An Interview with Daniel Alarcón
There are many facets to stories, and many ways for them to be told. They can, for example, vary in their media, in their structure, and in their content. In At Night We Walk In Circles, Daniel Alarcón plays with a little bit of all the elements: stories in theatrical, oral, and journalistic media; narration with an unconventional approach; and a textured plot taking us through an unnamed South American country, and its many layers therein. All of these pieces combine for a suspenseful -- and brilliantly engineered -- novel about politics, love, and art that makes one think deeply about all of the components of a story.
On a Wednesday afternoon in early November, Alarcón meets me in a café on Eighth Avenue in New York, at the tail end of a very long string of press in the city for At Night We Walk in Circles. He walks through the door carrying a copy of his novel and sits down after he shakes my hand. He speaks evenly, with a quiet intensity to his voice, which seems to somehow fit him after reading his prose -- the slow build of a reveal, with hushed tension holding all along.
By the time we split – he was on a strict clock to head back to the Riverhead offices -- we'd covered narration, planning, and political commentary in writing, but everything about which we've spoken circles back to one theme: writing what is, at heart, satisfying to both the story and the storyteller.
I want to start talking about the narrative structure and the rate of portent. Because you chose this approach, how was creating this rate of reveal different than in your past works?
That's always a tough question and a challenge in writing fiction -- the whole game is the reveal of information. I think that was a challenge in Lost City Radio, it's a challenge in every story I write, it's a challenge even when you write nonfiction. People read in a linear way, especially when you're writing in the past tense -- the story already exists. In the fictional world, it's already happened, so how do you tell it in such a way that you get the maximum bang for every twist and turn in the plot?
In this case, there were two sorts of intentions that were easily identifiable, thematic questions: the first was what was going to happen to Nelson; two, who's telling the story; and a related question was why are they telling the story. I kind of stumbled upon that second set of questions, and I was really happy to, because it kind of gave me a way to keep the tension moving and pushing forward even when I hadn't figured out anything regarding the first question, and vice versa.
So the narrator's place in the work had been in many different iterations before this final iteration?
Yeah -- I didn't know who the narrator was when I started. That was a process of discovery. The question of that narrative voice is one that if you answer it ten pages in, it's not a big deal. But if you don't answer it for 280 pages, then you need to have a really good answer. None of the answers that I originally came up with were satisfying enough.
What was the most surprising part of what you discovered about the narrator?
I knew that Nelson's and the narrator's lives needed to intersect, but I didn't know in what context. When I arrived in T_____, I sort of knew that in this town, they had a shared history. That's when I really started banging my head against the wall trying to figure it out. It was interesting -- it would really keep me up at night, sort of where I'd wake up in the middle of the night wondering who was telling the story. It was a very intense bit of drama for me.
The other thing that I think was important for me was the first chapter ends with this phrase, "And that is when the trouble began." I went back to that sentence so many times because I had to remind myself that the first draft of the novel I'd written was so diffuse, spread in all kinds of different directions -- tangent after tangent after tangent -- and so when I scrapped it all and started again and wrote that first chapter, it was very important for me to use that first chapter as an outline, as a template. I didn't know where the story was going to go, but I knew I had to narrate the trouble. I'd made a promise to the reader that I was going to tell them what that trouble was.
Do you write with an outline?
No, no, no.
You've never written with an outline.
I've never written with an outline.
Are there any other works you looked to during this process that had an unconventional narrative structure or anything that really informed your project in any way?
Yeah, I'd say there were two: One was the middle part of The Savage Detectives, with these kind of polyphonic voices, and lots of talking about Arturo Bolaño and Ulysses Lima -- who are they talking to, and what if you gave voice to that character, the one who is receiving all this information about the protagonist. That was basically one idea.
There is a novel by Heinrich Böll, it's called Group Portrait with Lady. It's really multi-voiced, a narrator who's looking for this woman. You never really know why, and she herself never talks directly to him, but it's a fascinating novel. It's beautifully written, and beautifully translated, and there are some really lovely moments that even strain the conventions of its own narrative structure where you're like, How could he have known that? It's written so beautifully that you kind of suspend disbelief.
I want to go back to something you said about your work keeping you up at night -- it reminds me of Nelson becoming kind of consumed by this play. What was the first project you did that really swallowed you whole in a similar way?
In 1999, right after college, I went to Peru to find out find out what had happened to my uncle Javier. I spent the entire summer talking to people who had known him, doing something similar to what the narrator in this book does, trying to put together a portrait based on voices, talking to family members and political allies and opponents and colleagues all over the map... I went all over Peru and Bolivia looking for people who'd known him.
What spurred the project?
He disappeared in 1999. No one really knew what had happened. I didn't end up writing it as nonfiction, which was my original goal, because the stories were so contradictory. There was so much ambiguity, and there were so many half-truths and so many people who were telling me clearly incomplete versions of what they knew, even people very close to me. But that ended up being the basis of Lost City Radio.
How did understanding storytelling through both fiction and these non-fiction stories re-establish the boundaries of creativity for you?
I think of myself not necessary as a novelist, but as a storyteller. In Spanish, un narrador. And I think especially now that I work in fiction and nonfiction and in radio, to me the pleasure of telling a good story transcends medium and genre, and the pleasure of consuming a good story -- each different medium has its pleasures. Film is different from a pop song, and a pop song is different from a produced radio documentary versus a novel versus a poem or a short story. But there are lessons you take from each medium and apply to others. These days, I'm less interested in it as a book, or it as a short story, or it as a radio piece, than I am interested in telling it in multiple ways or trying to find the most powerful way to tell a story.
I know you spent a significant amount of time in Peruvian prisons for Harper's. Aiming to keep the country in your book unnamed, yet make the political environment still fraught, how did you let that experience inform Circles but not take it over?
Whenever you write a piece for a magazine like Harper's, you know they're going to give you space to tell the story. So then you have to over-research, because you never want to skim the bottom of the barrel in terms of the story you want to tell. There are always numerous stories you want to tell that don't make it into the piece, great details and bits of information you can't shoehorn in no matter how hard you try.
There was one anecdote that I heard, just kind of an offhand observation: someone said to me that the worst smell in the prison was the smell of sex when you weren't having any. And the prison has a number of alarming smells, so for someone to say that was pretty interesting. Someone described to me that on visitors' day, this particular gentleman hadn't had visitors for years, and didn't have the money to own his own cell, so he was basically kicked out of his cell every visitors' day and the person who owned his cell was basically running a love hotel in his cell. So the guy would come back to his cell after a day in the yard watching all of these men receive their visits. Imagine the loneliness of that, and going back to your cell and finding the bed unmade and having the loneliness compounded even further. That was something I heard and was just shocked by, because it hadn't occurred to me what that must feel like. That's the kind of thing that wouldn't fit in a Harper's piece, but became an important fulcrum point between Rogelio and Henry, imagining what might come of loneliness of that depth if it were shared.
At the 2013 PEN Literary Awards in October, executive director Suzanne Nossel spoke about how writers even in the US harbor trepidation to write about certain topics in fear of a backlash -- which is something you can connect to your novel. Do you feel like there are any constraints over what you can write?
No, I don't at all. Even before the NSA stuff came out, I assumed the NSA was doing that. It's a troubling country we live in. It's a beautiful country -- I love this country, but it's troubling. One way or another in this book or in any story I write, there's political content. I often have more political questions than political statements. I don't write propaganda of any kind, but things like that trouble me, and I'm sure I'll write about those things either directly or indirectly in future work.
For example, in Lost City Radio, it was very much a war on terror book. The fact that it was set in this unnamed country, and that everyone talks about it being Peru, that makes it a book abut the Peruvian War, and it is, but it's very much about the war on terror and about racial profiling and the war in Iraq and the clumsiness and the stupidity of entering this conflict. To me, it's pretty obvious that's what the book is about. But because I happen to have this last name, and be "Peruvian," and I am, and there's nothing wrong with that, it's assumed that I'm only writing about Latin America. I'm not. I'm writing about the United States, too.
Even here [in Circles], the only named country is the U.S., and it exists as this place that kind of titillates and tortures Nelson. The fact that none of the book is set in the United States doesn't mean it's not a book that's about the United States. It comments on the United States. There's a strong relationship between the palpable closeness and impossibility of reaching the United States that affects Nelson. The United States and its effect on Nelson's drifting becomes part of the novel -- it is an American novel in some ways.