Interview - Horacio Castellanos Moya

Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in Honduras and raised in El Salvador. Throughout his career as a journalist and author, he has lived in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Germany and Japan, among others.

In 2006 he came to Pittsburgh as an exiled writer-in-residence for City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, and currently he teaches at the University of Iowa. His books, translated into English by Katherine Silver, include Senselessness (New Directions), The She Devil in the Mirror (Alma Books) and, more recently, Tyrant Memory (New Directions).

Senselessness: An alcoholic, atheist, sex-obsessed writer finds himself employed by the Catholic Church (an institution he loathes) to edit the testimonies of the survivors of slaughtered Indian villages. The writer's job is to tidy up the 1,100 page report: Mesmerized by the eerie poetry of the Indians' phrases, the increasingly agitated and frightened writer is endangered twice over: by the spell exerted over his somewhat tenuous sanity by the strangely beautiful heart-rending voices, and by real danger. The Church is hunting the military, but the military is still in charge of the country, and our booze-soaked writer is soon among the hunted - or is he paranoid?

Lucy Popescu: What inspired you to write Senselessness?

Horacio Castellanos Moya: Perhaps fear and anguish. I started to write that book in the last days of 2002, in Mexico City, when my only choice for getting an income was to get a job in Guatemala as a political editor of an opposition daily newspaper. I didn’t want to go, because to be a political journalist in Guatemala is risky, but that was my only option. I wrote a third part of the book while I was waiting to move from Mexico to Guatemala. So, I guess, as the main character of the novel doesn’t want to think about the report he is copyediting, I started the book to stop thinking about the fact that I was going again inside the lion’s mouth.

LP: How easy is it to balance the absurd with the more serious context of your work?

HCM: Sometimes the absurd is very serious, and the serious is ridiculous.  But usually I don’t think about that. I just write the story as it comes. That was the case with Senselessness. Once I got into the character’s mind, I just kept moving ahead compulsively.

LP: Do you think literature can help deal with trauma?

HCM: Most of the indigenous victims and survivors of massacres are poor and illiterate. Literature is a privilege they don’t have access to. There is no way literature can help them to deal with their traumas. What they need is psychological and economic support, and mainly justice.

The She-Devil in the Mirror:  Laura Rivera can’t believe what has happened. Her best friend has been killed in cold blood in the living room of her home, in front of her two young daughters. Nobody knows who pulled the trigger, but Laura will not rest easy until she finds out. Her delirious, hilarious and blood-curdling monologue carries the reader on a rough-and-tumble ride through the social, political, economic and sexual chaos of post-civil-war San Salvador. A detective story of pulse-quickening suspense, The She-Devil in the Mirror is also a sober reminder that justice and truth are more often than not illusive.

LP: What is your process to get inside the minds of your characters?

HCM: I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like a gift: a voice starts to sound in my ear. At the beginning it comes once in while. But if it grows and I cannot shut it up, I know I’m going inside the mind of the character. Then I just have to follow it, leaving myself in the backroom.

LP: Do you find it difficult to write from the female perspective?
HCM: As I said, I just do it if the voice comes. Of course I have a kind of profile of the female character: age, social status, mentality, etcetera. But this planning is useless if the voice doesn’t come. Sometimes I believe the common saying is true, that novels are already inside the writer and that you just have to listen to them.


Tyrant Memory: Pro-Nazi mystic Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez - known as the Warlock - came to power in El Salvador in 1932. An attempted coup in April, 1944, failed, but a general strike in May finally forced him out of office. Tyrant Memory takes place during the month between the coup and the strike. Its protagonist, Haydee Aragon, is a well-off woman, whose husband is a political prisoner and whose son, Clemente, after prematurely announcing the dictator’s death over national radio during the failed coup, is forced to flee when the very much alive Warlock starts to ruthlessly hunt down his enemies. The novel moves between Haydee’s political awakening in diary entries and Clemente’s frantic and often hysterically comic efforts to escape capture.

LP: What is the role of memory in your narrative?

HCM: I guess it is very important, and in this novel it is essential – its title is very explicit. Once I said that my identity as a man and as writer is based on memory, and that most of the time I write about the events that have hurt or affected my psyche. Salvadoran history has been a very cruel history. And there are situations when personal, family and historical memories mingle. Members of my family got involved in the putsch against general Martínez. That is why the memory of that period was very important for me.

LP: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to document a time most people probably want to forget?

HCM:  Sometimes I feel a sense of responsibility to document a time that I’m concerned with, and I’m not thinking about whether people want to forget it or not. It is a personal matter. I’m not an historian. If the impulse doesn’t come from my guts I don’t write fiction on any issue.

LP: How did you turn your research into this novel? Did you use record cards? Diagrams? Character dossiers?

HCM:  Basically I worked following a timetable of the period. With regard to the characters, some of them had already showed up in other books. Tyrant memory was the third novel on members of the Aragon family, a kind of saga of four novels. The first two were Donde no estén ustedes (Where you were not) and Desmoronamiento (Collapse), that have not yet been translated into English. And the last one, La sirvienta y el luchador (The Wrestler and the Maid), was published in Spain this year.

LP: You were forced into exile because of your 1997 novel Revulsion. How do readers in El Salvador receive your work now?

HCM: I don’t complain. Once a year I go there and have readings and the public reacts positively – of course, there will always be guys that don’t like me and don’t like my work. But let me tell you, the reason it is not so easy to get my books in El Salvador is not for political reasons, but because of the market. My books are published in Spain and when they reach El Salvador the price becomes very high. Also, there are not so many readers in El Salvador.

LP: What compels you to write?

HCM: I started to write in a country where writing didn’t give you any status or money. By that time, in that place, to be a writer was synonymous with being subversive. I guess since the beginning,I have felt the urge to write because of a necessity of expression, because of the perception that I don’t fit in any place, because I know that I’m survivor, because I want to get rid of what infects me, and for a sense of revenge. I have felt the urge to write because of a necessity of expression, because of the perception that I don’t fit in any place, because I know that I’m survivor, because I want to get rid of what infects me, and for a sense of revenge.

LP: Which authors inspire you?

HCM: It depends on the period of my life. But I always go back to Sophocles, to the French moralists (La Rochefoucald, La Bruyere, Chamfort), to the novels written during the last years of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Recently, when I’ve felt blocked and desperate, I reread Schopenhauer, Canetti, Cioran.

LP: What do you have planned next?

HCM: I’m not used to making plans. I take what life gives me. I guess I’ll be teaching for some years here in Iowa City, and perhaps there is another novel inside me and I have to look for it. In the coming weeks a collection of my essays is going to be published in Chile.

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