Interview with Francisco Goldman Whit Coppedge One on One

portrait Interview with Francisco Goldman

interviewed by Whit Coppedge

Published in Issue No. 36 ~ May, 2000

Francisco Goldman’s short fiction and journalism have been published
in Harper’s, Esquire, The New York Times Sunday Magazine,
The New Yorker, Outside, Playboy, Buzz, and
Mas. His first novel The
Long Night of White Chickens
won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First
The Ordinary Seaman
was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin International
Literary Prize and was named one of the Hungry Mind One Hundred Books
of the Century. Both novels were PEN/Faulkner finalists. He spoke via
email from Mexico City.

Whit Coppedge: You are known as both a journalist and a fiction writer. Did one spring
the other or have you always been drawn to both?

Francisco Goldman: Well, I really don’t consider myself anything but a very occasional journalist.
In twenty years I’ve written maybe 12 pieces of journalism, and only about 2
pieces in the last decade. But because most of these were written from inside
a war setting, and a very controversial and divisive one – the war in Central
America in the ’80s – this tag has sort of stuck to me in the United States.
In other countries, there is nothing at all remarkable about a fiction writer
working as a journalist. This is especially true of Latin America, where Garcia
Marquez (who even owns a newsmagazine), Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortazar among
others have written, or wrote, important political journalism.

WC: How did you come to write journalism in the first place?

FG: I was living in NYC and intending to go to MFA school. This was about 1979.
I hadn’t been back to Guatemala since 1975, when I was in college, and drove
down from Ann Arbor with a bunch of friends. When I arrived in Guatemala my
Tio Hugo said, “Are you crazy? Don’t you know there’s a war on? The police station
in that pueblo (where our cottage was) was over-run by guerrillas two weeks
ago.” So I moved into my Uncle’s house, living in my cousin’s room – he was
away at college. While there, I worked at my stories. These were – as were all
my stories at that time – ethnically neutral, somewhat urban and surreal. I
wanted a fictional world utterly free of national, ethnic, realist sign-posts
or specific identity of any kind.

I sent my stories up to MFA programs, and got in, but from Guatemala I’d also
sent a story to Rust Hills at Esquire. He published one, and then another,
and before I knew it, an editor there was asking me if I wanted to try my hand
at non-fiction. I wanted to go back to Guatemala and write a piece about what
was happening there. I was in my twenties, and the two parts of the world I
am from -the US and Central America – were essentially at war with each other.
I wasn’t going to miss that – if only for the adventure of it. But of course
there was much more than that behind it. Writerly ambition was the real motive.

Throughout those years I did journalism. Mainly for Harper’s. I’d stopped
writing short-stories. I knew I could survive on as few as two journalistic
pieces a year.

WC: Have you seen a change in your non-fiction since the early days?

FG: I was a pretty mediocre journalist then. I think only in the last few years
have I written a couple of decent pieces – especially the one I did on the Bishop
Gerardi murder for the New Yorker last year. Why is that piece better?
Because I cared so much about it, and worked so hard at it, and maybe I’m a
little smarter, and I think because my narrative techniques, at least, are surer
now. Garcia Marquez is always saying that journalism – he means narrative journalism
– is just another branch of literature, and he’s completely right of course.

WC: Even journalism in the States?

FG:Journalism deserves its horrible reputation in the US because
of the big media. Anyone who worked as a journalist in Central America
in the ’80s saw up close how dishonest and craven the big media places,
print and visual, could be. For example, the Times and the news magazines
had some decent people, but they often caved to editorial pressure and
censorship. (Mark danner documents much of this in his book El Mozote.)
No one in the mainstream media would acknowledge or fully report the army’s
campaign of genocide in Guatemala until finally the war was over, nobody
cared anymore, and the UN-sponsored truth commision documented it (and
officially charged genocide). It was a real, a huge education in
certain sorry truths about what passes for information in the USA. Journalists
in such situations can rarely claim to really have the “truth,” but it’s
a crime, when so much life and death is on the line, not to give everything
you have in the attempt to be fully honest.

WC: Your fiction and journalism appear to have been, so far, closely tied.
Are there stories you feel you can only tell through fiction? Are there itches
that non-fiction can’t scratch?

FG: Well again, I don’t agree with that characterization of what I do. Central
America is an essential place to me. In the 1980s and earlier, the area found
itself plunged into a cataclysmic war and a human moral disaster. Needless to
say, there can hardly be any Central American whose life wasn’t affected by
that war. “Journalism” tends to imply something visited, exotic – distanced
by the role of “objective reporter” – and a “home” community that gets reported
back to. Guatemala is not an exotic place to me; it is one of my homes. So what
happened there does not belong to “journalism” but to my sense of life and the
history of what I myself and all Guatemalans have lived through.

My first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, was an interrogation,
through story-telling, of all the ways we try to figure out and express “the
truth” – about nation, family, self, identity, love, politics, etc. In the wars
in Central America, journalism provided a central example, or metaphor. I realized
the war wasn’t just over bodies and bullets but over words, over which description
of the events and the reasons for those events would carry the day, not just
locally but abroad in the US and elsewhere.

WC: Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet wrote an essay for Salon about two
years ago, describing his experiences feeling stereotyped in the United States
as a Latino writer, especially in the negative reactions to his work ostensibly
brought about by the lack of magical realism. Have you had any similar experiences
where you thought your work was being viewed with a checklist, either from a
Latino or a Jewish standpoint?

FG: I’ve been happy with the way critics and readers have received my books.
There really hasn’t been much of a problem; much more to feel grateful and relieved
about. When there has been a “checklist” problem, as you say, it has more to
do with political correctness and ethnic-stereotyping of that sort. People who
think that because there are Central Americans in my book the book must be more
about “being Latino” or “politics” rather than about all the things the novel
is really about, including its manner of telling itself (style, form, genres,
etc). Every time I publish a book in the US – ha ha, well, I’ve only done it
twice – I end up inwardly chanting: Thank God for female reviewers and readers!
Not that male reviewers and readers haven’t often been exceptionally kind or
perceptive, but on the whole, it’s been women who really seem to get close to
the emotional heart of my fiction. Sometimes, and this is probably due to the
overheated political-ethnic atmosphere in some US university literary circles,
male reviewers come at you with a suffocated defensiveness – blind-folded, wearing
ear-plugs, their fists up. Like this one reviewer who, thinking himself able
to divine my single-minded “intention,” declared my . The Ordinary Seaman‘s
sole purpose to be that of exposing injustice in the maritime trade. He threw
idiotic and trendy academic terms like “victimology” at me and accused me of
making all brown characters good and white ones bad. This was a pernicious lie,
in that of only three white characters, one, the Ship Visitor, was undoubtedly
the only unequivocally “good” character in the whole book, and some of the “brown”
characters were not nice muchachos. Besides, looking at the novel in that way
– good characters versus bad ones – is completely puerile anyway. But this is
boring. I just mention him to show you the kind of person that is out there.

But prescriptions are the worst: writers and critics or groups of these who
insist at any given time that there is only one right or “hot” way to write
a novel. (Garcia Marquez’s “magic realism” was in fact a defiant response to
all the people telling him that he had to write socially responsible and denunciatory

WC: You split your time between Mexico City and New York. Apart from the pragmatic
reasons for living in both places, do you see a distinct effect on your writing
done in each city? Do you have other favorite places to write?

FG: I so recently wrote an essay (for a Latin American Internet
site called on this same subject – living in Mexico City
and NYC. Everybody knows New York can be a crushingly hard place to live.
Sometimes I wonder why I try at all. Its expensive, tiring, lonely, alienating,
and if you’re a writer you have all the nattering of the publishing and
media worlds right there in your face all the time. Of course, there’s
lots I love about it, things I can’t imagine foregoing forever –
most of all the language(s) and the stories, there all around you. Over
the last decade especially NYC has become a great Latin American city
too (and a Pakistani one, and an Indian one, and an everything else one).
Like anyone I have my own private New York City. (I especially wrote about
that city in The Ordinary Seaman, and I’m sure I will again.)

But NYC is an incredibly difficult place to begin a novel; it is impossible
for me to establish that focus and quiet inside myself there. So I am lucky
to have a country house – which just happens to be in the middle of one of the
most over-populated, polluted and crime-riddled, most incomprehensible cities
on earth. My “country house” is the vast, roomy, practically unfurnished apartment
I have rented for the last three years in la Colonia Condesa, in Mexico’s Distrito
Federal. Last April I packed up a suitcase and several thousand versions of
page one of my novel, and took off for Mexico, and mostly I’ve been here since.

Mexico City is made up of countless neighborhoods, most so different from one
another that you almost feel like you should have to go through customs when
you cross into one. And the day-time traffic can make a trip from Condesa to
Coyoacan last longer than a flight from LaGuardia to Manitoba anyway. My neighborhood
is beautiful. It is full of parks and trees and brittle century-old mansions
and outdoor cafes and restaurants and bookstores, and though the neighborhood
has become kind of obnoxiously trendy, there are still plenty of great old-fashioned
cantinas and so on. I hardly ever leave this neighborhood in the day (except
on Sundays). A typical work day here is 10 to 2 then 5 to 8. If I don’t indulge
in the local habit of three-hour highly social lunches before heading back to
work, my work day feels like two. At eight, when everyone is getting out from
their second work session and ready to go out, so am I. Sometimes I just take
a book or some notes to the local cantina and am perfectly happy if I don’t
run into anyone at all. So days just last longer here.

WC: Tell me more about Mexico City.

FG: Mexico City is in many ways an indefensible place, but people fall in love
with it. They come here and just can’t get themselves to go back home. It has
a charisma unique to itself. I like that its a neutral place for me, a place
I don’t especially intend to write about, a place where I barely follow the
news, situated half way between the two essential places for me: Guatemala and
USA. Of course, there is much to detest about the place, as there is about any
place. But many of the things that a North American newcomer might find offensive
are things that I’ve had to learn to live with to an even more intense degree
in other places – Guatemala City, obviously, but even in NYC.

Mexico City/La Gran Tenochtitlan has a very particular energy. Something you
can feel coming up from the pavement under your feet and through the walls and
which makes it a good place to work on a book. I don’t want to be pretentious
about this, but partly I mean the famous surrealism or other-worldliness of
Mexico City and layered Mexican Time. The surrealism (starting here, I am quoting
from my essay) I will describe this way: I used to, as a discipline, take long
walks in this city, and I wouldn’t turn back until I had seen something that
astonished me. A found image of a character particular to Mexico City. I’m sure
anyone who has lived here knows what I mean: the Manuel Alvarez Bravo images
and moments that still proliferate all around us here. A beauty parlor on Calle
Durango at four in the morning, the lights on through the curtains and bolero
music coming from inside, and finding a wedge in the curtain to peek through,
you see three middle-aged female beauticians, tequila bottles on the floor,
getting plastered together…. Those multi-liter bottles that purified drinking
water gets delivered in, empty and lined up on a sidewalk next to a delivery
truck, and one of the workers picking those bottles up and hurling them up into
the air one at a time to the worker crouched atop the back of the truck: the
way each bottle, tossed high into the air, fills for a moment with the spectacular
bleeding colors of the smog-abetted sunset sky before dropping perfectly into
the other’s hands…. This one, just the other day: a black Volkswagen bug from
a driver’s education school circling La Glorieta Citlatlepetl, going around
and around, the grim-faced instructor seated on the right, and behind the wheel,
the student just leaning to drive, who was a man of about eighty, his silver
hair elegantly slicked back, wearing a necktie, starched white shirt and dark
suit for the occasion.

WC: How are your thoughts on the state of the novel in Latin America?

FG: It is thrilling to see how many different kinds of novels are being written
in Latin America right now. In Mexico alone this year we’ve had three very celebrated
novels that could not be more different from one another. Daniel Sada’s Porque
Parece Mentira, La Verdad Nunca Se Sabe
(Because it seems like a lie, you
can never know the truth) is an almost Joycean epic of the Mexican desert north,
and a delirious re-invention of several Mexican and Latin American novelistic
traditions. Jorge Volpi’s En Busca de Klingsor is about Nazi nuclear
scientists in World War II – imagine the mood and intellect of The Garden
of Forking Paths
somehow grown into a beautiful, dark, lively, suspenseful
novel – which is becoming an international hit. Also brilliant, and celebrated
in Spain, is a novel published this year by a young Cuban living in Mexico,
my close friend Jose Manuel Prieto. His novel, titled Livadia in Spanish
is so eccentrically wonderful that I won’t even try to describe it. (Grove Atlantic
brings it out this year as Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire.)

WC: Let’s talk about translations. Have you ever been directly involved with
any of the Spanish translations of your novels? I’ve heard complaints of characters
in others’ novels sounding more European/Castillian than American – something
along the lines of all the roughnecks in Blood Meridian spouting Cockney.

FG: Yes, everybody talks like they’re from Madrid. They say horrible things
like “hilipoyas” (I don’t even know how they spell it) and “hostia” and “cago
en la leche” instead of pendejo, pinche, chinga tu madre and so on. Still, I
was fairly lucky I’m told – though I’ve never been able to immerse myself in
it for more than a few pages without feeling deeply estranged (my words but
not my words) – in the translation of Long Night. In part, I was able
to control the translation somewhat through the rhythm of my English, meant
to capture spoken-Guatemalan rhythms, and the punctuation of Guatemalan colloquialisms
– or so I was told. Apparently that translator was sensitive to that. But the
Spanish translation for The Ordinary Seaman was a disaster (different
translator). In English, I found I had to render many different kinds of spoken
Spanish into English “equivalent” – Nicaraguan, Mexican (Chilangan especially),
Cuban, Dominican, Honduran – and this was all flattened into Madrid Castillian.
Not only that, small editing changes were made to better suit the extremely
insecure and strenuously European Spanish-sensibility..

WC: Can you give me an example?

FG: For example, at one point, having walked into a bar filled with types of
similar background as himself, the Ship Visitor finds himself fleetingly and
ruefully reflecting on the, to him, by now tedious yet provoking term “white
boy,” its easy disparagements, which he exasperatedly and perhaps self-justifyingly
rejects. In Spanish, this was changed to “white collar,” as if I meant a fraught
relation to just class instead of race. Imagine people walking into a bar full
of white faces in totally race-conscious NYC and thinking “white collar!”. Perhaps
to the Spanish sensibility it seemed completely unbelievable that anyone could
feel anything but completely and unambiguously complacent about “white.” I can’t
say for sure why the translator did that, but it showed quite a gap in hemispheric
comprehension of each others’ vernacular, to say nothing of culture, and a lot
of presumption, whether ideological or what.

WC: Any hopes of addressing this disaster of translation?

FG: I’ve been talking to some Mexico-based publishers who would like to re-translate
and re-publish Ordinary Seaman, so we’ll see. Translation is still a
young art here in Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas. Almost all the publishing
money comes from Spain. Slowly, like everything else over here, it is changing
– in the case of publishing I think for the better.

Some Spaniards consider themselves the guardians of the purity of the Spanish
language, against the transgressions of the Latin Americans and the horrors
of “Spanglish.” (At a book fair in Miami I once heard Spanish Nobel Laureate
J.Camilo Cela haughtily dismiss our Norteamericano Latino innovations with what
he considered an exemplary pun: “Deliverando grocerias.”) I have some literary
friends in Mexico who read the dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy for laughs
(though I wouldn’t be able to say exactly what it is that they find funny about
it). Garcia Marquez has picked some amusing and much publicized arguments with
them in recent years over all this. Language is alive and ever evolving, of
course, and Spanish “literary” language, – see the Nicaraguan Dario and the
other modernist poets of the last turning-of-the-century – has continually been
revived and replenished by the Latin Americans. One well known writer here recently
remarked that Jorge Volpi’s book is the kind of novel Spaniards like – urbane,
high-concept, very much a story, with a sophisticated European subject (Nazi
nuclear scientists, etc) – but that it is the novel’s language – surprising,
lush, alive, unmannered – that really marks it as a Latin American novel. The
language more than redeems the book from seeming (however imaginatively) formulaic.

WC: Could you talk a little about John Sayles and Men With Guns? The
film cites The Long Night of White Chickens as its inspiration (the character
Dr. Nelson Arrau briefly mentioned), but it seems to be more directly tied to
stories of the uncle you mention in your introduction to Matthew in the
Pocket Canon series.

FG: Well, yes, you’re right – the character in John Sayle’s movie was “inspired”
by the story of my real life Tio Beto. But I guess Sayles was originally taken
enough by the anecdotes about Dr. Arrau in Long Night to begin imagining
a whole movie of his own around them. We’ve known each other a bit for years
because my ex-college roommate and his then girlfriend – now wife – (John Tintori
and Mary Cybulski) have both worked on many Sayles films as editor, script supervisor,
and in other capacities. Over the years they’ve become very good friends. One
day Sayles phoned me up and asked if I minded if he went ahead and developed
a movie somewhat based on that character of the doctor in Long Night.
I think his exact words were, “Do you mind if I make a movie about the uncle
in your book,” and I said sure, go ahead. We talked about the real life Dr.
Beto, and that was that. I didn’t get paid anything of course – it figures that
a story of mine would become attached to the lowest budget movie in history
– but he was kind enough to credit it. Of course, the tone of the movie, the
vision, the way the story is told – all of that is entirely and strongly John’s
and has very little in common with The Long Night.

WC: Let’s end with the future. What are you working on now? What does the near
future hold for you?

FG: Though none of these will necessarily play big roles in the final draft
of the novel I’m working on now, the idea evolved from two sources: Jose Marti’s
poem – perhaps the most famous love poem in Latin America – “La Niña
de Guatemala,” inspired by a love affair he had during his one year in Guatemala.
He goes on from Guatemala to spend most of the next two decades in NYC before
dying in Cuba in the war against the Spanish. The other source was the enormous
rubber balloon factory that I grew up a mere two hundred yards or so from in
Massachusetts. It was a huge, brick, towering-smokestack, polluting monstrosity,
in whose chemical-wonderland property we used to love to play in. (Ten years
ago I learned that it was owned by a man who lived in Guatemala and had his
rubber plantations there.) I have been researching this novel for years. I think
it grew out of my weariness with the war, with the so-much-death of Guatemala
– I found myself retreating for weeks at a time in the city archives, to a point
where I began to feel like I knew where every brick was laid in 19th century
Guatemala. Granted a seemingly and blissfully useless sort of knowledge – useful
for only one thing perhaps, a novel.

My near future changed a lot this week. Just the other day I was figuring I
probably couldn’t afford to move back to NYC just now, that’d I’d have
to hunker down here and maybe even give up my apartment in New York, which
would mean having to warehouse all my books, and finding a way to get
the books and research notes I’ll need in this book somehow shipped down
here – and then I was notified that I have been given this sort of dream
grant. I think it may be the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me
– it comes with good money and an office in Manhattan.

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Whit Coppedge lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His story "Taqueria" appeared in Pif's October, 1999 Issue.