Novelist Chloe Aridjis on Losing Adolescence and Retaining Imagination

A subtly crafted novel about disenchantment and the innocent sense of wanderlust that incite our rashest decisions, Chloe Aridjis has poetically recreated the world of the estranged and the isolated in her new novel, Sea Monsters, set to be released on February 05, 2019 by Catapult. Author of Asunder and Book of Clouds, Aridjis carries readers into magical landscapes of suppressed fears. Sea Monsters is a hypnotic exploration of an overcast youth entrapped in the dusty and nostalgic traces of the past. Mexican history and childish imagination come together to following a young girl’s quest for the unknown, and for herself.

Arranged by the publicity team at Catapult, I spoke to Chloe about the effects of history on identity in the novel, the decadence of youth, and the intoxicating curiosity that surrounds art. Characterized as a narrative “out of a central episode of my adolescence,” ahead, Aridijis brings readers into the poetically mysterious, romantically transcendent world of Sea Monsters

Though Sea Monsters is not seen as historical fiction, it still represents a particular moment in history. In detail you have reflected the atmosphere of Mexico in the 1980s. How are you able to recreate this overlap between history and fiction? 

Curiously, I often felt while writing this novel that it was historical fiction since it depicts another Mexico, a Mexico that no longer exists. Over the past three decades the country and the society have changed dramatically. Even in terms of geography many of the places are gone, or have been endlessly revamped; I revisited them to take notes and experience the atmosphere but feared I would start writing over earlier impressions. So above all I relied on my memory, and journals I kept from the period, as well as my sister’s prodigious memory for detail.

What about this period in Mexican history, the 1980s, inspired you to write this novel? 

More than the period itself it was who I was at that moment, sixteen going on seventeen (in the novel my narrator is 17), in my last year of high school and about to go to college abroad, inspired by both Mexican and European cultures and subcultures. It was a crucial time of intellectual and emotional formation. It’s also when I became a vegetarian, one of the most important ethical decisions I’ve made in my life. All those experiences became crystallised into one chapter once I left home. But importantly—those also happened to be the last few years of relative tranquility in Mexico, before political turmoil, economic recession, and the ever tightening grip of the drug cartels. It was still safe to go out at night, one could be adventurous without worrying too much about the consequences.

In the story, Luisa and Tomás are exact opposites. Did you feel yourself drawn to, or related to one of the characters over the other? 

From the outset I knew I would be writing a novel about disenchantment. But any disenchantment must be preceded by an initial enchantment. During adolescence it is easy to fall under one person’s spell and then another’s; there’s a mobility of desire, a constant redrafting of fantasy. Tomás appears out of nowhere and captures Luisa’s imagination. But once in Oaxaca, she is drawn to someone else.

“There are two kinds of romantics, my older cousin had explained, the kind who is constantly falling in love and simply needs a person into whom they can pour every thought, dream, and project, and the kind of romantic who remains alone, waiting and waiting for the right person to arrive, a person who may not even exist. It was too early to know which kind I would be.”

What challenges did you face in writing a novel that blurs the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction?

The greatest challenge was convincing myself that I could borrow as freely as possible from the past and do whatever I liked with the material. And that I wouldn’t be betraying my past, or anyone’s, by doing so. It seems obvious but it was actually much more of a challenge than I’d envisioned. With every version I managed to move further away from “reality” and create new scenes and characters. This is a novel, and in no way a memoir, and I wanted to be sure that it came across as such. The young narrator resembles my younger self but in some crucial ways she isn’t.

As your background in art and the study of insomnia seem represented in your novel, how would you characterize your relationship with both subjects? What about them fascinates you? 

Classical music and painting: I couldn’t write without either. They distance you from the immediate present and help create atmospheres on the page. I grew up going to museums, dreamt of becoming a painter, and the only way to satisfy that early urge was to attempt something similar, wherever possible, in writing.

As for insomnia, it wasn’t until a few years ago when an editor asked me to write about my own that I realized how much of a narrative I’d already given it, how much of a place it had carved out in my work. I stopped seeing it as purely depleting and instead as a condition that also nourished and inspired and didn’t just take away—something was gradually made out of all those lost hours.

I’ve always been drawn to thresholds and the tension they generate. With both paintings and sleeplessness, you’re poised between states, and I’m interested in exploring that liminal space.

What made you decide to write a coming-of-age novel as opposed to say, a collection of poetry or a piece of literary fiction? 

I hesitate to call it a coming-of-age novel although I suppose in some ways it is. I created a narrative out of a central episode of my adolescence, when I ran away to Oaxaca with a boy. It’s a story I’ve been carrying around for nearly three decades and I was waiting for the right form to give it. A poetry collection would’ve been splendid had I the gift. An essay would have veered too much into memoir.

Are your perception of art and those of writing the same? Or do you look at the world and the human condition differently from an artist’s eye than you do a novelist’s eye?

In both instances I tend to zoom in on the marginal— the marginalised figures in society, in a landscape, searching for anything that may bear a hint of the vulnerable, strange or fantastical. That’s often what provides insight into a scene, allows entry into a picture.

Chloe Aridjis is a Mexican novelist who was born in New York and spent her youth in The Netherlands and Mexico City. She earned her BA from Harvard, followed by a PhD from Oxford University in nineteenth century French poetry and magic shows. Her debut novel, Book of Clouds, published in 2009 won the Prix du Premier Roman Etrnager in France, and went on to be published in eight countries. In 2013, her second novel, Asunder was published, quickly receiving acclaim in the UK. She currently is based in London.

Yours Truly,

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