Monday, October 29, 2007

SPOTLIGHT ON GONZALO BARR

Gonzalo Barr was born in Miami. He says that he learned to speak English by watching television when he was a very young boy. Barr notes that his first English words were, “Please stand by. We are experiencing transmission difficulty.”

In high school, Barr says that he skipped class to read in the school library. He sat at a table where he could see the bay and the sailboats. The librarian knew exactly what he was doing, but never called him on it. He read everything by Camus and Vonnegut, and wrote short stories. Two of his stories were published in the school literary magazine. He also read García Márquez, Borges, and Cortázar.

Barr wistfully notes that college and the years that followed were devoted to getting an education, which left little time for writing, then to learning practical things, like how to earn a living, which sapped all desire to do anything else. Barr earned his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, then spent three years studying medicine at Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra, and eventually earned his law degree from the University of Florida in 1990. He is a litigator with the Miami office of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, an international law firm currently in its 117th year.

But Barr had the spirit of literature burning bright in his soul. He read or re-read classic literature from Homer to Hemingway and wrote his first novel, an unfinished work filling nine notebooks with tiny handwriting. Barr says that everything came together in 2000, when he enrolled in a writing class taught by Leejay Kline. Since then, he has attended the Seaside, Wesleyan, Kenyon, and Bread Loaf writers’ conferences, where he studied under John Dufresne, Christopher Tilghman, and Julia Alvarez. His stories were published in Gulf Stream and The Street Miami. In 2005, he won the Bakeless Prize for Fiction, awarded by Bread Loaf and Middlebury College, for The Last Flight of José Luis Balboa, which was published in 2006 by Mariner Books.

Of his short-story collection, Entertainment Weekly said: "Set in Miami, these nine stories are an entertaining end-of-the-mojito-season read. The first seven tales are amusing enough to tide you over till the last two, more intricate gems, including Gonzalo Barr's title story … about three people whose lives become interconnected, a la director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's films."

Even as he practices law, Barr is working on a novel. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for La Bloga:

DANIEL OLIVAS: You're a lawyer by training and profession. Why did you decide to start writing fiction?

GONZALO BARR: First, thank you for inviting me to La Bloga. Saludos to you and to all your readers. To answer your question: I don't think that writing is a decision. It is a vocation. You are a writer or you are not a writer. If you are a writer, then you have to write. You are constantly making up scenes in your head. You feel an unalloyed joy when you can remake those scenes into living words. And when you can't or you won't, you pay for it in many, subtle ways.

OLIVAS: What do your fellow lawyers think of your "other life" as a writer?

BARR: I was concerned at first. I thought that when the book became public, I would be summoned into a windowless conference room for a meeting with two partners and the department chief, all very Berlin circa 1971 -- a single hooded lamp with a overly bright bulb swinging over my head. But it didn't happen that way at all. My colleagues have been very supportive. Dozens of people from my office in Miami attended the book launch at Books & Books and a good number from our San Francisco office attended my reading at Cody's. I'm very grateful to them for that.

OLIVAS: How important is your Cuban heritage to your fiction?

BARR: You may be surprised to learn that I'm not Cuban. I could be, though. I can talk to you in any number of Cuban accents and probably fool you. But my maternal family lives in Dominican Republic, where they have been living since the first one came over in the late 1600s to drive the French off the western end of the island. My paternal family came from Scotland (therefore my mongrel name) in the late 1800s and settled in Peru. There are four of us living in the U.S. I spent my childhood and early adulthood playing cultural hopscotch. During summer vacations, I visited my grandmother in Dominican Republic. After high school, I left Miami to attend college in New York. Each time I left to live elsewhere, I discovered what I was not. After several absences and lot of nostalgia, I found my cultural center. It is here in Miami. Although we have people from several nationalities, they are colored by the one thing that makes us all from here, even those of us who were originally from somewhere else. That's what is so unique about this city. If you look at the stories in The Last Flight of José Luis Balboa, there are characters from several Latin American countries.

OLIVAS: Did you have any mentors when you first started writing?

BARR: John Cheever wrote that writers largely teach themselves. The same happened to me. For years, I wrote and read books about writing, and wrote some more, all by myself. There were also the novels that changed my life, that made me realize what a writer can do with words. And there was experience too. Experience gives you the raw material that you hone into stories and it gives you the knowledge of how to hone that material. There are no child prodigies in literature. On the other hand, Leejay Kline made it come together in a course that he taught in 2000. Suddenly, those rules I had read, like Show Don't Tell, made sense and I had my first publishable story, which was "Braulio Wants His Car Back." Come to think of it, there are nine stories in the collection and I wrote a first draft of five of them in that class. I don't think we met but six, maybe eight times.

OLIVAS: Are you currently working on another book?

BARR: Yes, I'm writing a novel in which the protagonist is Silvia Duany. She was the young girl in "A Natural History of Love," the longest story in the collection, almost a novella. In the story, she was 16 years old. In the novel, she is 22, has recently completed her first year of law school, is involved with an older man she does not love, reads Montaigne a little too closely, and is seriously examining her life.

OLIVAS: Thank you for spending time with La Bloga…and I’m sorry I assumed you were Cuban!

3 comments:

Lisa Alvarado said...

Great interview, Dan. And I completely relate to the idea of writing as identity. It's more of a case of it choosing you, not you choosing it.


BTW -- you just never know where those attorney/writers will end up, eh? : )

Daniel Olivas said...

Gracias. And yes, those lawyer/writers are sneaking around even here on La Bloga.

Anonymous said...

Nice infos. However, I´d like to add a line to his biography: his dad, Gonzalo Barr senior, was a celebrated singer of the Peruvian music group Los Chalanes back into the late 40`s.
You can hear some of his songs on youtube.