Pilar Quintana has published five novels and a short story collection, Caperucita se come al lobo. In 2007, she was selected by Hay Festival and Bogotá World Book Capital as one of the 39 most important Latin American writers under the age of 39. In 2010, she won Spain’s Premio de Novela La Mar de Letras for Coleccionistas de polvos raros. In 2011, she attended the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa; in 2012, the International Writers Workshop of the Baptist University of Hong Kong. In 2016, she received a grant from the Ministry of Culture for her project La isla cuenta, a series of creative writing workshops on the Island of Old Providence. La perra, translated into 15 languages, was shortlisted for the Premio Nacional de Novela in 2018, and in 2020 (in Lisa Dillman’s translation, as The Bitch) for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, having won the Premio de Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana and an English PEN Translates Award. Her screenplay Lavaperros, written with Antonio García Ángel, has won two grants from Fondo para el Desarrollo Cinematográfico, Proimágenes, and the Premio Manuel Barba by Huelva’s Press Association for best script in 2020. Los abismos, her most recent work, won the 2021 Premio Alfaguara de novela.
I. Literary / personal
Q 1: 2020, a terrible year for many, has been a very fine year for you as an award-winning writer. What circumstances or energies led up to this? And how did the public successes impact your life during the pandemic?
PQ: It has indeed been a difficult year for most of the world, even for people with privileges. I have had many challenges during the pandemic, but fortunately La perra was translated into English and into some other languages, I was able to finish a new novel, and they both did well. And a film co-authored with my writing partner Antonio García Ángel, Lavaperros [Dogwashers], will be premiering on Netflix on March 5th. I feel extremely grateful for these things.
I have dedicated my life to writing. I wrote my first piece of fiction when I was seven. I knew I wanted to become a writer when I was fourteen. From then on, all I ever did was prepare myself to be one. I read a lot, studied the creative process on my own and obsessively wrote and rewrote.
In those days, in Colombia, there weren’t any undergraduate or postgraduate programs in Creative Writing. Now I know there was a workshop at a university near mine, but I didn't know of it back then. I didn’t study literature because the focus of that program was literary criticism. I didn’t want that. I knew I wanted to do creative writing. So, I studied Social Communication. I thought I would become a journalist. But in my first editing class, I realized I didn’t really want to be a journalist, only a fiction writer, and I started by leaning toward scriptwriting. My first job was as a scriptwriter, and from then on, I have always lived off writing or off activities related to writing and literature.
I am tempted to think that the good things happening in my career are due to hard work, that they are a recognition, and certainly there is that. However, I know incredibly talented and dedicated writers who haven’t had as many translations or awards, who don’t get the recognition they deserve. So I acknowledge there are other factors: the world is finally giving credit to women’s artistic work and there is a growing interest in Latin American women writers. Then there is my great agent (based both in Barcelona and in New York) who believes in my work, a great translator like Lisa Dillman, my great publishers and editors, and also being in the right spot at the right time…luck.
Q 2: How do you find, hear, the voices to write your main characters, who seem quite different (though as far as I can tell all are female)? You have been publishing for two decades now: is there a trajectory from your early work to Los Abismos? Are you at all involved with what your assorted translators are doing with and to those rather specific voices?
PQ: Apart from Spanish, I only know English, so that is the only language in which I get involved during the translation process. The first translator I ever worked with, Joel Streicker, lived in Colombia for some time and really knows the peculiarities of Colombian Spanish. My current translator, Lisa Dillman, is meticulous: I am always happy to work with her. She cares about every detail— the nuances of language, the wording, the intent of the work, the social or racial issues that are specific to the culture she is translating from.
As for the trajectory: I think I have always written about the same topic--the masks we wear and desire. I am fascinated by the human being as an animal, rational but still just an animal governed by instinct. My first writing was about that, and so are my most recent works. But there is a before and an after being a mother. Before I was a mother, I wrote a lot about sex, because during sex we are stripped of our mask and are pure desire, instinct, the closest to our animal being. Or so I believed, until becoming a mother. Having a baby, wanting it desperately, carrying it in the womb, birthing it, breastfeeding it, loving it with an irrational and limitless love, all of that, made me feel an animal, no more than that, an animal-- like a lioness with her cub. And so, motherhood became my big theme.
Creating a story and finding all its pieces, the actions, the universe, the characters, the language, the tone, is a long process for me. Sometimes it takes more than a decade to finally find what I want to write and how it should be told. I know a character is ready to be written when I know her or him more I than I know myself. When I can hear their voice, when they feel real, like a friend that is not present but exists in my life, when I know their life circumstances in detail, when I understand them and feel compassion for them, no matter what awful things they are about to do.
Q 3: What mark—ideas, friendships, ideas, networks— has your time in the IWP left?
PQ: Every year I wish I were going to the IWP. I have a longing for the IWP. I feel that I kind of wasted my time there, because then I was in a creative and personal crisis, and I was younger and wild. Now I am a mature woman, I am settled and full of ideas that I have little time to work on, so I would love to go back there and spend all my time writing without interruptions, or just the interruption of going for a run along the river. I still maintain friendships with some of my IWP fellows. It was an incredible experience to meet and read writers from all over the world whom I otherwise I wouldn’t have met. I keep in touch with a couple of them, and have met some of them in other parts of the world.
II. Literary / general
Q 1: Through what institutions do writers emerge and rise in Colombia? Has creative writing as a teaching area found a foothold? Should it?
PQ: There are many creative writing workshops and programs in Colombia, some formal, some informal, both from public and private institutions, like universities, libraries, and bookshops. Some are free and open to all. It all started in the early 2000s, with the Plan Nacional del Lectura (National Reading Plan), a state policy that grew to also include Creative Writing. The Ministry of Culture has a very solid array of creative writing programs, which include a grant portfolio for writers from all backgrounds, and workshops all over the country, from the main cities to the most remote places, open to all, in prisons, in Black communities, for women and other marginalized populations. The Instituto Distrital de las Artes, IDARTES, in Bogotá also offers a grant portfolio for writers, and free workshops in every district of the city. There are local programs like these ones in other cities and regions. Actually, Azriel Bibliowicz, who created the Maestría en Escrituras Creativas at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, the first one in our country, visited Iowa in order to understand how it worked there, and how he could do it here.
Q 2: What larger readerly space do you inhabit—i.e., what writing do you keep track of, and how? Poetry as well as prose? Is the Peninsula (= Spain)/South Cone distinction something that is relevant at all for you as a writer? As a reader?
PQ: I give workshops in Colombia and other countries in Latin American, like Peru or México, and I read my students. I read new Colombian writers and of course the established ones. I prefer fiction but read a bit of poetry and a bit of nonfiction. I love good science fiction--Kurt Vonnegut’s kind of fiction, imaginative, strange, eye opening. Nowadays I am happiest reading women writers from Latin America, because their stories are deep and dark and tremendously disturbing, because they talk about topics that interest me, treated in new ways.
Some names and titles: La dimensión desconocida, de Nona Fernández, from Chile; Distancia de rescate and Siete casas vacías, by Samantha Schweblin, from Argentina; Los peligros de fumar en la cama, by Mariana Enríquez, from Argentina; Casas vacías, by Brenda Navarro, from Mexico; Temporada de huracanes, by Fernanda Melchor, also from Mexico; El sentido del tacto, by Alejandra Costamagna (who, incidentally, was in Iowa), from Chile; Cómo mate a mi padre, by Sara Jaramillo Klinkert, from Colombia; Aguas de estuario, by Velia Vidal, from Colombia; Esta herida llena de peces, by Lorena Salazar Lasso, from Colombia…
Q 3: What about the north/south axis in the Americas?
PQ: As you can see from my previous answers, it is the whole thing. North American literature is especially important to me. Hemingway, Faulkner, Highsmith, and Munro are great influences.
Q 1: What gratifying or hopeful developments in social life or politics have you seen in Colombia in the last decade?
PQ: This is such a difficult question to answer. There was a peace process. The guerrilla and the government signed a peace agreement. That brought hope. Many guerrillas surrendered their weapons and joined civilian life. Then came a new government from the right that, literally, promised “to tear the peace agreement apart”. They are delivering. They have not met the agreed-upon points. Ex-guerrillas, signatories of the agreement, are being killed. Civic leaders and human rights defenders are being killed. There are massacres almost every week. There are war outbreaks in certain parts of the country. The future does not look good, not while the right is still in power. I can only hope for international pressure and a change of government.
[...] On the other hand], despite a few incidents of xenophobia from individuals, Colombia in general, its policies, and its people, have shown solidarity towards the many Venezuelans arriving, living in, or passing through our country. It is the least we can do.
Q 2: Describe your utopia.
PQ: A world where all beings have their basic needs met.
Photo credit: Manuela Uribe
Interviewer: Nataša Ďurovičová