Daniel AlarcÃ³n, author of At Night We Walk in Circles, sits down to talk with journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman, about driving "” and grieving. --Sara Nelson
Daniel AlarcÃ³n: So first of all, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle is a beautiful book: part memoir, part map of an infinite city, part meditation on mourning, part reportage. One of the things I love about it is that it seems effortless, straddling all these genres with great elegance. So I want to begin by asking how you conceived of this book when you started writing it. Was there a plan? Did you worry about genre?
Francisco Goldman: I didn't know it was going to be a book when I started. Its origins go a year or so back, when I began to talk to an editor at The New Yorker about doing a piece on my "driving project" "” how I was going to overcome my phobia over driving in Mexico City by using the GuÃa Roji, that fat and fabulous book of Mexico City street maps, that book of "infinite roads" so indispensable to every Mexico City taxi driver, like an I Ching: close my eyes, open to a random page, jab my finger down, and then try to drive to wherever the finger had landed. That was the idea and I'd agreed with that editor to give it a go, even though I didn't have a formal assignment. I also owed Grove, my publisher, a third magazine piece which they wanted to bring out in a book alongside two other pieces I'd published earlier that year, one in The New Yorker on children of the Dirty War-disappeared in Argentina, and another in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on Camila Vallejo and the student movement in Chile.
My plan was to carry out the driving project in the summer of 2012, in the DF (The Distrito Federal a.k.a. Mexico City). But it turned out to be a summer in which a lot happened in my life, a dramatic, wild, transformative summer during which, as my Chilango or Mexico City friends liked to put it, I hit "rock bottom," and then "resurrected." That spring/summer began with the approach of the fifth anniversary of the death of my wife Aura [Estrada, a grad student and writer], and with the sadness and walled-off emotional loneliness of grief, a feeling that seemed like it was never going to end. The summer ended with me most unexpectedly falling in love again. In between were months of out of control, self-destructive behavior, culminating in a night (the "hit bottom" night) of absurd violence. These were transformative months for Mexico too, with a national election that returned the PRI to federal power, and a massive student movement that seemingly arose out of nowhere, a youthful desperate surge of hope and resistance aimed at preventing the election of the PRI's Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto as president.
In August, I finally got around to my driving project. But I had an extremely busy fall. Say Her Name, my book about Aura, came out in Spanish, as Di su nombre, and received a lot of attention, which churned up all kinds of emotions, and also wasn't easy on my new love, Jovi. Also I was teaching one night a week at Trinity College, in Hartford. So I was constantly flying between my apartment in Brooklyn and Mexico and elsewhere, to do publicity, to teach my classes, to be with Jovi in the DF. Then in February there was a huge crisis, I won't give it away. Oh well, all right, I will: Jovi suddenly left me. And I felt plunged right back into the emotional bedlam of that previous summer. And it was then, in that emergency, in my determination not to be pulled back into that abyss, that I set out to sort of remap in words that summer's hard- won rejuvenation. That's when I started The Interior Circuit. I didn't know what it was going to be, other than that it was definitely "nonfiction." It flowed, from there, very intuitively. This book literally took me to places "” such as into the notorious barrio of Tepito, in the book's second part "” I never imagined it was going to take me when I began it.
That "effortless" quality you mention has something to do with the urgency and conviction with which it was written. Sometimes I wrote twenty hours a day. I knew that I had to avoid any tone of solemnity in the writing. There was so much that was ridiculous, embarrassing, even if at times hilarious too, at the heart of this personal journey I was narrating. The voice had to reflect that. For all its darkness and pain, there's a lot of happiness in the book, the recalling of happy times, with Aura, of course, and in the cantinas with my friends in Mexico, and a multifarious high energy generated by the city itself. And my own story turns out pretty happily (Jovi comes back) and I guess the voice reflects all that too.
DA: You're describing a Mexico City renaissance in this book, but also a personal one of grief and love: You say in Interior Circuit that you had two choices: find a new city, start fresh, or dive deeper into the Mexican capital. Why did you decide to dive in?
FG: Because, finally, I couldn't imagine leaving. The city, in the grief years, had given me one great gift: friendship. Without my amazing crew of Mexico City friends, I know I wouldn't have gotten through those years. Many of those friends had been Aura's friends, some had known her since elementary and high school. I felt tied to the city by the fact that Aura had died there "” a deep visceral connection to that city, that now sacred place, because of that. The driving project was a ritual I made up to both honor Aura and her city and to embrace it. The city was the place that gave me love, and then was the site of death and grief, and then was the place of a personal revival that included, finally, an awakening to the city's political realities, a revived hunger to learn as much as I could about the city. The book "” in which maps, the GuÃa Roji traffic maps, are of course both a metaphorical and actual presence throughout "” was a way to explore what I'd lived through. It's about love, life, death in relationship to that one place, the Distrito Federal, Mexico City.
DA: There's a moment early in the book when you're in Aspen, at a writing festival, and you tell a class of writing students what a great city Mexico City is. One of your American students pushes back, in a frankly obnoxious way. How much disinformation is there about Mexico City in the American conversation? Were you conscious of those prejudices while you were writing this?
FG: I don't set out to explicitly refute those prejudices, though I realize that in celebrating the city, in writing about the city and explaining it, I am refuting them.. The book is in parts definitely addressed to a readership that may not know a lot about Mexico City, and that may even harbor some of those prejudices. Mexico City, in 2010, had almost exactly the same murder rate as New York City, which surprises many people in the U.S. It's been, at least until recently, a safe city, a progressive city, a fairly well-governed city. It has certainly seemed something of a "bubble," a place apart from the Mexico so horrifyingly beset by narco violence, organized crime and government corruption. Many people may not know or believe that. You shouldn't minimize the ways in which the idea of the DF as "a bubble" is illusory, either. But I wanted to write about the Mexico City that has riveted me, in ever evolving ways, for two decades now, and to take responsibility, finally, for what it means to live here.
DA: I mentioned earlier the straddling of genres, but I realize this is something that you don't just do in this book, but something you've done your entire career. How do you think that your work as a journalist has influenced your fiction? And vice versa?
FG: In the sense that I really didn't know where I was going, it was much more like writing a novel than the usual piece of even long-form journalism. I wrote searching for a form, a structure, a tone, working certain recurring images, pushing my own voice, searching for surprises and memories, and trying to build a book that would express what I'd never be able to express any other way. But I was also writing very close to my own experiences, writing in many cases about things that had happened or that I'd felt only months and sometimes even days, maybe even hours, before. Some of those autobiographical experiences included working as a journalist in the past.
Having worked as a journalist is one reason I'm interested in what I'm interested in "“ the political or criminal causes of human suffering, for example, or the nuts and bolts of how a great city works. But I also practiced journalism because of my own needs or ambitions to get closer to such realities. You write about those things one way when you write journalism, and in a completely different way when you write fiction. But this is neither fiction nor journalism, even though it is nonfictional. It is a mixture of personal writing "” narrative memoir, essay & story-telling "” and of reportage, and sometimes some of those definitely overlap. It's The Interior Circuit, a book I wrote because I had to write it, and that, in the end, I could only write in this way.