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Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes
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Carlos Fuentes Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Author, Scholar & Diplomat

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  Carlos Fuentes

What did you like about school when you were growing up?

Carlos Fuentes: Oh, in the United States I liked the teacher I had. I always remember her. I remember her by her name, Miss Painter. Miss Florence Painter at the Henry D. Cooke Public School on 13th Street in Washington, D.C. At that time, there was not something called "general studies," as today. At that time, you were taught arithmetic. You were taught language. You were taught history. You were taught geography. They had proper names. And she taught everything. She made us achieve interest in the world, in geography, in history, in language, in speech and arithmetic too. So it was really an extraordinarily good public school system. I think it's gone down the drain today, but at that time I think it was one of the best public school systems in the world, and I profited from it. I was educated by the public school system of the United States.

You didn't have any difficulty going between cultures and languages?

Carlos Fuentes: No, no, no. I adapted very easily.

I was a child without vacations, because at that time, during the summer months there were vacations in the United States, but there was school in Mexico. Vacations in Mexico came December, January. So when I was finished with school in the U.S., I was taken down to school in Mexico so I would not forget the Spanish language. I lived with my grannies, and I went to school every day. So I was a boy without vacations. Well, I profited from that. It was a bit sad at the time to say, "Oh, my friends in the United States are out fishing and playing baseball, and here I am learning verbs." So it turned out okay. It gave me fortitude, if you wish.

Was there anything in school that was difficult for you?

Carlos Fuentes: Not particularly.

I adapted quite well. I had the spirit of adaptation, as I told you, because of my father's diplomatic career. So I got along well with people, adapted myself to the customs, the language, the slang, the jokes, whatever. It came very easily, not only in the United States. Mexico, Chile, Argentina -- I adapted quite easily, like a chameleon. Although I am not a chameleon, I was able to adapt quite easily.

Did you have heroes as a young boy?

Carlos Fuentes: Franklin Roosevelt was my hero, a political hero, if you wish. I grew up at that time, and I saw that the Depression -- the Great Depression of 1929 -- had fostered dictatorships in Germany, it had strengthened Mussolini in Italy, it had strengthened Stalin in the Soviet Union, the rise of Japanese militarism, the weakness of the Western democracies. And Roosevelt was capable of solving the Depression through democratic means, by appealing to the people, to the social work force of the country: "Let us together solve these problems." That is a lesson I have never forgotten. It was my prime lesson in politics. I owe it to FDR.

Was there anyone in your youth who served as an inspiration to you or challenged you or helped you develop?

Carlos Fuentes: My father was a great educator for me. He taught me so many things. He named me Carlos after a brother he lost -- a very brilliant young man who died at 21 in Mexico. He had written very good poems. He was an intellectual. I think my father wanted to see his brother in me, so he put books into my hands at a very early age. He fostered my literary and artistic inclinations. So he was my best teacher. Then I was lucky in having good teachers throughout my life, in secondary school and then at the University of Mexico as well.

You went on to study law?

Carlos Fuentes: Yes. You know...

I wanted to be a writer always. I had published my first stories in Chile when I was 11 years old, and went on from there and won contests in high school. Well, that was my vocation, no doubt about it. So when I was told, "Now you have to do law school," I said, "Why? I want to be a writer; I don't want to be a lawyer." But the pressure in Mexico at the time was if you are a writer, you will die of hunger, so you must have a professional title. I remember visiting the great Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes, who my father told, "Convince Carlos he has to be a lawyer." And he said -- and Alfonso was the greatest Mexican writer at the time -- and he said, "I am a writer, but first I am a lawyer, because Mexico is a formalistic country. We are all hot cups of coffee, and if you don't have the handle to pick us up, people will burn their hands. You have to be Doctor something, Licenciado something, Engineer something or other." So I obeyed him and I went to school in Mexico. I went to school in Geneva. I achieved a broadness of education I would not have had otherwise. By reading law -- going back to read philosophy, Roman law, the medieval times, which are so important to understand Latin America, the philosophy of the Middle Ages -- I got a whole picture of the world that I would not have had if I had not studied law. So I'm very grateful for it.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

How did you know at such a young age that you wanted to be a writer?

Carlos Fuentes: It's like walking, or singing in the bathtub. It comes naturally. It is there. I was writing -- indeed, at seven, I was writing my own magazine in the apartment building in Washington, and circulating it through all seven stories. I did it myself. News, movie reviews, reviews of books I had read. I mean, who cared? I cared. But it's a vocation that was there for me from the earliest time, the earliest age. Then it sort of spawned out into other activities, but always the center, the core of my life has been writing. The proof is that I have more than 20 books. I wrote them some time, huh?

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Was it always there, or was there an epiphany, a moment of realization?

Carlos Fuentes: No, it was always there, but there were epiphanies, certainly.

One epiphany which I will never forget is reading Kafka's Metamorphosis. I must have been 17. And that really burned through my heart and my mind. I remember I started smacking the light bulb, I was so excited. I think the world was turning around me. "See! This you can do with literature! If you can write this, that's all you want from life. You want nothing more."

[ Key to Success ] Passion

The epiphany was reading Kafka, I think.

What did your father do when you said you wanted to be a writer?

Carlos Fuentes: Oh, he was very happy, but he said, "Also you're going to be a lawyer. You must be two things."

You have been so prolific in your writing -- novels and essays and commentaries. How do you decide what to write and when to write it?

Carlos Fuentes: It's very curious, because there is an element that comes into this which is very fascinating and inexplicable.

I say, "I'm going to write this book," and now I sit down and I start sorting out chapters and imagining the book and saying, "Tonight, I think that tomorrow I will write such and such." I go to sleep. I wake up in the morning. I go to my table. I take the pen and something totally different comes out, which means that perhaps dreams are dictating part of your writing life in a very mysterious way. You have silly dreams. We all have silly dreams. We are naked on the street. How terrible! We fall off a roof. We're drowning in the sea. Those are the dreams you remember. But what about the dreams you don't remember? I think these are the really important dreams in your life, the underground dreams, the subterranean dreams that come out somehow in your life, and in my case, through literature. Because I can't explain otherwise why I write certain things I have never thought about before. And always on the day after a dreaming night. It's very magical.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

As a writer, is it important to have a daily routine?

Carlos Fuentes: A writer is no different than a bricklayer or a bus driver in that sense. You must have discipline. Oscar Wilde said that writing is 10 percent genius, 90 percent discipline. You must have discipline for writing. It is not an easy task. It is very lonely. You're all alone. You are not in company. You are not enjoying yourself in that sense. You are enjoying yourself in another sense. You are delving into your depths, but you are profoundly lonely. It is one of the loneliest careers in the world. In the theater, you are with companions, with directors, actors. In film. In an office. In writing, you are alone. That takes a lot of strength and a lot of will to do it. You must really be in love with what you're doing to tolerate the huge loneliness of writing.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

As part of your process, how important is rewriting?

Carlos Fuentes: Not that important. I seem to rewrite in my head a great deal. I write in these English ruled notebooks. So I write on the right, and then I correct on the left. Then, when it's typed out, I even make another correction, and then maybe in the typed sheets also. But not that much. I seem to have a great facility to go right into what I want to say. I do correct, but not like Balzac, who went crazy over the printing presses. He was correcting at the last minute.

What about the proverbial writer's block?

Carlos Fuentes: No, no. I have never suffered that.

I have friends who have practically died from writer's block. I had a good Chilean friend, José Donoso, a novelist, who had such a writer's block that I think it killed him eventually. He was so anguished. He suffered so much from that. I have never, thank God, suffered from writer's block. Never. That's why I produce so many articles and speeches and lectures at the same time, because when I do have writer's block for literature, I say, "Now is the time to write that speech. Now is the time to write that op-ed piece." So I am a well-oiled writing machine. I am always on the job.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

How can a writer not suffer?

Carlos Fuentes Interview Photo
Carlos Fuentes: You suffer in another sense. Not from writer's block. There are other anguishes -- of expression, of not finding the right adjective, of doubting what you have written and throwing a lot of things into the wastebasket and all that kind of thing. Yes, that happens, but not writer's block in the sense of not being able to sit down and write. That I have never had, as long as I can write trash and then destroy it. But that's not the same as writer's block.

In any career -- and now I'm just speaking of your career as a writer -- there are disappointments. There are setbacks. Have you experienced that?

Carlos Fuentes: Not career-wise. There are difficulties, tragedies, disappointments in life, but not so much in reading and writing -- it is a pleasure always. It is a great paradise. To read and write is a paradise.

What about criticism? How do you handle that?

Carlos Fuentes: I don't read it.

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This page last revised on Sep 13, 2006 18:48 EST
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