Many English-speaking readers will know that Carlos Ruiz Zafón burst onto the international literary scene with The Shadow of the Wind. The English translation first appeared in 2004 and soon hit the best-seller lists. But the Sombra del viento phenomenon had already been gathering momentum for two or three years in Spain. In fact, Zafón had already well and truly served his apprenticeship with a series of novels, La trilogía de la niebla (The Fog Trilogy) and Marina, the precursor to The Shadow of The Wind.
The English translation of Shadow is the work of Lucia Graves, the daughter of Robert, the English poet and author of Goodbye To All That and I, Claudius fame. She grew up in the family home in the Majorcan countryside. Graves, an author herself, is currently working on Zafon’s latest novel, but English readers will have to be patient for a little while longer before they can catch up with the latest ongoings in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in The Angel’s Game.
TMO caught up with Zafón to find out, among other things, why the mind of a novelist and screenwriter from Barcelona is so dark and foggy.
TMO: You often mention British, French or Russian writers among your influences. Which Catalan or Spanish language writers have inspired you most?
Yes, it is true that most of my literary influences tend to come from other traditions. I really cannot explain why that is. I am not really aware of specific influences coming from either Catalan or Spanish authors, although I admire and enjoy reading many of them, from Perez-Galdos to Merce Rodoreda and many others. There are many Latin-American authors as well whose use of prose and narrative devices has been very interesting for the last few decades and has generated a school of its own. I guess in a way when a writer reads she/he tends to internalize and analyze things and therefore everything has an influence, an impact and a consequence. In my case, for some reason, since I was a child I’ve always felt more atuned and interested in authors that came from other traditions. In fact I don’t think of literature, or music, or any art form as having a nationality. Where you’re born is simply an accident of fate. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be more interested in say, Dickens, than in an author from Barcelona simply because I wasn’t born in the UK. I do not have an ethno-centric view of things, much less of literature. Books hold no passports. There’s only one true literary tradition: the human.
TMO: The ambience in some of your work, with fog, snow, and so on, is very northern. I’d guess Stevenson and Conan Doyle are among your favourite English language writers? Who else do you admire in terms of scene-setting and description?
Too many to mention, I guess. I tend to like some of the great 19th century writers, especially Charles Dickens. That said, a great deal of my influences come from the cinema rather than from literature. Visual storytelling is very much part of my wiring.
TMO: That atmosphere is the antithesis of how many people see Barcelona. Before The Shadow of the Wind became such as success, did you wonder if readers would get this dark representation of the Catalan capital? What do you think of the sunny Mediterranean image many people have of your native city?
Well, that is mostly a touristic view rather removed from the realities of the city and its history. Many visitors come to Barcelona, spend four or five days walking the streets of the old town – which is more or less a theme park in itself – and then leave, which is fine, of course. What they see and experience is not different from what people going to, say, San Francisco, and spending their time at the Fisherman’s Wharf or North Beach, or tourists boarding the ferry to the Statue of Liberty in NYC might experience. My Barcelona anyway is a purely literary one, not a faithful representation of the city itself.
TMO: The Shadow of the Wind is set in the early Franco era. The logical next step might have been to pick up where you left off chronologically. Instead, in your latest novel, The Angel’s Game, you’ve written a prequel going back another generation or so. Why?
I never meant to write a sequential saga, or a series of sequels of sorts. The idea is to write stories around this literary universe centered around the cemetery of forgotten books, exploring this gothic, mysterious universe through different characters and storylines. As you say, perhaps it would have been more commercialy advisable to do that, to write a straight sequel and pick up the story where we left it, but it was never my idea to do so and I think it is more interesting to play around with the narrative spaces and lines to pull the reader into a fictional universe that plays by its own rules.
TMO: The history of Catalonia/Spain is well documented from the Civil War period onwards but outside of the country itself, there is little focus on the earlier part of the 20th century. Was that in your thoughts at all? Has the Franco era has been done to death in terms of both history and literature?
It would be hard to overstate the impact and significance of the Franco era (40 years) after the war. The Spanish Civil War is the most significant event in modern Spanish history, and it would be naïve to think it is been already covered, although probably it generated almost as much bibliography as World War Two, to which in many ways it’s a prelude. You’re right that outside of Spain there isn’t much focus on earlier Spanish history, but then again we could say that of almost any nation. We seem to live in a world where forgetting and oblivion are an industry in themselves and very, very few people are remotely interested or aware of their own recent history, much less their neighbors’. I tend to think we are what we remember, what we know. The less we remember, the less we know about ourselves, the less we are.
TMO: Does fiction have to be historically accurate?
No. Fiction has to be effective, moving, stimulating, seductive. Fiction has to tell a good story in the best possible way. Then it can choose to be emotionally honest and accurate or not. History writing should be accurate, on the other hand, but that’s another long debate I guess.
TMO: Would you consider writing a novel set in the present or the future?
Why not? I tend to set my stories in the period that goes from the Industrial Revolution to the end of world war two. To me, from a purely personal point of view, that is one of the most fascinating, rich and tragic periods in human history, but there’re a lot of stories out there waiting to be told.
When can we expect to see the English translation of El Juego del Ángel in the shops? Do you have more input on the translation of your novels into a language you know or is it just a case of trusting the translator and letting them get on with it?
I believe the eagle lands around summer 2009. Of course, if there’s a language I know I do have input on the translation and I even might consider driving the translator nuts rewriting parts or making changes here and there. Unfortunately my knowledge of languages is limited and most of the times I’m at the mercy of talented and hard-working translators.
TMO: How do you think your work is received in the USA? Do you think Americans pick up on the same things in your work as European readers or do they see some things differently?
I think it has been very well received so far, and I don’t see much difference between american readers and readers from any other place. In my experience, people who read books are the same anywhere. They’re a nation of their own which shares intelectual curiosity, imagination and love for storytelling, language and ideas. They could be from Iowa or from Paris. They’re readers. In some cases, of course, there are slight differ
ences or sensibilities and a difference in interpretation of context, but the same happens with American readers within the limits of American fiction. It is a big country. If there’s a difference, I’d say, it is that in America my work is far less well-known than it is elsewhere. Interestingly, while the rest of the world is going more and more towards a global culture without national boundaries, the american market has a growing tendency to be very isolated from the rest of the world, and that affects everything to books, music, film or whatever.
TMO: Prior to The Shadow of the Wind your books were aimed at younger readers. Did you have to think a lot about writing for a different audience when working on Shadow or did it come naturally once you got started?
It came naturally. In fact I never tried to be a writer for young people. It just came as an accident, as it were, because I found success in that field and a working writer tends to stick to what pays the bills. At some point I realized I needed to be more honest and true with my own ambitions and goals and left the safety zone of a field that had been very good to me and plunged into different waters hoping not to sink to the bottom on contact.
TMO: Can you tell us something about the work you’ve done in the film industry? What are the advantages of writing for cinema over the novel and vice versa?
I worked as a screenwriter for some time. Film and visual storytelling are an essential part of what I do, of the way I think. Writing for the cinema is a very different thing than writing fiction or novels. A screenwriter is a dramatist for hire. You work for others and you, generally, do not own or control your own work. Your work, moreover, is not the final medium. You’re writing a document, a blueprint for a movie, but the movie exists in a different medium. A novel is your own work, your language is the final medium. In a novel you’re everything, the writer, the director, the cinematographer, the editor, the composer, the actor, the visual effect artist and the production designer. Everything. You own it. You don’t need money or other people to do it. It is just ink and paper. And your talent and craft. There are no other limits. Cinema is a wonderful medium, and very often I feel closer to it than to literature, but it is a collective art form. Nobody owns a film. Its greatness comes from the sum of all those people talents and contributions. This is a fascinating subject, and I could write you an encyclopedia on it, but we don’t want to burst your server.
The historical novel seems very fashionable at the moment, particularly fiction set in the medieval period. Do you agree with that statement and if so, to what do you attribute this phenomenon?
We’re going medieval, baby.
Read about Steve Porter’s walk around Barcelona, following the steps of The Shadow of the Wind – Walking in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Barcelona