The Irreverence of Prose Writing

Best writing advice ever given:

Ken Follett

“The art of writing is the application of the seat of the trousers to the seat of the chair.”

The advice came from Sir Ted Willis (the most successful television writer in Britain) and what it means is just that you’re not working unless you’re working. If you’re thinking of ideas, you’re not working. You’re only working when you’re writing them down.

BBC Culture journalist Hephzibah Anderson interviewed prolific best-selling author Ken Follett during a special programme recorded live at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“My tribe is people that like living intensely, fight intensely, love intensely…” – Guilliermo Arriaga

guillermo-arriaga-2There was a lot of background noise at the press center. I was excited and anxious, thinking that my time was limited and I wanted to ask just the „right” questions. As I approached him, still thinking about the powerful impression he made the night before, he smiled and invited me to sit next to him.

Guillermo Arriaga is a Mexican writer, author of A sweet scent of death, Retorno 201, and The Guillotine Squad  and scriptwriter of amazing movies like 21 Grams or Babel, nominated to BAFTA awards, an eclectic figure and a passionate hunter.

As I sit next to him, he tells me that he is amazed by the Romanian press and their questions, so I have a high standard to live up to, already. I reply, half-jokingly, that I hope I won’t be the one to disappoint him. Then I begin:

Alice Teodorescu: Let’s start with a tricky one first and we’ll see where it leads us… I was wondering if you could tell me how you would define mortality in relation to your art, as you tackle with a lot of huge subjects.
Guillermo Arriaga: I think I will put mortality as a very important part of life. But it’s not about mortality, it’s about life. What I’m talking about is not death, but life, a life that has an ending. So if we want to be people that embrace and enjoy life, we have to know that it finishes and that’s why I talk about mortality.

un dulce

A.T.: I’ve felt that you have to embrace death, not fear it. Be aware of it. And it relates to what you were saying last night, to risk, to go out there and live.
G.A.:If you don’t risk, you begin to die…

A.T.: But talking about ending…as you finish the day, what is the final motivation for you to keep on doing what you are doing?
G.A.: What is the final motivation? That my life is going to end. I have several skulls in my working place, from different materials. I bought one of bronze in Brazil. They all remind me that I’m going to die and that my work is going to survive me. Writing and doing films is an affirmation of life, because I am reproducing moments that I would not be able to repeat anymore. But they will go beyond me.

A.T.: What about these moments? You said that you could only write and create from your own experiences. How do you know a moment will become part of your art?
G.A.: When it doesn’t go away. When it keeps knocking you and says I have to be told, I have to be told. There are stories that I have since I was 12 years old…

A.T.: They’re in the back of your mind…
G.A.: No, they completely come back to the front of my mind.

A.T.: So, they keep pushing.
G.A.: Yeah, they keep pushing.

A.T.: But, what about memory? Is it important in what you create? I mean, the retelling of those moments…
G.A.: What is important in history in general, is not what happened, really, but how you perceive it. If there’s a car accident right now, outside, and we are 20 people watching it, there will be 20 perceptions. And how everyone perceived it, that is what’s worth it, more than the memory. I’m going to tell you about William Faulkner. Faulkner wrote a lot about lynching, and murders, and incest… and his brother said I don’t understand my brother, we live so happily, yes, there was lynching, but not that much, yes, incest, but not that much, so why did my brother perceive it like that?… we grew up in a very happy environment, what are we talking about?

A.T.: Do you think that the culture that you grew up in heavily influenced you and if you had grown up in another way, you would have been different?
G.A.: I was telling a colleague of yours that the best thing that could have happened to me was to have grown up in the street I grew up. That definitely takes my perception of life and it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. And, yes, it’s not only culture, it has to do with the life experiences you have. Hunting has completely defined who I am and has completely defined my literature.

A.T.: I was actually wondering, when did you start hunting? How did it happen?
G.A.: I wanted to become a hunter when I was like 5 years old.

A.T.: So, you knew..
G.A.: I knew. It’s funny, because my father is not a hunter. But the 3 male sons, we started hunting at some point in our life. And the 3 of us are much related to animals. One of them became a veterinary and he’s an expert in cows, the other one raised wild animals (like tigers…) and me as a hunter.

A.T.: It’s an impressing story. Well, I do believe that we are animals as well, as a species. And I’ve remembered just now that you said something about everyone finding his own tribe. Can you name your tribe?
G.A.: My tribe is people that want to be out. My tribe is people that are not afraid to risk in their life. My tribe is people that like living intensely, fight intensely, love intensely… I think that it’s about people that don’t like monotony, they don’t like to be bored.

A.T.: And they don’t like to be lived by life, probably…
Let me switch now to the creative part of life, as you said that you could write anywhere if inspiration comes…
G.A.: It’s not about inspiration, it’s about sitting in front of your computer and trying to make it work. I had to adapt to write in many environments. But for me, the perfect environment is at night, in my studio, where I’m not disturbed, where I have all of my books… I, for example, use many photographs and paintings to write, sometimes I go and read some passages… So I, also, need my books. For me, my books, my films, are the blood of my work. If I lose my books… which I have bought all of my life, I have like 6000 books… (he pauses and gestures) That’s what feeds me.

A.T.: It’s really interesting that you say you use visuals for writing. After seeing the movies, I remember strong images and I remember it felt like visual poetry, if I may say so, and what remains with me, still, is a sense of very powerful emotions, like gripping my stomach. I was wondering if you are happy if people feel that way:
G.A.: I’m very happy that people will feel things. There are even people that hate you when seeing 21 grams or Babel. They say, I hate the person who wrote this and then they meet me and they change their point of view.

A.T.: Well, it kind of happened to me as well. Not hate, but I’m really empathetic and movies like these follow me for months.
G.A.: But, that’s better. There’s something called „the parking lot movie”, when you reached your car, you forgot about the movie. I don’t want my movies to be like that. I prefer to be hated…

A.T.: But to linger…
G.A.: But to linger, exactly. Having a happy film where people will feel happy, but don’t remember it again, I don’t want that. I like to touch people, to change their perception and make their mind move.

A.T.: I can relate to that, but it’s difficult. I really admire you for wanting to tackle with this subjects that are considered taboo. And I’m really expecting to see Words with Gods.
G.A.: I hope you like it.

A.T.: I hope, as well. I think I will, because religion is one of my favourite topics.
G.A.: I can tell you, my colleagues did a great job and I’m very, very happy with the film. For me, there are masterpieces in some of those segments. Absolutely… they put everything they had, they weren’t just doing their job, they were doing something important.

A.T.: One last remark, I have a tattoo and I related to what you said that teenagers these days, because they’re in a protected environment, they need…
G.A.: Scars. They need scars.

A.T.: Yeah… It lingers already and I’m thinking that maybe I need to get out there more. (I laugh a bit)
G.A.: Yeah, because now youth is very protected. I don’t know about here, but in Mexico they are really protected now.

A.T.: No, in Romania as well. Maybe in the countryside it’s not that much…
G.A.: But they have scars, they don’t have tattoos.

A.T.: True.
G.A.: So people in the countryside, they live the hard life and they have more and more physical scars, but people who come from big cities, they live in an apartment, they go to school, they use the public transport, nothing happens, they need scars, so they get a tattoo.

A.T.: I’ve never put it in that perspective, but you opened my eyes… so thank you very much!
G.A.: No, thank you! And you were up to the standards of the great Romanian press.
A.T.: Thank you.

* * * 


Isabel Allende: “The creative process is one part inspiration and three parts just work and discipline.”

resized_isabel allende.06 fotocredit Lori Barra

Andreea Chebac: How did you get inside of a teen’s mind for the book Maya’s Notebook? Was it hard?
Isabel Allende: I have three grandchildren. When I wrote the book, the youngest one, Nicole, has gone through a very difficult adolescence. Fortunately, she didn’t get in trouble like Maya, but I always worried about her; she was wild, with no common sense, beautiful and had a boyfriend from hell. Her parents and me, as her grandmother, had to watch her constantly. Now she is 20, captain of her volleyball team at New York University, she is doing very well and she has a kind and smart boyfriend who adores her. My fears about Nicole inspired Maya. It was easy to get in the mind of the character because I was very close to my granddaughter.

AC: Why did you choose to present the dark side of youth?
IA: I have three stepchildren, my husbands’ children with his first and second wife. Two of them have already died of drug related causes and the oldest, who is now 50 years old, is still doing drugs. His life is wasted, he looks terrible and for my husband’s sake, I pray that he will not die during his father’s life. I have seen the devastation of drugs to the addict and everybody around him or her. I needed to write about it. A teenager like Maya is constantly exposed to drugs, violence, prostitution, and petty crime, so it seemed quite natural that a girl in trouble would suffer those experiences in the novel.

AC: The book contains many descriptions of native ceremonies and celebrations. Have you seen them in childhood? How do you remember them?
IA: Those ceremonies are mostly set in Chiloé. I have been there many times and I did a special trip to research for the ceremonies.

AC: The book contains the phrase: „Under the pretext of terrorism, the US government monitors our every movement”. Is this your personal opinion or just the opinion of the character?
IA: It is my opinion.

AC: What made you address the issue of dictatorship and torture in a novel about a teenage girl?
IA: Half the novel is set in Chile. Maya comes from Chilean refugees that had to flee from the dictatorship. There is a mystery about her grandfather. How could I not deal with those issues in the book?

AC: How did you create the plot of the book Maya’s Notebook? Did you have the outcome in mind or did it come to you in the process of writing?
IA: I never have an outline when I start writing, not even with my latest book, Ripper, which is a crime novel. In Maya’s case I had a vague idea of the main character when I began the book and I knew that the girl would end up in Chiloé. I had done some research and as I was writing I continued to research, that was very inspiring. I didn’t have an ending in mind, usually I wait until I have told the whole story and then let the characters decide the ending.

AC: How did you get the idea of a book with your own quotes about love?
IA: I suppose that those quotes are in my heart and my mind, they are part of my personality, so they keep up coming in different books.

AC: Are you considering publishing similar books, but with quotes on other themes?
IA: Not for the time being. The truth is that I don’t know what I will write in the future, each book comes to me from some mysterious place. I don’t choose the story, it chooses me.

AC: What did you feel when you wrote Paula and The Sum of Our Days? Do you consider one of them to be your best book?
IA: How can I judge my own books? That is the job of critics, professors and readers. Writing memoirs has been tricky for me because in both Paula and The Sum of our Days I exposed not only my life, but also the lives of other people, members of my family and friends. I had to be careful; on one hand I did not want to betray them and on the other I wanted the truth. There is a fine line between what is mine to tell and what is not mine to tell. I solved it by showing the manuscripts to everybody that was mentioned in the books for their approval. Only one person, one of my stepsons, did not want to be in The Sum of our Days, so I had to rewrite the book and eliminate him.

AC: I know that you start to write every new book at a certain date. Do you happen to have blockages?
IA: For me it is easier to have a day to start because I can plan my whole year around the writing time. I need several months of silence and solitude to write a book. If I don’t fell inspired on that particular date, I just show up every single day in front of my computer for as long as it takes. Sooner or later the muse will visit me. The creative process is one part inspiration and three parts just work and discipline.

AC: Why are most of your main characters women?
IA: I find them interesting, I know them well, I am surrounded by strong women and I have a Foundation to empower women and girls. Through the Foundation I have met many extraordinary women who have survived the most horrible experiences and yet they have not been broken. They stand on their feet, they become leaders and the struggle to save other women and girls from the fate they have endured. They inspire me.

AC: Are the magic and the inexplicable a part of life or just a part of literature?
IA: I don’t how it is in Romania, but I come from Latin America and I live in California, where the mysteries of life and the universe are not only accepted but embraced. We do not have all the answers, we just have unending questions. Personally, I believe that there is spirit in everything that exists and open to the inexplicable.

AC: Why did you wait so long to write your first novel and where did all the need for writing go to until then?
IA: Before becoming a writer I had been a journalist for many years in Chile. In Venezuela, where I lived as a political refugee after the military coup in Chile from 1975 to 1987, I did all sorts of odd jobs and ended up administering a school. I needed to support my family, so writing was out of the question; very few writers can make a living with their books. In l981 I started writing a letter to my dying grandfather, who was in Chile, and that letter became my first novel. I did not quit my day job until my third book, when I was sure that I could support my children with my writing.

AC: Can you reveal us something from you next book?
IA: No, sorry. I never speak of book in progress.

AC: As a writer, what is your dearest memory?
IA: Writing the first sentence of the House of the Spirits. I still remember it, more than thirty years later: Barrabas came to us by sea. Those words opened the door to literature and changed my life.

AC: It is hard to create funny characters ?
IA: For me it is not so hard because I wrote humorous columns for magazines and newspapers for many years. I tend to have an ironic view of reality, that helps me to cope with the absurdity of people and the world.

AC: You wrote an autobiographical novel. How much do you think the public needs to know about the life of a writer?
IA: Some readers like memoirs, others don’t. My memoirs have done well, so I assume that the readers are interested. I have no problem telling the public about myself and my life. It is not the secrets we share that make us feel vulnerable, it is the secrets we keep.

AC: How do you relate to criticism?
IA: I don’t mind it. Anybody who does something public is exposed to positive and negative criticism. Why would I be an exception?
Foto: Lori Bara


Writers Passing Through Krakow: Zadie Smith and Gabriela Adamesteanu as Seen by Alina Alens

Today, on what is deemed to be the international Day of Poetry, I happened to have a meeting with one of my students, Mariusz Walczak, who translated to me from Polish an interview with Zadie Smith  taken after the Czeslaw Milosz Literature Festival, and published in the first issue of the book magazine “Ksiazki” in July, last year.

Zadie Smith and Alina Alens (Photo by Tomasz Wiech)

While discussing the questions, answers and several inevitable translation issues as we went through the interview, I was brought back to the meeting with Romanian writer Gabriela Adamesteanu in Krakow 7 days ago, on the occasion of the release of her novel, “Dimineata pierduta”, in Polish translation “Stracony Poranek”, albeit across three languages – Polish, English, and Romanian -, a linguistic reality I am by now familiar with, by force of circumstance. 

Both authors happened to be, in 2011 and last week, at their second visit to the city of Krakow. As a temporary city resident since late 2006, I was fortunate to meet them both, exchange a few words, and offer each of them a copy of my book of poems “The Incomplete Fantasy We Call Love”.

To paraphrase Zadie Smith – via Mariusz’s translation that I am grateful for :), Thank you, Mariusz!, we live in a world that favours non-fiction/ the things that actually happen(ed), over fiction/ the things that occur(ed) in an author’s imagination, a world in which people have lost their patience for being guided into fictional worlds of sorts – all except, maybe, some educated elites within the contemporary reading public. Is it a stretch of the imagination to say that living in one’s head as a self-exploring writer nowadays is more than a risky business, verging on a kind of self-imposed social isolation?

Asked what type of literature she prefers to write, Zadie Smith gives a two-fold answer, saying that she writes articles, essays and reviews  requested by various publications for practical reasons and with  immediate results, whereas writing a novel is a much more unpredictable endeavour. That is because while writing a novel a writer can dive in and disappear for what can sometimes end up to be years. Gabriela Adamesteanu is, in her turn, well-known for her non-fictional review and article writing in the Romanian cultural press. When asked if her non-fiction writing sometimes blends into her fiction, she asserted that, even though the research for certain articles could work to the advantage of something she writes, the fictional worlds stand alone, uniquely anchored in the imagination, no palpable reality strings attached.

 The greater part of the interview with Zadie Smith, as well as the greater part of the meeting with Gabriela Adamesteanu, rested in a talk on different aspects and qualities of literary speech, in other words, on the mechanics of the dialogue that the literary characters engage in. According to Zadie Smith, there are three categories of writers when it comes to the art of dialogue, which she does not see as an outdated strategy for building characters: there are writers like J. D. Salinger, who write sparkling, natural dialogues with ease and perfect intuition, writers whose characters tend to sound like themselves (in terms of humour, tone, concepts, phrasing and the like), which lends them a certain artificial quality, like the School of Saul Bellow, and writers like John Updike, for whom dialogue is nothing complicated, and who tend to always preserve and observe a certain thesis behind their characters’  speech. Each category of characters created by these three types of writers is different, some being kept willingly diverse, others remaining homogenous. In the case of Gabriela Adamesteanu, the characters of her novel released  in Polish translation last week refuse to remain homogenous, and their language, the main topic of that and many other literary meetings, we were told, spanned the Romanian social hierarchy from its very  top to its very bottom, in a manner that has made it such a daring challenge for any translator, and so true to the reality of the Romania of the inter- and post-war period, that the author herself confessed that when she thought of her book being one day translated into another language, that possibility was as far from reality (as she saw it) as astronomically possible.

In writing the text of the five scenes of the play “Born A Foreigner” for the Talking About Borders international drama competition, over  two weeks before  December 21st, 2011 – coincidentally a year before the Mayans predicted end of the world, I myself  was confronted with the challenge of creating strong, independent characters with voices of their own, while prserving the intended meaning of their sentences. The most challenging character voice in the play was Wido’s, as he is a character whose English, the original language the play was written and meant to be acted in, is not very good, so that the risks involved in illustrating his linguistic limitations proved very high. “Is the character’s language that bad, or does this author have no clue about how to write?” became the question. As “Born a Foreigner” was written as a play, I decided to use correct language and, instead of  inserting pauses and mistakes, I (subsequently) added introductory notes in which I advise the actor playing Wido to improvise and reduce the language of the character as he sees fit:

 ACTORS’ NOTES: The language used by Wido, Alta, and Nomura in order to communicate is not their mother tongue. The original language of the play is English, which Alta and Nomura have a good knowledge of. Wido’s knowledge of this language (or the language the play is translated in), on the other hand, is more limited than the other two characters’. Therefore, the actor playing Wido’s part has to make use of pauses, hesitations, or mistakes and insert involuntary linguistic inaccuracies while communicating. The texts of the two scenes of Act 1 include the lines that Wido would have used if he had spoken English (or the language the play is translated in) well. Each of Wido’s lines is subject to alteration. As a result, Alta and Nomura’s lines may also undergo changes. Wido’s linguistic difficulties remain consistent throughout the play, throughout Act 1 and Act 4, respectively. In spite of language mistakes, the general impression conveyed by the two scenes of Act 1 is one of apparently successful communication.

Clever trick? Lazy writer who makes life hard for the actor who happens to play Wido and the director who happens to direct the play? May the audience decide. I am ready for any outcome, as I assume each of the writers passing through Krakow might be, should they decide to have their words performed on stage. When Gabriela Adamesteanu’s “Wasted Morning” was put on stage in 1987 by Catalina Buzoianu, it  became a cultural centre of interest at a time when the Ceaușescu regime had entered its more repressive phase. I promise to be back with impressions from the first performance of “Born A foreigner”, in Poland or elsewhere there are still skin colour lessons to be learnt. For now, I am just passing through, from winter into spring, from circles of silence into other circles of silence, in this border-line fictional world of the blogosphere.


“The Caliph’s loneliness persisted despite the procession of virgins who filled his bed and were sacrificed each day. And because he never had anyone with whom to share his unhappiness, he kept his disillusionments secret.”

(Voices of the desert, p. 34)

Trapped by the eye of the camera, the eyes of her viewers, and her own sensuous beauty, Marilyn. Only the eyes visible, the livelihood of her tales the most valued of her talents, Scheherazade. Two different destinies, two different paths, exquisitely recreated in Simon Curtis’ movie, My Week with Marylin (2011), and  in the literary rendition of Scheherezade, Voices of the Desert (2004), by Nelida Pinon.   

Reality and myth confront one another and often clash with repercussion in both directions – that of the authentic ego (that can be touched) and the one created and maintained as an alter ego by the simple act of gazing or ear lending, most often in completely different ways, the image, legend or myth assuming a more pervasive aura than the human being behind it. Human physical frailty is key, as neither image – the one enticing viewers on the screen and the one enticing the Caliph from under the veil – can give measure to the two women’s complex nature. 

“People always see Marilyn Monroe. As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run.” (quoted from the movie)

“Her heart is not always bound to the tales she relates. Her desire is to one day resume life outside the palace walls, to be free of the burden of storytelling.” (Voices of the Desert, p. 24)

It is through such rifts that personal discontent and suffering well up – even though each of the women do their best to keep them hidden from the world. And yet – fortunately, or, at times,  less so -, their instinctive talents prevail in spite of physical adversity. In order to keep their image alive, each woman sacrifices something. With Marilyn, it is her need to be loved and find fulfillment as a mother and wife. Scheherezade, on the other hand, for whom the “Caliph’s cruelty shines before [her] eyes” (p. 30),  wants nothing more than to stop the chain of cruelties he inflicts on women at the cost of her own life and, in storytelling, at the cost of her own individuality.

“[T]o lend credibility to her task, she tries to  free herself of the signs of her individuality. Her deeper being is not at issue.” (p. 30)

Throughout the shooting of “The Prince and the Showgirl”, Marilyn struggles with the character she has to play, unable to perform any lines until she herself can find them credible.  She, too, has to lose herself in the character she plays, abandon human subjectivity to an icon figure. Added to the daily delays and the constant need for repetition, her desire for perfection in performing prompts Sir Lawrence Olivier to confide in Colin Clark that “directing a movie is the best job ever created, but [that] Marilyn has cured [him] of ever wanting to do it again.”  As Colin Clark tells Marilyn in a previous scene, “It’s agony because he’s a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you’re a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won’t help either of you.” 

On the human side, working with Marilyn  did not help turn back time, either, in spite of Sir Lawrence Olivier’s hopes – and his own wife’s worst fears. However, when each return to acting – in plays and movies -, they prove to be more stunning than ever before.

In her turn, Scheherezade “felt distressed by the pressure of her talent. She didn’t care about praise[.] This did not stop her on certain occasions from swelling with pride, only to regret at once the arrogance that could poison her.” One way to alleviate this oppression and calm herself came from “the ancient practice of hiding lightly scented messages beneath the colorful pillows scattered about the house” (p. 25), notes that her sister, Dinazarda, tried to find and decipher, to no avail.  

  “As a whole, the notes, because of their cryptic nature, meant nothing. They were but papyrus, useful only for Scheherezade to elaborate some story ready to blossom under her wit.” (p. 26)

Telling stories hidden behind a veil and personifying female sensuality with innate talent. Could they be  two sides of the same coin? And what should we call it?

My thoughts right now point to entrapment, or the burden of talent in a ungrateful world that enjoys talent in its multifarious forms, but fails to acknowledge it for its worth to society.

I’ll let you know if I find more coins in the drained fountain of our ages.

* * * 

“After his decision to sacrifice the young women of the kingdom in order to satisfy his hatred of the Sultana, the Caliph had felt safe. He had found a means of assuring the court that he was immune to woman, to that being with a body as sinuous as the lines of the Tigris and Euphrates, in whose veins he had found milk, honey, poison. But despite protecting himself, he had weakened before females and continued taking them into his bed as a necessary evil. That entity, full of meanings and ambivalence, at once beautiful and wicked, remained to him an indecipherable mystery, to which he had access only in the shadow of night, when, bewildered, he touched the smooth skin that evoked exhudations in his body.” (Voices of the Desert, p. 34)

* * *

Read more quotes from literature, movies and the media on this site.

Recommended movies on the topic: Ten Tiny Love Stories (2002), Of Love and Other Demons (2009), Cherie (2009), My Week With Marilyn (2011), and so many others…