Author Q&A: Hector Tobar

  • November 23, 2011

Vanessa Becknell does a Q&A with Hector Tobar for The Barbarian Nurseries.

Our review of The Barbarian Nurseries, by Bob Gibson, is here.

“The Barbarian Nurseries is a modern-day look at the battle between suburban classes. Aracelli is the last Mexican employee left standing in the Torres-Thompson household. Forced to let go of the rest of their domestic staff after falling on hard economic times, Scott and Maureen’s marriage begins to break under the financial pressure. After a heated argument drives them both from the home, Aracelli finds herself left to care for their two sons on her own. What follows is an adventure she could never imagine, with consequences she could never foresee.”

Vanessa Becknell does a Q&A with Héctor Tobar for The Barbarian Nurseries

The action in The Barbarian Nurseries takes place over a number of weeks and months, and as many of your reviewers and critics have noted, it’s a fantastic little snippet in the lives of your characters and modern-day LA.  Was there a moment you witnessed in real-life that inspired the story?

No one person or story I witnessed set me off on the novel and its plot. It was born of the idea of creating an artistic response to the swell of anger directed at immigrants in California. But dozens of small moments I witnessed in Los Angeles inspired scenes in the book. I’m lucky in that I get paid to wander the city and talk to total strangers and ask them to tell me stories. For example, there’s a scene with a working-class Fourth of July party in Huntington Park in which the parents lament the condition of the public schools. The dialogue there is taken, in large measure, from a day of interviews I did as a columnist with frustrated parents outside a middle school in South Los Angeles.

Your first novel, Tattooed Soldier, was more closely tied to your American and Guatemalan roots – what lead to your decision to focus on the Mexican culture in Los Angeles?

I lived in Mexico City for three of the six years I worked on the book (I was the L.A. Times’ Mexico City bureau chief). Before that, in my twenties, I lived there for a year as a college student. Mexico City is an electrifying metropolis, a center of world culture, rich with history. Living there, you feel the great weight and power of Latino history. I conceived of Araceli as a frustrated intellectual living inside the body of a housemaid: she’s an art-school dropout. So it was only natural to give her a Mexico City birth and a Mexico City education because I had all these images of that city floating around in my head.

Aracelli becomes a modern day cult-hero for many of the people following her story.  She makes this wonderful evolution through the book from first being a cold, no-nonsense domestic worker to a vibrant, laughing, woman throwing caution to the wind.  Did you see in her an embodiment of the trials of domestic workers or was she more indicative of how each of us could seek spiritual awakening?

Well, Araceli is, first and foremost, just herself. She’s a person with a very strong sense of self thrown into a world where no one really sees her for who she is. In that sense, she’s the embodiment of the humanity and the idiosyncrasies of a large group of people who share that experience in the modern-day U.S.: Latino immigrants. At the same time, she is, like me, a witness to the inequities of American life. Her story allows the reader to see how painful and absurd those inequities feel and look when seen up close. What she seeks is freedom, and of course that’s a universal desire.

Throughout the novel you take the reader back and forth on how we should feel about the Torres-Thompson couple.  In the beginning, before the argument that leads to their departure from the home, they seem like a pretty average suburban couple. Was there an inspiration behind them or do you see them as a sort of archetype of upper-middle class suburbanite couples struggling to make ends meet?

I have to admit they are partly inspired by my own family and our pampered lives during the years I lived abroad, as an expatriate in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Like my family, they have three kids. Beyond that, I saw them as a lot of upper middle-class American families I know.  They have liberal values and aim to create an elegant, intellectually-stimulating life for their children — and they have the resources to accomplish these things, gracefully, with the help of a Spanish-speaking woman. True, they’re stiff and business-like in their dealings with her, but they’re never rude or abusive to her. The crisis they’re sucked up into is more of a reflection of our larger society’s obsessions with illegal immigration.

When they left the house and then returned, the Torres-Thompsons initially tried to paint Aracelli as a “bad guy” and I have to admit, it was difficult to continue feeling sympathetic for them, but I loved how you made sure they never completely veered into the “villain” category.  Did you not want a real villain?  Why not?

If you read closely, you’ll notice that Maureen and Scott never quite actually accuse Araceli of anything. It’s their unwillingness to explain their own actions that leads them to accept other people’s explanations of why Araceli left with their kids. This strikes me as something that happens quite frequently in real life. And it’s sort of a parable about how we try to find scapegoats for larger social problems that really have complicated explanations.

Your novel is about to be translated into French, Italian, and German! What do you think the story will lose in translation?

Nothing, I hope! But, clearly, there are nuances about living in an American city that will be lost to a non-American reader. And I think there’s something about the interplay between Spanish and English in the novel that both English and Spanish speakers in the U.S. can appreciate. But capturing those kinds of things in another language is the art of the translator and I’m confident they’ll be more than up to the task.

I really loved that you made Araceli an artist in your novel – as an artist myself, the second the detectives came into her guest-house and saw her work I understood immediately how the wrong conclusions could be drawn about someone by looking at the things they create. Have you encountered this sort of reaction yourself as a writer and journalist?

Oh yes, quite frequently. Many people have a very literal-minded approach to writing and reading. It’s very difficult to employ irony, for example, in daily journalism: reporters have to censor it out of their work, or risk getting run out of the business. But a lot of people think of fiction in this way too. For example, I find it interesting that, recently, someone asked me if I was uncomfortable introducing a “prickly” character like Araceli into the immigration debate. My response to that is that the novel is intended to be a work of art, not a polemic. Art often tries to take you to an uncomfortable, unexpected, unsettled place.

Did you intend to use that scene to (sorry for the pun) paint a larger picture about how our own drives to create and express ourselves in a personal way can sometimes be misconstrued, or was this more a pointed observation at how the Torres-Thompsons had overlooked that their hardworking maid had her own soul and passion that they’d completely ignored?

Both. Having employed live-in maids in two different countries, I know what it’s like when you learn something about her and realize you don’t completely know her, and probably never can. But the scene with her sculpture is also a statement about the perceived “danger” of the artist, of how her explorations of the self and a search for creativity can seem strange and demented to a non-artist.

After the incredible success of The Barbarian Nurseries are you getting ideas for your next story? Do you think you’ll go back to nonfiction, or literary reportage, as you’ve called your 2006 work Translation Nation?

I’m working on a non-fiction project as we speak: the official, authorized story of the 33 trapped Chilean miners. It’s an amazing story of brotherhood and endurance. And after that, another non-fiction book, and a novel, I hope, if the muses and the gods of literature are willing.

Vanessa Becknell is a columnist and Department Editor at The Donnybrook Writing Academy based in Denver, Colorado.

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