Why Miami?
Because Miami is where I was born, where I grew up, and where I live. There are many places in the world I love: lounging on the second floor of that bookstore with the great name, there on Rua Visconde de Pirajá in Ipanema, drinking caipiroskas on the Avenida Vieira Souto until the sky starts to lighten. I love the swans in Regent’s Park in London, the sunlit quiet of Île de Saint-Louis in Paris, almost anywhere in northern Italy.

But Miami feels like an extension of my skin. When I am away, I miss the royal palms and poincianas, the turquoise water and the light. I miss the mix of languages, the toggling between English and Spanish or English and French, all within the same sentence. Everyone here has a story to tell.

OK, so let’s start with a few of the stories themselves, like “Braulio Wants His Car Back.” There’s something about Braulio’s voice that sounds like he is speaking Spanish, not English.
That’s because I wrote the story so that it sounded like working class Cuban Spanish, but I did it in English. I didn’t translate the story from Spanish to English. I heard Braulio’s voice in Spanish and somehow it came out in English.

Do Braulio and Pepe Luis remain friends?
Just barely. Pepe Luis wins not the Lotto itself, but one of the smaller prizes, and buys the biggest house in Braulio’s neighborhood, two doors down. He and his wife, Clara, set up some kind of business there, more of a scam, really, the nature of which Braulio can’t pin down. He sees people going in and out all the time. He finds cars parked in his driveway, which annoys him to no end. Braulio’s son is kicked out of the police academy. Rafaelito is working as a security guard in a condo building somewhere up on Collins Avenue, near Little Buenos Aires. He’s dating a Russian woman eight years his senior, which upsets his parents. Braulio’s wife gets her Cadillac, albeit used. She parks it in an assigned spot in the employee lot of the telescope factory in Hialeah, where she works as a quality control inspector.

Are you writing a sequel?
I don’t have enough for another story. I just know what happens to them. Braulio is forthcoming that way.

How do you write? What’s your routine like? Do you write in longhand or on a computer?
I wake at 3:30, make myself a double shot of espresso and sit at my desk at 4:00. On a good day, I’ll write about 1,000 words, from 4:00 until 7:00. On a bad day, I may not write at all. I use a small laptop that weighs less than two pounds. I've learned not to edit until I'm done, something that isn’t easy to do on a computer. Editing before the time is right can stop all forward motion. For revisions, I print it all out, then correct on paper.

Do you ever write a first draft in longhand?
Sometimes. Parts of it, anyway. Writing by hand helps me push through a difficult spot. It slows me down when I need slowing down. Whatever works.

In “Coup d’État” – the title makes me think – Chávez was overthrown one night in April 2002, right? A few hours later, he’s back in power. Benny looks as if he is about to lose Iris, but in the end, they are still together, maybe closer than before.
The nexus between the real world and the story is the explosion at the consulate, which is ironic because it never happened. After that, the direction of the narrative reverses. Chávez returns to power and Iris goes back to Benny.

But it was Benny who blew up the Venezuelan consulate?
I don’t know. Really.

How can you not know? I thought writers were supposed to know their own stories.
Well, this writer doesn’t. I know only as much as my characters tell me. And in Benny’s case, that was very little. I know what the reader knows: That Benny was unstable. That he bought what looked like chemical bottles. That he became flustered when they spilled out of the paper bags and the nameless narrator saw them. That he hated Chávez. And that there was an explosion at the Venezuelan consulate, after which Benny disappeared.

Who are your favorite writers?
There are so many different things to admire in someone’s writing that I can’t single out a favorite writer anymore. It was different in my early teenage years. I started reading science fiction as a boy and the occasional salacious novel. I read Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, A.E. Van Vogt, and Mario Puzo.

How old were you when you read “The Godfather.”
I was in eighth grade. That’s what – thirteen? I snuck the paperback from my mother’s room. She never suspected anything, even when I ate spaghetti for breakfast. I’m like that with books. Two years later, when I read Solzhenitzyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” I was picking up bread crumbs off the table with the tips of my fingers. Bad manners, for sure, but what could I do? The book made me hungry.

How about when you were a little older?
In tenth grade, a nun at school gave me a paperback copy of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Vonnegut was required reading in the higher grades. Somebody had left a copy of the book lying around and she gave it to me. I can’t tell you how much reading that book changed my life. I started writing short stories. Two were even published in the school literary magazine. This was about the same time that I realized I was forgetting Spanish, so I taught myself to read in that language. In college, the writers from the “Boom” period were, as a whole, extremely important to me – García Márquez, Cortázar, Borges, and Onetti. Many years after college, I took time off and read or re-read everything from Homer to Hemingway, this time with a writer’s eye. Things started to come together, to make sense. Since then, I’ve kept my reading as broad as I can.

“Faith” impressed me for its cinematic quality. At times, it reads like a script.
I wanted it to read as if you were watching the events unfold through a hand-held camera, with shaky movements and rough cuts. I used unconventional punctuation to do that, but it caused problems. In some passages, it wasn’t clear who was speaking. The punctuation got in the way of the story. Both my editor, Brandy Vickers, and my copy editor, Jayne Yaffe Kemp, at Houghton Mifflin, wisely counseled me to revert to more conventional punctuation. They were right. And the story still reads the way I envisioned it.

Was it difficult for you to give up on your experiment?
It was difficult to admit that I couldn’t get it to work the way I wanted it to work. I wanted clean lines, without quotation marks, and few commas. But you have to do what is best for the story. If something doesn’t work, change it.

Have films played a significant role in your writing?
For sure. I grew up with films. Skolimowski’s “Barrier,” and Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” were two films that influenced me greatly in my teenage years. Each time I watch “8 1⁄2,” “La dolce vita,” “L’avventura,” and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen them, I learn something new. The only problem with great films is that when you’re done, you can’t watch anything else for a while. Great novels are the same. You finish Coetzee’s “Disgrace” and it’s at least a week before you can start anything else. A bad book, on the other hand, makes me pick up something else immediately, as if to wash it out of my system.

But you can learn something, even from a bad book.
It’s easier to spot why one book is bad than it is to identify and assimilate why another is good.

In “Faith,” there’s a lot of religious symbolism in the story.
Is it religious? Trip Perez believes he can exploit any tragedy to serve his career. He has an overriding faith in himself. In spite of his arrogance, we know that he is a flawed, insecure man. But he does succeed. Our world rewards men like that. At the other extreme, we have the unnamed man in the hardware store, who accepts what he cannot change. “It’s God’s will,” he says when he’s asked on camera what he thinks of the hurricane right before it strikes. And we never hear another word from him.

When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
When I realized that writing was the one thing, more than anything else, that I wanted to do. Some people discover this early and happily exploit their fate. It took me a little longer to accept mine.

It sounds like it is some kind of punishment.
It’s not. But it is something that, if you ignore it, will diminish you.

You won the 2005 Bakeless Prize for Fiction, given by Middlebury College, for your book, “The Last Flight of José Luis Balboa.” Tell me something about that?
When I was a student at Bread Loaf in 2004, someone handed me a pamphlet about the Bakeless prize. My first thought was that I had no chance of winning, but that working with the deadline would force me to finish some stories. At that time, I had about 30,000 words of stories in different stages of completion.

You really didn’t think you had any chance of winning?
I was certain that I would lose. As the deadline approached, I pulled one all-nighter after another. And still, I never entertained the thought that I might win. When they called me a few months later with the news that I had won, it was like – “Oh no!” I felt an unalloyed happiness like I’d never felt before. I emailed my writing teacher, Leejay Kline, to whom I dedicated the book, with what I thought was an epiphany. “I finally understand why beauty queens cry,” I wrote. He shot back, “You’re no beauty queen, pal.” It’s been over a year since I got the call and I haven’t touched ground yet.

“Melancholy Guide Through the Country of Want” seems dreamlike to me, like we are not in a real place.
Ugo lives with unfulfilled wants that become more real than reality itself.

Did Ugo kill Ana María?
No, no, no. Remember, it was so dark by the artificial pond that Ugo could barely see. I think she fell back into the pond, hit her head on something, was knocked unconscious, and drowned.

But the police suspected foul play.
I don’t know why they reached that conclusion, circumstantial evidence, I suppose. Ugo is incapable of hurting anyone. He is almost unfit to live in this world.

To return to your comment about the dreamlike quality, if I wrote “Faith” as if it were shot with a hand-held camera, “Melancholy” is in soft focus, using long, Antonioni-like shots – the lunch left to rot by the pool, Ugo nestled in the vines behind Ana María’s house, or sitting in the library of his house, watching the gardeners cut the lawn until they disappear in the distance.

What other writers’ works have inspired you?
“Melancholy” owes a lot to the Uruguayan writer, Juan Carlos Onetti. Throughout the book, there’s some Hemingway and Nabokov and even a little of the Peruvian writer, Alfredo Bryce Echenique. He likes to write sentences that loop forward in time, come around to the immediate past, then settle on the present, before pressing forward with the narrative. A brief passage in “A Natural History of Love” is structured that way.

“Bay at Night” doesn’t happen in Miami, does it? Why did you include it in your collection?
You’re right. It takes place on the wide boulevard in Havana known as el malecón, but the story is about a couple from Miami. The doctor’s wife is dying of cancer and her last wish is to go to Cuba, a country she has heard many things about her entire life, but never seen. Both she and her husband were born in Havana in the late fifties and were flown to Miami as infants, too young to remember anything. The doctor was opposed to returning on political grounds. He gave in because his wife was dying and because he felt guilty about having put his research before his marriage.

Does she eventually die of her cancer?
The cancer has spread to her brain, which is why she sees flashing lights. She refuses all treatment and dies 29 days after they return to Miami. The doctor mourns her for six months. Two years after that, he marries a pretty 27-year-old, named Karina. And a year after that, they have the first of three children, whom they name Tristan.

Do you need to know all these things that happen to your characters off-camera, so to speak, before you can write a story about them?
Yes. I can spend months writing what turns out to be background notes.

Humberto Castaño is an odd, even a funny guy, at first, spying on his daughter at the mall like that. Then he turns out to be a real creep.
I started to write a story about this funny, middle-aged guy who follows his daughter to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble, meaning sex. But halfway through the story, he turned dark on me.

Paintings also play an important role in your stories, can you explain that?
There’s some Goya in “Bay at Night,” for instance, the lighting he used in his masterpiece, “May 3, 1808.” I used the same lighting when describing the fishermen in the boat. Peter Brueghel the Elder’s “Landscape With Icarus” plays a big role in “The Last Flight of José Luis Balboa.” I’m not just referring to the fact that Balboa falls out of the sky. There may be others that I can’t recall right now.

“A Natural History of Love” is told by an educated and precocious 17-year-old girl. How difficult was it to write in a young girl’s voice?
It was the easiest thing in the world to write in her voice. It all depends on the character. Silvia was a delight – hypersmart, opinionated, and insecure, as most people are at that age. She talked to me and I wrote it down. The difficult part came when I had to revise the story by candlelight during the blackout caused by Hurricane Wilma.

I’ve asked you about other writers, films, and paintings. What I haven’t asked you is – Did music play any role in your writing?
Bach makes appearances in two stories, but no, music doesn’t play anything like the role played by paintings, novels, or films, except when I needed a little extra help to write and drinking one more espresso was out of the question. Then, I would take my iPod and my earphones and listen to a mix by one of my favorite DJs – deep house, trance, that sort of thing.

I made you out to be more a Mozart and cognac kind of guy.
I can do that, though I prefer Islay single malts and Polish potato vodka to cognac. Seriously, my taste in music is very eclectic. I like traditional Cuban son montunos. I have recordings that date back to the early twentieth century, when the son was not yet urbanized. But I also like anything by Beny Moré. Shostakovich is one of my favorites right now, his string quartets. As for DJs, try Danny Howells, Sasha, and John Digweed.

So you do the club scene?
No way. I go to bed very early. I have to. I’m usually at my desk writing by 5:00 a.m., which is when people start to leave the clubs.

So what’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel. It started out as a story for the collection, until the characters made it clear that they needed more room.


© 2006 Gonzalo Barr