Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writer José María Merino (Spanish Content)

El Pais among other newspapers have some interesting interviews with José María Merino on the occasion of the publication of an anthology of his writing by Páginas de Espuma. He is a short story writer I’ve been looking forward to reading soon. Last year his book El libro de las horas contadas was given high praise and end up on some best of the year lists. The interview from El Pais is interesting. It was especially gratifying to hear a short story writer say there are only so many short stories one can read in a sitting, something for all the short stories I read, I find to be true.

-¿Y que hay de los microrrelatos?

-Hay gente que los desdeña, pero es como si un pintor desdeñase el soporte de óleo o el soporte de madera. En ellos puede haber cosas estupendas o cosas deleznables, exactamente igual que en la novela. Para mí, como escritor, lo que aporta es que puedes decir cosas que no podrías decir de otra manera.

-¿Son estos capaces de satisfacer el hambre literaria?

-Sería absurdo comparar un minicuento con Ana Karénina, pero son sabores que pueden resultar más intensos, pueden dar un matiz diferente. El problema es que no puedes leer demasiados minicuentos seguidos, porque te empachan. Pero pueden despertar ideas interesantes y divertirte mucho.

You can read the introduction of the anthology here. It will give a good sense of his work. And if you are looking for a few more interviews the publisher has a few links here, here, here.

La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A review

From bottom left clock wise: Cristina Fernandez Cubas, Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Hipolito G. Navarro, Fernando Iwasaki, Enrique Vila-Matas, Mercedes Abad, Andrés Neuman, José María Merino

La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2011, 474 pg.

The Spanish short story writer Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers) is an invaluable guide to the modern Spanish short story, and one of the best books I’ve read on the art of writing. Muñoz is an excellent and dedicated interviewer whose questions show a deep and thoughtful reading of each interviewee’s body of work. He sees interviews as not just another genre, but as an art unto itself and as he mentions in his introduction, he keeps collections of interviews in binders. He believes that letting an author talk about his or her work helps expand it, place it in a deeper context, rather than only letting the work speak for it self. It is this deep devotion to short stories and his ability to draw from the 37 included authors what makes short stories so compelling makes the book a must read for anyone interested in the short story. It is all the more impressive since all the interviews were conducted over a series of  3 or so years and published on his blog, El sindrome Chejov. In one of those great acts of personal fascination lived publicly, in 2006 Muñoz began to interview Spanish short story authors. What started quietly without any grand ambitions, morphed over the intervening years into one of the primary sources about authors working with the short story. Muñoz notes he was a little surprised by the willingness the authors agreed to interviews, but his dedication and preparation, which at the minimum includes reading each interviewee’s oeuvre, makes him a trustworthy interviewer, one that most writers would love to have. Muñoz also brings an sense of excitement to the short story. When reading his interviews (or his blog posts) it is easy to catch that same excitement—I should know, since every time I read one, I want to go out and read the author’s stories. The book is truly a one of a kind success that I wish existed for English language authors.

The only draw back of the book for my English language readers is that very few of these authors are available in English (certainly not the author’s fault). I have tried to remedy that with my recent article about unpublished Spanish Short story writers at the Quarterly Conversation. And when an author has been translated into English it is usually a novel. The most recognizable name in the book is probably Enrique Vila-Matas. Andrés Neuman, the last interview of the book and one of the better ones, also just had a novel come out in English (read my review here). That said, one of the most fascinating things about the book for an English speaker is to see what authors have influenced these authors. Given that English language authors may not be exposed to as many translations as they are in Europe, it might come as a surprise that two of the most common names that came up were Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Over and over in the list of influences these two always showed up. Some authors have turned to the English speaking authors as a refuge from the Spanish language traditions, but even when they cite Spanish language authors those two show up. I’m not so sure that would be the case for the reverse. Other English language authors mentioned were Poe, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mansfield, Lorrie More and Alice Munro.

Spanish language influences tended to come mostly from Latin America. Cortazar was the most sited, the Onetti and Borges, and with a little less frequency Rulfo. There was a sense of disinterest in Spanish short authors from the middle of the century. The only two that were commonly cited were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga and Medardo Fraile. I think this is a function of one generation turning against another, something Andrés Neuman noted, saying that Spanish authors should take more pride in their own tradition with mid century authors like Ana Maria Matute. Only one author, Fancisco Afilado, though, really did not like the Latin Americans, especially Cortazar who he said led too may young writers to play games with their stories. Again, as a contrast to the American scene that notion of play is often lacking and too many write in the realistic vain. Afilado, naturally, is the author who loved the American realists the most, and is a perfect example of those who believe that noir is the best writing because it is the most real. I can’t say I agree with that, but it was refreshing and annoying at the same time to find one author in these interviews who has that opinion.

There were relatively few references to authors outside of the English and Spanish traditions. There were, of course, the trinity, Chekhov, Maupassant, and Kafka, but relatively few references to authors from any other languages (except perhaps Catalan). Only once did I see a reference to Thomas Bernard, for example. But given who rich both of these traditions are, there is quite a bit to mine in terms of influence.

With the exception of a few novelists, all the interviewees are dedicated to the art of the short story. As such, every interview has a question about the disrespect given to short stories in Spain. There were several theories all of which probably have some validity. My favorite was Carlos Castán’s theory that all the Christmas stories that come out ever year and which written by famous authors, turn readers away from the short story, because the stories are written by people who are not short story writers. I think the lack of critics who specialize in the short story, especially those at newspapers, is probably a better theory. The short story has the perception that it is just what you do between novels. Another mentioned that the public likes to engross themselves in a big story and don’t like the stopping and restarting that a collection of short stories entails. That may be the prescient commentary: it is one I sometimes feel when I am reading collections of short stories, especially ones larger than 200 pages.

Of course, things always look better across the water, and there were multiple references to the tradition of the short story in the US. However, I often feel that what they are looking at is a tradition that is from 30 years ago, if not father back. While major publishers do bring out collections of short stories, they are still a small fraction of published fiction. And while there are small magazines and journals like Tin House, the short story also lacks for prestige. Perhaps things are better here, but it certainly is not a paradise.

Ultimately, the book with its ample indexes, appendices of authors cited in the interviews, and a list of each author’s published works, short story or otherwise, is one of the best references to the short story I can think of. And as one might expect my list of authors that I’m interested in reading has grown. These are just a few that you may see on these pages some day: Mercedes Abad, José María Merino, Medardo Fraile, Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Iban Zaldua, Ángel Olgoso, among others. That, I think, is the highest praise for La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles.

Note: For those interested you can read my reviews of Miguel Ángel Muñoz short story collection Quedate donde estas and his novel El corázon de los caballos.

Short Stories from Andrés Neuman, Ángel Zapata and José María Merino

The magazine Cuentos para el andén (Stories for the bus stop) just released its first issue. In it are stories from Andrés Neuman’ newest book, Ángel Zapata and José María Merino. It looks like a nice idea to have a couple brief stories come out every month. I don’t think any of the stories are more than 4000 words, which is perfect for the bus stop. Also included is a short story from José María Merino who is a graduate of a writing program. I’m quite cruious to see what the story is like given the criticism that is often leveled at writing programs in the US.

Read the magazine (pdf).


The Spanish Short Story Featured on Nostromo (Spanish Only)

I recently discovered the Spanish literary program Nostromo and the most recent episode is about the short story. It was quite interesting and worth watching, especially since it features one of the favorites at By the Fire Light, Cristina Fernández Cubas. Update: here’s the link

Nuestro programa de hoy está dedicado al relato. José María Merino, autor de extraordinarios relatos y microrelatos, compartirá con nosotros su particular visión sobre el género. También visitarán Nostromo Sergi Pàmies, Cristina Fernández Cubas y Pedro Zarraluki: tres de los mejores cuentistas de nuestro país. Una serie de lectores y escritores nos recomendarán sus cuentos y autores favoritos, y en el espacio de poesía contaremos con Jorge Riechmann, un poeta comprometido con la ecología.

The Last 20 Years of Spanish Literature as José-Carlos Mainer Sees it

El Pais has an overview of Spanish Literature of the last 20 years. It is an arbitrary number, as José-Carlos Mainer notes, but it also a period of many changes and some exciting new authors. It is a bit of a mixed article, but it has moments where he picks out authors worth reading. At the bottom of the passage he notes 2 that I have been extremely impressed with, Navarro and Fernandez Cubas whose short stories deserve to be translated some day.

La norma constituyente de muchos de estos libros es la inclusión, la bulimia. Algunas memorias de escritores (pienso en las de Josep Maria Castellet y Rafael Argullol) ceden buena parte del espacio legítimo del yo a viajes, historias, personajes conocidos: son demoradas galerías de espejos. Y otras, sin embargo, se adelgazan hasta convertirse en un provocativo y fibroso ensayo de antropología cultural: la autobiografía de Félix de Azúa. Hay dietarios en los que habita fundamentalmente el mundo exterior, golosamente gozado, como fueron los de Antonio Martínez Sarrión, y hay otros en que los muchos acontecimientos nunca acaban de desplazar al terco “yo” que los trae y lleva: el Salón de pasos perdidos, de Andrés Trapiello. Y hay literatura que se alimenta de literatura, como le sucede fecundamente a la de Enrique Vila-Matas, Sergio Pitol y José Carlos Llop. Y a su manera paródica, a la de César Aira… Ricardo Piglia acaba de publicar la novela que nunca escribió Borges pero que le hubiera gustado leer al autor de El Sur. Por eso, los libros suelen ser tan dilatados como la dieta bulímica que los alimenta, pero también la vivencia del mundo ha aconsejado a otros agazaparse en las formas breves: el microrrelato se ha convertido en una experiencia de nuestro tiempo y un plante desdeñoso a la sobreabundancia (siguen siendo referencia las actitudes al respecto del inolvidable Augusto Monterroso). Otros han encontrado la proporción áurea del cuento de diez páginas y las columnas de a dos, artefactos de precisión que condensan y ejercitan el ingenio mediante el arte de prescindir: cada cual a su modo, lo hacen Cristina Fernández Cubas, José María Merino, Luis Mateo Díez, Quim Monzó, Manuel Rivas, Hipólito García Navarro, que han hecho del cuento un género imprescindible. Las columnas son el dominio de Manuel Vicent, por ejemplo. Juan José Millás respira por igual en el cuento, el artículo y el reportaje.