In-house interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya
The hair-raising novels of El Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya (Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror) can leave one clutching for their throat and yet laughing wildly out loud. He has recently moved from his residency at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh to Tokyo, and has just completed a trip to Sweden where he celebrated the publication of the Swedish edition of Senselessness. New Directions intern Kelsey Ford interviewed the notoriously peripatetic author to find out more about how his own writing affects him and what it is like to be on the move so often.
Kelsey Ford: Do you have a guiding idea as you write your novels? If so, is it different with each new book? If someone were to look at your published works, what overall idea would you like them to see?
Horacio Castellanos Moya: I have a guiding idea as I write most of my novels. But in a couple of them there was no guide, just a kind of explosion. The process is different in each book, of course. Firstly, this process depends on the material conditions I’m living in: it is not the same when you are writing in a hurry, not knowing where you are going to sleep next month and from where you are going to get money for surviving, than when you have a place for staying and working with economic certainty for the future to come. The planning and the writing are affected by these material conditions. Secondly, it depends on the nature of the novel: there are plots that allow a lot of improvisation, but there are others that require very precise planning. And regarding the overall idea, I don’t know what to say: I don’t like to pontificate on my own work.
KF: In “Notes about the Political in the Latin American Novel,” you called your subjects of political and social rife a “genetic burden.” To what extent does this haunt your writing?
HCM: It haunts me a lot. Sometimes I try to get rid of it, but the more I try the more it haunts my writing. So I better get quiet and accept the situation, that is to say, the fact that the Political is going to be the landscape of my stories. Even now that I’m in Tokyo, far away from Latin American and Salvadoran politics, this curse follows me and I’m trying to write a novel that still takes place during the Salvadoran civil war.
KF: Do the stories you choose come from recent experiences, or do they build up over time until finally you sit down to write them?
HCM: I think they build up over time until finally I sit down to write them. The experiences must be distilled in order to become fiction. Of course there are some exceptions, when something that recently happened suddenly implodes inside me and I sit down to write it. That was the case with Revulsion.
KF: What compelled you to write The She-Devil in the Mirror?
HCM: The voice of that lady started to sound in my mind and I couldn’t shut her up. I didn’t do any research or planning to build that voice, it just came to my mind and started to bother me a lot, insistently. I think that’s what compelled me to write the story, to get rid of her.
KF: How was your experience writing The She-Devil different from your experience writing Senselessness?
HCM: I started to write The She-Devil in Mexico City in December 1995, but I wrote most of the book in San Salvador in 1996 and the last part in Madrid in 1997. I wrote the first half of Senselessness in Mexico City at the end of 2002 and the first weeks of 2003; I finished it in Guatemala in 2004. When I wrote both books I was living in similar conditions, close to the edge, on the border line, not knowing how I was going to survive next month or where I had to move.
KF: There are strong similarities between the narrators of The She-Devil in the Mirror and Senselessness; neither seems “complete in the mind.” As a writer, how do you embody the voices of your narrators?
HCM: Octavio Paz wrote that the writer emerges from an interior fracture. I like that. It seems that I deepen that fracture in my characters. But you want to dig in the mystery of creation. That’s not good for a writer. I don’t know why some voices come to me and others don’t. I don’t think on that: it happens. I just write what I need to write. In this kind of book, if I do a lot of thinking I get blocked. There is a hidden friction, then a spark in a very dry prairie, and I just have to dance with the fire.
KF: You’ve lived abroad so much: recently in Germany, and Pittsburgh, and, right now, in Japan: how do you experience these sojourns? Are they dislocating in both negative (disruptive or lonely or making you feel deracinated) and positive (fresh insights and perspectives and beneficial, creativity-inducing change) ways?
HCM: That is a nice word, “deracinated.” I like it. I’m uprooted. I’m not a plant, I’m not a tree. I have a mind and feet. I belong to the planet, to this tiny little piece of nothing in the universe. And of course the fact of dislocating affects me. Everytime it is more difficult for me to write the stories that are kept in my wounded memory. But that is good too, because it means that I’m also getting rid of my wounded memory. Roque Dalton, a great poet, wrote: “Oblivion is the only source of perfection.”