José Ignacio Valenzuela is one of Latin America’s most popular authors. His “Malamor” trilogy is among the best-selling young adult novels in the Spanish-speaking world today. The trilogy’s first part – “To the End of the World” – was just translated into English.
Valenzuela was born in Chile and often goes by the nickname “Chascas.” He now lives here in Palmetto Bay with his husband – and he sat down with WLRN’s Tim Padgett to talk about his romantic, magical-realist fantasy novels and their bilingual appeal.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: Chascas, tell us the basic plot of the “Malamor” trilogy – and the significance of that term “Malamor.”
VALENZUELA: In Patagonia, in the south of Chile, there is a little town called Almahue. And that town was cursed almost a century ago by a woman called Rayen – because someone broke her heart. And she decided if she wasn’t able to love, no one is going to love again in that town. And to that town arrives Angela. She’s studying anthropology, and she’s looking for information about that legend of Malamor – and her friend Patricia, because Patricia went to that little town and disappeared.
Angela falls in love with a young man in Almahue, Fabián – and Fabián starts to die. So Angela, she has to discover how to break the Malamor curse. “Malamor” in English is “bad love.” It’s not a real word in Spanish – it’s a combination of two words – but I wanted to create a magical word, like a spell.
The trilogy’s first book, “To the End of the World,” was first published in Spanish in 2012 as “Hacia el Fin del Mundo.” Why do you think it and “Malamor’s” two other novels – “La Raíz del Mal” and “El Arbol de la Vida” – have been so popular in Latin America?
I think it’s the mix between the very intense Latin American roots that the book has, but at the same time the classical structure, like Joseph Campbell’s mythological novel “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.”
And when you say the Latin American roots, you’re also referring to the magical realist tradition as well?
Yes. The fantasy and magical realism that we have in Latin America. My book’s fantasy is very informed by magical realism. When I was living in Mexico what I loved most was the amount of myth and legend they have. That’s actually when I decided I would write these novels.
But what was it about growing up in Chile that helped inspire the story and its Gothic-fantasy atmosphere?
I grew up under a fierce dictatorship in Chile…
...the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s.
Yes. We as Chileans didn’t have access to bookstores. But I grew up in a family full of writers and readers and science. And I grew up listening to my mom’s and my aunts’ and my grandmothers’ stories about fantasy lands and fantastic characters and mythological animals. And I had that in mind while I was writing “Malamor.”
I also lived a year in Patagonia when my father was sent there to help build a gas refinery. I remember thinking this is such a weird place, fantastic and scary at the same time. You have the sensation that you actually are at the end of the world.
And did that menacing atmosphere of the Pinochet dictatorship lend a little bit of the darkness of the books?
Of course, of course. I had a very happy childhood inside my house. But outside it was a very dark, scary time.
And that made it easier to imagine a curse on a whole town?
Yes, it’s as if we weren’t allowed to love because we were so afraid.
So this town that you describe in the “Malamor” trilogy is a sort of microcosm of the entire country of Chile back in your childhood?
Yes, absolutely. And Rayen is like the dictator of that little town.
The “Malamor” books feature a smart, strong young woman as the hero – Angela. But also a vengeful, supernatural young woman, Rayen, who was jilted by the son of the richest family in Almahue. Should we see them both as heroes in a sense?
Actually, yes, I think. You know, when I was writing the first book, I wrote on a little index card: Rayen is the villain, don’t fall in love with her. But for me, Rayen was the most intriguing and the most fascinating character, because she’s fragile and powerful at the same time. She’s more like a force of nature.
And especially here in the U.S., I’m starting to receive a lot of good reviews, because they see Rayen as a very empowering character for women and young girls. Rayen is becoming like a feminist hero – and I think that’s fantastic.
I also sensed some similarities between Rayen and Doña Bárbara, the female title character of Venezuela’s most famous novel. Was she at all on your mind as you wrote this?
Yes. A powerful and vengeful woman, close to nature, in control of her life and the lives of others.
Could you read us a description of Rayen from “To the End of the World”?
She knows she has infinite power. She only needs to sink her feet into the ground and her toes become roots that stretch for miles and miles. She feeds on the same dark underground currents that carry the minerals and energy that nourish the earth. Suddenly, her body shivers, vibrating with the intensity of an erupting volcano. It grows and reaches the crowns of her guardians. She opens her arms and calls for lightning; she opens her mouth and thunder shakes the earth. The wind roils her hair in swells, creating universal darkness and hurricane winds. As long as no one loves again, she will continue being Rayen, the most powerful woman who ever cried for a treacherous love.
Who did the translation of “To the End of the World” – and what were you looking for from a translator?
Aurora Lauzardo and David Gasser, who both work as very well known translators in Puerto Rico, where I lived before I came to Miami. For me, the most important thing was to keep the descriptions of nature, to keep them very vivid…
Because the most important character, Rayen, is so associated with nature?
Does the book feel at all different to you in English than it does in Spanish?
Yes, in Spanish it’s almost 500 pages; in English it’s almost 250 – and we didn’t take anything out. English is more concise.
Gabriel García Márquez once said a sentence in Spanish is usually twice as long as one in English.
Yes, because in Latin America we love melodrama – we live in melodrama. So we often need a lot of words to say what we’re thinking.
Is it important for Latin American young-adult authors to get translated into English now, since so many young Hispanic readers in the U.S. speak English more than Spanish today?
Actually, that’s a very good question, and I think the answer is yes. I think it’s very important not only to reach that new audience, but also to create bridges between our two cultures. When the first book came out, the critics called “Malamor” the Latin American response to “Harry Potter.”
And to the “Twilight” series…
Yes, and even “The Hunger Games.”
You were a very successful writer of telenovelas before you began the “Malamor” novels. How has that soap-opera writing experience influenced you as a novelist?
A lot. The main goal of writing a telenovela is to write episodes that air daily and get your audience to come back every day. My goal as a novelist is to make my readers turn every page – and in the case of this trilogy to turn to the next book. So I use a lot of very specific telenovela techniques – the creation of the characters, the length of every episode. I use a lot of screenwriting techniques. This is a very audiovisual book for me.
When you spoke about the novels at Books & Books in Coral Gables recently you mentioned you were surprised at first to hear yourself described as a young adult author. Is that a label you don’t like?
I think I don’t like labels, specifically in literature, because for me there are just good books and bad books. But it’s funny. I wrote “Malamor” book number one thinking I was writing an adult book. But when I sent the first manuscript to my editor in Mexico, she said she loved the story but was sending it to the young adult editor. So I discovered at that very moment I was a young adult author.
You’ve also sold the “Malamor” movie rights to Hollywood. Who do you see playing Angela and Rayen and Fabián?
I don’t know. I’m not very good with actors’ names. But I hope they find new Latino faces for the movie, bilingual actors. That would be fantastic.
When can we expect the other two “Malamor” novels to be translated?
We need to see if “To the End of the World” works here in the U.S. So far the reviews look good – but like always, we also have to see the sales.