Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published by The Irish Examiner on 18th July 2009.
‘A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.’ So starts The Angel’s Game, by the Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón. For Zafón that time came when he was nine years old, and was selling his stories from a publishing house he’d set up with friends at his primary school in Barcelona.
The enterprise ended in grief.
“The principal of the school found out and shut us down saying the material was subversive,” says Zafón, when we meet at the Clarence Hotel on his whirlwind trip to Dublin. The young boy could scarcely have guessed, back then, that he would one day write a book that would sell over fifteen million copies worldwide.
But that’s exactly what he did. The Shadow of the Wind, Zafón’s fifth novel, and his first for an adult audience sold stealthily, by word of mouth. Impossible to classify, it was a gothic mystery, a thriller, a comedy and a tender love story.
Above all, though, it was a literary novel about the power of books. At its centre was the Cemetery of Forgotten books, a secret library where forgotten books end up. The novel was devoured by ‘book clubs’ everywhere.
Set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War, it conjured up a dark place, full of menace.
“It is not necessarily a realistic portrayal of the city; or a social portrayal. It is an extreme stylisation, and is based on the way I feel the essence of the city, and the history and the true spirit. And that,” says Zafón, “is much darker than people like to think.”
Born and raised in Barcelona, in recent years Zafón has divided his time between that city and Los Angeles. And that, he feels, was necessary in order that he could understand what it was about Barcelona that had affected him.
“It’s like a relationship. You can’t write about a love affair when you are in one. You won’t make sense of it. Things happen to me and at some point afterwards, I am able to write about it. If I try sooner, I have nothing interesting to say.”
It’s never been a case, for Zafón, of ‘if’ he would write.
“The question was figuring out a way to make a living out of doing what I wanted to do. And that was not easy. After school I wrote for magazines and newspapers, then at 19 I started making TV commercials, writing and producing them, and playing around with images and sound.
“I was successful at that, and I wrote short stories, novels and plays on the side. I tried to get a novel published in my teens, but it became clear to me that I had to work really hard at it to hone my craft.”
If The Shadow of the Wind was a book for readers, The Angel’s Game, also set in Barcelona, and featuring the cemetery for forgotten books, is for writers.
“This is a book which gets inside the kitchen. It is a story about the writing process and what it means to be a writer.”
In the hero, David Martin’s case, making a living from writing is a far from easy business. He abandons journalism to write sensational novels under a pseudonym for publishers who pay him a pittance. Writing at the top of an abandoned mansion, poisoned by the evil memories that surround him, he’s close to death and despair, when he is rescued by an offer from editor Andreas Corelli. But it requires selling his soul.
Writing isn’t that bad for David’s creator; but it is something that he takes with extreme seriousness.
“I need to be alone, and I need to write every day. Writing takes time and space and thought, and you have got to follow the process. It’s not that you produce six pages every day; some days you just throw away the stuff, but if somebody is going to pay money you have to take it very seriously.”
Being a writer, of course, is not just about the writing. And in The Angel’s Game we see the public side of the writing life too. David Martin is the victim of jealousy; of bad reviews and victimisation.
“There is, of course, snobbery and small mindedness. It is so hard to succeed in the field of writing, so hard to survive, that the resentment it creates in people can morph into dark anger that transforms them and the way they look at things. I guess I am envied. I guess to some people I am the devil.”
Writing Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, though, was liberating.
“Up to that point I had been writing books that had some limitations imposed. I had also been a screen writer and that can be frustrating because you do what other want you to do. With these books, I did what I really wanted to do regardless of whether the world wanted it or not.”
Zafón has planned another two novels based in historical Barcelona. But he might write something else in between. Is it hard, sometimes to come up with ideas?
“Ideas are easy to produce,” he says. “You can force them. I think what makes a novel any good is the execution, and what your intentions are.”
The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson at 15.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard 2009.