Following the launch of Fire & Song ( see our review on Tuesday ), I caught up with Anna on behalf of The View From Here.
This being your third book, how did the process of writing Fire & Song differ to either Malinche’s Conquest or The New World of Martin Cortés?
I found this a very difficult book to write. I am never a confident writer and suffer from a constant sense of failure. In this case I also felt overwhelmed by the abundance of riches I found in the primary sources. I began by translating Luis de Carvajal’s writings and his trial transcripts from the sixteenth-century Spanish in which they were written, but I could not resist the lure of his sisters’ manuscripts and so I ended up with a mountain of wonderful material that I then had to shape into a meaningful narrative.
Given that each of these books shares a common heritage to a certain extent, could you tell us something about the journey that led you to them in the first place?
The three books share a common heritage, not just because they each take place in sixteenth-century Mexico, but because they each deal with ‘liminal people’: an Amerindian slave girl caught up in the Conquest, the mestizo son she bore to the Spanish conquistador who protected her and, in this third book, a family of Sephardic Jews trapped in a Christian world where they are obliged to keep their faith a secret.
The first book led to the second and third because while researching Malinche’s Conquest in the national archives of Mexico – the Archivo General de la Nación – I came across the manuscripts relating to both the story of Martin Cortés and that of Luis de Carvajal and his family.
And how you discovered, for each, that there was a story to tell?
I wasn’t sure at first whether a coherent story would emerge; or rather, one that general readers might find appealing. I began my research out of pure curiosity because I wanted to see what was in those manuscripts. As I read, I found many different threads to follow and had to decide which one to pursue. Another scholar might read those same documents and create a totally different kind of work, or works, from them.
Given that most of the primary sources for your work are housed in Europe or South America –
Actually Mexico is in North America, strangely enough, given that everyone thinks it is in the south. I usually say Latin America, just to differentiate from the USA, although it is very much part of Latin America too!
Well, given that most of the primary sources for your work are housed in Europe or Latin America and you live in Australia, how do you go about research and the process of developing a manuscript?
I usually make one or two research journeys, and this is the part of writing I love best. I visit the archives, spend as much time as possible reading the original documents, and before leaving I obtain either photocopies or microfilms of them. But during my research journeys I also spend a great deal of time in the places where the people I am writing about lived or travelled. I do this because I try to give a deep and strong sense of place to my books – something academic historians often seem to forget to do.
What part of the process of writing do you enjoy the most and what do you find the most challenging (of course, the answer might be the same for both parts of this question)?
Thomas Mann once said that a writer is someone who hates writing. I too often hate it. I hate the daily struggle over many years to conjure something readable out of the shapeless blancmange that I inevitably build up during my research. Finding the right structure – given that there are always many possibilities – is a struggle. So is finding the right word – one that combines both the sound and the meaning I want; in fact the sound often conveys the meaning. I find it all very challenging. The reward comes only at the end, when I feel that I have found what I wanted. But even then I am always unsure …
Which writers of non-fiction have most influenced you in your approach to writing?
My first great influence in terms of writing non-fiction was the great American writer Evan Connell in his book Son of the Morning Star about Custer and the Little Big Horn. In that work Connell examines all the complexity of that fateful event, discusses the many arguments about what happened and why, and at the same time makes his study eminently readable and immediate. I would recommend Son of the Morning Star to anyone who wants to write good non-fiction. His compatriot Larry McMurtry (another fine writer) describes Connell as a ‘mosaicist’ in that he doesn’t fictionalise anything. Rather he slowly builds a picture from tiny fragments of material.
I have also been influenced by two great classics: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. (Interesting that both books began life as reports for The New Yorker.) I should also mention Janet Malcolm (In the Freud Archives, Reading Chekhov, and her most recent book on Gertrude Stein), Bruce Chatwin (for In Patagonia, nothing else) and Gitty Sereny for everything she has written, especially Into That Darkness and Cries Unheard. In more recent times I have admired and loved Lost: The Search for Six among Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Gulag by Anne Applebaum, Murder in Amsterdam by Ian Buruma and The Ethics of Memory by Avishai
What do readers seem to enjoy reading the most?
I am sometimes surprised by what readers enjoy. Sometimes they like things that I felt may have been unwise on my part; for example, I am reluctant about evoking parallels between present-day events and the events and people I write about. For example, in Malinche’s Conquest I alluded to some of the horrors taking place in Bosnia at the time I was writing it. I also referred to the plight of Aboriginal Australians in twentieth-century Australia. I wasn’t sure if this would seem facile, but many readers have told me they liked those references. Readers also like the sense of place I try to convey – and this is very pleasing as it is something I take a great deal of trouble to do. They also seem to like my descriptions of the physical shape and feel of the manuscripts I work with. I guess it comes as a shock to find out that not all knowledge can be obtained through a quick Google search; that some research still requires a slow and meticulous approach and that languages other than English are essential tools in that search.
What are some of the highlights from your career as an historian and author?
Reader responses are always rewarding. So are awards, and I have been fortunate to win two. The honour is extraordinary, but the money is also important because surviving as a writer and independent scholar is a precarious existence. Another great reward for me has been friendship. Several of my readers here in Australia, in Mexico and in Europe have become close friends. I like to think that we met through my books; that my books, and the people in them, brought us together.
How do you shape your writing day?
I have learned to be very disciplined: to be seated at my table by 9.30 am, to break for coffee and then lunch, but otherwise to keep working until late afternoon. When my children were small I would often go back to my writing after dinner, after reading to them, helping with their homework and putting them to bed. I would work until 2 in the morning sometimes, then collapse into bed and then go to my day job next day. I should add that like most writers I don’t usually have the luxury of writing full time. I have two day jobs at the moment, so another thing I have learned is how to manage those jobs – the ones that pay the bills - with writing.
What plans, if any, do you have for your fourth book?
I have promised my publishers a travel book. It will allow me to return to some themes I’ve touched on before, and also to expand on some wonderful stories I have come across in my travels (and research) but have not yet been able to develop fully. It will probably involve some stories from Mexico, but also from Ireland, Spain and Australia.
When you’re not writing what do you most like to be doing?
Walking on the beach with my dog, listening to music, speaking and teaching Spanish, reading, cooking, gardening, spending time with my children - who are now young adults – and also with my friends. The wonderful thing about not writing – my present state – is that I can say ‘yes’ to invitations after years of giving the automatic response, ‘I would love to, but I can’t because I have to write this afternoon.’
Thanks, Anna, and I’m looking forward to Number Four... so get back to work!
Photo credit of Lanyon : Kirsty Hill