An Interview with Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Paul Blezard talks to Carlos Ruiz Zafón about his novel THE SHADOW OF THE WIND
and why it took him four books to write his "first novel"
CZ: I've been writing novels for ten years which were pretty successful in the young adult field, but for this one I wanted to create something very special, something that was all I ever wanted in a book.
So what I did was take what for me is very important, which is take all the great ambition in all those nineteenth-century novels, but try to reconstruct those big novels - the Tolstoy, the Dickens, the Wilkie Collins - but try to reconstruct all of that with all the narrative elements that the twentieth century has given us, from the grammar of cinema, from multimedia, from general fiction, from everything that is out there, to create a much more intense reading experience for the readers. So that was the idea, and that was the experiment to create with The Shadow of the Wind.
So, in a way, The Shadow of the Wind is like a novel of novels; it is a story that is made of many stories; it's a story that combines humour, it combines mystery, it combines a love story, it combines historical fiction - it combines many different genres, to great a new one, a new genre, a hybrid that does all those things as well.
PB: Just give readers a tempter of what they can expect from this book. Give us the opening plot narrative.
CZ: The story begins in Barcelona in 1945, when a young child of 11 years old wakes up one morning, and he cannot remember his mother's face. That morning, his father, who is an old, old, used-book seller, takes him to a place, a very mysterious place, called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books - this is like a magic library hidden in a palace in the old town of Barcelona - and this is a place where forgotten books, where lost titles end up, and the thing is that when this, like a secret society of librarians, of book lovers who protect this place, and the thing is that when somebody's introduced to this place, he has the right to pick a book and protect it for life, and make sure that that book is your best friend for life. So, Daniel picks up a book, which is The Shadow of the Wind, and this is a book he reads that very night, and he becomes fascinated with it, because he has never read anything so powerful; its characters, its world, the universe, the images just grab him tremendously.
So he wants to learn about who wrote it, and whatever happened to this book, and what he learns is that the author, a certain Julian Carax, is completely unknown - nobody knows whatever happened to him - and it seems like he was murdered in the first days of the Spanish Civil War, in very mysterious circumstances. But that's just the beginning of the mystery, because it turns out that there's somebody - a very dark, mysterious figure - who is running around the world looking for Julian Carax books, to burn them and destroy them, and the name of this character is Lan Coubert, which Daniel knows is exactly the name of a character from the pages of Julian Carax's fiction, and it's the novel [sic] that the devil uses. So from that point - that's the starting point - a big saga with many characters, many stories, spanning five decades, and structured in a way like Russian dolls, where every mystery leads us to another mystery; every character leads us to a different character. So this whole cathedral of words, of fictions, this whole world . . ., it's like a labyrinth, and it's opening constantly, and progressively it starts closing, so all the mysteries are solved, all the stories, are these arcs of the lives of many characters become one, and at the end this book we've been reading about, which is The Shadow of the Wind - which is the same book we are reading - become one, and the whole mystery of this meta-fictional experiment works.
The First Novels
- PB: No wonder it's been such a huge success so far. Carlos, explain to me why your first four books were written for young adults. Why was this the book you decided to launch your adult writing career with?
CZ: The thing is that my first novel, which was basically a mystery adventure story, won quite an important award in Spain for young adult fiction, and because of this it became a very successful book, and right now it's some sort of a standard title, it's read widely in many high schools in Spain, so I think, in a way, I was a victim of my own success in the field of young adult fiction, because it was never my own natural register. I never intended to write that kind of fiction, but I became very successful at it. So in a way, for me, it was almost a learning experience, a learning curve that allowed me to experiment with many genres, with many techniques, until I felt that I was ready to write the book that I always wanted to write, which was The Shadow of the Wind. So after ten years of experimenting in these little, young adult novels, which also were very successful and allowed me to try many things - I think everything converged in The Shadow of the Wind, which in a way is a first novel, even though it's a fifth.
PB: You certainly speak about it with some passion. There seem to be two adages in writing: you either write from what you know, or write from what you love. What have you done with The Shadow of the Wind? Is this writing from what you know, or writing from what you love?
CZ: I think both of them. I think all writers, if they write from the heart - and I think it's the only way to do it, otherwise it's the most stupid occupation in the world, if you're not doing it because you really love it, and it's very important for you - I think you always write about yourself, because you want to share your inner world, and you want to explore your own world and communicate with the readers, so in a way everything in The Shadow of the Wind comes from within me and from my own experiences, but also from the greater world of literature, from fiction, from the great novels, the great stories, and all of these elements are, because in a way the novel is a love letter to reading, to the great novels, to the great stories, and all of that is combined, because I'm not only a writer - I'm a reader. So I write the books I want to read.
PB: So it's Carlos Ruiz Zafón's homage to the great authors in your history, in your reading past. Just briefly, and before we run out of time: you have another talent as well, because the music was written by you. Where does your passion for music come from?
CZ: Actually I love music almost as much as I love literature, and, many years ago, before becoming a full-time writer, I used to work as a musician, and I used to write music for TV. I did arrangements; I played keyboards. It's something, somehow lost in my past, but I still have that love for music, and from time to time I go away from the computer and from the books and from the novels, and I write some pieces of music just for myself and for my friends, and now I'm happy to share them with the readers as an introduction to the mysterious world of the novel.