Thursday, 23 April 2009


If you haven't heard of Patricia Engel yet, you haven't been reading The Roving Editor. She is a gifted exponent of the short story, at a time when the form is at last gaining the recognition and audience it deserves. (Read James Lasdun on this encouraging phenomenon here.)

So far Patricia has only published in literary journals, albeit in titles of the calibre of Guernica and the Boston Review, where her talent was first noticed by Junot Díaz.

It can’t be long until her work appears between covers. Indeed Patricia tells me that she is currently working on two book projects, and has promised to keep us posted about their publication. In the meantime, it is my great pleasure to present this Q&A with a rising literary star.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and what led you to become a writer?
My parents are Colombian and I grew up in New Jersey, among an extended family of musicians, painters, and a grandmother who was a writer. I sketched, painted, and read constantly, particularly biographies, books about mythology and the paranormal. Writing was a way to entertain myself, build a bridge to another life. I'd never let others read my work, though. My stories were only for me. Eventually the compulsion to write swallowed most of my other brewing dreams and I complied.

What attracts you to the medium of the short story?
I love the vulnerability of the form and that there is nowhere for the author to hide. A short story requires swift seduction but can be as memorable and transformative as the drawn out affair of a novel. I write stories for the pure thrill of it. If it didn’t feel like a party when I sit down to write, I probably wouldn’t do it.

Which writers do you admire?
I admire any writer that goes into the page raw-hearted, but the first heroes to blow my mind during adolescence were Marguerite Duras, Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Maryse Condé, Gabriel García Márquez, Esther Freud, Alexandre Jardin and Romain Gary.

Where and when do you write?
Usually at desk or table at home, starting early in the morning. I prefer silence, solitude, and natural light. I rarely write at night.

How did you first come to be published?
In college, I majored in French and Art History, not Creative Writing, and had no sense of the publishing path for a very long time, which was a good thing because it allowed me to focus only on the writing. Then one day I sent ‘Lucho’ to the Boston Review and the fiction editor liked it.

How has being published affected you as a writer?
Placing a story in a journal is like finding a home for a stray cat. Not exactly a miracle, but no small deed either. I'm extremely grateful every time it turns out well.

Your stories seem to feature recurring central protagonists (I’m thinking of Sabina, who narrates both ‘Lucho’ and ‘Día’) and a large and colourful cast of more peripheral players. Can you say something about your approach to creating characters?
The Sabina stories are part of a collection that follows her over two decades. In creating characters I try to give readers the friends they never knew they wanted or needed. I enjoy characters that are tender and cruel, confronting their humanity, who manage to form profound bonds despite personal chaos. My stories are built on the idea that we are the sum of the people we’ve allowed ourselves to care about. We test one another, and we make each other better.

Have you come across any new writers whose work you would recommend?
I wouldn't say they're new, but the voices I've recently pushed on friends are Jorge Franco, Philippe Grimbert, Faïza Guène, Chimo, and Fernando Vallejo.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


I first came across Patricia Engel last year when her story, 'Desaliento', won the Boston Review's annual prize for fiction. I enjoyed her unhurried storytelling and unfussy prose, and made a mental note to look out for more of her work.

The opportunity came via the latest email bulletin from the always worthwhile Guernica magazine. The current issue features 'Día', a beautifully observed vignette of an awkward encounter between two friends who could have been lovers but never were.

Unconsummated relationships are something of a motif in Engel's work, at least on the evidence of the pieces she has published online. 'Lucho', her earliest published fiction, is narrated by the teenage Sabina, whose grown-up voice we hear in 'Día': 'He was 16 and I was 14, which meant we could be friends on our block but had to ignore each other at school. He had squishy lips and a small round nose, smooth shiny skin and greasy dark hair. All the girls checked him out. But Lucho was kind of dirty for a town like ours.' In this story, tragedy intervenes, and is all the more affecting for the suddenness with which it interrupts the leisurely unfolding of what could otherwise be an unremarkable tale of adolescent infatuation.

Engel's knack of drawing the reader into the everyday world of her characters, then revealing in passing an incident that catches the reader unawares, is also evident in 'Prison Letters', an excerpt from which appears in Slice magazine: 'Victor would go on benders, disappear for days, but always turned up on Sunday mornings and went to mass with my mom even when he was still with his first wife, a Jewish girl named Rebecca who died before I had a chance to meet her. They were on the rocks and she was pregnant. She went to see her parents after a big fight with Victor and an eighteen-wheeler smashed into her Datsun on the Long Island Expressway. Victor blamed himself and jumped off the roof of his house but didn't get so much as a scratch.'

Is it fanciful to extrapolate from this a literary kinship between the Colombian-American Engel and Gabriel García Márquez? Perhaps. Engel is no magic realist, but she is a natural storyteller, and if I can risk invoking the name of another literary titan, she has something of Salinger's way with vernacular and feel for family relationships. Like both writers, she can also be very funny.

Patricia Engel is an exceptional talent, but as far as I know she has yet to be signed up by a publisher. It is surely only a matter of time.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


I've written before in praise of Eleanor Catton's short stories. Now comes the welcome opportunity to sample her debut novel. This extract from The Rehearsal appears on the newly relaunched website of Granta, who will be publishing the book in the UK in July.

It is a vivid, multi-layered creation, a performance in every sense of the word. By combining intense theatricality with the raw emotions and experiences of her teenage protagonists, Catton appears to be doing something truly extraordinary with the novel form. For me, the writing has more in common with the drama of Pirandello or Beckett than a work of prose fiction. I'm thinking in particular of Six Characters in Search of an Author. But this is no mere exercise in style: the novel's ingenious framework is there to serve a purpose, not to be noticed or admired for its own sake.

On this evidence Catton has a compelling tale, or tales, to tell in The Rehearsal, and I for one am impatient to read more.