The Writer’s Block Transcripts: Horacio Castellanos Moya (Part I)
Sampsonia Way interviewed Horacio Castellanos Moya, who shared an excerpt from The Dream of My Return, his latest book, at a Salon Reading at City of Asylum on April 28, 2015. Horacio was an exiled writer-in-residence at City of Asylum from 2006-2009. He now teaches in the Spanish Creative Writing Program at the University of Iowa. In 2014, his work was honored with the Manuel Rojas Iberoamerican Prize for Fiction, one of the top literary prizes in the Spanish-speaking world.
Horacio spoke to us about such a breadth of topics that we decided to publish this interview in two parts. Here, he talks about the process of writing The Dream of My Return. Next week we’ll publish a second installment, in which he talks about Roberto Bolaño, legacy, and the writing craft in general.
A review by Charles Finch of The New York Times said The Dream of My Return was “easily your best novel to appear in English so far.” Do you agree with him?
Well, that’s not my job, to judge my own books. For an author every book is the best book. Once you finish the book, you say, “Wow, that’s why I invested so much time, so much energy, so much focus in this.” I think that has to do with taste and some way of perceiving reality and perceiving literature for whatever great things could be another book you write. In that sense, some people say that Senselessness is still the most interesting book for them.
How do cultural perceptions of political humor influence audience reception of the humor in The Dream of My Return?
Political correctness is an American creature, so that’s where a reaction can be effective. There are, of course, different kinds of reactions. More than humor, the issue here is satire. It’s how you laugh at power or way of being. Sometimes people don’t laugh here because of political correctness. But it’s not an issue of books, it’s an issue of culture: how you face life, how you face everyday life.
And I don’t mean that in one part it’s better than the other, it’s just different. What is natural there, how to deal with people, how to treat people, how to treat some issues, could be very normal there, and it could be a little bit queer or very incorrect [here].
It’s a cultural issue more than just a literary issue. America is a very big country, so in my case, my books have always gotten a public that understands what I’m saying, and gets the meaning of what I am talking about. There has always been a public that is not separated from the book because of cultural differences; they can read the book even though they know there are those different cultures, and they can enjoy the book even though they perhaps they don’t share those qualities or ways of understanding daily life.
Why are you interested in tortured and paranoid characters like Erasmo Aragon, the protagonist in The Dream of My Return?
Paranoia is realism in some countries, a realistic way of behaving. It’s the only way of surviving. If you’re not paranoid, then you are you just thinking about a TV program at the bus stop, and then you’re killed because you’re not paying any attention to who is around you. Of course that’s not normal and it is not a good way of life. But that’s a normal way of life in some areas. You go to some places in Mexico, Central America and Latin America, paranoia is the way you are. The way many people are.
And it’s not just about mental state, it’s a mental state that is related to the senses. How you perceive, how you hear, what you see. Do I see that he has a gun or does he not have a gun? If I’m on the street, I’m not going to have a small talk with anyone because that could be just the opening to be robbed, or to be killed, or to be kidnapped. If you come from a country that is a risky country, then your way of being is to be paranoid. And if you come to a place where small talk is a normal way of being, it’s a polite way of being, and someone wants to be nice with you and have a small talk, you think that the person wants to rob you. It’s suspicious.
And so, in my book is that attitude. It’s the expression of this every day. That doesn’t mean that you are like that with your friends, or with your family, or on your job. But once you are out of your place, you start to be just a little bit paranoid.
That has to do with a deeper issue; it’s the issue of justice and the rule of law. So, there is no rule of law. There are a lot of little powers and a lot of little groups that try to control society and be above the law, and so, that creates violence and violence creates paranoia. It’s a systemic issue. And torture is part of that, too, because, well, torture is everywhere.
I grew up in a civil war when I was in my late teens and early twenties. There were plenty of people that belonged to my generation that were killed and suffered torture. So torture is part of this lacking of the rule of law.
When you read and you look along history, there are some features of human beings that have always been there. It’s like torture, violence, this passion for killing that now you see everywhere. Why did human beings become so fucking crazy? Of course you can give explanations about why there is killing in Israel and Palestine, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Mexico. You can mention a lot of countries and say, “Why? Why this need to kill?” There is a pleasure [to killing] of course, otherwise you don’t do it. I think that literature, in a sense, shows these kinds of old problems of human beings in a very precise society. So I show these kinds of issues of violence, of paranoia, of torture, of trying to survive in the very precise society that was the Central American society of the 80s and 90s.
Besides paranoia, what are some of your other obsessions as a writer? Some other questions that you’re always going after?
I feel like one thing that most writers focus—I am one of them and I don’t know if I focus well—is the truth. What’s the truth? What is reality? That’s one of the main issues. What happened? You deal with that in fiction. For instance, there are some plots that I develop that have been based in real situations, that I don’t find or have not found the answer to what’s true in that kind of situation. What’s the real truth? And then I recreate that in fiction, try to get that through.
Perhaps, in the end, I don’t get it either but I think that truth is one of the main points in writing: what really happened. And then you understand that there are plenty of realities and plenty of ways of writing realities and perceiving them. Perhaps the same event has ten different readings from ten different protagonists of that event. Human beings are very complex.
He was in Tyrant Memory as a student, right? He is in this book because I wanted to create an emotional striptease of [Erasmo Aragon], who is showing himself all the time.
In the beginning, I didn’t know about hypnosis. I was thinking much more about acupuncture and all these nontraditional ways of healing people. Then I said, “Oh this is a very good idea,” and I read about it a little bit. And then I put all these attributes in the character, that he was such a kind of doctor with many fields and a special being.
Hypnosis allowed me to go into this other issue that is part of my obsessions: that is, what is hidden in the back of your mind. That’s the history of humanity too: from Catholic confession to psychoanalysis. What don’t you see of yourself? What part of yourself, that you see and what you don’t see, and how those two parts are related. And then, how risky could it be to see part of yourself that you are not aware of, if you are not prepared.
So that’s part of the book too, that he’s just taking from his unconscious some parts of some experiences or some memories that maybe he was not prepared to face. Or the fact of facing them creates a lot of anxiety in him, creates a lot of pressure, and he’s just completely dizzy about it: “What is happening to me? Why I have all these dreams? Why do I have these impulses? Why do I want to kill? Why do I want to think that it’s so easy to kill, and then discover that it’s not that easy and I was not prepared?” That’s why the doctor is very important. He seems like a secondary character, but because without the character and his skill there is no novel.
What was your research process like for writing about hypnosis and also acupuncture? Did you undergo both of those?
Acupuncture, yes, a lot, that’s normal for me. I read a little bit [about hypnosis] and talked to a couple of people that had gone through the process of the healing through hypnosis. And I talked to a doctor that deals with that, and so I got some idea of how it is. Then, imagination. But not too much research. It was not necessary.
I didn’t use some experiences because they didn’t fit with the character. But it gave me the idea because sometimes, as in [Erasmo’s] case, these kinds of experiences are related with violence, and with politics, and with history, and a little bit with his family too.
For a lot of people everything is about the family. What you want to forget, what is deeply hidden in your mind, is related with some incidence with your father, your mother, your grandfather, your uncle, whoever wanted to do harm to you in some precise moment. And then just it put it to the back, and you don’t want to remember.
Erasmo wants to believe in something. He wants to believe in holistic medicine and that it can heal him, but he’s also really cynical about it. Do you think that the conflict between cynicism and a need for belief is something that a lot of people are facing right now?
Yes, I think that’s a normal process. When you go through nonconventional ways of doing things, you’ll always have this kind of cynical attitude of saying, “Well, I will try but I don’t believe.” I don’t know if it’s the word cynical, but it’s a kind of doubt. And [Erasmo] is cynical in the sense that he does it, even though he doubts, but I think that’s a normal process for human beings.
My characters, not only this one, many of them, deal with life like that. I don’t know if that’s my own vision that I just put in the characters. That I’m not a believer in the sense that my first attitude is “this could not be true,” or this is “suspicious” or this is not going to work. That’s my way of facing life: pessimistic.