By the Book: Julia Alvarez
By the Book
The author of novels including “In the Time of the Butterflies,” just reissued for its 25th anniversary, has always been taken with Milton’s Satan: “Sorry, God, but he got the better part.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I don’t store books on my nightstand, or I’d have even worse problems with insomnia. How can I sleep when I could be reading?
What’s the last great book you read?
My reading friends are worn out with hearing me extol Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Go, Went, Gone,” a stunning novel about a retired classics professor who slowly becomes conscientizado — I love the word in Spanish — aware and involved in the plight of refugees from Africa camping out in a square in Berlin. The novel is lyrical, absorbing, so accurate as to the ways we resist engagement and then are pulled in.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Not sure how classic Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” is? But it was one of the cult (not quite the same as classic) novels of my ’60s Vietnam War generation, and I took it with me on a recent trip to Vietnam. I was left with great admiration for the economy and assurance of the writing, as well as the depiction of how Americans and other outsiders meddle with a culture, with devastating historical fallout for all involved.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I’m always reading when I’m writing, especially books that can teach me something I’m trying to do. Say I need help throwing a dinner party while at the same time focusing on an intense one-on-one conversation; I’ll reread “Mrs. Dalloway” or “The Dead” or a party scene from any of the Austen novels. A torture scene, I go to Robert Stone’s “A Flag for Sunrise”; a manic-obsessed point of view, Stephen Dixon’s “Interstate”; economy of detail and seemingly simple style that covers a lot of ground, William Trevor’s stories or, of course, Chekhov’s. I don’t necessarily avoid any kind of book, but after a certain point, I have to say: Hey, that’s enough! You don’t need to read one more book about the hidden language of fans in the 18th century. It’s just so tempting to postpone the writing.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Often it’s not factual information that catches my eye, but some insight or accuracy of expression, phrasing, and I end up writing the passage down. Someone picking up my journal might rightly think it’s just a collection of favorite quotes and passages. On a recent gig, I stayed at the writer’s room in a hotel whose shelves were stocked with books by former writer guests. I picked up a book by an author I didn’t know, Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Heating & Cooling.” It was full of such little explosions of language and awareness: One man was described as a hard worker who worked from “can to can’t.” Just this morning, in a Rafael Campo poem, I was taken by his description of jogging on a treadmill as “that exercise in getting nowhere fast.” At such moments, I end up stroking the page.
What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about the Dominican Republic?
I always find novels a great way to understand the character, not just the content, of a culture. Dominican-American novelists who write about the island, not just the immigration experience: Junot Díaz, Nelly Rosario, Angie Cruz. Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat” owes much to the riveting nonfiction account by Bernard Diederich, “Trujillo: The Death of the Goat.” Crassweller’s “Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator.” But how can we write about the Dominican Republic and not include Haiti? We are one island, after all, sharing a history of occupation, appropriation, slavery, dictatorship and more. Michele Wucker’s “Why the Cocks Fight” is a compact history of both countries and their relationship. I also admire Madison Smartt Bell’s “Haitian Revolution” trilogy, and “The Farming of Bones,” by one of my favorite writers, the Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat. Ditto for how can we write about Hispaniola and not include most of the southern American hemisphere, and for that, the incomparable Eduardo Galeano’s books, most saliently “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” in which Haiti and the Dominican Republic figure frequently.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Accuracy of language and perception — the writer is not striving for effect and gets out of the way to let us see the world through the lens of language. I love what the poet Stanley Kunitz said about dreaming of “an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.” That pretty much sums up what I most admire in a work of literature. But it begins with the incantation of the voice of the narrative — not always the same as the voice of a character or point of view. That voice gets in my head and for days, even after finishing the book, it is curating my life as I move through it.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’m in love with a form I call “the short poetic novel” — short lyrical novels that might almost be classed novellas but they tip over into something deeper, more expansive, the way a 17-syllable haiku opens up and floods the imagination. Novels like William Trevor’s “Reading Turgenev,” Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night,” Julie Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic,” Ron Hansen’s “Mariette in Ecstasy,” Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary,” Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Maud Martha,” David Malouf’s “Ransom,” Graham Swift’s “Mothering Sunday,” Bill Schubart’s “Lila & Theron” — oh Lord, there are so many good ones. Before I die I want to write one. They’re impossibly difficult to write. The old saw — If I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter — applies.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
You’ll realize from my point above about stroking the covers of books, I need a physical text. If I stroke my iPad all kinds of things appear or disappear on the screen. I read all the time — whenever and wherever I can, and in all genres. I like to start the writing day with poetry; like the choir master sounding a note on his pipe, it sets the standard high (“No approximate words in a poem,” Dickinson says) and puts me in the right register. Novels are great for breaks — a reward and relief from the labors of writing. I even have a stack of journals/nonfiction that I read when I’m brushing my teeth. (My dentist marvels at how healthy my gums look.) I also read seasonally. Every January, I like to reread Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” From my many decades as a teacher, who only had long summers to delve into one author’s total opus, I still use summers to focus on a single author’s collected work. Most recently, everything by Elizabeth Bishop with the superb guidance of Colm Toibin’s “On Elizabeth Bishop.”
How do you organize your books?
My shelves are a mess! But just as Salomé Ureña, the Dominican Emily Dickinson, used to tell her fussy husband, Francisco, “Stop organizing my chaos,” my chaotic shelves have a certain order. I suppose I have zones: poetry and fiction for my writing studio. History in the basement (no offense to historians), music and art books and children’s books and cookbooks in the main room. Hallway, multicultural books and religion and mythology.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a bit of an obsession with Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving work of literature, which comes to us in fragments. Not that people should be surprised if I owned a copy or two by different translators, but I have a whole shelf of adaptations and translations. There’s something I find compelling about the story: what makes a human(e) being, what constitutes bravery, how do we deal with loss, the transformative possibilities of love. I first got hooked with Herbert Mason’s adaptation, then found David Ferry’s excellent translation, Yusef Komunyakaa’s verse play, Gardner/Maier’s translation, Stephen Mitchell’s poetic interpretation. There’s even a graphic novel version by Kent and Kevin Dixon. The fact that the story has survived this long in so many renditions means I’m not the only one captivated by this ancient story.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
When I was a little girl growing up in the Dominican Republic in an oral culture, I never read much of anything. I found books boring, a poor substitute for what was going on around me — a natural world full of vibrant, captivating flora and fauna (tarantulas, moriviví plants, Carolina flowers like hot-pink shaving brushes), ciguapas, santeras who got mounted by spirits and told the future. But then my auntie, Tití, who was the reader in the family, gave me a picture book version of “The Arabian Nights,” and I was smitten. Scheherazade, the young heroine, was a girl who looked Dominican, dark eyed, dark hair, olive skin. Then, the whole idea of a girl saving her life and that of all women in the kingdom and transforming a cruel sultan by telling stories. That book put a luminous bit of information in my head: that stories have power, that they can transform you and save you.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Some of the first books I read in English were the Nancy Drew mysteries. I found Nancy’s situation enviable: a hands-off papi, a doting housekeeper, a boyfriend who disappeared when you didn’t need him, a little roadster, no mami telling her what she could and couldn’t do. But my all-time favorite is Scheherazade of “The Arabian Nights,” who saved her life and that of the women in her kingdom by telling stories. As for villains, I have always been guiltily taken — Catholic girlhood residue — with Satan in “Paradise Lost,” complicated, tortured, verbally dazzling. Sorry, God, but he got the better part.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I wasn’t a reader at all. Most books I encountered were textbooks, schoolbooks, the dull, censored reading material of a dictatorship. But also it was an oral culture: People told stories and the experience was communal, not solitary and text-based. It wasn’t until I came into English that I became a reader. I recall those Nancy Drew mysteries, and also “Little Women” and “Alice in Wonderland” (which I felt was a perfect description of the shape-shifting immigrant experience).
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Probably best to choose a children’s book (which I think would be the president’s speed, not too many words, lots of pictures). How about Innosanto Nagara’s subversive primer, “A Is for Activist.” Or even better, I’d try the Arabian Nights approach: Put Sultan Trump in a room with dozens of fabulous storytellers. One thousand and one nights of cliff-hanging stories — actually we would only need about 600 nights, to keep him occupied until after the next election. You go first.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
What greater intimacy and communion than reading their books? I wouldn’t necessarily invite writers of books I love to a dinner party. I’d hate for their behavior to disappoint me or tarnish my love of their work.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Writing is hard work, a huge commitment of time, energy, faith, passion, and there’s nothing shameful in the attempt, even if the work doesn’t end up succeeding. I’d rather let someone else do the public culling — I’m exacting enough in private. Also, when I’ve fallen in love with a writer, I want to read everything she’s written, even titles that are flawed, because I’m interested in that sensibility, style, way of looking at the world. Often, the new work or old work isn’t as successful as that first book that won my devotion. It’s a relief, actually, and confirms what I know from experience: that writing is a vocation and a practice over a lifetime, with its ups and downs. It teaches me humility, the great democracy of each time having to start over.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I’ve already infused my work with my life. Enough about me. Let them tackle another subject.
How do you decide what to read next? Is it reviews, word-of-mouth, books by friends, books for research? Does it depend on mood or do you plot in advance?
I have several friends whose recommendations I trust. These friends often tease me because I bring my small notebook to dinner parties to jot down titles. Reviews also can introduce me to a new writer. James Wood’s review of Erpenbeck’s novels is what sent me to read this unknown (to me) writer as well as his review of Walter Kempowski’s novel “All for Nothing.”
What do you plan to read next?
Oh dear, there is so much to read! Sometimes I “feed” books from my piles to my husband, Bill, a fast reader, because I’m a frustratingly slow reader and at least I feel I am reading them by osmosis. If Bill raves about a book, I’ll know that I am not going to get away with just outsourcing it! But books I definitely have in my queue: “The Faraway Nearby,” by Rebecca Solnit — whose book “Hope in the Dark” I’ve read three times since the last election. William Trevor’s “Last Stories,” Brenda Shaughnessy’s “The Octopus Museum” (I’m a big fan of “Our Andromeda”), Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive,” “Paradise of the Blind,” by Duong Thu Huong, a Vietnamese author I outsourced to Bill before our Vietnam trip, which he says I must read. “Educated,” by Tara Westover, “Inheritance,” by Dani Shaprio, “Pachinko,” by Min Jin Lee, and Tommy Orange’s “There There.”
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