It was in Madrid, early noughties, where I first got to know Alejandro Zambra during our MA in Literature. At that time, he was writing a lot in a book that he’d always carry with him and he was writing by hand, in this nice old-fashioned way. Whenever I saw Alejandro in the city, he used to be in the company of his analogue notebook – it seemed like an inseparable union. Speaking to him seemed out of question to me as I was afraid of cutting him loose from a world where his mysterious verses come from, full of feelings and deep emotions.
Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean writer, poet and essayist born and raised during Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship, considered the generation called the children of the dictatorship. In that awful moment in the history of Chile, he attended a famous school for boys only, the National Institute. Against the backdrop of this education – among men only – and the unsustainable political environment, Alejandro Zambra began writing; with a literature against excessive verbosity or stuffing, his novels aim for multiplicity. Writing poetry, novels, diaries, auto-biographies and also screenplays he considers that the genres are like shirts that are always uncomfortable. One day Alejandro told me that writing a book reaches the moment when the shirt finally matches the shape of your body.
Alejandro Moreno Jashés: When we were master’s students in Madrid together in 2001, I thought you were a bit of a loner. Now, when reading your work I realize how that kind of solitude is a sort of protective zone for you, a productive place where you can find some kind of pleasure.
Alejandro Zambra: I never considered being alone as a life choice. On the contrary, I always made plans – until those plans didn’t work out. I do think writing requires some kind of solitude or concentration, or concentration inside a space where, inevitably, we’re alone. But it’s a solitude filled with noises – physical and mental ones. Writing itself feeds on interruptions, contact, conflict. Maybe I need solitude right now – because I’ve been living alone for a few years – but I wouldn’t want to think of myself as a loner. People who have company fantasize about being alone; and the lonely dream of having someone with them.
For me, diaries are an intransitive, confessional space
Moreno: Is there any kind of pleasure in the act of writing? Is it so intimate, there is a sensual aspect in it?
Zambra: There is an almost physical pleasure in writing. I’m always looking to see what the words are ‘doing.’ I still write by hand, even though typing is quicker. This is because of the physical pleasure, the importance of just exercising; that challenge of compelling your hand and your body, which changes: it’s physically painful but it gives a lot of pleasure, too. Pressing down too hard on the pen. It happens with a keyboard as well – pushing too hard, that intensity.
My books always include the image of a bundle in some way or another. Lovers that behave like a bundle in the street… I like those images of merging, of when you want to become the other person, to give yourself over to somebody com-pletely. Also refusing to accept that you’re physically separate and that this separateness is inescapable.
Moreno: Would you say that your novels are biographical in any way?
Zambra: Autobiographyis the most suspect genre of all, it’s the genre most exposed to all kinds of banalizations (both in production and in reception, I mean). I still love reading autobiographies, precisely for that: that illusion of nakedness, that promise. I think all novels are autobiographical in some way, but at the same time they’re the opposite of an autobiography.
At first, when I started writing poetry, I think I was interested in putting various experiences through a filter. I was mistrustful of using the first person; I was looking for a form of expression that wasn’t tied down to referencing anything real or specific. And I still am mistrustful.
Moreno: If you don’t really trust the first person how do you look at diaries, as a genre or for personal use, eventually?
Zambra: I find diaries really interesting as a genre, especially because there’s something unreadable about them. Autobiographies and diaries might be complementary, but they have such radical, significant differences. Keeping a diary means accepting all kinds of fallibilities. Keeping a diary is therapeutic and exhausting at the same time. The author Mario Levrero calls it the genre of boredom, and of solitude.
Writing an autobiography, on the other hand, is always a process of validation, of legitimization. I haven’t practiced either of those genres ‘in public.’ For years now, I have written something in a diary every day, but not like ‘literary thoughts’; I think that’s perfectly boring. For me, diaries are an intransitive, confessional space. It is this tendency that children have, especially teenagers, for writing a diary so they can tell the story of what’s happening to them.
Moreno: Would you start each entry with ‘Dear Diary’?
Zambra: No, but I ought to… Because you’re thrown into it, it’s a very intense image. Today, I wrote in my diary that you were going to interview me and that this was strange, because I would have to talk more than you, because the person being interviewed speaks more than the interviewer… And also that I’d like to interview you, I hope I can interview you soon.
Moreno: We can schedule that in… Would you consider publishing one or some of your diaries?
Zambra: Absolutely not! If I knew I was going to die, the first thing I’d do is to get rid of those diaries. I’d burn everything on the patio and only afterwards would I remember that I’m supposed to be sad because I’m going to die.
I’m not a shy person, really, but when I talk to people who are more entertaining than I am, I sort of go back to being fifteen years old, to a beautiful state of shyness
Moreno: This makes me curious about your possible entry of today…
Zambra: I wrote in it as I was thinking about how I’d answer your questions. It made me laugh to think of that, because every time I talk to you I get tremendously shy. It happens to me with people who are too entertaining – like you. I’m not a shy person, really, but when I talk to people who are more entertaining than I am, I sort of go back to being fifteen years old, to a beautiful state of shyness. But perhaps back then I had a bad time and now I idealize it.
I love listening to people, it’s almost what I enjoy most, but sometimes I talk too much and I’m left wishing I’d listened more…
Moreno: Does anything of what you write in your diary make it into your novels?
Zambra: Yes, of course, yes. I mean, it’s like a sketchbook, too. That’s not its intention; the intention of a diary is more basic: maybe to prevent you pissing other people off, or to make you take responsibility for what’s happening to you, for what belongs exclusively to you, for what you wouldn’t be able to share without hurting the people around. I mean, to live in solitude, to understand it.
More than anything, it’s about lots of faltering steps; and then something of that starts taking shape and then there’s something like a project there.
I start with images, I don’t think about the themes as such, separately. And I don’t know if I could say what the theme or themes are in Facsímil or La vida privada de los árboles. I believe in sketching, in writing coming out falteringly at first, without a pre-planned theme. And sometimes texts appear that seem like poems or novels or short stories.
Moreno: I really like your early poetry. A first collection, Bahía inútil, in 1998 and the second, Mudanza, in 2003, they are so beautiful. I got the sense that they were stand-alone projects. I was wondering what happened to Zambra, the poet?
Zambra: I haven’t published any poetry for many years, but didn’t stop writing it. Well, Facsímil is poetry of sorts; it is just that for years I haven’t written any poetry that seemed publishable to me.
Right now, I’m in the middle of a book called Mensajes no enviados (Unsent Messages). And even though it’s written in prose, it is poetry to me. In any case, I really think the differences between the genres are overstated. If there’s no poetry in prose, there’s nothing.
On the other hand, it’s hard for me to see the books with any perspective. The concept of an oeuvre is a hindrance, a burden. Once I’ve published a book, for example, I forget about it. It’s a child that’s already grown up, it has to make its own place for itself, all I did was write it.
Moreno: Lots of writers are paralyzed by the idea of ‘being faithful to their own work.’
Zambra: Sure, I understand that, but it’s a useless pressure. Sometimes I think all my books are more like drafts or partial installments. At the same time, when I’m working on a book, I think it’s unique and definitive. It’s the same desire, the same intensity but we start to change – the world, especially. I have also thought about something that goes beyond correcting or rewriting, but that’s more like a desire to erase all the earlier books. In that sense, both images are valid: each one of my books is born from the previous one, sometimes literally (from a fragment, from a passage), but also, in a certain way, each new book stands against the one before it. This also goes for the style of writing. I understand that readers tend to focus on recurrences of style, but I see more of the discontinuities: phrases I’d never approach in the same way, words I’d never use again in a particular sense. Basically, it is a long series of differences that, maybe, are only visible to the person writing them.
Moreno: The person who is writing changes. Over the years, it seems that the narrator changes, you have moved from the third person to the first… And in Mis documentos they are mixed together.
Zambra: Sure, you have that question: ‘Who’s speaking?’ Those positions start changing, too. It’s almost the only question I really ask myself about a text. And a good number of texts I’ve initially written in the first person, then changed it into the third, sometimes in the second person. It helps me to ‘see’ the text. In some texts I have played with the effect of confusing the position of the narrator.
Moreno: The short story Fantasía, published in Zoetrope, is the story of a young gay man, in the first person, but you’re not gay.
Zambra: Why are you so sure I’m not gay?
…we men never talk about those intense experiences of touching friends or cousins during childhood, even though they are very beautiful stories of mutual exploration,…
Moreno: [Laughs] Because heterosexual relationships predominate in your books…
Zambra: Well, you’re surer of my sexual identity than I am… [Laughs]. The scene in Mis documentos you are talking about, between two boys, is that kind of story that we heterosexual males hide all the time, because of that ridiculous terror of someone putting your ‘manliness’ in doubt. I think, we men never talk about those intense experiences of touching friends or cousins during childhood, even though they are very beautiful stories of mutual exploration, regardless of whether or not, later on, you like men or women.
In Fantasía I don’t know if I intended to write a ‘gay story,’ even though [the Chilean satirical magazine] The Clinic did then call it ‘Alejandro Zambra’s gay story.’ I just loved the story and I think I first wrote it in the third person, but it didn’t ring true to me. And I wrote it in the first person and I liked it. Also by writing it in the first person I discovered things about the text and about myself that I would never have discovered any other way.
Moreno: During your adolescence you were studying at a famous school, Instituto Nacional (National Institute), an elite place for men only. You mention a gay ghetto in the last year of high school; please tell me more about it.
Zambra: Yes, they were way, way ahead of their time, of that terrible time. We were sixteen years old, it was 1992, imagine what Chile was like then. We were in a packed, triumphalist boys’ school and first there were four of our classmates, then six, who’d gotten used to being bullied horrendously. They suffered terribly and maybe for that reason they decided to be more in-your-face, to define themselves as gay. In Mis documentos, I describe how one classmate shouted to another ‘Shut up, you fat poof,’ and he turned round and replied, in a funny, threatening tone, ‘Don’t you ever call me fat.’ We all split our sides laughing and ever since then everything started to change. The bullying still went on, but in another way. And sure, as the years passed, it became clear that not everyone in that group was gay and that others, who in theory weren’t and who bullied the gay kids, turned out to be gay themselves.
Moreno: This is ironic. Were you accused of being gay?
Zambra: I had a girlfriend so I was ‘free of suspicion.’
Moreno: In the story you say that one member of the group used to send you love letters. Is that true?
Zambra: Yes! And I answered them very politely, telling him I was in a committed relationship, and my friends couldn’t understand it.
Moreno: That whole world of boys’ schools, in those years, wasn’t it very cloistering?
Zambra: Yes, I don’t understand why those schools just for boys, and just for girls, still exist. It’s so anachronistic. I had classmates who barely knew any women.
Moreno: In several of your stories there are reflections about masculinity and sexuality. Sometimes small but significant scenes, like when Camilo, in the story of the same name, tells the boy that if he likes men that wouldn’t be a problem.
Zambra: In stories like Verdadero o falso (True or False) or Recuerdos de un computador personal (Memories of a Personal Computer) men are sort of withdrawn inside their idea of masculinity, they are clumsy, or they are not aware of the profound crisis in their world view. They are clinging to an outdated idea of masculinity like castaways to a plank of wood.
Moreno: Ah, that’s interesting, if we move to your first novel Bonsai, the character Julio makes love to a woman who he thinks is a lesbian.
Zambra: Sure, Julio thinks that, because Emilia reads Severo Sarduy she must be a lesbian, and he tries to screw her like he thinks a lesbian would screw a man. Trying to screw like he thinks a lesbian would.
Moreno: It’s a very parodic scene, because Julio doesn’t discriminate against the woman, he doesn’t seem to be prejudiced. Instead of imposing his sexuality he wants to adapt…
Zambra: Exactly. Julio, in Bonsai, all he wants is to belong. It’s the nineties, you know.
Moreno: Mis documentos is a book about the nineties; are you interested in those years and telling the stories?
Zambra: Yes, of course. The nineties were a time of smudging out. The dictatorship tried to impose all of those stupid discourses, and those discourses erased us. Like the tennis player Chino Ríos saying, ‘I don’t care about it’ all the time, or the ‘young Fuguetians’ [young writers attempting to write in the style of Alberto Fuguet]. The idea was to invalidate us as a generation. They are very false images. I feel that the big theme that united and also separated us was the desire to belong, to belong to anything. To say that we didn’t believe in anything, that we were aimlessly floating around the world, is so facile.
Moreno: Is this what you mean when you write about democracy and adolescence in Mis documentos… That they arrived at the same time: ‘Adolescence was real. Democracy wasn’t.’
Moreno: There seems to be someone who controls your writing, which puts you to the test constantly. Do you have an internal censor or even inner reader, a group of imaginary readers?
Zambra: Perhaps I think more like a reader than as a writer. It’s a cliché, but the urge to write has to do with the desire to read yourself. Maybe it’s an adult version of an imaginary friend…There are times that I think… I think of specific readers, too. Of three or four specific people. I test my texts out a lot, and as well as that I socialize them from the draft stage to the proofs for printing. I must be a nightmare for those three or four people. [Laughs]. And of course, it’s not three or four people. It’s five or six.
Moreno: What do you read – or do you read – while you’re writing?
Zambra: When I’m writing something in particular, when I’m having an ‘attack of writing,’ I reread things that I really enjoy and have read a thousand times, like The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon or The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa; generally books that you can open on any page, like casting the I Ching. Literature is much more collective than it seems, or at least that’s how it has been for me.
Moreno: You have written about the death of Pedro Lemebel, the famous Chilean novelist. What was your connection with him or with his writing?
Zambra: I always got on really well with Pedro, but in this particular text I wanted more to remember what happened to us in the mid-nineties, when Soledad Bianchi gave him to us to read, on a course that didn’t involve reading Chilean authors. ‘If you don’t read him on this course, you won’t read him on any other,’ Soledad told us. Despite everything being against it, Lemebel created an audience. Many of us started reading thanks to him.
Moreno: Can I ask you what you are working on at this moment?
Zambra: To be frank, I am working on lots of things: two novels and a book of essays. For now, I am writing them simultaneously. I thought they were going to join together, but one day I open a file and the next day I open the other and do it like that.
I also wrote a screenplay for the first time, which is going to be filmed now, based on a short story of mine, Vida de familia (Family Life). Well, it’s absurd to say ‘based on a short story of mine’; I didn’t even read the story to write the screenplay.
Moreno: Really? But you know who’s directing?
Zambra: Sure, sure, Cristián Jiménez and Alicia Scherson. It’s strange; two directors. But it has been a very nourishing project for me, I have learned a lot. The film shooting starts right now, in two weeks’ time.
Moreno: And do you think you’ll like the result?
Zambra: I don’t know. It’s strange, the position of the screenwriter, because the film will be theirs. I tried to imagine it very visually, but doubtless it will be their visual imagination that prevails. Let’s see what comes out of it.
Moreno: What do you think about this obsession with adapting novels for the cinema, as if this gives the novel itself some power, or what do you think about the idea of the text being transferred or somehow empowered by being adapted?
Zambra: I find it very annoying, honestly, this idea that literature is like cinema’s little brother. When people say ‘It’s like a film.’ As if a book’s good because it’s filmable. I think you could say that brilliant books are unfilmable and brilliant films can’t be written, they penetrate deeply into visuality. When you publish a book, you lose it; so a film makes you lose it a little more. And there’s a beauty in surrendering like that.
I have fallen in love lots of times, intensely, I have been crazy in love, of course I have…
Moreno: Are you happy?
Moreno: Are you happy writing?
Zambra: Yes, writing and talking with friends. Right now, talking to you after so much time, I’m happy. For me, writing is a space that’s absolutely unconnected to any obligation. I do it because I need it. Because deep down I cannot not do it. If I didn’t write, I would spend all day even more on the edge than I do now. I have a good time writing, although sometimes I do hate it, too. But there is a wonderful moment, when you don’t know what you are saying, when you run out of plans and you are there with the text, something really strange happens. Your intentions almost always dissolve into the writing. The argument or the plotline you plan to write, for example. When I start, I always think that I’m going to talk about something else. That it will have a different tone. But the intention that remains unchanged is the one, too, that keeps me going until the end, intensely. A vaguer way of putting it would be: getting somewhere. I guess, I am much more obsessive than I am methodical or disciplined.
Moreno: And what about love, Alejandro? Does love overwhelm you?
Zambra: I find it very hard to talk about love. Maybe that’s why I write about love: to try to understand it. It’s a cliché but every story is different. I have fallen in love lots of times and I couldn’t set those stories against each other.
One thing that strikes me about memory is how we are constantly demonstrating our propensity to forget.
When I was fifteen, I was completely in love with someone. And if someone from the future would have told me ‘one day you will remember this as just another nice story,’ or ‘you are not going to spend your whole life with this girl,’ I would have thought that messenger from the future was an idiot who knew nothing about life. But looking back at your youth or your teenage years with ‘fondness’ is just yielding to the notion of ‘being mature,’ and I’m against that idea.
We laugh at the things we thought about when we were in our twenties, anchored as we are in the present, as if we are not going to laugh about who we are now in ten years’ time. I have fallen in love lots of times, intensely, I have been crazy in love, of course I have.