Interview: Chloe Aridjis

by Zett Aguado

Born to a Mexican father and an American mother, Chloe Aridjis spent her childhood in the Netherlands, where her father, author, poet, activist and diplomat Homero Aridjis, was ambassador. In 1980 the family relocated to Mexico City.

In the early eighties her parents organized two international poetry festivals. The experience of meeting such great poets as Jorge Luis Borges and Ted Hughes had a lasting effect on Aridjis, and throughout her adolescence she maintained a correspondence with several of them.

Upon graduating high school, Aridjis attended Harvard, earning her BA in Comparative Literature. Following brief spells as fact checker at the New Yorker and as stills photographer on her sister Eva Aridjis's films, Chloe decided upon returning to academia.This wish, compounded by a love of nineteenth-century French poetry, led her to Oxford, where she worked under Professor Malcolm Bowie, writing her thesis on Night and the Poetic Self in Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal.

Continuing under Malcolm Bowie's supervision, she completed a PhD at Oxford. The discovery of autobiographies by the magicians Etienne-Gaspard Robertson and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin inspired her to write about the interface between high and popular art in nineteenth-century France with a special focus on the relationship between poetry, magic shows and literature of the fantastic. Her thesis was later published in Spanish as Topografía de lo insólito: La magia y lo fantástico literario en la Francia del siglo XIX (Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 2005). In the spring of 2006, she gave a seminar on magic lanterns at Princeton, focusing on Robertson's spectacle of phantasmagoria.

During her years at Oxford, she began writing short stories as well as articles for various Mexican and British journals. After seven years in England she moved to Berlin, living there until late 2008. Apart from writing her first novel and a collection of short stories (Dialogue with a Somnambulist and Other Tales), Chloe Aridjis worked for the city's international literature festival, translating texts from German into English and Spanish as well as assisting in programming and voiceover. She also gave her first public reading at the festival, in September 2005.

In addition, she takes photographs, mostly portraits of writers and stills on her sister's films. She has translated several works by her father and is currently translating his childhood memoir, El poeta niño (1971), into English.

Her first novel, Book of Clouds, will be published by Grove Press/Black Cat in March 2009, and will also come out in England, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy this year.

—The obvious question. How and when did you start writing?

I can't even remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer, apart from when I fantasized about becoming an astronomer. But by the age of ten or so it was clear to me what I wanted to do. When my parents brought me home from the hospital, aged two or three days, the first thing my father did was show me his library and read out some of the titles. I grew up surrounded by books and meeting writers and hearing all kinds of tales so if nothing else, by pure osmosis either my sister or I was bound to become a writer. (She's a filmmaker). I spent my twenties in academia and studied literature at both an undergraduate and graduate level so I had to distance myself from those voices before feeling free. It wasn't until I moved to Berlin in 2003 that I began to devote myself, more or less full time, to writing.

—Your father, Homero Aridjis, is renowned worldwide for his achievements in the literary world, which include being the recipient of numerous rewards, Guggenheim Fellowships, and the position as President of International Pen, but he is also known for his extraordinary environmental achievements, including co-founding the Group of 100, an association of one hundred artists and intellectuals that are heavily involved in drawing attention to and solving environmental problems in Mexico. How has his life's work affected you? Do you feel it has helped you or, do you feel it loom above as a sort of 'how will I ever live up to this?' More simply, how does your psyche deal with being a writer, having come from a writer?

Of course it's not easy having a father who is a writer. When I decided to write, many years ago, I knew it would have to be in another language and in another genre. My father has written over a dozen novels but once a poet, always a poet. . .

It's hard to understand one's own psyche and the mysterious ways in which one manages to circumvent the blockages that arise over time. I'm sure that spending most of my twenties in academia rather than immediately starting to write after college was a reaction to something, and even now I often encounter serious concentration problems which are probably connected to an early anxiety. But who can say?

Did you ever feel pressured to pursue academia?

My mother was about to embark on a PhD in French literature at Columbia when she met my father and her life changed direction. My sister went to Princeton and then did an MFA in film at NYU's Tisch. I wouldn't describe either of them as academic, however, in the sense that their main impulses aren't guided by the theoretical or analytical. My father, meanwhile, never even finished middle school. He is a complete autodidact. There were no bookstores in his village. When he was 18 he moved to Mexico City to study journalism but that didn't last long. It was my mother who insisted my sister and I apply to universities in the US -- if it'd been up to us, we would probably have never left Mexico and would now be married to aged rock stars with fading tattoos.

The major craze the past twenty-some years has been for writers to pursue an MFA, leaving formally untrained writers to wonder: Is this what the world of literature requires? How do you feel about academia studies for writers?

I have always resisted taking any kind of writing workshop -- and I feel, pretty strongly, that if you can do without it, then do. Figure things out on your own. Read good books, read and continue reading. So much of the new fiction I see coming out of the US in particular (debut novels but also what's in all the short story journals) screams out Writing Workshop to me. It's banal and formulaic. All bases are covered and there's little room for the kind of beauty that can only emerge from a sense of chaos and inevitability. Plus, no one can teach you to have an imagination. A novel that you know has been workshopped by a group of people has less magic. I'm much more interested in reading a first novel in which the author might have a few things off than something written en petit comité.

Your mother, Betty Ferber, is also an environmental activist. How did your childhood experiences with two extraordinary individuals as parents inspire and influence you?

There are experiences I remember and experiences I don't remember. For instance, I have no recollection of the time Robert Lowell gently wrested the milk bottle from my hands and emptied the contents into his whiskey. Yet my parents have told me the story enough times that I've created a memory of it. I like thinking that it has influenced my literary tastes in some way—although of course, it probably hasn't!

A more concrete experience, which I also have trouble remembering but which certainly had a more lasting effect: my father would write with me, a newborn, in his arms. He used a typewriter back then, or else pen and paper. We've always had a profound connection, both emotional and literary, and it would take an entire volume with an appendix to explore the ways in which he has influenced me. One thing that has always inspired me, apart from his literary work, is his fiercely independent and nonconformist spirit. It is certainly something towards which I strive.

My mother too has been immensely important. None of us would be who we are without her, that's for sure. She is very much the mastermind behind the scenes and by far the most pragmatic and even-tempered person in the family.

Let's discuss nature and the respect of it.Where does your writing fit into this? Is it your voice? Your sword? Or is it something more emotional/inexplicable?

I have been a vegetarian since 1986. I respect that each individual has the right to decide what he or she eats. . .but I can't help feeling, after all these years, that as rational beings we have a moral imperative to respect the animal (and plant) kingdom as much as possible. I am continually horrified by the way animals are treated and I think everyone should watch the film "Earthlings" and be forced to confront, as uncomfortable as it may be, the brutal reality of how societies everywhere exploit animals. Is it really worth depriving a living creature of its one life for the fleeting pleasure of a meal that's almost immediately forgotten? I just can't find a way of justifying it.

My parents have had an environmental group, the Group of 100, since 1985. They have campaigned for the grey whale, the Monarch butterfly, the sea turtle, and against air pollution, the building of dams near archeological sites, and countless other problems in Mexico and beyond.

So far my writing has been very separate to my defense of animals and the environment. It is definitely something too emotional for me to be able to fictionalize or trivialize in any way by making it into art, although I have a few ideas for essays.

Your sister, Eva, is a film maker. How has her work inspired you and have you considered collaborating on a project?

My sister and I have a very similar vision yet we choose to express it in different ways, fortunately. I love her work and have always been completely behind her projects. She's now in Mexico preparing her next feature film, which will be wonderful, I think. She has been working on the script for a decade and the time has come to bring it to life.

We've often spoken about collaborating and have been writing a script together. We also plan to make a film based on a short story of mine. But there's no hurry, only the occasional impatience.

Has your constant geographical relocation affected you and your work?

I am the product of several migrations—my maternal great grandparents were Jews from Russia, Poland and Lithuania who settled in the US in the late nineteenth century, my paternal grandfather was a Greek from Smyrna and fought against the Turks before migrating to Brussels and then Mexico, and my maternal grandmother was the daughter of a Spaniard. I had a nomadic childhood (the Netherlands, Switzerland, New York and Mexico) and to this day can't imagine staying in the same place for more than two consecutive months without a small break in between.

Let's talk about Book of Clouds. What thoughts and ideas inspired you to write it?

Book of Clouds deals with the phenomenology of Berlin but it is certainly not only about Berlin. If I had to name the book's main theme, it would be urban alienation. And, within that, displacement and exile. For obvious reasons, I've always been much more interested in the psychology of solitary characters than that of gregarious ones.

Berlin is a city unlike any other. I have spent a great deal of time there, starting with the summers of 1986 and 1988. It was then my home from 2003-2008. Yet, it is such a strange, complex, layered place, I would never pretend to truly know it.

I am not the first, and certainly not the last, writer to be drawn to Berlin but each individual's experience is radically different. I tried to get this across in my novel: it is the ultimate city for projection, and everyone, both natives and foreigners, projects their own narrative on to it. In my book there are three main characters —a historian, a meteorologist and a neurotic—and each has his or her personal and specific reading of the place.

Was your short story collection also inspired by Berlin?

As for the short story collection, many of the ideas emerged while I was researching my doctoral thesis on nineteenth-century French poetry and magic shows. Two of my primary texts were the autobiographies of magicians Robertson and Robert-Houdin and via them I entered a world populated with automata and optical instruments and all kinds of wonderful illusions. I would also read pamphlets on somnambulism (which inspired my story Dialogue with a Somnambulist) and developed what will probably be a lifelong appreciation of the magic lantern. Other stories were inspired by certain people or atmospheres in London and Mexico.

Generally, what is your writing process like?

In general I am very erratic when it comes to work habits though I try to write daily. When I was living in Berlin I went to an art library Monday through Friday and spent most afternoons there. It was my favorite place to read and write and I hated the fact it wasn't open over the weekend. I would even go on days when I'd slept only two hours and felt too dazed to string together a sentence, just for the peace and quiet and anonymity. I've already found a very nice library in which to work when I move back to London this spring.

How long did it take you to write Book of Clouds? How long does it usually take you to finish most projects?

Book of Clouds went through many incarnations. The final version, however, took only three months to write—but that's because I finally had that eureka moment when you figure out what you're going to do and things unfold quite organically from there. It ceased to be a struggle. Originally, the story took place in Berlin with long flashbacks to Mexico. But I battled a great deal with the structure, which simply wasn't working, and finally split it into two separate narratives. This decision proved to be very liberating, as I could now invent a character in Berlin and leave behind the much more autobiographical material from Mexico. I felt unshackled and the Berlin story took a direction it would have never taken otherwise.

As for the duration of a project, it too varies enormously. My first published short story, The Kafka Society, took a few years—I wrote the first pages in the early days of my doctorate (always with the ending clear in my mind) and finished it a week after handing in my thesis. I tend to work on several short stories at once and jump between them depending on mood.

What was your experience with getting Book of Clouds published?

Again, this book took three months to write, but that was only after several earlier drafts. Once I felt (relatively) happy with the result, I contacted my godmother in New York, who is a literary agent, and asked her for advice. She recommended my agent Anna Stein, who she said was very smart and dynamic and represented lots of foreign writers, so I sent her my manuscript and we started working together shortly thereafter. She chose the editors to whom it was submitted that autumn and my editor Lauren Wein was among them. There was a bit of waiting involved before we received a formal offer from Grove but by then we had a feeling it might happen. But yes, the wait can be tantalizing. My editor was extremely respectful and hardly interventionist at all and we agreed on just about everything. I loved working with her.

Book of Clouds is in bookstores now. How does it feel to have your debut novel in the world?

The most terrifying thing about publication: the permanence of the printed word. It's there forever, or at least as long as the planet continues to exist.

And you have to recognize from the very start that not everyone is going to like what you write (and it would be awfully boring if they did).

Also, you can't control who reviews it: you may get a clever reader with a refined sensibility (who even if they don't like it will have something constructive to say) or you may have an illiterate fashionista passing judgment on your work. Either way, it's best not to read reviews and just keep writing. The moment you start caring what people say about you, you cease to be free.

How do other artists and the arts inspire you?

There are dozens of authors who have been extremely important to me, among them Gogol, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Proust, Cervantes, Poe, Horacio Quiroga, Borges, Baudelaire, Nerval, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Zbigniew Herbert, Bruno Schulz, Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, Raymond Carver, RL Stevenson, Novalis, Shakespeare, Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, WG Sebald, Robert Walser, Kawabata, Akutagawa, Lewis Carroll, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Gaston Bachelard, Freud, and many, many others. It would be hard to narrow down the list.

I also love cinema, especially Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bu´┐Żuel and Herzog. I recently watched "Kaspar Hauser" again and was amazed.

And of course, the magic lantern, as well as other instruments of optical illusion from pre-cinema days. Panoramas, zoetropes, phenakistoscopes and just about anything that ends in -trope. I'm so drawn to them that my friend Tom sometimes calls me Chloetrope.

Music has also been a constant companion, especially classical, and I often listen to piano when I'm writing. My favorite pianist of all time is Dinu Lipatti.

I'm rather skeptical of the contemporary art world but could not live without art from the past, especially painting. I rarely travel anywhere without visiting a museum and I collect images of St. Jerome and his lion.

Why have you chosen to collect images of St. Jerome and his lion?

The scholar in the wilderness. His bond with the lion from whose paw he removed a thorn. The scholar working while the lion, silent and vigilant, lingers in the background. These scenes never fail to move me.

What, outside of the arts, inspires you?

I have a little cat in Mexico who is nearly eighteen and when I'm home I feel most tranquil and inspired when she is by my side. She often visits me in my dreams when I'm abroad.

And friends. I am constantly feeling inspired by my friends and couldn't live without them, especially certain individuals in Mexico, London, Berlin, Paris, New York, LA, Rome, Sao Paulo and Budapest. (I hope I'm not forgetting anyone).

Advice for writers:

I think I will here take the liberty of quoting something a dear friend in London, an Irish playwright, recently wrote to me: "Keep your eyes on your lodestar. We don't do it to please. . . Applause is cheap (clowns and tap-dancers get it).

Buckle on your armour and don't believe the good or the bad. You've created a new thing. Take pride & courage."

I return to these words often.