Interview with Rodrigo Fresán (Part II)
Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.
Will Vanderhyden: Now, this is a question that, in a way, the book takes as its point of departure—so it might make a good segue into talking about to what extent The Invented Part is autobiographical, to what extent the book’s primary narrator, The Writer, is you—but: what made you want to be a writer? Or, to put it another way: how and why did you end up pursuing a career/vocation as a writer? And: how is the reality of that story different from The Writer’s origin story in the book?
Rodrigo Fresán: It isn’t autobiographical, but it is the most personal in certain respects. In ways that have more to do with what I have written than what I have lived, in the sense that it is about how a writer, who is also me, thinks. In other words: I don’t have a mad sister, but I do have a very sensible son; my parents weren’t killed during the military dictatorship of the ‘70s-80s, but we did have to flee the country and barely made it out (the most precise version of that story is told at the end of Historia argentina, my first book). In terms of what it was that made me into a writer, I don’t have a precise memory of that. I always wanted to be one. Even before I learned to read and write. That’s why, in The Invented Part, I invented en epiphanic instant in the life of the book’s narrator when his writerly-vocation is activated after he almost drowns . . . As far as I’m concerned, I have always considered it a great privilege and gift to get to live and not have to betray my childhood dream of what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” Not many people get to keep and concretize that. But maybe, yes, it’s all linked to my own almost-death: I was born and declared clinically dead. I had a very complicated birth. And, mysteriously and miraculously, I came back from the other side. I lived to tell the tale. To tell it and to write it.
WV: In The Invented Part, you explore the relationship between disastrous moments in the lives of certain famous artists—F. Scott Fitzgerald and his relationships with Zelda Sayre, Ernest Hemmingway, and Sara and Gerald Murphy; William S. Burroughs and the killing of his wife Joan Vollmer; the members of Pink Floyd and the loss of their original band mate Syd Barrett—and the famous works of art that emerged from the wreckage. How do these famous instances of the confluence of life and art parallel The Writer’s own situation and inform the decisions he makes in the book?
RF: I wouldn’t say they inform any of his decisions (his decisions are, in general, bad when not catastrophic), but they do function as talismans for him or as the floating remains of a shipwreck that he can cling to. Also, clearly, he thinks about them to not think about himself and a body of work (his own) that would be hard pressed to ever reach those heights. And there’s an additional application of these geniuses and figures (like the figures of Bob Dylan, the Brontë sisters, and Vladimir Nabokov in the next “installment” of the monster) all of them have something in common: they were consummate (and some consumed) rewriters of themselves.
WV: This will likely be clear to anybody who has read the book, but can you talk about where the title, The Invented Part, came from?
RF: It’s from a letter that Gerald Murphy sent to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I had already used it as an epigraph in Historia argentina and . . . we can agree that it makes a great title and it was always a mystery to me that nobody had used it. “I know now that what you said in Tender Is the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty,” writes Murphy, who—along with his wife Sara—had been upset by how, without consulting them, Fitzgerald had used their marriage as the point of departure for his second great novel.
WV: The Invented Part, like many of your books, has a triptych or three-act structure, with the long middle section divided into five subsections. Although there is a narrative arc that develops in a quasi-linear way throughout the book, there is also the sense that all seven parts are happening simultaneously: they overlap, riff off each other, and sometimes tell different versions of the same events. Where did this structure come from? To what extent was it planned and to what extent improvised? How was it written? Did you start at the beginning and write through to the end or was the final structure something that you came to later on?
RF: I always think in trios, triads, triptychs, triangles. I fear that it has to do with the influence resulting from very early exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Once I said that I write the way The Beatles recorded and it was misinterpreted in the sense that I was accused of considering myself as great as The Beatles. Well, no . . . The truth is, I said what I said thinking more about George Martin (The Beatles producer) than about The Beatles. Anyway, the headline was misinterpreted. People today just read headlines and feel compelled to retweet them right away without reading the entire interview. I wasn’t saying that I write with the same degree of genius and talent that The Beatles had, not at all. I was saying, and I explained this in the interview, that after reading a memoir by Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ sound engineer, the thing about equalizing and utilizing different channels on the sound mixer ended up having a great deal to do with the way I wrote The Invented Part, whose seven parts I wrote simultaneously. I had seven files open, and I worked on a different one each day. And, at the same time, I didn’t really know where that novel was going, until my son provided me with the key, the little toy figure that appears on the cover of the original edition, which has now become a kind of little literary icon . . . I was bogged down. I had spent years writing a novel, I knew what I wanted to say, I even had a plan, but it wasn’t coming together. I was stuck in uncertainty, I had five hundred pages of nothing, and then my son, Daniel, who was five years old at the time, told me he had found the cover for my next book. We saw it in the window of a stationary shop on the way to his school. It was a windup toy: a traveler wearing a raincoat and hat, carrying a big suitcase. We bought it. “I want him to be the hero too,” Daniel said. I ended up discarding that last idea, but I hung onto the toy. And that’s when it happened: it was as if I’d been wound up and set in motion and I didn’t stop until I got to the end.
WV: In this book and elsewhere you tell an anecdote about a conversation you had with the Irish writer John Banville in which you ask him what is more important, plot or style, and he responds by saying: “Style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.” Can you talk about this idea and how it relates to your work?
RF: What Banville said seems to me a great sentence. And a great truth. And it was a great privilege to be there and hear him say it. But in The Invented Part, I reproduce it and, I hope, politely and respectfully add to it. I’ll cite here what I say in the novel: “Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylistic plot, into the most well-plotted of styles.” In my life as a reader, the truth is that it’s harder and harder for me to read anybody who doesn’t rely on style.
Come back on June 21st for the third part of this interview, and in the meantime, be sure to check out the podcast and other Two Month Review posts!