Andrea Yaryura Clark Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Andrea Yaryura Clark

Andrea Yaryura Clark

An interview with Andrea Yaryura Clark

Andrea Yaryura Clark discussed the traumatic background to her debut novel On a Night of a Thousand Stars, set during Argentina's Dirty War of the 1970s.

What kind of research did you do for On a Night of a Thousand Stars, and how long did the process take? What was your most surprising discovery?

My research dates back to when I was living in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s (the same era as Paloma and Franco's story in the novel). It began when a family friend, a human rights lawyer, told me about a group that was meeting weekly, whose members were children of the Disappeared. The children were now young adults, coming of age about twenty years after the 1976 military coup.

These gatherings, held at a Human Rights Center for Families of the Disappeared/Detained for Political Reasons, were under the umbrella of a recently-formed national organization known as HIJOS, which stands for "Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio" (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence). I attended a few HIJOS meetings and, after gaining their trust, asked certain members of the group if I could document their stories. I initially envisioned making a documentary and filmed several of the subjects, both in interview settings and going about their daily lives. I also wrote a few drafts of creative nonfiction and even took a stab at a screenplay based around these narratives. Although this material never evolved into a viable product, the stories stayed with me. Years later, they would serve as the inspiration for the novel.

The book in its current form took about seven years to write. Originally, it focused more on Paloma's journey, but after some excellent feedback, I realized I needed to spend more time with Valentina and Santiago in the 1970s. Before delving deeply into their story, I did more research. Books that were helpful included: Marcelo Larraquy's The 70s, A Violent History; Horacio Verbitsky's The Flight; Uki Goñi's The Real Odessa; Rita Arditti's Searching for Life; Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number; and Never Again, a compilation of survivors' depositions prepared by CONADEP, the Argentine National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. I also studied old issues of popular magazines, newspaper articles, watched movies, and conversed with family and other contacts who lived through those times.

My most surprising discovery during this process was how much I personally began to recall about those years. Childhood memories of daily life in Buenos Aires, including a few encounters with the security forces, came flooding back. I remembered my friend's older sister, a university student, suddenly leaving Buenos Aires one day. I later found out, as an adult, that one of her classmates had disappeared, and that she had left the city fearing she might also be targeted.

On a Night of a Thousand Stars takes place in the context of true events. What license did you give yourself to write imaginatively while re-creating historical persons and events?

I'm not a historian, and the era in which Valentina and Santiago's story unfolds—from Perón's return in 1973 to the beginning of the military dictatorship in 1976—was a particularly bewildering and complex time in Argentina's history. I worked hard to grasp the relevant historical figures and timeline of events. At the same time, this is fiction, so mainly I let my characters guide me through the landscape. Valentina and Santiago appear, at first, to be the architects of their own destinies, but eventually larger forces overtake them.

I was living in Buenos Aires during both periods when the novel takes place: the 1970s and the 1990s. My family left the country in 1975, when I was in middle school, and I returned as a young professional in 1992, making Argentina my home again for another eight years. I remember being surprised by the absence of any talk about the dictatorship among my relatives and friends. Simultaneously, I understood how difficult it might be for a country to confront its troubling past.

Salman Rushdie once wrote, "The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step outside the frame." I would never presume to say I see the whole picture—certainly not a picture as complex as Argentina in this period. That said, I believe that leaving the country as a child gave me a certain distance and perspective that were key to being able to write this novel.

Take us through some of the choices you made while writing in terms of structure, voice, plot, and scene setting.

There were two stories I needed to tell: the experiences of young adults in the years leading up to the dictatorship, and the discovery a daughter makes about her family's past. I wanted to alternate chapters between both timelines, and found that the stories developed at a similar pace, which pleased me enormously. Initially, I wrote Paloma in the third person, but then I tried her in the first person and that's when her voice really came through.

I knew from the beginning how the story would end, as it sadly had to follow the fates of the thousands of Disappeared. The mystery for me, therefore, was in crafting how the characters' journeys would unfold, and learning more about them along the way.

Are there any "behind-the-scenes" details that didn't make it into the book?

Several! I was deeply engaged with all my characters, including the ones who didn't get much space on the page, like Máximo Cassini, Martín Torres, and Soledad Goldberg. For example, in a very early draft, I wrote about Soledad's family's experience when she disappeared and how their neighbors ostracized her (and her parents) when she returned home. I included passages from Professor Torres's memoir about his years in exile in Spain, and I described Máximo's time as a political refugee in France. I also had more detail about Paloma's life as a privileged teenager in New York, and at one point, even Pedro García had a couple of short chapters devoted to him. Even though these pages didn't make it into the final version, writing them further enriched my understanding of these characters. (And some of these tangents have provided ideas for a future book.)

How did you deal with the emotional impact of writing a story that hinges on such a troubling and heartbreaking period in history?

It is difficult knowing that my characters, having only recently embarked on their existence as adults with all their hopes and dreams, would have the course of their lives changed in profound and violent ways. When writing difficult passages, I often found solace in music. I listened to a lot of Argentine artists, everything from tango to folk to rock nacional. Listening to music brought me closer to the places and events I was trying to re-create.

There are also elements of fear and menace in the book, and I felt these emotions at a personal level more than I expected, and more than I ever had before. My family left Argentina several months before the coup. Knowing what I now know, I realize how lucky we were to leave when we did. My father was a prominent psychiatrist and a published author, and intellectuals were viewed with suspicion by the security forces at the time. Although the circumstances of my family's departure were multi-layered, my father had experienced and witnessed enough to know it was a good time to leave the country.

What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?

I don't have any formal creative writing training and am tempted to look up what creative writing professors have to say about this!

As a reader, I consider good writing to be any story that transports me, teaching me something along the way. Complicated ideas, emotions, or story lines that are conveyed simply also qualify as good writing for me.

As a writer, I find that writing from the heart usually gives me rich material to work from. Once I have a rough first draft, it's time to revise. This is where structure, logic, and coherence need to be addressed (and where more new ideas may emerge). Relentlessly trimming the "fat" improves my writing too. If a scene doesn't move the story forward, it needs to go. Finally, I try to pick the best possible words to create simple, clear sentences.

Describe your writing space and take us through your process. Any interesting quirks?

Given how long it took me to write the book, I have had the pleasure of occupying various writing spaces: cafés, the dining room table while the kids are at school, a friend's borrowed cabin in Maine, a hotel room with a desk. Luckily, I can often tune out whatever is going on around me if I'm wearing headphones, listening to music. I love listening to music, especially during the early stages—it feeds my imagination!

We recently moved into a bigger place in Brooklyn and, for the first time, I have my own office. It's a narrow space, but it has a window that looks out onto a ginkgo tree. I usually light a candle and leave my cell phone outside the room. My plants, my books, and my dog keep me company. I prefer writing in the morning. Sometimes I have to trick myself into sitting at my desk. I tell myself all I have to do is write one page, or review only what I wrote the day before. Or, if researching, I have to look up just that one article, or if revising, go through just one edited chapter. Next thing I know, I have been fooled and am immersed in the project once again.

Which books or authors have most influenced your life? Have you ever read something that made you feel or think differently about fiction? Did a particular story or novel influence the way you wrote On a Night of a Thousand Stars?

I'm drawn to books that read as if someone is telling me a story out loud. The writing flows in an uncomplicated, conversational (or confessional!) way. Elena Ferrante, Sigrid Nunez, Kazuo Ishiguro, to name a few.

I equally love reading books so beautifully written that after one or two pages I may pause and meditate on what I just read. Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson and Tracy K. Smith come to mind.

These powerful books have expanded my thinking on fiction: Anna Burns's Milkman, George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo, and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I grew up reading North American authors like S. E. Hinton, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Irving, but I also discovered at a young age in my father's library Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Ernesto Sabato, Julio Cortázar, and Jorge Luis Borges. Reading authors from around the world reminds me time and again how much we have a shared human experience in our joys, suffering, struggles, and love.

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient influenced the way I approached writing a novel with interplay across two different time periods.

What book do you wish everyone would read?

I can't think of just one book—I love and carry many within me!—so here are a few suggestions: Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits and her more recent novel, A Long Petal of the Sea; Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents; Imbolo Mbue's How Beautiful We Were; and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland. Ultimately, I hope young people will, at one point or another, come across a book that ignites a love of reading for the rest of their lives.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your novel?

Readers, even those familiar with the history, will hopefully gain new or further insight into this tragic chapter in Argentina's history. My book is a work of fiction, but it was inspired by real people I have met or read about who suffered unspeakable tragedies at the hands of a cruel regime. I have great admiration for those who survived and for those who seek out truth and a measure of justice. I hope I have honored them through this story.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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