February 2023 Newsletter
Welcome to the first edition of 2023! This month a feature interview with Claudia Piñeiro. Elena Knows is available through Charco Press and A Little Luck will be out in July 2023. More great content coming on the podcast and some exclusive episodes coming up on Patreon soon. Enjoy the interview.
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Claudia and I spoke via email and her answers have been translated from Spanish.
BTZ: You grew up in Buenos Aires - can you tell us about your childhood and growing up in the 60s in Argentina?
CP: My childhood and adolescence were spent not exactly in the city of Buenos Aires but in what is called its “Conurbano”, a series of small cities or not so much around the big city. Mine, Burzaco, was 24 km to the south. I went to a primary school called Gabriela Mistral (perhaps there was a wink of fate there, or for some reason my parents chose that school). And I went to secondary school in a convent school, not because my parents were very religious but because it was the best school that they, from the lower middle class, could afford- I have a brother, two years younger than me. And many friends from that time that, to the envy of many, I still have. Most of my friendships from that time I made at the neighbourhood club we went to. We spent the summer in the pool, we went to dances, we played tennis. My father was a great tennis player. My mother took us there every afternoon on her bicycle. Everything seemed happy until 1976 arrived and the military dictatorship in my country. Although my parents were not militants and I think we were not at real risk, the fact that my father publicly expressed his left-wing ideas made me fearful for him and for us. At school you couldn't tell many things because you didn't know who was listening to them and how far the story would go. And there were known families kidnapped near us.
BTZ: How does the Argentina of your childhood compare with the Argentina of today ?
CP: The world changed, not only Argentina. My country manifests the same changes that are seen in most countries in terms of people's rights and freedoms that did not exist in my childhood. But the fundamental thing is that today we live in a democracy, so any problem, which many of us have, is resolved within the rule of law, and that is very important and gives peace of mind.
BTZ: What are the best things about living in Argentina and congratulations on the recent world cup win.
CP: I would put affections first. In Argentina, at least in the one I know, there is a cult of friendship and flexible codes that I don't see in other countries. No one invites to your house with arrival and departure times. You're supposed to stay as long as you like. Friends and friends are always to accompany. Then there is an atmosphere of thought that I like, a lot of people questioning, debating and thinking, even if we don't agree. Many theatres with different options every night, a lot of culture and many books and writers going around. And incredible landscapes and places for each one to choose their favourite. Mine is the Humahuaca ravine in July. And the soccer world cup, of course! Ha
BTZ: Could you tell us a little about your background as a writer and how you got into writing ?
CP: I have written stories since I learned how to write. But thinking of myself as a "writer" took me much longer. In my family there were no writers or artists. So I wrote without daring or suspecting that I would be a writer. At 28, when I was already working as an economist, I took a leave of absence, wrote a novel and submitted it to a contest for the first time. To the Tusquets publishing house of Spain. I was among the 10 finalists. That was the first external mirror that told me that if I pushed myself and kept working and learning and trying, maybe one day I would be a writer.
BTZ: Argentina has a brilliant literary heritage - Borges, Cortazar, Puig, Andres Neuman, Mariana Enriquez just to name a few why do you think so many great writers come from Argentina ?
CP: I don't know, maybe I can venture hypotheses. One is what I said before that we are a society that questions everything, that we discuss, we spend our time thinking and debating. In literature, moreover, we had great teachers as decision makers: Borges, Cortazar, Puig, Silvina Ocampo, Piglia, Pizarnik. And those teachers also gave us many freedoms. For example, both Borges, Bioy Casares and Piglia were fans of crime novels. So in Argentina there is no underestimation of the genre as in other places and most writers, even if they are not of that genre, have a crime novel in their work.
BTZ: Who are the the Argentine writers you have a high opinion of ?
CP: Many. The teachers we already named. To which I add Manuel Puig, my favourite, and Juan José Saer. Of the current ones: Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, Selva Almada, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Dolores Reyes, Camila Sosa Villada, Hernán Ronsino, Luis Sagasti, Guillermo Martinez, Sergio Olguin, Martín Kohan, Fabián Casas, Eugenia Almeida.
BTZ: With Elena knows you move away from the more traditional crime novel. Elena is a woman in her 60s with Parkinson’s trying to solve the death of her daughter Rita. The book is set over one day as Elena goes to visit a woman she believes can solve the mystery. Much of the book recounts their troubled relationship, opinions on abortion and Elena’s difficulty controlling her own body. Could you tell us a little more about your protagonists and some of the issues highlighted in the book?
CP: I think the novel talks mainly about bodies. And how, sometimes, others appropriate our bodies. In the disease, the case of Elena, the health system begins to govern Elena's body and she resists as long as she can. But there is also in the novel the appropriation of the bodies of women as incubators forced to give birth to babies. The prose of the novel tries to accompany Elena's sick body that is stuck, that needs the effect of pills to get moving, that forces her to look at the floor forever. The harsh mother-daughter relationship between Elena and Rita, full of reproaches and aggression, is not without love, the love that they can feel. Conveying that ambivalence or contradiction between anger and love was a challenge.
BTZ: Elena battles her illness through out the book and she calls it a fucking whore illness - Did you have some personal experience with Parkinson’s or is more of a metaphor for the loss of bodily autonomy ?
CP: My mother had that disease. And that's why I know her firsthand. But neither is she Elena, nor am I Rita, although we lend many things to those characters. The metaphors, which exist, are not in the plane of consciousness at the time of writing. I would say that they move underground, without me noticing them clearly. I only noticed them well when I finished the book and in the various corrections and readings. Sometimes even later, when a reader points them out.
BTZ: Speaking of bodily autonomy, abortion laws were changed in 2021 in Argentina can can you tell us about your role in activism for this cause,
CP: I had, like so many other women, an active role in the militancy to get the abortion law in my country. I did it within the women's movement that invaded the streets. With other writers, actresses, film directors, journalists, we went to see many senators and representatives to explain the importance of the law. We gave talks or conferences, we introduced the topic in every public appearance we had, we wrote articles. But above all we were on the street as one more. In 2018 we managed to get deputies to approve the law but not the senators. Around the end of 2020 we got final approval.
BTZ: With the success of this book and the Booker prize nomination what can English readers expect from you next ?
CP: I would love for many readers who knew me with Elena Knows to join me in the next novel translated into English to be published by Charco Press, “A Little Luck”, which will be out in a few months, also with a translation by Frances Riddle.
BTZ: What are you working on at the moment?
CP: I am reviewing a book of articles and essays that will be released this year in Argentina. And accompanying my latest novel published in that language throughout the Hispanic and Ibero-American world: “El tiempo de las moscas”, which I hope will be released in English next year.
BTZ: Gateway books - What were some of the books that have inspired your development as a reader and writer ?
CP: The first book that taught me at a very young age that it is not so much the story that matters but how it is told was "Tales of a Castaway", by Gabriel García Márquez. Then followed many inspiring books: Cortázar's stories in early adolescence and those of Borges later, the novels of Manuel Puig. It does not mean that what I write has to do with these teachers, but reading them shaped me as a reader and probably planted the desire to write. I think Proust's In Search of Lost Time is a fundamental work. Chekhov's stories and theater. And closer, Small virtues by Natalia Ginzburg. For those who write there are also books that I consider inspiring such as "To be a novelist", by John Gardner, Carver's teacher, another essential.
BTZ: What books are you currently reading or have recently enjoyed or are looking forward to ?
CP: I am finishing "Vengo de este miedo" by Miguel Ángel Oeste, a wonderful book. I have also read in recent times and I really liked them: Nuestra parte de noche (Our Share of Night) by Mariana Enriquez, Una musica by Hernan Ronsino, Disforia Mundi by Paul Preciado and El peligro de estar sane by Rosa Montero.
Desert Island Books
These are my ten for today but they go back and forth!
In Search of Lost Time - Proust.
Disgrace - JM Coetzee
To The End of The Land David Grossman
The Little Virtues - Natalia Ginzburg
Fierce Attachments - Vivian Gornick
Kiss of The Spider Woman - Manuel Puig.
The Lady with The Dog - Chekov
Ficciones - Borges.
Zama, - Antonio Di Benedetto
Autobiography of My Mother - Jamaica Kincaid
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