Mariana Enríquez is a novelist, journalist and short-story writer from Argentina. Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell, is her first book to appear in English, published by Portobello Books in 2017. In this series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
People often ask me why I like to write dark fiction. Horror. Weird tales. I don’t think that any writer could give an accurate answer as to why they choose a genre. Writing has many technical aspects – which is why it can be taught and learned – but the literary impulse is fundamentally mysterious. Why write rather than compose music? I like songs more than I do books. Still, I could never write a song. I don’t have that kind of ear. I have an ear for words.
Besides, genre fiction is its own private language. There is something about horror and dark fiction that is familiar and homely, and at the same time, always audacious. It’s with this language that I can explain myself and explain what I worry about. The American writers Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem say in a marvellous story called ‘The Man on the Ceiling’: ‘I write dark fantasy because it helps me see how to live in a world with monsters’. I draw on this statement because it comes close to a possible answer.
Nevertheless, I started writing genre fiction for a technical reason that ended up being deeply literary and personal. My first two novels, written when I was twenty-one and thirty respectively, are dark but (almost) completely realist, influenced by Dennis Cooper, Emily Brontё and Bret Easton Ellis, besides the Argentinian author Roberto Arlt or the novel Sobre héroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs) by Ernesto Sábato. Those early novels had passages and images that showed my taste for the unusual, but it was very diluted. When, after the novels, I tried a supernatural story – this was in 2009 – I hit a wall. I didn’t get it. The story was stupid, the style was flabby and conventional. I was faced with an additional problem, one that I thought was unrelated. I had never written female narrators. Yes, female characters, but never a woman’s voice to carry the story forward. I had never written female narrators. When I did, they seemed too like me. They had my voice. I was never interested in writing autofiction. I don’t want to narrate my life in the first person or identify myself in the text: occasionally I do, in short texts, or in articles, but there’s something forced about it. A while ago, I read an interview with Rachel Cusk, a writer who I like a lot. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, that after certain personal and literary experiences, it had become trivial and somewhat ridiculous to invent ‘the story of B meets C and things happen to them’. How unsophisticated I am; she’s right, I thought. Still, I am faithful to my language, that of genre and imagination. I can’t talk about myself or, rather, I can only speak about myself through others, those who only exist when I give them a voice.
Back in 2009, I set myself a goal: I was going to bring together my two difficulties in order to resolve the problem. I was going to write a genre story – horror, in this case – narrated by a female protagonist. I realised that such a brutal, creative crossroads was better than continuing with failed attempts. The story was called ‘El alijibe’ (‘The Well’), and was about the opening of a dyke. I found a way to speak: the women talked for me, helping to articulate everyday horrors. The forms of madness and self-destruction. The anxiety caused by the endless economic crisis experienced in countries like mine. The ghosts of the dictatorship. The violence against the body. The institutional violence. The hopeless destitution. It is these materials that make up the stories in Things We Lost in the Fire – a book that came like the breaking of a levee, written almost a decade after that first attempt in 2009. In my stories, the horror flows from the real. And the best narrators of that horror are women, young women who often feel monstrous and on the edge, living behind glass that suffocates them and that they cannot break.
Photograph © Richard Williams