Q&A with Chilean Writer Alejandro Zambra, in Phoenix for Residency

Written by Ofelia Montelongo Category: Literary Issue: October 2017
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Award-winning author Alejandro Zambra, one of Chile’s most celebrated writers, is visiting Phoenix this week for a bilingual literary residency organized by CALA Alliance in collaboration with Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, Cardboard House Press and Changing Hands Bookstore.

Zambra’s avant-garde narrative and storytelling has made him into one of the latest Latin American literary stars. In 2010, he was named one of Granta's Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists.

This week, he has already made a surprise visit to a book club discussing Bonsái, his first book, and started his bilingual workshop “How to Forget How to Write Fiction” at Palabras.
Zambra will be at Changing Hands Phoenix, on Thursday at 7 p.m., when he’ll read from his acclaimed novels Multiple Choice, Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees, Ways of Going Home and My Documents. He will also be the guest of honor at Palabra’s Micro-Mania event (tagged as a night of readings from micro fictions, micro food – aka tapas – and jazz) this First Friday from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Zambra event

The author, who has been named the "the most talked-about writer to come out of Chile since [Roberto] Bolaño” by the New York Times Book Review, feels the comparison a little off. “I’m probably taller than him,” Zambra jokes of his Chilean compatriot, who died from liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003. “He was a much better writer than I ever will be.”

PHOENIX magazine interviewed Zambra ahead of his book reading and signing this Thursday, and chatted about his experimental writing. (Responses have been translated from Spanish, and edited for clarity.)

You have been recognized for breaking the traditional narrative mold in your books and stories. What motivated you to break the mold?
I am looking, nothing more. I enjoy the process of searching. I start with intuitions and images that are half blurred. My idea is to discover the book along the way, but also to be willing to go wrong, to get lost. There are no rules in literature. Each book creates its own universe.

What’s your writing process?
I have a diary that is pretty boring, like all the life diaries. But sometimes, something comes up from it and starts to become independent from the experience. I'm more obsessive than methodical. When I’m trapped writing a book, I can spend many hours writing it, and when I leave it, I keep thinking about it.

How autobiographical is your work?
I'm not sure… I would accept that everything is autobiographical without including dreams. The story itself changes every day: what you remember, what you are looking for when remembering, everything.

Your books usually have poetic elements and in previous interviews you mentioned that your first book Bonsai began as poetry. Can you talk a little about the importance of poetry and fiction in your work?
Yes, I think the differences between poetry and prose and between fiction and non-fiction, are exaggerated. I grew up reading Chilean poetry, which is the great myth of my country, because it is the only thing we have been "successful" at... And because there is a great, complex and heterogeneous tradition. I think the reading principle should be the same. Wondering what story tells a poem, for example.

Your books have been translated into more than 10 different languages. How do you think translations affect the rhythm and the theme of the stories?
In many ways, I suppose. I do not write to be translated; it always surprises me that my books reach readers of other languages, especially those I completely ignore, which are the majority. I am very grateful to the translators. Let's say I can only read the translations into English, Italian and Portuguese, but the language [beside my native Spanish] I more or less speak is English. I was lucky enough to meet a great reader like Megan McDowell [who translated Zambra’s works from Spanish to English]. I am sure that if she wrote, her novels would be better than mine.

What would be your advice for aspiring and upcoming Latin American writers?
Don’t ever take advice too seriously and invent your own mentors and teachers.

About the event:
Thursday, October 5, 7 p.m.
Changing Hands Bookstore
300 W. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
Free event and open to the public.