The Twofold Search: An Interview with Javier Sáez de Ibarra

The award-winning short stories of Javier Sáez de Ibarra (Spain, 1961) have established him as one of the more interesting and adventurous writers currently working in the genre, in Spanish or any language. We recently had the pleasure of exchanging emails with him about his philosophy on writing, his involvement in co-curating a series of  Spanish-language story anthologies, and why more writers should be taking cues from the visual arts.

Q: You have published poetry and short story collections. Where did your particular interest in these forms begin?

A: All of my literary work can be traced back to a single fundamental attitude: that of questioning. This interest in the truth dictates its own forms: they may be philosophical or they may be literary. And within these forms there are different “genres.” The decision to use one or another depends on the subject matter and the form that best serves it, or at least the one I feel most capable of using. Once I’ve decided on the genre itself, each story or poem takes on its own peculiarities, shaped by whatever it is I’m investigating and the angle from which I approach it. In other words, each attempt at knowing something involves a determined use of language, structure, and many other factors. On the other hand, there’s also the influence of my frame of mind when I start writing and where it leads me in the process; sometimes this means taking on an attitude that is dramatic or preoccupied, while other times it’s more joyous and playful. Whatever the case, for me creation is a vocation and a source of happiness. I consider myself, above all, a writer; I mostly write short stories, but also novels, poems, aphorisms, essays short and long, and plays. I don’t think my underlying attitude changes at all in any of these genres.

Generally speaking, I’d say that short stories give me the absolute freedom to tackle any specific topic, mainly because of their narrative nature, although experimentation has led me to forms that go beyond narrativity. The poetry I’ve written, on the other hand, is above all a condensation of certain personal experiences and convictions using meditative language.

Q: You’ve also co-compiled (with your wife, Viviana Paletta) twenty short story anthologies in Spain. How did that come about? Most of them are based around specific themes, such as the sea, adultery, or grandparents. How do you choose the themes?

A: Our editor, Juan Casamayor, was starting up his publishing house, Páginas de Espuma, and he pitched us this idea of doing short story anthologies in Spanish. At that time (the first volume appeared in May of 2000), there were no publishers in Spain who focused systematically on this genre. Our goal was to introduce readers to established authors (Borges, García Márquez, Cortázar, Rodoreda, Chacel, Aldecoa, Monterroso, Shua, Pitol, Di Benedetto, Onetti, Arreola, Fernández Cubas…), along with others who were practically unknown back then (Fogwill, Walsh, Samperio, Bianciotti, Anna Lidia Vega, Luisa Valenzuela, Elvio Gandolfo, Piñera, Hipólito Navarro, Castán, Miguel Á. Muñoz, Muñoz Valenzuela, González León, Morábito, Sara Gallardo, Marcelo Cohen). Over the course of the collection, we’ve included over two hundred authors. We thought that the formula of theme-based anthologies would add to the pleasure of reading each story, making for a broader reflection on a given theme and revealing its complexity and richness. The books also included specially commissioned, previously unpublished prologues on each subject, written by one of the participants (José María Merino, Sergio Pitol, Francisco J. Satué, Medardo Fraile, Ana María Shua, Hipólito Navarro, Julio Llamazares, Tununa Mercado, Ruy Sánchez…). Of the themes we picked, some of have been dealt with many times, to the point that they’ve become “classics” in the history of literature: the sea, love, trains, parent-child relationships, animals; while others were chosen more due to coincidences we picked up on in our own reading: medicine and health, adultery, chess, magic, the world of books, cooking, music… In all of these cases, the most important thing was always the quality of the stories, so that readers who picked up one these books (there have been twenty volumes now) would become interested in reading more short stories.

Q: Do you think short stories are in need of more promotion among readers? What do you think about the conventional publishing “wisdom” that short stories don’t sell?

A: It’s true that Spanish readers, in general, are not interested in short stories (or poetry, either) and prefer novels almost exclusively. There are many possible explanations for this. Whatever the case may be, I feel it’s a real loss in terms of the reading experience, the cultural, intellectual, and artistic experience. I think it’s good that supporters of the genre are trying to call attention to it through literary workshops, blogs, studies and debate on the works, and above all, quality writing. I believe this is the path that the short story should take, without worrying too much about how many readers are out there.

So it’s obvious that publishers who put out story collections can’t compare their sales figures with those of novels. Their expectations must necessarily be a bit lower. This means that, as companies, these publishers take bigger risks; to survive and continue publishing short story writers, especially new writers, is a truly a heroic task in some cases.

Q: The stories in Mirar al agua (Watching the Water) are all linked, to some degree, to the visual arts. How do you see these art forms as being related to writing?

A: I think the visual arts are currently experiencing a moment of incredible creativity, brilliance, and boldness. The visual art being made today is the result of a twofold search: a dialogue-discussion with reality and the creative assumption of its own artistic tradition. There is not a single artist, young or old, who has gained at least some recognition and who is not consciously guided by this two-pronged examination in his or her work. For me, these artists are setting an example to be followed by writers; this would save us from two risks: superficiality and the repetition of clichés. In this book you mention, I tried to transplant the ideas behind certain works of visual art into my stories. Some of the stories were tied to the procedures of artists such as Goya or Sean Scully, or they attempted to capture the spirit of styles such surrealism, hyperrealism, or ready-mades. I even ended up exploring the possibility of putting together a story as a self-portrait or questioning the very idea of beauty. I believe that dialogue with other arts and even different disciplines, from philosophy to science, can help writers escape this condition of navel-gazing they’re living in, and result in the creation of more powerful new works.

You can read Javier’s story “The Gift of the Word,” from his collection Watching the Water (2009), in Issue 2 of The Portable Museum.