Santiago Central

Image is Everything: An Interview with Alejandro Zambra

You should be reading Alejandro Zambra, one of Latin America’s hottest young writers. He talks to Juan Vidal about how he writes, why his books are short, and adapting his work for film.

02.28.14 9:00 PM ET

“Dear Juan”, writes Alejandro Zambra. "Everything sounds ok. I can answer in my poor English. I certainly prefer to write, to express myself, in Spanish, but I promise I will make my best effort. Maybe you can translate the rest? I am leaving now for Chile and we can talk in five days.”

For the last several decades, Chile has yielded some of the finest and most bizarre literature in the world. From the harrowing stories of Isabel Allende and Roberto Bolaño, to the authoritative poetry of Pablo Neruda, the nation has made its indelible mark. Alejandro Zambra, selected as one of Granta's Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists, is not only adding to its diverse heritage, he’s spearheading a generation.

With three novels published and translated in English to date, Zambra has become a source of pride for Chile and its place in the world of letters. He’s been praised by the likes of Junot Diaz and Daniel Alarcón. His most popular novel, Bonsai, was the winner of the 2006 Chilean Critics’ Award and also shortlisted for the 2009 Best Translated Book Award. Oh, and in 2011, acclaimed writer/director Cristián Jiménez made it into a film of the same name. These feats, among others, have cemented him as an artist whose talents continue to push the limits of effective storytelling.

You started out writing poetry, correct?

Yes, I did. Poetry came naturally to me at a young age. And I read it a lot. Fortunately, I was exposed to many of the excellent Chilean poets growing up; in particular, Jorge Teillier, Enrique Lihn, and Gonzalo Millán. And of course Nicanor Parra, the antipoet. They were all very different from one another, which I liked. I was also drawn to the work of Ezra Pound and Robert Creeley.

When did you start focusing more on fiction? One thing about your books is they often read like prose poems. Do you make a conscious effort to give them a poetic slant?

The kind of poetry I used to write was not far from prose. And anyway, I try not to draw a dividing line between fiction and non-fiction. Like many writers of my generation, I just don’t see the need to categorize these forms of expression. For me, it’s important to let them blend into one another and come alive how they choose. But yes, I tend to focus a lot on rhythm. I care deeply about the intensity and getting down that sense of music in each line, whether it’s a novel or a poem.

When I started working on Bonsai, I wasn’t actually setting out to write a novel. I just knew there was a book I wanted and needed to write. I already had the title. I had some images in my mind, too – a young man taking care of a bonsai tree, fighting to get a specific form, and working quietly on his obsession. The same thing happened with The Private lives of Trees. The titles and a few images usually come to me first. The image has to grab my attention. The image is everything.

You mentioned music. What role do different forms of art, like film and music, play in your work?

They play a major role. My new book – “Mis Documentos” (not yet translated to English) – is made up of 11 short stories and there is one that is partially inspired by Simon & Garfunkel. I also appreciate the work of Leo Quinteros from Chile, and The Kinks. Music is really important to me. Film as well.

People always want to know about the "writer's life." What does a typical day look like for you?

Well, I write every morning, but not always fiction —there's a diary I have been keeping for many years and I usually begin there. I enjoy the absolute freedom at the start of each day. It feeds my senses, I think. After that I read or teach or continue writing. I like to work on four or five books at a time —fiction, non-fiction, poetry. I know some of them are not necessarily books, nor will they become something “readable” or be published, but now and then something appears that I deem worthy of sharing. I take walks and listen to a lot of music, visit friends in Santiago or wherever. I see to my dog and my cat, although sometimes I think it's the cat who's taking care of me.

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Junot Diaz called Bonsai a “total knockout.” He described it as “a subtle, eerie, ultimately wrenching account of failed young love in Chile among the kind of smarty-pant set who pillow-talk about the importance of Proust.” I’m curious about your thoughts on Proust since you’ve referenced him in your work. When did you come to his writing?

I came across Proust when I was 19 or 20 years old. I enjoyed it immensely from the very beginning. There was, to my mind, something extremely anxious in the reading, a kind of desperation in the prose that I was attracted to. Now and then I would come across an excerpt and I would read some more. After a while, I got my hands on all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. From then on I would just open the volumes and read them out loud in my room, the way people do with the Bible.

I read somewhere that at first you did not understand how Bonsai could be made into a film. What was it about Cristián Jiménez's vision that convinced you it was possible?

Well, I had seen his first film, “Optical Illusions”, so I knew he was talented and had an original approach. Though it seemed like a difficult task, I trusted his vision. And I was proud he wanted to do something with my little novella. I had my doubts but, in the end, he proved me wrong. I saw it at the Cannes Film Festival for the first time and I was quite impressed. It’s definitely different than the book and I enjoy that difference.

Your novels, although most of them are relatively short, have the sustaining power of much bigger, longer novels. Ways of Going Home was a bit longer than Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees but not by much. Explain how you approach the idea of form in your work. Do you set out to write shorter books or do they just evolve that way?

I never think about the number of pages, not at all. I just follow the images I want to explore and go from there. I draft a ton and make random notes that I think might be of use. I just approach everything at the sentence level, going line by line. It's important to me that it sounds right when read aloud. As a reader, I get bored easily. I read a lot of first pages, first paragraphs, and first lines before deciding whether or not to continue. I can be picky about what I read at times. I usually choose long novels, ones much longer than mine. But, in truth, some of my favorite books are novellas so I suppose my work evolves organically in a similar way. To me, the structure of my books is different every time. I think my novels are very different from each another.

Chile plays a very important role in your writing. It almost appears as a character itself; its past and its present. Your love for your country definitely comes through. How has your relationship with Chile informed your writing?

It’s very natural. Chile is a place I have always wanted to understand. It's a place I care about more than any other in the whole world. I mean, I live and I work here. The people I care for most are here. I don’t have a great imagination, really, but I do have a good memory - and a good involuntary memory. Even when I try to think of something different, the places and the people I love always end up making their way into the work. I can’t escape it.