To interview Peruvian American writer Marie Arana is to be reminded that every talented writer is first and foremost a passionate reader. She speaks about books with a clarity born of a fruitful career as editor, critic, and, most recently, writer—a clarity that is not lost when she speaks of her own highly autobiographical work.
Lima, the city of her birth, is a constant muse and the setting for her just-released second novel, Lima Nights. “I don’t know what it is about the place that I am able to burrow in and just keep the world at bay and write,” Arana says. “Peru has my heart. But America has my brain. Living in two cultures is definitely a state of mind.”
AARP Segunda Juventud spoke with Arana shortly before her retirement in December as the Washington Post‘s book editor. At this point in her career, Arana—whose 2001 memoir, American Chica, was a National Book Award finalist—is comfortable in her own skin. “I’m mainly writing for myself. I write books that I basically want to read. I think of myself as being the reader, somebody who cares a lot about writing and about the craft of writing but cares much, much more about human relationships.”
Q: You’ve had a long and distinguished career in publishing. How do you balance your roles as writer and editor?
A: I’m generally writing in the wee hours of the morning and then coming to work and working on somebody else’s writing. It’s a bit of a grind. The editor’s head—the critical head that makes you a sharp observer of writing—is not necessarily the head you need to be creative. I had to cast off that critical, mean, witchy self that made me a good editor to be an equally effective writer, because you have to be naked and sometimes a little foolish to do the brave, unexpected thing. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you probably shouldn’t be writing.
I’m really looking forward to early retirement. Now, at age 50-plus, I’m finally able to cast off the editorial mantle and devote myself completely to writing.
Q: Tell us about your latest novel, Lima Nights.
A: What I wanted to do with Lima Nights was to write a quick fist of a novel because Cellophane, which was my novel before it, was complicated. Cellophane takes place in the Amazon jungle, and it’s an epic story of a family told across several generations. It’s a satire of a magic realist novel and, at the same time, it’s a magic realist novel.
Lima Nights, however, is the story of two very hungry hearts who never would have imagined they’d be together—who never would have imagined they’d find themselves attracted to one another. But, as happens in life, they are. And these two very hungry hearts are looking for a kind of love that they may not realize they have achieved. They live 20 years together not really understanding what they feel. It’s a failure to communicate. That’s what I wanted to get at: a love that you want, that you don’t know how to get, and that may have been within reach all along.
Q: What sparked the idea for this novel?
A: My father’s best friend. I’ve known him all my life—they’ve been friends since they were six—and they’re both 90 now. Well, this man had a moment when he was unfaithful to his wife and it completely transformed his life and everybody else’s around him. It’s a totally different story than the one I’ve told here, but it was the germ.
This gentleman was a man who was raised in science; he was an engineer. One day about 10 years ago, my father said to me: “You will never believe it, [my friend] has gone to see a shaman.” That sentence was all I needed. He was going to see, essentially, a fortuneteller. And just that little glimmer was what made me think, “Oh my God, that’s what I want to capture in this book.” A man of science led, by desperation—by love—into a world of mysticism. A story about being so far gone that you have to step into a foreign world to get yourself back out.
Q: When the two main characters, Carlos Bluhm and Maria Fernandez, first meet, he is 44 and she’s 15. Did you set out to write an intergenerational love story?
A: No, not at all. This is what’s so exciting and breathtaking about writing fiction. When I was writing, it just slid out of my pen that she was 15. It surprised me so much that I had to put the pen down and walk away. I said, “I don’t want to do this.”
But then I thought, “Well of course, because in the indigenous Peruvian world, life is so hard that at that age of 15 you’re already thinking about survival, escape, and how can I possibly win this difficult lottery of life?” And so it made sense. But it horrified me when I first wrote her age. I stayed away from my writing desk for 24 hours and then I finally surrendered and told myself: “Okay, if that’s what the story wants, if that what these characters want, let’s see what happens.”
Q: In this sense, this could also be read as an upward mobility story, Maria’s upward mobility story.
A: Yes, and that’s a side of it too; but don’t forget Carlos’ story is a complete downward mobility story—that genteel white Latin American stratum that has nowhere to go but down.
Q: That’s true. And I couldn’t help but feel, as I read it, that this is also saying something about the institution of marriage.
A: The whole subject of marriage interests me greatly. You could also say that that has been the subject of my three books. I mean, in American Chica it was the story of my parents’ marriage. In Cellophane, it’s the story of a whole assortment of marriages, and they all pass through different transformations. [In Lima Nights], there is that unbelievable moment when Bluhm’s wife just takes everything and leaves… I mean, it might seem strange in the American suburban context, but it’s absolutely possible in Peru that something like that would happen.
Q: What is it about Peru that has captured your imagination in such a way that you continue to revisit it in your work?
A: I think I’m still getting over culture shock. I don’t mean just the culture shock of coming to the United States of America, but the culture shock that you feel in Peru all the time, that you feel perhaps in many Latin American countries. The issues of race are so important, and they’re very stark and very much in your face in the Latin American context.… and yet, I carry all these races in me. I actually took a DNA test a few months ago, and it was remarkable. I am a mishmash of races. There’s a little black, a little Chinese, a little Arab, a lot of Spanish, a lot of English, all of it just thrown together. And I guess I have always felt— since childhood—that Peru is a cauldron of races. You can’t walk down the street in Lima and not feel the stories of the racial confrontation and the history of the conquest, all of it tied up together. So much history has happened there.
Q: How important is this setting in Lima Nights?
A: The politics and history are enormously important because 1986—when the story opens—was the very beginning of the terror in Peru, which was a huge civil war in which the Sendero Luminoso—the Shining Path—and the Túpac Amaru, both terrorist organizations, turned the country upside down. The country was about to go under for about four or five years of rabid terrorism. You could not walk the streets in Lima without hearing bombs going off in the distance. Eventually, by 1989, people were afraid to send their children to school. I had cousins who did not go to school because their parents were afraid to let them out of their sight. And, of course, the economy totally plummeted. It was a very hard time for Peru. This is where “Lima Nights” begins.
In 2006, 20 years later, the country is flourishing. The economy is churning, growth is huge. The terrorists are gone. So there’s a real kind of time travel between these two moments when the reader sees this couple, their love forged in a time of terrorism and then their love challenged in a time of relative happiness and prosperity.
Q: Are the characters themselves aware of this history?
A: I didn’t want them to be too aware of it in the same sense that you can live through war—and here in the United States we are living through one in the Middle East—and barely feel it at all. There’s this sense that politics and history are almost a distant backdrop to the lives we are living. Very often, even in the hardest of times, you have human dramas going on that have nothing to do with the hardship, the harshness of the moment, but they are human dramas nevertheless. I guess that’s what I really wanted to capture.
Q: What books are you reading now?
A: I’m quite absorbed by the whole Latino world of literature. I have great admiration for writers as far apart as Roberto Bolaño and Junot Díaz. I have to read so much in this job, and very little of it is for pleasure. When I stumble on something that strikes me as good, I am very grateful. But I’m constantly reading books. For some reason, I’m reading more nonfiction this year than fiction. But it doesn’t stop. We get 150 books a day here in Book World. We review about 20 to 25 a week so we’re constantly flipping pages. It’s kind of a whirlwind of books that I live in.
Q: That sounds counter to the notion that no one reads anymore.
A: When I started as editor of Book World 10 years ago, there were 50,000 books published in this country every year; now there are almost 200,000. You can’t tell me that people are not reading. It’s just not true. Anyone will tell you that fiction sales are flat, that when you’re spreading the readership over so many books it’s only natural that each book is going to have a flat readership. This doesn’t mean that the book industry is dying, that the readership is dying. It’s still there. And people read online. Even though we have become a sort of an Internet culture, it’s still based on reading print.
Q: For whom do you write? Have you noticed a difference in how various generations respond to your work?
A: I certainly don’t think about that when I’m writing. I’m mainly writing for myself. Basically, I write books that I want to read. And when I take up the thread every morning after I leaving what I had done the night before, I’m always curious to know what’s going to happen, because I don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens. I think of myself as the quintessential reader, somebody who cares a lot about writing and about the craft, but cares much, much more about human relationships, and especially those human relationships that don’t go right and that can never go right.
The first person who read Lima Nights—well, my husband was the first person that read the book—but the first person outside my home who read the book was my mother, who is 94. I thought, “Oh boy, this is going to shock her.” Here’s a woman who has been married to my father for over 70 years, more than half a century. And she was so responsive to it, she really understood it. She stayed up and read it all in one go. She was simultaneously curious, scandalized, and deeply interested in these lives. So I don’t know that I’m writing for a generation. American Chica is read by a lot of young people in high school, but I don’t think Lima Nights is for anybody in high school. It’s certainly for anybody who is aged 20 to 100-plus who is concerned with the knotty issues of love.
Q: Now that we’re on the subject of age, how has it affected your writing?
A: It’s made me a lot more free. I was a fairly uptight young person, because I was trying to do everything right. Now I’m a very happy, liberated, 50-plus woman who doesn’t much care. I’m not trying to be a good girl anymore. I’m not trying to be a star anymore. I’m just doing what I know how to do.