Author Interview: Andrew Altschul

Hello readers!

We are just as bummed as you are about all of our author events being cancelled–we know why it was necessary, but it’s okay to be accepting of the necessity and devastated at the cancellations at the same time. We were really looking forward to these events, dangit!

We know that online interviews can’t quite make up for an in-store event, but we’re hoping that they’ll help tide you over until we can reschedule for when we reopen!

Andrew Altschul, one of our very own local authors (and CSU prefessors!) was meant to come to to the store to chat with fellow CSU prof John Calderazzo about his newest novel, The Gringa. Instead, we asked him some questions via email–hopefully we didn’t steal any of John’s interview ideas so he can still use ’em when we reschedule! Here’s the interview:


The Gringa‘s Leonora Gelb is inspired by a real person, Lori Berenson.
What were the challenges inherent in writing a story inspired by relatively
recent real events? What was easy about it?

There was nothing easy about it, because of both the gaping holes in the Berenson story and the ethical issues involved in fictionalizing history. The competing stories about what Lori Berenson did in Peru in 1995 – on the one hand, that she was a “terrorist mastermind,” according to the government, and on the other hand her claim that she was entirely innocent, had no idea there were militants living in her house, was only a journalist who got framed – both seem totally implausible to me. And yet there’s never really been a reliable account of what actually happened. So in writing The Gringa I had to come up with an alternate history that felt both true to the characters I created and plausible in the context of Peruvian history and culture. And that’s where the ethical challenges came in, because I was conscious all along that I was playing with real people’s lives and histories and tragedies – not only Berenson, who certainly suffered a great deal, whatever her faults, but more importantly the people of Peru, who lived through a twelve-year dirty war that claimed 70,000 lives and are still, to this day, trying to move past that national trauma. I had to find a way to both honor that trauma and contend with its complexities and ambiguities, the infinitely conflicting stories about the war that Peruvians tell, while still telling the kind of satisfying story that readers of novels demand. I’m still not sure I pulled it off.

One of the central issues of the book is the blurred line between
terrorism and revolution. What was it like to work in that grey space? Was
it difficult to find the balance?

That was considerably easier, if only because I eventually came to understand that the “grey space” is the only space there is. That is, “terrorism,” as so many Americans have come to see over the last 19 years, is in the eye of the beholder: George Washington was a terrorist… to King George; Nelson Mandela was a terrorist… to the South African apartheid government. To their supporters, of course, they were freedom fighters, revolutionaries, the Fathers of their countries – the fact that they won enables us to look back and scrub the stain from their reputations. It makes it hard to understand what they looked like to the entrenched powers they fought. But terrorists are everywhere – people hijacking planes into skyscrapers, world powers bombing civilians and threatening to destroy cultural institutions, separatists fighting for autonomy for their people – and every single one of them sees themselves as morally justified or even obligated to fight for their cause. What I tried to do in The Gringa is show it from both sides, to immerse the reader in a revolutionary context where they might simultaneously understand why violent struggle might have seemed to some like the only way to achieve justice and the gruesome and morally indefensible results that such struggle can bring about.

In The Gringa, we see Leonora through the eyes of Andres, who is
reconstructing her story. How did the different viewpoints change the story
as you were writing it, if they did at all?

It took me eight years to write The Gringa, and one of the main things slowing me down was that I couldn’t find the right perspective through which to tell it. I was never interested in centering Leonora’s experience above all others, or trying to write an authoritative account – the war and its aftermath were far too multifaceted and confused for that. And it was equally clear to me that I had no business, as a white, male, American writer, trying to approach the story from a Peruvian perspective or making any claims to a thorough understanding of that perspective. There are limits to empathy, and long before I knew the term “cultural appropriation” I knew that I had to step very carefully with this novel to avoid co-opting stories that don’t belong to me.

There were many times when I almost set the novel aside, as I couldn’t find a perspective that felt responsible and true to these issues. Then, a journalist friend pointed out a rough parallel between me and Berenson: we were both outsiders involving ourselves in other people’s stories, thrashing around without sufficient understanding of what we’d gotten ourselves into. That was interesting to me. After chewing on it for some time, I hit upon the narrator, Andres – who bears some resemblance to me and my own time in Peru. He knows that he’s the worst possible person to tell this story, that he’s professionally and morally unqualified – and yet the story has chosen him, and he struggles throughout the novel to find a way to tell it that does justice to all the people whose stakes in the story are much greater than his own.

What is your favorite thing about writing unreliable narrators?

This goes to something I think about, and talk to my students about, all the time: the question of what we mean when we describe fiction as “realistic.” Conventionally, realist writing convinces us of its authority through a limited bag of tricks: verisimilitude of sensory details, plausible psychology, and especially a consistent point of view through which readers are convinced of the fictional world’s veracity. A realist narrator is infallible – they tell us what to believe and we don’t question it. And I’ve always mistrusted this.

I’ve always wondered whether that kind of authority actually exists in the real world – and, if not, why we think of it as “realistic” in fiction rather than as the blatant fraud that it clearly is. In real life, no one is infallible, no one is completely reliable. Every time we are told a story in real life we have to consider the teller’s motives and biases, her limitations of perspective, how her narrative might fit – or not – with other versions of the same story. If we don’t do that, if we simply submit to another’s worldview, we’ve surrendered to a kind of totalitarianism, made ourselves marks for the manipulations of charlatans and dictators. And so the reason so many of my narrators are unreliable is that I just can’t seem to make myself write a reliable narrator whom I would trust. I can’t ask my readers to submit to passivity. I just don’t believe there’s any such thing as a reliable narrator.

What drew you to writing this story, from this perspective?

I lived in Peru for a couple of years in the late 1990s, and have gone back many times since for extended visits. They were some of the most important years of my life – I was in my late 20s, my writing career wasn’t going anywhere, it was the Clinton impeachment era and I was disgusted with America – and yet I look back now and understand the questionable ethics of a privileged American kid using another country as the backdrop for his “reinvention” or “self-discovery.”

I’ve thought a lot about that over the past twenty years, and wondered if there was some way I could give something back to that country, which gave me so much. I had paid attention to the Berenson case – it was regularly in the Peruvian press, even years after her conviction – but it wasn’t until she was paroled in 2010 that I thought about writing the novel. I think maybe at an instinctive level I sensed that parallel that I mentioned earlier: she and I both “meant well,” whatever that means, but because of the limits of our experience and perspective our presence in Peru was, at a moral level, ambivalent at best, even harmful. I wanted to explore that, both as a way of understanding how someone like Berenson might have ended up where she did, and as a way of exposing that widespread American attitude – the ways that we unthinkingly use other countries and other cultures for our own purposes, whether it’s a selfish expat who just wants to go dancing every night, or the C.I.A. abetting coups to install leaders friendlier to the U.S. and its business interests. It’s all part of the same arrogance, and I’ve been just as guilty of it as anybody.

You’re a local for us, teaching at CSU! What’s your favorite thing about
Fort Collins?

My wife and I moved here from San Francisco in 2015, three months after our son was born. We’d been sick of the Bay Area for a while – the artist-friendly city we lived in for 15 years has virtually disappeared. And we were ready for a smaller place, a quieter way of life, without giving up all of the pleasures of big- city culture. So for us, Fort Collins turned out to be the perfect sweet spot: it’s got plenty of what we need in terms of artists, theater, music, good food, without ever feeling overcrowded or overwhelming. And while we were never super outdoorsy people back in San Francisco, we’re slowly learning to enjoy how much Colorado has to offer on that score. Plus: the beer!

What is the best piece of advice you can give to aspiring writers? What
do you hope your students–and anyone interested in writing–can take
away from your book and your teaching?

The single most important thing an aspiring writer can do is read. I’m always shocked when I talk to students who say they want to be writers and I ask what they’re reading and they don’t really have an answer. It’s harder now, with social media and prestige TV, not to mention the constant yammer of “breaking news,” but there have always been distractions and the simple truth is that there has never been a successful writer who isn’t constantly reading literature. It just can’t be done.

So get offline, turn off the TV, and read. Read contemporary writers, read the classics, read poetry, read criticism and theory, read short stories and plays and lyric essays… just read! As far as what anyone could take away from The Gringa, I wouldn’t presume to use it as any kind of model for good writing. I’d only say that it took me eight years to write it – twice as long as any other book I’ve written – and that I often thought I would never finish it, or never sell it. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, every single day I worked on it. And if that kind of effort and uncertainty isn’t something you can tolerate in your life, then maybe writing isn’t the career for you. There’s no shame in that.

What author, alive or dead, would you most want to have dinner with?

I have dinner with writers all the time, and I can tell you they are no better or worse company than other people! Mostly we just gossip, or complain about not having enough time to write, or about the latest slight to our egos. So I hesitate to name my “favorite” writer here, for fear he’d turn out to be a bore. But I will say that I wish I’d had a chance to meet Vladimir Nabokov – and not only to thank him for all the tricks and techniques I’ve ripped off from him over the years. But Nabokov had a colossal wit, and an incorrigibly playful way of seeing the world and seeing narrative – which to him were synonymous. He was droll, sophisticated, sometimes childlike, often raunchy, and always brilliant. Throwing back a couple of bottles of wine with him would probably rank with the most memorable dinners of my life!

Thank you so much, Andrew! We are excited to meet you in person once we’re open and allowed to have events again!


You can order The Gringa on our website, or call the store between 10 and 2 to have us ship it to you!

Happy reading!


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