by Alex Dueben
Daniel Alarcón’s short story City of Clowns was originally published by The New Yorker in 2003 and then as part of his collection War by Candlelight. Since then, Alarcón has been acclaimed as one of the preeminent writers of his generation as a novelist, short story writer and journalist with books like At Night We Walk in Circles and Lost City Radio. That short story, which argues that “Lima was, in fact and in spirit, a city of clowns” struck a chord with many readers and for Alarcón, as well.
The story has been translated into a graphic novel by Alarcón and artist Sheila Alvarado. The book was originally published in a Spanish language edition in Peru in 2010 and has recently been released by Riverhead Books in an English language edition. Alarcón said that he had little interest in comics as a kid, but as an adult has seen the storytelling possibilities that the form offers and spoke recently about the project.
When he’s not writing award-winning fiction and nonfiction, Alarcón is the co-founder and executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a contributing editor at Granta, and an Assistant Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Radio Ambulante‘s latest season began today and is now hosted by the NPR Podcast network.
Alex Dueben: I remember reading your short story “City of Clowns” years ago, probably in your collection, and you have a line in the story, “Lima was, in fact and in spirit, a city of clowns.” Could you talk a little about how this story came about?
Daniel Alarcón: The story itself came from the juxtaposition of Lima versus the cornfields in the outskirts of Iowa City, honestly. I had a very intense year in Lima getting to know the city where I was born but in a much realer way as an adult. Just exploring every last corner of the city. I was plucked out of that and plopped in the middle of Iowa for an MFA program and I think the intensity of Lima versus the kind of quiet of Iowa made Lima come alive in my head in very sharp relief. It felt suddenly like a place that was very easy to wander into in my head. It was very clear and intense and vivid. One of the things that was vivid was the constant presence of street art and street performance. The clowns were one of the most remarkable examples of it because you would see them on the buses everywhere. The line was in fact and in spirit Lima was a city of clowns and the fact is that there were clowns everywhere. The spirit is also an interpretation of mine about what Lima is and how Lima exists. There’s so much about Lima that’s preposterous and illogical and probably unwise. There’s so much about the city that beggars the imagination or feels exaggerated. I think that’s part of what I was getting at with the idea of Lima being in spirit also a city of clowns.
Dueben: I’ve never been to Lima, but I kept thinking about the ways that so many cities are strange and unique and so hard to explain to people who have never been without making them sound fantastic.
Alarcón: Right. Lima definitely has that.
Dueben: I think that’s the nature of urban life, in some ways.
Alarcón: I think you’re right. I think pressing millions of people together into a relatively confined space is always going to create remarkable tensions. Out of those tensions will come both absurdity and beauty and often times anxiety and even fear. But cities can be places of human theater and Lima certainly has that. It’s not unique in a lot of ways. It’s quite clearly a kind of species of developing city that we can recognize in Latin America and beyond. Cities that have grown too fast, too quick. Cities that are bursting at the seems trying to accomplish a lot with a little and often failing. But also places of real impressive ingenuity and creativity by necessity.
Dueben: I know that you were born in Peru but grew up in the states. Did you read comics growing up?
Alarcón: Not at all. I read Asterix and I read Condorito, which is a Chilean comic book for kids. That’s it. I never read any of the superhero stuff or the comics that kids read here in the states. I’m not sure why. It just never appealed to me. I think coming to it with a fairly blank slate was not a bad thing. Maybe comics people would disagree with me but it certainly felt like I had a fair amount of freedom to try things out because I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what comics had to be.
Dueben: You were not playing with the conventions of comics because you just didn’t know them.
Alarcón: I also wasn’t necessarily thinking of the work in the long tradition of comics books. I was thinking of it more as a visual adaptation of a short story that already existed. I learned a great deal about comics reading The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Michael Chabon novel, and then I came across Joe Sacco and I found his work to be tremendous. Those were my reference points more than Superman or Batman or those kinds of things.
Dueben: How did you and Sheila meet and come to collaborate?
Alarcón: I was working for a magazine that was published in Lima. She was the art director when I joined the staff as an editor at large and we hit it off and we are still friends today. When my first book was published, I gave it to her. She doesn’t read English so I gave it to her in Spanish when it came out. I proposed the idea of working together and I showed her Joe Sacco’s work, but it was Sheila was said if we do something we should do this story. She liked that story most of all in the collection.
Dueben: “City of Clowns” is probably my favorite story from your collection, but what did she say that she liked about it?
Alarcón: I think that she had a couple of connections to it. One was that so much of the story is set in Central Lima and she went to school at the School of Fine Arts in Central Lima. So she spent a lot of time in those neighborhoods and she had a real visual and nostalgic visual language associated with parts of the city that I was describing. I think also the clowns themselves are very visual. A number of other stories are much more internal and take place indoors and maybe don’t have as much room to play as this one. It would be a better question for her, but when we talked about it, those are the things she mentioned.
Dueben: What was the process of creating the book like? Sheila is in Lima and you’re generally in the US.
Alarcón: We were both in Buenos Aires for a month when we started working on this. We were staying at the same house and we were working together on this. This must have been 2008, we started sketching and talking about the idea, which was really fun. Then I went back to Oakland and then eventually in 2009 I went to Lima for six months and we worked on it in Lima a fair amount. I was living 10-15 blocks from her and I’d walk to her studio and we’d work there. The bulk of it where most of the work got done I was in Oakland where we would be on skype every single day. Oakland is three hours behind Lima–two hours in Daylights Savings Time–so I would sit at my desk at nine and it was already lunchtime in Lima but she would be drawing in the morning. We would pick up where we left off the day before. She would show me her drawings on the camera and we would talk about what we were going to accomplish that day. I would send her sketches and hold them up in front of the camera and she would do the same.
We would go back and forth like that. She was the one doing the final drawings, but she and I were working out the layout of the pages. We would lay out a page, lay out the next page and get to the end of the book and we’d realize that we’d improved so greatly in the sense that we had such a greater clarity in terms of the vision of the book that the first half of the book didn’t correspond to the second half of the book stylistically and aesthetically. So we’d have to start over. We’d do the same thing and again, by the end of the book we were like, wow, the end of the book is so much better than the first half. We did that three or four times before we were ready to submit it to the publisher. The other thing is we were doing the layout on Microsoft Word. I didn’t have any programs so she would send me an image and I would do the page setup and then add text boxes and move them around. Really rudimentary stuff because we just didn’t have any real idea of what we were doing. Basically eight per cent of what I do on the computer I do on Microsoft Word so it just didn’t occur to me that there were other programs one could use. [laughs]
Dueben: The book is text heavy, and you use a lot of text from the short story in the book.
Alarcón: I think we cut maybe thirty per cent of the text because it felt unnecessary. It really is an illustrated short story as much as a graphic novel. Text heavy to me doesn’t sound pejorative, but I can see how it could. It was funny because the process was so collaborative that often I would want to keep a drawing and Sheila would want to keep a piece of text. She would say we have to cut this drawing to make room for this text and I would say we have to cut this text to make room for this drawing. We were each looking out for the other’s contributions.
Dueben: It is text heavy but the text never overwhelms the images. They play off each other.
Alarcón: Right. That was the goal. One of the things we talked about when we started, our ideal version of the book was one that was aesthetically pleasing to the point where any two page spread could be put in a frame and hang on the wall and it wouldn’t look out of place. It should look like a work of art as much as a page from a book. That’s what we were shooting for.
Dueben: The person you cited earlier, Joe Sacco, he’s not afraid to use a lot of text if that’s the best way to communicate something.
Alarcón: Sure. He also has pages of all illustrations, and we do as well. One of my favorite spreads is a double page near the end of the book with more than a dozen iterations of the clown walking. That replaced maybe half a page of text in terms of describing the anomie and the anguish and the feeling of being lost that the character was feeling. That’s where I as a writer of text felt so grateful for the possibilities that this genre provided because you were suddenly in a place where you could replace a half page of text with beautiful drawings and they could accomplish more and better than my text could.
Dueben: When the book was first published in Peru five years ago, what was the reception?
Alarcón: It did well. Sheila is a very well known artist in Peru and I’m a pretty well known writer so there was some interest in our collaboration. And interest in this type of work because a graphic novel in Peru had never been done. It has been done since but we knew that we were going to be doing the first graphic novel from Peru and we wanted to set the bar high and do good work. The response was great.
Dueben: There’s been more created since then?
Alarcón: Yeah and some good stuff, too. There’s a long tradition of illustration and caricature and comics in Peru, so it wasn’t like we invented that. What we brought to the table was just the literary sensibility of putting those things together.
Dueben: Everyone knows comics, but a book length comic is often confusing to people.
Alarcón: Yeah, but that’s great. I think as a writer or as an artist you always want to be the person who’s making people re-evaluate what they think they know about any given genre or way of storytelling. I’ve written stories and I’ve written novels and I started writing longform nonfiction because I wanted to see what that was like. Then I worked on this graphic novel because I wanted to see what that was like. I started working in radio because I wanted to know what that was like. For me it’s all part of the same process, which is figuring out ways to tell stories. To me what’s important is that you’re doing good work, telling good stories.
Dueben: Radio Ambulante ran a piece in December about an artist from Honduras, German Andino, who’s doing some really interesting work.
Alarcón: Yeah that was great. He has done a really tremendous adaption of a very raw reality that Honduras is going through right now. We had a non-narrated piece by Alberto Arce and then we featured the book, which features work from Andino, on our website. We’re interested in all these different types of storytelling. We’ve also done animations of some of our stories as well. I didn’t grow up reading comics, but it has become a long standing and continuing interest.
Dueben: This is a broad question, because I know that there’s a lot of variation from country to country throughout Latin America, but do you see graphic novels and these experiments becoming more common?
Alarcón: I hope so. I have become a reader of graphic novels and someone who appreciates the form. I’ve become a student of the way that stories get processed and I think that graphic novels are an interesting way of sharing stories and sharing information. On that end, yeah. In Latin America, each country is different but there’s a huge interest in comic books. Not as much in graphic novels, but certainly in comics there’s been some great stuff. I hope so. I don’t know that I’m qualified to say, but as a genre there’s no question that it’s here to stay. There’s interesting people doing interesting work in this medium and that’s going to continue. I don’t think that’s a question at all.
Dueben: Are you interested in making another graphic novel?
Alarcón: I would like to. For me it’s really a question of time and that’s the one thing I can’t stretch out. It’s all well and good to say I would like to do another one but right now it’s not in the cards. I just have too much going on.
Dueben: I would imagine between writing fiction and nonfiction and making radio and teaching, you’re a little busy.
Alarcón: Exactly. I’m pretty busy. It’s all fine and good for me to say I want to do another one. Sheila and I have talked and it really isn’t easy to find the time. She’s as busy as I am with as many projects as I have, so it would be no small task to find a convenient block of six months to get it done.