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Samanta Schweblin: The Short Form Interview

If the important thing in the story is that the reader finds her attractive, then you let the reader decide in what way she is attractive.

Argentinian author of two award-winning story collections in Spanish, and one of Granta's Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists.

The Interview

The writing in some of your shorter stories is noticeably absent of visual descriptions of people. In “My Brother Walter,” we’re able to imagine a lot about what the characters look like without being given actual descriptions. Given that you studied cinema, do you find it an advantage to not be forced to give your characters a particular look, to not reveal their faces?

When you are writing a story you really need to make most of the time you have. You can't waste it describing what a character is wearing, things must happen quickly and precisely. Sometimes giving only a part of a description helps the reader imagine the complete picture. For example, if you want the reader to envision what an attractive body of a woman might look like, you can say: “She is wearing an incredible bikini”. You're not even saying the word “body”, but with the word “bikini” and “incredible” the reader will surely imagine the whole body of the woman. So you give the reader a perfect image in only six worlds. It's not important to give the characters a particular look. If the important thing in the story is that the reader finds her attractive, then you let the reader decide in what way she is attractive. It's like working in a team with the reader: think of the world and make the reader fill in the particulars. That's the magic of literature.

And what are some of the movies you enjoy? Do they compare to your stories?

Well I'm a huge fan of David Lynch. Above all, his TV series “Twin Peaks”. And when I was a child I loved “The Twilight Zone.” It has real-life scenery but the intense feeling that something strange or unknown can happen suddenly. I hope my stories can make the readers feel something like that.

A lot of your stories feel like a snapshot in motion, somewhat anchored by a central image. Mavis Gallant said that her stories first come to her in the form of an image. Is that true for you as well?

Yes, it usually works in a similar way. Most of the time, the first thing I get is a feeling, a particular mood, or an emotion that stays with me for a long time until I capture an image that matches that feeling. Maybe it's an image, or maybe a particular character, it's something that can work as a bridge between me and the reader. The feeling is captured in the story and I let the rest of it fall in the reader's hands.

I fell in love with literature thanks to Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. But I found in Carver, Cheever, Salinger, a fresh air, an accuracy and a brevity that was really new for me.

You’ve listed some North American writers as writers you admire: Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger. I'm curious if you read them in English or in Spanish. Or, if you read some in both, did you find any differences?

My first readings were all in my mother tongue. It was only in the last few years that I became more comfortable with my English and read some of them in English for the first time. The differences between the original book and the translated book depends, of course, on the translator. We have one translation of “The Catcher in the Rye” that's a pain in the neck to read, and reading the original was a mixture between astonishment and outrage. But we have really good translations too. The thing is that 15 years ago, when I was 18 years old and beginning to discover North American writers, readers in Argentina were immersed in writers of the Latin American boom. They were great, I fell in love with literature thanks to Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. But I found in Carver, Cheever, Salinger, a fresh air, an accuracy and a brevity that was really new for me. The contrast was so big that even if there was some noise in the translation, I could tell the magic was still there.

Instead of writing the paper asked by the teachers I used to write a short story.

You've said that you started writing stories as a way to escape from school work. How long ago was that? 

Well, it was at least 22 years ago. Instead of writing the paper asked by the teachers I used to write a short story. It took me much less time and it was more fun. The thing that most surprised and fascinated me was that even though I wasn't following the instructions and never did what was asked, the teachers took my short story as proof that I was really interested in the subject. Of course, my classmates hated me!

Rhythm and tension are what I love most when I write.

 

Are you specifically drawn to the short story as a form? Stories like “Preserves” and “To Kill a Dog,” for example, seem better fitted for a short story format than anything else. The length affords them the right speed, and the right kind of mystery and tension.

I'm not a short story activist, but when I get an idea it usually comes with its own voice, and its own length. I think none of my stories could have been a good novel. At least not with that rhythm and tension. And that rhythm and tension are what I love most when I write, so at least for now I don't want to force myself towards writing a longer story.

Your drive to write seems to be to tell a gripping story that somehow haunts you. For the most part, a lot of the characters aren't necessarily dealing with a common reality. Would you agree?

I completely agree. And I think it's very interesting that the “not common reality” really defines the characters too. They are what they are because of what they have to fight, just like we are what we are for the same reason.

Recommended by Samanta Schweblin

Missing Kissinger
Excerpt

I traveled the whole way with the knife, two buses. A meter-and-a-half-long knife, it takes up two seats. I had to buy a ticket for it. What wouldn’t I do for her, what wouldn’t I do for you, baby? I walked all the way down Stampfer Avenue with the knife on my back like some would-be Islamic martyr. My mother knew I was coming, so she prepared food for me, with seasonings from hell, like only she knows how. I eat in silence; I haven’t got a bad word to say. If you eat prickly pears with the thorns on, you shouldn’t complain when you get piles. “And how’s Miri?” asks my mother. “Is she all right, the darling girl? Still sticking her chubby fingers in her cunt?” “She’s all right,” I say, “she’s fine. She asked for your heart. You know, so she can tell if I love her.” “Take her Baruch’s,” my mother laughs, “she’ll never notice the difference.”

House Taken Over
Excerpt

But
 it's
 the
 house
 I
 want
 to
 talk
 about,
 the
 house
 and
 Irene,
 I'm
 not
 very
 important.
 I
 wonder
 what
 Irene
 would 
have
 done
 without
 her
 knitting.
 One
 can
 reread
 a
 book,
 but
 once
 a
 pullover
 is
 finished
 you
 can't
 do
 it
 over
 again, 
it's
 some
 kind
 of
 disgrace.
 One
 day
 I
 found
 that
 the
 drawer
 at
 the
 bottom
 of
 the
 chiffonier,
 replete
 with
 moth balls,
 was
 filled
 with
 shawls,
 white,
 green,
 lilac.

 Stacked
 amid
 a
 great
 smell
 of
 camphor — it
 was
 like
 a
 shop;
 I 
didn’t
 have
 the
 nerve
 to
 ask
 her
 what
 she
 planned
 to
 do
 with
 them.
 We
 didn’t
 have
 to
 earn
 our
 living,
 there
 was 
plenty
 coming
 in
 from
 the
 farms
 each
 month,
 even
 piling
 up.

 But
 Irene
 was
 only
 interested
 in
 the
 knitting
 and
 showed
 a 
wonderful
 dexterity,
 and 
for 
me 
the
 hours 
slipped
 away
 watching
 her, 
her 
hands
 like 
silver
sea‐urchins,
 needles 
flashing, 
and 
one 
or 
two 
knitting 
baskets
 on 
the 
floor,
 the
 balls 
of 
yarn 
jumping 
about. 

It 
was 
lovely.





We read it in Blow-Up and Other Stories.

Originally published in Los anales de Buenos Aires.

Battle Royal
Excerpt

And all the while the blonde continued dancing, smiling faintly at the big shots who watched her with fascination, and faintly smiling at our fear. I noticed a certain merchant who followed her hungrily, his lips loose and drooling. He was a large man who wore diamond studs in a shirtfront which swelled with the ample paunch underneath, and each time the blonde swayed her undulating hips he ran his hand through the thin hair of his bald head and, with his arms upheld, his posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda, wound his belly in a slow and obscene grind. This creature was completely hypnotized. The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink into her soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys.

We read it in Invisible Man.

Incoming Tide
Excerpt

The screen door opened, banged shut. Through the large window, Patty saw that the man in the car still sat looking at the water, and as Patty poured coffee for an elderly couple that had seated themselves slowly into a booth, as she asked how they were this nice morning, she suddenly knew who the man was, and something passed over her, like a shadow crossing in front of the sun. “There you go,” she said to the couple, and didn’t glance out the window again.

We read it in Olive Kitteridge.