The Millions: Now that you’ve received a fair amount of attention for your books, do you worry more during the act of writing about how it will be received? Or does the recognition validate you, give you a sense of freedom?
Alejandro Zambra: At the moment of writing, I feel completely free. I really don’t think you can write anything genuine when you are under any kind of pressure. What’s more, publishing a book isn’t like giving birth to it; when you publish a book you feel what a father must feel when his son leaves home: you wish him well, you delight in or suffer with his successes and failures, but you can’t do anything more for him. And your daily work is more interesting: the next book, the child you are starting to rear.
TM: Recognizing that any list like Granta’s will be subjective, is there anyone you feel strongly should have been included, but wasn’t?
AZ: Such lists are always arbitrary, and I suppose there are a lot of authors who were worth including in Granta’s, and in the end were not. The truth is it’s an uncomfortable subject for me, because I really don’t believe in lists or rankings. In any case I’d like to highlight the work that younger people have been doing, such as the Chilean Diego Zúñiga or the Mexican Valeria Luiselli (the author of Papeles falsos, one of the best books I’ve read recently).
TM: Not many authors have their books published more or less simultaneously in Spanish and in English, but both La vida privada and Bonsai were. I’m curious about how the experience is different in Chile and the U.S. How does your status as a native or foreigner affect how people read you, do you think? Do you feel more pressure to be “representative” in some way when you are outside of Chile?
AZ: I think both novels are very Chilean, so I’m sometimes surprised that they can be read in other languages. To me, it’s a beautiful thing that readers so distant and different can connect with a book of mine. It’s like sending out thousands of letters, and little by little receiving replies you never expected. I guess some readers in the U.S. or in France want to confirm some prior idea they had about Chile or about Latin America. But books aren’t made to confirm ideas; they’re made to refute them, to question them, to put other images out there where we thought everything had already been said.
TM: Tell us a little about Formas de volver a casa—is it much of a departure from your first two books?
AZ: It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile. It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents. It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess. And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy. I don’t know if it’s very different from my previous books; the truth is I feel like it’s close to The Private Lives of Trees. In fact it starts from there, from some of the intuitions or images of the past that were in that book. Maybe the main difference is that it’s in large part narrated in the first person. It also includes a writer’s diary, a kind of center or heart in which the fiction breaks, and the only thing left is the writer’s voice searching for its origins. It’s my most personal book, without a doubt, although the others were that as well.