At Night We Walk in Circles seems like a strange title for Daniel Alarcón’s new novel. Walking in circles does not seem like a dramatic action, and this is a novel filled with dramatic action. Set in an unnamed country that closely resembles Peru, At Night We Walk in Circles tells the picaresque, suspenseful story of Nelson, who joins Henry Nuñez and Henry’s friend Patalarga in a traveling production of The Idiot President, a play whose themes are so politically dangerous that its most famous previous production took place in Collectors, the notorious prison where Henry was once sent for the crime of writing it. Along the way, there is a love triangle, an impersonation, a murder, and other hallmarks of an exciting plot. The presence of a mysterious narrator suggests that the story is absolutely leading somewhere, probably not somewhere its characters would like.
But though all the travel and the events keep us reading, the novel is fundamentally about stasis, or, yes, walking in circles. Henry keeps walking in circles around his time in prison and the man he loved there; Nelson keeps walking in circles around leaving for the United States and around his beloved Ixta; and the entire novel keeps walking in circles around prison.
This is a good metaphor for the mind of a writer, which can theoretically go anywhere but tends to keep circling the same obsessions — often, the better the writer, the smaller the circle. Born in Lima, raised in Alabama, educated at Columbia and Iowa, and now living in San Francisco, Alarcón has now published three books — his first two were the short story collection War By Candlelight and the novel Lost City Radio — but he keeps returning to wars that cannot be let go of, places that cannot be left, and people who cannot be recovered.
Alarcón and I sat down recently and talked about his writing, his “healthy respect for the craft of making people turn pages,” and the early reading that shaped him. The interview has been condensed and edited.
David Burr Gerrard: There’s a lot to do with both journalism and theater in this book. How do those two different forms of writing affect your writing?
Daniel Alarcón: Theater I know less about. I wrote a novel about it, but I mostly made it up. Journalism I’ve done quite a bit of, and it feels like a natural way of approaching a story. I really like that moment when you’re reporting a story where you sort of disappear into the background and get to see things that you probably shouldn’t be seeing. The more I wrote, the more it became clear to me that that journalistic approach was a way to structure the narrative and to create a narrator as a character. If I’m not writing novels, I’m probably doing journalism. It’s something I really enjoy, and in this case I mixed the two.
Did you always intend to write about the prison, or did that happen after the Harper’s article you wrote about Lurigancho, Peru’s largest prison?
That happened kind of by accident. A couple things happened. I wrote a first draft of this novel that took me about three years. I finished in December of 2010. I read it; I didn’t like it; and I threw it out. I couldn’t have had any of the prison stuff in that draft, because I hadn’t done any of that research yet. I began writing this book basically around the time I had my first visit to a prison in Peru. It took me years of going every chance I got in order to feel the confidence in the material and my knowledge to even pitch the story to Harper’s about the prison.
After I finished that draft that was terrible, I didn’t start a new draft right away. I went to Peru and reported the Harper’s piece at the beginning of 2011. As I started rewriting this draft, based on the eight or nine pages I kept, I had access to this material, and it seemed that there was something unexplored in Henry’s character. Henry was tangential in the first draft, in part because I didn’t have access to his backstory.
I should be clear that I never go out and do any kind of deliberate research. I pursue topics that I find interesting, and then later they weave their way into my work.
Why don’t you do research?
I don’t think I’m very good at it. I’m not a natural library rat. I’m pretty undisciplined when it comes to focused reading or focused interviews. I can do it, but I have to force myself to do it in a way that doesn’t come naturally. I think much more easily in terms of scenes, in terms of characters.
When I started going to the prison, I wasn’t planning on writing about it. I went because I was invited to go, and the conversation I had about my work was so interesting — unlike any conversation I ever had about literature before. That’s why I kept going back. It wasn’t a place I thought about as research; it was a place I was deeply interested in getting to know.
Could you say more about that conversation?
I was invited to talk with men who were locked up for terrorism. My first two books, War by Candlelight and Lost City Radio, very much have to do with war and politics and terrorism in Peru. So it was really interesting to go and talk to people who had lived that stuff firsthand and talk to them about the book, about their interpretations of the book, and about their reality. A book exists in many contexts; it’s always a conversation between the writer and the audience. And you never really know how people are going to react. But a book is going to be different depending on whether you’re presenting it at a Barnes & Noble in Tallahassee, Florida or at a prison where the inmates are former members of the Shining Path.
It’s interesting that you mention terrorism, because a lot of this novel takes place over the course of the summer of 2001. A lot of books have this sort of tick-tock, where you know as a reader that everything is leading up to 9/11. But here, 9/11 isn’t mentioned. Were you teasing American expectations?
It’s funny, I didn’t even think about 9/11 at all. You’re right that The Emperor’s Children and any number of novels have done that with the ticking clock. I didn’t even think that anyone would feel like that was coming. Did you?
I wondered, yes.
If the novel had been written in Spanish, it would just be a Latin American novel. The fact that it’s written in English by an American writer who’s also Latin American I guess makes it an American novel. But it’s an American novel where the United States is a distant echo to the point where this major event happens and it’s not noticed. That’s actually not realistic: 9/11 was huge in Peru. I was in Peru when 9/11 happened. I was in Peru as a former New Yorker; I had lived in New York up until August of 2001. Particularly given that, given how much affection I have for this city and how much 9/11 hurt me personally, it seems like a pretty bizarre oversight that I hadn’t noticed that until you pointed it out.
That reflects the kind of hermetically sealed universe of this fictional place that I’ve created. The U.S. is little more than a backdrop for Nelson’s imagined wanderings, or his version of his brother Francisco’s imagined wanderings. For him, the U.S. is Tennessee Williams plays and Carl Sandburg poems, and that’s it. Not a real place. By the time 9/11 happens, he’s got a lot of other things to worry about. He can be forgiven if he doesn’t notice.
Was there ever any question about whether you were going to write in English or Spanish?
No. I write in English because my education was in English. Since first grade. It’s what’s easiest for me. The challenges of writing a novel are so great that any way you can tip the scales in your favor is worth doing. I write in Spanish, but mostly for magazine articles and for Radio Ambulante, my radio project. I can do all the work for Radio Ambulante in Spanish because it’s oral history, spoken Spanish. That’s the Spanish I’m most comfortable with. It’s you and your homie at a bar talking. Radio has to have that kind of immediacy. And I can do that. I know that I cannot write like Borges or Cortázar or Vargas Llosa. I don’t have the same command of the language. I don’t want to put any greater challenges on myself. I want to be able to tell the story.
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
Yeah. I had pretty standard dreams of becoming a policeman or a fireman, those kinds of things. I had pretty intense dreams of becoming a soccer player. Once I was past those kinds of boyish infatuations, I wanted to be a writer. Since middle school or high school.
Did any particular books tilt you in that direction?
I remember very clearly my parents talking about novels a lot. There was the idea that novels were important, there was the admiration that they had for Vargas Llosa and Alfredo Bryce Echenique. My father admired César Vallejo, the poet, and kept a quote on his office door from Vallejo: Hay, hermanos, muchísimo que hacer. My brothers, there is much to be done.
It wasn’t a weird thing in my family to say you wanted to be a writer. My sister wrote stories, too. She was a big reader; my mom was a huge reader. My mom reads more than I do, especially now that she’s semi-retired. It just seemed like something that wasn’t a weird thing to want. It would have been much weirder if I had said I wanted to be a lawyer or a podiatrist.
And then what writers came to influence you as you wrote?
I remember the first book that really pushed me was Notes from Underground. That was a big deal. There were others. There were waves of reading. I remember with great fondness — and I’m sure that every big reader has this moment — there’s a part of your reading life when you don’t know enough to be a snob. So you read The Bluest Eye, and then you read Archie Comics, and then you read Philip K. Dick, and then you read The Firm, and then you read The Sound and the Fury, and then you put it down because you don’t understand what the fuck it’s saying. At the same time you’re reading Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, and you still have a little crush on Ramona Quimby, but you’re also reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being because your sister gave it to you and said it’s about sex. There are just no boundaries between high and low and genre and literary, and it’s great. It’s only later that you start saying, “Oh, I never read that.” Well, bullshit. Of course you read it. And you liked it, too. I liked all those books.
I liked some books that I look back on now and think: “Wow, I should read that again.” I have no idea how they even landed in my hands, but I was a twelve-year-old Peruvian kid in Alabama reading the Chaim Potok books. I had no idea what Israel was. “What’s a yarmulke?” I had no context, but I’d just keep reading. I wish I could I go back to that, to that kind of innocence.
In college, I worked at a coffee shop at Columbia. I opened up at 8:30 in the morning. The guys who worked there were all regular people from New York. There was a morning rush before classes and then there was a lull, then another rush and another lull, so there were always quiet moments when you could sit and read. There was a guy named Gary from Brooklyn who liked to read a lot. Gary saw that I liked to read a lot. So he’d say to me: “I just read the best book.” And I’d say: “What’s it about?” Instead of telling me what it was about, he told me the plot. “This dude likes this girl, but she’s already married, and it turns out that the guy she’s married to is a gangster . . .” And I’d just keep waiting for him to get to why I would like it. And then I realized that that’s not how he approached books at all. For him, it was just the story. I kept waiting for him to say that the prose was beautiful, or it was ingeniously structured, or the narrative voice was so fascinating, or the landscape was richly imagined. All these bullshit things that I would think as a writer. And Gary was just like: You wouldn’t believe what Character X did to Character Y and how they got away with it. Pure story. What’s wrong with reading that way? What’s wrong with reading to get to the good stuff? I don’t think that I’m consciously trying to write page-turners, but I do have a healthy respect for the craft of making people turn pages.
So your first book was a short story collection, and you’ve since written two novels. How’d you come to write short stories, how’d you move to novels?
I’ve actually written two short story collections. One comes out next year, or the year after. A friend of mine said that when your stories start getting very long, then it’s time to write novels. That’s basically what happened. I kept trying to write a short story, and it kept coming out to forty-five pages long, sixty pages long, and then just longer and longer. In my case it was a natural progression from writing stories where I couldn’t figure out what the plot was — I couldn’t generate plot, I couldn’t generate events, I could only generate scenes or moments or character sketches, an occasional pretty sentence — to being able to generate plot that builds momentum.
That’s a challenge that many young writers face. In the fiction you get if you teach college fiction classes, nothing ever happens. Well, there’s the kid who’s writing The Bourne Identity, and then are the kids who have read the entire canon of contemporary literary history but can’t generate plot. They just don’t know what constitutes a plot, what constitutes enough things happening to span twenty pages. They just have no idea. Eventually you figure that out, and eventually you start to come up with ideas for events that interest you, and then eventually those ideas go beyond twelve pages.
Do you have advice for writers on how to generate plot?
No. I’m better at giving advice based on specifics. There are any number of platitudes that I can repeat. “How do you make a story short? Start near the end.” But — and this is why I like editing — I’m much better at seeing a story and breaking it down. And I can be prescriptive. I often am, in workshop. “You have a great set-up, terrible execution, here are three plot points to consider, maybe one of them is the right way to go.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Has teaching creative writing made you a better editor?
I think editing has made me a better editor. I work for Radio Ambulante as executive editor of all the scripts and all the stories, and that has been a real education for me. It’s been really interesting thinking about how to organize narrative in a different genre. It’s not fiction, but it has to have all the movement and narrative power of fiction. That’s something that I’ve enjoyed and learned from.
Working with graduate students and undergrads, the cool thing is that college students aren’t scared of failing. I think that grad students sometimes are. They feel like they’re auditioning for you. And I guess in certain ways they are. It’s fairly common for teachers in a grad program to treat their class as a talent search. I’ve definitely helped out students who I thought had something to say. But I worry about the fear of failure causing students to write safe stories.