But I didn't know how to write fiction about violence, suffering, injustice, absolute evil, the inevitable political and moral entanglements, didn't really understand my place in all that as a human, never mind as a would-be fiction writer (Me quedaba grande, as they say here in Mexico.) I was obsessed with writers who'd written novels that were also rooted in historical tragedy and violence and that somehow managed to balance light and darkness, the all too real and the mysterious. How did they do that? One of those was Faulkner of course and when reading that he described Caddy from "The Sound and the Fury" as his heart's darling, something clicked. Flor de Mayo Puac was partly born in that moment, but she was still only an idea for a character. In 1986 Morgan Entrekin offered me a modest advance. I escaped to Madrid, worked on my novel every day, failed every day, had stupid fist-fights with Spaniards who thought I was a moro, and a few months later returned to Guatemala having blown my advance, and without a single page of the novel.
One day I said to myself, Okay, this is a ludicrous and complicated story you want to tell, but ludicrous and complicated things happen to people here all the time, and if it had really happened to you, and you absolutely had to tell it to somebody, you'd be able to. And that's how the narrator Roger's voice finally came forward, with him speaking as if to a friend about what had happened to him, and that opening page never changed. Since then, every novel but one has begun with this terrifying process of failing every day that lasts for months and months. I'm convinced that while we are consciously flailing away, trying, say, to find that voice, our subconscious is actually doing the work, laying down a foundation, exploring paths, a sponge absorbing ideas and impulses until it begins to take on the weight of obsession and conviction. Twice, after months of anguished failing, it's been a dream that's finally gotten me rolling. A dream that I was on a freighter at sea with no other person on board gave me the tone I needed for what became "The Ordinary Seaman." I'd done a ton of research for "The Divine Husband," but when I tried to start it nothing came, I gave up, went back to it a few years later and it was the same. At a party in Mexico City I drank a daiquiri made with bad ice, ended up in bed hallucinating with fever, and dreamed a scene of convent servants searching the streets of 19th-century Guatemala City for a suitable Indian to take back to their Mother Superior for her foot washing ritual, and it was only then that the novel finally found a spark of life and lurched forward.