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Interview with Andrés Barba

Spanish author Andrés Barba’s books are widely praised by great writers around the world, with Nobel laurate Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance, saying “he has his own intentional world perfectly contained and a literary gift that belies his age”.

Barba feels he has to really push himself to find that “intentional world” and is in a constant state of experimentation as a writer.

“I think I’m more a writer who needs to play. My approach is always like a playful approach, so I’m always trying new things all the time,” he said, ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.

One of the biggest challenges as a writer is to find the right tone for a book, he said, and some authors are always striving to break new ground. He compares the writers Scott F. Fitzgerald and Henry James in this regard and he sees Fitzgerald as someone who does not tend to experiment but has a clear style and a very defined tone, and “he just looks for the proper subjects for his own tone. So rather than looking for subjects that he is interested in, he looked for studies that fits the tone he is writing in.”

For Fitzgerald, the books he wrote when he was 40 read like the books he wrote when he was 18, he said, while Henry James, on the other hand, was someone who was always trying to look for a new style or the proper style for the book he was writing.

“You take the very first books and the last books, they’re so different. I put myself in that category, of a writer who is trying to move to a different territory all the time.”

As a writer he is always searching for a eureka moment when a concept clicks in his mind, when he realises he has found that special thing he was searching for.

“The beautiful thing about writing is that there is a moment in which you discover something you want to tell. There is a story that is appealing for you. But you have to search for the structure that is needed to tell the story properly,” he said. “Searching for the structure for me is the most beautiful thing in writing. You just try things here, you try things there, till the moment when you find the place that everything is working. That is the most beautiful moment for me when I’m writing.”

For Barba the biggest danger for a writer is that as some point in their career they “professionalise” their writing.

“You become a ‘professional’ writer. That is probably the worst thing that can happen, ever. I mean you become someone who can write properly, any kind of story, and it is the thing that you do well, and it happens with every job. And it could happen also with literature,” he said. “But the thing is in order to be a good writer, and in order to enjoy your writing all the time, you have to push yourself to territories that you don’t know that well all the time. It is the only way to do it. To not get bored.”

When Barba’s father died a few years ago he felt the need to write something about it “but I hated at the same time the idea of using all the tricks, the writer’s tricks, just to get emotional for the reader. It was torturing because I’m a writer and the only thing that I can do with all this pain and the suffering is just to make literature out of it. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be the professional writer talking about the death of his father.”

His solution was to tackle the death of his father as his first poetry project, so in that way he felt he could avoid writing “professionally” about such a personal topic.

“So that way made me safe in a way to write about that particular subject, one that was very touching for me,” he said.

When a writer stays in very familiar terrain it can get boring for them, and it is very obvious to a reader when they read a writer who had become bored with their own work, he said.

“When you’re reading the story you can perceive that there is something, like sweat, on the book. And you can feel that and I hate when I feel that as a reader,” he said.

As a writer, if he ever gets bored of the story he is writing that sets off alarm bells.

“That’s like the red light. That’s the perfect red light – you have to stop writing right now,” he said.

You can always find a way to put yourself in a new situation to renew your own writing, he said.

“You have to read a lot. You have to keep your mind busy trying to look for new forms of writing all the time. You have to keep yourself curious about new writers, different types of writing, and this is a type of love,” he said. “I mean you can just get comfortable in love, you know, in the house, or in the life, or you can try to push yourself a little bit further to see what else is there.”

Barba is also a prolific literary translator, and he says that working closely with texts written by other authors also helps him see fresh perspectives and appreciate different styles.

As a writer he keeps stimulated by never knowing where he is going with a project. With A Luminous Republic (published in China by Imaginist, translated by Cai Xuedi) he set out to write a kind of a dystopian book on childhood and how society made up the truth after a traumatic situation occurred.

“And when I was finishing the book, I realised that instead of a dystopian book it was a utopian book, an anarchist utopia based on a new sense of civilisation,” he said. “I had this idea in my mind of a bunch of wild kids and a society that was trying to control something that makes them scared. But at the very end this community turned out to be like a void. Kind of a void that not even myself knew what it meant.”

The book ultimately had the shadow of Joseph Conrad, he said, as in the end it was not clear who was civilised and who was the savage.

For his novel Such Small Hands (published in China by Imaginist, translated by Tong Yaxing and Liu Runqiu), he got the inspiration from a real event that happened in a Brazilian orphanage in the 1970s, where some very young girls strangled another orphan and played with the corpse as if it were a doll for a week. He grappled to write a book along this storyline but wanted to steer clear of the standard sinister approach to the material.

“After a month trying to work out the story, I realised that it was actually a love story. It was a love story, and it was also kind of a Paradise Lost story, too.”

Exploring the perception of happiness by comparing our state to other people’s states, he realised that these girls had all of a sudden discovered they were an unhappy community because a happy person had arrived in their midst, the very notion Paradise Lost.

From that point on he realised he had a story that would ultimately become “a hate story and a love story.”

“It would be awful if I knew from the first second what I was going to say,” he said. “I think writing is a process in which you discover things and they’re like a secret from your own self, and they’re like part of your own fears.”

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