Welcome to the four hundred and ninth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with novelist, essayist, biographer and self-help author Marta Merajver-Kurlat. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Marta.
Marta: Hi Morgen. First allow me to say that it’s a pleasure to be talking to you.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. I’m delighted to chat with you today. You’re my first Marta. Please tell us something about yourself, and how you came to be a writer.
Marta: I’m an Argentine writer based in Buenos Aires who spent her early youth studying and working around the world. My mother was a writer, and as a child I used to “play” at writing. I filled lots of copybooks with stories, thoughts, and observations. Mother strongly encouraged me to take up writing seriously when the time came to decide on a career, but I shied away and opted for Literature and translation. In my late thirties, I entered the School of Psychology at Buenos Aires University and trained in psychoanalysis. My professors told me that my written examinations had a literary quality that surprised them, considering that in an exam you write under pressure. I just smiled and moved on. I wrote a number of academic articles and papers for journals and conferences, but it wasn’t my intention to become a writer. In 2004 I had a heated argument with some colleagues about the causes of suicide. Finding their viewpoints too narrow-minded, I decided to challenge them through a novel. This is how I became a writer, and haven’t stopped writing professionally since then.
Morgen: What a wonderful story (pardon the pun) and knowing psychology must help with knowing your characters. What genre do you generally write?
Marta: My genre of choice is the novel, but I have written self-help, biography, and essay at my publisher’s request.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Marta: It’s a long list. In Spanish, three novels –Gracias por la muerte (translated into English as Just Toss the Ashes), Los gloriosos sesenta y después, soon to appear in translation, El tramo final, and a guide to Joyce’s Ulysses for Spanish-speaking readers entitled El Ulises de James Joyce: una lectura posible. In English, Kim ki-Duk:On Movies, the Visual Language, Living with Stress, Developing Personal Relationships, Why Can’t I Make Money, and Reading for Personal Development. I write under my own name. Using a pseudonym strikes me as a kind of divided identity, though of course I respect writers who choose to write different genres under different names.
Morgen: I have a Mexican lodger (whose English is very good) and soon a Spanish one (who speaks no English) so I need to brush up on my Spanish. I love the title ‘Gracias por la muerte’ (= Thank you for the death (I think?)). Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Marta: Just Toss the Ashes and El Ulises de James Joyce are. I was not involved in the process except for the fact that I signed a contract granting my permission. I’d like to read eBooks from the wonderful devices available, but my country has a crazy policy about imports, so the few that do get through the restrictions cost the earth.
Morgen: What a shame. So presumably you can’t read them online either. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Marta: In fact, I do. My favourite book is Los gloriosos sesenta y después, perhaps because it is set at the time when I was young and adventurous. Just Toss the Ashes was made into a script by Brian Pew, a talented young director who made it his personal project. He struggled hard to find investors but failed. At the moment, someone in Mexico is considering taking over. For this particular novel, my ideal actors would be Emma Thompson and Johnny Depp. In my dreams!
Morgen: Brilliant actors (being English I’m a tad biased on Emma Thompson). If I had to choose one movie it would be ‘Stranger than Fiction’ which few people have heard of or certainly seen, surprisingly as Emma’s in it as is Will Ferrell (the lead), Dustin Hoffman and Queen Latifah. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Marta: Oh yes; I had total freedom to give the books a title. As for the covers, the publisher, the designer and I worked together to make the best choice. I think they are extremely important, because the cover is the first thing a prospective reader sees.
Morgen: Absolutely. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Marta: I’m finishing my first novel in English, under the provisional title How to Live with Men and Survive. In the meantime, I’m doing research for a rather ambitious novel dealing with mortality, a second chance through rebirth, and the theory of the eternal return.
Morgen: I’m a big titles fan (and love making them up for my daily fiction. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Marta: I write a couple of hours every day. That doesn’t mean that everything I write stays; I often delete entire paragraphs or pages afterwards, but it keeps me on my toes, so to speak. I wouldn’t say that I suffer from writer’s block, though I’m not always happy with what I do.
Morgen: I’m sure every writer could say that. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Marta: I work on the stories in my mind for months or years and make notes before sitting down to write. I only sit down to write once the story is fully developed.
Morgen: Wow. I’d worry I’d forget it. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Marta: My characters are bits and pieces of real people, including myself. I give them a full biography in my notes, even when I will probably use less than ten percent in the book. But I need to know who they are, where they come from, what their strengths and weaknesses are to understand why they do what they do. I think the fact that they have these “lives” drawn out for them makes them believable. One interesting thing is that, quite often during this process, my characters “speak” to me inside my mind, leading me in a direction that I had not envisaged. And I listen, for they are usually right.
Morgen: Aren’t they just. I love the making up process of fiction and ‘finding’ new people is wonderful and I love it when I can feature them again, almost like meeting old friends. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Marta: I don’t edit while I’m writing. When I’m done, I put the book aside for some time and then go back to it with a certain detachment. This is the time for editing. The next step is having trusted friends read the manuscript. On the basis of their comments I edit one last time.
Morgen: I think that’s the best way. I went to a short story awards ceremony last night where crime writer Adrian Magson was the judge and he said not to edit as you go along but just to get the story out. Some do edit as they go and it works for them but often I don’t know what my endings are going to be so I just want to write it and worry about dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s later. Do you have to do much research?
Marta: That depends on the subject. Before writing El Tramo Final, a novel that describes life in an old people’s home, I visited a number of homes and spent almost a year as a guest in one.
Morgen: Wow, that’s dedication. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Marta: I usually go for the third person. The novel on which I’m currently working calls for the first person to sound natural, so that’s the point of view I’ve chosen. It has never occurred to me to try second person, but I might consider it.
Morgen: Please do, though I’d suggest for something short as it’s heavy going – it’s my favourite viewpoint (though not that of 99.9% of the writing and reading population – I’ve only interviewed one writer, Stella Deleuze, who also says it’s their favourite) so I created a page for it on this blog. Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Marta: As an adult, I wrote only one poem, sent it to a contest, and won. I couldn’t believe it! I love reading poetry, but am not a poet, really. My self-help books, biography, essays and articles are non-fiction. I must say I don’t have the knack for short stories. I’ve written a few and passed them round before submitting them, and was consistently asked, “Where’s the rest of the novel?” That put me off trying.
Morgen: As a short story author, I feel like saying “oh dear” here but novels are far more popular than short stories (or I hope so as I’m getting my novels ready to go online as eBooks ). Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Marta: Apart from the short stories, that are now being reworked as a filmscript because they hinge round one same subject, everything I’ve written has been published. But I cannot tell about what I haven’t yet written, right?
Morgen: In theory the more you write the better you get (everything’s practice) so unless you have an off day I’d say you’re pretty safe. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Marta: Yes. My first novel, Just Toss the Ashes, was rejected by a British publishing house in very hard terms. I couldn’t make out the violence of the rejection until I learnt that the reader who signed the letter was a woman whose mother had committed suicide just like my character and at the same age. But even before learning the circumstances, I sent the novel to my current publisher. The interesting thing was that he warned me he didn’t publish fiction, but would read it and try to connect me to someone else. After reading it, he decided to start a fiction series with my novel. That was indeed unexpected and it boosted my belief in my writing.
Morgen: However hard it was, that was rather unfair of the publisher to reject it for personal reasons. She’d be buying the book for the general public, not herself. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Marta: No. In my country they’re not reliable, and fishing for competitions all over the world is a job in itself. The poem thing was an exception. I acted on impulse.
Morgen: There are a few sites that list opportunities – I have a competitions calendar page which lists loads (and also a submission information page) but the first that springs to mind is http://duotrope.com. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Marta: Again, there are no agents in Argentina. Still, except for articles, I don’t publish in my own country, and I don’t need an agent to mediate between my publisher and me. I’m sure there are great agents out there, and am quite willing to find one if I need to.
Morgen: Many authors are being taken on directly via publishers (or going it alone), and I have heard that some agents are becoming publishers so I guess we’ll see less of them. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Marta: Not much, I’m afraid. I lack the skills and, quite frankly, cannot see myself as a ‘brand’. I’m not proud of this. I wish I could be more active promoting my work.
Morgen: Nothing to not feel proud of. Ultimately you are an individual writer (with a publisher behind her) who writes every day. Many writers have to forgo that in favour of marketing, which they often tell me they loathe. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Marta: My favourite aspect is that I lead many lives as I shape and write my books. My least favourite aspect are deadlines! There were no surprises. Things developed as I expected them to. Perhaps I should add that I’m a very realistic person, so I tend to know what to expect.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Marta: Read everything you can lay hands on. Even bad books will teach you something; for example, how not to write. And exercise your skills as pianists do: the more you write, the more you will refine your style and voice.
Morgen: That’s very true and there are plenty of bad books out there (which has been giving eBooks a bad name). If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Marta: Hmm… My ideal guests would be Emile Zola, Henry Miller, and Madame de Staël. It would be fun to listen to them discussing writing! I would definitely cook fondue bourguignone. It keeps you at table for hours.
Morgen: I love fondue… and have fond memories of fondues at my German friends house when I was younger. I have one and would be a great way to welcome the new lodger. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Marta: I love words, every one of them, in the five languages I speak. My favorite quote is “Character is destiny.” – Martin Amis
Morgen: Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Marta: I am a professional translator and a teacher of literature and writing.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Marta: I’m a compulsive reader, a theatre-goer and a fan of TV serials such as Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect, and Lewis. I also walk a lot, play the guitar, meet with friends, participate actively in LinkedIn writers’ groups… No time to feel bored, actually.
Morgen: English crime programmes are great, aren’t they (again, I could be a tad biased). Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Morgen: LinkedIn’s been brilliant for me. I was running out of interviewees earlier this year and put a shout-out and am now booking into February next year! Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Marta: I’m an assistant editor at www.enotes.com and have a Facebook page. E-notes gives me the possibility to assist students in subjects I’m conversant with, and it’s an enormous satisfaction to get “thank you, ma’am” messages. The Facebook page was not my idea, so it’s just there. I’m told there’s a lot of traffic going on, but I seldom if ever visit the page. Quite frankly, I don’t find it at all useful.
Morgen: I have an editor’s questionnaire, maybe we could have an interview part 2. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Marta: Wouldn’t I like to know! More and more people are taking to writing while fewer people read. Yet a writer won’t give up writing, regardless of how the market evolves.
Morgen: I’ve heard that eBooks are getting more people to read, even on their mobiles so hopefully it’ll be the making of literacy, it’ll certainly be interesting to see. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Marta: I think we’ve covered a lot of ground here, so I’d like to thank you again for the generous space you’ve offered me.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. If LinkedIn hadn’t have come up trumps I might be talking to myself this morning and I’ve done that before. Thank you, Marta. Let’s hope your government eases up on eBooks and realises how wonderful they are.
I then invited Marta to include an extract of her writing…
“At writing workshops, intending writers are insistently warned of the importance of a title. It should sound attractive and give a general idea of the contents without disclosing too much. Many a book is discarded because of an unfortunate title, and many sell exceedingly well thanks to a clever choice that sometimes arouses false expectations. The gurus running these workshops do not often remind their students that titles may well be fragments of works written by others. As a reader, you do not really care how a particular title occurred to a writer, but you should know when it has been borrowed from someone else’s work. Such decisions are not capricious, and if you miss the intertextual connections between title and source you will probably also miss much of the writer’s purpose.” (From Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, in Reading for Personal Development, Jorge Pinto Books Inc., New York, 2011)
I then invited Marta to include a synopsis of her / his latest book…
Few of us feel inclined to ponder on our old age, that last stretch of the road that inexorably leads to death. Santa Brígida Nursing Home is one of the many homes that accomodate elderly people who can no longer take care of themselves. The story tells of the interplay among three circles –the inmates, their caregivers, and their families. Immersed in the inevitability of a rite of passage that they find hard to accept, the characters bare their souls in an attempt to cope with the questions posed by humankind’s inherent solitude. Half-way between fantasy and reality, with a pinch of intrigue and suspense, El Tramo Final sheds light on the moment when it is no longer possible to escape subjective truth and the concomitant love-hate tension in the bonds between parents and offspring. (El tramo final, Jorge Pinto Books Inc., New York, 2010)
N.B. Although this novel was published before Reading for Personal Development, it is in fact my latest book.
Marta Merajver-Kurlat is an Argentine novelist, translator, essayist, and biographer. Her attraction to the ways in which mankind tells its own history encouraged her to undertake studies in myth, language, literature, psychology, and psychoanalysis. Accordingly, her novels Just Toss the Ashes, Los gloriosos sesenta y después, and El tramo final delve into intriguing aspects of human nature. She currently holds a permanent seminar on Tragedy and is a guest lecturer at APA (Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina) and EFBA (Escuela Freudiana de Buenos Aires).
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