Francisco Goldman’s heritage stems from his American Jewish father and his Guatemalan mother. He was raised in Eastern Massachusetts and began his writing career covering the Central American wars in the 1980s, first for Esquire and later for Harper’s. He is the author of three novels, The Long Night of White Chickens, The Ordinary Seaman and recently The Divine Husband (September 2004). His first two novels have won numerous awards, and Goldman has received a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as other accolades. He teaches at Trinity College, and his writings have appeared in major publications too numerous to list. Francisco Goldman divides his time between Brooklyn and Mexico City.
The Divine Husband, as you will learn in the conversation that follows, was inspired by the legendary Cuban cultural patriarch Jose Martí’s famous love poem, "La Niña de Guatemala." Martí spent only a little more than a year in Guatemala, where much of this novel takes place. But that time affected his life and most certainly affected Guatemala. Goldman’s rich tapestry of history and fiction is a splendid tale with vital and spirited characters: Maria de las Nieves, whose relationship with Great Man Martí as well as the paternity of her child are the engine of this narrative; Mack Chinchilla, described as a Yankee-Indio entrepreneur who courts Maria; Wellesley Bludyar, a British diplomat and an another of Maria’s suitors; and Don Jose, the Jewish umbrella repairman, her closest confidante and The Mysterious Muchacho.
Here is novelist Claire Messud’s take on The Divine Husband: “For all its considerable length, tightly compacted. No paragraph is extraneous, or ignorable, as the account–occasionally breathless–doubles back on itself, takes up and reworks strands like a Bach invention, all the while providing distinct narrative tenors for its three central characters, María, and Martí, and Mack. The book offers frames within frames, tour-de-force descriptions, grand set pieces. It is replete with idiosyncratic details and strange historical facts. The prose slides from lyrical to practical, the diction from august to mundane. Goldman echoes Flaubert, Garciá Marquez, and even DeLillo, as well as biography and newspaper journalism, but he remains his own literary master, and in this book succeeds in making the novel new. He has produced a work of ambition, seriousness, passion, and seething life. The Divine Husband confirms Goldman as one of America’s most significant living novelists, a voice of audacity and gravitas that serves as inspiration to writers and readers alike.”
Robert Birnbaum: How do you feel?
Francisco Goldman: Good [chuckles].
RB: This book strikes me as being a long time coming.
FG: Well, it was a long time coming–seven years writing. I actually started it before I started The Ordinary Seaman. Right after The Long Night of the White Chickens. Probably ’92 or ’93. I was probably sitting around one day wondering what I was going to do next and at that point in my life, ’92, after ten or eleven years–where the wars in Central America had certainly defined my life in a pretty heavy way. Obviously, writing The Long Night of the White Chickens had been, in a sense, a direct dialogue between fiction writer and journalist–an approach to the war in Central America. I remember at that point in my life I felt that the whole thing had obviously given me a lot but [it] had taken a lot away from me.
RB: That "whole thing" meaning?
FG: The war[s] and having it been such a huge part of my life. This strident, difficult, vicious political reality which I tried to answer–
RB: That could have been a career. Some people do that all their lives. Are you still friends with Jon Lee Anderson?
FG: He’s my best friend. But I was always primarily a fiction writer. I got involved in the war in Central America not because I wanted to be a war correspondent but because here was this war happening that obviously brought the two parts of my own background into collision. Out of pure youthful curiosity and passion I was determined to be a part of it, and it was a really fortuitous, lucky break that I got involved as a journalist. Back in 1980 I had gone down to write the short stories I would need to get into a creative writing workshop. I did get into the writing programs and everything, but miraculously two of those stories were bought by Esquire. They then also gave me the chance to do journalism. And immediately I said, "I am going back to Central America." So at that point [early '90s] I felt a need to go inward again. I felt stretched pretty thin. I wasn’t the kind of person who was going to–and obviously Long Night had also taken seven years to write–next go off to Bosnia. That was the next war. [It was] something that a lot of my friends did. One day I asked myself, "Hmm, what is behind that famous poem, ‘La Niña de Guatemala’, that Jose Martí wrote when he was here in Guatemala?" And I didn’t really know anything about Martí. And I didn’t really know anything about the nineteenth century. I remember that time, especially on a day like this when it’s raining. I flew down from New York to begin researching, basically to answer that question, "What’s behind that poem?" I had no idea what an endless labyrinth I was getting myself into. At the beginning I spent literally a month in the Guatemala City Hermoteca, the library where they keep all the old newspapers and things [and spent] a month going through century-old newspapers. I had taken notes and it was really the beginning of a long, internal dream. It rained everyday. That library didn’t have electric lights; you had to sit by the window and they would bring out these things that you felt like nobody had opened up in a hundred years and the dust would come floating up. And they didn’t really have a good cataloging system. You had to be friends with the old wizard who knew where everything was [laughs]. And if he liked you he would bring you things and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. This is a digression, but actually from breathing in that dust, I got a lung infection. I never had asthma in my life. The joke I always tell about it is later when I moved to Mexico City, that the polluted air scoured my lungs clean [laughs].
RB: You did make a reference in the novel to someone being given a gift of jasmine blossom and then they are discovered one hundred years later when someone breathes in the blossom dust?
FG: Yeah, sure yeah. When he gets sent off, Wellesley Bludyar gives Marie de las Nieves [jasmine blossoms], with his apology note that he can’t make their first date. So anyway, at the end of that month I had these notebooks filled with incredible details. Just the most trivial small details of life in nineteenth-century Guatemala. That was really the beginning of a kind aesthetic idea of place that the book never lost. It’s almost a kind of–I’ll talk about this a bit later–the way the imagination uses the past to create a synthetic fictional reality. It became fascinating to me. But what happened there [laughs], I filled these notebooks–these notebooks are some of the most precious things I have.
FG: Because it’s the beginning of this process. These things are like a deconstructed nineteenth-century Guatemala City in words.
RB: If I read them, could I understand what was in them?
FG: It might be a little bit like looking into, in much more rustic way, Walter Benjamin’s fat volume The Arcades Project. It’s all full of these little details. I had never heard of that book then. But it was that kind of obsessive collecting of strange details.
RB: Let me interrupt you before I lose this question. Edward Jones took twelve years to write The Known World. He thought about it for ten years. When he started he had a list of about 40 books he wanted to read to assure himself that he was going to render an accurate picture of ninteenth-century, pre-Civil War Virginia. It turns out he never read any of them. To read his book, one would be hard pressed to find any factual clinkers or anomalies. As opposed to him, you submerged yourself in–
FG: Newspapers. The newspapers are different.
RB: I see.
FG: The newspapers were just fantastic. What happened though, when I finished that… obviously I was going to have to learn about a lot of different things to write this book. It was going to take a long time. Especially, "Who is Jose Martí?" Just asking that question, you can’t write about Martí reading nothing. I was just overwhelmed by what it was going to take and I put it aside and wrote The Ordinary Seaman. Now a wonderful thing happened in the three years–or whatever it was–writing that book. All that stuff that had been in the notebooks that had seemed like research, seemed like sediment sinking to the bottom of a glass. When I went back to the book I didn’t have to look in those notebooks again. It was now like my own memory. It was through that immersion that I had been in nineteenth-century Guatemala and I had these, to me, spooky, really vivid ideas of what it had been like. And that’s when I was finally able to go forward. As for reading books, obviously I had to read books when I was going to write about things that I knew absolutely nothing about. Edward Jones could write about nineteenth-century [Virginia]; I could write about nineteenth-century New England without having to read books. But when I realized that… Okay, Martí comes to Guatemala in 1877 because he has been in a liberal revolution. And he has [also] come because he has to show his skeptical future father-in-law that he is able to earn a living on his own and doesn’t just want to marry his daughter for her money. So you go, "Why liberal revolution?" "Oh, because there had been nearly 400 years of theocratic Spanish rule." "What goes on in a convent anyway?" I’m racing ahead a bit on the whole process and making it sound like it was just tedious hard work, but over the course of the book I had to learn how to manage research. At the beginning, in the convent section, it was in some way… it became its own reward in a strange way…
RB: Reading The Divine Husband I find it hard to think any part of its writing was tedious. It seems too joyful and playful and exuberant. In the convent section, there is a reference to a treatise on the sneeze. Was there really such a thing?
FG: That’s a great example of how I ended up working. I fell in love with trying to patch things together and chase things down and via imagination turn them into stories. So I had a girl in a convent. This thing had started with sneezing, sticking wool up your nose and sneezing. I used to do that.
FG: I think a lot of little kids in Guatemala, because those wool blankets are so scratchy and delicious, do it. I was recently interviewed by this woman in Atlanta who happens to be the widow of [former] mayor Maynard Jackson. She told me that she used to do that as a little girl [laughs]. So it came from there–the sneezing–and I knew that, and the convent story is developing how she is going to get in trouble. So, obviously, if nuns take these vows of renouncing all worldly pleasures, sneezing has to be a violation of that [laughs]… unless you can convince somebody it’s a mortification. And then [I read] photocopies of these old convent rules a wonderful woman in Mexico City had, which you can’t get anymore. She told me she had photocopied those back in the 1970s for her thesis and they were crumbling and they wouldn’t let [them] out even to be looked at in the library. She gave me copies, and so I read those vows, the ones they used, and the vow of chastity, "Through eyes, nose, ears, Satan enters." I said, "Through nose Satan enters. Hmm." Right away that’s going to connect to sneezing. So then I had to find out how they are going to rule and I ran the word "sneeze" through various databases and found [that] somebody named Father Lacoile has written a treatise on the sneeze.
RB: As I am reading, I can’t help but wonder, was there such a thing? On the other hand, in a novel it shouldn’t matter if there was a treatise.
FG: It shouldn’t. The novel should be making its own convincing reality. I had great fun, so there are things in there that are completely made up that some people think are completely true.
RB: That’s right, it should have its own internal logic and plausibility. Where were you when you wrote The Divine Husband?
FG: Most of it in Mexico City. I spent a year in New York City, in the public library in the Center for Scholars and Writers. That’s where I did most of the research on the convent section. That’s when I didn’t know how to handle research. I would let myself get overwhelmed. Of course later, you become much more spontaneous.
RB: Darin Strauss, who studied with [E.L.] Doctorow, quoted him as saying that he does only as little research as he can get away with.
FG: That’s what happens later. What happens later is you find one thing and that’s all you need. For example, I was looking through a picture book of Marti’s time in Guatemala, and there was a picture of a book he’d given to somebody. An inscribed copy of Portraits of Celebrated Women. Okay, so I built a whole chapter out of it. I didn’t go look for any other books or anything else. You see, that was later on. The convent section when I was first doing that, years ago… I didn’t… I had never done anything based on the past. So I had to learn to become that nimble. I wanted to make my own purely fictional reality inspired my own interpretation of the past. I completely agree with Henry James that the historical novel is humbug, but that’s because Henry James was referring to the historical novel where people believed you could have a realist historical novel. I don’t pretend for a moment that this [The Divine Husband] tells you [the real story]; this is my poetic interpretation.
RB: So when people read this novel, is the character Jose Martí the historical figure or is he a fiction? Isn’t that what is confusing?
FG: It shouldn’t be. It’s a novel; but in a straightforward way the narrator tells you he is researching Jose Martí and tells you these are his writings. And I try not to–that’s a very important issue in the book. The reader who reads it in the right spirit–with his imagination open, and mind open and his senses open–should trust the narrator in that way. The Martí you get is as the narrator says, "I am researching the historical Martí"; and what is researched is almost told in a biographer’s manner and the narrator is questioning it; and that Maria de las Nieves is obviously a fictional imagining of the kind of relationships Martí might have had.
RB: Isn’t it amazing that from all the disparate data about Martí–he seems to be a polymath, amazingly fluent and garrulous, an expressive and productive man–so little is known about him in this country.
FG: That’s kind of the point of the whole book. And the thing that you discover–and you discover a bunch of things about Martí when you wade into the subject–the first thing you discover… you sit and you say, "Jose Martí, how boring? This perpetual statue everywhere." And you see the anthologies that exist in English, and they are just his political essays [and] the speeches he gave in the last years of his life. You see that he is just this political icon. And then you begin to see, underneath, this extraordinary figure. One of the most important literary figures in Latin America. Even more astonishingly, an incredibly important New Yorker. He gets expelled from Cuba as a teenager and doesn’t really return to Cuba again until he goes back to die at age of 43. He is Cuban, yes; but a Cuban who is hardly ever in Cuba.
RB: A typical Cuban exile.
FG: Yes. But also an incredible New Yorker. Fifteen years and he publishes 3000 pages. Six volumes of his collected works, of this engagement with the United States and these incredible pieces that he wrote. And let me tell you, when I started to research New York in the Gilded Age [I found] nothing like Martí. There is nothing like Martí’s pieces. And when Walt Whitman leaves New York–a year or two before Martí arrives–after that, indisputably, the greatest writer living in New York is Jose Martí. I’m sorry, William Dean Howells is not a rival. And probably the greatest man living in New York, because the only other conceivable rival is Thomas Edison, who is living across the river in New Jersey. You can judge what it tells you about the United States. I’m not going to.
FG: [Americans] don’t want to know about it. They don’t want to hear [it]. Why is it that de Tocqueville is in the American canon as a foreigner who had extraordinary insights into the United States and Martí isn’t? Is it because Martí is from Latin America? I don’t know. Do we just not want to know?
RB: He served as a consul to the U.S. for a number of Latin American nations.
FG: That was just to earn a living.
RB: And he reported on the U.S. to newspapers all over South America.
FG: All those pages, three thousand pages of reporting on the United States. Every aspect of the United States that you could imagine. From presidential campaigns to these things called Valentine’s Day cards.
RB: I suppose that French and Germans in some contexts call themselves European. Do Brazilians and Costa Ricans call themselves Americans? Talk about being American outside of the U.S.
FG: Definitely when you think about [the] literature there is, from Martí to Borges–Borges always thought that Whitman and [Rubén] Darío were part of the same tradition. Martí tried to show how Ralph Waldo Emerson and the emerging writings of Latin America ought to be seen as part of the same tradition. Alfonso Reyes, too. The great Latin American, García Marquez, never hid his indebtedness to Faulkner and his sense that the Southern tradition of writing in the United States was part of the Latin American Caribbean tradition of writing. So at least from the Spanish speaking side of the Americas there has always been this sense of the America as an entity and as a promise. A failed promise but a promise. Right. And it’s part of a sense of American identity. And that was Martí’s obsession as a writer. So we talk about Martí as reinventing Spanish-language writing–four different times. I’m not the first person to say this. [Guillermo] Cabrera Infante says this. [Alejo] Carpentier said this. Octavio Paz credits Jose Martí with writing the first Spanish modernist poem. It’s in "Children of the Mire" [Octavio Paz, 1974]. It’s the birth of Spanish modernist poetry because it finally breaks with Spain and the idea of a world in which God plays a big part and turns its attention to the inner life in man alone against the universe, and so on. And those poems are like this Rimbaud-like swirling torment. A lesser innovation but a remarkable innovation nonetheless. In Versos Sencillos [Simple Verses] he becomes the first guy to write poems that incorporate popular folk songs. Poets looked down on that stuff. And now every idiot in the United States–
FG: –knows the song "Guantanamera": "Yo soy un hombre sincero. De donde crecen las palmas. Yo soy un hombre sincero…" It’s a Martí poem. And then the journalism that we just talked about. And then, at the end of his life, he has his greatest breakthrough yet. Carpentier says it’s the bedrock of all modern Cuban literature and thus all Latin American literature by extension, The War Diaries. You look at those War Diaries which have been translated for the first time in a Penguin edition [by Esther Allen]–
RB: The Selected Writings?
FG: Yeah. It’s the same discovery that Gertude Stein and Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway and others make about concrete prose and what it describes and so forth. Martí reaches this twenty years before them. Astonishing! An unbelievable figure!
RB: What stands in the way of Jose Martí being acknowledged?
FG: Okay. Because a year after his death–this kind of says it all–
RB: He dies in 1895.
FG: This guy stands and gives a funeral oration at some kind of memorial ceremony and says, "A year ago you were a great writer. You were a husband, a father, this complex person. But from now on you are just going to be made of bronze and concrete." Because Latin America needed him to be a hero. Cubans needed this hero. And he deserved to be a hero, in that sense. He had single-handedly formed a sense of a Cuban identity against Spanish rule. He is that kind of hero. But that didn’t prevent, then, all the other nuances from being lost. Rubén Darío decried the same thing. He said, "O Master what have you done. From now on the clarinets of political mediocrity and the drum beats of I don’t know what." This vast patriotism was going to drown out all the literary writing that he did.
RB: So people were blaming him for dying young?
FG: No, he was turned into Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. And so when you write about him… and this is what is really cool; this is what really becomes the big challenge about trying to turn him into fiction. You look at Latin American fiction–there is no Martí in any Latin American novel. There are a bunch of reasons for that, but you go back and look at the memories of the people who knew Martí [and] you even see them editing their memories. Everyone begins to try to conform to this idea of a secular saint. And so now 110 years later–130 if you go back to when he was in Guatemala–there is nothing. There is so little for somebody who wants to know what his life was really like. It’s lost.
RB: No one has done one of those big, sprawling, well-documented biographies?
FG: Now? It could never be done. Partly because it’s not part of the Latin American tradition. In America or Europe, biographers and historians for someone of Martí’s stature would have left no stone unturned. In Latin America, it’s the opposite. There are only these ridiculously corny hagiographies. Which The Divine Husband makes fun of a lot and [also] incorporates that tone. And the book is about that–how hagiography gets formed. So when you go into Martí’s life you begin to see there are just these shards here and there–a letter, the things he wrote in his journals. And you see that even down to this day there are people who are officially in charge of his image.
RB: Who would that be?
FG: People at the Institute for Martí Studies in Havana. And certain people in Miami whose names you wouldn’t recognize. But they are big Martí [adopts deep radio announcer voice] "experts in the Cuban community." All about keeping this puritanical, saint-like, living statue intact.
RB: Borges has at least four or five full-bodied biographies [including a very recent one by Edwin Williamson].
FG: Things have changed. García Marquez will get the full biographic treatment too. But it’s much more difficult for earlier figures in Latin America.
RB: That seems strange to me that in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in a time of festering nationalism–cultural and otherwise–on the upswing that people wouldn’t just decide that, okay, time to reaffirm their histories. And thus, a serious biography of Jose Martí.
FG: It’s partly because Martí is such a unique figure. He has this saint-like status. It’s also because he moved around so much; most Cuban biographers don’t have the resources to go everywhere Martí went. Another reason you don’t have a lot of exploration of Jose Martí, even in Latin American fiction [is that] you don’t have a really good novel anywhere that tries to take Martí–because that would mean for a Latin American to have to understand what it was for Martí to spend those fifteen years in New York City, being kind of the first U.S. Latino writer. Then you go to Guatemala. Martí was only there a year and a half. I’m down there all these years later, and one day this Cuban girl from the island of Cuba who was sent over to be in charge of a photographic archive–she’s an expert in nineteenth-century photographs–she comes up to me and says, "I met this woman who claims that she is the descendant of Martí’s love child with La Niña de Guatemala." I don’t believe that. You get your own bullshit detector, and so I don’t believe that for a second. But somebody is going around saying that. And then one day I hear Mario Montefiore Toledo, who at that point was Guatemala’s most revered writer. At the time he was ninety-three or something. He’s still writing a weekly column in the best paper. He’s got a PhD. He’s a very serious guy. He was in exile for many years, returning after the signing of the peace accords. And someone tells me they had heard him tell a story at the dinner of the home of the owner of the best newspaper in Guatemala. I go to talk with him. He says, "Yes, my grandmother knew Martí." It makes perfect sense. He’s ninety-three now. And he said that "when Martí came to Guatemala they had never seen anyone like him. He was just so dazzling and charming and brilliant." And, according to this guy, he [Martí] was engaged to be married but he was apparently not that in love with the woman with whom he was engaged. And he was loose in this city where all the woman adored him. And he [Toledo] said, "My grandmother’s best friend had an affair with Martí and she was married." Here the bullshit detector told you it was true. You just believed him. It was his grandmother and he is from an old Guatemalan family. They don’t make stuff like that up. Suddenly this window opens. I have never heard anything like this in any biography. No biographer knows this story. All the official biographies say, "In his relationship with La Niña de Guatemala he was chaste and honorable as he always was. And he offered her only his fraternal love." Nobody knows what really happened, right?
RB: Is your rendering of Martí controversial?
FG: [With] the old priests, the old Druids. Modern people don’t have a problem.
RB: The people who are keeping the flame alive?
FG: They’ll probably be pissed. I knew then that it was true. I spent years going, "How do you approach this?" Everything about his love life can’t be known. I said, "There is all this evidence, especially with the illegitimate daughter in New York." And when he [Toledo] told me that, I said, "This is the way Latin American reality so often is." So much of the best historical data, because of underdevelopment, because we don’t have biographers running around with six-figure book contracts going from country to country to dig into everything, these stories just sit in family closets and are passed down from generation to generation and eventually die out. That was just great to have that one living piece of evidence. This man who told me of this died a year or two later. And that story is gone now.
RB: Well, no it’s not.
FG: I got to hear it and that’s kind of where Maria de las Nieves came from–if I can make a central point. So when I looked at all this stuff, originally I thought I was going to write what really happened between and Martí and La Niña de Guatemala, what really happened to Martí and the boardinghouse owner.
RB: You thought you were going to? You thought you would find out?
FG: Yeah. Oh, I could imagine it, if I wanted to. But then I said, "That would be kind of cheesy. What’s the historical truth? You want to respect the most important truths and the most important truths everyone felt compelled to keep secret and that’s kind of beautiful." Plus, I wanted to have more freedom. And eventually Maria de las Nieves gets imagined as a kind of parallel La Niña de Guatemala. Like a fictional woman who parallels [the life] in which you can explore the kind of effect Martí had on the girl. And the way that girl might have perceived Martí.
RB: And then you tease the reader with whether she is going tell her friend Paquita. Or tell the story to her own daughter.
FG: Because everyone is so curious. Everyone wanted to know who the child is and who the second child is. Maria de las Nieves. And when I said she had taken on a life of her own, the best example of that is when she started to do what the historical woman did, which is she begins to lie about what went on between her and Martí. So she lied to me, the author. The shipboard triangulation–give me a break. She is making up these crazy stories to cover the patrimony of her second child. Which is what they all did. She wants to preserve the statue. She feels like she is one of those women who has to protect the great God of the Americas.
RB: Is Martí taught in Latin America?
FG: A really good thing is… his son is actually referred to as "the son of the statue." In that great movie Memories of Underdevelopment, or one of those movies where you see a Cuban factory turning out endless busts of Martí. It’s a running joke. When I taught a weeklong workshop in narrative journalism at García Marquez’s school in Cartagena [Columbia], one of the things I did was introduce to young Latin American newspaper guys from all over Martí’s newspaper writings. And they were blown away. But what’s cool is up here in the U.S., identity politics and cultural studies gets blamed for a lot things [laughs]. But it does some good things, and one thing it has done is revive a lot of interest in Martí as a writer from Latin America living in the U.S.
RB: Does the publication of Selected Writings signal anything?
FG: I hope it is starting. Now it’s all this academic stuff. There have been some good academic studies really focusing on Martí’s newspaper writing, his things about New York. And Esther Allen, who is my buddy, and I have a dream to–as the Library of America just did with [Isaac Bashevis] Singer, translated him from Yiddish–someday get a volume of Martí’s New York writings. They are an American classic. They should be seen that way.
RB: That would depend on a more enlightened definition of "American."
FG: I was at the Chicago book convention [ABA], and I am not going to name names, but this is how people are in New York. I met some newspaper editors from New York and was introduced to this guy who runs a line of biographies, short biographies. I was making small talk and I say, "You really ought to do one of those biographies of Jose Martí." I was thinking that Cabrera Infante should write it. Because he writes so brilliantly about Martí. He’s a Martí maniac like me. And the guy turns up his nose, "Martí is not of the stature to merit a biography."
RB: Did you get angry?
FG: I was stunned. I just went [in a high pitched voice], "Yes, he is."
RB: [Both laugh]
FG: The combination of arrogance and ignorance was unbelievable. What would a gentleman have said? A gentleman would have said, "I don’t know that much about Martí. Tell me why he merits a biography?" And that’s the thing that bedevils Martí. But we are making progress. Esther’s book is a good beginning. And this novel is one more way. And there is other stuff I have heard about.
RB: How about a movie with Andy García playing Martí.
FG: Gael García. He’s even got the big forehead. And he’s young enough. Andy García is too old now. Martí was only forty-three when he died.
RB: I had talked to Cabrera Infante when his anthology Mea Culpa came out and he had a great remembrance of Jose Raul Capablanca’s [the great Cuban world chess champion] funeral and how he had wanted to make a movie about Capablanca’s life with García.
FG: Oh, he’s great character.
RB: I was convinced that it would be easy. But as they say, that’s Hollywood.
FG: The rest of the country is interested [in Martí]. It’s kind of a New York problem.
RB: On your book tour, do you have any sense of the interest level in Martí?
FG: The guy who reviewed the book in the LA Times, Tom Miller, knew about Martí because I think he is writing a book on Martí. That was the one review we had gotten where there was an awareness of Martí. And also Claire Messud. But she did her homework. She even knew who Justo Rufino Barrios was. That’s a serious reviewer who goes and does that.
RB: I read Michael Dirda’s review and thought it was too narrowly framed, and the New York Times review was just ignorant.
FG: That was like getting smeared with Paul Wolfowitz’s comb [both laugh]. That guy didn’t have a clue who Martí was, it seemed.
RB: He didn’t have a clue what the book was about, I thought.
FG: He didn’t know it was set in Guatemala–which anyone with a bit of research would know.
RB: I wonder how many Americans care or will be put off by their perceived obscurity of this subject matter?
FG: Tons care. The secret to this book, which I have seen so far, is–because it has to work as work of literature–about the emotions finally. And that’s why we are getting this incredible response–and I am not plugging myself. I am just saying, we’ve seen that all these women who own independent bookstores… you should see the stuff they write about the book.
RB: I was reading The Divine Husband in a waiting room and a nurse walked by and asked me what I was reading and then said that she would buy the book just because of the cover.
FG: That’s so great. And they [bookstore owners] just love Maria de las Nieves, and they get into the emotions of the story, and women seem to identify with Maria de las Nieves.
RB: So it’s not being ghettoized as a Latino story.
FG: I hope not. And then I think for people who are interested in meta-literary themes–like [chuckles] art and life and stuff like that, which I am–there’s a lot of that in the book. It’s a bit of a novel about what stories mean and the way they get made. But the emotional heart of the book is, I think, extremely universal. It really tries to focus on Martí’s emotional life–which [he] tried to hold to the highest moral standards, but like any human ran into all kinds of problems [laughs]. His life was so movingly full of anguish and torment. He so wanted to be happy. And he prized happiness so much. And it was so elusive. He also loved suffering. Which makes him a great universal character. Maria de las Nieves is the emotional heart of the book, and Mack is another kind of emotional volcano. And so you enter into the emotions of the book. It shouldn’t matter whether you care about Latin America. But it’s certainly not an easy book. I have to be generous with reviewers too. I was talking to this guy on the radio yesterday, who was reviewing the book in Pittsburgh. He asked incredibly bright questions. And he said, "What do you think? Can reviewers get it?" People who own bookstores or women who read it can live in the book and enjoy it and really get into its emotional life. They are not faced with the problem of having to sum it up on a three-day deadline, in five hundred words. So I have to give those guys a break too. They probably can’t get it.
RB: So if you try to plug this book into the machine that functions in the six-week window of opportunity to make a book a best-seller, the best chance it has of [longer] life is the readers, not the reviewers or agents of publicity.
FG: Yeah, it’s people who read and hopefully a couple of good, smart reviews by people like Claire Messud. But yeah, word of mouth is exactly right.
RB: This is a book you lived in and now you are not living in it anymore. So that’s part of what I was looking for when I asked you how you feel.
FG: I loved living in this book, but one of the reasons this book has a kind of dreamlike, emotional intensity–it’s full of [makes woooo sound]. Those were really strange years during which I wrote it. I did live in the book. Especially the last four years leading up to ending it. [They] were really strange years because I was single, my father was taken–not to get maudlin–my father’s long decline was like an opera. Where the person dies and gets up and does another aria and dies and gets up and does another aria.
RB: Like James Brown, when he performs his song, "Please, Please, Please."
FG: It just went on forever. And it was four years of that, a strain. I started to teach for the first time, one semester a year. And everything piled up unbelievably. And 9/11 happened. So much stuff, and I had gotten this crazy head that if I wasn’t going to be… It was perfect for writing a book where so many characters are personally drawn to ideas of asceticism and self sacrifice constantly betraying them.
FG: I was constantly telling myself, I can’t be by my father’s bed. Then I was really not allowed to have fun and had to work on my book every free moment and not do anything else. Otherwise, I would have to go back to Boston. I felt very guilty about not being able to be around my father. Of course, I couldn’t. I don’t live here. And also my friends would joke and say, "You only look for these relationships that can’t possibly work because your real woman is your book. It’s that kind of book." And in a way that was right. I had that kind of emotional immersion in it. And so it feels healthy now to be gone from it. I love it and I’m proud of it, but I am ready to go on. I am engaged to be married [laughs].
FG: Immediately, as soon as it was done, I met my dream girl and everything. I owe, and I am going to do it, this short book on the Bishop Gerardi murder case, a work of journalism.
RB: I was first made aware of you through your journalism–the reports in Harper’s from Panama and Nicaragua. I’ve reread the them recently and they’re still on point and fresh. Any chance of a volume of collected nonfiction?
FG: Some day, if I get well-known enough–then there might be some interest. But the Bishop Gerardi case is an incredible case which I have been working on for six years now.
RB: You work with great deliberation, dedication, and focus.
FG: [both laugh] I work slow.
RB: You’re not cranking stuff out.
FG: I want to do a short novel, though. That would just be fun, you know.
RB: You say you want to, but can you?
FG: You mean, they’ll grow? I have a bunch of silly ideas that make me laugh.
RB: How about short stories? That’s how you started out.
FG: All my short stories tend to grow into novels anyway. So I am thinking that to do a short novel is like doing a short story.
RB: Is it too early to have a clear picture of what you’ll be doing in a couple of years?
FG: I’d like to be really working on an another novel. And have a kid and be living somewhere nice. I don’t know if we’ll stay in New York [Brooklyn]. It would be fun to spend a couple of years in Spain. Maybe some time back in Mexico.
RB: How is Mexico City these days?
FG: It’s fantastic. I love it so much. It’s a place that has… Cities have their golden moments, and Mexico always has a golden age. It’s in one of its really great golden ages right now.
RB: Why do you think?
FG: There’s so much energy. It’s a fun city–there is so much going on and so much creative energy; I think it’s the best city in Americas. It’s busy, it’s frantic. It’s always churning. But it’s full of incredible people and people doing incredible things. People love living there. It’s one of those cities where everyone feels privileged to be there. People who could live anywhere else. Like García Marquez or these actors, like Gael García and Diego Luna and these movie directors. They go, "No, no I wouldn’t live anywhere else. This is the place." I miss it everyday.
RB: It’s a very big city. Is there a cultural center? Where artists hang out?
FG: There are neighborhoods and groups of friends. It’s a small city in so many ways. That’s what’s amazing about it. It’s enormous. It always surprises you. There is always one street you have never been on and neighborhoods you’ve never seen. And yet in a way, it’s the product of something negative about Mexico City, I admit it–the wide disparity between educated people with money and people who live very poor lives. We always joke that once you get around people who write and do stuff like that it does seem like everybody knows everybody [laughs]. And the world can seem very small–there is something about Mexico City that it seems small and huge at the same time.
RB: I was looking your book in the context of a U.S. readership, but it has great chance of being read around the world.
FG: I hope so.
RB: Is there a Spanish version?
FG: We are going to have a really cool translation. In the past they have been pitched towards Spain. This time, Gabriel García’s son Gonzalo, who edits his father’s books and used to have his own editorial imprint, wants to get back into it again and he is a good friend. He loved the book and he told me the translation has to be American–American Spanish–and be careful with the different accents. And I said, "You edit it." So he is going to be the freelance editor of the translation. He’ll do a great job. The Spanish of Spain to a Latin American ear drives you crazy. It’s like when Gael García had to act in this movie for [Pedro] Almodovar–they didn’t understand. To a Mexican, the way the Spanish speak–they might as well be talking Flemish [laughs]. The Spanish translation of Ordinary Seaman sounds like all those sailors come from Madrid and Barcelona.
RB: Speaking of movies, has anyone talked about anything you’ve written being made into a movie?
FG: Sometimes. Things have been optioned. Low budget, but nothing ever happens. Some guy optioned Ordinary Seaman and then he sent me the script and he had Esteban falling in love with a white Cooper-Union Student instead of Juaquina. I probably should have kept my mouth shut, but I told him that was pretty idiotic. And so he dropped it. I have friend who is a cinematographer on really big movies and he wants to direct. It’s too early for this one.
RB: The Ordinary Seaman would be inexpensive. It’s a set piece.
FG: Get a boat in a rotted old harbor somewhere in a Latino barrio and it would be easy, yeah. That’d be cool. It would be great to do it with a friend.
RB: Wouldn’t that be very distracting from writing?
FG: I wouldn’t mind a break at some point. I wouldn’t make a living out of it.
RB: You do it to–
FG: To have fun [laughs].
RB: Let’s talk again after the paperback.
FG: See if I’m still standing [laughs]. Thank you.
RB: Well, good.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing