in your writing?

VALENZUELA

When I was young and all of those literary discussions were taking place in my home, the idea of politics in writing was anathema. Only Ernesto Sábato insisted that you could use politics in fiction. For Borges and the people around him, politics was a dirty word. You know, art for art’s sake. So back then I thought that you shouldn’t put politics where your mind was, where your writing was.

Now I know differently. Although the only way to deal with politics in literature is to avoid the message at all costs, without being self-righteous or judgmental. I learned that lesson inadvertently in the process of writing Strange Things Happen Here in 1975. Returning from two years of travel, I was faced with such a violent Buenos Aires that I didn’t recognize my city anymore. I decided that the only way I could understand—or at least have a feeling of belonging—was by writing; I decided to write a story a day, somewhat like an AA program. So I went to the local cafés, where the paranoid feelings were so palpable that any phrase I could pick up triggered a story. Often the phrases I would overhear had nothing to do with what people were actually saying.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean that you misheard them, or that their speech was codified in some way?

VALENZUELA

Both. The basic idea was to work around what goes unsaid yet is there, throbbing. To grasp the underlying paranoia. Usually, I misheard the phrases—but it is true that everything more or less political was said elliptically or in a coded manner. Anyway, what was important to me then were random words that would trigger my imagination. Using black humor, the grotesque, the exasperation of language, I managed to depict the horror of oppression and torture, and reintegrate myself into the reality we were living then. I wrote thirty stories in one month. In the process, I learned how to write politics without giving a message.

INTERVIEWER

Is it important to avoid the message because it makes for better fiction, or because it more easily eludes censorship?

VALENZUELA

I don’t have a real message to give; I don’t know the solution. But if I believed I did, I would write an essay, a column, even a pamphlet—and never contaminate fiction with a message. On the contrary, I believe fiction is a search shared with the reader.

INTERVIEWER

Has your work ever been censored? I’m thinking of “Page Zero,” from your novel He Who Searches.

VALENZUELA

“Page Zero” was a censored page from the Spanish original. In 1979, I was correcting the proofs. The military had taken over in March, and my editor, Enrique Pezzoni, was courageous enough to go ahead with the publication but asked for caution. In “Page Zero,” an introduction that is really an epilogue, the main protagonist is interrogated and tortured. His confession is supposed to be the text of the novel. I agreed with the publisher to pull out “Page Zero,” but we forgot to take it off the table of contents. No one noticed anything; the novel was experimental enough.

Those were bad times for publication. We had to play around the margins of a very diffuse, random but lethal censorship. The publishers of a distinguished house that specialized in psychology and sociology—two very threatened disciplines at that time—went to see the colonel who was in charge of education and culture and asked him for guidelines that could be followed. The colonel was outraged: How can you ask that? You can publish whatever you want. This is a free country, with a free press and freedom of speech. Of course, he added, if some madman or other decided to plant a bomb in your publishing house, there is nothing we can do about it.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about Joseph Brodsky’s claim that good poetry can only be written under political repression?

VALENZUELA

I used to quarrel with Brodsky over that claim. Brodsky would say, with his deep voice, that censorship was bad for the writer but good for literature. That upset me to no end—it may be true in places like the former Soviet Union, where censorship was regulated, but not in countries like Argentina, where censorship was completely random. You had no idea what would not please some military or other, and if something happened to upset them they would go for the kill—your parents, your children, even your friends. I might be ready to put my life at stake for my thoughts, but not everybody else’s. Brodsky would say that a writer who cannot put everybody’s life at risk is not worth the name, and that censorship pushed you to produce tighter metaphors. I think that a writer who cannot find the right metaphor is not worth the name, neither under a dictatorship nor a democracy.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever experienced exile?

VALENZUELA

Once, for a month and a half—it wasn’t much, yet it was difficult to bear. In 1976, I went to New York for the launching of my second book in English, Strange Things Happen Here. Two days after I left Buenos Aires, the police raided my apartment where my daughter was alone with her boyfriend—they were in their teens—and searched everything. They were looking for me. I had been fighting for human rights, hiding people who were in danger, getting crucial information out of the country. Fortunately, it was the police who came and not the paramilitary; they were threatening, but they didn’t take the kids away or harm them. I was advised not to come back. I remember spending a whole night with a Rubik’s Cube, trying unsuccessfully to solve it, as if that would put my life back in place. Eventually, I managed to return to Buenos Aires, only to leave it again—but this time it was my decision. I became an expatriate, not an exile.

INTERVIEWER

A similar scene appears in “Fourth Version,” when the character Bella goes abroad to perform her one-person show.

VALENZUELA

Yes, I do steal from my life at times! In that scene, Bella receives a phone call and is informed that some people are looking for her and that she should not come back. Her attitude and outlook change—she finally acknowledges the weight of her work—and she decides to return to a violent Buenos Aires and fight, with her own weapons, not allowing fear to paralyze her as it paralyzed others.

INTERVIEWER

Conversely, characters and events that originate in your fiction at times transgress their limits, literally invading reality; your novel Bedside Manner, for example, which unwittingly foretold a true military insurrection.

VALENZUELA

That was an ugly coincidence. An uprising of the rebel military took place the day after the book was launched. Since the novel speaks about just such an uprising, my friends claimed I was overdoing it with the promotion of the book.

The novel takes a very pataphysic—you know, never take serious things seriously—approach to reality. The uprisings were very real—the insurgent officers called themselves the Carapintadas, since they smothered their faces with camouflage grease. Everything in Bedside Manner is real—the hyper-hyper inflation, raids for food, the shantytown—except the overlapping of ridiculous situations. There are many other examples. I believe narrative knows better than we all do.

INTERVIEWER

You yourself appear as a character in The Lizard’s Tail. Why?

VALENZUELA

While I was writing The Lizard’s Tail, I realized that the Sorcerer was taking over the novel. This had to do with his choice of words—I had given him the first person, and with it the power over language. I couldn’t fight with him from the outside—it would have been a form of literary cheating—so my only possibility was to get in the novel myself.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “literary cheating”?

VALENZUELA

I was playing a difficult, two-sided game. Not that I was writing an historical novel, but very recent history was at my doorstep, and the novel goes back and forth between the first-person character of the Sorcerer and the omniscient I. But the real person, José López Rega, on whom the character was based was very much alive then, and I just couldn’t distort the facts and kill him in fiction for my convenience. It would have been too easy, and would have spoiled the whole project.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever thought about writing your memoirs?

VALENZUELA

Of sorts. Not literary memoirs. But I’ve written diaries on and off, except for the last ten years or so. I always fantasize about writing travel logs, but then traveling gets the best of me and I don’t write. Also, I’m afraid that writing diaries is a way of avoiding fiction, so when I’m into a novel or a sequence of stories, I forgo the diaries.

But I think my life is literary and adventuresome in many ways, and I would love to tell it—if I could just pass the stage of direct narrative, which bores me to no end, especially because, in this case, I already know the outcome. There is no surprise left. Sticking to facts, however interesting, doesn’t allow me to delve into metaphor, to understand the deeper implications.

The novel I just finished, La Travesía, at first was intended to be a kind of apocryphal autobiography. After a couple of versions, I moved the whole thing from the first to the third person—the protagonist sounded too savvy for my taste, so I abandoned the autobiographical pretense.

INTERVIEWER

May I ask what the new novel is about?

VALENZUELA

La Travesía has to do with secrets. What are the secrets that we want to keep from others and what happens when we try to keep them from ourselves. It’s a bildungsroman of adulthood. This is the first time I’ve dealt with reality, and it was hard for me. The whole plot is invented, but the people surrounding the protagonist are not. I played with those disquieting feelings I used to get from Jerzy Kosinski’s novels—where does autobiography stop and invention start?

INTERVIEWER

Your complete short stories were published recently. How did it feel to see your stories all under one roof?

VALENZUELA

I was very excited to get in touch with my first stories again. Each story has its own independence. Each story is like its own individual, grown up and on its own. When I saw them all together, like a family, I could see the thread connecting them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you regret anything you’ve published?

VALENZUELA

There are so many writers who have burned or disclaimed their first books. Borges, for example. What a nuisance. I am very irreverent; I know no shame in that sense. It would mean some kind of censorship, wouldn’t it? Of course, there are some books I like better than others—some books still surprise me now, as if someone else had written them. On the other hand, I often regret what I haven’t written because I was too lazy or too cowardly. Writing takes real courage and commitment.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.