Sunday, March 1, 2015

Interview with Manuel Alfonseca

This is the translation of an interview about my activity as an author of fiction, published in El Templo de las Mil Puertas

1.         What drives an apparently scientific person to get involved on the wonderful task of creating, writing and sharing stories?
Many scientists have written novels, especially in the genre of science fiction. To name a few: Carl Sagan, Leo Szilard, George Gamow and Willy Ley. I also like to try other genres. Throughout my life, I've been interested in many subjects that are not supposed to be science, such as history or philosophy. Later, when I tried to express myself in the field of fiction, such knowledge found its natural place.

2.         You have published almost thirty YA books in different genres, from the historical to the fantastic, plus science fiction and mystery. While writing, which genre do you feel most comfortable with? Is there a genre you haven’t been able to tackle?
I really don’t know. There are many genres I haven’t tried. For instance, I have never tried to write allegorical novels such as The Pilgrim’s Regress by CS Lewis, or westerns, or humor books in the Wodehouse style. So far, with few exceptions, I usually feel comfortable with the book I'm currently writing. When I get into a concrete story, I get really into it and forget what I've written before.
3.         In your books you've tried many different topics: lost crowns, research in the depths of the jungle... Where do so many ideas come from?
Each book has a different origin. Sometimes I get an idea while reading a book by another author. If I like the book, I don’t usually need to write something similar, but if I don’t, I sometimes feel that I could do that better... After ripening the idea, perhaps years later, I may try it. But not all my books have arisen in this way.
4.         Navigating around your site, we have found that several of your out-of-print books are available as free ebooks, or are for sale in Amazon, both in Spanish and in English. What prompted you to make your stories publicly available? What motivated the translation of your books into English?
Eight of my out-of-print novels are available for free in my website, both in Spanish and English. I am offering five others for sale in Amazon, also in both languages. I have also self-published two of my unpublished books, only in Spanish. The results are clear: while my free books have been downloaded over 30,000 times, Amazon has sold in a year about 50 copies of all the books I have for sale. This is an indication that the feeling that everything must be free has reached the world of books. Publishers prefer novelties, so it’s difficult to republish a book (although three of my books have been republished). I’d rather some of my books reach a wider audience, therefore I offer them free on-line. As for the English translations, they don’t take me long and increase the scope of the books, but their dissemination is lower in that language. My free books have been downloaded five times less in English than in Spanish, but even so the number of downloads has been about 6,000.
5.         Last year, SCHEDAS published the first two volumes of The Sleuths of Transition, a mystery series with two young people, Vicky and Gonzalo, in the leading roles. How did you get the idea? Will there be more installments of this pair of detectives?
I had intended for some time to try my luck in the genre of YA mystery, so I wrote four books in a row with the same characters, placing them in the context of the Spanish political transition and testing in each book different variants of the mystery genre. The first, El zahir of Quetzalcoatl, where Vicky and Gonzalo meet for the first time, includes a touch of fantasy and takes place during Franco's death. The second, The mystery of the haunted house, inspired by the novels of Sherlock Holmes, takes place during the inauguration of Adolfo Suárez as Prime Minister. The third, The mystery of the sapphire bracelet is a classic detective story, where the amateur detective, after interviewing the suspects, solves the case in advance of the professional sleuth. The plot takes place about the time when the Spanish Constitution was voted. The fourth, The mystery of the honeymoon, is a complex intrigue novel in the style of the first books by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. So far Schedas has published just the first two.
6.         You have won several literary awards and have been finalist in a few others. What has been your experience about participating in these events?
Very good, when I was well placed; not so much when that did not happen... Just kidding. I've won two awards (Lazarillo 1988, with The Ruby of the Ganges, and La Brújula 2012 with The Tartesian crown), I was a finalist in four (Lazarillo 1987, Elena Fortún 1988, CCEI 1989 and El Templo de las Mil Puertas 2012) plus two other books that appeared in honor lists. But I have also tried other awards, without a practical result. So is life, sometimes you win and sometimes you don't.
7.         Your two sides, writer and teacher, have gone hand in hand throughout your life. To what extent has one influenced the other? Is it difficult to juggle between both types of job?
Overall I have kept both sides quite apart. Although I have worked on computer science, almost none of my novels has to do with that topic, except a science fiction novel, Jacob's Ladder, which can be downloaded for free here:
It was never difficult to combine both sides. I can divide my life into watertight compartments. In fact, I do that even while reading, I usually read three books at the same time, alternating from one to another. Since they always belong to different genres, I don’t get confused.
8.         How long does it take you to write a novel? Are you a writer who improvises while writing or you must have everything previously thought out and developed?
If I can devote myself fully to write a novel (on vacation, or now that I am retired), it usually takes about two months. Otherwise, while I was working full time at IBM or the University, it used to take about nine months, because I could only write in the evening or on weekends. I generally improvise, because it's more fun. Sometimes I am awfully surprised, because it looks like the book is writing itself, without my intervention. I'll give an example: when I started writing the first book in the series The Sleuths of Transition, in the first page, Gonzalo, narrator and protagonist, says: "As this I'm writing will not be read by my parents or any one, apart from my brother and Vicky..." After writing this, I stopped and asked myself: Who is this Vicky? Because at that time I hadn’t the faintest idea. Something similar happened to Tolkien at the first appearance of Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, he also wrote in the same way. I’m glad to have at least this in common with him.
9.         Which of your novels has been the most difficult to write? Why?
"The Dwellers of the Night", which has a very long history. I started writing it in 1969, but after four chapters I was stuck and the idea got enclosed in a folder for many years. In 1998 I tried it again, starting from scratch and changing all the characters, but keeping the basic idea (the beings capable of sliding along vertical walls). After three chapters I again got stuck, and left it there for a few years. Finally, in July 2003, I decided to take it up again, changing all the characters and even the places where the action occurred. The third time's the charm: everything went smoothly and I finished the novel in just 33 days. I wonder how much time it took me to write this book? 33 days, or 34 years?
10.       We keep hearing in the media that "young people do not read" because so many electronic devices exist today. Do you think that the new technologies alienate young people from developing reading habits?
Of course. But we also said that about television in the sixties and seventies. Somebody said that, at any time, the number of real readers (those who devour books and devote a considerable proportion of their time to read) never exceeds ten percent of the population, and this figure remains constant, irrespective of the level reached by free compulsory education. Another reason may be the fact that reading as a duty (as it is done in schools) does not help to make good readers. Perhaps we should look for better ways. My Spanish teacher when I was eleven did not make us read, but he read us a book during class. The first one he read was the second part of The Black Corsair, by Salgari. We were all fascinated by his reading and wanted to know what had happened in the first part of the book. Of course, I bought the book, but I think I was the only one. Then, during recess, my classmates formed a circle around me and I told them what was happening in the first part as soon as I read it, because they were highly interested. This teacher has left me very good memories.
11.       Are you working on anything new just now? Will we see more of your novels in bookstores this year?
Just now I'm not writing a novel. I've been busy with other literary genres: essays on science and religion, and the script for a comic. But perhaps the third and fourth books in the series The Sleuths of Transition may appear this year.
12.       Finally, what books that have influenced you would you recommend to our readers?
When I was a kid, my favorite book was In desert and wilderness by Henrik Sienkiewicz, the Polish Nobel Prize. I read it about ten times. Another of my favorite books is The Human Comedy, by William Saroyan. However, years after its first publication, the author published an expurgated version that I like less than the original. Some of the quotations I had marked in the first version had disappeared in the second! In the genre of science fiction, my favorite is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. And finally, I cannot fail to mention what I consider the best book of our civilization, The Divine Comedy by Dante, the only book that, as an adult, I have read four times in one year, two in the original and two translated into Spanish, in verse and prose.

Thank you for answering our questions!

Translated into English by Manuel Alfonseca

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