Author Interview – Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

The Wall Garden plays with disturbing imagery, shifts in time, and loops in on itself more than once. Did all that make it harder or easier to write? The image of the creatures trapped in the wall garden is particularly striking. Did the story have its genesis there, or did the idea of the wall garden evolve with the writing?

The story’s central idea, which was indeed that of something living inside a wall, derives from a series of nightmares I had back in 2003. At the time I lived with my family in the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, in a largish house with a generous basement. In the dreams I became convinced that someone was living inside the basement walls, an extremely gaunt sort of quasi-person that could go years without eating, and moved extremely slowly, sometimes taking months to traverse a few inches. The element that was most unsettling about the dreams wasn’t the creature itself, though, but the anguish of feeling that if such a creature existed, there was no way I’d be able to convince anyone else of its reality, short of knocking down the walls. “There’s something alive inside the walls” became an eerie, and eerily undermining, proposition. In order to demonstrate that it was untrue, one would have to tear apart one’s home.
As I was casting about for scary ideas back in the summer of 2013, I remembered those dreams. I wanted to convey to the reader the sense of dread and inescapability of the something-inside-the-walls proposition, and I thought that one way of accomplishing that might be by forcing the reader inside those very walls. I read some go-to passages by Kafka, as well as Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden (1899), for inspiration. The latter’s exploration of decadence got me thinking about the moral dimensions of my story. I then backed into the notion of a person who commits a wicked deed, and whose conscience (itself possessing consciousness) is shoved inside the walls in the form a bug-like creature, while the rest of that person, unfettered by conscience, roams free. How could that person ever be made whole again, his or her two parts re-united? Pondering the possible answers to that question generated the story’s plot. I then wrote several versions of the story that used various flash-back and loop structures as a means of drawing the reader in and creating claustrophobia. After several attempts I hit on one that I felt worked, and to which early readers responded favorably (with eloquently apposite comments about the sickness of my mind). I’m glad you found the imagery disturbing.

What is your writing process like typically? Or do you have a different process for every story?

I tend to start with a striking image, which I try to turn into an ending, and then work my way backwards to the story’s opening. Sometimes the image turns out to be the opening, which screws things up. I like to have a plot outline, a setting and some character backgrounds before I sit down to write the story. Often I have a title before I begin.

What is your favorite piece of insect-related fiction?

As a child I was terrified by the giant spiders of Them! (1954). As a pre-teen and early teen I read a lot of Spider-Man comics. Then there were the arachnoid “Bugs” of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959). As a late teen, I remember that I was quite struck by Floria Sigismondi’s insect-themed video to Marilyn Manson’s “Tourniquet” (1997). Not sure how it holds up. I was also intrigued by the relationship that Edgler Vess, the killer of Dean Koontz’s Intensity (1995), had with spiders. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), of course. And the X-Files episode “War of the Coprophages” (1996), as much for Darin Morgan’s writing as for the critter effects, is one of my favorites.

As we mature, our relationship with the creepy-crawly elements of the world changes, as does our emotional (and sometimes physical) response. Can you tell us one early or notable experience you’ve had with bugs that helped shape how you view them?

Playing in a sandbox in a Southern California school when I was seven years old and being repeatedly stung by red ants didn’t encourage my love for them. And I’d already seen Them!.

What have you read recently/what are you reading currently/what is on your TBR pile that you’re excited about?

Recent reads are D. T. Max’s bio of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (2012), and Joe Queenan’s One for the Books (2012). Currently reading Javier Marias’ The Infatuations (2011) and Isaac Asimov’s The World of Carbon (1958). Exciting TBR items: all of them, of course! (That’s why they graduate to the TBR pile). A few titles: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (2013) by Simon Singh, Proxima (2013) by Stephen Baxter, Shaman (2013) by Kim Stanley Robinson and Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong (2013) by Joyce Carol Oates.

What are you working on now/what do you have upcoming that you want people to know about?

I recently finished my first solo novel, tentatively titled Reyla’s Song, and I will be working on edits and submissions to agents in early 2014. My short story “Hot and Cold” will be appearing in Analog sometime in 2014. I’d like to alert UK readers to the British publication of When the Blue Shift Comes, a two-novella collaboration with Robert Silverberg, in March 2014.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

My first story (sold for token payment) was “The Filigree” in 2008. I like the idea but today I’d execute it differently.

Since we’re coming up on the holiday season, and there’s no escaping it -- what is your favorite holiday-related entertainment (movie, TV special, song/album, book or story)? What is your least favorite?

I’m looking forward to reading the Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams-edited anthology Isaac Asimov’s Christmas (1997). Every year I say, “This is the year.” This is the year.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

I believe that the act of remembering something can make it important, even if it isn’t objectively so. I sympathize with Fred Madison in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), who says “I like to remember things my own way.” I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in school, so I’m not sure I can form a defense on those grounds.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

I’m not sure I love any truly obscure writers. If I know them, how obscure can they be? Well, except possibly for the nine “Soviet Latvian” poets gathered in the 1973 anthology Let Us Get Acquainted: Aleksandrs Caks, Janis Grots, Arvids Grigulis, Bruno Saulitis, Ojars Vacietis, Imants Ziedonis, Imants Auzins, Viktors Livzemnieks, and Maris Caklais. I think they’re pretty obscure. But I’m not convinced I love them. I mean, that’s a strong word. You might enjoy their poems. The short story collection The Book of Sei (1987) by David Brooks is perhaps not well-known, and I recommend it.

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