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.

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.

Five Questions with… Sophia Nikolaidou

Sophia Nikolaidou, author of The Scapegoat 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 on October 31. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: The Scapegoat is based on the real-life murder of famed CBS reporter George Polk. What about this story interested you?

Sophia Nikolaidou: The Polk case—which many people regard as the start of the Cold War in Europe—has everything: innocent blood, aNikolaidou, Sophia set-up trial, interference of foreign powers, history, politics, love.The idea of writing a pure historical novel and bringing a whole age to life has never intrigued me. Different historic periods reflect each other in my novels. This is my way of perceiving history.To make a long story short, I was really interested in putting together two different ages: A.1948–49 (Greek civil war, Polk’s murder) and B. 2010–11 (Greek crisis). I wanted to capture the historical adventure of my country. Some things change just because the circumstances around us have changed. Other things stay hidden and unpunished—they poison everything. Some of them are inherited from one generation to another. We think that we have left our past behind. Alas, we always find it ahead. The American title of my novel (The Scapegoat) underlines the connection between the two ages (a now 2010–11 and a then 1948–49). The parallels between the Polk case and the current situation in my country are simple: both then and today basic political decisions are taken somewhere else. It’s like a game of chess or Monopoly. Some are playing the game miles away and their moves determine everything in the country. Thus, are money and influence—that is, everything—at stake? That’s the question.

IFOA: Beginning, middle or end—which do you find the most challenging to write?

Nikolaidou, The ScapegoatNikolaidou: I love the beginning; it’s a fresh start. I have an immense passion (other people call it obsession) for the subject and the characters, but no idea of how I will be able to domesticate the raw material of my novel. Every time I start from scratch. I enjoy the middle. That’s real life and real writing. All problems arise together. It’s hard and deeply satisfying at the same time. Just like real life. You fly in the sky, you are in pain, you play games, you know what to do, you don’t know what to do. You dig into life, you dig into yourself. The end is bitter and sweet. I love the pure satisfaction of giving a plot life and the sweet bitterness of the last period. Writing is memory then. The story is not mine anymore.

IFOA: How would you describe the literary scene in Greece?

Nikolaidou: Fresh, pluralistic, waiting to be discovered. Greek literature isn’t known abroad. We don’t have a regional literature brand name (Skandinavian and Ibero Spanish authors have, for example). My country has generated a great interest in the international press in recent years. Maybe this is a big chance for Greek literature. The Crisis is a subject that Greek writers can talk about and people will listen. The timing is good. Now we can talk and exchange ideas about this small spot on the world’s map called Greece. We can investigate its recent history, finger the historical and social trauma. The novel seems to be the ideal cognitive tool for that. It is our empirical way to perceive real life and comment on it. As I grow older, I’m more convinced that writing (and reading) a novel is the most efficient way we human beings have to build a world like the one we’re living in and to understand what’s happening around us—but maybe I’m saying so because I’m an obsessed novelist.

IFOA: Name one book that has made a lasting impression on you.

Nikolaidou: Homer’s Odyssey. I read it again and again. An everlasting text. I’ve learned so many things from it about life, human nature, writing. Every time I read it I discover diamonds. It’s the archetype of classical, deeply human literature.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “The best part is…”

Nikolaidou: In literature I prefer fullstops, but in real life I choose ellipsis. That’s why I won’t finish this sentence. I prefer things to remain open.

Sophia Nikolaidou was born in Thessaloniki, Greece. She teaches literature and creative writing and writes criticism for various newspapers, including Ta Nea. She has published four novels and two collections of short stories, several of which have been translated into eight languages. Her previous novel, Tonight We Have No Friends, won the 2010 Athens Prize for Literature. She presents The Scapegoat, a sweeping saga that brings together the turbulent Greece of the postwar period with the struggles it faces today.

Five Questions with… Stevie Howell

Stevie Howell, author of ^^^^^^ [Sharps] and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see her on October 30 at #IFOA36. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Please tell us a bit about your debut book of poetry, ^^^^^^[Sharps].

© Neil Harrison

© Neil Harrison

Stevie Howell: Sharps is my first book of poetry and emerged indirectly out of working in a hospital and beginning to study psychology. Those experiences gave me the tools to look at my life and issues around gender, class, trauma, faith and death.

I think of the book as grounded in the living city, but influenced by myth. It draws some inspiration from The Last Unicorn, in which the unicorn protagonist had to hide in female form to get her work done. It also draws inspiration from ancient Egyptian mythology of the afterlifefor example, the concept of ma’at, in which, when you die, your heart is weighed against a feather. A heavy heart, it was said, would be fed to a lion-hippo-crocodile hybrid. I write to try and prevent that!

 IFOA: You said in an interview with The Toronto Quarterly that you don’t write often. Does your poetry come from random bursts of creativity? Do you always have a pen and paper on hand?

Howell: I tend not to write often but I do edit lines in my head, so that might have a similar effect in the end. I’m in the camp that tends to think that whatever lasts without form might be worth eventual shaping, and that, in the meantime, if it gets lost it wasn’t worth keeping. I find that if I write things down too soon or incompletely they have no energy. They’re like weak tea.

IFOA: You listed Morrissey of The Smiths as an influence for your poetry and said that he broadened your knowledge of literary references and awareness of poets. Is there a particular Smiths song you identify with most?

Howell: I wish I hadn’t said that! Because I was talking about when I was 12 years old in suburbia and totally bullied, and I’m not nostalgic about those times or what got me through them. If pressed I’d say the song “Stretch Out and Wait,” which is their least Smiths-like song, probably.Howell, ^^^^^^

A more enduring influence would be something like The World According to Garp, which I found at the library around the same age. I was so drawn to the protagonist’s name. The librarian had a fake pearl bead safety chain on her glasses and looked down at me and said, “Don’t you think this is a little too MATURE for you?” And I started sweating because I was really invested in getting it. So I said quickly, “It’s for my Mom.”

I hope I’ll never forget how rapt I was by that book. It wasn’t about someone else who was equally miserable somewhere else (i.e., The Smiths). It was imaginative and full of compassion, sincere and absurdeverything I felt life was and hoped writing could be. I’d say that book is still a favourite song.

IFOA: You also study psychology. Is there a link between psychology and poetry?

Howell: There’s probably a link between everything, but for me, out of professional necessity, I have to keep these two worlds pretty discrete. I tend to turn to psychology to understand others, and turn to poetry to understand me.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Howell: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Oliver Sacks’ On the Move, Phil Hall’s The Small Nouns Crying Faith, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent and Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (I am writing my answers from Provincetown, MA, where I am taking a class with him).

Stevie Howell’s poetry and criticism have appeared in publications such as The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Globe and Mail and National Post. Her poems have been finalists for the 2013 Montreal International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Walrus Poetry Prize. She is from Scarborough and studies psychology. Howell presents ^^^^^^ [Sharps]¸ which was published to critical acclaim in 2014 and shortlisted for the 2015 Gerald Lampert Award. Emergencies, faith, truancy and poverty intersect in this wry debut.

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