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Stephen Page Contributor
Interview with Argentinian author Esther Cross
Esther Cross was born in Buenos Aires in 1961. She is the author of four novels, The Chronic Winged Apprentices (Emecé, 1992), The Flood (Emecé 1993), Banquet of the Spider (Tusquets, 1999), and Radiana (Emecé 2007); and the author of two collections of short stories, Divine Proportion (Emecé, 1994) and Kavanagh (Tusquets, 2005). She co-authored along with Felix della Paolera two books of interviews, Bioy Casares at the time of Writing (Tusquets, 1987) and Conversations with Borges (Editorial Fuentetaja, 2007). In 2002 she released The Insulted and the Injured, a documentary film that she co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced with Alicia Martínez Pardíes. She has translated Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (Emecé, 2001) and William Goyen’s The Faces of Blood Kindred and Other Stories (Editorial La Compañía, 2008). She has been awarded a Fulbright and a Civitella. She teaches writing in Casa de Letras, Buenos Aires, and for Fuentetaja, of Spain. She is published regularly in several culture magazines and supplements.
An Interview with
by Stephen Page
SP: What was it like growing up in Buenos Aires?
EC: It was quiet, then. Peaceful. Full of parks. I knew everyone in the neighborhood, maybe not personally, but at least by face—and they knew me. Everyone knew everyone. You could go for a walk and see someone on the street and say hello or nod your head and they would recognize you. The feeling everywhere was genial. Many of the people I know now are the same people I knew when I was a child.
SP: And your family?
EC: I remember playing with my two brothers—going to the cinema, playing in the park, sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car while driving out to the family ranch, near La Pampa (a province in the Pampas, the plains belt of Argentina). We vacationed on the ranch, spent part of our summers there. We rode horses together, we played in the woods, we followed the gauchos around. The ranch was a whole world for us, a world very different than Buenos Aires. We were independent on the ranch. We were let loose to do whatever we wanted. Our parents did one thing and we did the other. Our ranch house was huge—or so it seemed when I was a child—lots of rooms, so we could explore and play inside for hours and never see our parents. We only saw our parents at meal times.
SP: When did you first conceive you would be a writer?
EC: As soon as I read my first book. I remember reading Perrault´s stories and thinking of a different ending or a new character. I also loved other stories I read by Anderson and the Grimm brothers—and I felt that I wanted to be able to do the same thing those writers did. Immediately after I started reading those stories, around age six, I started writing my own stories, in child penmanship, of course. I folded the stories into little booklets and tried to sell them to my neighbors.
SP: Was there anyone in your family that affected you to read and write?
EC: My father. He was a literature teacher. I lived in a house with a huge library. My father was always talking about books, and his friends were always talking about books. He encouraged me to read all the time. Although I had been writing as a child and as a teen, it wasn’t until I was 17 that I chose writing as a profession. When I decided that, I told my father. He immediately stepped outside the house, “to go for a walk,” he said, and came back a little while later with a present for me—Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
SP: Have you written fiction all of your life?
EC: No. When I was a teenager, I released my adolescent angst through poetry. As soon as I was a young adult, I started writing short stories again.
SP: A lot of fiction writers wrote poetry in their early career, Paul Auster, for example, and William Goyen. Do you think there is a reason for that?
EC: Yes, I think when you are young or when you first start to write, you imitate what you have read. I read a lot of short stories, but I read a lot of verse too. Poetry is a precursor to almost all literature, culturally speaking. It is definitely literature in the oldest sense. I choose to write prose because that is most innate for me. I would love to write good poetry but I can’t. Poetry is very special. You either have the talent for it or you don’t. I don’t have it.
SP: Which other writers influenced you when you were young?
EC: Jonathan Swift. Lewis Carroll. Charlotte Brönte. Mary Shelley. Oscar Wilde. Stevenson. Kipling. As I got older, Argentine writers. Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo—who was Casares’s wife . . . they lived just two blocks away from where I was born and raised. I used to see them shopping for groceries and vegetables—and I knew them, in the neighborhood way. Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Sarmiento, Alejandra Pizarnik, and many, many other Argentine writers. Let’s see, after that, Virginia Woolf. I like her novels, but I prefer her essays. I like the way her mind works. How she thought literature should work—that reading and writing are connected. Then, Proust, Poe, Maupassant, Balzac, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky.
SP: You have a daughter. Tell us about her.
EC: She’s fourteen now. Very dynamic. Strong willed. She knows who she is and what she likes. She loves animals. She likes riding horses. She is an equestrian. She competes a lot. Sometimes every weekend. I like that she likes riding, but it makes me nervous sometimes—her on that big horse. She spends the whole weekend with her friends and the horses, and when they are not riding they are taking care of the horses, feeding them, brushing them, washing them. She just loves to be with animals. All her life. Since she was a little girl. Dogs. Cats. If it were up to her, our house would be a zoo. At school she does very well in literature, but she doesn’t love it, or have a passion for it. She likes history a lot. And she hates math.
SP: Does she support your writing time?
EC: Well, when she was very little, she knew that I was doing something at my desk, but it took her some time to understand that I was working, that writing was working, even though I was at home. She was a bit noisy, demanding attention, but I understood that is normal for a child. Now she is used to the fact that I am a writer. She accepts and permits my writing time.
SP: Does she inspire you to write?
EC: Yes. It’s amazing. I never plan it. It just happens. Talking with her sometimes sparks ideas. The things she says, the way she says them. Motherhood changes your life, radically—as do all the important things in life—it turns you into something else. It makes you realize there is more than the self. I want to write about motherhood sometimes, the relationship between a mother and her daughter, but I need a little time for that. Right now I am still inside the motherhood situation. I write better about something when I have a little distance from it. Perhaps when she is older. When I am older, which is not too far from now, ha?
SP: You recently wrote a novel in three months. How did that go? Where you happy with the results?
EC: I was very happy. It came after almost a year of block. I had been writing, but only commissioned work—short pieces for magazines and such. I was relieved when it came out so quickly and so well. I think it had been burgeoning inside of me for a while, growing; it just had to find a time to come out. That one-year block was the first time in my writing career that I had not been writing what I wanted to write. When I finally started the book, it was three months of writing non-stop.
SP: Do you have a theory on why you had the block?
EC: Not exactly, but I think it might have been because the novel I had written before, Radiana, I had written obsessively. I don’t usually write obsessively. Radiana is a short novel, with lots of small parts and characters intertwined, and I started out with the idea that I wanted all the parts to connect, so when you read it and get to the end, you will understand the beginning and find meaning in the whole. I was obsessive in that I was making too many changes as I was writing. I usually don’t write that way. I do make a lot of corrections, but usually only after I complete a first draft, when I revise. This obsessive behavior was intense. It left me exhausted.
SP: In general, besides that particular book, do you write quickly, or do you labor over words as you write?
EC: It’s ironic, because my novels usually come out quickly, and then I go back and spend a lot of time making corrections, but my short stories come out slowly. In a short story, every sentence has an important job, and each sentence has to follow the previous one, so if you write a weak sentence, it is hard to follow it with a strong sentence. The story just does not progress as it should.
SP: Where do your ideas for your books and stories come from?
EC: Life, in general. Things that happen to me. Things I see. Conversations I hear. Things people say to me. Lately, it has been in dreams. The last four or five short stories I wrote came to me in dreams.
SP: The stories complete from beginning to end?
EC: Not complete, but in bits and parts, and in instructions. For example, for some days I had wanted to write a story about the countryside, about when I was young and vacationed on the ranch. I wrote a couple of stories, and started another, but I didn’t like what I was writing. The stories were not coming out well. Then, one night, I dreamed I was answering the telephone, and when I picked up the receiver I heard my father’s voice, and he said, “Cross!” he called me by my surname, “Cross,” he said, “you have to go out and take the dog for a walk.” So I woke up and I told my husband about the dream. And my husband said, “Well, you have to take the dog for a walk then.”
SP: So you did.
EC: And I did. But nothing happened. I almost forgot about the dream, and late that same afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, and I remembered an event with my father and his dog. I wrote a story about the event.
SP: Do you feel you have a muse?
EC: No. I would love to, but I don’t.
SP: Do you have a favorite place to write?
EC: Yes. My study, and in cafés. I go to a café with my computer, I find a table near a wall, and I sit with my back to a wall, and I start to write. If the bar is not to noisy I can get a lot of writing done. Sometimes I can write in a noisy bar, if the energy is right.
SP: Are there are a lot of bars with creative energies here in Buenos Aires?
EC: Yes. There is a whole culture of café writing here. It goes back over a century. There is also a history of café readers. In any café you go to, you will see people reading books as well as people writing. That might not sound unique to some people, but, the beautiful thing about it, the helping factor for readers and writers, the cultural difference, I think, is that here in Buenos Aires you can sit down and order a cup of coffee and you can remain in your seat for an hour or two, or even longer, and the waiter or waitress does not bother you or rush you. You are free to write or read until you are tired.
SP: How many hours do you usually write every day?
EC: I sit down at my computer for at least four hours. During that time I either write, or do writing-related work—such as note-taking, revising, editing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I just sit there, and it doesn’t work. Most of the time, though, if I am tenacious, something happens.
SP: Do you write best in the mornings, afternoons, evenings, or nights?
EC: Mornings, mostly. Sometimes a bit after lunch, if I have time. And I like writing at night. After I have helped my daughter with her homework, if I can, I write a little at night. Writing at night has its advantages. It’s quiet. There are fewer interruptions. Only problem is, I like waking up early, so I have to balance that.
SP: Do you find yourself conceiving stories at odd times, perhaps while driving, or talking to somebody, or while you are teaching? What do you do, if an idea comes to you at an inconvenient time?
EC: I have a good memory.
SP: How do you write a first draft—do you write it in long hand, on a typewriter, or on a computer?
EC: On a computer. I have terrible handwriting.
SP: Do you proofread your own final drafts?
EC: I have some friends, who are all great readers, take a look at my final drafts. I give them the novel or book, and they read it and write comments for me. I love them because they are honest. They tell me if a scene is boring, or if a character is unbelievable, or if a section is paced too slowly. I read all of their comments, listen to what they tell me, then I reread my manuscript, and if what they said makes sense, I make the changes.
SP: Talk a little about your book Kavanagh. What does the building Kavanagh symbolize?
EC: The Kavanagh building is the first and only Art Deco skyscraper built in Buenos Aires, a brilliant piece of architecture. The characters in Kavanagh are rich people who find themselves no-longer rich, and they are resistant to that change. They don’t want to lower their standards of living. They are living in denial, and they are decaying. They try to keep their standards of living up, because to them that symbolizes their dignity. Their resistance to change creates conflict, and this conflict inevitably leads to the climax of each story. The characters in the stories represent different types of people in Buenos Aires. The Kavanagh building houses these people, thus, the Kavanagh building becomes emblematic of the city Buenos Aires.
I think these types of situations, though tragic, make interesting fiction—people going through disaster, sorrow, and change—and the resulting actions that they take. Sympathy must be given when writing about these people, and dignity must be given, even if a few characters are not perfect or even good hearted.
SP: Kavanagh is a collection of short stories, but it works like a novel. The narrator’s voice is quite evident throughout the collection. Was that arbitrary, or your plan?
EC: When I first started writing those stories, I did not know they would be so connected, but after I finished the third story, I realized I had a connecting narrator voice.
SP: Going back to your book Radiana, who or what does the woman/robot protagonist represent?
EC: Well, I think she is what the inventor, a man, would like a woman to be.
SP: Is there a sexist statement in that?
EC: Of course. Because he makes an artificial woman. But, the story is much more than that. The inventor ends up getting what he sought.
SP: And Banquet of the Spider? What is the plot of the story?
EC: Well, without giving away too much, it is the story of a girl, Celina, whose socialization is very unique. In her family, in order to be respected, one must rob or deface a famous art masterpiece. Her ancestors are culprits of infamous crimes: the beheading of the statue The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen; the stealing of La Giaconda from the Louvre; striking Le Genie du Repos Eternelle and Michelangelo’s La Pietá with hammers. She thinks that if she wants her family to respect her and take pride in her, she must do something similar.
SP: Have you found any of your characters from earlier books reappearing in later books?
EC: No, in my books, I am always moving to another place, meeting new characters—especially after I have written something and had it accepted for publication. I have left those characters behind and gone from that place, on my way somewhere else.
SP: What kind of a statement were you making in your movie, The Insulted and the Injured?
EC: It is a social statement on the homeless. After one of our recent president’s government, there were a lot of homeless people wandering about. What was so unusual was that many of these people were former functioning, middle-class citizens who all of a sudden found themselves homeless because of a perverse governing institution. So, along with structural poverty, there was this new group of homeless. The government required that you have an address in order to have an identity card, so if you didn’t have an address, who were you? A new kind of desaparecido (a term for the people who “disappeared” during the military juntas)? Basically, these homeless did not exist—on least on paper. In reality, they existed, and you could see them everywhere. We realized while we were shooting that we were capturing the first symptoms of a societal disease. The infirmity of a system.
SP: As a final word, what would you advise to other writers?
EC: Always give your final drafts to a few people whose opinions you respect—and then take their feedback into consideration.
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