Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Tomás, we’re having this conversation by email, not only due to the pandemic, but because several years ago you decided to move far away from Bogotá. Where do you live now? What made you decide to leave the city?
Tomás González: Right now, I am living by the El Peñol reservoir, in a tiny little house a stone’s throw from the water. I spend my time fishing for bass, gardening, and exploring the numerous inlets of the reservoir. Some are hemmed in by pine trees and are imbued with the darkness, silence, and scent so characteristic of pine forests; others are lush and overgrown with native plants: giant ferns, lasiandra bushes, and various trees and shrubs of the Tibouchina lepidota family, not to mention the dizzying variety I am only just getting to know. I travel by boat or by canoe, and recently I acquired a houseboat so that I can spend days and nights here “immersed” in one or another of the remote places in the vast national park created by the reservoir, places where it is possible to spend days without hearing a single human voice or a jet ski, without seeing more than one or two distant fishing boats. The only sounds are the cries of screech owls at night and the subdued rustle of kingfishers gliding over the water in the early morning. Not to mention the stone-curlews and especially the chachalacas, which look set to dethrone the condor as the national bird of Colombia. I have a certain fondness for my fellow humans but have drifted away from them almost without noticing. My fondness for solitude and silence has continued to grow. There’s some- thing of the monk about me, I think, in my need to communicate directly with my spirit without noise or interference, in my need to feel close to nature, and in a taste for alcoholic spirits, common among monks. Two or three swigs of rum or aguardiente while I drift somewhat aimlessly through these solitary places makes me almost happy.
Vásquez: Tell me about the space where you write and about your routine. In a place like yours, how do you spend your days?
González: These days, I have a studio, more of a cupboard, with a little desk set next to an amplifier, facing two high-quality speakers. When I’m writing, I start at five in the morning and work through until noon. Always with music. After that, I do some physical work, housework, gardening. When I am not writing, as at the moment, I take the canoe out two or three times a week to fish and to watch dawn break over the water. I do a lot of things, including reading, keeping in touch with friends on WhatsApp, scaling and gutting the fish I catch, thinking about what I might write or whether I might stop writing, collecting and listening to music, buying things online—bait, fishing rods, hooks—preparing my tots of rum, if that is my spirit of the moment, calmly smoking while perfectly aware that it is bad for my health. I devote my nights to insomnia and occasion- ally to watching the stars. I find the days very short, in that I never manage to do all the things I would like to do. When I am writing, they are shorter still.
Vásquez: You grew up in a house full of books. Your parents were serious readers, all seven of your siblings are as well, and you’re the nephew of Fernando González, a philosopher who is read with veneration in Colombia. When did you first feel that your destiny was a literary one, or did you always know?
González: In the sort of house I grew up in, where books were an everyday topic of conversation, it is almost inevitable that one or more of the children will try their hand at writing. I loved poetry—Federico García Lorca, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, José Asunción Silva, Charles Baudelaire—and my first attempts at writing were poems, or vaguely related to poetry. Something vertical, in any case. I don’t have any of it now, unfortunately. It was like a game. I don’t think I ever took it very seriously, and so I carried on writing, as a game, short stories, as well as “poems.” I enjoyed it, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what my destiny might be. I flunked my engineering studies. I had a little more success studying philosophy while I continued scribbling “my things.” I only realized or, rather, only decided that I was going to devote my life to writing when I wrote and published my first novel, In the Beginning Was the Sea. I was thirty-three.
Vásquez: Can you talk about Fernando González’s presence in your life? You chose to study philosophy in university. How much influence did González have? What kind of relationship did you have back then with fiction and poetry?
González: Fernando lived on a little farm next to ours. He died in 1964 but was a constant presence in my life between the ages of seven and twelve, the most receptive age, the age of wonder. I didn’t read his books. I was much too busy reading Jules Verne, Emilio Salgari, and various others, and I doubt I would have enjoyed or even understood them at that age. I was fascinated by him as a person. All the kids were fascinated by him: my cousins, my school friends, and me. We respected him. I would see him wandering around, observing everything with great calm and with a childlike wonder that, I believe, he never truly lost. I saw the way he interacted with the world, with our neighbours, always friendly, always attentive in the most profound sense of that word. He was a sage. I thought, This is how sages walk; this is how wise men observe. They look attentively, they think, and from time to time they scribble in their notebooks. And what they write, they draw from the world. At that time, Fernando, who had been a voracious reader, no longer read, or read very little. He used to say the world was an open book, and it was through this open book that he wandered. That was his influence.
Vásquez: The publication of In the Beginning Was the Sea is a beautiful story in itself. Can you tell us about the circumstances that led to the book being published the way it was?
González: After much hesitation, because it was a difficult story, I decided to write about the death, about the murder, of my brother in Urabá. At the time, I was unemployed, so I needed to find some kind of job while I was writing, if only to disguise the fact that my wife, Dora, was supporting me. I asked my friend Gustavo Bustamante, who owned the Goce Pagano nightclub on the corner of Calle 13A and Calle 23 in Bogotá, whether he had any work for me in the club, and straight away he gave me a job as a bartender. All that was involved was serving drinks and taking payments. The only training Gustavo gave me was to put big bills in one pocket and smaller ones for giving change in the other—that way I wouldn’t get confused. He also advised me to go easy on the aguardiente to avoid any misunderstandings. I followed both pieces of advice to the letter. My shift would finish at around two in the morning when the doors closed and they turned off the salsa and put on some Mozart or maybe Serrat singing poems by Miguel Hernández, and I’d sit around chatting with friends. At that point, I’d have a few more stiff drinks, and somehow I’d manage to make it home without anyone mugging me along the way. I’d wake up at about nine or ten o’clock with a bit of a hangover, a little guayabo, and I’d go to the bank and deposit the night’s takings for Gustavo, then head home again and write until it was time to go back to the club. When I finally finished the novel, Dora really liked it, and we gave it to Gustavo, who also liked it and decided to publish it. He brought it out under the imprint Los papeles del Goce, which only ever published two books: In the Beginning Was the Sea and something by Jorge Amado. Dora and I and our son Lucas left for Miami before the book launch. I was in Miami when friends started sending me comments, comments that made me really happy. Later, there were two reviews in the newspapers, a rave by Jorge Orlando Melo and an excellent review by Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal. After that, my friend Hernán Darío Correa wrote a review describing it as “the novel that life invented for Tomás González.” A resounding success, at least for me, or maybe I should say a relatively resounding success since the first edition was passed from hand to hand but sold very few copies. Even today, I’m still enormously grateful for those three reviews. In Miami, I started writing Para antes del olvido and have carried on to this day.
Vásquez: In the Beginning Was the Sea was published in 1983. That means you were probably getting ready to publish it when Gabriel García Márquez received the Nobel Prize. You grew up at the same time as that phenomenon we call the Boom: you were twelve when The Time of the Hero came out, thirteen when Hopscotch was published, and sixteen when One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared. What kind of connection did you have with these books and with that generation of Latin American novelists? Were they important to you when writing In the Beginning Was the Sea, or did your influences come from elsewhere?
González: I loved all three of the books you just mentioned, and I read them just after they were published. Those three authors—and obviously the others of the Latin American Boom—had very different styles, and for those of us who were young at the time, they opened up the horizons of literature. The Time of the Hero, if I remember rightly, is concise, precise. Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch is ludic; he was a playful man, a big kid, as people rightly said. Meanwhile, the style of García Márquez was outrageous, delirious. Even if you only count these three, we had a wide range of styles from which to choose. And it’s probable that all three influenced my writing, although I couldn’t say exactly how. But the most powerful influences on me, I think, were William Faulkner and Juan Rulfo. Faulkner looms large in Latin American literature. While the influence of Rulfo can be strongly felt in the work of García Márquez and, to my mind, in the works of Juan Carlos Onetti, Carlos Fuentes, and many others. If they haven’t done so already, someone will say that Faulkner is the father of modern Latin American fiction. Nice quote, isn’t it? And it’s at least half true.
Vásquez: For me it’s more than half true: García Márquez said that one of the borders of Yoknapatawpha County is on the Caribbean Sea, and therefore we can say that Faulkner is a Caribbean writer. His influence is there in Leaf Storm, but also in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and it is there in The Green House, which uses those overlapping voices that appear in The Sound and the Fury. In your case, what did you get from Faulkner? What did you imitate, what did you appropriate, and what did you reject?
González: I loved his style, that snarled, murky swampland that is nonetheless always under con-trol, the control of someone who studied Latin and Greek, who is capable of weaving highly complex sentences, always following the musical cadence and never losing his way. I also love the biblical element of his style. That thing about him studying Latin and Greek is just a guess because I’ve never read a biography of Faulkner. Whatever the case, I was dazzled by his style, but I did not want it for myself. I was searching for a style that was diaphanous, translucent, yet profound—in this I was following in the footsteps of Faulkner—without the style betraying the search for profundity. One thing I did take from Faulkner—and from Honoré de Balzac, another writer I greatly admire—is having the same characters appear in different novels and stories. And it’s not just a game, though it’s that too; the fact of re-encountering these characters lends coherence to the work, to my way of thinking, and more depth to the portraits of the characters themselves.
Vásquez: Let’s talk about Juan Rulfo now. Of all Latin American writers, it seems to me the most obvious presence in your early books is his. Can you talk about it?
González: Sure. To this day, I am still dazzled every time I read his work. I love the way he can say so much with so few words, and the extraordinary poetic heft of those few words. He never strains for effect. I love his black humour. Do you remember the character in one of his stories who is talking about an earthquake and uses the word epic-centre? Or when Pedro Páramo asks the revolutionaries passing through his farm why they have taken up arms, and they answer, That’s all, don Pedro, isn’t that enough? In its way, Pedro Páramo is as boundless as Ulysses. The difference is that while Rulfo takes away as much as he can, James Joyce adds as much as he can. Both are titanic writers. Humorists. Both are poets.
Vásquez: The same year In the Beginning Was the Sea was first published in Colombia, you moved to the United States. You ended up staying for nearly twenty years, the twenty years that tend to be the most fertile in the life of a novelist. What took you there? How did your connection to writing fiction change in those years?
González: I left for practical reasons: in the U.S., I could work and write at the same time. And that’s what I did. For almost twenty years, I spent my mornings writing and my afternoons earning a living. The way I wrote and my ambitions and interests as a writer were already established, so in that sense, moving to a different environment didn’t change things much. In a way, I never left Colombia: I wrote as though I were still living there, stories that took place there. Only many years later did I write about the United States. There is a time lag between experience and literature. Just as there is with an echo, a clap of thunder, or the sonic boom of a plane.
Vásquez: I suppose you’re referring to Difficult Light, which is mostly set in the United States. All your novels, I believe, are novels of families, examinations of that strangest of places that is family relations, but Difficult Light might be the most intimate, the most straightforward. It explores illness, pain—the death of a child—marriage, fatherhood, and, in some way, art. Could you talk a little about the circumstances of your life that led to the origin of that novel and about what happens when we turn our most private and painful experiences into fiction?
González: I wrote Difficult Light in Cachipay about five years after I came back from New York. Nostalgia for a city where I had lived for sixteen years had something to do with it. I wanted to wander those streets again, my streets, sit down and drink a beer in Tompkins Square Park, drink another beer at sunset on the Staten Island Ferry, stroll around Coney Island, Brighton Beach. It’s a long list. But also, and more importantly, I wanted to explore grief and pain because of what I was experiencing, a red, raw pain because of Dora’s illness. Primary-progressive multiple sclerosis, a terrible disease for which there is no cure, one that destroys people, entombs them while they are still alive. Gradually, they lose the ability to move, they lose the ability to see, they lose everything, yet they’re still alive emotionally. I was pretty . . . weighed down, if I can put it like that. They were terrible years. When affected by an illness like that, euthanasia is one of the possibilities that’s always in back of mind, but it is easier to think about than to do. Dora flatly refused to consider euthanasia, despite what she believed before she fell ill about solutions for the terminally ill. She had a powerful love of life, a deep attachment to it. But to get back to the novel: I didn’t want to write anything autobiographical about the illness. I didn’t want to tell Dora’s story. I was too close to it; I wouldn’t have been capable. I wanted to explore, to capture the extreme limits of suffering, to see how a human being would behave when faced with that. And for me, what is most unendurable is the suffering of a child, the death of a child. If some- thing like that does not kill you, if you do not die of grief, how can you possibly carry on living? My pain took form in the character of David, but at a level that I would never have been able to endure. My uncle Fernando lost a son to leukemia, and it all but destroyed him. It was ten years before he was able to write again. I was keenly aware of that death, the death of my cousin, Ramiro González, while I was writing the novel. That Fernando had been able to get through it was proof that it was possible, that human beings have the ability to survive grief and suffering, however overwhelming. As for what we might call the structure or the framework of the novel, I literally drew on the life I’d shared with Dora and Lucas for eight years in our apartment in the East Village, whose windows overlooked a magnificent historic cemetery. The New York Marble Cemetery. You piece together things from one side and the other, and before you know it, you have a story. You have a novel.
Vásquez: Your relationship with readers changed with this novel. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say that you were no longer an overlooked writer. I don’t think an author’s books really change when one attains what is perceived of as success, but maybe there was some change in how you approached your work. After Difficult Light you began publishing more frequently, like a honeymoon with your readers: you’ve published more books in the last nine years than in the previous twenty-eight.
González: In the early years, I had to work just to make a living. In later years, I didn’t need to work, so I spent twice as much time writing. I still write the same way I always did, by which I mean very slowly. I genuinely believe that there is nothing that can change an author’s books. I’ve always thought of being a writer as being like a cyclist in a road race. On his bicycle, he is completely absorbed by his rhythm, concentrating on the road, pedalling furiously. Unless he engages all five senses, he can’t do it. He can’t allow himself to be distracted thinking about other things, about winning or losing for example. And nothing going on around him will change his focus or the rhythm of his pedalling.
Vásquez: What’s your approach? How do you recognize the first intimation that you have a novel in the works? Let’s take The Storm, for example, which doesn’t have the same autobiographical pretexts as Difficult Light. What was the first throb, as Vladimir Nabokov wrote, of that novel, and how much of the story do you know when you start?
González: A subject begins to circle: something I heard or read somewhere, something I remember, someone I met. In the case of The Storm it was meeting a father and his two sons on one of my boat trips on the Gulf of Morrosquillo. This kernel of an idea, this intuition grows stronger each time it circles, accumulating new possibilities, greater complexity, until at last a first sentence appears, and an ending, sometimes definitive, but other times merely possible or nebulous. And that’s the point when I think: I’ve got it, or That’s it. The first sentence of a novel is followed by another and another, which set the tone and rhythm of the story. Now it’s just a matter of pulling on the thread every day, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, until, after two or three years, I have a first draft. With some stories I know enough to be able to work quickly after that first intuition; others need to be researched and left to settle for a time before the writing begins.
Vásquez: Here’s an idea: there are two types of writers, those who add and those who take away. I know I’m in the first category: I start with very strict limits and then, as I discover the novel, other lines come out, other themes, and the chapters start demanding more space. You, I think, operate in the opposite direction: taking away, taking away until you can’t go any further, reducing language to its essence, and the plot as well.
González: I get the impression that it ultimately depends on the writer’s personality. I’m a man of few words. “You don’t even talk when you need to,” they used to say at home. Despite this, I could have been drawn to a lush, dense style, as in Para antes del olvido, for example, but I’ve almost always preferred conciseness. It’s a matter of taste, I imagine, and that depends on the personality of the individual. To this, I should add that I worked as a translator from English to Spanish for several decades. Spanish is more flexible, more organic than English you might say, hence its beauty, but because of this, it is more prolix. Most of the time, translators are forced to dispense with what is inessential, and it becomes a habit. In that sense, my work as a translator helped to define my writing style.
The plot, on the other hand, the narrative thread, can be powerful and move with unswerving causality, as in In the Beginning Was the Sea, or light, weightless, as in Para antes del olvido or El fin del Océano Pacífico. In this, novels follow life. Art imitates nature. In human affairs, causality can be tenuous, capricious, almost non-existent, and at other times, it can be implacable, as in war.
Vásquez: What’s your connection to poetry? Do your novels have something of the essentiality of the poem to them?
González: I like to read novels filled with images, metaphors, novels in which the world of the story unfurls before my eyes. And I try to create this in my stories because, I believe, without this poetic dimension it’s impossible to recreate reality. Without it, the story is flat, schematic, overly rational, and the world is never flat or schematic or rational.
I’ve only ever written—to be precise, I’m still writing—a single manuscript of poems: “Manglares.” Some of the poems are taken almost verbatim from my novels and vice versa, some of the images in my novels come from this collection of poems. In that sense, it is of a piece with the rest of my work.
These days, I only read poetry in those rare periods when poems occur to me and I try to get them down on paper. When that happens, I have to be on a different wavelength to when I am writing novels, more passive, let’s say, or more receptive. It’s like when you become silent and still so birds or butterflies come closer to you. A novel is the complete opposite; it requires energy, a certain drive that, in poetry, would scare off any creature about to appear.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the author of The Sound of Things Falling and The Shape of the Ruins, among other novels, and of the forthcoming short-story collection Songs for the Flames. He has translated works by Joseph Conrad and Victor Hugo into Spanish. His work is published in thirty languages worldwide.
Anne McLean translates Latin American and Spanish novels, short stories, memoirs, and other writings by authors including Julio Cortázar, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Javier Cercas, and Evelio Rosero. Her translations of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape of the Ruins and Héctor Abad’s The Farm will be published in 2018.