On Tuesday, February 11, novelist and journalist Daniel Alarcón read from his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles. The event was co-sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley and the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, where Alarcón is currently Scholar in Residence. He is also a Fellow at the Center for Investigative Journalism.
Alarcón began by telling us that this novel had taken him seven years to write and that the first version was boring. Taking a break from the writing, he pitched a story to Harper’s magazine (which I assume is this amazing essay: All Politics is Local: Election Night in Peru’s Largest Prison), and took off for Peru where he was able to live in Lurigancho, the prison. Immersion journalism, he said, often leaves writers with a lot of extra material, and some of that fueled At Night We Walk In Circles. The identity of the novel’s narrator remains a mystery until the last quarter of the novel. Alarcón said that like readers, he did not exactly know who this narrator would be, and the discovery was one of the pleasures of writing the book. The novel tells many stories at once, and Alarcón commented that a novel can’t survive without two parallel tracks of narrative. Otherwise it has no momentum, the problem with the draft he scrapped, which he described as “a sleeping cat.”
After the reading, Alarcón responded to questions, one of which was about why he wrote in English instead of Spanish. He said writing a novel has so many layers that adding Spanish would have been a complex one that he did not want to wrestle with, referring to the language of Borges and García Márquez. Alarcón moved from Peru to the United States with his family when he was three. He does speak Spanish, and Radio Ambulante, his radio program which he described as being like This American Life, is conducted in Spanish. A young woman who identified herself as Peruvian-American told Alarcón she had come across one of his essays (The Writing Life–a column in the Washington Post) and that she really identified with it. She asked if he planned to write more about himself. His answer was no. But he also likened himself to the narrator of this most recent novel: someone who is always asking questions and who has been to all of the locations in the novel. Though he does not name the city, he confirmed that it is Lima, his birthplace and a city he “has a spiritual need to understand.” So, in a way, he is writing about himself.
I’m a big fan of Alarcón’s short fiction and look forward to reading his new novel (must admit to struggling a bit with Lost City Radio). If Daniel Alarcón is taking requests, I would love to see a collection of his journalism. His nonfiction is some of the best around.