Jorge Armenteros is the author of Air, a novel about a student who leaves her home to get away from her oppressive boyfriend. This is Jorge’s second novel, and you may recognize his name from an earlier review of his beautifully lyrical debut novel, The Book of I. Here is the official description of Air:
Imena, a student of perfumery, arrives in Marrakech in an attempt to free herself from the overbearing intensity of her boyfriend Patricio, a philosophy professor at l’Université Paris-Sorbonne. She takes residence behind the red door of a hotel whose attendant, the striped tunic, officiates life under an aura of mysticism and danger. René, Patricio’s junior colleague, decides to leave for Guadeloupe in search of his gender identity, a painful transformative sojourn that delivers him beyond himself.
Read on for an exclusive interview with Jorge.
S.R.: You have an impressive, eclectic background (a graduate from Harvard University and a practicing psychiatrist, with an MA in Spanish and Latin American literature from New York University and MFA from Lesley University). How does your background influence your writing?
J.A.: Perhaps the strongest influence derives from my career as a psychiatrist. I felt attracted to psychiatry for being the most humanistic and the least medically intrusive specialty. I was looking for a way into the mind. I wanted to work with words and thoughts and their distortions. And after practicing as a psychiatrist for more than twenty years, I have gained a profound knowledge about the workings of our mind. That is why I am partial to the interior monologue narrative technique. As a genuine fabricator, the novelist is charged with revealing at will the imaginary psychology of his created beings. If the novel is to be more than a mere chronicle of facts and acts, if the novel is to establish that essential link with a character’s mind, we must listen to their thoughts, sensations, and unspoken emotions—directly from the source.
S.R.: How did you first become interested in being a writer?
J.A.: I decided I wanted to be a writer during my years at Harvard University where I took as many literature courses as I could. But life interfered and I found myself chasing a medical career. While still in medical school, I decided to deviate for a year to pursue an MA in Spanish and Latin American Literature through New York University where I studied under some of the most prominent scholars of the time. And, once again, life tricked me and I became a psychiatrist and a researcher. But third time’s the charm, and after completing my MFA in creative writing from Lesley University, thirty years after having decided I wanted to be a writer, now I am solidly committed to the writing life.
S.R.: As a native Spanish speaker writing in English, how did your multilingual skills influence your writing?
J.A.: We know of many celebrated authors that have written a significant portion of their lives’ work in a second or third language of which they are often non-native speakers. One can mention Nabokov, Conrad, Beckett, and Kerouac. It is a high-wire act. Not only do you need to have an immaculate knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, but also a thorough understanding of the subtleties of the language that come naturally to native speakers: idiom, diction, word-association, and style. You become very attentive to every aspect of language. And that injects musicality and lyricism into the prose.
S.R.: You have a wonderful lyrical writing style. What books or writers have influenced you the most?
J.A.: For inspiration and discipline, I sometimes create a collage portrait of my literary genealogy and it includes particular works as much as authors. Some of those works, the ones I consistently return to include:
- Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch
- Marguerite Duras’ Blue Eyes, Black Hair
- Virginia Woolf’s The Waves
- Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
- Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones
S.R.: Your first book, Book of I, was a winner at the 2015 International Latino Book Award. Congrats! What was it like to write that first book?
J.A.: My original plan was not to write a novel, I started writing a short story. But in an effort to transcend traditional narrative, I need to wield words under the constraints of the short story paradigm. Consequently, I needed to discard many rules to bring forth this vision. In so doing, I started creating an anti-democratic experience that left out the middle-class, or middle-reader, the populous group that has generated the traditional short story. Yes, I explored the inner world of my characters, experimented with nonlinear formats, employed multiple points of view, embraced philosophical constructs, used lyrical language, and made clear and not-so-clear allusions while not explaining everything in an expository way. I was writing outside of the traditional mold but I was not the first, nor would I be the last one. My challenge was how to manage this difficult and complex task, how to pull off the high wire act without crashing down to the floor. So I continued writing and the short story grew into a novel and I never looked back.
S.R.: Your second novel, Air, published by Spuyten Duyvil Press, came out just last week, and you had a release party at KGB Bar. What was it like as a writer to have a release party? And for writers who may not have experienced that, how did that come together (did you plan it yourself and what kind of marketing did you have to do for it?)
J.A.: Tod Thilleman, the publisher for Spuyten Duyvil Press, having had a long relationship with the venerable KGB Bar & Lit Journal, scheduled the event. I decided to read with my friend Martin Nakell whose writing cuts across genres, from fiction and poetry to prose poetry. The warm setting of the Red Room permitted for an intimate celebration of the publication. A book launching is an important moment in the life of a book. It is the moment when the work becomes “officially” public. And then it lives you. And at that moment you come to realize that a writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.
S.R.: What inspired you to write Air?
J.A.: On a warm December afternoon, once the rhythm of my steps approximated the basso continuo of my thought process, walking down an ordinary street, I opened the floodgates. And I began by considering plot. There is plot, but I’m always more interested in situations. Situations change and that’s a kind of plot. Language is a plot, too, and so are mix-ups and nonsense. Really, any situation can be a plot because as it changes, time moves forward. I write the books I have yet to read. In essence, I jump over the edge of tradition and throw my words up in the air hoping for the wind to take them places no one else has reached. And without the safety net of a preconceived idea/plot/rhythm/feeling, I threw myself into the abyss. Yes, I wrote and explored. I learned not to be harmless. Everyday contains a moment when you think you will touch immortality. What follows next is the stuff of novels.
S.R.: What do you hope readers takeaway from Air?
J.A.: I have a high esteem for my readers so I invite them to the creative party. Not every sentence needs to be complete, not every plot needs a twist, nor does every flower need a color. I let the reader create alongside the text. And I agree with Borges’ in considering that literary meaning is constructed through mental processes irrevocably tied to location and period. Reading, then, is more central to a text’s intellectual “life” than its writing and, consequently, a reader is more important to a text than its writer. Easy prose is akin to baby food. It is time to take the spoon out of the reader’s mouth. So readers will walk away from the book as my allies, having created with me. At the end I hope the join in the celebration of language, transformation, perfumery, and bewilderment.
S.R.: What can readers look forward to seeing from you next?
J.A.: I am currently revising my latest novel entitled The Lesser Violin. The narrator of the story is the violin itself. And because it is written in first-person and present tense, the reader gets to experience the immediacy of life from the unique point of view of a concert violin.
The violin lets his senses explore the darkest questions. How can evil and marvel coexist as one? How the wish to destroy turns into the wish to love within seconds? How are the sounds of human bodies different from the sounds of instruments? Can we use the same notes to write the music of abuse and the music of love? In the same pentagram? Can the notes intermingle with each other as if they originated from the same source, as if they elicited the same sensations? How many musics are there? Really, how many musics touch us deep, deeply? And from the hands that play the violin to the hands that abuse him, from Venice to Nice to Barcelona to New York to Porto, we discover the violin’s inner hum.
As I said, this is no ordinary violin for its nature is sensual, wicked, insightful, at times romantic, and certainly captivating. The technical difficulties of writing this book are momentous, and I welcome them unanimously.
S.R.: Where’s the best place for readers to find out more information about your work?
J.A.: Readers can always visit my website: jorgearmenteros.net. The site contains information on my books and upcoming events. But it also contains a section entitled “Thoughts” where I write about literature, philosophy, and sometimes include passages of my work in progress. Come, take a look…
Pick up your copy of Jorge Armentero’s latest book, Air, here.
Jorge Armenteros was born in Cuba, two years after the revolution of 1959. He and his family became political refugees in Madrid, before finally settling in Puerto Rico. He attended Harvard University where he minored in Spanish and Latin American Literature while completing his biomedical engineering degree. The Book of I, his first novel and a 2015 International Latino Book Award winner, was published by Jaded Ibis Press.