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An Interview with Francisco Goldman

[WRITER]
“I HAD THIS THEORY THAT I WOULD SORT OF PUT MYSELF OUT THERE, AND IT WAS AS IF I WAS THE PEN, LETTING MY OWN INTUITIONS AND CIRCUMSTANCES GUIDE ME.”
Counterintuitive characteristics of certain Central Americans:
Sandinistas are idealistic teenagers
Honduran reporters have no idea what is happening in Honduras
Aztecs were the first balloon twisters
by Susan Choi
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Francisco Goldman

[WRITER]
“I HAD THIS THEORY THAT I WOULD SORT OF PUT MYSELF OUT THERE, AND IT WAS AS IF I WAS THE PEN, LETTING MY OWN INTUITIONS AND CIRCUMSTANCES GUIDE ME.”
Counterintuitive characteristics of certain Central Americans:
Sandinistas are idealistic teenagers
Honduran reporters have no idea what is happening in Honduras
Aztecs were the first balloon twisters
by Susan Choi
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Francisco Goldman

Susan Choi
11 Snaps

By the time I met Francisco Goldman at a party in early 1997 I was already insanely in love with his writing, a condition that had never overcome me before where a living writer was concerned. I felt then, as I continue to feel today, that it was my great good fortune to be alive and writing on the same planet with him; little did I know that later that evening I would be drunk with him, and the next day extremely hungover with him, although Frank’s version of being hungover resembles most peoples’ version of being intensely enthusiastic. Frank showed up first thing the next morning to remind me and my boyfriend that we’d promised to take him to the beach to see seals; this was Cape Cod in February, and the temperature was something lower than zero. But we went and saw seals, all the while borne along by Frank’s unequalled stories, as we’ve continued to be for the seven years since. The son of an American father and a Guatemalan mother, Frank grew up with one foot in Guatemala and the other in New England, not unlike the narrator of his extraordinary first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens (1992), which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Ordinary Seaman followed in 1997 and was among other things nominated for the PEN/Faulkner, the LA Times Book Award, and the IMPAC Dublin. This fall he’s publishing a hilarious, tender, magnificent new novel, The Divine Husband. Dan Cryer of Newsday says, “His talent is nothing short of astonishing,” and I could not say it better. Since 1999, Frank and I have been neighbors in Brooklyn, and this past June he came over and sat in my yard for a few hours to talk about his work past and present.

—Susan Choi

I. “I BASICALLY WENT AND JOINED A VOLUNTEER BATTALION AND HUNG AROUND WITH ALL THESE KIDS EVERY DAY, WAITING FOR THE MOBILIZATION ORDER TO GO UP TO THE FRONT.”

SUSAN CHOI: Tell me about the rubber plant.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Oh, how [The Divine Husband] started.

SC: Yeah.

FG: This is really the seed of the book. I was in a bar in Guatemala City called Shakespeare’s, in something like 1985 or 1986, and a guy came and sat down next to me. It was the gringo bar, a place I just hated. In The Long Night of White Chickens it’s called Lord Byron’s, and remember everybody in the book hates themselves for going there too, but they go there [laughs]. It was just a sleazy expat bar, though sometimes interestingly sinister. And it smelled like wet dog hair.

SC: Wait, why were you living in Guatemala City then?

FG: [Impatiently] I was always in Guatemala City in the eighties! I first went down to Guatemala in ’79 because I was trying to save money and work in New York and trying to make the time to write the short stories I needed to apply to MFA school. And so finally I saved a thousand dollars, and thought I’d go down to Guatemala. I was completely innocent of all political circumstances. The last I’d been down there would have been the summer of ’75. I was completely oblivious of anything that was going on at that point. And the real terror hadn’t started there yet. But I do remember the first inkling—the first visceral sensation I had of what was really happening—was one night, I was out with my friends, we were out in the streets, and a VW Thing came by, full of Salvadorans, students. And they had just fled El Salvador because there had just been a massacre in the university there and they’d shut down the university. I’d never heard about anything like that.

SC: Oh, God…

FG: And I remember they had great pot. I’d never smoked such strong pot.

SC: They had fled for their lives with their really great pot?

FG: Well, since the university was closed down, they thought they would go to Guatemala and… party [both laugh]. And tell terrifying stories. So anyway, in ’79 I was
down there and I wrote the stories at my uncle’s house. To send to MFA programs.

SC: But you didn’t end up getting your MFA?

FG: No. I was offered some scholarships. But one of the stories I sent up from Guatemala, I also sent it to Esquire magazine, to Rust Hills, and it was bought. And at the same time, the war in Guatemala was really erupting all around us. And I led the typical, sheltered-behind-high-walls life of an upper-middle-class Guatemalan, but obviously I was curious about what was going on. That was the period when bodies were always being found— teenage girls would say things like, “My father doesn’t want to go jogging anymore, he keeps running by bodies.”As if these bodies were landing from Mars. And the newspapers were just full of all these euphemisms. They would always say, “Body found bearing the usual signs of torture and a coup de grace in the head.”That kind of language in the papers every day… But anyway, Esquire bought a short story, and then they said,“Do you want to do journalism?” They’d just been bought by new people, they were willing to give young writers a chance. And I said, Yes, I’d like to go back to Guatemala and write about what’s happening there.

SC: And you’d never done journalism before, ever, right?

FG: Never.

SC: So that’s why you didn’t go to MFA school.

FG: That’s why I didn’t go to MFA school.

SC: What did you write about for them?

FG: The first piece I ever did?

SC: Yeah.

FG: It was terrible. I basically wrote about my cousins and their friends. I remember I was so embarrassed by the title they gave it, but it was an accurate title. It was called “The Girls of Guatemala” [both laugh]. One typical scene in that piece was going to my cousin’s graduation from the private school which in The Long Night of White Chickens turned into Colegio Anne Hunt. And at the very same time, I knew that down in the city that very day were these massive student protests, and they’d opened fire on the protests and killed a bunch of students, and you could smell tear gas in the air, and here I was, up at this exclusive private school, with these girls draped in pink garlands and carrying candles, doing this ceremony, a lot of CIA-type fathers around… I just sort of did contrasts like that. But one extraordinary thing happened when I was at a party in my uncle’s house and the daughter of family friends came up to me. I had mentioned that I was down there trying to write about what was going on Guatemala but I was completely timid, I didn’t really know how to report on anything yet, I hadn’t learned how to be a reporter. And she said to me,“I’m studying medicine at the public university.” Her name was Fabiola. And she said, “One of the things we have to do is forensics; we have to go to the morgue twice a week and learn how to do autopsies. You should see what it’s like in there. There are some mornings there are so many dead bodies they stack them up like logs—”

SC: Oh my god…

FG: “—outside the morgue. And, you should see the condition they arrive in. Cigarette burns, fingers torn off, and penises torn off—”

SC: Oh my god…

FG: —all the marks of torture. And she said,“I want to take you in there.” And I said, “Well, all right.” And I went to the hospital morgue and she gave me medical whites and said, “Pretend you’re a doctor.” And it was insane. I took rubber gloves and a stethoscope. And she took me in there. And that was an unforgettable moment. It was like falling into a hole.

SC: What happened after that? You went home, you came back to New York?

FG: Yes.

SC: And then did Esquire send you down again?

FG: Yes. The next time I went down was to Nicaragua. That was in 1983.

SC: So what were you doing then?

FG: This was kind of great. I continued to publish some short stories in Esquire. I went down to Nicaragua to do a piece for Esquire. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t have a good expense account. I had almost no money to spend. And all the fancy television journalists and big New York Times journalists, they would all rent jeeps and go up to the frontier, and I was still just a complete novice. But I’ll always be grateful to George Crile, the famous CBS producer, who gave me the most extraordinary tip. He said,“You know, a story I’ve always wanted to do, and I haven’t had the time, is on the volunteer battalions.” At this time the Sandinista war was being fought entirely by volunteers, and there wasn’t a draft yet.  And these volunteer battalions would form out of the neighborhoods, and they’d be mobilized and sent to the front. And it was kind of a Waiting for Godot piece—I basically went and joined a volunteer battalion and hung around with all these kids every day, waiting for the mobilization order to go up to the front.

SC: Were you going to go up to the front with them?

FG: I did. I went up to the front several times. And—

SC: Did they know that you were a—

FG: Yeah, they knew I was a reporter. They were fine, they trusted me. It was just a portrait of the kinds of kids who were going off to fight the Contra War at that point. And it was a portrait of a kind of young idealism, both moving and ultimately heartbreaking, which in 1983 was still there.

SC: Right, like the sisters in The Ordinary Seaman.

FG: Yeah, I met them at that time. Esteban in The Ordinary Seaman is partly modeled on my great friend Aldo Arranda, who was a company commander in that very battalion, who became a very close friend, and had been a guerrilla during the war before—just a wonderful guy. And so I did that story about that battalion and when I handed it into Esquire they had this very famously right-wing editor who sympathized with Republicans, named—oh, I won’t name him. And he said—because it tried to give such a humane portrait of the soldiers—he said to me,“I don’t believe this is true. And even if it is true, nobody will believe you, because you’re not an authority.”

SC:An authority in what way?

FG: To be saying, “These are the Sandinista soldiers, they’re not ignorant conscripts and thugs and killers and rapists like the soldiers in other Central American countries—”

SC: They were seventeen-year-old idealistic… how old were they?

FG: Teenagers!

SC: How old was Aldo?

FG: He was nineteen. No, he was twenty-three, because he was a commander. But seventeen, nineteen. And, he said,“No one will believe you.” And they wouldn’t publish it, so I took it—at that time Harper’s and Esquire were in the same building, and I took it right to Gerry Marzorati at Harper’s

SC: Just went to the next floor.

FG: Yeah. And they bought it like that. And for the rest of the war, everything I did was for them, pretty much.

SC: At any point did anybody teach you how to be a reporter? Were you worried? Or did you just do it?

FG: Yeah, I just did it, I threw myself into it. Exactly doing stuff like that. And I think mainly I began to develop a kind of style which would be… I don’t think I was ever particularly good at being a reporter—finally, years later, with the Bishop Gerardi murder pieces, I think I finally got somewhere. But my method back then was very much a fiction writer’s approach to journalism. I began to think of the way you would start a short story and begin with a character, and you hold that pen in your hand, and push it along, and wait to see what will develop—and I had this theory that I would sort of put myself out there, and it was as if I was the pen, letting my own intuitions and circumstances guide me. And I would let myself try and find a narrative.

SC: See what story you ended up in.

FG: Yeah, and follow a narrative.Whatever it would be, usually some oblique thing. For example, I was very much aware when I was in Honduras that there were two Hondurases. There was the Honduras of privileged information that real reporters had access to. New York Times reporters, CBS reporters—

SC: Like their sources—

FG: —their sources, they had the money to rent helicopters and jeeps and to go down to the border, they knew how to cultivate CIA agents and sources at the embassies, they could trade back and forth—they were a power and they knew how to address power.Whereas I was just a freelance clown. And I noticed that the Honduran journalists, Honduran reporters, were outside of the world of true information about Honduras. And so any time they tried to find anything out about what was going on in their own country, they were essentially in like a Beckett clown circumstance. So there had been this murder, where an American—or two Americans, I think—had been murdered along with some prostitutes. And a local Honduran reporter, Rodolfo, was courageously, like a Don Quixote, trying to investigate this murder as though it really was a CIA, Contra War murder. And I wondered if it might be, and I sort of teamed up with him, and eventually realized that, whatever this murder was, we were never going be told anything or ever going to find out anything and that we were like two Beckett clowns going around and trying to investigate this murder that probably had no connection at all in fact to the Contra War, though it did have a great connection probably to gringo sordidness, and that kind of thing. And—

SC: Gringo sordidness?

FG: Yeah, you know, possibly sleazy business guys. But, whatever, I don’t want to defame anybody’s memory. And so I let that become the narrative of the piece, which was called “Lost in Another Honduras.” You know, we just drove around, we went and looked at the burnt pickup truck connected to one of them, and he found like a tube with some kind of white boric powder and picked it up and said, [sniffs] “Cocaine?” I went, “I don’t think so. No I think it’s just… baking powder, or something.” [Both laugh] And he said, [in a low voice] “I’m taking it to the lab, have it analyzed,” and we were both so lost. But a whole other story opened up, which was not a story about CIA maneuvers in Honduras, but a very moving story about this world of young prostitutes and poor women and these incredibly shady criminal slums, which is where we followed the story to find out basically the story of the woman murdered along with these Americans. And so it opened up a whole vision of the Honduran underworld.

SC: And don’t you think you had more access to that world because you were the clown, and not the New York Times?

FG: Yeah, because we went there, and I don’t think a New York Times reporter would’ve had any interest in that story. They were always around the pool at the Hotel Maya, and… doing very important serious things [laughs].And so it was a technique that evolved: it wasn’t necessarily discovering news, it was revealing another texture that addressed the political reality of Central America more in a metaphorical way.

SC: Don’t you think your novels have ended up taking the same structure?

FG: The first two. Definitely. Because if you look at Moya and Roger trying to find out what happened to Flor in The Long Night of White Chickens, that was directly inspired by myself and Rodolfo down in Honduras going around trying to find out who had murdered these Americans. It was: “We’re never going to find out [laughs], no one’s going to tell us anything.” So that idea, of two buddy narrators being forced into a kind of clownish investigative role, came directly out of that journalism experience.

II. “WE HAD REALLY ROUGH SEAS—YOU WOULD WRITE A LINE AND YOUR CHAIR WOULD GO SLIDING AWAY FROM YOU.”

SC: You never even finished the story of how you got the idea for that. That’s where we started. You’re in Shakespeare’s—

FG: So I’m in Shakespeare’s and this guy from my hometown, ten years older than me, who I’ve never met before—I couldn’t believe that there was somebody from
Needham—this guy was eventually arrested and deported from the country for bouncing bad checks. That’s the kind of people who’d wash up down there.

SC: You just figured out you were both from Needham, Massachusetts?

FG: Yeah… we figured it out. And I said,“What are you doing here?” He had fantastic stories about my home-town, that generation of kids who had grown up like Fonzies, you know? In the fifties. My town used to be full of drag racers. And I used to hear them drag racing and, in my near-toddler state, I used to think that they were all the Boston Strangler, speeding off in the night after having murdered somebody’s mother. And he had been one of those, I guess we used to call them greasers, or grease monkeys, or whatever, always hanging around garages. And I said,“So what are you doing down here in Guatemala?”And he said,“My family, my mother and father, both worked at Tillotson’s rubber factory.” And I said, “You’re kidding, I grew up right next to Tillotson’s rubber factory.” Tillotson’s rubber factory was this enormous red-brick monstrosity of a building that was like the magical mystery playground of my youth. It was beautiful. They completely polluted the pond across the street; you couldn’t swim in the pond anymore. The ice behind—there’s a swamp behind the factory—and the ice would always be these weird colors from all the things leaking out—

SC: [Laughs]

FG: —you’d find balloon molds, and black rubber doll molds, and rubber glove molds everywhere, back there in the forest. And we used to climb the fence and go back into the yard, and the yard was just fantastic, it was full of all these barrels of broken discarded balloons and mucky puddles of multicolored balloon dye. And so we would get high, and I remember before a high school dance all of us really excitedly dipping our sneakers in the pool and making them psychedelic-looking [both laugh]. I couldn’t believe it, that he had grown up—his parents—and he said, “Anyway, my parents said, if you ever get down in life, and need a hand up, go look for Mr. Tillotson in Guatemala.” Here I’d been in this house—a hundred yards away from the factory—this half-Guatemalan household, this house always full of Guatemalans, and I’d never known that the factory was owned by a guy who had a connection to Guatemala. Which just seemed the most incredible, remarkable thing. And I said to myself,“I’m going to invent my own Mr. Tillotson.” I immediately pictured this whole story. Of course the novel doesn’t turn out to be that, but that was the original interest. I just loved the idea of inventing this New England balloon family that had this tie with Guatemala. And I remember that I had finished The Long Night of White Chickens and I began to research the book and I knew I wanted to begin in the nineteenth century. And I knew, also, that I wanted it to involve José Martí.

SC: Why?

FG: Because José Martí… The most famous poem, maybe, in all of Latin America—certainly the most famous love poem and certainly José Martí’s most famous poem and certainly the most famous poem that mentions the word Guatemala—is “La Niña de Guatemala” by José Martí. It’s not Martí’s greatest poem by any means, and he was a considerable poet, although an even better prose writer. But he had spent an extraordinarily important year and a half in Guatemala. And one of the things that happened while he was in Guatemala was that he fell madly in love, supposedly, with a young girl who was the daughter of an aristocratic bohemian general from an extremely literary family. Once you learn to read Martí’s poetry, and understand the way he communicates with himself in his anguished coded language in his diaries, you see that he was in a morbid, fantastically remorseful way forever after obsessed with her. But anyway, he fell in love with her and at some point had to tell her that he was engaged to a woman waiting for him in Mexico. And he went back to Mexico to marry her, and came back to Guatemala to resume his classes. And nobody ever—no great man in history—has made a worse choice of a wife than José Martí did.

SC: He really did marry this other woman, Carmen Zayas?

FG: Yeah, a rich Cuban who had nothing but disdain for politics, revolutionary politics, being a poet, everything else. He came back, resumed his teaching. He would soon become a pariah, all of Guatemala would soon turn against José Martí, for reasons you know from the book. And she dies. In the legend now, which is inseparable from the poem, she died of a broken heart. Clinically, she died of pneumonia or tuberculosis, which of course could easily have been provoked by the depression, accelerated by what was apparently a really serious case of heartbreak.

SC: She’s like eighteen years old—

FG: Seventeen—

SC: Seventeen when she died?

FG: Yeah. Ethereal, beautiful. Supposedly nobody played the piano more expressively in the whole country, and gorgeous—the perfect woman for him. Daughter of a
revolutionary—

SC: Niece of a poet—

FG: Niece of a poet. Made for him. And he knew it. He wrote—

SC: But his sense of duty was so overdeveloped he felt he had to—

FG: Yeah, well, he had said to a friend—it’s in a diary that’s held in the Cuban archives to this day—that he had confided to a friend that Carmen had given him proof of her love before they were married, meaning that she’d slept with him.

SC: Oh…

FG: And so Martí goes into his future, and has this horrendous marriage. And he was a man… you know, he’s a secular saint, he’s the husband of Cuba. I mean he’s an extraordinary, wonderful man who, when he wrote in his diary as a young man,“good men marry young,” he meant it, and he wanted nothing more than to be good and noble in every single thing that he did—and life kept screwing him up. He just was in anguish forever. One of the most beautiful ongoing expressions of… His diaries and his poetry are thirteen years of just complete, intimate anguish. He’s a kind of secular nun—as you know that nun theme goes through the book—constantly aspiring to be saintly and constantly falling, and being filled with remorse. And so there I am in Guatemala City, I said, “OK, the Tillotsons, nineteenth-century balloon family, José Martí’s year in Guatemala. Somehow, I’ve got to find out what Guatemala was like at that point.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

SC: But you knew that you had to join these two threads.

FG: Yeah. And so I went to the Guatemala City archives, I just had to research and research. And I was also in that flummoxed post-Long Night of White Chickens state. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I just became this obsessive researcher. I’m doing this in 1993, ’94. Yeah, even late ’92. I didn’t know who Martí was, I didn’t have a clue. I just knew there was this poem. And, I hadn’t even really begun to research Martí, I was just trying to get the period. And I was kind of stuck. And so one way I would fill being stuck was research. And reading about nuns, and reading about, you know, just crazy stuff. And eventually I just realized that I had no idea how to handle so much information. And everything in my life suddenly falls apart, right? My wife and I break up. I have nowhere to live.The war in Central America comes to an end, certainly a good thing for Central America, but that had defined my life since 1980, it was always how I got work, everything I did was, um… all of a sudden, I was cast into this void. And I go down to Mexico to live, and I realize I can’t deal with all the research, I don’t know to deal—I’m just drowning in research, I want to put all that stuff aside, and finally, because there was so much disillusionment in my own life, a sense of being abandoned, a sense of, you know, everything you feel after divorce… a deep sense of political disillusionment as well, with the way things had gone in Central America, a kind of disgust.All this. I felt shipwrecked. And so finally, I had an emotional connection to The Ordinary Seaman. Suddenly I knew—

SC: This idea that’s been sitting around for a decade, more than a decade—

FG: Yeah. It actually had an emotional heart, it wasn’t just a story anymore. And so I—blblblbl [sound effect for really fast writing process].

SC: Like that?

FG: Yeah, in two years I wrote it. And of course I took a great trip, I went on a ship, but anyway—

SC: Wait, where’d you go on the ship?

FG: Este—the most extraordinary thing happened. I was already well into the book, and through my friendship with Alvaro Mutis, who’s a great Columbian writer who writes the Maqroll books about an itinerant sailor adventurer with a Borgesian erudition, who travels the world and has adventures. Mutis is a great poet, and he’s of course Gabriel García Marquez’s best friend, and a legendary Latin-American literary figure, and he had become kind of my father figure in Mexico. I love him like a second father. Through my incredible good fortune he was a fan of The Long Night of White Chickens, and we had become good friends. So I was sitting in a restaurant in Mexico City, reading, actually, an English-language version that I had of the Maqroll books that had just come out up here, which he had signed for me, and there was a guy having a really terrible date at the next table. And he was sitting there having a terrible date, and he turns to me, and he goes, “Hey, is that a Mutis book?” I go,“Yeah,” and he goes, “I’ve never seen that edition, can I see it?” And I hand it to him and he read the inscription, and he says,“Oh, you know Mutis.” I go, “Yeah,” and he goes, “My cousin—mi primo hermano,” which is a cousin you grew up with like a brother, “mi primo hermano worships Mutis.” And I go, “Who’s your primo hermano?” He goes, “Well, he’s the maritime lawyer for Transportaciones Maritima Mexicana, the Mexican shipping line.”

SC: No way.

FG: Yeah, and I go,“You’re kidding.” And he goes, “Can you arrange a meeting between my cousin and Mutis?” And I go, “Can you get me on a ship?” [Laughter] That was fantastic, sailing on this Mexican freighter to Europe. Foreigners weren’t allowed to travel on their ships as passengers so they pretended I had a job. On the ship’s manifest I had the title “Writing Technician.” It was really funny because I did try to write, and they gave me this room with a desk, a little tiny closet of a room, an engineer’s room, except—the chair had wheels.

SC: [Laughs]

FG: And we had really rough seas, so—you would write a line, and your chair would go sliding away from the desk [both laugh]. And you’d go sort of like paddling back with your feet, and so after twenty minutes of this I’d inevitably want to go throw up. It was really an incredible experience.

III. “IF YOU COULD IMAGINE A FIGURE LIKE LINCOLN, WHITMAN, WASHINGTON, EVEN SOCRATES, ALL FORMED IN ONE PERSON—THAT’S WHAT MARTÍ IS TO CUBANS.”

SC: And then you finished The Ordinary Seaman and it came out when? 1997?

FG: Yeah. ’97.

SC: Because that’s when I met you. I met you right after The Ordinary Seaman came out.

FG: Yeah. My god… so The Ordinary Seaman was five years after The Long Night of White Chickens.

SC: Yeah.

FG: And this new book took me seven years. That’s a long time.

SC: Does it seem like a long time?

FG: Yes. It was crazy.

SC: So when did you go back to The Divine Husband?

FG: After The Ordinary Seaman.

SC: Right away?

FG: Well, what I had hoped would happen happened. Which was that all that stuff that I had been writing down in notebooks now took on a poetry of its own. It seemed like a part of my own memory. It had been transformed into something other than just historical research. It had become some kind of strange, odd dream of the past. I mean, maybe this will never happen to me again. I just immersed myself in this book for years, in a way where I really, slowly discovered where the book was going, always through writing, letting the book dictate things to me, and of course at the heart of it, was this deep ongoing seven-year dialogue with Jose Martí.And you’ll see that Martí’s not even in the book all that much. He’s not. But—he’s the emotional and intellectual center of the book. And the book really does coalesce around him. One of the things that moved me about Martí’s life, of course, is that… It would now be impossible to do a real biography of Jose Martí because everybody who was truly involved with him during his lifetime… later on, after he died, and became the great Cuban hero-martyr, everybody collaborated in creating that hero, which meant that they even silenced their own personal memories of him.Which weren’t necessarily negative memories of him, but they were human—but they often repressed even those in order to collaborate in the creation of this verbal heroic statue. Of course if he’d been a North American or British artist or political figure of that stature, no aspect of his life would have been left unturned by biographers within fifty years. By the 1950s biographers would have gone and ransacked everybody’s memory. And you would really have an account of what had actually happened in his life. But because there’s no great tradition of biography writing in Latin America, and because Martí occurs at a moment in which, unlike North America, Latin America sort of throws a switch and tries to become modern overnight, this creates this enormous void. Those countries felt inferior. They didn’t know who they were. They didn’t know where they were going. So there was an extreme need for idealized heroes—even to replace God in a sense. If you could imagine a figure like Lincoln, Whitman, Washington, even Socrates, all formed in one person—that’s what Martí is to Cubans.

SC: You said you came to him through the “Niña” poem.

FG: I wanted to know what story was behind it.

SC: Did you know anything else about him?

FG: Nothing.

SC: You knew nothing?

FG: Nothing. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. His collected works fill twenty-nine volumes. And he was a champion sufferer and explorer of the inner-life. And the mistakes he made, he just suffered over them so much, from an overload of sensitivity and sensibility. He’s kind of like a male Virginia Woolf. You almost feel like his skin has no—that protects the poor man? Yet he’s this driven indefatigable dynamo at the same time. The more you read about him the more easily you understand how people spend their whole lives just studying Martí. Easily. Yet there’s no solid record of his life. You find a book like They Knew Martí, a compilation of anecdotes by people who knew him, and you see there that they’re all editing their memories to just talk about how glorious he was. And all those memories of the real Martí were lost.

SC: Who’s Paquito? Every once in a while in the book, you let him suddenly turn to the reader and say,“Is this what happened? I don’t really know.”

FG: Yeah. Exactly. He’s me, or a narrative shadow of me.

SC: He’s you. But that’s interesting. Why? Why on the one hand suggest to the reader that the narrator doesn’t really have full authority over the subject but on the other hand you freely invent, too? You know what I mean?

FG: It’s both a game and very serious. It’s a novel that allows itself to take the form it wants to take in a playful way. Another way to put it is it’s not so much about Martí but about the way people lived their lives and later shaped their memories around him.

IV. “BALLOONS ARE A VERY DIFFICULT THING TO RESEARCH. JUST GO TRY IT. ALMOST NOTHING IS KNOWN.”

SC: How would you work? Would you just sit down and write a couple of pages in a day and then maybe be surprised at what had happened?

FG: Well, the book just totally surprised me. It really was about writing as deeply into, not just the characters, but this completely fictional world. I knew I was trying to make something beautiful, what I thought was beautiful.That was probably the most conscious understanding I had of what I was doing in a lot of those early pages. I simply wanted it to be beautiful. Well, what do you mean by that? It’s looking for a sense of surprise. You’re trying to surprise yourself. You’re trying to satisfy a certain ambition for your book to read and feel a certain way. So I knew that, for instance, I wasn’t looking for historical detail, what I was interested in was taking particular details and giving them a kind of poetics of their own, and having them work like characters in the book. Things like wool and umbrellas, the art of mercantile packing. There’s all this debate and argument about how you’re supposed to pack things.Things I’d come across in my research that I’d let become like characters to me. It’s a completely artificial reality comprising these elements that keep repeating. So I was constantly letting the book guide me.

SC: So you started this whole book by deciding to fictionalize the Tillotsons and then you totally lost track of the rubber balloons until the very end.

FG: I knew eventually, without understanding exactly how, that there would be a balloon factory at the end, and it’s definitely there in the book.

SC: There was always this balloon with cat ears floating around.

FG: In my research I found out that the art of balloon twisting… balloons are a very difficult thing to research. Just go try it. Almost nothing is known.

SC: What were you trying to know?

FG: The history of balloons. I knew there was going to be a balloon factory, so if you want there to be a balloon factory to begin in the nineteenth century then you have to find out the history of balloons.Eventually I ran into a few things. I found out that the first known balloon twister had been this Señor Lopez who did an act of tying balloons into little animal shapes at the Lido Theater in Paris.

SC: He was a Mexican?

FG: He was called Señor Lopez the Mexican.

SC: Did you ever, when you embarked on your balloon quest, have any idea that a Central American would turn out to be a pioneering balloon figure?

FG: No. I mean, there were others.

SC: That’s kismet.

FG: Well the book was constantly guided by kismet. I think that one of the ways this book took shape was opening myself up to those kinds of coincidences. Separately I read that the Aztecs and other Meso-American peoples used to tie inflated animal bladders into cat shapes—the first balloon twisters.

SC: Why cat shapes?

FG: Because they were holy. Particularly the jaguar.

SC: They would make balloon cats. So balloons are completely a Central American legacy.

FG: I think they are. And lo and behold, it turned out that the first known person to have a balloon-twisting act was a Mexican. Señor Lopez.

SC: Were you even surprised by all of these compounding coincidences? Because it just seems as if the symbolic and metaphorical structure of your novel started building itself.

FG: It started building itself, but it’s not that these things arrive and they’re not in competition with anything else. You have to be incredibly patient. These things are coming to you out of gads of information. To find these things you have to look at thousands of things you’re going to discard before suddenly you go, “This one. Ah!”That was miraculous for me when I look back on it now. For four years I had no life but this book. You know that. I wasn’t seeing anybody really. I would have these sort of impossible loves. Now my friends from Mexico say, “You really chose impossible loves during those years because you were really only interested in your book.” For years I was sort of inhabiting this alter- native parallel universe.

SC: Was writing this book so different from writing the first two books?

FG: Completely.The past itself is fiction.We can never really know what it was like.That’s why I completely agree with the famous Henry James line about the historical novel being humbug and condemned to a fate of cheapness. He saw the novel as a realist form. A historical novel that aspires to realism is a fraud. I completely agree with him.What’s beautiful about the past is that it’s pure fiction. For me the only way to answer that, to live in that past, was almost to be living in a world of pure imagination. It was just wonderful to inhabit a novel like that. I had never done that before.

SC: How did you feel when you were finishing or when you knew you were done, after twenty years? Not twenty years of writing but twenty years of—

FG: Twenty years of being in pursuit of it. I felt like it was about time. As I say, I was living almost too solitudinous a life. I think there’s a certain loneliness in the book. Everyone in the book is looking for love. I think that in some weird way—it sounds crazy and I’ll certainly never do that again—the loneliness I had in my own life was part of writing that book, part of the heart of that book and why I was able to write about Maria de las Nieves in the way that I was.

SC: Do you worry when your friends say to you,“You were single the whole time you were writing this book, because you couldn’t have been writing the book if you
weren’t single”? You’re not single now. So what now?

FG: I think that I’ve learned that I’m ready to be more whole in some way.

SC: Do you mean living less in your books?

FG: Maybe now I can live in my books in a healthier way. I think that I learned how to really write novels, writing this book. I think because I wrote a novel in which I didn’t use my own life, and because I walked away from certain things that obsessed me in the past and I took a different approach to novel writing, I feel like I taught myself to write fiction.

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