“An interview is like theater backwards: the interview is the performance and then you write the play.” Claudia Dreifus.
Months before receiving the literature Nobel Prize in 1982, Gabriel García Márquez welcomed Claudia Dreifus in his house at Montparnasse, Paris. Dreifus, currently a New York Times journalist achieved one of the most memorable interviews with García Márquez while working for Playboy Magazine.
The interview came out in February 1983 after a several months of polemic delay from Playboy Magazine that postponed its publishing until the Nobel Prize was awarded.
Why do an interview with Garcia Márquez for Playboy?
For much of the 60’s through the 80’s and into de the 90’s, the Playboy interview was the premier interview in the journalistic world. There was more space to develop the form and it became an art form in and of it self. So to be in Playboy Magazine gave you both the room and the money to do things you couldn’t do anywhere else in journalism. All the important people of the time would sit for the Playboy interview. It was like a ritual. Adding to that, the people who wrote the Playboy interviews was a very elite group, some of the greatest interviewers and writers. So I was really fortunate to be among them.
How was the process of getting the interview, how did you managed convinced him?
I had done a Playboy interview with the film actor, Donald Sutherland. It was a terrific interview and then the magazine said to me, «who do you want to interview next?» I had been reading a One Hundred Years of Solitude and while having lunch with a friend we talked about it and I decided to add him to the list of people I was going to suggest. There were some movie stars, rock signers, and there was Gabo (Gabriel Garcia Márquez). When I suggested his name my editors said, «see if you can do it.»
I didn’t know anybody who knew Gabo, but I new somebody who knew his translator, Gregory Rebassa. And you always need, as I say to my students, a rabbi to connect you with the person you are looking for. It was known that he was elusive; that he didn’t give many interviews and that he was in a State Department list that made it very difficult for him to travel to the US. So I took his translator for lunch and we talked about the topics of the interview, which were his literature, the emerging Latin American literature and it’s discovery by the rest of the world.
Just by chance, for some fluky reason, Gabo came to New York and Gregory Rebassa called me and said, «you can get him on the phone.» I reached him in his hotel using a payphone –because at that time there were no cellphones. Rebassa had spoken to him about me. I think he wanted to figure out if I was worthy. Among the things we talked, he said he didn’t wanted to do the interview in English because he didn’t felt confortable enough.
So you told him you knew French?
(laughts) Not really. He asked if I know Spanish and I said no. Then he asked, “well what do you speak, besides English?” I said, “German…” and we both laughed. He said that this was beginning to sound like a Dos Passos novel. So we agreed that I would come to Paris and after eight weeks of studying as if I was studying for a doctoral degree, I met him in the french capital with my interpreter.
Were you able to see him during intimate moments or share time with his family?
He came to my hotel the first day and we talked for several hours. Then he invited us for lunch and he talked about how he knew everything about food and how you couldn’t get a bad meal in Paris. Nothing had been open so we finally ended up in one of these cafes where Sartre and De Beauvoir used to go, but it was the most atrocious and disgusting food. He had managed to find the one bad restaurant in Paris.
Did you tell him that after?
I think we all make jokes about it, but he wasn’t all that funny, which also surprised me. I found him very serious as many funny people are. People read One Hundred Years of Solitude and find it funny and charming, but he was actually very somber. So I tried to lighten the interview up and one day I went out and I bought very expensive truffles from the best truffle maker in Paris. A huge box wrapped in a pink satin ribbon and I said, “in One Hundred years of Solitude there is a priest that levitates with chocolate. Let’s see if this could make this interview levitate.” He took the box, threw it in a corner and said, “it only works with liquid chocolate, as it was written on the book.”
Was there any moment when he opened himself up to you?
He opened himself up pretty much throughout the interview. He said his son had asked him to do the Playboy interview. He told me the background of every story in One Hundred Years of Solitude–all the real stories behind the mythical ones. One of the things he told me is that among his friends he was the most practical person, and that he also possessed almost clairvoyance of accidents and bad things happening around him. As he was telling me this, a painting fell to the floor. I asked him if he predicted that, and he said, “no, that is just an accident.
You make reference in your interview to his close relationship with Panamanian dictator, Omar Torrijos and Fidel Castro. Where you able to identify the obsession, some have said, that he had for power?
I think he was interested in the powerful and their impact in Latin America. Like many Latin-American writers, he wrote at least one novel about a dictator. That seemed to be a ritual. But I didn’t particularly feel that. I think he was very confident in his skills as a writer. One Hundred Years of Solitude is probably the greatest piece of Spanish literature since Cervantes.
What he did was powerful in a different sense: he told the Latin American story in Latin American terms as an insider.
Now you ask about his friendships. I don’t know how genuine it was when he said that his friendship with Castro was just personal. Castro is an interesting person, so he might have found him intriguing. They were just a bunch of great guys who liked each other. Although, let me add the term great guys in quotes, I mean they had like guy friendships and they must of been very interesting to each other. But I don’t think it was because he was that interested in power perse.
Gabo once asked the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, if journalism was the way to connect writers back to reality. You mention in your interview that Garcia Márquez’s goal was to find a connection between journalism and literature. Do you think that is what differentiated him from other writers of his time?
He would take reality and just move it one step into outer space. He just moved reality a little, but in a very believable way so you believed that butterflies entered the room every time people were in love. What he would do is tell amazing things that you wouldn’t quite believe but he would tell them with such a straight face that you would.
In past interviews Gabo mentions that love drove his desire to write. Where you able to identify this in your interview?
Yes, he ended the interview that way and he certainly was loved. People all over the world loved him and felt One Hundred Years of Solitude was their own story. Koreans and Japanese would find it fascinating because there was a kind of universality to the family story. People see their own families in his characters. He changed our perception of Latin American Literature and opened the way for other Latin American literature to develop. He certainly paved the way to people like Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes. It’s not that these writers didn’t have readers in their own countries; it’s just that people through Europe and the United Stares began looking at Latin America with literary respect and fascination after Gabriel García Márquez.
I had a professor who said once that Gabo received the Novel Price because he described a culture. Do you think this is true?
I think he just moved the entire culture forward, and he created great literature about a culture. A lot of the literature in the developing world had difficulties being seen and appreciated in the developed world. He brought Latin America to everyone. So I don’t think he got the Nobel Prize for that reason. I think he had the Nobel because he was a great artist and his literature needed recognition.
Gabo said once that to be a good writer you have to be a good journalist. To be a good journalist do you need to be a good writer?
No, the opposite isn’t true. I think that to be a good novelist, whatever you write has to be believable, unless you are a non-fiction novelist. To be a good journalist you have to be factual, truthful, reliable, observant and good writer. That’s a lot. I think it might even be harder than being a writer because you have to make it all work and you can’t adjust reality a little bit.
Many compare you with Oriana Fallaci, who was considered one of the greatest interviewers of the last century. Can you share with us some secrets about your interviewing techniques?
I compensate with my shyness by being extremely well prepared in my interviews, and I advice anybody to do the same. Then I kind of let go improvising from the basis of being well prepared. The other thing is that I chose my interview subjects very well. I don’t interview just anybody simply because they are famous or powerful, I interview them because I sense they are good storytellers.
Claudia Dreifus is a journalist, educator and lecturer, producer of the weekly feature “Conversation with…” of the Science Section of the New York Times, and known for her interviews with leading figures in world politics and science. She recently published “Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It”
Gabriel García Márquez
The Permanent Secretary
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1982
With this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature to the Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, the Swedish Academy cannot be said to bring forward an unknown writer.
García Márquez achieved unusual international success as a writer with his novel in 1967 (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The novel has been translated into a large number of languages and has sold millions of copies. It is still being reprinted and read with undiminished interest by new readers. Such a success with a single book could be fatal for a writer with less resources than those possessed by García Márquez. He has, however, gradually confirmed his position as a rare storyteller, richly endowed with a material from imagination and experience which seems inexhaustible. In breadth and epic richness, for instance, the novel, El otoño del patriarca, 1975, (The Autumn of the Patriarch) compares favourably with the first-mentioned work. Short novels such as El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, 1961 (No One Writes to the Colonel), La mala hora, 1962 (In Evil Hour), or last year’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), complement the picture of a writer who combines the copious, almost overwhelming narrative talent with the mastery of the conscious, disciplined and widely read artist of language. A large number of short stories, published in several collections or in magazines, give further proof of the great versatility of García Márquez’s narrative gift. His international successes have continued. Each new work of his is received by expectant critics and readers as an event of world importance, translated into many languages and published as quickly as possible in large editions.
Nor can it be said that any unknown literary continent or province is brought to light with the prize to Gabriel García Márquez. For a long time, Latin American literature has shown a vigour as in few other literary spheres, having won acclaim in the cultural life of today. Many impulses and traditions cross each other. Folk culture, including oral storytelling, reminiscences from old Indian culture, currents from Spanish baroque in different epochs, influences from European surrealism and other modernism are blended into a spiced and life-giving brew from which García Márquez and other Spanish-American writers derive material and inspiration. The violent conflicts of a political nature – social and economic – raise the temperature of the intellectual climate. Like most of the other important writers in the Latin American world, García Márquez is strongly committed, politically, on the side of the poor and the weak against domestic oppression and foreign economic exploitation. Apart from his fictional production, he has been very active as a journalist, his writings being many-sided, inventive, often, provocative, and by no means limited to political subjects.
The great novels remind one of William Faulkner. García Márquez has created a world of his own around the imaginary town of Macondo. Since the end of the 1940s his novels and short stories have led us into this peculiar place where the miraculous and the real converge – the extravagant flight of his own fantasy, traditional folk tales and facts, literary allusions, tangible, at times, obtrusively graphic, descriptions approaching the matter-of-factness of reportage. As with Faulkner, or why not Balzac, the same chief characters and minor persons crop up in different stories, brought forward into the light in various ways – sometimes in dramatically revealing situations, sometimes in comic and grotesque complications of a kind that only the wildest imagination or shameless reality itself can achieve. Manias and passions harass them. Absurdities of war let courage change shape with craziness, infamy with chivalry, cunning with madness. Death is perhaps the most important director behind the scenes in García Márquez’s invented and discovered world. Often his stories revolve around a dead person – someone who has died, is dying or will die. A tragic sense of life characterizes García Márquez’s books – a sense of the incorruptible superiority of fate and the inhuman, inexorable ravages of history. But this awareness of death and tragic sense of life is broken by the narrative’s apparently unlimited, ingenious vitality which, in its turn, is a representative of the at once frightening and edifying vital force of reality and life itself. The comedy and grotesqueness in García Márquez can be cruel, but can also glide over into a conciliating humour.
With his stories, Gabriel García Márquez has created a world of his own which is a microcosmos. In its tumultuous, bewildering, yet, graphically convincing authenticity, it reflects a continent and its human riches and poverty.
Perhaps more than that: a cosmos in which the human heart and the combined forces of history, time and again, burst the bounds of chaos – killing and procreation
Garcia Marquez: ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’
~~~ LISTEN ~~~
Alan Cheuse reviews Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores. The strange and magical novel chronicles the discoveries made by a lifelong bachelor when he turns 90 and finds love with a 14-year-old prostitute.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez has a new novel. It’s called “Memories of My Melancholy Whores.” Alan Cheuse has a review.
ALAN CHEUSE reporting:
The unnamed, near-nonagenarian narrator of this splendid short novel has plans for his 90th birthday, a lifelong self-educated and not very attractive bachelor who lives frugally and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper in his provincial Colombian town. He calls the madam of his favorite local brothel and asks her to procure for him an adolescent virgin with whom he will spend one night. Thus begins a story that, upon hearing it summarized as I’ve done so far, you might think would be rudely realistic and, depending on your sensibilities, something that would produce varying degrees of revulsion. But we’re in the hands of El Maestro, who’s written about “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera.” What he gives us this time around is a memorable love story in a minor, minor key.
When the old man sets out that night for the brothel, there’s a full moon and, as he tells us, `The world looked as if it were submerged in green water.’ When he enters the room in the bordello where his assignation is to take place, he discovers the 14-year-old beauty is sleeping, drugged by the madam. Though he arranges to see her time and time again, Sleeping Beauty never awakes,, but he awakes. After a lifetime of paying for sex because, as he says, `It’s the consolation you have when you can’t have love,’ he falls madly for the girl and finds a new life at an age, as he himself puts it, `when most mortals have already died.’
And the young girl–you’ll have to read this short novel; you can do it in one sitting–to find out what happens to her. You’ll be quite aware of what’s happening to you, alive and well and growing old and young in a world that looks as if it’s submerged in green water.
SIEGEL: The book is “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s translated by Edith Grossman. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Interviewed by Peter H. Stone
ISSUE 82, WINTER 1981
Gabriel García Márquez was interviewed in his studio/office located just behind his house in San Angel Inn, an old and lovely section, full of the spectacularly colorful flowers of Mexico City. The studio is a short walk from the main house. A low elongated building, it appears to have been originally designed as a guest house. Within, at one end, are a couch, two easy chairs, and a makeshift bar—a small white refrigerator with a supply of acqua minerale on top.
The most striking feature of the room is a large blown-up photograph above the sofa of García Márquez alone, wearing a stylish cape and standing on some windswept vista looking somewhat like Anthony Quinn.
García Márquez was sitting at his desk at the far end of the studio. He came to greet me, walking briskly with a light step. He is a solidly built man, only about five feet eight or nine in height, who looks like a good middleweight fighter—broad-chested, but perhaps a bit thin in the legs. He was dressed casually in corduroy slacks with a light turtleneck sweater and black leather boots. His hair is dark and curly brown and he wears a full mustache.
The interview took place over the course of three late-afternoon meetings of roughly two hours each. Although his English is quite good, García Márquez spoke mostly in Spanish and his two sons shared the translating. When García Márquez speaks, his body often rocks back and forth. His hands too are often in motion making small but decisive gestures to emphasize a point, or to indicate a shift of direction in his thinking. He alternates between leaning forward towards his listener, and sitting far back with his legs crossed when speaking reflectively.
How do you feel about using the tape recorder?
GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
The problem is that the moment you know the interview is being taped, your attitude changes. In my case I immediately take a defensive attitude. As a journalist, I feel that we still haven’t learned how to use a tape recorder to do an interview. The best way, I feel, is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes. Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed. Another useful method is to take notes and then interpret them with a certain loyalty to the person interviewed.
~~~ READ THE INTERVIEW ~~~