The novelist talks with Jamilah King about what it took to start over from scratch with his latest book, At Night We Walk in Circles.
Image from Wikimedia Commons via Dmitry Tolkachev.
As a writer, what do you do when your novel falls apart? If you’re Daniel Alarcón, you throw out 400 pages and then start again from scratch. He describes his second novel At Night We Walk in Circles as an exceptionally painful seven-year odyssey to the finish line. It’s a riveting, ambitious work that follows a young actor named Nelson who meets and then tours with his idol, Henry, while his life slowly and dramatically spirals out of control. Both are haunted men whose lives, separated by decades, wind up following the same tragic path as they maneuver lost loves and the remnants of war. Alarcón spoke with Guernica about what it took to have their stories finally come together.
–Jamilah King for Guernica
So I did something very radical: I threw out everything.
Daniel Alarcón: Painfully, I would say. The book that you have now, yeah, sections of it have been published since 2008, but that should not imply that the book made any sense to me in 2008 at all. I finished a draft in 2010 that was almost nothing at all like this book. Nelson was still the main character and it still dealt with the theater troupe, but apart from that, it’s an entirely different book, an entirely different tone, and an entirely different plot. A lot of the stuff that was published in the New Yorker was sort of me trying to figure out the best way to tell the story and learning, in some ways, what the best story to tell was. I ended up coming back to “The Idiot President” after a long, long detour from another entirely different narrative direction.
Guernica: How did you change your direction?
Daniel Alarcón: It was a pretty painful process, and I mean that pretty literally, to finish a novel and then realize that you’ve gone in the wrong direction and the only way to do anything about it is to cut 400 pages and start over. I showed it to a couple friends with a great deal of weariness and kind of a little bit of hope thinking that they were going to tell me that I was wrong, that this draft was good. And my friends, to their credit, were like “no, this draft is not good. I think you need to do something about it.” They didn’t tell me what I needed to do about it, but it became clear sort of meditating on what they told me at the end of 2010, that I needed to do something pretty radical with the book. So I did something very radical: I threw out everything. But the opening section of “The Idiot President”, which wasn’t a main part of the original novel and was buried on page 200 or something, I kept that and started over. It was important I had my friend there to tell me that this had to be done.
The book that I ended up selling was different than this book, even. There was one editor who was like, “This book is great, but it’s not perfect. You still need to work on it and I want to help you make it extraordinary.” And that was Megan Lynch from Riverhead. I needed to hear that, I needed somebody to tell me that because I knew it wasn’t perfect and I didn’t want anyone bullshitting me.
Ask any human being alive if they’re the same person they were seven years ago and they’re going to tell you they aren’t. In my case, I became really quite involved in prisons in Peru.
Guernica: I want to talk a little bit about the theme of incarceration in this novel. I know that you published a piece in Harper’s where you went to Peru’s most notorious prison a couple years ago. I feel like various characters in this novel are dealing with various degrees of incarceration, whether it’s physical but also being trapped by their memory or their ambition. How did the reporting you did from prison affect this novel?
Daniel Alarcón: That’s one of the fortuitous and serendipitous things that happened because I’d failed in the first draft. When you sit down to read a novel, it takes you a few days or a week to read it, but for the writer, it took me seven years. You ask any human being alive if they’re the same person they were seven years ago and they’re going to tell you they aren’t. In my case, between the time that I began this book and the time that I finished that first draft in 2010, I became really quite involved in prisons in Peru. I could not have written this book if I’d started [the published novel] back when I began that first draft because I didn’t know much about the prisons in Peru. I hadn’t spent much time there, I hadn’t talked to the inmates, and I hadn’t really immersed myself in that world.
In the interim, between the time that I started the book and then finished that first failed draft, I reported from the prison for three months, I visited innumerable times, I spend hours and hours listening to the inmates and visiting every single section of the prison and learning the history of the place, reporting for Harper’s, making friends inside. All that, together, gave me the confidence to go out and try to write this book and try to tell that part of the story. I just wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t failed with that first draft.
Guernica: A recurring theme throughout all of your work—War by Candlelight, Lost City Radio, and now At Night We Walk in Circles—is sort of the trauma that remains after periods of political repression. In this book that seems most evident with Henry’s character. Why was it important for you to talk about that? Why not talk about the periods of political repression themselves?
Daniel Alarcón: That’s a really good question. I hadn’t thought of it that way, honestly. The psychological impact, and the echoes and the ripples are what I felt and dealt with personally. I haven’t dealt with a lot of the stuff personally, but I have seen the emotional and psychological impact on families and on families that are even far away, like in the United States with our family. That’s what I’m comfortable writing, that’s what I’m most interested in is not necessarily the wound, but the scar. Not how someone is wounded, but what the scar does later.
I think in this book, Henry’s traumatized and that trauma manifests itself in unexpected ways. Ways that he can’t even predict. When there’s that scene where he’s kicking Nelson, he can’t sort of understand until later through the narrator what that was bringing up for him.
Guernica: So you brought up the narrator and of course I have to ask about that. Talk to me about the work that the narrator does in this story because it’s sort of third person account in which the narrator becomes more and more central as the story plays out. Talk to me about that. How did this narrator develop?
Daniel Alarcón: [Laughs]. You know, a lot of things that happen in fiction I think you stumble upon them. You put in something early on in the book and you’re not sure why you put it there and then in the process of trying to figure out whether it makes sense or not you stumble upon a different solution or a different question or a different narrative turn that makes everything make sense and makes it more exciting.
When I was writing that first chapter, that “I” voice just slipped in. It just dropped in and I didn’t know where it came from. The first chapter moves along entirely in third person until the very end almost, two pages from the end of that chapter, where it says, “I asked Henry about this when I spoke to him.” There’s a random “I” where if you’re reading fast you might not even notice. I put it in there and I thought, “Ohh! That’s exciting. Who is that?” And it really, really was a process of discovery for me trying to figure out who that character was and I kept postponing the decision, in part on the notion that there would be two sources of tension animating the book. One is the front story, the plot, and how that’s going to be resolved. The other one is who the hell is telling the story? That was the narrative goal.
Generally, I find that when you’re writing and having fun with the writing, that energy and dynamism is going to come out in the text one way or another. In this case, my hope is that the reader will feel the same sense of discovery and sense of revelatory energy pushing through to figure out who this narrator is. That’s what I was feeling, to the point of desperation at certain times when I was tormented by ‘who the hell is this person?’
Guernica: It seems like every main character is grappling with their power, their masculinity. With Nelson, he’s trying to figure out his relationship and his goals as an actor. With Henry, he has this relationship with Rogelio. Am I reading that correctly? And if so, why was masculinity worth exploring for you in this context?
Daniel Alarcón: I really wanted to write a love story and I ended up kind of writing two. There’s the Ixta and Nelson love story and then the Rogelio and Henry love story. Lurigancho is like any other prison and a lot of male space where there’s a real performed aspect of machismo that’s performed there, and it’s performed as a self-defense mechanism. Certainly Henry arrives with that and, later, Nelson arrives there too, as an actor having to own that space. Rogelio is a tough young man, but he’s not quick-tempered like his brother, he’s not aggressive in any way, and there’s a certain resignation to the way that he deals with his own circumstance and the things that happen to him. When [Henry and Nelson] fall in love, I wanted it to be totally natural. I wasn’t thinking of it necessarily as a rebuke to conventional ways of defining masculinity or anything like that. I wanted it to be a natural love story between two men in this circumstance who find comfort in each other’s company and in each other’s bodies.
I guess in my own life I don’t really think much about manliness too much. I feel like a lot of men that I know don’t sit around thinking, “How am I supposed to be a man?” I don’t think that I have to prove anything. But I’ve been in spaces, specifically in Lurigancho, which is Collectors in the novel, where I’ve thought about how I’d survive if I were there. What kind of mask would I have to put on to make it and thrive? And those are the times where I’ve been forced to think pretty clearly about masculinity and about the performance of masculinity. In there, you can define it and flesh it up based on a lot of types of matrix, like class and race and neighborhood. Status plays out in a number of different ways. And there’s a number of different ways for different groups within this environment to perform their particular types of masculinity. Everyone has to do it in order to survive.
I know people from my generation in Lima or in Colombia who learn at a certain age to distinguish between the sounds of bombs.
Guernica: Another place where I felt that come up was in the discussion about citizenship, U.S. citizenship in particular with Francisco and Nelson. Why was it important for you to have that interaction between those brothers in this book?
Daniel Alarcón: That was the most imported part of the first draft of the book was the relationship between two brothers. That was the book in the first draft. The primary source of tension in the first draft of the novel was the relationship between Nelson and Francisco and the unequal balance between them being that one has the keys to the universe (U.S. citizenship) and the other one doesn’t.
The reason why that was such an interesting relationship to me was because it’s my family story. My sisters were both born in Baltimore late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and then my family moved back to Lima and I was born in Lima. I’ve wondered a lot what my life would have been like if we hadn’t emigrated again to the United States in 1980. The most obvious thing is that my sister Patricia would have left. She had her American citizenship by virtue of being born in the United States in Baltimore and she would have come of age in the middle of a war, in the middle of a complex and really violent, unstable military conflict. Those were among the darkest days in contemporary Peruvian history. And my sister Sylvia would have come of age in the same context. They would have left and I would have been stuck.
So I’ve often thought about that relationship. There’s that moment where Francisco forces Nelson to fold his clothes for him and says, “I hate to leave you here to die.” It’s cruel and it’s bravado between brothers and shit talking between family members that we all remember from growing up the petty rivalries that exist between siblings that are often unexamined until we’re much older. So it’s normal in a certain regard, but it’s also totally apocalyptic if you’re a nine-year-old and you’re not allowed to watch the news because it’s too scary. I know people from my generation in Lima or in Colombia who learn at a certain age to distinguish between the sounds of bombs. They could actually play a game—“Oh that was this many kilograms of dynamite.” It was just a game that they played.
And that’s the reality that Nelson would have grown up in. For his brother to say, “peace, I’m out”, that’s a terrible feeling of abandonment. Especially for two adolescent boys, one of whom looks up to and admires the older brother. There’s a line in there about how having an older brother is like being raised in a cult, and it’s true. You admire your siblings. I don’t have an older brother but I do have older cousins and I remember what it was like and how much I looked up to them. They were everything to me, they were so powerful and strong and confident and athletic, handsome—everything that I wasn’t. I was this skinny, nerdy kid with glasses and asthma, and I’m looking at them like they’re superheroes. So I imagine Nelson looking at Francisco that way. And then you add the coming abandonment, the impending end of their proximity and it was definitely something I was keen on exploring to the point that it was the entire first novel, and then it failed and I had to start over.
Jamilah King is Senior News Editor at Colorlines.com, where she coordinates story assignments, writes about culture, and reports on media and technology. Her work has appeared in Salon and The Advocate, among others.