Daniel Alarcón Brings His Journalism Skills to Fiction

The author of “The King Is Always Above the People” finds stories while reporting the news

Daniel Alarcón’s short story collection, The King Is Always Above The People, longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award, is a triumph of understatement. Alarcón unspools tales of loners and drifters with dark secrets. Low-key and unemotional, his prose and plots prove that great storytelling doesn’t need to be filled with action and red herrings to pack a punch.

His first collection, War By Candlelight, was a finalist for the 2006 PEN-Hemingway Award. His first novel, Lost City Radio, won the 2009 International Literature Prize given by the house of World Culture in Berlin. His next, At Night We Walk in Circles (2013), was a PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award Finalist, a California Book Award Finalist and was named one of NPR’s books of the year. Feeding his ability to constantly create is Alarcón’s own life. He has lived around the world and been celebrated as reporter for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He currently teaches journalism at Columbia University.

Jeff Vasishta: Many of the stories in The King Is Always Above the People are about loners or those who seem to be running away from family discord. Some, such as “The Bridge,” are so unique and quirky they seem to be drawn from real life, or a newspaper headline. Were they?

Daniel Alarcón: Yes, actually. “The Bridge” is the anomalous story in this collection in that it’s based on true events. The anecdote of the damaged pedestrian bridge, the debris cleared from the highway, the entrances that no one blocked off, and the tragedy that ensued — a version of that actually took place in Lima. A friend of mine was working as a journalist in Lima and he covered it for a local paper. Years later, over a drink, he told me the story, and I was transfixed. It seemed to have everything you’d want in a narrative, elegantly exposing the pathos and absurdity that so often characterizes life in a city like Lima.

JV: You’re good at paying attention to the smallest of details, like the constantly spinning motorcycle wheel in “The Provincials.” Do these specifics come to you on a first draft or are they the embellishments you add at the end?

DA: First of all, thank you. That’s a kind thing to say. I don’t know where these details come from, or at what point they’re introduced into a draft. I can say that if there’s an aspect of being a writer that I take most seriously, it’s the task of observation. I look for those specific moments, gestures, physical details that reveal a place or a character. My revision process is slow, painful and involves a lot of despair — nothing ever feels good enough, worth publishing or sharing. I often have to let things sit for a while before I have enough distance to know whether it’s any good. Then I re-read. Rewrite. Cut like a savage. Rewrite some more. Let it sit. Show it to one or two friends. Talk about it endlessly with trusted readers. Write some more. Cut again, mercilessly. Then it’s done.

If there’s an aspect of being a writer that I take most seriously, it’s the task of observation.

JV: “The Auroras” is dark, unsettling, and brilliantly done. At first it seems that Hernán has fallen into a great situation — a place to stay and commitment-free sex — but of course the tables are turned. Are there writers that specifically influenced you in this kind of slow unveiling of the truth? It’s not easy to pull off.

DA: Nothing worth doing is easy to pull off. If it were easy, what would be the point? That story took me ten years to write. I’d come back to it again and again, never knowing quite what to do with it, how to make it turn in just the right way, at the right speed. The key ingredient in drama is when you, the reader, know more than the character, and you’re watching them slide inevitably toward misfortune. I read in order to be influenced, but I’ve never been able to point out where an individual strand of the narrative or one particular element of style comes from. Sometimes you let yourself down. For example, I read so much Borges when I was younger, but see almost none of him in my work, which, as you might imagine, is a tremendous disappointment.

JV: Having written both novels and short stories before, how do you decide which form you want to do? Some of your short stories feel that they could be developed into novels.

DA: I never decide before I start what something is going to be. It’s more a process of listening, of following the characters where they go. A novel is just a story that overflowed its banks.

A novel is just a story that overflowed its banks.

JV: You’ve lived in Lima, Peru, Birmingham, Alabama, New York and San Francisco — all quite different places. How did each place influence you as a person and influence your writing, if it is possible to make such an analysis?

DA: I’ve also lived in Accra, Oakland, and Iowa City. All very different places. Birmingham is where I learned to be American, a place I love, but where I never felt truly at home. Accra, where I lived for six months in 1998, was amazing as well; I’d never felt so foreign and I discovered I loved that sensation. New York is my home now, and has been since I moved here in 1995. I don’t mean that literally — I left a month before 9/11, but even when I left to live elsewhere, I thought of myself as a New Yorker, something in the energy of the place felt right. Like a lot of New Yorkers, 9/11 cemented my love for the city, made it concrete. The fact that I was gone when it happened only made me more determined to return. Lima is where my heart is, a city where I’ve spent much of my imaginary life since I was a kid. There’s no question that living there changed me, gave me an important part of my identity. You can draw a straight line from Lima in 2001, when I arrived as an adult in search of myself, and my work ever since. I wouldn’t be the same writer without that experience. Iowa City — I wrote my first collection there, and half of Lost City Radio — and I remember most a great sense of quiet, peace, a sense of being relaxed and having time to work. It’s where I discovered that the most important thing a writer did was go to the library every day and write. Talk less. Write more. My other love is Oakland, of course — a place with no pretensions, but so much history, so much personality, and a spirit that I’ve not found anywhere else. What a town.

But now I sound like a tour guide. You learn something everywhere you go.

JV: How do investigative journalism and fiction co-exist in your writing life?

DA: They feed each other. The clearest example of this comes from 2010, when I was writing At Night We Walk in Circles. By December, I’d finished a draft, and I was afraid it wasn’t any good. I showed it to a couple of friends, who agreed, and I was bereft. I had no idea how to fix it. Coincidentally, I’d pitched a story to Harper’s about one of the prisons in Lima, Lurigancho, and so I set my bad draft aside and went down there to report and write on this overcrowded prison that had developed its own idiosyncratic version of democracy. It was a bizarre, illuminating trip. I negotiated with the inmates to stay a night inside, and saw every aspect of the governance of this place from the point of view of those who are condemned to live inside it. I had so much material. I wrote my 7,500 word story, but could’ve easily written 10,000 words more.

The Upside of Losing Everything

So what do you do with all that extra material? You fold it into your fiction, of course. There were things I knew, but couldn’t prove. There were anecdotes that piqued my interest, but which I didn’t follow up on because I knew them to be tangential to the story I was covering for Harper’s. When, in the middle of 2011, I was finally prepared emotionally to deal with the wreck of my novel, having all this knowledge about the prisons helped tremendously. I re-read the draft, confirmed it was a piece of crap, and started thinking deeply about what I’d misunderstood about my characters. I realized one of them, Henry Nuñez, had spent time in a prison like Lurigancho. That he’d lived through these difficult years that many of the men inside had so generously described to me. His backstory, which was a minor part of the first iteration of the novel, became absolutely central. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to imagine any of that without having reported on it first.

So versions of this symbiosis between journalism and fiction happen all the time — and even in the opposite direction. I often imagine who might be the best characters to populate a piece of nonfiction. What are their profiles? What position do they have? What might I learn from them, and how would I recognize them? This imaginative work helps a lot. I start hearing a story in my head before I even report it.

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