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Gabriel García Márquez: The writer's craft (Interview)

A master of modern letters, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, the noted Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez talks to Bahgat Elnadi, Adel Rifaat and Miguel Labarca about creativity and his conception of the writer's craft.

Is it possible to protect culture?

The major question that governments and people interested in culture should ask is what kind of protection the state can offer to culture without interfering in it and manipulating it or, most important of all, without making it subservient to the government's political philosophy. The trouble with culture ministries in Latin America is their subordination to the vicissitudes of national politics. A cabinet crisis has repercussions on cultural activity. Power struggles within the government result in the appointment of a culture minister who has no interest in culture or is opposed to the previous minister's policies. Consequently culture depends on a series of comings and goings that have nothing to do with culture but everything to do with politics, and worst of all, with partisan politics.

Culture should be helped by establishing the conditions in which it can develop freely. But in practice this creates big problems. It's impossible to predict the workings of creativity or to plan anything creative. What's more, how can you do anything about culture without defining what you mean by culture?

According to UNESCO, culture is what people add to nature, everything that is produced specifically by human beings. I believe that culture is the social use of human intelligence. Deep down we all know what the term "culture" means, but we have a hard time summing it up in a few words. Culture may be  – I think it was France's former Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, who said this all kinds of things – cooking, a way of being, of makinglovc, of living, and mixed up in all this, the arts. Every act has cultural overtones. The danger is that the wider the concept of culture, the harder it is to know how to protect it.

Can culture be taught?

At the moment I'm wondering how the arts, literature, journalism (which, to my mind, is a form of literature) and the cinema (which is most certainly an art) should be taught. Education of this kind must be a one-off, it must be informal.

At the cinema school in San Antonio de Los Baños in Cuba I have a workshop called "How to tell a story", where I sit a maximum of about a dozen young men with scenario experience round a table. We try to see if it is possible to create stories collectively, to see if the miracle of creation is possible round a table. Sometimes we've brought it off. I start off by asking one of them about the most recent film he's seen. "Tell me what it's about," I say. Some of them know how to tell a story, others don't. One might answer, "It's the story of a country girl faced with the contradictions of modern city life." Then his neighbour will say, "A country girl is bored with her family, so one day she hops onto the first bus that goes by. She runs off with the driver and meets..." And he starts to tell the girl's story episode by episode.

The first young man is gifted, but he'll never know how to tell a story. He hasn't been born with the gift of storytelling. The other fellow, who knows how to tell a story, still has a long way to go before becoming a writer; he's got to acquire the technique and something that's extremely important basic culture. I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague idea of the ten thousand years of literature that have gone before, if only to know his or her own standpoint. And then the writer must settle down to a daily routine of work because inspiration doesn't fall from the sky. You have to work at every word, every day of the week.

Writing is a craft, a difficult craft that requires a lot of concentration and discipline, as do painting and composing. By working at it, someone who knows how to tell a story will become a writer; someone else, however hard he or she works, will never make it. It's the same with music. If you teach your children a melody, some will be able to repeat it exactly; others will never learn.

Do you regard yourself as an intellectual?

Not entirely. An intellectual, it seems to me, is someone with more or less preconceived ideas that he or she is constantly trying to compare with reality. In fact the intellectual tries to interpret reality through his or her preconceived ideas. I live off anecdotes, off the happenings of everyday life. I try to interpret the world and create art through experience of everyday life and the knowledge of the world that I gradually acquire, without preconceived ideas of any kind. That's why interviews, where the questions oblige me to give abstract answers, are very hard for me. My starting point has to be a real fact. That's how I function as a writer. I think I could prove that every line in my books has been inspired by a real fact, something that I was either told, or that I experienced or knew about.

In your world, knowledge encompasses many things. . . .

That's true. People have said that my novel One Hundred Years of Solitude contains incredible things that could never have happened. But for me these things correspond to real-life experiences. Some of my reading has marked me for life, for example, a bound volume I once found in a trunk, a book I had never even heard of. It was The Thousand and One Nights. I spent the early years of my life haunted by a vision of flying carpets and génies popping out of lamps. It was wonderful . . . and for me, completely true. Moreover, one of the episodes that excited me most and seemed the most fantastic was perfectly plausible the story of the fisherman who asks his neighbour to lend him some lead for his net and promises to give her in exchange the first fish he catches. She lends him the lead and he keeps his promise. She cuts open the fish and discovers a diamond inside. Life is full of natural things that ordinary mortals fail to see. The intelligence of poets is to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. So this is the question I ask myself. Why shouldn't the people who believed in the flying carpets of The Thousand and One Nights believe that flying was done in my own village? In my village there are no carpets but there are mats. So people fly mats, and do other wondrous things, among which we grew up and lived. I think I made up my mind not to invent or create a new reality but to find the reality with which I identified and which I knew. That's the kind of writer I am.

What did you do after One Hundred Years of Solitude?

I began to mistrust myself. I have to make an effort not to repeat or plagiarize myself. I have to go deeper and deeper into reality, by paying special attention to words. Without realizing it, I have a tendency to repeat things and put the same adjectives with the same nouns.People often talk about the influence that some authors have had on others. For myself, I've never tried to imitate authors I've admired. On the contrary, I've done all I could not to imitate them. But in wanting to be personal there is a danger of falling into the opposite trap, and the problem is how to avoid imitating oneself. In my latest novel, Del amor y otros demonios ("Of Love and Other Demons") a story that takes place in Cartagena de Indias in the eighteenth century I tried to recreate the culture, the mentality and the intolerance of the period, but the hardest thing of all was to make sure that the novel was different from its predecessors. The first people who read it thought it had a kind of sobriety that wasn't my style. I was delighted because that's what I'd been aiming at, to distance it not from myself but from my other books. It had to be mine; all books resemble their authors. In one way or another every book is autobiographical. And every fictional character is an alter ego or a collage made from this or that aspect of the author, his memories and his knowledge. It seems to me that a writer's work develops as a result of digging down inside oneself to see what is there, for the key to what one is looking for and the mystery of death. We know that the mystery of life will never be deciphered.

Is this preoccupation unique to Latin American literature?

It's a fact that Latin America was born out of a very specific literature, the literature of chivalry. This was no accident since novels of chivalry were banned in the Spanish colonies. They liberated the imagination! Because of these novels, the chroniclers of the conquest were ready to believe what they saw. But what they saw went beyond what they were capable of believing. This led to the birth of the fantastic world which later came to be called "magic realism" and which is a hallmark of Latin American culture.

When you think of your public now, do you think in terms of Latin America, the Spanish-speaking world or the world at large?

First of all we have to win over our own public. If we manage to do that, it means we have said something valid, and only then will we interest the rest of the world. One doesn't acquire a public by chance. First there has to be an identification with reality that interests this public. Then the identification spreads, and it interests the entire world. Above all we must do and continue to do what we think we should do. Then things start to happen. When I began writing, I never imagined I would have any readers, not to mention large numbers of them. One Hundred Years of Solitude was my fifth book. It was five years before my first one was published. It went from publisher to publisher, from press to press. It finally came out, but it was a long time before it began to sell. You have to do your own work, then wait and see. To be able to live from one's writing is a stroke of luck. It can't be a goal.

For you as a writer, have there been new departures, moments of doubt, changes of direction?

I have made two big leaps in the dark. The first was to stop smoking cigarettes. Or perhaps I should say that cigarettes stopped smoking me. I was totally hooked and smoked four packs a day. I never had bronchitis, and the doctor never ordered me to stop. But one day I put out a cigarette and never smoked again. Then, when I sat down to write, I realized that I had never written a line without smoking a cigarette. "Now what?" I wondered. Should I wait and get used to writing without smoking or sit down immediately and start to write? The need to write proved stronger, and I sat down in front of my typewriter. But then another problem cropped up: my hands. They got in the way now that they had no cigarette to hold. Fortunately my mind wasn't affected. It got on with the job as before. The second leap in the dark happened when I woke up one day and realized I had only one thing to do, and that was to write. Before that I either had to write or work for television, advertising or the radio. My wife, Mercedes, once put it like this, "What are you doing today, working or writing?" We had separated "work", which had a financial purpose, from "writing", which was an unproductive pleasure. Then, one day I woke up and said to myself, "From now on I don't have to 'work' any more. I can write or not write." But I soon understood the danger this freedom brought. If I didn't write that day, perhaps I wouldn't write tomorrow, or the day after. I kept on writing. Then I was confronted by another problem. I had always been a newspaperman, and at that time papers were put together at night. It was a bohemian life: finish at the paper at one in the morning, then write a poem or a short story until about three, then go out to play skittles or have a beer. When you got home at dawn, ladies who were going to mass would cross to the other side of the street for fear that you were either drunk or intending to mug or rape them. Shifting from night to day in order to write wasn't easy. With'my newfound freedom, I made myself keep banker's hours, or rather a bank clerk's hours, as if I had to turn in on time every day. Starting at one specific time and finishing at another. This is important. If you get involved and don't stop in time, the later pages are written by a tired man. The big problem for most writers who don't earn enough to be able to write full time is that they write in their spare time, in other words when they are tired. This is literature produced by tired men. When I get carried away and continue beyond the time when I should stop, I end up by writing tired. You need strict discipline, starting and stopping at specific times. My children's school started at 8 a.m. I was the one who took them. Then I would sit down and write until two when I brought them back home again. I felt that in all good conscience I had earned my day and my lunch. In the afternoon I'd go to the cinema or see friends or do various odd jobs. Without feeling guilty. I felt guilty between books. When I finished one book, I wouldn't write for a while; then I had to learn how to do it all over again. The arm goes cold; there's a learning process you have to go through again before you rediscover the warmth that comes over you when you are writing. So I really had to find something that would keep me writing between books. I solved the problem by writing my memoirs. Since then, I haven't left my desk for a single day. When I travel I'm a little less strict, but I always jot down notes in the morning. All of which means there is a lot of truth in the saying that writing is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. I also defend inspiration, but not in the sense given to it by the romantics, for whom it was a sort of divine illumination. When you are working hard on something, trying to make sense of it, worrying at it, fanning it into a blaze, you reach a point where you control it and identify with it so completely that you feel that a divine wind is dictating it to you. That state of inspiration exists, yes, and when you experience it, although it may not last very long, it is the greatest happiness that anyone could possibly experience.

Read also our interview with Gabriel García Márquez, published in October 1991. Click here.

 

Gabriel García Márquez

Born in the Colombian village of Aracataca in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez made his mark as a master of the modern novel with the publication of Cien años de soledad in 1967 (published in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1970). His reputation was cemented with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. García Márquez's other major works published in English include No-one Writes to the Colonel, (1963), The Autumn of the Patriarch (1976) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, (1983). His most recent work is Love In the Time of Cholera.