This weekend I was doing some housecleaning and came across notes I had jotted down almost a year ago, before Lingua Fantastika existed, from a discussion between novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón and journalist Chris Lydon to mark the English publication of Zafón’s The Angel’s Game. With The Angel’s Game just recently appearing in a paperback edition, this discovery seemed too serendipitous to ignore. The event that these notes are from took place on June 22, 2009 at local independent fave the Harvard Book Store. The discussion was broadly focused on Zafón’s career history and goals–which means that a lot of what Zafón said then is still relevant now. To whit:
- Echoing past interviews, Zafón reiterated the esteem in which he holds Dickens. Zafón said that he has tried very consciously to figure out what made the classic 19th century novels that he enjoys so good (not, he added, that he is deliberately aiming to write “classics” or bestsellers, but just because he enjoys those works). Part of his answer is that those books tended to include a bit of everything, that they were pre-genre. Another part of the answer is that Dickens and other 19th century authors invented many narrative techniques, which were gradually abandoned by novelists over the 20th century as other forms of media (film, etc.) took prominence. Zafón sees himself as bringing some of these techniques back into literature while tweaking them for a contemporary audience–an audience that if anything is a more cultivated readership than someone like Dickens enjoyed. Dickens’s readers were seeing many prose techniques used for the first time, as they were invented.
- One narrative technique he used as an example was characterization through dialogue. Zafón noted that in the 20th century it became more and more typical for prose authors to tell characterization through exposition rather than showing it via dialogue. Yet you generally can’t tell characterization in film, or theatre–and Dickens and other good novelists don’t do it in their novels–and so likewise Zafón tries to show character through dialogue in his own works. Which is indeed typically considered a mark of good writing; what I found interesting is Zafón’s perception of the historical route this ideal took into his own writing, the positive influence of popular cinema.
- While The Angel’s Game chronologically comes before The Shadow of the Wind and the idea is that the novels can be read in any order, Zafón sees the quartet he is planning as comprising a classical series of acts, and the new novel is very much the prototypical dark second act. The first book introduced the world; the new book deepens the conflicts which will drive the plot through towards the “light at the end of the tunnel” which will be glimpsed in subsequent books.
- There was some discussion of the difference between Zafón’s success in the United States versus in other countries. He made the point that The Shadow of the Wind had sold between 1-2 million copies in the USA, which by the standards of literary novels here, a country with 300 million people, made it a big success. Yet in the Netherlands, a country of 16 million people, the book sold 800,000 copies–proportionally far more. He talked about how he thinks the US doesn’t do enough to foster reading as a habit, how many people are proud they do not read. He thinks there is a growing disconnect between European countries which are increasingly open, and the US which is increasingly diverging and going its own route.
- He is very fluent in English (having lived in Los Angeles for 11 years); he said that while he had some schooling in the language he was primarily self-taught, by buying and reading cheap paperbacks sold in the Barcelona market for tourists. He said Stephen King’s books did a lot to help him learn English, because they use so much colloquial dialect. He writes in Spanish because he believes that one should write in the language that one learned to read in.
- He had not (as of June 2009) started the third book in the quartet. He planned to take the summer off from writing, then in the fall he would determine whether his next project would be the third book in the quartet or something separate.