Francisco Goldman is the award-winning author of three works of fiction—“The Long Night of White Chickens,” “The Ordinary Seaman,” and “The Divine Husband”—as well as a nonfiction book, “The Art of Political Murder.” His recent memoir, “Say Her Name,” details the life of his late wife Aura Estrada, who died in a body-surfing accident off the coast of Mexico in 2007. Goldman, who is of Guatemalan and American descent, has spent many years as a journalist covering conflicts and political movements in Latin America and has seen his work published in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He is currently on a lecture tour for “Say Her Name” and generously took the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me at the Middletown restaurant, Mikado. Over plates of sushi rolls and cups of green tea, Goldman discussed his writing process, his cultural identity, and the meaning of beauty.
The Argus: How did it feel to have critics receive your first book, “The Long Night of White Chickens,” so well?
Francisco Goldman: I remember a lot of things went wrong for that book right out of the gate. It was almost the most amazing thing—I would have been rich. The New Yorker had accepted a big long extract, and I was told it was a done deal. And then apparently, at the very last second, their head fiction editor decided it didn’t have enough closure and killed it, just like that. I was that close. So my perception was that the book had really bad luck. Meanwhile, it was getting all these really nice reviews but not in the [New York] Times. I remember being very frustrated. And then I thought the book had practically disappeared, but its ass was totally saved when it won the American Academy First Fiction Prize and the Penn/Faulkner finalist prize, and then after that it sold really well. I could say prizes don’t matter—but they don’t matter unless you win one, and then you see what a difference it makes. I really felt the American Academy saved my career.
A: How has your experience been with publishing your other books?
FG: Writing is a hard career. I think now, finally, things are going well. For many hard years, I think my books always got a lot of critical acclaim, but it was hard to connect to a readership—I’ve always been an outsider. I’m never easy to fit into any [category]. I think I paid a bit for that. A lot of it is just luck, and I also think the country has changed—a lot of intermarriage. People aren’t so strict about how they define people. You just sense it through your pores: America is much more hospitable to me now, as a writer, than it was twenty years ago. And then my own fault was taking too long on some books, like “Divine Husband”—I just took forever with that book. That’s definitely the book no one ever gets.
A: Would you say that’s your favorite book?
FG: Maybe. No, “Say Her Name” is my best book, because of what it’s about; but “Divine Husband” is my most ambitious book. I like that book. It was a book that was totally misunderstood by mainstream reviewers; they didn’t sense what a goof it was! It was a comedy, really, about history, and they thought I was trying to write seriously about history. Too many pompous male reviewers—and again, that’s about luck. And then female reviewers would get it, would get that I was just having a ball. But they were never in the most mainstream places.
It’s not easy to have a writing career, so I’m really grateful I have gotten to have one. I’ve had great support; my publisher has been constantly behind me. And somehow things really feel like they’re clicking now in some way. As a writer, I’m excited about things I’ve learned. I’m eager to write more books. And I don’t know how they’re going to turn out.
It’s funny—baseball players come into their prime when they’re 28 or something—you never know when a writer is suddenly going to hit their stride. And I just really feel that way now. I think it’s because experience has taught me so much. It’s not that there aren’t other writers who’ve had experiences, but I’ve had a lot. There’s so much violence in [my life], so much trauma, so many disasters, and somehow I’ve come out all right. I’ve come out stronger as a writer.
There are a lot of things that could’ve broken me. I know, for a fact, that people didn’t expect to see “Say Her Name.” They thought I was going to die—they did! Or that I was going to just dissolve into a drunken state of uselessness. They weren’t expecting the book at all. And I think that book made me strong. And now I feel like I know things. Of course, everyone wants to write beautiful books—but how do you define beauty? Not in a corny way, right? You want to be able to reach all kinds of readers, of course. It’s really hard to explain, but I would just really love to write something that is especially meaningful and nurturing, like a good meal for the soul, for people who have really suffered. That’s my dream. Which is hard to describe—I’m not even sure what I mean. [laughs]
A: What were you trying to convey to readers with “White Chickens”?
FG: I remember very clearly that I had thought I had made my imaginary homeland [with “White Chickens”]—that I had knitted my two worlds together; I had done this magic trick where I made Guatemala as big as the United States within the pages of this book, since they occupy the same amount of space. I was insane about this idea of fusing two different kinds of writing. It’s nothing that I would try to do now. In a good “Boom” [a Latin-American literary movement] novel, the protagonist is everyone, the whole town. In America, there is a tradition toward the narrator being “I.” That’s why you get differences in the way Roger speaks—in “I”—and the way Moya speaks. I thought I was going to try to fuse the two, and that was the way I would make my imaginary homeland.
That’s exactly the way I thought of this first book. Then life took over, and now I live my life equally in the United States and Latin America, and it’s become second nature. I don’t think about it anymore; I don’t wonder about my identity. I guess I mostly feel at home in Mexico, in a strange way. Very slowly, that’s how life took shape, and I don’t really think about it anymore. Maybe I should; maybe I’ll do that in a new book. That said, I think in the U.S. spectrum of things, I definitely identify as Latino, for all sorts of complicated reasons. Also because much of my life was spent working as a journalist in Latin America.
A: You teach writing at Trinity College, and you teach occasionally at a journalism school that apparently people think you’re the director of…
FG: It’s weird, huh?
A: It’s on Wikipedia apparently, and I don’t know how.
FG: It is?
A: Yeah, you could edit it yourself!
FG: I don’t know how! [laughs] Could you take it off for me?
A: Sure! Would it be fair to say that you occasionally hold workshops there?
FG: Yeah! Very occasionally.
A: So given all of that, what advice would you give to aspiring writers? How do you think writing culture is shaping up right now?
FG: There’s too much safe writing in the United States. Bolaño used to say, “Leap head first into the abyss.” It’s a dangerous profession, and it should be. You should be willing to risk everything every time you write a book. When I say “risk everything,” I don’t mean risk becoming homeless—partly that. It’s that you’re doing something, and you have no idea whether it’s going to work or not. You have to write in that kind of fearless way.
A: Are you working on anything new right now?
FG: Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve definitely got projects going.
A: Any fiction?
A: Anything you can talk about?
FG: I think we’re talking about putting long versions of some of my pieces—because things don’t run at their full length in magazines—into a book.
A: This would be your second non-fiction book?
FG: Yeah. I think we’re going to do that soon.
A: Do you find that those two aspects of your writing—fiction and non-fiction—speak to each other?
FG: I’ve been at this a long time, and style inevitably changes as you grow older and learn different things. The way I write now is not the way I wrote then, though it’s interesting, in some ways it is. “Say Her Name” was a return for me to a more autobiographical-based fiction—or non-fiction. And I found myself really comfortable in that voice, though I don’t know if I’m going to do that again any time soon. What changed most of all is that Aura changed everything—it’s made me a different writer. But it’s amazing how much of that writer [of “White Chickens”] was already present here more than in subsequent books. It’s very bizarre that this book begins with someone grieving a loved one, before that writer (the narrator) really had any idea of what grief really is.
When I wrote “Art of Political Murder” (my non-fiction book), I had to learn a new way to write because that was such a complicated case—there was so much on the line. So many people were in danger that I had to write it in a way that completely served the subject—there was no flamboyant writing, no writing that shows off its chops. I needed to get myself out of the way and have a really transparent style and let the story and people in the story be front and center. It was really strange, because when I wrote this most autobiographical of my books [“Say Her Name”], I found that what I had learned really served me well, since I, in that book, also wanted to serve just the subject and not call attention to myself and have it be about Aura. I wanted a complete absence of vanity in the writing. I don’t know how [my style] is going to change. You want to change; you don’t want to repeat yourself.
A: Do you think about the reader when you write?
FG: I try not to think about the reader, outside of just not confusing them. I don’t think about how I want something to affect the reader, which is interesting because, in “White Chickens,” Moya is obsessed with how to get readers. He’s a character who is obsessed with how to get people to pay attention to Guatemala, but that’s not what the book is doing—the book is talking about that kind of person. When I was writing “Say Her Name,” I was only focused on Aura, and the right way to write about Aura. And thank god that’s how I did it. When I was being interviewed by someone in France, she asked, “Well this is really a risky book, isn’t it?” I realized it’s true—I never worried, ever. I thought to myself, “Of course people are going to love Aura.” But what if they hadn’t? What if I had been aware of the danger? What if I had ever thought to myself, “I can’t write this about Aura, people will think she’s too neurotic.” Or, “I have to make sure people find her interesting.”
If I had had those kinds of thoughts in my mind, I wouldn’t have written nearly as lively an Aura. It never even occurred to me that I had to try to worry about how people might perceive her. And thank god. If people had read that book and not loved Aura, it would’ve been such a nightmare. For me as a writer, imagine failing on that level—not having the reader love the person you love. That would be heartbreaking. And thank god people did. But I’m sure one reason people loved her is because it never occurred to me that they might not.
A: Given your work as journalist and as a novelist, how do you feel a writer should represent violence?
FG: Every writer has to find his own way of doing it. I think for myself, it’s really important to write about violence without serving a political agenda—it’s violence, and the reader can discern where it’s coming from. You [the writer] have to be focused on how violence affects people in their lives. A fiction writer always has to somehow be focused on this human mystery, whereas with journalists it’s very different. I use a lot of novelistic technique in my journalism, but I don’t think [the two forms] are the same. The fundamental difference is that one’s not about answering anything—one’s about trying to create something apart from reality, something on its own, that does whatever you might want it do. Journalists focus on reality as much as one writer can do so. It focuses on casting light on what’s happening in reality. “Art of Political Murder” is about who murdered the bishop, and whether the murder is true.
I don’t know if a novel can do that—what’s true, you know? A novel is about the mystery of existence. It’s also about trying to make something beautiful. And I think that trying to make something beautiful—whatever beautiful means—represents a violent disagreement with reality. I guess you could say that this is what humans do. Reality is repugnant and awful, and the artist has the right to try to change it into something else.
Some interview questions were contributed by students in the Wesleyan spring 2012 course, “Senior Seminar in Advanced Creative Writing: The Literary Manifesto.” This is an excerpt of a larger interview, the entirety of which will be published in The Argus Magazine, which will debut later this spring.