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Interview with Gabriel Valjan, Author of Roma, underground

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When and why did you begin writing?

I began writing novels in 2008. Before that year, I didn’t think I had the stamina to sustain an idea, no less a plot and a cast of characters, but I did it. After that initial novel, it became easier and easier. I have written seven novels, a collection of short stories and completed a translation. Winter Goose Publishing accepted Roma, Underground and Wasp’s Nest, and I hope they’ll accept the third and fourth novels in the series. Before the novels, I wrote only poetry. kill author published a series of my poems, Exile, in February 2012.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I was never conscious of “style” until after I had written several novels and short stories and noticed patterns in my writing. My descriptions are visual, almost always cinematic. Visual images or scenes inspire me. My descriptions are sometimes poetic and twisted with some form of sardonic humor. My characters are flawed, grumpy, lack confidence, and do the wrong things for the right reasons. I don’t overdo violence and with sex. I rather imply than be explicit so the reader can use his or her imagination. Lately my writing has chapters ending on a cliffhanger.

What books have influenced your life most?

This is a tough question. The books we had enjoyed as children are either a disappointment or much deeper than we had thought when we return to them as an adult. Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling are my own examples of the former while Harper Lee and Carlo Collodi are emblematic of the latter type.

The visual imagery, the Blue Fairy, and the scene of the coffin and the ravens in The Adventures of Pinocchio terrified me as a child and as an adult rereading the tale I realize that the story has esoteric secrets. I sensed it as a child but I didn’t have the ability to understand Collodi fully then. The horror in Pinocchio is realizing the terrible cost of becoming a boy, a conformist and a good citizen. That insight and that realization have never left me.

While To Kill A Mockingbird did impress me then with its narrative on racism, injustice, the character Scout was a shocking revelation to me as a young boy. I never subscribed to stereotypes of gender when I was a boy, which is probably another reason why I continue to find John Irving a compelling author when it comes to portraying gender and sexuality. In Mockingbird I discovered a girl who was a child yet had the insight of an adult; she had a father whom she called by his first name, which was also shocking, and whom she challenged at several points throughout the novel without reprisal or recrimination. During my childhood, authority was not questioned. Scout also seemed androgynous in voice and character to me and yet she was a paradox because she was in need of protection and guidance as a child and not because she was a girl. She had meaningful yet pointed but somewhat innocent conversations with her father. I related to her more than I did to Huck Finn or other male characters. I still consider Scout to be one of the strongest female characters in American literature.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

As Bartleby had said, “I would prefer not to.” A writer can have influences and I would replace ‘mentor’ with ‘guiding spirits.’ A writer, for better or worse, is affected by every writer whom he or she reads; and I say, for better or worse, because writers have to decide for themselves through some kind of aesthetic process which writers ‘speak to them’ and not get caught up in the ‘why.’ They also have to sort through a lot of bad writing. If your subject varies with genre then there are multiple influences. One mentor can be limiting and almost Freudian à la ‘the anxiety of influence.’ It is better to have several writers as models for how language can be used. There are few great writers.

Shakespeare was a poet and playwright who gave no thought to ‘originality’ and yet all of his works express the range of the human condition. He stretched the English language in creative ways. It was his achievement. Writers should imitate those they admire, read broadly, and along the way find their own unique voice. I also think writers should have some exposure to another language and literature. It gives you another soul and another dimension through culture and history.

A mentor, if present at all, shouldn’t be another writer, but a teacher of language and literature who can impart good habits, the nuts and bolts of sentence construction, and then leave the writer to his or her own devices. A writer must be a self-educated reader and craftsman after that. The rest is up to the writer. That is where writing is a solitary act. You sit in room with spirits talking to you. You may never know whether you are good or not. It reminds me of Borges’s statement: “When writers die they become books.”

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Writing from the point of view of a child or the opposite gender is difficult. When to use or not use profanity is also important. I would have to say that when it comes to editing, I am more focused on dialogue.

Speech has to be authentic to the character and to the context. It has to flow. If you pick up George Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for example, a reader familiar with the story can turn to any page, read a line of dialogue and know exactly which character spoke that line. That is Higgins’s mastery. People speak in contractions, fragments, and use fillers. Characters’ diction betrays their education and social class, while their syntax indicates their emotional state. It all sounds intellectual, but write an inauthentic line and a reader will see it immediately, will tell you, No woman would ever say that, or that is inappropriate to what has been developed thus far for a certain character. Dialogue is one way that readers can see characters developing. Each voice has to be unique. I believe people read for character, forgive on plot, but dialogue is what makes the character come alive and the reader coming back for more.

I had a scene in the third installment of the Roma series in which I had three people inside an office. One of the characters was on the phone. The dialogue had to show the other two people in the office reacting to the conversation they think they are hearing on the phone. The conversation is completely inferential for them and for the reader. I also had the person on the line reacting to three other people: the person he is speaking to and the other two he hears in the background. This particular chapter was written in the point of view of the person answering the phone. It was a challenge, but it worked.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

All my novels deal with relationships and trust, how friends navigate and negotiate a morally compromised world, uncertain of what is the truth or the lie and whether either of those two could get them killed.

What book are you reading now?

I tend to read two or three books at any given time. I’m reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and rereading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’m reading both in small doses so I can savor them. I’m also rereading short stories of Joyce Carol Oates, Borges, and Quiroga. When I am writing a novel I do not read other novels because I want to avoid any influence, so I will read only poetry then.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

I have enjoyed the following authors in the last year: Paolo Giordano (The Solitude of Prime Numbers), Daniel Kehlman (Fame), Bruce Lansdale (short stories and Hap and Leonard series), Claudio Magris (Microcosms), Amélie Nothomb (everything!), Ferdinand von Schirach (Crime stories), Xiaolu Guo (A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers), Rachel Wetzsteon (Sakura Park), and Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone). I don’t consider Andrea Camilleri a new author, but he is always nearby. His Salvo Montalbano inspired the Roma series.

What are your current projects?

After finishing the third novel in the Roma series, I wrote the third novel in another series, called The Good Man series, which is set several decades in the past in the early days of the intelligence community. This third novel in The Good Man series takes places shortly after the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 and it addresses the continuing tension between the CIA and the FBI, and the ominous role of organized crime in both government agencies. I am also researching what I need for the fourth novel in the Roma series, which I expect to start in the fall.

Do you see writing as a career?

No, and I don’t consider it a hobby either. Writing gives me pleasure and I enjoy it. I would do it whether I became successful or not. I’m fortunate that Winter Goose Publishing liked Roma, Underground, and committed to Wasp’s Nest (out in November 2012), and I hope they want more of my Roma characters. Writing is an extension of my living and making sense of the world around me. I find writing to be constructive, instructive, and pleasant, even when it is frustrating. Reading refreshes my curiosity and it gives me comfort.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

The passage I cite is from my latest novel, the third in another series. The novel is called Diminished Fifth.

The house was a clapboard colonial on a poor-man’s hill with a front-swinging fence half-dead on the hinge. The tessellated walkway had enough cracks to give a seismologist concern. The front porch between two corrupted columns had slanted to the right because the termites had been either misguided or the wood tasted better on that side. It was a brown house with weeds everywhere, with one stunted tree out in front as its last defense. There were four shuttered windows, two on each side of the front door, and a chatty screen door that spoke no matter which way the wind blew it. The front door was ajar.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

It depends on my mood. You may like a certain dish but if you eat it daily you soon lose the appreciation. I find myself returning to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) because I am amazed at how much he can convey in so few words when he describes a scene or character. The style fits the story. You can’t expound, like William James, on describing a fleeing criminal as he gets into the car because the reader knows the car would be long gone. Red Harvest, like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, seems to me a rather searing indictment of American corruption, hypocrisy and violence that has stood the test of time. Hammett, I think, influenced Hemingway (so said Gertrude Stein); but even if you dislike Hammett’s themes, he was a prescient writer. Red Harvest remains a relevant novel in today’s world of failed financial institutions, and economy. Both Hammett and Hawthorne deal with crime, concealment, and the cost of keeping a secret. I would contend that Hawthorne is the dark shadow, the dormant influence that every American writer has to grapple with in order to take the full measure of the American ethos.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Respect your readers. They are spending their money to buy your book. Money can be replaced. The time they spend with you cannot. There are so many books and so little time and the sand in the hourglass is always moving. Respect your readers’ intelligence and write to tell a good story. Don’t write to be clever or write in the latest genre because you are out to make money. Write the story that you have in you. You can’t please everyone, but the greatest compliment after “I cared for and loved your character” is that someone has spent precious time with you. I am grateful for every act of kindness.

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About Nadia Brown