Between form and plot

Every Monday at 7.10 pm, El Punt Avui TV's English Hour airs the interview series Going Native. This week, Neil speaks to the author of Pell d'armadillo and Maletes perdudes, writer Jordi Puntí, who talks about the challenges of writing novels
How does moving around a lot affect your work?
When I change my horizons and my landscape is new, something new comes from it. I have writer friends who need to follow the same rules every day, but that is not my case. I sometimes think this has to do with when I was a child. Both my parents worked in a factory, so when I left school I would go to their factory until they finished work at sevenish. And so I used to do my homework in the factory with all the noise of the textile machines and I learnt to concentrate very easily, so I can write anywhere.
What's it like to break through as a writer?
It happens over time and you realise little by little that it is growing. I feel that every time a new translation comes out, it's an extra life for the novel, that these characters I imagined years ago now have an opportunity to stay alive and entertain and make people think. Every country throws up different kinds of readers. Catalan and Spanish readers share with me a landscape and an understanding of what life is. But in Bulgaria or Australia you realise people read the novel in different ways.
Are there formulas to produce a successful novel?
I never thought about a formula or a secret ingredient. What I was doing when I wrote the book [Lost Luggage] was to find the balance between the form and the story. Usually bestsellers are books heavily based on plot and not so much about form and style. But I consider myself a literary author so it's a challenge to find a style that works with what you want to say. But I am also interested in how plot gets developed, so I will end a chapter with a cliffhanger but try to do it gracefully. With my novel I was trying to do was to appeal to people looking for entertainment, but also to people who want to find philosophical points so they can think about what is happening. Another thing is thinking of what the reader will think. I like to think that it is in its reading that the novel is properly finished.
How do you keep all that in mind while writing?
It's not easy and it takes time. Lost Luggage took me over six years to write, but it requires many different things. First, there is patience. You don't get results immediately so you have to invest a lot of time and energy into it, and at the same time you have to be very self-critical, while relying on the first people who read it and who tell you what works well. I also think it is about pure intuition. There are some skills you can learn and there are many universities teaching writing, but there is a part that has to do with the instinct for telling stories. It's like people who can tell jokes, while others can't.
You have also translated novels. To do that do you have to re-write the book?
I have the biggest respect for translators. As a translator you are very much an author, too. You put things in your own words but you don't imagine, because the story has been given to you. Yet this process is still a very creative process. It is also the best way to read an author, for me. I compare it to having a radio that you dismantle and have to reassemble as a radio again that will function but in your own way.
How defensive do you get when your work's translated?
I try to be very open-minded because I've been a translator. Even if you think you know a lot about another language you don't. The person who is the native speaker knows best. It's probably easier when it is not fiction but when it's fiction you have thought so much about all those sentences that it makes it more difficult to accept.
What about the New York fellowship you recently did?
I'm writing a novel now about the life of a Catalan musician, Xavier Cugat. He was born in 1900 and when he was five he moved with his family to Cuba. In 1915 he travelled to the US, where he eventually started a career as a musician, and he introduced Latin rhythms to the US and became a huge star. So, I applied to this fellowship that gives you an opportunity to work in the New York public library, which of course has everything because it is a large, well-funded institution. I spent a year there doing research and writing, and the good thing is that this fellowship is shared by 15 scholars and writers. Everyone has their own different project but at the same time, as you are sharing the same space, you end up exchanging a experiences, recommendations, advice, all kinds of things.
How far ahead are you with the book?
It's difficult to say. In this case it is not a biography but a novel based on real life, which makes it extra difficult in that you cannot only use your imagination but you have to follow the path of the man's real life, although sometimes you can make excursions and make some things up. When you are working with the story of a real person you have to ask at what point you stop being loyal and start being unfaithful to that life you are portraying.
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