Q&A with “Aliens & Other Stories”
Author Kathleen Wheaton
What inspired you to work on this book?
When I went to Buenos Aires to write a guidebook to the city, Argentina was recovering from the trauma of a brutal military dictatorship in which 30,000 people disappeared. It was a strange time to be writing a travel book. Often I’d be in a cafe discussing maps or photos with a contributor and the person would casually mention having been arrested during the “dirty war”, or having gone into hiding, or that someone close to them had disappeared. These abrupt revelations haunted me, and later I wrote a couple of short stories based on them. When I moved to the D.C. suburbs, after years of living abroad, I identified more with people who had come from other places and were struggling to adjust than with fellow Americans who’d always lived here. These experiences have informed the stories in “Aliens.”
Have you visited Buenos Aires since you were there to write the guidebook? If so, what had changed? What was the same?
My husband and I returned together in 2007 and then with our teenage sons in 2009. There were some shiny new shops and condos built along what had been a smelly and derelict wharf, but in 20 years the city had changed less than I’d expected—some of my favorite cafes had the same waiters, 20 years older. But the dirty war was farther in the past, so it wasn’t the subtext of every conversation. The internet has connected Argentina more to the rest of the world, and yet there remains this sense of remoteness. Most Argentines have roots somewhere far away, and so Buenos Aires has an air of melancholy and nostalgia that is very enticing to a writer, since we traffic heavily in those two emotions.
Do you consider yourself more of a journalist or a fiction writer?
I began as a fiction writer and fell into journalism when I went to South America and fell in love with a journalist. It seemed like such an interesting life, though I felt I wasn’t aggressive enough to be a real reporter. But I was encouraged by something Joan Didion said to the effect that a harmless appearance can be an advantage. If you are just quiet and willing to listen, you hear the most extraordinary things. In DC, where people are practical and career-oriented, I’ve noticed that a lot of fiction writers use their day jobs as cover. Then they’re outed when they publish a novel or story collection. But I continue to enjoy doing journalism—connecting with real people, not having to struggle to make an unbelievable story sound plausible.
How do you juggle your two writing careers?
When we moved to Bethesda I had the good luck to begin writing for a bimonthly magazine that was just starting up, and which has continued to give me assignments. This meant that if I was diligent I could spend a month reporting and writing a nonfiction piece and then have a month free to write a short story. This has made both kinds of writing feel like a “vacation” from the other—at least for the first few minutes, until I actually sit down and start working. Because then you come up against the reality that all writing is really, really hard.
Have you used stories you’ve reported as a journalist in your fiction?
Journalism would seem to be a rich source of plots and characters, but the truth is that once I finish a nonfiction story to my and my editor’s satisfaction, I’m done with it. I might claim some high-minded refusal to use the people I’ve interviewed as fictional fodder, except that I do steal things from them—their home furnishings, their mannerisms, something they mentioned in passing about their grandparents. Fiction writers are magpies.
You lived in Spain and Latin America for 12 years before moving back to the United States in ‘97. Why do you think these stories stuck with you for so long?
Maybe even more than childhood, a person’s twenties are a really formative period. So many great (and not-so-great) works of art seem to center around the themes and preoccupations of that time of life. And it takes a while to figure out what it all means. At least it has taken me a while. Because the minute I say this I think of writers from Fitzgerald to the Spanish novelist Carmen Laforet, who wrote so beautifully and profoundly about youth while they were young, as it was happening.
What do you hope readers take away from “Aliens and Other Stories?”
For me the experience of going to live in another country and learning another language was a revelation—my sense of the strangeness of life was suddenly, objectively, true. Being an actual foreigner struggling to understand was both freeing and reassuring. So I hope that readers who literally have been aliens as well as those who simply have felt that way will find they have something in common with my characters.
What countries would you like to visit next?
About a year and a half ago I wrote a magazine piece about an Iranian family and decided to study Persian, which sounded to my uncomprehending ear beautiful and poetic. I don’t have much hope of visiting Iran or even of mastering the language enough to read the Persian poets in the original, and yet I keep at it. It’s opened up another world.
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