Welcome to the first, of what we hope will be many, Virtual Book Tour interviews on Dead Darlings! We’re excited to introduce you to author Andrew Altschul, who worked on his novel, The Gringa (Melville House, 2020) for eight years before it was published…the day the pandemic was declared.
The Times of London calls The Gringa “beautifully executed… gripping… a multi-layered, immersive novel in which the atmosphere and history of Peru leap off the page.”
What is your book about?
The Gringa was inspired by the real-life story of Lori Berenson, an American woman arrested in Lima, Peru, in 1995, and sentenced to life in prison for collaboration with terrorists. The novel follows the case of Leonora Gelb, an activist and Stanford graduate, who gets mixed up with a militant leftist group in the years after Peru’s dirty war against the Shining Path. After her friend is disappeared and murdered by government forces, she and a cell of militants hole up in a house in a wealthy Lima neighborhood and plot a decisive act of protest.
The novel is narrated ten years later by Andres, an expat, failed novelist, and “refugee from George W. Bush’s America,” who is hired by a website to profile Leonora on the occasion of her parole. Admittedly unqualified to tell this complicated story, Andres struggles to understand the historical and political context for Leonora’s actions, to interpret Peru’s violent conflict through the lens of America’s post-9/11 political landscape, and to come to terms with his own ambivalence about resistance, protest, and violence. And the trouble he has in telling Leonora’s story leads him to ask complicated questions about representation, identity, and the rights of artists (or anyone) to speak for the Other.
Can you tell us about your path to publication?
The novel was turned down by over twenty editors before Melville House acquired it a year ago. For sure, many editors just felt it wasn’t right for their lists, but many were put off by the novel’s explicit politics and the depths at which it investigates these complicated matters of oppression, poverty, and life-or-death conflicts in foreign countries. Many felt that it should be a more traditional “coming of age” story that focused almost exclusively on Leonora’s “emotional journey” and “inner life.” I found these suggestions to be offensive, not to mention disrespectful of the 70,000 people who lost their lives in Peru’s conflict. What does one American woman’s “inner life” really mean, in that context?
Luckily for me, an editor at Melville House saw things the same way I did. If anything, he wanted me to delve further into the politics and the history, for which I give him enormous credit. What we both felt was that there’s a complicated tension between telling “good stories” – ie. shaping material into the compelling and satisfying form of a novel – and telling “true stories,” which in real life often have no shape, no themes, no closure. We worked hard to put out a book that could do both.
Where were you when you heard your book tour and/or launch party was cancelled and what did you do?
I had five events set up during the week after publication, and I left Denver on a red-eye on the night of March 10. My reading on March 11, at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, was not cancelled – though very few people showed up – but as I travelled from city to city for the next four readings I would get notified almost as soon as I arrived that the event was cancelled: Worcester, MA; Providence, RI; New York City; San Francisco… one by one, they went down. And readings for later this month in Seattle, California, and Colorado have also fallen.
I spent several days as a kind of literary nomad, sleeping in four different beds in five nights, spending the days frantically trying to shore up the book through online events, social media posts, etc. I arrived in New York on Saturday, totally exhausted and discouraged, and when I learned that my 3/17 event at McNally Jackson had been cancelled I headed for LaGuardia and grabbed the next flight home. As Bob Dylan sang in “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues”: “I do believe that I’ve had enough!”
Are you and your publisher doing anything special/ different, instead of a book tour, to promote your novel?
On Friday, March 13, the owners of TwentyStories Bookstore in Providence, RI, held an Instagram Live event, in which I read from THE GRINGA and talked about it with the poet Darcie Dennigan. This seemed like a successful alternative – something like 120 people attended – and my publicist and I are exploring the possibility of setting up such virtual events with other bookstores that have closed to the public.
On a lighter note, do you have any quirky writing rituals?
I have a “magic coffee mug,” without which I’m quite sure I could never write another word. Also, I find that saying, “Daddy’s writing now…” to my four-year-old every ten minutes or so really gets the juices flowing.
What was the toughest cut you had to make from your novel, your favorite Dead Darling?
My narrator, Andres, gets really obsessed with the similarities between the Peruvian government’s draconian counterterrorism actions during the Dirty War and the U.S.’s post-9/11 behavior (PATRIOT Act, Iraq invasion, Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses, Guantánamo Bay, etc.). He goes off on a number of rants about what he sees as America’s betrayal of its principles – and of course a number of these had to be cut, though I stand by every (unpublished) word of them!
Where can we buy your book?