Five Questions with… Santiago Roncagliolo

Santiago Roncagliolo, author of Hi, This is Conchita: And Other Stories, answered our five questions!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about Hi, This Is Conchita: And Other Stories.Roncagliolo, Santiago

Santiago Roncagliolo: It is basically a short novel of black humour. Of maybe desperate humour. Its characters are trying to find love in the more unexpected places: a hot line, an answering machine or, in the case of the assassin, his own victim. They have lost contact with humanity. For them, the only thing left is the phone.

The book also includes three short stories. I would say they are sentimental horror stories. I write about fear. But real ghosts and monsters are not supernatural. They are inside our minds and hearts.

IFOA: Much of the collection is written in dialogue. Why did you choose to tell your stories this way?

Roncagliolo: We spend more time talking on phones than with people. Go to any restaurant and see couples or families, each one communicating with someone anywhere else. In fact, characters of “Hi, this is Conchita” could be sending whatsapps instead of talking. It is the most sophisticated form of loneliness. The last wave of isolation. It is a bit scary. Don’t you think?

IFOA: Where is your ideal place to write?Roncagliolo, Hi, This is Conchita

Roncagliolo: I can be an awful person while writing. I need total silence. You can not talk or move or breath next to me. So I bought a little studio in Barcelona, where I live. I decorated it with grotesque toys I bring back from my travels, like zombie dolls or an Edgar Allan Poe action figure. Other than that, it is a very boring place: no TV, no landscape—not even an elevator. If I want to go for coffee, I must remember that afterwards I will have to step up five floors. So I work. Because there is no choice. And then I go out from there and I turn into the normal, easy-going person I usually am.

IFOA: Is there an author you have read recently whom you could recommend to our readers?

Roncagliolo: A.S.A Harrison’s The Silent Wife. Lovely domestic noir novel about a mid-life crisis. Plenty of sharp remarks about daily life, manhood and marriage. I love writers who can grasp the suspense and tension involved in ordinary life.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Roncagliolo: My next novel is set in the violent Peru where I grew up. It is a coming-of-age story set during a war: bombs, kidnappings, killings and four teenage nerds trying desperately to lose their virginity. When you live in hell since childhood, you don’t stop to think whether life could be different. You just live.

Santiago Roncagliolo is a Peruvian novelist and investigative journalist. His first novel, Red April, won the Premio Alfaguara in 2006 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011. In 2010 Granta named him one of its 22 Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. Roncagliolo presents Hi, This is Conchita: And Other Stories, a virtuosic comic novella told entirely in dialogue, about men pushed past their breaking point—and the women who drive them crazy.

Artist Talk: Jami Attenberg

By Janet Somerville

jami attenbergBrooklyn-based novelist Jami Attenberg captivated the Pub Hub audience with her frank and funny demeanor, breezily responding to Sue Carter’s prompts about her most recent novel, Saint Mazie. And, that’s no small feat, considering she’s been on book tour for weeks, shuttling from venue to venue, country to country, crossing time zones: the north of England one day, Mexico City the next and now Toronto.

Attenberg became entranced by Mazie Phillips after reading Joseph Mitchell’s essay about her in Up in the Old Hotel. Phillips worked the ticket cage at the Venice movie theatre in The Bowery from 9am to 11pm and then wandered the streets after, ministering to the legions of homeless (mostly men) to whom she gave little bars of hotel soap and money for booze. For two decades. And, she called more ambulances than anyone in NYC to send many of these souls to hospital where they’d receive essential care. She was an incredibly modern woman and fearlessly went places where women weren’t allowed. Attenberg’s friend opened a Brooklyn bar he called Saint Mazie because she was “the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever heard of.” When the two of them would “get together to bitch about our work, Mazie gave us perspective.”

Attenberg found Phillips’ obit plus the Mitchell essay, but that was about it in terms of source material. As Stewart O’Nan (who wrote West of Sunset, a novel about Scott Fitzgerald’s final years as a script doctor in Hollywood) said to her on one recent panel, “you’re lucky to have nothing.” Having only the seeds of Mazie’s life allowed Attenberg to richly imagine it in her novel. She fleshed out details of the time by visiting NYC’s Tenement Museum, watching a 1950s documentary on The Bowery, thumbing through the Princeton University audio recordings from the era and reading a summary of the 1920s published in the 1930s, in which she discovered a Wall Street bombing, an event that Mazie would have experienced. Attenberg was able to filter her own emotions about 9/11 through that recreated moment. Attenberg, Saint Mazie

An imperative for Attenberg in writing Mazie’s story was to “know more about people who are good.” She “can’t take on a book without being able to express compassion; there’s no better reason to write.” Attenberg insists that she’s “trying to learn how to be a better person through my work.” As she was working on Saint Mazie, her editor discovered an 80 year-old man also looking for information about Phillips. He ran a flower shop on the Lower East Side and she used to “shoot the breeze” with him. He said, “she had a heart as big as herself.” The big question for Attenberg was why did Mazie help those men? The florist said, “she was really good.” In writing the novel Attenberg accepted that she would never really know. What she did know, however, was that Mazie would be a character she could spend time with and also could be viewed through a feminist lens since she had been so strong and progressive.

Before closing the conversation, Attenberg read from a new short story, “Chloe,” noting that with short fiction “every line has to land” and warning “It’s really dirty. If it will offend you, just leave.” The excerpt was funny, wry, satiric. Full of life. Like Attenberg herself. In her own way Jamie Attenberg is as generous a spirit as Mazie Phillips had been all of those years ago in The Bowery.


Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

FLORIDA ORIGINS: How Country Club Met Its Mother

By Andy McGuire

We put Alabama behind us.The first palms flicker along the highway. “Suddenly I am on a balcony,” Elaine Scarry writes, “and its huge swaying leaves are before me at eye level, arcing, arching, waving, cresting and breaking in the soft air.” She was in Spain. We are following the migratory route of the Canadian snowbird, bound for Estero, Southwest Florida, land of ample parking, the Sunshine State, where even the shadows have some colour. So begins my love affair with the palm, the international symbol for hold my calls.

Who among us can resist the propaganda of palm trees? To do so would be unnatural. This winter Estero is seeking to incorporate as a village. Hard to say what distinguishes the local palms. Golf course communities, malls, liquor stores, car dealerships and gas stations run the length of the Gulf Coast like a sentence loving itself out loud, spreading a rash of Matisse palms made for TV. Sprinkler systems run like veins under a skin of sod. For the fairways, flowers and lawns, city water is just as good as real rain. Safer, even.McGuire, Country Club

Southwest Florida is a translation of nature so wonderfully bad it’s beautiful. Stingrays, manatees, birds with scimitar beaks and dolphins all punch in for their morning shift. Stock footage of sunshine loops. Everyone calls the place paradise and pretends to know what to do with the excess beauty. Between Corkscrew Road and Split Oak Way sits our street, Butchers Holler. I love the sense of celebratory menace in our return address. I send more letters than ever.

We quit reality cold turkey. Spanish moss and beamers and banyans and dentures galore. The same old couple reassert themselves every afternoon in a red corvette, desperate as a pop star duet clawing at the charts. The palms tick away all the while. Repetition regulates, and quality control, it seems, is job number one. Someone hung fresh citrus on the tree across the street. Here, the source state of seventy percent of American oranges, it’s almost impossible to find a glass of fresh orange juice. You squeeze it yourself.

A heart needs a part to play. I give myself over to the things they don’t show in the brochure. Snakes as long as hockey sticks. The fucking gators—Kevlar beasts straight from the cretaceous with the teeth to prove it. We drive through the Everglades, down Alligator Alley. Alligator, you point out the passenger window. Alligator, I point. Alligator. Alligator. Everglades. Alligator. Fuck that alligator, that determined young swimmer in Texas said, seconds before he was eaten alive. Thank God for the gators. One must mind them, indeed.

Repetition. Lifeblood of regimen and mission. I write, every day, all winter. At noon I go to the pool and call it research. And it is. The shortsightedness of a tan, I write. I monitor the weather back home. Ontario moans under the weight of an old-fashioned winter. In the evening I stride nowhere on an elliptical. Stock prices tick across CNN. Terror alerts rise and fall. Ukraine catches fire while we sleep. I repeat Southwest Florida to myself so often it comes true.

Legislation passes and Estero becomes a village. The first elected officials are Missourians, Ohioans, Ontarians. I leave part of my heart in the Coupon State and come home with a pile of poems. The palms follow us to the farm. The extremity of wealth, privilege, leisure, acquisitive lust and conspicuous carnality linger. Ukraine loses limbs, ablaze. Planes go missing. Poem. The palms and eagle and river run as one through the back field. The palms follow us to Toronto. Happy Hour. Poem. Everglades. Poem. And the violent spirit of formative times. And the last palm left. The footling breach of Country Club. Something has gone off.

Andy McGuire is from Grand Bend and currently resides in Toronto. He is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. McGuire’s poems have appeared in Riddle Fence, Hazlitt and The Walrus.

You can hear Andy read from his debut poetry collection, Country Club, at two events at this year’s International Festival of Authors, one on October 25 and another on October 29.

Five Questions with… Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke, author of ‘Membering and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to the event celebrating his career on November 1. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your latest work is a memoir called ’Membering. Can you tell us a bit about it?Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke: ‘Membering is the memoir of my life in which I tried to put the reader in my place physically and intellectually. Drawing only on the important events of my life (as a student, writer, immigrant, aspiring politician etc.), the book is something of a study in the leisure of selection.

IFOA: Who or what first inspired you to become a writer?

Clarke: Listening on Sundays in Barbados to the BBC, who aired a programme called Caribbean Writers. I was astonished that people that I walked to school with were being featured on the BBC: Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, George Lamming, etc. Another inspiration for me was of course my high school English teacher, Frank Collymore (the founding editor of BIM magazine), who encouraged me later on to become a writer.

IFOA: Your novel The Polished Hoe won both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Has your success changed your approach to writing?Clarke, Membering

Clarke: No, but it’s made me more persistent and galvanized me to write as many books in my lifetime as possible. The success of The Polished Hoe also makes me sometimes want to go back and rewrite all of the books I’d written hitherto.

IFOA: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Clarke: Work every day at the same time for at least five hours and then go back to it at night. And read the classicsboth poetry and prose. And don’t forget history.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “When I’m not writing, you can find me…”

Clarke: …sitting in a chair listening to Miles Davis or reading Dylan Thomas or James Baldwin.

Austin Clarke is one of the country’s foremost authors, whose work includes 10 novels, six short story collections, three memoirs and two collections of poetry. His novel The Polished Hoe won the 2002 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Clarke is a member of the Order of Canada, holds four honorary doctorates and has been awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the W.O. Mitchell Prize and the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Excellence in Writing, among others. Clarke presents Membering, his unforgettable new memoir, which takes the reader on a lyrical tour of his extraordinary life, interspersed with thought-provoking meditations on politics and race.

Five Questions with… Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor, author of All Inclusive and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event October 31. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Why did you choose to make the setting of your new novel an all-inclusive resort in Mexico?Doctor, Farzana (c) Vivek Shraya

Farzana Doctor: I have a love-hate relationship with all-inclusive resorts. As a child, they were cherished family vacations where I had my (usually very busy) parents’ full attention. As I grew older, I began to notice the problematic aspects of this sort of tourism—the racism, economic inequality, water and food waste and land appropriation, to name a few.

I went to an all-inclusive in Huatulco six years ago and couldn’t ignore my contradictory feelings. It dawned on me that a walled-in amusement park would make a great setting for my protagonist, Ameera, a woman who is trying to escape her Canadian life and find deeper meaning.

 IFOA: Where did the idea for All Inclusive come from?

Doctor: While I was at that Huatulco resort, I found myself curiously observing one of the foreign tour reps. I don’t know why, but I wanted to ask her dozens of questions about her life in Mexico. In the end I was too shy. She became the inspiration for Ameera. My beach reading was Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, which is where I first learned about swinger life. Maybe it was sunstroke, but the two ideas collided. Azeez and his story arrived more mysteriously (see Question 3).

 IFOA: How did the overall writing process for All Inclusive differ from your last novel, Six Metres of Pavement?

Doctor, All InclusiveDoctor: Stealing Nasreen and Six Metres of Pavement seemed to “write themselves”; their scenes came organically and in linear order. I edited ferociously, but revised little. All Inclusive was different. I wrote episodically, got lost and had my finger on the delete key much of the time. I buried myself in “Third Novel Angst.” I forgot to listen to the inner voice that had helped me in the past.

Then one day, when I was ready to give up on All Inclusive, I heard a male voice telling me that he was my missing character. He shared his story and I cried because I didn’t want to write him. But eventually I gave in, deleted two other characters and their plot lines, and Azeez seamlessly inserted himself into the empty spaces.

What I’ve learned from this process is that it’s better for me to wait for a story to appear, rather than attempting to push it out.

IFOA: What time of day do you find best for writing?

Doctor: I like to edit the previous day’s work over my first cup of coffee, then do new writing for about an hour. I take my patient dog to High Park around 10:30am, and if I’m lucky, new ideas will arrive while she swims in the creek. When we return home, I might write again for an hour, depending on what other work I have to do that day (my day job is a part-time psychotherapy practice).

IFOA: What are you reading now?

Doctor: I’m reading Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, a tale about an Arab slave who is forced to be part of a Spanish conquistador expedition to North America. It’s a compassionate and compelling account of a history rarely told.

Farzana Doctor is the author of Stealing Nasreen and Six Metres of Pavement, which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She has been listed as one of CBC Books’ Ten Canadian Women Writers You Need to Read Now and is the recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Grant. She co-curates the Brockton Writers Series. Doctor presents All Inclusive, a story about a Mexican resort, the ghost of an unknown father and the tragedies we can’t forget.

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