Book club webchat with Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos RuizMumsnet book club was delighted to welcome award-winning author Carlos Ruiz Zafón in June 2013. He answered a selection of your questions about The Prisoner of Heaven, our May 2013 Book of the Month.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the author of six novels, including the international bestsellers The Shadow of The Wind and The Angel's Game. His work has been published in more than 40 different languages and honoured with numerous international awards. He chatted to Mumsnetters about writing, his cycle of novels and Barcelona.

Writing | Inspiration | Research | Translation | Barcelona | Other authors | Other stuff

 

Writing

The Prisoner of HeavenQ. BellaDesconocida: How do you begin writing a tale with such an intricate plot? Do you use some sort of flowchart or spider diagram?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I generate a lot of materials, outlines, lists, etc, but mostly I try to hold it all in my head. It is a matter of discipline. I believe that if I cannot juggle it all in my head and something falls off, it is meant to fall. If there are details I forget, or angles I overlook, it is because I could not fit it all in my brain and it was meant to be lost.

In a way that keeps me on my toes, alert, and allows me to be constantly repainting and redesigning the blueprint. I want to keep it organic and alive till the end, not to follow an old outline I set out years ago. So there are a million or a gazillion spider diagrams in my brain at all times, yes, but caffeine allows me to keep them on a leash. Or so I delude myself into believing.

Q. EmpressOfTheSevenOceans: I'd like to know whether you envisioned the whole Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle when you started The Shadow of the Wind, or whether it was originally going to be a single novel.

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: It always was going to be four books. I knew this from the beginning. My idea was to create a maze of stories, a kind of Chinese box of fictions with different points of entry and different ways of exploring the stories. That was the challenge and the original design.

Q. FairyArmadillo: How long did it take you to complete Shadow of the Wind, beginning with your imaginings for the plot. Reading the book reminds me of when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude 20 years ago, as a teenager.

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Thanks. It usually takes me about a year or a year and a half to write a book, regardless of the extension. That is the actual writing. It is harder to determine for how long things marinate in your brain until you decide it is time to take them to the desk and start working on them, though.

Q. brendarenda: Despite the brutality and the downright evil of some of the characters (not to mention the violence of this particular period in history), the book doesn't feel at all bleak or depressing. On the contrary, there's an overriding sense of love and humanity, and even humour. I was left feeling uplifted by the good in people. Is this deliberate?

"The books try to explore all things in life so hopefully despite all the drama and tragedy in them, there's also light and hope and redemption. There's good and bad in all of us, so there should be also in the characters…"

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The books try to explore all things in life so, hopefully, despite all the drama and tragedy in them, there's also light and hope and redemption. There's good and bad in all of us, so there should be also in the characters.

Q. alialiath: I would like to ask if you have a writing routine and, if so, what it involves?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I do, of course, because writing is my job and all jobs require discipline. It is a complicated process that changes as the work in the book advances. But I can tell you I write in my own studio, closed to the world, follow strict and long hours, and write and rewrite everything to death, and then rewrite it all again.

Writing a novel is like building a gothic cathedral made out of words. You plan, design, executive, build, correct, rebuild, redesign and work, and work on something for months or years until it is done.

Q. TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice to anyone attempting to write fiction?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: To begin with, read a lot and without prejudice. Read all sorts of things, genres and authors. Pay no attention to what self-appointed experts, professional snobs and thought-mongers try to sell you. Use your brain, don't parrot what others tell you you should think, say and do. Read. If you don't, don't even try to write. People who say they want to write and do not read are on the road to delusion.

Then, analyse and try to figure out how writers do what they do. Figure out the techniques, the devices, the engineering of it all. Work the language. Language is everything. And then write, write, write, and then rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. Then rewrite again.

Writing is a craft, a job, a profession, not something that comes out of thin air or is whispered into your ear by the muses in a bout of magical inspiration. That is utter nonsense. Writing is hard work, like anything else in life that it is worth the trouble. If you want to be a writer, work hard, learn harder and respect the craft you are trying to acquire. Same goes for any profession in the world, I think. Be prepared to write hundreds or thousands of pages nobody will ever read before you write a paragraph anybody will ever read.

I suppose I could say things like "follow your heart and find your own voice" and all sorts of sweet baloney like that, but the truth is all that is rubbish and I would do you a disservice.

Q. WriteOff: Carlos, when did you start wanting to be a writer? And how do you go about writing your novels? Do you begin at the beginning? With a character? With an image? Do you stop and start?

"Somehow I always knew I would be a writer, or else. Even before I learned to read and write, and I learned very, very early on, I was making up stories and telling them."

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Somehow I always knew I would be a writer, or else. Even before I learned to read and write, and I learned very, very early on, I was making up stories and telling them. Soon I was putting them on paper.

To address your specific questions, I usually do begin with a theme and an image. That image to me is a visual metaphor, a kind of motif that compels me to explore a world and try to find the story behind it. I do plan and outline and design - overdesign really - things, and stylise the crap, pardon my French, out of everything.

I do create the characters in layers, as I do the plots and the structure, and I write not necessarily in a linear way, but often going back and forth rewriting things endlessly until I feel the engine works and does what it is supposed to do.

It is a hard process to summarise because it is complex and takes many months per book. I guess a good comparison would be the way you shoot a film, in which you write a script, design, cast, create sets, start to shoot, repeat shoots, edit, do postproduction, add music, effects, redo it all, etc.

I tend to try to look at the big picture, which is made of an infinite number of smaller pictures which, on their own, contain yet many more layers of smaller pictures. I build them one at a time and keep working until I have something I can work with. But mostly the work is in the language, the mise en scene, the staging, the storytelling... the plot is just a device to engage all that.

Q. GirlOutNumbered: Is it difficult to know that you have finished a book? Do you have to be 100% happy with what you have written, or do you find you could just keep on changing the book indefinitely.

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: It is a good question. You could go on refining and, probably, ruining things out of insecurity. To me the right point is when I know that the engine I've built cannot be made any better. Not because it cannot be better, which it always can, but because I don't know how to and since I designed and built it, no one else can. At that point, once I feel I've taken things as far as I could and I sense that what I've done is close enough to what I set out to do, I lock the book and nobody touches a comma of it.

Q. EmpressOfTheSevenOceans: I wanted to comment on how very vivid your characters are. Your descriptions - Bea talking to the Professor while Daniel is behind her, for instance - are like paintings. Do you see them all in your head, and do you ever glimpse someone on the street and think they resemble one of your characters?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I do tend to think in images. It is the way my brain is wired and to me it is extremely important to stage well that visual presentation of the story in the theatre of your mind. To me these aspects of the storytelling are essential and a great deal of effort goes into shaping them. Ideally, I would like you to feel the textures, the light, the sounds, the movement, the colours... I aim for all this when I write, because I feel it is important to provide the reader with the most intense reading experience.

 

Inspiration

Q. littlewifey: Is The Cemetery of Forgotten Books inspired by a real location?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Not really. I suppose it is somewhat inspired by many of the secondhand bookstores I have visiting all of my life, many of them in the west coast of the US.

If there's a place that could claim the title of inspiration for it, I guess it would be the great, sadly departed bookstore called Acres of Books that used to be in Long Beach, California. I first heard of that place in a piece by Ray Bradbury, an angeleno, and visited it on my first trip to L.A many years ago. It was a wonderful, cavernous catacomb of books that I visited many, many times over the years until its sad demise when it fell prey to, surprise, real estate speculators.

Q. ItsOkayItsJustMyBreath: Fermin is such a strong yet funny character, is he based on anyone in particular? He is so beautifully described I can still picture him in my mind even though it has been years since I last read Shadow of the Wind.

"Fermin is basically a big part of me, an embodiment of my sense of humor and my own personal view of the world. He is like 30% of my brain dressed in shabby clothes, dumped in the wrong place at the wrong time and trying to figure out how to survive."

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Fermin is basically a big part of me, an embodiment of my sense of humour and my own personal view of the world. He is like 30% of my brain dressed in shabby clothes, dumped in the wrong place at the wrong time and trying to figure out how to survive.

To me Fermin is the moral centre of the story and one of two or three characters I feel personally closer to.

Q. TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I cannot really pick up the ONE book. It would be too hard to choose just one. For me it was ALL books, the promise and magic of storytelling, the music of language and its architecture. I was fascinated by words, images, sounds - anything you could use to create a story, a world...

Q. margop: Who or what inspires you most to write?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Hard to say, really. It is what I do. I have always written, since I was a child. All I've ever done is make up things and tell them. I think I came this way out of the factory. I always knew, as a child, that I would be a writer and would make a living telling stories, shaping words and images.

I am inspired by life, by what I see inside and outside of myself, by my experiences, my memories... and of course if there's somebody who's been an inspiration it is the love of my life, my wife MariCarmen, for whom I really write all my stories first, and then share them with the world.

 

Research

Q. HazelDormouse: How did you do the research for this novel series? Were you able to talk to anyone who was imprisoned for political reasons in Franco's Spain? 

I believe you implied in a brief interview in the back of The Prisoner of Heaven that this is a 'game of chess'. If this is the case, who are the players: Valls and Fermin, with Daniel merely being a King or Knight? Can Daniel be an opponent if he doesn't really know the rules of game (in particular in Shadow of the Wind) and is at first being taken along with the action?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I didn't really research anything specifically because I am using the things I know about my hometown and the history of the place I was born and raised in. I am always trying to learn things about a lot of stuff. Then, years later, I end up using 1% of that in a story I am working on, but I rarely, if ever, do specific research for a book.

"As for the chess game, well, it is indeed, but not just between the characters but also between the books themselves and the reader."

I write about what I know well and feel confident in being able to approach in a solid manner. As for the chess game, well, it is indeed, but not just between the characters, but also between the books themselves and the reader. The whole quartet of novels of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is designed as a moving labyrinth of stories that keeps rearranging itself until the end. Once the final fourth book is done, I think this design will be more self-evident. I hope to meet you there for the checkmate, doll.

Q. Umlauf: You paint a raw and incredibly emotive picture of life during the civil war and how it has touched the lives years later of Daniel's generation. How did you go about researching this period, and did you find it challenging, considering the 'pacto de olvido?'

Also, will we see more of Daniel and co, and what are you working on next?

"You will see plenty more of Daniel, Fermin and all the gang in the final and fourth book of the series, the big bang operatic grand finale on which I am working right now."

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: You will see plenty more of Daniel, Fermin and all the gang in the final and fourth book of the series, the big bang, operatic grand finale on which I am working right now.

As for historical accuracy and research, well, I try to be as honest and objective about things as I can. I know a lot about the Spanish civil war from what I have learned and from what I have inherited, so to speak, from my family and the historical memory of the country. I just try not to be preachy or judgmental or manipulative about it. I try to take the reader there, and to allow the reader to judge by herself, standing side by side with the characters.

 

Translation

Q. brendarenda: Does you work with your translators to make sure they convey this atmosphere effectively? Or do you just leave them to it? 

"As one of my heroes, Orson Welles, said: atmosphere is everything. And who are we to argue with Orson? Translation? Nothing lost there. I am extremely involved, to say the least, in the process and I do personally rewrite, edit and refine a lot of it until I think it is perfect and you don't lose a precious ounce of it."

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: As one of my heroes, Orson Welles, said: atmosphere is everything. And who are we to argue with Orson? Translation? Nothing lost there. I am extremely involved, to say the least, in the process and I do personally rewrite, edit and refine a lot of it until I think it is perfect and you don't lose a precious ounce of it.

Plus, I believe readers in English have a huge misconception about the translation process. They seem to believe translators 'rewrite' the books, add things or shape them in any way. That is not translating. A translation, if well done, is invisible and gives you the original, nothing less and certainly nothing more.

Q. colourhappy7: Is Lucia an utter genius and does her translation utterly adhere to every word, or does she rewrite it into English with slight alterations to the original? How closely do you work with her on the translation? Do you talk face to face? Is it a collaboration, or do you simply send her the manuscript and liaise online?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Lucia is very talented, which is why she does not, repeat, does not rewrite anything. That is not what translators do. For some reason readers in English are convinced that when something is translated into their language it is entirely reshaped, rephrased, rewritten and remade. It is not the case.

And I do work very closely with her, rewriting, re-editing and redoing everything I feel is necessary, so when you read the translation you read just that, which is, an exact and precise transposition of the original. Nothing else, nothing more.

Q. piruletas: What do you think about the translations? A lot is lost in those translations. Does it not bother you? Do you agree? 

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I addressed the translation issue in other answers, so in the spirit of expediency, I won't repeat it here. But yes, language is everything in literature and stories are actually not about 'what they are about' but about how they're told, how the storytelling works and how the language is articulated. That is what determines the reader's experience, not the plot.

 

Barcelona

Q. EstelleGetty: Barcelona is such a wonderful city and your descriptions of different locations are incredibly evocative. I would love to know what your favourite places in the city are. I love the church of Sant Pere de Puelles in Born.

"Barcelona is my mother, so to speak. I know the place better than the back of my hand and there's a lot of it I like and lot of if I don't."

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Hard to give you a quick list of my favourite places. Barcelona is my mother, so to speak. I know the place better than the back of my hand and there's a lot of it I like and lot of if I don't. I tend to be more interested in the parts of the city developed during the late 19th century and the early 20th. They're scattered across town, not just in the most touristic areas of the old town.

I would suggest you get a very good book written about 'my Barcelona' by a great journalist called Sergi Doria. He takes the Barcelona from my books and explores it from a historical perspective and gives you the best tour imaginable of the city. You'll see there that my favourite places fill an entire book!

Q. TeaforRoo: We were in Barcelona on St Georges day, without being aware of the significance of that day in the Catalan calendar. We came across the crowd waiting for you to sign your books, do you always get that kind of reception in Barcelona? I have read Angel's Game and very much enjoyed it. I wondered who your main influences were and whether Jorge Luis Borges was one of them.

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Yes, I do always get a very nice and generous welcome from the readers in my hometown. The day of St George, the day of the book, in Catalonia is a huge deal, a great festival of books with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets celebrating books.

I do have many influences really, too many to mention. Borges is, of course, a writer I enjoy, but I don't honestly think he's one of the strongest influences. In a way, for a writer, everything you read and see influences you, makes you think and reconsider things, prompts you to analyse and observe how the stories are told, how the language is being worked... It is very hard to list influences in an honest and realistic way, I believe.

Q. lambfam: Is there any other city that inspires you in the same way that Barcelona does?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Many cities inspire me. The world is a big place and full of fascinating locales. For these books I decided to use my own hometown because I think all writers, at some point, want to deal with their own roots and contribute however a minute grand of sand they can to them. But there are plenty of places filled with promise of story, of course. Stories come from people, from human nature, not from places.

 

Other authors

Q. UnsureOfOutcome: Hey Carlos, I liked what you said about grappling with your hometown: "All writers, at some point, want to deal with their own roots and contribute however a minute grand of sand they can to them." Which are the other books, in your opinion, that "contribute a grain of sand" to their authors' cities? And do you think certain cities lend themselves more easily to being written about?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Many writers have added to the myth and lore of the places they lived. Think of Dickens, or Balzac, or Hugo, or Raymond Chandler or so many others that have practically invented our entire imagery stock of certain places and periods. I believe all places lend themselves to be written about, because it is never about those places really, it is about the human experience, about life, about what is your heart and mind. Without that, those places are just stone and dust. The story is in your soul, not on the tramcar rails...

Q. TheBirdsFellDownToDingADong: I'd like to ask what contemporary (and non) Spanish writers you would recommend. My favourite-ever book by a Spanish writer (and one I reread often) is Requiem por un Campesino Espanol (no tilde on keyboard, sorry) and some of the descriptive passages in Wind have that kind of sad, quiet evocation for me.

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon Spanish writers to recommend? Well, there's plenty... Besides Cervantes, focusing on the 20th century and the present I would say Carmen Laforet, Merce Rodoreda, Eduardo Mendoza, Arturo Perez Reverte, Javier Marias, Maria Dueñas and many, many others. These are very different authors, and you may like some more than others. My advice is always to pick up a book, open it on the first page and start reading. You should know if that book is for you and you're in good hands on a single paragraph or page. Read without prejudice, do not listen to canons or lists made by people with dubious agendas on what is "good or bad". Use your own criteria and explore.

The book you mention is by, I think, Ramon J. Sender, a Spanish great writer of the 20th century. He has plenty of books, and I would recommend his series of coming of age novels called Crónica del Alba (Chronicle of Dawn) or in a relatively similar vein Gonzalo Torrente Ballester's trilogy of Los Gozos y las Sombras. Go get 'em!

Q. TillyBookClub: What was the last book you read, and what would be the book you recommend right now?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Last book I read was Joyce Carol Oates' (one of my favorite authors) The Accursed, a tremendous post-modern gothic of epic proportions. I would recommend a delicious novel by Jess Walter called Beautiful Ruins published last year. Very well done.

 

Other stuff

Q. Calypso2: I'm interested that the books are described as a cycle of books. Do you really think it doesn't matter in which order you read them? I hadn't previously read Shadow of the Wind and immediately went out and bought it after Prisoner but as I'm reading it I keep feeling like I wish I'd read this story first. Do you find people's reactions to your books are different depending on what order they've read them in?

"The idea is that you should be able to read the books in any order. The way you choose to explore the labyrinth of stories will determine the different angles in which you experience the world, the characters... "

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The idea is that you should be able to read the books in any order. The way you choose to explore the labyrinth of stories will determine the different angles in which you experience the world, the characters... Most people read them in the order they're published, but you could revisit them in different orders and see how each one of the books allows you to reinterpret the other stories in a different light. Be adventurous - and enjoy!

Q. Mems: My question is about magic realism. It seems to be a real feature of Spanish-South American culture and I was wondering whether you could comment on why you thinks this is.

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The great writer Gene Wolfe said once that magic realism is simply fantasy written by people with Spanish names, and I tend to agree. I think magic realism is mostly a purely marketing label originated sometime ago in the publishing industry to market and distribute certain types of fiction, nothing else. Much has been made about it and 99% of it is baloney. In fact, Spain has little connection with South American culture, that's another myth.

For good or bad, Spain is just another country in Western Europe and its cultural and social framework is very much that of its European neighbours. And so called magic-realism is virtually non-existent in the literature of Spain. What we refer to as magic realism, that subtle blur of the lines between realism and fantasy in literary fiction, is something that exists in all literary traditions and has been present for a long time.

Interestingly enough, there are still many silly and false stereotypes about 'Spanish culture' floating around that don't make any sense and have little, if any, real foundation. But I guess they sell, so somebody makes sure they're perpetuated. Don't believe the hype, though. Literature is literature and it has no nationality. There's more magic realism in Kate Atkinson's last novel, for instance, than in the last 15 years of Spanish literature. But she is not named Catalina Aldaya, so nobody even thinks of labelling it as such, or to call Margaret Atwood's latests novels Sci-fi or...

Q. TillyBookClub: Would you say you were political, or do you feel disenchanted with Spanish (or general, for that matter) politics?

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I am extremely sceptical, to say the least, about politics, dogma, ideologies and any other form of organised and controlled thought. I think Fermin conveys this, because he and I tend to think very similarly, although he is a tad more over the top than I am in his delivery.

Spanish politics are, like most nations' politics, simply a struggle for control of power and resources, the articulation of greed, moral narcissism and defense of private interests under the guise of grandiose and phony discourses on morals and public policy. Oldest profession in the world, really.

Q. salsasusan: Shadow of the Wind is the best book I have ever read. I was spellbound. The Angels Game had me transfixed too. Can't wait to read the new one - going to save it and read it by the pool on holiday.

A. Carlos Ruiz Zafon: I'll keep visualising you in a red bikini reading that one. Oops, that was Fermin talking. I apologise...

Last updated: over 1 year ago