ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you've ever dreamed of living the writer's life, you're going to be jealous of Daniel Alarcon. Critics who reviewed his debut novel refer to authors such as Steinbeck and Marquez. He's won tons of prestigious literary awards, and he's still in his 30s. Alarcon's latest book takes place in an unnamed Latin American country scarred by war. It's called "At Night We Walk in Circles" and follows a young actor cast in a provocative play called "The Idiot President." Daniel Alarcon, welcome to the program.
DANIEL ALARCON: Thank you. It's good to be here.
RATH: I'd like to start by asking you to read a passage from your book. Could you read the opening paragraph?
(Reading) During the war, which Nelson's father called the anxious years, a few radical students at the conservatory founded a theater company. They read the French surrealists and improvised adaptations of Quechua myths. They smoked cheap tobacco and sang protest songs with vulgar lyrics. They laughed in public as if it were a political act, baring their teeth and frightening children.
Their ranks were drawn, broadly speaking, from the following overlapping circles of youth: the long hairs, the working class, the sex-crazed, the posers, the provincials, the alcoholics, the emotionally needy, the rabble rousers, the opportunists, the punks, the hangers-on, the obsessed.
Nelson was just a boy then, moody, thoughtful, growing up in a suburb of the capital with his head bent over a book. He was secretly in love with a slight, brown-haired girl from school with whom he'd exchanged actual words on only a handful of occasions. At night, Nelson imagined the dialogues they would have one day, he and this waifish, perfectly ordinary girl whom he loved. Sometimes, he would act these out for his brother, Francisco. Neither had ever been to the theater.
RATH: So without giving away any detailed plot points, could you describe the central character, Nelson - he's an actor - and this theater troupe that he joins?
ALARCON: Nelson is a - kind of a bookish young man growing up in a war-torn country. He's - decides at a very young age he wants to be a playwright, wants to be a storyteller and sort of pursues that dream. I shouldn't say - he doesn't pursue it with much diligence, in a sense that his dream is in some ways based on this fantasy and this notion that he's going to one day leave for the United States because his older brother has already moved to the United States. And there's this idea that this visa is dangling before him and it's going to sort of save him from making any tough decisions about adulthood.
And he sort of gets stuck in that space and eventually stumbles into this opportunity to join the theater troupe of his hero, a man named Henry Nunez.
RATH: What's "The Idiot President" about, the play that you had them do?
ALARCON: Well, "The Idiot President" is based on a play by a friend of mine named Walter Ventocia. He gave me the script, probably in 1999 or around then, and I adapted it and changed it. Basically, the president is joined by his idiot son and then a servant. And the premise of the play is that every citizen in the country is afforded the privilege of attending to the president each day. And they have to do his chores, they have to, you know, tie his boots, they have to read his correspondence, they have to basically play to his ego, which is enormous. And at the end of each day, the servant is sacrificed, is killed.
RATH: As the book's building to that point, one of the things that's really, I'd have to say, fun about this book - and it's a literary book, so it seems weird to use the word fun, but...
ALARCON: I think you can say fun. You can say fun. Literary books can be fun. I mean, there was a great quote from this writer Mickey Spillane, who said something like, no one ever read a novel to get to the middle. You got to get - you want to get readers to get to the end, right?
ALARCON: I mean, it's got to be fun.
RATH: And - well, you do employ these devices that really drive you along almost like a suspense novel. I mean, it's so hard to put this book down when you get to the last, you know, 50-odd pages.
ALARCON: Good. Good. That's what I want.
RATH: Did you have that kind of concept in mind, that sort of structure in the way that things are slowly revealed and become more intriguing and you're just learning more and more as it goes along?
ALARCON: You know, it's funny, man. I mean, this book was - like, there was nothing about the writing of this book that was fast-paced or dynamic or - this was a terrible, terrible seven years of, you know, creative stasis and dysfunction to get it to be that way. What did happen, however, was there was a couple of questions that kept nagging at me, and I felt a lot of urgency to answer them, the voice of the narrator, the fate of Nelson.
And so if you're bugged by and, you know, made anxious to answer certain questions, then ideally, that anxiety and that tension will create narrative tension.
RATH: You've already had, you know, a very successful, critically acclaimed novel. So what was up with the creative stasis and dysfunction?
ALARCON: Well, I mean, you know, writing a novel is not at all like riding a bike. Writing a novel is like having to redesign a bike based on laws of physics that you don't understand in a new universe, you know? And so having written one novel does nothing for you when you have to write the second one. And in particular, this book, I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be a love story or love stories. I wanted it to be a little bit funnier than my first book, although I don't think that I necessarily succeeded on that.
RATH: Well, there's plenty of dark humor. There's a lot of that.
ALARCON: There's dark humor. That's really the only kind of humor that I can pull off is the dark kind. Yeah, yeah. No - there's some of that.
RATH: You know, the main character we've been talking about, Nelson, he's a young man, he's a young artist who is almost at that stage where he's dreaming the artist life as much as he's trying to live it. And as he goes through this experience of doing a play, he sees, you know, it's safe to say, the more unromantic working side of that. And I'm just wondering how much you were drawing from your own experience, because you had to have been at that stage of dreaming and now you've accomplished, you know, a fair amount with your writing.
ALARCON: You know, there's a line in the book that references Henry's friends, and it says, you know, the painters, photographers, writers, poets, collectively known as artists in the same way that an astronaut is known as such without having ever gone to space, you know? And it's true that there are people who live the idea of being an artist as opposed to the idea of making art. Henry's a snob, Nelson's a snob. You know, to a certain extent, I'm a snob. But I say that with a great deal of reverence for art as a vocation and as a way of life. I mean, I'm genuinely impressed by that way of approaching the world. Sometimes I feel like it's the only sane way to live.
RATH: Daniel, a real pleasure talking with you. Thanks.
ALARCON: Thank you, Arun. It's been really, really fun.
RATH: Daniel Alarcon. His novel "At Night We Walk in Circles" hits shelves this week.