The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Mario Bellatin
Mario Bellatin has been called “the strangest and most fascinating writer in Mexican literature,” a “literary prankster” whose mischievous experimental works push literary boundaries. In addition to writing dozens of novellas and winning Mexico’s most prestigious literary prizes, he has led a campaign against his literary publisher, Grupo Planeta, to unpublish Beauty Salon, his most famous work. His autobiography, The Large Glass (translated from the Spanish by David Shook), is actually three autobiographies, each of them deconstructing the genre in an examination and celebration of the stories we tell about ourselves.
In this interview with Sampsonia Way, Mario Bellatin discussed how joining the Sufi order has influenced his work, how writing on an iPhone has changed his process, and the void he confronts through his writing.
Well, it was an interesting process and now I have a gentleman’s agreement that says that I can’t talk about it. The rights were entirely returned to me and I can no longer go on speaking out against them. What was interesting about it— from the position of a writer without a greater platform— is that through social networks like Facebook, or being able to talk to some journalists, I was able to reach justice in the face of a large multinational conglomerate.
Many reasons converged, including one publishing house being sold to another, etcetera, so there were some misunderstandings and vacuums of power that made it so that the rights were in a space that wasn’t formalized.
I think that the essence of this problem is the gigantic monopoly that the publishing industry is becoming in general. These large editorial empires buy as many independent publishing houses as they can to, in some way, destroy them. Then they don’t know what to do with them, which was the confusion in this instance.
Who owns an artist’s work?
I have always considered the creator to be a medium, no? A means from one place to another. So I do not want the author to continue with the traditional idea that he is the owner of his own work, but rather that he is like an antenna, like something the work passes through. So finally the work belongs to everyone. That’s a little of what underlays this discussion with Grupo Planeta: that it not be privatized in one precise place. But that privatization, that stagnation, doesn’t necessary have to be on the author nor on the one that bought the rights, nor on anyone, but rather it’s a little of the idea that it flows, and the work belongs to everyone.
How does Sufism influence your work?
My approach to Sufism was not mystical, but rather literary. It was artistic. My idea was that the best school of creation that I could have, was to approach a mystical space. And to me, there was an absolute change in regards to the freedom of my work. Before I met the Sufi group—entering it twenty years ago, becoming a member of a Sufi order—my work was in some way framed within how traditionally literary artistic things should be. Once I changed—I entered Sufism—it was like I broke the limits.
What were some of the structures that confined you prior to entering Sufism?
Nothing that I do is with a previous intention. In my previous books, which include Beauty Salon, I didn’t limit myself to just writing the books, but rather to creating a system for writing. Suddenly, at thirty years old or so, I met the Sufis and so I entered into a system that was much more perfected over the centuries.
I was fenced in by the literary tradition, and before long I found a group of people who have a system of living—of having a life that is parallel to the everyday—and that is to me exactly what art and literature: to be able to create a universe parallel to the everyday, with rules that are sufficiently coherent to make that world plausible.
You have said that you considered renting another person to write under your name before. Did you ever consider renting another person to write your autobiography, The Large Glass?
Well, The Large Glass is part of an absurdity, that no one can write three autobiographies. In some way it is a form to reveal that autobiographies or traditional biographies are always false, because they obey a predetermined way of making an autobiography. So I broke that idea by saying something that might sound absurd, no? To make three autobiographies, which is like an impossibility.
I feel it is much more honest to do it in this way, because in playing with the plausible and not with reality–as one would expect in a traditional autobiography–I understand that much more profound intimate aspects, real aspects are revealed than I could have achieved by constructing a normal autobiography. So it’s like a double play. To take the not-autobiography to extremes, to make an autobiography of the soul, more or less. Like an autobiography, really, of the things one can’t say in a normal way.
It’s impossible to write a truthful autobiography because it becomes a form. It’s always a point of view. There’s always an infinite relativism. And I prefer if I’m going to choose a relativism for it to be an evident one and not to fall into the idea of what is supposedly a relativism that is accepted by everyone, which would be the concrete autobiography with facts that compare with yours.
What new truths did you discover about your life when you were writing this?
That the origins of all my ills are in my childhood. There is a very large relationship between everything that happened in my life before I was ten years old–which is a little bit of what appears there—-and the importance as well, that that life be reflected in dreams. So it’s like a type of relationship between childhood and the oneiric world. I know in some way after having written a book that–I don’t have an answer–but where I would have to look for one is in my life before I turned ten and in the world of dreams.
I talk about being ten because that was the time I wrote my first book, which was a book about dogs. And there, I think, that the action of having made an outline, a book, was the one that made a mark, because the rest of my life turned much more conscious. Just there, that’s why I see the mark that appears.
When I read–because I am the reader of my own book–I don’t have a previous idea that I carry forward. I allow the book to flow, and then I am a reader and I edit it. I could make a parallel Large Glass, explaining the most outlandish or extreme events, making a very concrete version of the facts, but when I do that mental exercise I realize that everything happened before I began writing. So I think that I can also consider writing to be a cure— to have cured me.
That reminds me of a quote by your friend, novelist and critic Francisco Goldman: “All good fiction writing comes from some wound.” Can that statement be applied to your autobiography?
I would change the word “wound” and enlarge it to “mystery.” You could name it in many ways, but there is some kind of break, something strange that takes me to writing in general. There’s no rational reason why I have to continue writing, beginning when I was nine years old until today, this morning. I write all the time, and I don’t have a concrete, objective reason I could use to explain why.
There’s a mystery. For me it’s a mystery that I don’t want to investigate much because possibly at the moment of discovering it, it’s cured and I can no longer continue writing.
What mystery do you seek to solve through your writing?
The mystery is the necessity to confront a nothingness on a daily basis, starting with writing. It’s like filling a void and confronting a type of enemy, which is an abstraction, and I beat it by giving shape to that abstract space, and give the abstraction the shape of a finished book or a determined text. Because, I repeat, I don’t have a rational reason to tell you why I’ll write tomorrow or why I wrote today or why I published those books.
Many people might think from outside that one wants to be a writer. You ask me things, seeing a book of mine published, that for me is a consequence, which for me is not the center. It’s a natural consequence of that mystery which makes me sit for hours. I have dedicated my entire life to that. I don’t have anything else. Nothing else matters to me. Not even the menu when I go out to eat.
Recently you began writing with a stylus on your iPhone. How did that change your creative process?
Like all of the other processes, it wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s not like one day I took an iPhone and said “I am going to write here.” It was something that developed. I had already had an iPhone for a year— used it for a year— before I managed to take the leap towards using it as a means for constant writing. I began with small notes—I mean, directions, like a telephone number on the iPhone’s Notes app. And before long the notes started growing, until I myself noticed that I had made entire books.
For many years I used a prosthesis for my right arm. I didn’t need to use it, because I am one-armed. I didn’t have an accident, but in the time when I was born, and when I was a boy, they still had the idea that I had to use a prosthesis. I had a sort of dependence that was more emotional than real with that prosthesis. Presently for me, the iPhone has become a sort of prosthesis for writing at all times. The classic idea of the studio and the writer, and the solitude of the writer, the idea of having specific hours to work, breaks.
I write all the time. It’s terrible as well. Now I’m scaring myself a little because I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning, I don’t get out of bed, and I take the iPhone and I write, and I write on the plane, and when the doctor hasn’t shown up, and when I have to wait on a bus, or in the airport, etcetera, and I am making my books at all times. So it’s like I’m turning into—I don’t know, it can sound really egocentric—like turning into a sort of bionic writing-man.
It’s not that I made the decision but that the decision made me. It developed, to say it better, and it’s already something terrible that I can’t go back from. I can’t use a computer anymore, I can’t use a keyboard anymore, because the keyboard seems so slow, and obviously, I can’t use a typewriter either, because when one changes, it’s a step forward that doesn’t allow one to go back.
And there’s a change—I don’t understand which it is—in terms of the speed of the books. It’s not a physical velocity that is faster or slower, but there is a velocity in my relation to the word; that since I’ve written on iPhone, I can make three books in a year, or four books. All the time I am finishing things. I remember that when I was writing on a typewriter, an Underwood from ’15, I felt like the writing expanded. I feel like there is a relationship between the writing and the medium you use, but it’s a relationship that I can’t locate. It’s not just that it’s physically faster or easier.
In one phrase I could say that it is important to me to break the idea–the myth–of the writer, in his studio, in silence, etcetera. All of the paraphernalia of what a writer should be and how he should work. I think that here, in my case, that romantic idea is totally destroyed.
You do not need solitude to write?
No. The perfect moment to me, is accompanied solitude: to have someone who is doing some other thing. Me, alone, I can’t, so I go to cafes, or when I had hunting dogs, greyhounds, we went to the country, so I was with the six dogs writing beneath a tree in the countryside, or I am in a café.
In the last two months, I have been with a group of friends, living together, each of us working. That is the solitude that interests me, not absolute solitude. That’s why I always want to leave my house, leave my studio. I have a traditional studio that is very nice, and anyone who sees it from outside would say “Wow, it’s perfect,” but it’s not, because all the time I am distracted by many things in my own studio.
However for me it is to be accompanied and alone. It’s like a parallel work. Let’s suppose I was living here with David Shook, my editor and translator, and David was down here doing his things; his books, creating his poems, and I am on the second floor doing my work and knowing that there is someone else who is working on some other thing. That’s what happens in a café. I feel like there are other people doing other things, but what I can’t resist now, and less and less so, is absolute solitude.
What are your obsessions as a writer?
Well, the desire for writing always, and to see that there are elements that repeat themselves. So that’s not something that I would necessarily have to say, because someone who reads my texts sees that there is a recurrence—and I see it too—but at the moment of appreciating them I’m not in agreement that they come from an obsession. But, for example, illness, closed spaces, worlds that define themselves, reflecting reality in a distorted manner in order to truly understand it. I think that those are recurrent elements within my own writing, but they’re not thought of in that way. So I think that I can recognize them, those obsessive, reiterative elements, but that doesn’t mean that I accept them as something deep that I want to express. I work with them, and I give them shape.
You’ve said before that no literary work can ever be finished. How then, do you decide when to end your writing?
When another work appears, develops, or starts to be created, and it’s much more interesting to begin with than to continue with the previous one. They extinguish themselves. One project doesn’t end and then another begins, but rather one extinguishes itself: it quits shining, because there’s already another one that superimposes itself. That’s when I decide to abandon the previous one and dedicate all my time to the next one. There are crossroads, always. There’s not a time where I finish a work. Some time goes by, I turn it in to an editor, and I wait some time to start another one. There are almost always several projects going on at the same time, and some of them have a greater shine, greater intensity, until that intensity lowers and is replaced by another. So it’s like replacements really, of the same writing. That’s why I also think that all books, as different as they seem, are really just one book.