Gabriel García Márquez on writing
Conversation with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza
writing, inspiration, magic realism
Monday, April 11, 2005 00:05 GMT
[From The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza (London: Faber & Faber, 1988).]
I began writing quite by chance, perhaps only to prove to a friend that my generation was capable of producing writers. After that I fell into the trap of writing for pleasure and then into the next trap of discovering there was nothing in the world I loved more than writing.
You've said writing is a pleasure. You've also said it is pure suffering. Which is it?
Both are true. At the beginning, when I was learning my craft, I wrote jubilantly, almost irresponsibly. I remember, in those days, I could easily write four, five, even ten pages of a book after I'd fmished work on the newspaper around two or three in the morning.
Once, I wrote a whole short story at a single sitting.
Now I'm lucky if I write a good paragraph in a whole day. With the passage of time the act of writing has become very painful.
Why? You would think the greater your skill, the easier it would be to write.
What happens is simply that your sense of responsibility increases. You begin to feel that now each word you write carries more weight, that it influences many more people. .
This is one of the consequences of fame perhaps. Do you find it annoying?
It worries me. In a continent unprepared for successful writers, the worst thing that can happen to a man with no vocation for literary success is for his books to sell like hot cakes. I loathe being a public spectacle. I loathe television, congresses, conferences, round tables.
Yes, those as well. I wouldn't wish success on anybody. It's like being a mountain climber who nearly kills himself getting to the summit. and when he gets there, what does he do? Climb down, or try to climb down, discreetly, and with as much dignity as possible.
When you were young and had to earn your living at other jobs, you used to write at night and you smoked a lot.
Forty cigarettes a day.
Now I don't smoke and I only work during the day.
In the morning.
From nine o'clock to three in the afternoon in a quiet, well-heated room. Voices and the cold distract me.
Does a blank piece of paper distress you as it does other writers?
Yes, it's the most distressing thing I know next to claustrophobia. But I stopped worrying about it after reading some advice of Hemingway's. He said you should only break off your work if you know how you're going to go on the next day.
What is your point of departure for a book?
A visual image. For other writers, I think, a book is born out of an idea, a concept. I always start with an image. Tuesday Siesta, which I consider my best short story, grew out of seeing a woman and young girl dressed in black with a black umbrella walking through a deserted town in the scorching sun. In Leaf Storm, it's an old man taking his grandson to a funeral. The point of departure for Nobody Writes to the Colonel was the image of a man waiting for a launch in the market-place in Barranquilla. He was waiting with a kind of silent anxiety. Years later in Paris I found myself waiting for a letter - a money order probably - with the same anxiety and I identified with the memory of that man.
Which visual image did you use for One Hundred Years of Solitude?
An old man taking a child to see some ice which was on show as a circus curiosity.
Was it your grandfather, Colonel. Marquez?
Is it something which really happened?
Not exactly, but it was inspired by something real. I remember when I was a very small boy in Aracataca, my grandfather took me to the circus to see a dromedary. Another day, when I told him I hadn't seen the ice on show, he took me to the banana company's settlement, asked them to open up a crate of frozen mullet and made me put my hand in. The whole of One Hundred Years of Solitude began with that one image.
So you put two memories together and got the first sentence of the book. How does it go exactly?
'Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.'
You usually attach a lot of importance to the first sentence of a book. You told me once that at times it has taken you longer to write the first sentence than all the rest of the book together. Why?
Because the first sentence can be the laboratory for testing the style, the structure and even the length of the book.
Does it take you long to write a novel?
Not to actually write it. That's quite a rapid process. I wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in less than two years. But I spent fifteen or sixteen years thinking about that book before I sat down at the typewriter.
And it took The Autumn of the Patriarch that long to mature. How long did you wait before writing Chronicle of a Death Foretold?
Why so long?
When the event took place in 1951, I was interested in it not as material for a novel but as a newspaper article. But that genre wasn't very well developed in Colombia at the time, and I was a provincial journalist on a local paper which wouldn't have been interested in the matter anyway. I started thinking about the case in literary terms several years later, but I always had to bear in mind how upset my mother would be at the very thought of seeing so many of her friends and relatives in a book written by her son. Still, the truth of it is that I wasn't really gripped by the subject until, after I'd chewed it over for many years, I discovered the vital ingredient - that the two murderers didn't want to commit the crime and had tried their utmost to get somebody to prevent it, without success. This is the only really unique element in the drama, the rest is pretty commonplace in Latin America. A later cause for delay was the structure. In real life, the story ends nearly twenty-five years after the crime, when the husband comes back to his rejected wife, but it was always clear to me that the book had to end with a meticulously detailed description of the crime. The answer ~as to introduce a narrator who could move freely through the novel's temporal structure: I wrote in the first person, for the first time. So what happened was that after thirty .years I discovered something we novelists tend to forget - the best literary formula is always the truth.
Hemingway used to say you shouldn't write about a subject either too soon afterwards or too long afterwards. Didn't it worry you keeping a story in your head for so long without writing it?
I've never really been interested in any idea which can't withstand many years of neglect. If it's good enough to withstand fifteen years like One Hundred Years of Solitude, seventeen years like The Autumn of the Patriarch, and thirty years like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, then I have no option but to write it.
Do you take notes?
Never, except for a few odd jottings. I know from experience that when you take notes you end up thinking about the notes and not about the book.
Do you correct your work much?
My work has changed a lot in this respect. When I was young, I used to write straight off, make copies, and go back over it again.
Now I correct it line by line as I go along so that at the end ofthe day I have a perfect page with no dirty marks or crossings out, almost ready for publication.
Do you tear many pages up?
An unbelievable amount. I begin typing a page. . .
You always type?
Always. On an electric typewriter. When I go wrong, or don't like a word I've written or simply when I make a typing error, some kind of vice, mania, or scruple makes me take the page out and start a new one. I can waste up to five hundred sheets writing a twelve-page story. Which means, I've never been able to overcome the lunatic idea of equating a typing error with an error of creative judgement.
A lot of writers are allergic to electric typewriters. You're not?
No, I'm so infatuated by the electric typewriter that I couldn't write with anything else now. In generall believe you write better when you have all your creature comforts around you. I don't hold with the romantic myth that the writer has to be starving and all screwed up before he can produce. You write better if you've had a good meal and you've got an electric typewriter.
In your interviews you rarely talk about the books you are working on. Why is that?
Because they belong to my private life. The truth is, I feel rather sorry for writers who outline the plot of their next book in interviews. All it shows is that things aren't going well and they're consoling themselves by sorting out in the press problems they haven't been able to resolve in the novel.
But you seem to talk about the book you're working on with your closest friends.
Yes, I really put them through the mill. When I'm writing something I talk about it a lot. It's a way of finding out where I'm on solid ground and where I'm in quicksand. It's a way of getting my bearings in the dark.
You talk a lot but you almost never let them read what you're writing.
Never. It's become a superstition. In fact, I believe writers are always alone, like shipwrecked sailors in the middle of the ocean. It's the loneliest profession in the world. No one can help you write what you are writing.
Where do you think is the ideal place to write?
I've said this often before: a desert island in the morning and a big city at night. In the morning I need silence, and in the evening a few drinks and some good friends to chat to. I need to be in constant contact with people in the street and know what's going on in the world. This all fits in with what William Faulkner meant when he said'the perfect place for a writer was a brothel, because it's very quiet in the morning but there's partying every night.
Let's talk now about the craft side involved in being a writer. Can you tell me who's been the greatest help to you in your long apprenticeship?
My grandmother, first and foremost. She used to tell me about the most atrocious things without turning a hair, as if it was something she'd just seen. I realized that it was her impassive manner and her wealth of images that made her stories so credible. I wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude using my grandmother's method.
Was it through your grandmother that you discovered you were going to be a writer?
No, it was through Kafka, who recounted things in Gennan the same way my grandmother used to. When I read Metamorphosis, at seventeen, I realized I could be a writer. When I saw how Gregor Samsa could wake up one morning transfonned .into a gigantic beetle, I said to myself, 'I didn't know you could do this, but if you can, I'm certainly interested in writing.'
Why did it attract you so strongly? Because of the freedom of being able to invent anything you like?
All of a sudden I understood how many other possibilities existed in literature outside the rational and extremely academic examples I'd come across in secondary school text books. It was like tearing off a chastity belt. Over the years, however, I discovered that you can't invent or imagine just whatever you fancy because then you risk not telling the truth and lies are more serious in literature than in real life. Even the most seemingly arbitrary creation has its rules. You can throwaway the fig leaf of rationalism only if you don't then descend into total chaos and irrationality.
Yes, into fantasy.
You loathe fantasy. Why?
Because I believe the imagination is just an instrument for producing reality and that the source of creation is always, in the last instance, reality. Fantasy, in the sense of pure and simple Walt Disney-style invention without any basis in reality is the most loathsome thing of all. I remember once when I was interested in writing a book of children's stories, I sent you a draft of 'The Sea of Lost Time'. With your usual frankness you said you didn't like it. You thought the problem lay in your not being keen on fantasy and the argument devastated me because children don't like fantasy either. What they do like is imagination. The difference between the one and the other is the same as between a human being and a ventriloquist's dummy.
Which other writers, apart from Kafka, have helped you develop your craft and taught you the tricks of the trade?
Whom you don't consider a great novelist.
Whom I don't consider a great novelist but an excellent short story writer. One piece of advice of his was that a short story, like an iceberg, must be supported by the part you don't see - all the thought, the study and the material collected but not used directly in the story. Yes, Hemingway teaches you a great deal, even to appreciate the way a cat turns a corner.
Greene taught you a few things as well. We talked about that once.
Yes, Graham Greene taught me how to decipher the tropics, no less. To separate out the essential elements of a poetic synthesis from an environment that you know all too well is extremely difficult. It's all so familiar you don't know where to start and yet you have so much to say that you end by understanding nothing. That was my problem with the tropics. I'd read Christopher Columbus, Pigafetta and the other chroniclers of the Indies with great interest, appreciating their original vision. I'd also read Salgari and Conrad and the early twentieth century Latin American 'tropicalists' who saw everything through Modernist spectacles, and many others, but always found an enormous dichotomy between their versions and the real thing. Some ofthem fell into the trap oflisting things and, paradoxically, the longer the list the more limited their vision seemed.
Others, as we know, have succumbed to rhetorical excess. Graham Greene solved this literary problem in a very precise way - with a few disparate elements connected by an inner coherence both subtle and real. Using this method you can reduce the whole enigma of the tropics to the fragrance of a rotten guava.
Do you remember receiving any other advice?
Something I heard the Dominican writer Juan Bosch say in Caracas about twenty-five years ago. He said you had to learn the craft of writing - the techniques, ways of structuring, the meticulous hidden joinery - when you're young. We writers are like parrots, we can't learn to talk when we're old.
Has journalism helped you at all in your literary profession?
Yes, but not, as is sometimes said, by teaching a more effective use of language. Journalism taught me ways of lending my stories authenticity. Draping Remedios the Beautiful in sheets (white sheets) for her ascent to heaven or giving Father Nicanor Reina a cup of chocolate (chocolate rather than any other drink) before he levitated six inches off the ground - these are really journalistic tricks, and very useful too.
You've always been a passionate cinema-goer. Can the cinema teach the writer useful techniques?
Well, I don't really know. In my case, the cinema has been both help and hindrance. What it did teach me was how to think in images. But, at the same time, I now see an exaggerated zeal for visualizing characters and scenes, and even an obsession with camera angles and frames, in all my books prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
You're obviously thinking of Nobody Writes to the Colonel. . .
Yes, it's a novel which stylistically is like a film script. The characters move about as if a camera were following them and when I read the book again I see the camera. I now believe that literary solutions are quite different from cinematographic ones.
Why do you attach so little importance to dialogue in your books?
Because dialogue doesn't ring true in Spanish. I've always said that in this language there's a wide gulf between spoken and written dialogue. A Spanish dialogue that's good in real life is not necessarily good in a novel. So I use it very little.
Do you know exactly what is going to happen to each character before you write a novel?
Only in very general terms. Unexpected things happen in the course of the book. The first idea I had for Colonel Aureliano Buendia was that he would be a civil war veteran who died while urinating under a tree.
Mercedes told me that when he did die you suffered a lot.
Yes, I knew that a point had to come when I would kill him off but I didn't dare do it. The Colonel was already an old man, making his little gold fishes, then one afternoon I thought, 'Now he's had it.' I had to kill him off. When I finished the chapter, I went up to Mercedes on the second floor of our house, trembling. She knew what had happened the moment she saw my face. 'The Colonel's dead,' she said. I lay down on my bed and cried for two hours.
What do you think inspiration is? Does it exist?
It's a word which has been discredited by the Romantics. I don't see it as a state of grace nor as a breath from heaven but as the moment when, by tenacity and control, you are at one with your theme. When you want to write something, a kind of reciprocal tension is established between you and the theme, so you spur the theme on and the theme spurs you on too. There comes a moment when all obstacles fade away, all conflict disappears, things you never dreamt of occur to you and, at that moment, there is absolutely nothing in the world bet~er than writing. That is what I would call inspiration.
Do you sometimes lose this state of grace during the course of a book?
Yes, and then I start thinking it out from the beginning again. These are the moments when I get a screwdriver and fIx all the locks and plugs in the house or, paint the doors green, because manual labour sometimes helps overcome the fear of reality.
Where does it go wrong?
It's usually a problem with the structure.
Can it sometimes be a very serious problem?
Sometimes it's so serious I'm forced to begin all over again. I stopped writing The Autumn of the Patriarch in Mexico in 1962 when I'd done almost three hundred pages, and the only thing that survived was the name of the main character. I took it up again in Barcelona in 1968, worked on it a lot for six months and left it again because I couldn't come to grips with certain moral aspects of the central figure, a very old dictator. About two years later I bought a book on hunting in Africa because I was interested in the prologue by Hemingway. The prologue wasn't worth much but I went on to read the chapter on elephants, and there was the solUtion to the novel. Certain elephant customs explained my dictator's morality perfectly.
Did you have other problems apart from those related to the structure and to the psychology of the central character?
Yes, there was a moment when I discovered something very serious. I couldn't make the weather in the book hot enough. This was serious because it was set in a Caribbean city where it should have been incredibly hot.
How did you get round it?
The only solution I could think of was to pack up the whole family and take them off to the Caribbean. I wandered around there for nearly a year, doing nothing. When I got back to Barcelona where I was writing the book, I grew a few plants, added a few smells and finally managed to convey the heat of a tropical city to the reader.
What happens when the book you're writing is almost finished?
I lose interest in it for ever. As Hemingway used to say, it's like a dead lion.
You've said that every good novel is a poetic transposition of reality. Can you explain this concept?
Yes, I think a novel is reality represented through a secret code, a kind of conundrum about the world. The reality you are dealing with in a novel is different from real life, although it is rooted in it.
The same thing is true of dreams.
The way you treat reality in your books, especially in One Hundred Years of Solitude and in The Autumn of the Patriarch, has been called 'magical realism'. I have the feeling your European readers are usually aware of the magic in your stories but fail to see the reality behind it. . .
This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs. Everyday life in Latin America proves that reality is full ofthe most extraordinary things. To make this point I usually cite the case of the American explorer F. W. Up de Graff who made an incredible journey through the Amazon jungle at the end of the last century and saw, among other things, a river with boiling water, and a place where the sound of the human voice brought on torrential rain. In Comodoro Rivadavia, in the extreme south of Argentina, winds from the South Pole swept a whole circus away and the next day fishermen caught the bodies oflions and giraffes in their nets. InRig Mama's Funeral I tell the story of an unimaginable, impossible journey by the Pope to a Colombian village. I remember describing the President who welcomed him as bald. and stocky so as not to make him look like the President in powerat the time, who was tall and bony. Eleven years after this story was written, the Pope did go to Colombia and the President who welcomed him was bald and stocky just like the one in the story. After I'd written One Hundred Years of Solitude, a boy turned up in Barranquilla claiming to have a pig's tail. You only have to open the newspapers to see that extraordinary things happen to us every day. I know very ordinary people who've read One Hundred Years of Solitude carefully and with a lot of pleasure, but with no surprise at all because, when all is said and done, I'm telling them nothing that hasn't happened in their own lives.
So everything you put in your books is based on real life?
There's not a single line in my novels which is not based on reality.
Are you sure? Some very bizarre things happen in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Remedios the Beautiful ascends to heaven. Yellow butterflies flutter around Mauricio Babilonia. . .
All that's based on fact. . .
For instance.. ?
For instance, Mauricio Babilonia. When I was about five, one day an electrician came to our house in Aracataca to change the meter. I remember it as if it were yesterday because I was fascinated by the leather belt he used to strap himself on to the poles to stop himself falling. He came several times. On one of these occasions, I found my grandmother trying to shoo away a butterfly with a duster, saying, 'Whenever this man comes to the house, that yellow butterfly follows him.' That was Mauricio Babilonia in embryo.
And Remedios the Beautiful? What gave you the idea of sending her to heaven?
I'd originally planned that she would disappear while in the house embroidering with Rebecca and Amaranta. But this almost cinematographic trick didn't seem viable. I was still going to have Remedios around. Then I thought of making her ascend to heaven, body and soul. The fact behind it? A woman whose grand-daughter had run away from home in the early hours of the morning, and who tried to hide the fact by putting the word around that she had gone up to heaven.
You already explained in some article how difficult it was making her fly.
Yes, she just wasn't getting off the ground. I was frantic because there was no way of making her take off. One day as I was thinking about this problem I went out into my garden. It was very windy. A very big, very beautiful black woman had just done the washing and was trying to hang the sheets out on the line. She couldn't, the wind kept blowing them away. I had a brainwave. 'That's it,' I thought.
Remedios the Beautiful needed sheets to ascend to heaven. In this case, the sheets were the element of reality. When I returned to my typewriter, Remedios the Beautiful went up and up with no trouble at all. Not even God could have stopped her.