Carlos Fuentes has come a long way since he began writing fantasies and adventure stories at age seven. He published his first pieces when he was 11 years old in a Chilean school publication, his first essay in Mexico when he was 13 years old, and his first novel, The Good Conscience, while a law student in his early 20s.
"There were many other novels before that," he confides, "but they ought to be forgotten." He lowers his voice slightly. "They were Gothic novels, lots of mad women in mansions, inspired by Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo, and set in exotic Haiti." He shudders slightly at the memory.
"When I began to write more seriously, I would write blindly, getting ulcers with a white page before me, with no schematic sense of the novels' structure. But now I know how to write in my head before I sit down." Where The Air is Clear is an example of those early novels "born out of chaos."
"When I wrote that novel I had to get up every day at six in order to be at the law school at eight. I was in classes until 11 and then I went to the foreign ministry where I worked until 2:30. Then I'd go home and write like a madman until 6 or 7:30. Then I'd go out and dance the Mambo and meet girls and go to bed at four and rise again at six."
"I wrote and lived with that prodigious energy you have when you're 22 or 23 or 25. Now I have to walk around thinking very seriously about what I have to do today and taking vitamin pills."
Contrary to many interpretations, Fuentes asserts that his works are not auto-biographical. "I find my own biography uninteresting within this larger (sociopolitical) canvas. Maybe one day I'll write a book of memoirs or publish my letters as an old gentleman."
Looming influences on his works are Balzac, Faulkner, Kafka, and Cervantes, "who is the greatest writer in the world--he knows all the secrets of life."
But just as important an influence was that of Latin American poets, such as Neruda, Huidobro, Gabriela, Mistral, and Octavio Paz. "Our (contemporary Latin American novelists') language is possible because the poets offered it. Poets like Neruda discovered local rhythms and the circular sense of time of our culture. And Borges, one of the founders of modern Latin American literature, taught us that the Spanish language was good for something other than making speeches."
Fuentes attributes Latin American experimentalism with the traditional novelistic form--especially the breaking away from chronological narrative to newer grounds where past, present, and future exist simultaneously--to Latin America's unique pattern of economic development. It is a modernization process where there has not been unilinear growth as in Western industrialized countries.
"Our sense of time is different--there is a coincidence of time, a circular time." Fuentes adds that Latin American novelists' emphasis on surrealism and employment of ancient, regional symbolism and mythology stems party from this uneven modernization process, and a preoccupation with the past "which is always present."
Fuentes weighs equally novels and short stories. "They complement each other--a novel is like and ocean, has breadth, is long and deep and covers many shores, whereas a short story has been defined as a calamity told in a telegram: 'Your mother died today.' The novel is infinitely inclusive, where as the short story is exclusive--everything is done by allusion."
His latest translated work, the collection of short storied Burnt Water was written over the years of 1954-80, "as satellites around certain novels so they have something of the quality of the novel I was writing at the time. One can therefore find similarities to such novels as Aura, A Change of Skin, The Death of Artemio Cruz in these stories."
Fuentes won't reveal what the novel he's writing now is about. "If I tell you about it, I'll never write it." All he'll say is that he's writing it in Dartmouth College's Baker Library. "As I look at these snowy mountains of New Hampshire with everyone running around very cold, here I am writing a novel which starts with the creation of the principal character, the moment his mother and father are on the beach in Acapulco."