Interview with Rodrigo Fresán (Part III)
Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.
Will Vanderhyden: Your fiction wears its influences on its sleeve, but not only do you fully acknowledge your literary forbearers, you repurpose, and—à la Borges, when he wrote: “Every writer creates his own precursors”—(re)create them. Your books, both in form and content, revolve around and play with the work and lives of other writers, both real and invented: your narratives are full of ersatz and factual stories of great artists and writers; your writing is riddled with quotations, allusions, and rewritten/recycled/re-contextualized ideas. But out of this bricolage of references you create your own sensibility, your own voice—an undeniably original style. Can you talk about what style means to you and where you think it comes from?
Rodrigo Fresán: Ah, that is the great mystery. Over the years I have come to realize that personal style is nothing more than the way in which the wounds of successive failures stop bleeding and scar over. Out of all those things that never turn out how you thought or hoped they would, if you persevere, in the end your own style will emerge, inside of which, yes, in my case (and in everyone’s case; I just don’t have any problem admitting it and acknowledging it) many other voices coexist. I am a referential maniac. And I’m very proud of it.
WV: Even this idea of “referential mania,” is itself a reference. In his story Signs and Symbols Nabokov uses the term to describe a psychological disorder suffered by the institutionalized son of an elderly couple of Russian Jewish émigrés. This disorder causes the patient to imagine that “everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence” and that: “Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” You’ve turned referential mania into a literary device, a way to harness information overload, to make stories out of the multitude of stories that have been personally meaningful to you at different times in your life. Is there a particular moment or experience that kick started your referential mania?
RF: I think I talked about this somewhat in response to previous questions (early exposure to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” etc.). But maybe the Big Bang . . . I remember perfectly my father coming home with the freshly released, the first, and automatic favorite Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and looking at that cover and wondering who all those people were and what were they doing there, and feeling already how that image was setting in motion a referential mania that would become the incurable and delightful pathology of all my future books.
WV: The Writer has theory about the formation of the reader/writer. Can you describe that theory? And while we’re at it: who are your readers?
RF: I’ll quote myself again or, better, quote The Writer from The Invented Part: “A theory of the reader/writer: As far as the formation and/or deformation of a writer, I believe the process is a lot like the formation of the reader. When we start writing, as children, the most important thing is the hero, identification with the hero. We fall in love with the boy or girl in the story, and then take it upon ourselves to find out if they’ve starred in other adventures. So, stacks and stacks of comics and Sandokan, the Musketeers, Nemo, Jo, etcetera. And there/here is as far as most readers go (and they can stop here, no problem). To continue the adventure, into the jungle, a new kind of reader appears. A slightly more sophisticated reader, with a particular interest in the structure of the adventures and, later, a particular fascination with who created them and under what circumstances—with that living ghost called author and with the distinct possibility of other similar authors. The final and most evolved stage of reader—and writer—is one who, in addition to all the foregoing, is also concerned with and enjoys a particular style. That’s the only way you can fight back and make peace in our digital and pluralized times, electrified by writers who narrate but don’t write, by writers who simply recount but on whom you can never count when you need them the most. And there are few writers—the truly great ones—who make their style come through in their prose and, also, in what their prose tells. And thus, the miracle of a plot and a style all their own—unique, nontransferable. If there is a goal, it is certainly that—to have plot and style make space and time for a new and personal language. That the invented part of what’s told also be the way that fiction speaks and expresses itself. But—warning—never forget that the style you achieve is always—though a posteriori you try to convince yourself of the opposite, that everything was coldly calculated—just a detour along the path. Style ends up being nothing more than the hangover following a bender. What’s left behind and provokes a headache and so let’s see what we can do with this. Style is the successful distillation of a failure, the glorious, unforgettable accident. A laboratory problem, like in The Fly, like in The Hulk. That’s the only way to understand the expansive yet Prussian digression of Saul Bellow or the novelistic mutation of Shakespeare in Iris Murdoch. A thing you find when you’re looking for something else entirely.”
As far as my potential readers go, I’ve always said that I like to imagine them as people who are a lot like me but slightly more intelligent.
WV: There is a symbolic/mythic space that exists in The Invented Part and throughout your fiction called “Sad Songs.” Though its function and location seem to shift from one book to the next, I feel like it has something to do with nostalgia, with childhood memories, and with the origin of lifelong obsessions. Can you talk about this idea and it’s role in your fiction?
RF: I wouldn’t say that it’s nostalgia, rather that the past is increasingly interesting. And also increasingly big. Because yesterday keeps getting fatter, tomorrow keeps getting skinnier, and the present keeps sneaking away to purge in secret. Of all times—and I get this from Proust no less—the past is the place that’s best written and the one you can write best. It’s a place where we already were but that we can always go back to. It’s not “a foreign country: they do different things there,” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but the country where all of us were born and that we leave behind just so we can go back. In the future, we will all die in the past. Maybe that’s why they say that our entire life passes before our memory’s eyes in a matter of seconds, in the moment of our definitive goodbye, right? When it comes to childhood, everything happened there and everything that happened there keeps happening to us because—as readers or writers—we will always be animals that can only fall asleep if, first, someone comes and tells us a story. The idea of Sad Songs is, on the one hand, a joke/homage to certain tics of magical realism and, on the other hand, a very convenient and functional strategy: when I can’t think of where to go, I go and go back to Sad Songs. And Sad Songs can be anywhere in the world and even—like in The Bottom of the Sky—on another planet.
Check back in on July 12th for the fourth part of this interview—a screed about screen culture!—and in the meantime, be sure to check out the podcast and other Two Month Review posts!