Q&A with Antonio Skármeta

The Chilean novelist, who visited Rollins on February 4 during the 2016 Winter With the Writers literary festival, talks about inspiring hope in the midst of a brutal dictatorship, what it’s like to have your work translated into more than 30 languages, and why he’s never given a damn about criticism.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Luke Woodling: You wrote your most famous novel, Burning Patience, when you were in exile from Chile. It’s about Pablo Neruda’s time in exile. How much of that novel was inspired by your own experience?

Antonio Skármeta: Very much. It is very important to understand the character, the mood of that novel. The fact that I was living in exile at the time when I wrote it—outside of my country, a country that was suffering at that time such a cruel dictatorship. I concentrated myself on the country’s past—a time when there was freedom, when there was a very alive culture. I was nostalgic for my country. I wanted my country to come back to a moment when we didn’t have the tragedy. By showing what we had lost, I thought at that time that I would show the people what we were fighting for—the same thing that we had lost but better.

LW: Looking to the past to inspire hope?

AS: To bring hope. We had democracy in my country for almost its whole history. All of this period with the dictatorship was extremely brutal and cruel. The forces to regenerate—to come again to life and democracy—we found that force not in utopia—something we were going to construct. No, we found it in the past. Our past gave us the keys to open the future. So I wanted to contrast a safe past, a healthy past, with this ill time of the dictatorship without saying it.

LW: How well did you know Neruda?

AS: Not so well really. I saw him maybe 10 times. I was not a friend, but we had a good relationship. He was a very important poet and at that time I was very young. I had only published one book, a short story. But I liked his poetry very much and at the time I was a professor at a university and I used to teach his poetry, so I knew his poetry very well. He used to live not in Santiago, but like in the novel, in the seaside, in Isla Negra. I visited him there three, four times. He always wanted to know what was going on in Santiago, what was going on with the poets, what was happening with the local politics, what was happening with the new books, what was happening with his enemies. We had a good time together the few times that I met him, but we were very different. He was very active in politics. I was not. He was very interested in European culture. I had a completely North American fascination. I loved American films, American literature, American rock n’ roll. Despite all of that, we had fun.

LW: You brought your first book of short stories, Enthusiasm, to him. What was his critique?

AS: Yes, I brought him the book to see if he would like it, and he gave me an opinion that was very curious. He told me “Yes, this book is good. But I have to tell you something. All first Chilean books are good.” Do you get the point? Let’s see if you make one better later.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

LW: How important was it for you as a young writer to get that feedback from someone who you respected so much?

AS: I didn’t take his opinion very seriously, because when you are asking a famous person for an opinion what you are looking for is praise, so that was not important. I was always convinced of what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write, so I didn’t care about any criticism, positive or negative, at that time. Up to this moment, I can’t write and I’m not going to write anything different from what I write. Once you’re a writer, criticism isn’t important because you can’t change anything. For example, let’s assume that I would like to please a critic. I would have to invent another personality for myself. Why?

LW: What advice do you give young writers?

AS: Oh, I don’t do that. Everybody has to find his own source. A writer has to invent the kind of music he would like to dance to. Invent everything. Invent a world. Create a world. So the theories of other writers are useless. My only advice is: If you want to be a writer, be a writer right now. Because there are so many people who want to be something. Musician. Artist. Lover. If you want to be a lover, make love. You want to be a writer, write now. If you want to be a poet, I want to see you every day with a new poem. People are dreaming all the time about doing and they ask you, “How do I become a writer?” If they don’t know, they are not writers.

LW: You spent more than a decade in exile from Chile. Why did you go back?

AS: Because I love my country. I left my country voluntarily, and I lived a long time—about 12 years—in Europe. I always wanted to go back, but I didn’t want to come back under the conditions of the dictatorship. I could have done it, but what is a writer without freedom? What is good about a writer is he can speak for other people who can’t speak. A writer can express the soul, the history of a people. Their feelings, their dreams, their tragedies. If you cannot publish in your country because you are an enemy of the regime, why stay? So, many writers decided to go outside and write there, but I always wanted to go back. When the chance came, when democracy was possible, then I returned.

LW: You’ve worn many different hats during your career—novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker, diplomat. Which of those roles was most important to you?

AS: As you say, I am a writer. Because I am a writer, I have been all those other things, but they depend on writing. Take, for example, diplomacy. Why was I appointed as a diplomat? Because the president at that time thought that it was good to have in Europe—in an important country like Germany—somebody who represents culture. Not to give the picture of Chile as country that is only good at making business, but a country with a strong culture, a very important culture. So I was appointed as a diplomat because I was a writer and a well-known writer. At that time, all my books had been translated into German and all my films had been presented there.

LW: You’re a novelist first, but you’ve also worked as a filmmaker and a number of your works have been adapted for film. How are those two mediums different?

AS: Literature is another world. Since there are not industrial, technical aspects in writing, it is the kingdom of freedom. You can do whatever you want. As a matter of fact, I could make more films, but I’m so fascinated by writing that what’s the use? I’m so lucky that good directors are interested in my work and have made very good films from my novels.

On February 4, Antonio Skármeta taught a master class and performed a reading for Rollins College students as part of the College’s Winter With the Writers program. (Photo by Scott Cook) On February 4, Antonio Skármeta taught a master class and performed a reading for Rollins College students as part of the College’s Winter With the Writers program. (Photo by Scott Cook)

LW: Your work has been translated into more than 30 languages. What is it like to have your work translated?

AS: At the beginning, I was very curious about how good the translation was. I have no possibility whatsoever to know how good a translation is in a language that I don’t know, but I can judge the English translation, the German translation, Portuguese translation. Chinese, Japanese, Czech, Polish, I can’t. I can test if the translation works when I visit those countries and read. Tonight, I will read in English and I will see the reaction of the audience. As a writer, you can detect how they are receiving it.

LW: Can you talk about your creative process? How do you like to work?

AS: It depends. Let’s assume I want to write a novel. From the moment, I have the feeling that I want to tell something—I might not even know what it is—from that moment until I write the novel five, six, seven years might pass without writing it. Because it keeps growing and growing and growing. It’s always there. You write other things—stories, articles—you teach at the university, maybe you write a script for a film. Then one day you say, “I think I have it. I get it.” And then it will take maybe three months of writing every day. When I’m writing, I don’t care of any other thing. If the telephone company wants to take me to jail because I haven’t paid the bill, I don’t care.

LW: Your most recent novel, A Distant Father, was published in 2014. What’s next for you?

AS: The film adaptation of that novel will come soon. It will premiere in a festival this year.  What else? There are many other projects related to music. There is already a CD with my songs made in Brazil, and I’ve been studying the translation of the songs to English with the students here. It’s one of the things I did while I was here. There is another project—it’s already recorded—some lyrical songs they are being sung by a tenor Ricardo Tamura, who works at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

LW: What books had the biggest impact on you?

AS: Not novels. Very few novels. Since I write prose, I prefer to read poetry and drama. Theater? First, Hamlet, Shakespeare. Second, King Lear, Shakespeare. Third, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare. Fourth, Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller. Fifth, The Playboy of the Western World, John Synge. These are some of my favorites. Novels? Don Quixote, Cervantes, No. 1. The short stories by Hemingway. Almost all of them—they are so brilliant. The Old Man and the Sea. The Killers is a great, great story. The Stanger, Camus. On the Road, Keroauc. That was a revolution. No one had ever written literature like he did. What an energy!

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

2016 Winter With the Writers Festival

The 2016 Winter With the Writers season continues with Rollins English professor Philip F. Deaver, poet Chase Twichell, and 2015 National Book Award finalists Ross Gay and Sy Montgomery.

For full details, visit the Winter With the Writers website.