Each week this summer, we will be showcasing our authors to give a more in depth background and insight into their minds and their work. This week, we focus on LCG founder Jonathan Marcantoni, whose Tristiana, LCG's first Spanish book, will be released in late July 2017.
"Tristiana: An imaginary corner of Latin America. A beautiful and violent land, where a group of men and women debate within the comfort of the world of ideas until they are confronted by the cruel reality of political violence. Revolutionaries who remind us of past figures (those who failed and those who succeeded). Colonial shadows hang over the proceedings. Enemies from within, ever-ready to hand over their people for a fist full of cash. The epic tale of these Tristianos, displayed in paintings and murals - whose lines reach out toward a past of struggle and dreams of a liberated future."
1. Could you explain your style and approach to telling this story?
This is perhaps damning to admit, but the story is the style. I construed the entire story to fit the parameters of a style, portraiture, that I conceived after reading José Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, where he opens the book by telling the history of Christianity through the observation and editorializing of a stained glass window. I was about 22, and had grown up in theatre and wanted to be a film director, but writing turned out to be more lucrative for me. My experience in performing arts and my love of music and visual arts had already inspired me to find ways to connect the various arts and use them in hybrid fashion.
Writing and music are esoteric artforms, that is, the experience is entirely subjective. Every story is different for every reader, the visuals conjured by the author are formed by the individual's mind, just as every song effects the listener in distinct ways that have more to do with listener's personal history or events of that day, than it does with the music itself.
Painting, photography, theatre, etc. are concrete art forms. Even at their most surreal or enigmatic, the images that are presented are what they are. The impression made on an observer, while they might be different to each person, are based on the same visual stimuli.
There is some flexibility to these definitions, there are ways of creating esoteric, distorted imagery that allows individual interpretation, and there are specific moods and finite details in stories and songs. These meeting points are where I conjured up portraiture, which I now refer to as a subset of visualism. Visualism is a style deliberately used by myself and fellow Puerto Rican writer German William Cabassa Barber and Mexican writer Ricardo Félix Rodríguez. We identified the style as a way to create writing that spoke to readers who grew up on visual stimuli instead of literature. The style would be more concerned with eliciting emotional responses and creating fully realized experiences than with telling technically "perfect" or "refined" stories.
Portraiture seeks to capture an entire sequence within a single, definitive image that mimics a specific style of painting or film. Paintings throughout history, when most people were illiterate, were meant to convey stories, to capture their respective societies and comment on them, for people who could not pick up a book and read about the issues of the day. By focusing on a definitive image, we have the concrete nature of the visual arts, and by telling the story behind that image, we allow some degree of subjectivity on the part of the reader, and here is where the esoteric and concrete intersect.
I had come up with the style before the story, but did not know how to do the style, of course, since I could not find examples of exactly what I was doing (there have been books where the language imitates, say, Jazz, but as I said before, music and writing belong to the same class of "art"; there of course have also been photographic books where a poem is inspired by the picture, but in none of these examples is the writing trying to capture a specific style of visual art), but I did know the kind of book I wanted to write: an allegory. I was in the midst of getting my BA in Spanish Studies, and so everything was Latin America and Spain for me, and I have been immersed in politics, both Puerto Rican and American, since I was a teenager (at 13 I did a class project on Nationalist revolutionary Pedro Albizu Campos, I was THAT kid), and the more I learned, the more connections I saw within the Spanish speaking world, the more I saw history looping and contorting itself yet ending up in roughly the same place.
I was introduced to Juan José Saer's classic El entenado (still my favorite book), which showed how civilization is a falsehood meant to ward off the chaos of nature, which has become the enemy of mankind, since we can never defeat the natural world. Eduardo Galeano's writings, from Memoria de fuego to Patas arriba to Las venas abiertas de América Latina hit me like a bomb and Pablo Neruda's Canto general allowed me to snuff out that bomb before the anger and pessimism ate me alive. All those books influenced my own, pointing me in the direction of telling a history of Latin America that sought to capture the ethereal and poetic as well as the cruel and disastrous.
I found that the style fit this dynamic well, looking at a story the way a painter looks at a painting allows for a poetic concentration of precise language and startling visuals. The portraits couldn't be longer than three pages, and they would only be that long when dialogue was involved. Nearly all the portraits are a single page, as I found that the image lost its impact the more I elaborated on it.
I also found that the Socratic nature of the dialogues chaffed against a traditional narrative, and working with my editor Fernando, we came to the conclusion that the book should mostly be told through dialogue and monologues, save for the war scenes, but even there, I would approach the narrative with the eye of a painter.
2. What ideas drove you to write your story and what do you hope readers take away from your book?
My hope for the book was to be a short novel, much like El entenado, that manages to be full of ideas, a less than 200 page book with enough ideas for 1,000 pages. So I hope readers get several themes and ideas and I hope it incites arguments amongst friends. But more specifically, the book is about the dividing line between ideology and reality. Especially in regards to revolution, a word that has been diluted to the point of meaninglessness. Those who speak most of revolution lack the courage and stomach to carry one through to the end. A revolution is a war, and war is its own sort of moral plain, where murder and cruelty are rewarded and justified, and especially progressives (or regressive progressives) are hellbent on moral superiority in these times. They want to change the world without getting blood on their hands, and the internet makes this sort of armchair activism possible and prevalent. I want my book to scare the shit out of such people, as they see the logical progression of their ideas come to fruition in a conflict where loved ones are lost, cities are destroyed, and the soul rots until we no longer know what separates our humanity from our animal instincts.
I want the reader to question the nature of civilization and whether it truly protects us from natural forces or from ourselves. I want the reader to consider concepts like feminism and militarism and social justice and ask themselves whether we really want a different kind of world, or if we just want a world where us and our friends are in charge. Are we transforming power, or merely continuing the power dynamics we have always known?
3. What character/section/story challenged you the most and why?
The most challenging aspect of the book was its structure. I am making changes to the book all the way up to turning it in to the printer. The entire book has been revamped multiple times, because every time I tried to do something conventional, the story screamed at me. The book is separated into four sections, Espacios negativos, Guerra, Escenas alternativas: Huerfanos, bastardos, y errores, and La vida ausente. The first and last sections are dialogues and monologues, intercut with dance interludes and the portraits. The second are short scenes and the portraits. And the third is a sort of deleted scenes section, where readers can see not only discarded scenes but also outtakes involving a character I cut out of the main story. The purpose for that? To give the reader an alternative experience of the book, as the deleted scenes include some of my absolute favorite discussions and dramatic moments, which just did not fit into the main narrative (or had snippets re-edited to be spoken by another character in a different context), but which stand on their own. I wanted the book to interact with the reader, to be a spectacle, the way the original oral stories were, throwing everything at the audience to keep them interested. Perhaps it sounds like a mess, but I prefer to think of it as a controlled demolition.
4. What is your literary philosophy?
Always entertain, and make sure you have something worthwhile to say. Otherwise, its just ego masturbation. Storytelling isn't rocket science. We aren't saving the world. We aren't making groundbreaking impacts that will shape mankind for generations. We aren't even doing our part to conserve trees, for fuck's sake. In the end, we are likely horrible people, so our one redeeming quality is telling a good story to challenge and entertain people so they can forget about their lives for however long they are in our presence. Move them intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, sexually, whatever. Just move them.
5. What is your advice for young writers?
I'd advise young writers to avoid conventions, writing groups, and anything else that reeks of the writing industry or writing community. That whole world is about being a sheep and appeasing people with not a damn clue as to what is good. You want to be a writer, read a lot of books and explore - your town, your state, your country, other countries, soak up all the knowledge you can. Listen to people, how they speak, their body language, the things they don't say. Avoid being a recluse. Socialize, be an interesting person, and most of all, don't be a writer, be a human being who writes. Work on the human being part, it'll aid you in everything else.