Interview - Carla Gulfenbein

CARLA GUELFENBEIN was born in Santiago, Chile, and lived in England for 11 years, where she took degrees at the University of Essex and Central St Martin's. Returning to Chile, she worked as Art  and Fashion Director for the magazine Elle, until she decided to become a full-time novelist.

After a very successful debut novel, The other side of the soul,  her second novel, The Woman Of My Life, was at the top of the best-seller for several weeks in Chile and was translated into 12 languages. The Rest is Silence is her third novel, and her first to appear in English translation. J.M Coetzee wrote: "As Carla Guelfenbein demonstrates in this intricately woven novel, the pursuit of individual fulfillment and happiness can lead ineluctably to tragedy. Subtle, clearsighted, and compassionate".

Whilst in exile in England, you studied Biology at the University of Essex and Design at St. Martin's School of Art. You then worked as Fashion Director for the magazine Elle before turning to writing. What prompted your change in career?

Writing has been perhaps my only steady love. I started writing short stories when I was a young girl. My mother - a philosophy teacher - kept them in a wooden box which I remember well. Unfortunately, when we had to flee Chile, during Pinochet´s dictatorship, we had to leave behind most of our treasures, and among them was the wooden box. When I moved to England with my family I was 17, and writing became a refuge where I could hide and escape from strangeness and loneliness. I never thought I would become a writer, because both reading and writing were something personal and private; a room of my own.

Why did I study biology? Because I was always puzzled by the mysteries of nature, and I thought that science was the best way to both, make a living, and fulfill my endless curiosity.

Your first novel El revés del alma was published in 2003. It’s about a Chilean photographer living in London who returns to her home after more than two decades abroad. What compelled you to write this novel and how autobiographical are the stories you tell?
When I first read what Henry James said about experience, I thought: yes, this is what it’s all about! He said that experience is a fine veil in our consciousness which captures the most delicate specks of dust. It made so much sense! Experience was what I lived but also what I listened to, and through, dreaming, saw. And in that sense everything I write about comes from my experience.

I came back to Chile, like Ana in my first novel, after more than ten years living in England. After such a long time, everything had changed in my country, the streets, the people, even the way people related to one other. I left as a teenager, and while I was discovering the world, my friends had grown-up in fear and silence under Pinochet´s rule. But it was not just them, I had also changed. I felt like an exile in my own land. I didn’t belong anywhere. And that was one of the strongest ideas I wanted to convey in my novels.

You and your family were forced to leave Chile in 1976 for political reasons. Many writers and intellectuals were persecuted under Pinochet.  Do you think writers, in particular, have a moral duty to produce work that contributes to change and / or to campaign against injustice?
Of course I do respect literature which conveys ideas about the world, they are part of human nature, but I do not think that literature has to become a pamphlet.  The moral duty of a writer is to escape from preconceived ideas, from dominant ways of seeing the world, to run as far away as possible from common places. The duty of the writer is to be truthful to himself, to his or her inner nature.

What is your narrative process and how do you turn your research into a novel?
I always remember the beautiful way in which Virginia Woolf described her writing.  She said that all of a sudden a character would appear in her consciousness, passing by very quickly, and when this happened, when the character turned his head and she could see his eyes, she knew she had to follow him/her, she knew the character was hers. This is very much how my stories start, by the sudden appearance of a character.

The Rest is Silence is about a fragile young boy, 12-year-old Tommy, with a heart condition. When he overhears a conversation about his mother’s suicide, he tries to uncover the truth about her death. The novel is also about the breakdown of a marriage. What inspired this story?
The first image I had in this novel was the one of a little boy hidden under a table in the middle of a wedding. He was recording the conversations of the adults with a small MP3. I didn’t know who he was, why he was isolated while the rest of the children were playing football in the park. But I knew I had a character, and I needed to know him.

The Rest is Silence is written from three different perspectives: That of a heart surgeon, his second wife and his son from a previous marriage. Do you find it hard to write from different gender and age perspectives?
I have always felt that reality doesn’t really exist, that reality is what we perceive from it. A same moment can be seen in a very different way by two people. A simple example is the difference in the perception of a torturer and the person he is torturing.  That is why I find it more satisfying to write from different points of views. Through the different voices and visions, I try to convey a kaleidoscopic image of reality, which is never complete, never final, and never categorical.

Memories are an important factor in The Rest is Silence. What is the role of memory in your narrative?
Again, I see memory in the same way that I see experience. Memory is essential to writing, but my memories are not only confined to what I have lived, but also to what I have dreamed. Good and bad dreams.

Who have been your biggest literary influences?
I started to read Virginia Woolf when I was pretty young, and even though sometimes I couldn’t understand the whole meaning of her stories, I loved her images, the sound the words made when she touched them. Later in life I found another author which has had a big influence on my writing, the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector.
There is an endless list of other authors who in different stages have been immensely influential like Tolstoy, Henry James, Nabokov and so many others.

Who do you consider to be the best Latin Americans writing today?
Unfortunately, the best Latin American writer of these times died a few years ago. Roberto Bolaño. Since his novels have been mainly shown to the world after his death, and there is a continual appearance of new books which have never been published before, his work can be considered to be amongst the best Latin American writing today

What’s your next literary project?
I have just finished writing my fourth novel: Naked Swimmers. It is going to be published next year, simultaneously in Latin America, Spain, Germany and France.

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