“Every Book That I’ve Written Has Dictated its Own Laws”: An Interview With Valeria Luiselli

Luiselli author photo

Last year brought Valeria Luiselli‘s writing to the attention of many an English-language reader via a pair of books: the haunting novel Faces in the Crowd and the fantastically perceptive essay collection Sidewalks. Her new novel, The Story of My Teeth, was written in collaboration with a group of factory workers, and also touches on a number of aspects of art and literature. I met with Luiselli in Manhattan to discuss the novel, her thoughts on art, and much more; an edited version of our conversation follows.

In the afterword to The Story of My Teeth, there’s talk of how it came about, via your own method of writing and the collaborative process used for this book. This may be an odd place to begin, but–do you feel that it’s had effects on the work you’ve done since then? Has it changed your processes at all?

I don’t think so. Definitely not what I’m writing now. And I think that for me, every book that I’ve written has dictated its own laws, so to speak. And each of them have taken me to very different places in terms of how I work through them and how I envisage the creative process around them. And even where I physically transport myself to while I’m writing, every single book has been a very different experience for me. Well, every single book – my three books that have come out and the fourth one that I’m writing.

So no, of course, there are things that one carries over, or that I carry over from book to book, but at the same time my books have been very different from each other, and very different experiences. And I kind of look for that, because what else can a book give to a person who writes it if not an expansion of their life experience and the immense pleasure of a freedom to reinvent oneself and one’s way of engaging with words?

Is the project you’re working on now fiction or nonfiction?

It’s really complicated because it’s a little bit of both. The nonfictional part of it is something that I’m going to have to learn how to grapple with very delicately, with intelligence, and it’s not going to be easy for me. It’s not easy at all. The nonfiction part of it has to do with my work as an interpreter and translator in the court of immigration. I work in the court of immigration and I translate for children, migrants who have come here, and now face… Not a deportation order, but a court hearing to determine whether they will be deported or not.

So I basically hear their stories in Spanish and translate them to English. And depending on whether their story fits a certain pre-established criteria for political asylum, then a lawyer decides to take on the case or not. Basically that’s it. My role there is just to bridge Spanish to English, child to lawyer. It’s very hard to write about something like that in a way that is fundamentally – I want to write something that’s useful to these children, you know? It’s not the kind of nonfiction that one can frivolously just turn into story for the sake of it. So there are a lot of considerations to make.

Right now I’m working with the story, but I also might just decide at the end to not include all that. It’s at least up until now a fundamental part of my writing process and what’s driving me, but maybe at the end I will decide it’s not the right thing to put into fiction, and I might just give it a nonfictional form.

When I got your first two two books from Coffee House they came as a galley where they were both in the same volume. So I ended up viewing the two as works that related to one another. Is that something that you find that you have to have even if you’re working on fiction–that there needs to be some sort of nonfictional grounding to it, with the two feeding into one another? Or are they generally more separate?

I think they’re not separate. I mean they never quite are, are they? I mean, I don’t see how fiction can at all be completely divorced from a nonfictional source. The two things are always feeding into each other. And the boundaries are necessarily hazy. I don’t know, it’s kind of trite to say it, but maybe it’s not so trite to say it because it seems that people generally insist on there being a division. People generally insist on knowing – people want to know is it a novel? Or is it a memoir? Is this fiction? Is it not fiction?

Also I come from a language and a tradition in which those boundaries are much more hazy. I think it’s important to know what you’re writing. It’s important for the writer to know if she’s writing…I’m not going to say a novel, but what type of book you’re writing. It doesn’t have to fall under a specific label, but you have to know what you’re doing and how you’re mixing the two things. I don’t think you can do it irresponsibly. I think that you have to know exactly what you’re doing when you’re working in that very delicate line between fiction and nonfiction. But beyond that I don’t think that the labels really give us any valuable information.

I’m a big admirer of a lot of Geoff Dyer’s books. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Javier Marias’s books but I particularly enjoyed Dark Back of Time which was described as a “nonfiction novel.” I feel like these are all works that aren’t just a lightly fictionalized version of something that happened to me in life. It’s something deeper than that.

Yeah, it’s something deeper than that. What you’re saying is exactly it. It’s not about fictionalizing reality. It’s, for me at least, more about understanding the effect that fiction has on our everyday life and the way that, in turn, everyday life can be transformed and absorbed into fiction. And also [to] put into question the relationship between the two things and create a tension between the two things that’s a productive tension.

With the new novel there’s also the way art is incorporated into the book, and the fact that it exists in relationship to the art world. I read your book and Enrique Vila-Matas’s The Illogic of Kassel in close proximity, which is also a novel that deals with sort of literature and art kind of colliding. How is that relationship and that particular process in terms of your usual methodology, adding the art component in there?

That’s a really good question. Vila-Matas is certainly responsible for many good things in my upbringing as a reader and a writer. His book, especially his book Historia Abreviada de la Literatura Portátil, which in English [is] A Brief History of Portable Literature, was a foundational stone for me. I don’t know, I think that my relationship to the art world had always been that of a sort of curious and silent spectator. I had done things with the art world before, little collaborations with galleries, but I never had written a critical art piece or art criticism.

So my relationship was I guess more…disinterested, and definitely not that of an insider. But beyond that, I was kind of mediating between that world and the world of factory workers. So the way that I understood what I had to achieve or do when I was writing the first version of The Story of My Teeth was not so much to penetrate the art world and give my version of a critique of it; it’s not a book that I can see as art criticism. It’s more a book that I conceive as a bridge between the art world and another very distant world that in this case is distant but somehow funds it, this gallery, which is the world of these factory workers in Mexico. So I guess the experience was less about trying to approach a series of art pieces or to have a take on them or create some kind of narrative version of the theory of art and more about simply juxtaposing two worlds and figuring out how they might converse.

Have you found that, since doing this project, your relationship to looking at art has changed?

I think it has. I think, while writing this book, I had to engage with art pieces in a way that I had never [before], right? As I said earlier, I’m not a critic or anything of the sort. I had never put myself in that sort of space of thought or space of initiation while talking about art, and I guess by writing this novel I did situation myself differently, or I understood my position as a spectator more clearly. And that of course changes the way you see things when you’re more conscious of the distance that you have or where you’re situated looking at something. You necessarily engage differently with what you’re serving.

I also think that it’s much easier to appreciate anything when you simply devote a little more time to it, right? So I think that over the past few years I’ve become more willing to appreciate certain works of contemporary art that perhaps previously I was more hesitant to. It’s always a kind of generosity thing. When you give a little bit of your time or thought or your mind to any given object, it gives you a lot more back, be it an art project or music piece or a landscape.

You’ve talked about sort of the process of working with the factory workers and the serialization aspect of the book. When you were going into it, did you have a sense of where things were going to go even before you had begun that?

I had no idea I was writing a book when I was starting the exchanges with the workers. I think it was towards the end of the installment and exchange back-and-forth that I thought that maybe it was a book. It was a book that still had to be worked on a lot, and it did. It took me another year and a half or maybe two. Well, another year maybe to finish the Spanish and then another year after that to work on the English version. So no, first of all I had no idea I was writing a book. I had been trying to write a novel. It would’ve been my second novel, and I was getting nowhere. And then I began a new novel and it led me nowhere and I was very not disappointed but it was very clear to me that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Something was not happening. Something was just not happening.

And it’s always very frustrating. Although one has to be patient and things grow very slowly, right? So I knew that eventually something would start growing out of all the notes I was making, all the books I was reading, all the things I was trying to put together. But it wasn’t happening. And then I was commissioned this piece, and I just concentrated on that. I had no idea I was writing a book. And I think it was important not to know that I was writing a book because then I had this immense freedom. This immense freedom to write in a voice that I had never explored. I had always written in voices closer to my own. I had immense freedom in terms of [the] art form. There wasn’t anything programmatic about it. It was really like okay, let’s play this game. I give you this; you give me something back. And the happy thing is, it turned out. Many, many, many times conversations don’t go well.

Especially if one part of the conversation is 12 workers and they’re in Mexico and we’re not even seeing each other. It’s just all through audio and text. But it happened. It happened really, really well. So yeah, I’m very grateful that I had the chance to have so much freedom while on my second novel. I think there’s nothing as difficult as a second novel, divorcing from what you did before, not repeating yourself. I don’t know, all the expectations around it. So I had this insane luck which was not knowing I was writing my second novel while doing it and doing it in conversation with the 12 brilliant people who generously gave me their time and their ideas.

When reading it, I had no idea of where it was going, in the best possible way. I mean I felt like it encompassed such a wide shift in tone. There were comic moments; there were incredibly tragic moments; there were surreal moments… It is also incredibly different than anything else I have read of yours, and I feel like your previous books already have an incredibly wide array of tones.

Yeah. I mean, there’s a similar spirit in all of them, right? When one can’t get rid of who one is as much as one ventures into absolute fiction I would say, but there’s a similar spirit in the three books for sure. But yeah, it’s a very different book in other ways. And with respect to not knowing where something is going, when I started writing it, I wanted to know, because I wanted to have some sort of control over the situation. And I wanted to know and I thought about how to envision the task of having to write weekly for people and not having a plan, so I thought, well, I should make a plan. Then I thought no, if I make a master plan for this model and then kind of follow it not only would it be a little bit boring, I feel like when I have made master plans, I never respect them anyway, and I don’t respect them because I feel I’m just filling in a void. You know, like a coloring book where it’s already outlined and you’re just filling it in. And that’s incredibly boring.

But also I thought it would be very dishonest to have some sort of pre-established plan because the whole idea was that it was a conversation for the workers. And I had to hear what they told me in order to write the next installment, otherwise there wouldn’t have been a conversation. It would’ve been a great monologue on my part, and that’s not what I wanted. So yeah, it’s not a new thing. I think chapbooks in the 19th century had exactly that same twist-and-turn often modified by opinions of readership. This was the same thing in a way.

You alluded to Balzac in the afterword. Recently, I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s new book and I feel like that has gotten some comparisons to his work as well. Do you feel like we’re in the middle of sort of a Balzac resurgence?

No, I don’t think so. I thought of it simply because it was Balzac on the French side and Dickens on the English one that invented the serialized novel. So I was into more form than of stylistic similarities.

In the afterword, you said that you felt as though the Spanish and English versions of the novel are fairly distinct from one another. Do you feel that the critical responses and readerships have also been fairly different?

I find that fascinating. I think, because it’s a novel that uses name, drops names basically, and uses a lot of names from the Spanish-speaking literary tradition. I find that the readers who look at the map and understand it typically have a very different reaction to those who look at the map and don’t move so easily about it, if you know what I mean. Not every Spanish reader, by the way. My uncle or my aunt doesn’t know maybe who half the names that I use in the book are or who the writers I allude to are.

But say, for example, a university student in Mexico might read the book and he or she would know who all those names are. And a reader in Holland or my uncle who is not so interested in contemporary literature or a reader in Japan or in the U.S. definitely has no associations to many of those names. And I think that knowing and not knowing names like that modifies the reading experience completely. There is no ideal reader. It’s not like knowing the names gives you more of an insight or not knowing them gives you more of a freshness. I’m not adjudicating any value to knowing and not knowing names. The only thing that has been apparent to me, and has been very interesting to me, is how relative the value of names are and how there is a value attached to names and how names can modify a narrative, like narrative tissue completely. I mean I’ve made this comparison somewhere else before. It’s like you drop a ball into a piece of cloth, as if you were dropping a name. That ball creates a dent, a weight, right?

In some cases in the book those balls went heavily and modified the narrative completely and in some cases they’re kind of empty. There’s no associations to them. They don’t really do much to the narrative tissue around them. It wasn’t something that I was totally intending, although I was definitely trying to think about the value of names as if they were objects. But I didn’t know how different the reaction of readers would be in different places in the world, or even different linguistic communities.

Arriving at conclusions is never fun, but I think that if this signals towards something it is how similar names are to any other object or art object and how relative their values are. I think a contemporary art piece and the name of a writer can be put in a similar plane in terms of the way we assign value to them, the way we create narrative around them, the way that we view them as something charismatic or eccentric and then endow them with even more value.

Everything I did in the novel was try to replicate procedures that I thought were common in the art world and bring them to a narrative form. So my question was, okay, I’ve got this series of art pieces in a gallery, right? Workers who work from these pieces. Each piece is worth much more work from a worker than maybe it actually should be, or maybe not. I wasn’t judging that, but I was thinking about the relation of value between the two. And then, how should these works be perceived? How are they perceived by the workers? How are they perceived by other people who come and view them? How does the gallery endow them with value?

And then, of course, I wasn’t writing an essay or an art criticism piece, but how can I do that with just storytelling? How can I transform that exact phenomenon into storytelling? So one of the ways that I thought was this was sort of dropping names into a story and seeing how that modified the value of both the names and the story.

Have you gotten any feedback from either writers who were mentioned in the book or artists who were mentioned?

The only artist that I’ve spoken to about the book was – he actually launched the novel with me in Mexico. I didn’t know him previously but I really respect his work. His name is Abraham Cruzvillegas. He’s a very, very smart refined mind, and our conversation during the launch was fascinating, the way that he as an artist approached the book I thought was fantastic and a very generous thing. I haven’t spoken to other artists about it actually, but the writers mentioned in the book? You know, to tell you the honest truth, most of the writers that I mentioned that are alive are writers that I know and are friends, because I knew they wouldn’t be pissed off with me if I put them in the book. I think that as someone who maybe I wasn’t a friend and saw his or her name in a kind of almost ridiculous situation might think that I’m making fun of them.

I might hurt a lot of sensibilities if I do this with writers that I don’t know and who don’t know me. I’m only going to use names that I know people aren’t going to get pissed off with me being there. I don’t know if I asked them all for permission. I think I did some. Some were more hesitant than others. But all of them knew I wasn’t making fun of them, and I put myself in there too as a name because if I’m fooling around with people’s names, I can’t not do it to myself.

I mean, it’s funny because I think especially, not at all in the U.S. or elsewhere, but imagine that a novel came out in the U.S. and there’s a lot of names of contemporary writers in the U.S. People would immediately start thinking, is this some kind of list of the writers that one should read? I don’t know. There’s many ways of interpreting lists like that. I mean I can tell you for sure that in my case, it’s not a list of influences. It’s just a list of people who would not get pissed off to see their name.

You mentioned that your English translator came up with The Chronologic that is in the back of this edition. Was that something that she came up with on her own? Had you both talked about it?

That came about because Christina [MacSweeney] is very serious with her work and very meticulous. She does a lot of work before she starts translating, or as she is translating sometimes. So she gets into the ambiance of the novel or the books that I write and she kind of always asks me things like “Can you send me the music that you were listening to while you wrote this? Can you send me pictures that you maybe were looking at?” So it’s almost like she kind of reproduces in her own solitude and her own studio out there in Norwich part of the writing ambiance.

In this case she had an extra which was the worker reading. She kind of vicariously participated in the extent of the workers because the only other person I shared the audio files from the workers every week was with her. So she was listening to them and she was translating kind of simultaneously the first draft of the novel. She had all that and when I started doing the name-dropping thing she started making it, basically for her to know, who are these writers? Why is that between this? Is there some kind of relation between all of them? She was kind of just working it out.

And she made a very thorough list of every single name, much more thorough and meticulous than mine. I was working more on gut and my specific choices, and she made a very, very meticulous and well-crafted kind of chart of people and their biographies and their relations between things and the relationships between the biography and the novel. And at some point she came to New York and we had some lovely sessions in a café where we would read the entire novel out loud to each other to make sure it worked in English. They were very intensive sessions, but they were very productive.

In one of these sessions she told me about what she was doing. She showed me, [and] I said this is brilliant. This is absolutely brilliant. We have to do something with it. And we told Chris [Fischbach, Publisher of Coffee House Press] about it and he was quite enthusiastic to see it when it was finished. And when Christina sent us the final version of this thing she was making, it’s basically only her research material. We said it has to come into the novel or we have to make a chapbook or something. And at the end everyone liked it so much that we decided it would be in the novel.

I think Coffee House did a lovely job of putting it together in a way that’s still kind of elegant and not too far off. It could’ve easily kind of been too much information. And I think they worked. The design of it was brilliant and how she did it. There’s another book, another possible chapbook that I’ve been wondering whether we should put it or not in the second edition or third edition or whatever edition of The Story of My Teeth, which is the fact check. I like it so much that maybe it should be the final book. But then what? We’ll see. I have to give it time and space before I decide. Maybe in a couple of years.

I had one more, and it’s an odd place to end, but that image of finding people’s teeth that one can purchase and have implanted in one’s mouth–where did that idea come from?

I don’t know. From my head? I don’t know. I have no idea. It came as ideas come. But it’s funny, because later on when I was already deep into the novel and was doing research I started finding all kinds of things about people purchasing teeth, including John Lennon’s molar which was sold for $60,000. So I mean it always happens when you’re writing. I think reality comes back and sort of confirms that as a fiction writer you will never surpass reality.


Photo: Alfredo Pelcastre

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