Chloe Aridjis’ incredible use of detail, compelling prose and whimsical plot have The New Yorker calling her latest novel, Sea Monsters, “a hypnotic narrative,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Set in Mexico in the late 1980s, seventeen year old Luisa runs away from home with her crush — the enticing, mysterious Tomas — to Oaxaca in pursuit of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves who have apparently escaped a Soviet circus currently touring Mexico. Instead of falling in love and living on the beach as Luisa has romanticized in her head, she quickly realizes Tomas is not as exciting as he seems. This story of teenage daydreams and the clash of reality and fantasy is rendered vividly and beautifully with Aridjis’ compelling prose and her depiction of the self-awareness and self-absorption of adolescence.
Chloe and I conversed over email as we talked about her writing routine, her education, why she wanted to become a writer and the details on her third surreal and mesmerizing novel.
Sea Monsters isn’t a love story and I found that very refreshing. Luisa seems to experience disappointment in both Tomas and the merman as they don’t live up to the fantasy version she creates in her own head. I found this very realistic for a young girl of seventeen. I’m curious as to what made you decide to stray away from a love story and focus more on this idea of disappointed fantasy?
I wasn’t at all interested in writing a love story. The book is about disenchantment, but that disenchantment is at work on many levels, not only romantic, and I wanted to explore certain themes that have preoccupied me over the years and not get too drawn into conventional patterns of narrative or plot expectation. Fantasy is very mobile at that age, the subject of one’s daydream frequently updated, and for me what’s of interest are the drives behind that constant renewal and the tension that arises each time fantasy and reality collide.
Adolescence is such a complicated but still beautiful time in a young girls life. Did you enjoy writing from this perspective? What do you think we can learn from coming of age stories?
I’d rather think of it as a novel of transformation rather than specifically coming-of-age. But yes, in order to reimagine the adolescent self I had to tap back into that mode of thinking, feeling and desiring, and for the most part it was enjoyable, even liberating. It’s such an important time in life, when you’re creating your own imaginary, an imaginary that often endures far beyond those years, on less conscious levels. One should take what happens during adolescence very seriously.
I believe I read or heard somewhere that this story is semi-autobiographical? What made you want to explore this part of your life now, as this is your third book?
The episode of my running away to the beach is indeed autobiographical, and some of the secondary characters from my life in Mexico City, but there’s a great deal of material that’s invented, including the parents, the best friend, the merman… In no way did I want this to be or to read like a memoir. I hadn’t felt ready to write about Mexico until now.
I love how you name specific songs and albums throughout the book. It seems as though music is important to you. Can you speak about what music means to you and why you wanted to include it in the novel?
Music is crucial to setting a mood and capturing a certain era. Later in life I returned to many of those songs in order to conjure up those days and the heady atmosphere they evoked. It’s usually during adolescence that music has the strongest hold on you— you gravitate towards people who share your musical tastes, and the lyrics to your favourite songs seem to speak to you directly.
You have an extensive and impressive education, with a doctrine in 19th-century French poetry and magic. What made you pursue a doctorate? How has education empowered you and impacted your life?
From early on I had the sense that I would rather choose a life of writing than of academia but still spent most of my 20s in that world. I had a brilliant professor at Oxford — he was my tutor for my master’s degree and at least 50% of the reason I returned to do my PhD was to continue studying with him. He taught me how to approach a text — poem, essay, whatever— from surprisingly new angles, to always search for moments of fracture or tension as a way of peering into the author’s mental workshop. Everything I have written has probably been, in some way, informed by those years.
Write or Die Tribe’s writing theme, for the month of May, is all about exploring place. The setting in your book is so important to the narrative and you portray it so vividly and beautifully. What tips do you have for our writing community about writing place? Have you found it difficult to write or does it come naturally to you?
In all three of my novels place has been extremely important, indeed almost a character in itself, particularly in my first novel, set in Berlin. One of my very first steps when setting out to write a book is to map out the place— through notes, photographs— and usually that personal archive of text and images gives rise to early ideas for a narrative.
Do you always want to be a writer? Can you talk about your writing journey?
My father is a poet and ever since I saw him writing at his desk, surrounded by books, enclosed in this magical and impenetrable world, I knew I wanted to pursue a similar profession. I then spent around 6 years studying literature rather than writing it, but I was waiting until I felt ready. After finishing my studies at Oxford I moved to Berlin, and there wrote my first novel.
What does your writing process look like? Do you have a routine that you follow daily? How long did it take you to write Sea Monsters?
As just about any writer will tell you, routine is crucial. I try to adhere to one but each day is different— the focus varies, as do the thoughts that arise (on some days they can the change course of a book, on others they feel dispensable) — but you must keep at it.
My day: I write for several hours at home, have lunch, and then go to a nearby library for the rest of the afternoon. It’s a self-imposed structure that has worked well so far.
Sea Monsters took me around four years to write, as did my previous two novels. I usually have the characters, voice, atmosphere, arc in place after a year or so and the rest of the time is devoted to restructuring the book, finding the right form for it, and polishing the prose.
I am about a quarter into the next novel and hope to finish it over the coming year since it’s been gestating in my head for a long while. A main distraction is the state of the planet, however— nothing, absolutely nothing, concerns me more than species extinction, loss of habitat, and the climate crisis.
Chloe Aridjis is a Mexican-American writer who was born in New York and grew up in the Netherlands and Mexico. After completing her Ph.D. at the University of Oxford in nineteenth-century French poetry and magic shows, she lived for nearly six years in Berlin. Her debut novel, Book of Clouds, has been published in eight languages and won the Prix du Premier Roman Étranger in France. Aridjis sometimes writes about art and insomnia and was a guest curator at Tate Liverpool. In 2014, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in London.
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