Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Ali Osworth, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Valeria Luiselli about her book The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Ali Osworth: I've never heard of any process like the one you describe in the Afterword of The Story of My Teeth. Released serially and written with the feedback from your readers in mind (where you could actually hear their voices, recorded as they talked about their thoughts), it's the opposite of the solitary process we hear so much about. What surprised you about writing this book in this way? Is there anything about this process that could or should be applied to a more solitary way of writing a novel?
Valeria Luiselli: I had no idea if the idea of putting together a reading group in a juice factory was going to work or if it was going to be a complete disaster. It turned out to be much better than what I could have ever imagined. I literally waited on the edge of my chair for the mp3 file with the worker’s voices to appear in my inbox every week. I was both fascinated and so grateful that a literary text could become a bridge between such disparate and distant worlds: a factory, a gallery, and a studio in Harlem. It made me think that literature need not be thought of as a mere commodity consumed by the so-called educated classes. It can also be a channel of communication and an instrument of social critique via satire. In fact, for a long time, it was. The only thing I regret about the whole process of writing this book is not having had more time—many more months!—to exchange texts and ideas with the workers that volunteered to read the installments.
But of course, every book is a completely different journey. This one could not have been written in any other way, but that does not mean anything for my future books or for anyone else’s books. So I wouldn’t prescribe a procedure such as this one as a kind of antidote to the often solitary process of writing a novel. Sometimes that solitude is indispensable. In fact, I am in the most solitary of worlds right now—very alone with my new novel.
AO: I see a lot of Borges in this book—some self-referential passages, the particular realism achieved by mixing real names, places and images with very whimsical, almost fantastical situations. Many other authors are invoked as well, either in quotes or in character's names. Which authors influenced this text? If you could put together a The Story of My Teeth reading list, what and who would be on it?
VL: Borges is one of my favorite writers, no doubt. But a writer saying he’s influenced by Borges is like a musician saying he’s influenced by Stravinsky. And yes, there are many other writers mentioned or quoted in the book. In fact, The Story of My Teeth is a book of names, many of which belong to writers—even if in the book many of those names do not necessarily reference those writers. I don’t know if listing names here would make much sense. There is one chapter at the end of the book, though, written entirely by my translator, which lists all the names of writers who appear in the book. That chapter is called “The Chronologic” and it’s a kind of translator’s glossary of names.
AO: The grand majority of the book is narrated by Highway. We are so deep in his head that we're not sure what's real and what's not until we get Voragine's perspective. Highway has his moments of misogyny throughout; they feel like they are natural and are woven into the very fabric of his existence. I am a woman writing misogynist characters, and sometimes I have trouble doing so—any tips?
VL: It’s a really good question! To be honest, I think you just have open your eyes and ears to get ideas for your misogynist characters. Misogyny, like any other form of violence, produces frustration, impotence and anger. And those are feelings that, if channeled intelligently, can produce very powerful writing. It’s a matter of finding the right distance from them and looking at them with emotional clarity.
AO: Speaking of distance, I felt like, even though I'd been inside Highway's head this whole time, my most complete view of him came from when I got to see him from the outside looking in, courtesy of Voragine. Did you know from the outset that we were going to get a perspective other than Highway's? How did you make the decision to include Voragine?
VL: I didn’t know anything from the outset. I didn’t even know that I was writing a novel, in fact. I simply wanted to have a conversation with the factory workers, and for that reason I did not want to have a fixed plan. Having a fixed plan would have made a conversation impossible—it would have turned the whole project into a monologue, and that would have destroyed the spirit of the text. I decided to include Voragine because the workers kept on wondering how honest the narrator was, and how his life might be seen from another’s perspective.
AO: I want to ask about the translation process for this book—is it unusual to see your work translated by someone else when you speak the language it's being translated to? What did you learn from Christina McSweeney about your own work?
VL: I constantly learn from Christina’s wild and beautiful imagination. And yes, it’s true that I grew up writing, reading, and speaking in English, but she’s also played a big part in my education as a bilingual writer. Working with her on the English versions of my books has helped my two brains—the one that thinks in Spanish and the one that thinks in English—connect with each other.
The novel I am writing now is in English, but I am self-translating it into Spanish, sometimes simultaneously. This is of course a very slow—sometimes painfully slow— procedure in which I go back and forth between fragments in each of the two languages, changing minute aspects of rhythm, adjectives, textures. And of course I want to respect the natural “foreignness” that results from this method in both languages—because writing in two languages at once implies that one leaves an imprint of “foreignness” on the other. I guess, on one level, I am trying to allow my two brains—the one that thinks in Spanish and the one that thinks in English—to mix their currents fully for once. A lot of this is thanks to having worked so closely with Christina on my other three books.
Valeria Luiselli was born Mexico City in 1983 and grew up in South Africa. A novelist (Faces in the Crowd) and essayist (Sidewalks), her work has been translated into many languages and has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Granta, and McSweeney’s. In 2014, Faces in the Crowd was the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. Her novel, The Story of My Teeth, was published by Coffee House Press in fall 2015.
Ali Osworth is a second-year MFA student, the Deputy Editor of The Inquisitive Eater and the Geekery Editor at Autostraddle (a queer women’s digital magazine). She’s writing a novel about GamerGate and will be teaching a class on cultivating a creative internet presence at The New School next Fall. Chat to her on Twitter @AEOsworth.