In 2007, neuroscientist Lisa Genova self-published her first novel, “Still Alice.” It tells the story of a Harvard psychology professor and her experience with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The book became a best-seller and is now a major motion picture. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “Still Alice.”
A new novel set in Colombia tells the story of a young man from a once-prominent family that lapses into genteel poverty. An idealistic American woman rents a room in their Bogota home while she trains as a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s 1969. The two young people fall in love, marry and have a child. But soon their happiness is destroyed — a victim of the illegal drug trade that devastates the nation. Corruption is everywhere, killings become commonplace and fear permeates daily life. How Colombia’s brutal drug wars terrorize a generation and how a nation reclaims its soul.
- Juan Gabriel Vasquez Colombian author of several prize-winning novels, including "The Informers."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING by Juan Gabriel Vásquez by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2013 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane. She'll be out this week for a cause very dear to her heart. She'll be in California to star in a play to benefit Alzheimer's research. A new novel by a Colombian writer explores what happens when an entire nation is gripped by fear. The story takes place in and around Bogota in the 1980s and nineties. Pablo Escobar and other drug lords are at war with the authorities.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThe casualties are everywhere, not just the bodies on the streets, but the souls of a terrorized population. The book is titled "The Sound of Things Falling," and the author, Juan Gabriel Vasquez joins me in the studio. Welcome.
MR. JUAN GABRIEL VASQUEZHello. Thank you very much.
ROBERTSDelighted to have you with us. Some of you will know Juan Gabriel's previous novels, particularly "The Informers." I hope some of you who are fans of his work will give us a call. Of course, we're in new studios this morning, and sometimes we're having a bit of trouble with the phones, but the 800 number is not working, but let me give you a number where you can use so you can join our conversation with Juan Gabriel Vasquez. 202-243-5440. 202-243-5440. And of course you can send us an email, that's working, email@example.com. Twitter and Facebook are working, so give us a call and be part of our conversation here.
ROBERTSJuan, you're a native of Colombia. You've lived outside your native country for many years, now you've moved back. What is it you wanted readers to know about your country through this novel?
VASQUEZWell, I wanted to know some things myself. The book was born out of questions I had myself about my own past. I had been living in Europe for many, many years when one day I just opened a magazine and I found the photograph of a dead hippo, an animal that had escaped from Pablo Escobar's old zoo. Pablo Escobar the notorious drug dealer. And had roamed about for a couple of years before getting shot -- hunted down and shot by the Colombian army by authorized hunters.
VASQUEZAnd that image, for many complicated reasons brought me back to my own youth, my own adolescence, my own childhood, at the time when I was growing up in Colombia, at the same time as Pablo Escobar's personal war against the Colombian state and Colombia citizens. So I grew up in the city amid bombings and shootings in the street. It was really a place in which this kind of unpredictable violence was just around the corner.
VASQUEZAnd I had forgotten all about that until that day in 2009 when I saw the picture of hippo -- of the dead hippo. So in the beginning, the novel was about finding out -- trying to remember those things, trying to find out why I had forgotten them in such an efficient way, and asking what had happened to my generation. Had the fact of growing up at the same time as the drug wars had an impact on us? How did it change our way of living our private lives or of being fathers and sons and couples and friends. And initially it was those questions that carried the book.
ROBERTSDo you remember where you were when you saw this photo of the hippo?
VASQUEZYes. Yes. I was at home in Barcelona. I arrived in Barcelona in 1999 with my family -- with my wife, and this was 2009, and I realized I had spent those 10 years never thinking about the time of the violence, the time of the drug wars. So it was this sort of window into the past, and the picture resembled a lot, another picture that has made a strong impact on us, on my generation in particular, and that is the picture of Pablo Escobar lying on a rooftop just having been shot after a manhunt that lasted for a couple of years.
ROBERTSYou know, you write and have talked in interviews about the fact that Pablo Escobar, this monumental figure, the one who not only ran the drug wars, but had this outlandish zoo with all of these exotic animals, and that what you wanted to do was talk about the ordinary people. So much attention had focused on the high profile visible symbol of the drug wars, and you wanted to look at from the bottom up.
VASQUEZExactly. Yes. I realized that the public side of that time of violence, the statistics, the pictures, the images of bombed buildings, you can even go on YouTube and look at a presidential candidate being shot. There's a video -- an actual video of Luis Carlos Galan, the presidential candidate, being shot in 1989. So we almost have too much information about that public side of violence. But I began wondering, where can we go to find out a little about the private side.
VASQUEZIs there a place where there's information about the moral, the emotional impact those years had on our lives. And I realized this is what novels do. Novels can create this space where we can think a little about the private, the intimate, the psychological, moral, emotional consequences of what was going on in those years of living in fear, of living with the violence.
ROBERTSAnd this word fear permeates your book.
ROBERTSOne of your characters says, if I'm quoting correctly, "Fear is the main ailment of our lives." Give our listeners a sense of what you mean by that, and how you drew characters that reflect that pervasive feeling that never left people.
VASQUEZYes. Well, it's one of the -- one of the things we have in our generation is this knack for remembering those little details related to fear in those years. And we gather around and we remember how we grew able to recognize the sound of a bombing as opposed to any other kind of explosion. We were able to do that immediately. As soon as a bomb exploded, we were able to say this was bombing, this...
ROBERTSAnd how far away it was.
VASQUEZAnd how far away it was, yeah. Yeah. We grew up in neighborhoods where tape was put on windows and any kind of glass structure, so that if there was a bombing they wouldn't break that easy. We used to go around with coins in our pockets, always at least with one coin in those pre cell phone times so that if a bomb went off we would immediately be able to reach the next payphone and call home and say, I'm okay. I don't know. We grew used to risk, to living with risk, to living with the knowledge that unpredictable violence was part of our lives, and that changed us. We have -- almost everybody...
ROBERTSChanged in what way?
VASQUEZAlmost everybody in my generation has a different, or rather, a difficult relationship with waiting. We're not comfortable waiting for somebody, because if somebody we love is running late for some reason, we begin to get really anxious because in those times something could have happened. So yeah. That has shaped our outlook a little bit.
ROBERTSNow, one of the main characters of your novel -- I'm talking to Juan Gabriel Vasquez. His novel is "The Sounds of Things Falling." We have a couple of lines open. You can join our conversation with Juan. 202-243-5440 today. 202-243-5440 as we get our new phones in order here at our new studios. One of the lead characters, Ricardo, becomes a drug runner pilot, then assassinated or shot down for his role. Did you know people like that?
VASQUEZYes. I think we all did. The thing is, this wasn't something you discussed in public, and it was almost never accepted. But we knew, or rather, we talked about how it was rumored that somebody had something to do, or we knew somebody who, even if they hadn't smuggled drugs in planes, they were used as mules. We all knew a mule if you know what the term means.
VASQUEZSo we -- I grew up alongside people who had thought maybe for five or ten years that their father had died in an accident, and at some point they discovered that that wasn't true, that they had been caught at the border with some drugs and sent to prison. So I grew up surrounded by people who had believed in the death of their parents when that was just a tale to hide the fact that it had been smuggling drugs. This kind of thing happened all the time, and as I say, I think it shaped our way of living.
ROBERTSAnd at the heart of your narrative is the search for the truth of what really happened to Ricardo. His daughter comes back and presses for the truth, and this seems to be a very powerful emotion that -- did a lot of people in your generation feel this, we finally want to know the truth of what happened?
VASQUEZYes. But it has taken us quite some times to come to terms with that past, and to try to find out the truth. The novel I think in a way is structured as this investigation. It's the same thing that happened with "The Informers." I like this...
ROBERTSYour previous novel, yes.
VASQUEZYeah. I like this strategy of characters behaving in the same way that I behave towards life as investigators, you know.
ROBERTSWe're going to be back with more from Juan Gabriel Vasquez. His new book "The Sound of Things Falling." I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. You stay with us. We'll be back with your calls and your comments.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour, the Colombian novelist, Juan Gabriel Vasquez. He wrote "The Informers," a very well known and well received novel, and his new book is "The Sounds of Things Falling." And you can join us. Our phone number is a little different today because of our new technologies here. 202-243-5440. We still have a couple of lines open. We're going to go them in just a minute.
ROBERTSBut Juan, one of the characters who also plays a significant role in this book is a former Peace Corps volunteer, an American woman, who is married to the drug runner. They have a child who also appears in the novel. Did you know Americans -- Peace Corps people when you were a youth growing up, and why did you bring her into the narrative?
VASQUEZNo, I didn't. I haven't met these people through my research. But this novel grew out of documents. For 10 years I was gathering documents and one of the things I found the most interesting pieces I found was a collection of letters written by an American Peace Corps volunteer from Colombia to his parents that had been published by his family after his death. I found them at a secondhand bookstore in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, the strangest place to find one of these things.
VASQUEZAnd they make a very nice description of what it was like at the end of the '60s, to be an American student, American volunteer, idealist, young, trying to change the world for the better and arriving to this place, this very strange place, a strange culture and dealing with peasants and in another language. And he mentions a couple of times in his letters, he mentions that the drug business that is just being born.
VASQUEZHe mentions how Colombian peasants are cultivating marijuana and how bad it places the American Peace Corps volunteers in a very difficult position because they're trying to convince the Colombian peasants that it's better to grow potatoes. I mean, this is more profitable but it's not necessarily the way to go. And, of course, there was a minority, isolated cases, but they were quite real and quite pertinent to the story of American Peace Corps volunteers that began -- that saw the opportunity for profit and began serving as a liaison between the first Colombian drug dealers and American consumers.
VASQUEZSo it was a very interesting situation. And it had never been discussed in a novel from the psychological and emotional point view. It had never been discussed in history or journalism either. I mean, I found references in some short papers, university papers but it was almost like a legend and I needed to felt the need to try to find out who these people were and the emotional process behind the political situation, the growing business of drug dealing which started just a smuggling thing.
VASQUEZI mean, in the '60s, it wasn't the huge industry of corruption and crime and violence that it became later. So it was interesting to find that...
ROBERTSYeah, I'm sure.
ROBERTSLet me ask you also about your writing life. Of course, I ask this question myself before our producers. Well, in the tradition of magical realism which is the style that so many Americans know of Latin American authors particularly from Colombia, "A Hundred Years of Solitude" is the great master work. And yet you have rejected that and you're writing in a very different tone.
ROBERTSAnd somewhat to my surprise, one of your literary heroes was Joseph Conrad. Not you countryman. Talk about your affection for Conrad and how he's informed your approach to novel.
VASQUEZConrad is perhaps the novelist that has had the strongest impact on my writing life because I think literary influence works in two ways. Either your -- the writers who influence your vocation, your way of thinking about the trade and there are others who influence...
ROBERTSGave you to be a novelist in the first place.
VASQUEZYes, exactly. Exactly. And there are others who influenced the actual way in which you write from a stylistic point of view, from the point of view of architecture, the architecture of your books, how you shape them. And Conrad is perhaps the only novelist that has shade me in both ways. I mean, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" was one of the books that made me want to be a writer.
VASQUEZBut that lens through which we see Latin America that we now call magical realism is just very different from my sensibility. It belongs to a certain area in Colombia, the Caribbean, and a certain time at the beginning of the 20th century. Whereas I grew up in Bogota, 2,600 meters over sea level, cold climate, at the end of the 20th century in an 8 million people city. So my material and my world vision couldn't be more different from Garcia Marquez's.
VASQUEZAnd it's people like Conrad who have felt -- who felt that, like, they didn't belong to the place where they lived, who felt they had one foot in different cultures. You know, he was Polish by birth but he had lived in France and then in England and he had been a sailor. And he wrote novels in his third language. That resembles my own trajectory. I left Colombia when I was 23. I have lived in four different countries since then.
VASQUEZI feel comfortable or at least equally uncomfortable in many cultures. I have earned my living as a translator, which also accounts for the fact that I have been, you know, thinking and feeling in different languages. So he had more things to tell me than my own countrymen.
ROBERTSInteresting. You know, I want to tell our listeners, you can now reach us apparently on our 800 number, 1-800-433-8850. We're going to go to your calls in just minute, but I want to follow-up on what you said about Conrad because one of the things you -- in one of the interviews I read with you, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, is that the mission that Conrad sets out for himself is similar to the one that you have for your own self as a novelist.
ROBERTSTo go to the dark places and report back the news. I just love this phrase. And you -- but in your case, you've returned to your birthplace. You're not going to Africa.
ROBERTSYou're not going to, but yet it is -- so talk about why you come back to your birthplace which you see as sort of almost the strange place that you want to report back from.
VASQUEZYeah. Well, you know, we grow up as novelists with this idea that we should write about our own places because those are the places that we understand.
VASQUEZThat have no secrets. So write about what you know is the first commandment in creative writing classes.
ROBERTSSecond and third commandment too.
VASQUEZYes, yes. I've always disagreed with that. I don't think that's actually true. I think -- first of all, I think of writing as an act of discovery. So you should write about what you don't know, what you don't understand. But when it comes places, I've always believed that the reason we writers write about our own places, you know, Joyce about Dublin and Dostoevsky about St. Petersburg and Phillip Roth about Newark is because we thought we knew them.
VASQUEZWe thought they had no secrets for us. And then something happens and we discover they are full of dark places, full of dark corners where unspeakable things happened or things happened that nobody wants to talk about because they are uncomfortable.
ROBERTSKeeping of secrets you are talking about earlier.
VASQUEZYes, exactly. So this is what happens. This is what happened to me with my country. As I said before, I left very young. I left in 1996 feeling I didn't understand my country but I knew it nonetheless. And as...
ROBERTSBut also that you wanted to escape your country.
VASQUEZYes, yes, definitely, for many reasons. And some of them literary too. And living abroad I began to realize how many strange had happened in recent Colombian history that nobody knew, nobody talked about. And I began wondering have they changed to me in any way? Have they -- have we inherited, so to speak, those secrets on the consequences of not speaking about these things. And this is what I write about.
VASQUEZI write about the secrets in my society that have some impact in the whole of Western society. "The Informers" was about the Second World War and Nazi immigrants in Colombia. And this is about living with terrorism, living with drugs, with the drug wars, which is something I think anybody can understand right now.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And my guest this hour, Juan Gabriel Vasquez. His new novel, "The Sound of Things Falling." And I have an email, Juan, from James in Fairfax, VA. I have been watching the TV series called "The Cartel." He says it's a telenovela. Have you seen it? And do you think it depicts fairly anything concerning your country in the time during and after Pablo Escobar's life?
VASQUEZWell, I don't know if I know exactly that series because they change titles. But if it's the one originally called "El Cartel delos Sapos," which probably it is.
ROBERTSSounds right, yeah.
VASQUEZYeah. No, I don't think it's quite accurate or maybe it is accurate but quite lopsided, if you know what I mean.
ROBERTSIn what sense?
VASQUEZIn the sense that TV now tends to be very selective and to focus on the more sensationalist points of view. They kind of feed on that melodrama and the more sensationalistic side, yes, of the whole thing. It's partial and it's not the complete truth.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's join some of our callers here, Juan. And we're going to start with -- we still have Henry? All right, let me get Henry for us. Now do we have Henry? I'm sorry. Let's go to Asenette (PH) first, Juan.
ROBERTSYes, you're on the air.
ASENETTEYes, this is Asenette.
ROBERTSYou're on the air. Please, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," please go ahead.
ASENETTEYes, thank you. I wanted the author to pronounce one of the cities that he is referring to Medellin, I was curious about his pronunciation of it. Thank you.
ROBERTSThanks a lot. Go ahead.
VASQUEZMy pronunciation is just like yours, Medellin. It's the second city of Colombia.
ROBERTSDo you know it well? This of course the scene...
ROBERTSWe know it is apparently the center of the drug war.
VASQUEZIt was the center of the drug wars. It is now one of the great cities in Colombia. It has made a huge recovery from those years, which is something we're very proud of. And, yes, I know it very well. My wife's family comes from there and it's a beautiful town and people are great. And it has had a lot of troubles but they have managed to recover in a very nice way.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Damon in Jacksonville, FL. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAMONThanks for taking my call. Listen, during the conversation, I was actually an exchange student in (word?) back in 1980 and after returning to the States, (unintelligible) and got a bachelor's in Miami. I'm also a pastor now over a Spanish congregation. And I was just wondering if the author had done any research or included in his book any of the interactions between the evangelical church or catholic church with the drug cartel. I know some of the pastors there have issues in kidnappings in that part of town.
VASQUEZWell, no. No, that is not in the novel. It wasn't a part of my research. But I think it's totally interesting. You know, probably you could tell me more about that because it sounds really, like, something worth looking into. I don't think it has been widely discussed in Colombia, the relationship between the Catholic Church, which is very powerful in Colombia and very influential, and the drug wars.
VASQUEZI remember there was a very famous priest or influential priest in the '80s who was instrumental in getting Pablo Escobar to turn himself in. But he was also very conflicted in the way that he used to play down Pablo Escobar's crime in order for Colombian society to accept him better. So he was a very interesting character and worth looking into.
ROBERTSOne of the lines of yours that I find so compelling was saying writing is a contact sport and that you pick fights with books you love. Give us an example of a book you picked a fight with in this one.
VASQUEZWell, oh well not necessarily on this one but my whole career it has been about picking up fights with Latin American literature and particularly Gabriel Garcia Marquez, trying to profit -- trying to learn from him as much as I can because, after all, he is perhaps the most influential Spanish speaking novelist since Cervantes.
ROBERTSThat's saying a lot.
VASQUEZYes, yes. Well, I think about, you know, books that wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for "One Hundred Years of Solitude." And I think about Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Mo Yan in China, writers in the Caribbean, many of them -- even a certain book by Tony Morrison. So it's quite an influential, this "One Hundred Years of Solitude." That's what all the books I've picked fights with.
VASQUEZI've picked fights with trying to free myself from its influence and its -- and from the pervasiveness of magical realism in Latin American culture. But at the same time, trying to learn from it.
ROBERTSWell, you've learned a lot. Juan Gabriel Vasquez. His book is "The Sound of Things Falling." I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And we're going to have more of your phone calls when we come back. So stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour is Juan Gabriel Vasquez. His new novel, "The Sound of Things Falling." Author previously of "The Informers," a novel some of you are familiar with. And let me read a couple more emails, Juan. This one from Susan Bronco Alvarado.
ROBERTS"I am a Colombian. Adopted person from Bogota. Please remember that there exists an entire community of adopted children, many like myself, now adults, who value hearing about our birth country, including learning about its challenges and its incredible resilience. Colombian drug violence, along with its civil war, directly influence the number of children needing homes, many of whom were adopted internationally. Thank you for highlighting this aspect of our country's history."
VASQUEZOh, this is true. Yes. I mean, we have lived through one of the longest civil wars in the history of Latin America or rather armed conflict. It started at the beginning of the '60s and just as it was almost beginning to mellow down, the drug factor came into life. And drug money right now finances both the left wing guerillas and the right wing paramilitaries. It's a huge factor for corruption for the Colombian states and the Colombian government.
VASQUEZNot as bad now as it was in the '80s, but still. So, yeah, I think resiliency is a very, very good word for Colombian listening.
ROBERTSBut I'm also interested in her comment that because of the violence and the many deaths associated with this strife that a lot of children presumably were orphans and then adopted out. Now that you live back in Bogota, do you find there are children who were adopted internationally coming back, looking for, like, making the kind of search you've turned -- you know, you've turned your novel into for yourself?
VASQUEZYes, I've met a couple of them who go back to Colombia as adults and try to discover a country that they have, but they absolutely know nothing about, other than what appears in the media in different countries in Europe or in America. And then what I find most interesting about that is that one of the ways they have of knowing this new country is through novels. Novels are as good as a way of entering the consciousness of a place as any other.
VASQUEZSo I have met people who have read my books and, you know, made little trips to Bogota or to the (word?) valley with my books as sort of tour guides. And I think that's one of the most flattering things that have happened to me.
ROBERTSNow you moved back to your home country a year ago after, as you pointed out, many years abroad. Why'd you go back home?
VASQUEZWell, it was my wife's decision, I must say. I just complied.
ROBERTSShe's native of Colombia as well.
VASQUEZYeah, yeah. But after 17 years abroad, we both felt, to tell the truth, that it was time to go back and we have eight-year-old daughters and we wanted them to know Colombia as they knew Barcelona, the place we have been living in. And I also felt curious about what it would be like to write about Colombia while being in Colombia, which is something I had never done. I started publishing novels about Colombia after I left. And I left almost following this sort of unofficial tradition of a lot of American writers who leave their countries in order to write about their countries.
ROBERTSA lot of Americans did that too. They went to Paris and then wrote about America.
VASQUEZI know, I know. Well, one of the reasons I chose Paris as a first destination when we left Colombia was that the men's impact reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald have had on me. Of course, Joyce also wrote one of the greatest books of the 20th century, "Ulysses," in Paris. And Paris was also very important for Latin American novelists in the '60s. Garcia Marquez (sp?) , Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes. They all went to Paris at some point.
VASQUEZSo it seemed to me like you had to leave your country in order to understand your country and to write about your country. And I was following that. After 17 years it just felt that I had to go back and see what it was like to write about my country.
ROBERTSWe want to turn to some callers. Henry from Oklahoma City, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Nice to have you with us.
HENRYThank you. Thank you very much.
HENRYYeah, yeah, you know, Juan is -- it's good to hear from you now. I'll probably get your book. One of the things, you know, that I did, also left in the '80s and I went back about '89 and I think that was the time I probably just got away from prison. When I came back to the States, I was on vacation there. And a few years later I became a police officer, a narcotic agent, trying to fight because my hatred for that was so huge that I just -- if I can start over here, fight the drugs from here and eventually I was trying to get into the feds. I wasn't able to because I wanted to go back and fight the drug dealers. But that was one of my things that I got into because of the drug war over there.
HENRYNow, I feel like I want to go back, you know, and just probably do -- actually, just go back to my country now that, you know, all these things that kind of subside. But, you know, it's good to hear, you know, about you and your story, your book.
VASQUEZThank you, thank you. Well, I probably could have used your testimony while I was writing the book. But, you know, one of the cruelest things about writing novels is that you try to find out as much as you can through research before writing the novel. But the real interesting things come to you after you have published the novel. And because you have published a novel, that's a very strange paradox about writing.
ROBERTSBecause people like Henry respond...
ROBERTS...and add -- and are stimulated by your book to contribute their own dimension and their own view.
VASQUEZThey approach you and they say, I have a story to tell about this. And this is a story I could've used before.
ROBERTSHenry, thanks so much for being with us.
HENRYThanks and good luck (unintelligible) .
ROBERTSLet's turn to Clyde in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Welcome, Clyde. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CLYDEOh well, thank you.
ROBERTSClyde, please go ahead.
CLYDEYes, thank you. I was struck by the...
ROBERTSTurn your radio off, please, in the background. It's distracting.
CLYDEAll right. Thank you.
ROBERTSOkay, thanks. All right.
CLYDEI was struck by the quote that the author Senior Vasquez made about writing as an active discovery. And that would lead some people to think that writing a novel is merely recording fact and much like a research paper, which from my perspective is so far from the truth. My question is, in the writing of the novel, did the characters in the novel make their own discoveries and become individuals who perhaps the writer himself didn't expect? That's my question.
VASQUEZThank you very much. Yes, that happens all the time. There have been great novelists who make fun of that idea that characters just take control of...
ROBERTSAchieve a life of their own.
VASQUEZYeah, yeah, (word?) used to make fun of it all the time. I actually believe that. And I think that's what I mean when I say that writing is an act of discovery. You don't know what you're writing about until you have written the whole book, or rather discoveries as to what your subjects are, what your themes are come through the writing of the book. I wasn't -- it was only when I was halfway through the book that I understood that I was writing about fear and about unpredictable violence and about my generation.
VASQUEZI started out following this guy, Ricardo Laverde, trying to find out in fiction who he was, what had he done in his life. I discovered that he had been in prison. I discovered that he had just been released. I discovered that he had smuggled drugs into the United States in the early '70s. And it was through that that I slowly found out what my themes were in the book.
VASQUEZAnd I think there are two ways to write a novel, knowing everything in advance and just putting it on paper, or rather trying to explore reality, ask questions about reality, questions you don't know the answers to obviously. You write to find out these answers. There's a great American novelist E. L. Doctorow who talks about writing as if you were driving in the night. Your headlights only allow you to see so far. But those, you know, 10' they illuminate, that's enough to get to your destination. Writing novels is about that. You only know what will happen immediately next.
ROBERTSWell, another American writer that you talk about as an inspiration is Falkner. And I gather there is the famous Falkner quote about the past is not dead, it's not even past, that you even have this up on your wall or at least did at one point.
ROBERTSAnd how does that Falknerian sensibility play into just what you were talking about this, this search for a past that in many ways is not all that illuminated, only a few feet in front of you as you drive down the road?
VASQUEZYes, that's true. Well, you know, writers have just a few obsessions which permeate a whole life -- writing life. And the past is one of those obsessions for me. This is what interests me, the way the past stays with us instead of going away. The way, as Falkner says, that the past is never past and it's part of our present. It shapes our lives in ways that we don't always understand. And that always has been one of my interests to find how past events and past secrets have shaped my present life.
VASQUEZI think literature's very good at doing this. It is one of those places in which we can make the past come alive. And this is what my favorite novels have always done from "War and Peace" to "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth. They deal with, you know, old times that have had an effect on new times.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's turn to Juan in Wilson, N.C. Juan, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
JUANHi. Based on your research for the novel, how do you compare the drug cartel from Colombia to the one in Mexico? And what can the Mexican government can learn from Colombian?
VASQUEZWell, it's a very good question. I've given this a lot of thought and I think the main difference is that the Colombian (unintelligible) cartel in the '80s was almost a one-man enterprise. It was Pablo Escobar's (sp?) big project, if you can call it that way. And when it came to the violence and the corruption, the bombings, the shootings, the killings of politicians it generated, it was a personal war. Pablo Escobar led himself against the Colombian state and Colombian citizens.
VASQUEZWhereas in Mexico it is much more atomized. It is much more dispersed. There are little organizations fighting wars -- little wars between them. And civilians just get caught up in the middle. But that won't go away -- I mean, that ware can't be won whereas in Colombia the death of Pablo Escobar just put an end to terrorism and to that kind of violence. That is the main difference.
ROBERTSWe have an email, Juan, that asks, "Did you write in Spanish or English originally?" It also asks, "Did you do your own translations?" I know at least this book you did not, but what language do you write in?
VASQUEZI write in Spanish, yeah. It's the language...
ROBERTSUnlike Conrad who wrote in his third language, you write in your first.
VASQUEZYes. But Carlos Fuentes, a great Mexican novelist used to say that we write in the same language we dream. And even if English is very important for me and American literature and English language literature have shaped my own novels, Spanish is my language. It's the language I was brought up in. And it's the language I dream in. And no, I don't do my own translations. Even if I work really closely with my translator, the wonderful Ann McLane, I've very lucky that way. She's an enormously talented translator, capable of doing every tone, every nuance of my Colombian Spanish.
VASQUEZAnd I work really closely with her on the English versions of my books. So much that I could actually say that they are as good as the original -- I mean, as...
ROBERTSNo, I know what you mean. You know, let me ask you a final question. We talked a lot about influences in your life, American authors. Of course there is the famous adage from Thomas Wilson, another great American novelist, that you can't go home again. And you have. What's it like after 17 years, writing about this country from afar and now being home with small children who you want to understand the country of your birth?
VASQUEZYes, it's very strange. It's very strange and it's not easy. Colombia has changed very much, in many ways positively. But living there and having my material right around the corner has made things easier, at least. But I'm still trying to find out if there are any real consequences for fiction writing. I mean, I know -- although it's very difficult to demonstrate, but I know that it was distance, both geographical and chronological -- I mean, the fact that I had spent many years abroad before writing about Colombia.
VASQUEZI'm aware that it was that distance that allowed me to talk about my country freely, to discuss uncomfortable things freely, to look at it from a distance and learn the words to deal with my country. So I'm now trying to discover what the effect of living there will be on my fiction.
ROBERTSJuan Gabriel Vasquez, his new book "The Sound of Things Falling." I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She'll be back in this chair a week from today, next Monday and I'm delighted you were able to spend an hour of your morning with us. Thanks so much.
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