The renowned Galician author muses on unusual strikes of inspiration for latest novel The Winterlings and casts writers as excavators of stories that exist already within.
Translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.
Let me begin with a story. In the summer of 2012, I was travelling along a back road in Spain with my husband (the precise location doesn’t matter) when suddenly, I saw something that made me jump in the passenger seat. My husband swerved wildly and we almost had an accident. “What’s wrong with you?!” he exclaimed. I made him go back. “What did you see?” I made him stop in front of a road sign; a sign that said ‘Las Inviernas’, or the Winterlings, in English. “So what?” he said, “This is why you scared the living daylights out of me and made me turn around? It’s a village, who cares? It’s not like you saw a dead body lying by the side of the road!”
No, I didn’t see a dead body lying by the side of the road, but just like that, by pure chance (we had just dropped off our son at a camping ground) I came across the Winterlings.
I have to tell you something else: we writers do not choose our characters. Our characters choose us.
The seed, the tiny embryo of a novel began to gestate in my head right in that moment. The Winterlings. A person in that situation might have seen any old thing – in fact I think my husband saw nothing more than a road sign, which of course is perfectly logical. I immediately saw three things. First, the title of a novel. Or rather, the keyhole into the door of a novel. Second, I saw two women from a village, one pretty and the other ugly. And third, I saw the winter. The winter and the Galician fog.
I know that this story is difficult to believe, but I can assure you that it is absolutely true. And I also know that if any writer is reading this story, they will immediately identify with it. Because fiction is full of apparently magical moments like these. The strangest things happen to us during the writing process.
And so it wasn’t I who chose the Winterlings, but they who chose me. It occurred just like a dream, which we have no power of choice over either. It’s clear that dreams are born in a deep layer of the subconscious. They are the result of that magma of lived experiences, thoughts, people that we have seen or remembered throughout the day, fears, and obsessions, and secrets. In general, it has to do with the unexplored territory of ourselves (Jung called it ‘the shadow’) that we are afraid to uncover. Because we write to discover what we didn’t know that we already knew; this is why we’re often surprised at what we have written and we ask ourselves where it came from. I suspect that’s why such extraordinary coincidences occur. Our subconscious knows much more than we know ourselves.
And so in reality, when I saw that road sign for the Winterlings, those two women, the fog and the winter, they were already a part of me. I had a huge tangle of marvellous stories that I had heard as a little girl in my grandmother’s house, and I didn’t know how to arrange them in a text. My subconscious drew my attention to that sign and made me stop in the middle of the road, so that I’d have at least a title and two protagonists. So that I could start writing once and for all.
As you immerse yourself in the reading of The Winterlings you can see that it’s clearly a narrative drawn from the oral tradition. Through oral testimony I thought that I could better capture the cultural spirit and the magical quality that is so characteristic of Galician villages. In those stories one finds a legacy of the premonitions, visions and apparitions that come from superstition or religion.
So many of the things that appear in the novel are things I heard or saw as a little girl in Galicia, the place where I was born and where my father’s entire family comes from. I believe that the landscape of childhood is very important when it comes to writing, because that’s where the tension between the real and the imaginary is first forged; it is a tension that stays with an adult forever. Torrente Ballester, one of the most renowned Galician writers, used to say that he considered himself cultured not because of what he had learned at university but for what he had heard in his grandmother’s house. And for García Márquez, Macondo isn’t a place but the past, which also takes place in his grandparents’ old house, in Aracataca. Truly magical things happened there, things that justified the author when he said that in his opinion what he wrote was not magic realism, but realism pure and simple.
In the case of The Winterlings, the oral narration is included not only because the stories glimpsed in the novel are real, but also because the characters tell each other these stories around the hearth, or by the ‘lareira’ as we say in Galicia. All those stories that I heard from my grandmother are stories without a fixed structure, where what matters most is the psychology of the character. For example, there is the story of the priest who goes up the mountain every day, to administer the last rites to an old lady who never quite dies. Then finally one day, completely exhausted, he explodes: “It’s time to kick the bucket, woman! Christ, that’s what we’re here for!” Or the story of the boy who was breastfed until he was seven years old, and who would bite his mother’s nipples. Or the story about the country teacher. In the 1950s all the Galician country teachers without formal qualifications, who were paid in measures or ‘ferrados’ of corn or rye (that’s why we call them maestros de ferrado), were made to sit a test, an official exam in La Coruña, and that caused quite a stir at the time. But all these stories needed something to connect them, and finding Dolores and Saladina was what helped me the most.
The writer of fiction always seeks to reveal a mystery. She might even be revealing it to herself at the same time that she reveals it to others. Rather than seeking the origins of the novel, what I seek is a mystery that is unknown even to me. It is my characters who reveal everything. Just as I began to write The Winterlings, they revealed their secret to me. But there was more, and I simply felt that I had to keep writing because those two women couldn’t stop telling me things. For example, I didn’t know about Dolores’s husband’s murder, the man who fished for squid and cod, until a few paragraphs before she did it (or they did it). When I discovered that was going to happen, I understood it to be inevitable and that the murder was the cause of many other things. The murder provokes a sense of shock in the reader (or laughter or whatever sensation) because it provoked the same thing in me as a writer. It seems a bit strange for me to say this, because in the end I am the author, that is to say, the God of this little universe, which in theory I can make and unmake at my whim. Well, it’s not quite like that. After some time, I have arrived at the conclusion that one must begin writing so that one’s characters acquire autonomy and begin to make decisions for themselves.