Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Claudia Piñeiro is the author of Elena Knows.
The globally bestselling author and scriptwriter tells us how her mother’s battle with Parkinson’s disease inspired the unlikely protagonist at the heart of her novel Elena Knows, along with a spate of suicides at her local church in Buenos Aires.
What first inspired you to write Elena Knows?
I always begin writing my books with an image that acts like a trigger. I allow this image to steep in my mind, the characters then begin to speak, to reveal their conflicts. It’s like a tangled ball of wool that I unwind bit by bit. In the case of Elena Knows this image was a woman, a woman in her kitchen at home, sitting bent over in a chair waiting for the pill she’s taken to take effect so she can get up. This was the trigger image. I should also acknowledge that this diseased body of the character Elena is inspired by the body of my mother, who suffered from the same illness, Parkinson’s.
What’s your earliest reading memory?
My first reading memory is a book called Chico Carlo by Juana de Ibarbourou, an iconic Uruguayan female author. It’s a book that was very widely read when I was a girl. There’s a story in it called “The Damp Stain”, in which a solitary child invents stories based on what they can see in a damp patch on the ceiling of their bedroom. A kind of kid-lit Borgesian Aleph. This image, this reading, has always stayed with me, and I think there’s a lot of it in the writer that I became.
What authors have made the biggest impact on your work?
As a writer born in Argentina there are inescapable names, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Juan José Saer, Alejandra Pizarnik, Ricardo Piglia, and although it is hard to point to their exact impact on my work other than as a sum of reading of our best literature, the signs of their influence are certainly there. If I had to say which one of our great authors has influenced the way I write more directly, I’d say Manuel Puig. The whole universe of Puig is one I feel very close to: the worlds he created, the secrets, the things left unsaid, his love for cinema, the political aspect to his literature, the place occupied by those who aren’t at the heart of power in society, unexplained appearances, the deterioration of the body, his humour, the emotional world of his characters, his concern for language and for breaking writing conventions.
How does it feel to have your work translated for people in the English-speaking world to read?
It is an extraordinary opportunity to open up to new readers. Language is a very easy barrier to cross, we have the means, and yet it doesn’t always happen. I’m excited every time I receive a message on social networks from a reader from somewhere across the world, with a comment about their copy of Elena Knows. I feel there’s something magical about this process that takes the word written in my language to being read in English elsewhere. But on top of that, an English translation doesn’t only reach readers in countries where it’s spoken: it means that it can be read by scouts from publishers who don’t read Spanish. So, a translation into English has a multiplying effect on other languages.
There’s something magical about this process that takes the word written in my language to being read in English elsewhere.
What other books would you like to see Elena Knows sit beside on a bookshelf?
I’d like to see Elena Knows surrounded by books by other authors writing in Spanish who have been, or are, on the Booker list: The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz. I reckon Elena would feel in good company there!
Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.
I walk when I’m reading, or I read when I’m walking. As if I belonged to the peripatetic school. My father used to do the same. I might be inside the house or out on the street. Or even on a treadmill. To date, I haven’t had an accident or crashed into anyone, miraculously!
And an interesting fact about the book.
From the start of the book, Elena wants to know why her daughter appeared hanging in the belfry of the church. When I wrote the book, my creative writing teacher, Guillermo Saccomanno, suggested I change the form of the death because he found it too unlikely: ‘Why doesn’t Rita take an overdose of her mother’s pills or shoot herself, something more ordinary?’ The fact is, I didn’t know if medication for Parkinson’s could kill Rita, and I didn’t feel like they were the kind of household to own a gun. But on top of that, in Burzaco, the small town in the province of Buenos Aires where I was born and grew up, it wasn’t unusual for someone to climb up to the church belfry to kill themselves because actually there weren’t too many methods available: either you hanged yourself in the church, or you threw yourself in front of the train. In fact, during my childhood, I saw dead people being brought down from the belfry of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on three occasions. After that comment by my teacher, chatting with a friend I grew up with, we had the following conversation: ‘Are you writing at the moment?’ she asked me. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘What’s the new novel about?’ ‘It’s the story of a woman whose daughter is found hanging from the belfry and she wants to know if she killed herself or was killed.’ ‘Ah, so it takes place in Burzaco then,’ my friend concluded.
During my childhood, I saw dead people being brought down from the belfry of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on three occasions
Tell us about a book that changed your life.
There is a book that taught me a great lesson as a writer (and in this sense changed my life because I went on to become a writer) and that is The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez. When I was a girl, at home we didn’t buy many books. There was a small library in the living room and my parents did value reading, but there wasn’t enough money left at the end of the month to buy more than the books they asked for at school. So, each year I awaited anxiously the first days of class to find out what book the teacher would assign us, which was the book we’d be allowed to buy and I’d have the chance to read. The year the teacher asked for The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor I was annoyed, imagining it was the tale of a sailor who was shipwrecked on the high seas and had to survive on a little boat, which didn’t interest me at all. What could there be in that book of any relevance to me, I wondered. Yet, as soon as I began to read it, I remember becoming that drifting sailor, totally alone, deciding whether or not to kill and eat a seagull. That book taught me that it doesn’t matter what the story is but rather how it is told, the resources the author uses to take the reader’s hand and persuade them to follow them all the way to the end. It wasn’t the sailor who had trapped me, but García Márquez with his pen.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
When I won the Clarín Alfaguara Prize for Thursday Night Widows, José Saramago and Rosa Montero were on the jury. At the party, after announcing I was the winner and amid all the excitement, Saramago told me: ‘Make sure you talk to Rosa because we wanted to tell you something about your text, and she’ll explain it better than me.’ After a while Saramago appeared again and repeated: ‘Did you speak to Rosa yet?’ And then again. Finally, after the catering and the champagne, I had the chance to talk to Rosa Montero, and she told me: ‘Review the text before you publish. We think that the novel should end before it does. You explain too much, you say things that should remain unsaid.’ And of course they were absolutely right! In my inexperience, I wanted to explain everything to the reader, out of fear they wouldn’t understand the text the way I wanted them to. That day I learned that you have to trust your readers; taking that risk brings great benefits to the text.
What book have you never finished?
The Bible. I was obliged to read it in the school run by nuns that I was sent to, but I’ve always been very rebellious…