Today’s author interview is with George Szanto, who is the author of the Conquests of Mexico series. George tells us about his series, his ideal writing place and his new project that he’s working on.
Caitlyn: Tell us about your book.
George: What we’re dealing with here are really three books, parts of my “Conquests of Mexico” trilogy, The Underside of Stones, Second Sight, and The Condesa of M. They each have the same protagonist, a Canadian professor of criminology known by his Mexican friends simply as Jorge. (Though I share the protagonist’s name, I am not a criminologist; but each of the stories are told in the first person.)
In Stones, Jorge comes to a small town in rural Michoacan, Michoacuaro, to live for a year and to recover after his wife has died of cancer. A statue may come to life, a woman may have two heads, a man may have a tail of multiple uses, but the story taken together is the very real chronicle of a passionate people who are sometimes fatalistic, sometimes desperate as they struggle with the seductive invasions of their world. And along the way Jorge’s life and beliefs are progressively overwhelmed, subverted, and reconstructed. His recovery is complete.
In Second Sight Jorge returns to Michoacuaro to celebrate the election of his friend Pepe as mayor, having run on a reform ticket, only to find that Pepe has disappeared. With the help of Felicio, A 90-year old doctor with mind as clear s the finest tequila, Irini a beautiful and clever woman with wide-open opal-green eyes, Ali Cran a con man and trickster who knows all people have not five senses but ten, and the often unscrupulous chief of police Ruben Reyes Ponce, Jorge confronts dangers he doesn’t understand and antagonizes forces that want to get rid of him, while discovering in himself strengths and abilities he didn’t know he was capable of.
In The Condesa of M., Jorge once again returns to Michoacuaro, this time to introduce his friends to his new wife Rissa and his stepdaughter Kiki. He is also there to bring money from PEN International to a lawyer to further the defence of a poet imprisoned for “attacking a bank.” At the same time, Rissa is reading about an 18th century biography of a Condesa who lived in this area of Michoacan. The story of Jorge’s family and the story of the Condesa are intercut, and at the end they meet, but not until Rissa has fallen into the cone of a volcano filled with water and Kiki has been kidnapped and recovered.
Caitlyn: How did you come up with the idea for this work?
George: The Underside of Stones grew out of a series of interconnected stories that I wrote while I was first in Michoacan.
Second Sight came right out of the headlines of Mexican newspapers.
Most interesting for me is the birth of The Condesa of M.: One sunny afternoon in my village in Michoacan, Marta, the woman who looked after the house I had rented, arrived, proudly carrying a manuscript. Her nephew had just completed his licensio, a kind of Master’s degree. She showed me the manuscript, a history of Michoacan. I said I was impressed and she loaned me the volume. It was primarily a chronology: a list of mayors and their dates, population statistics, major landholders and so on. But a curious paragraph grabbed my attention. It seemed that in the mid-eighteenth century a large chunk of land in this section of Michoacan was under the sway of the widow of a certain Conde who was feared and revered by many in the district. In particular, she was known for disciplining those who crossed her with a kind of punishment that involved the entire hide of a cow. That’s all it said. I tried to track down more history, but found nothing. Marta’s nephew had done as thorough a job as possible. Since I couldn’t get this Condesa out of my mind, I had to write a story for her—including the hide of the cow.
Caitlyn: Describe your ideal writing environment.
George: I need to be away from people and all the trappings of daily life. This is why I went to Mexico to write—a small cottage away from the main house, and only myself and the magnificent rugged countryside of Michaocan for company. The cottage had windows overlooking a valley and a range of mountains. I positioned my desk facing a blank wall so there could be no distractions. In this way I could work for hours on end, rarely coming up for air, as it were. Now, on my island in the Salish Sea, I have another house with a fine view; the house gives me great pleasure. But there is also a guest cottage about 300 meters away, invisible from the house. This is my studio, where I commute to most days.
Caitlyn: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
George: I was told, many years ago: “You only start to learn to write after you’ve thrown away your first million words.” Luckily for me that was a long time ago.
And, not directly advice but the wisdom of Samuel Beckett, “To find a form to accommodate the mess, that is the job of the artist now.”
Caitlyn: What is your new project?
George: My new project is something I’ve never tried before, a chronicle/memoir. Between our house and the guest cottage, there’s a large stretch of wetlands, which I call my bog. I have described life around the bog for a calendar year, September to August—12 months, 12 chapters. But also in each month I go back in my life to similar months in the past, to revisit some of the most significant events in my life, recent and distant events. The name of the book is BOG TENDER: Coming Home to Nature and Memory. It will be published in February, 2103.
George Szanto is a novelist and essayist, currently living on Gabriola Island, BC. A former McGill University professor, he is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction.
The Markerting Coordinator at Dundurn, lover of books, tea and dancing in the rain.