Freedom & Memory
Richard Marshall interviews Spanish novelist, screenwriter & film director Ray Loriga.
RL: I’m a writer. I started writing when I was pretty young. When I was 18 I was publishing in underground magazines in Madrid. It was a very exciting time in Madrid, what we call la movida, with Pedro Almodovar and others. When Franco died there was suddenly an explosion of artistic activity. After 40 years of not being able to do much everybody was doing something. It was a very fun time to be in Madrid, a good city to be in. So I started writing in underground magazines, and then I got a job writing book reviews for a newspaper. At the same time I was already trying to do my first novel. I published it when I was 23.
3:AM: You’ve always thought you would be a writer?
RL: Yes, since I was 13 or something. When I was at school I hated it; it was like jail time. I couldn’t take it. I started reading books when I was at school. They were like windows through which I looked outside of this boring life I was having at school. So from then on I decided that that was what I wanted to do. I had this love for literature.
3:AM: What were you reading?
RL: Actually I was reading the books I was given at school. From Don Quixote to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Santa Teresa de Avila, Calderon, Lope de Vega. Even those books that most people at school were saying were boring and no one was reading, I thought were fantastic. So I got hooked by those compulsory readings they gave you at school.
3:AM: And did your family support you?
RL: Yes. My father is an artist; a cartoonist and in my house there were a lot of books already so people were fond of books. But I left my house when I was 17 and I started working on different jobs, the jobs you do when you are a kid just because I didn’t want to go to university or anything. I just wanted to be a writer. I was dreaming of the Kerouac thing and Bukowski: you didn’t need to go anywhere to be a writer, you just had to be there and read and live so that was my plan. Funnily enough, it worked out pretty well. I published my first book when I was 23 and then I just kept going.
3:AM: Were you part of a group when in Madrid?
RL: Yes. We had a magazine that was very interesting. Everyone was working for free, it was a work of love. It was a beautiful underground magazine, really well done. We had a photographer called Alberto Garcia-Alix who is one of the best Spanish photographers who was the captain of the boat. So we were a bunch of people of different ages and I was one of the youngest there. Almadovar was around, there were a lot of people involved.
3:AM: You knew Almadovar from the beginning then?
RL: I knew him a little but we weren’t really friends then because he wasn’t part of the magazine. But he was connected with some of the people who were part of this movement. I then met Almadovar later on when he wanted to buy the rights to My Brother’s Gun, the first book I published here in England. Finally I got another offer to write the film and direct the film myself, so I did it. But I ended up writing a film with Almadovar because he offered me to co-write the screenplay Live Flesh. We’ve been friends since. That was the film in between The Flower Of My Secret and All About My Mother. Three films ago. I don’t know how many years.
3:AM: Which do you prefer: working in film or writing?
RL: I love them both. It’s like ‘do you love your father or your mother?’ I like them both and actually one feeds the other. When I’ve finished a novel I feel that I need to get back to writing screenplays. It’s hard for me to finish a novel and start a new one straight away because normally one contaminates the other one and I start writing the same idea again from the previous one. I don’t want to be doing nothing. I like to work. So whenever I finish a novel I already have ideas for a screenplay in my mind and I want to do that. And the other way round. Whenever I finish a film I’m tired of the whole process, of talking to so many people and dealing with so many things and all the phone conversations so I look forward to locking myself in my room again and try to come up with a novel.
3:AM: How do you write? Do you knock them out in a couple of weeks or is it a slow process?
RL: Well, everyone has their own rhythm in a way. I try not to sit down until I know exactly what I am going to do. I’ve been doing this for some years now and if I don’t I end up doing nothing, just waiting for something to happen. So I spend time taking notes, I read, I walk around, I try to be in motion and I try to think about what I’m going to do. When I think I have something, I sit down and put it down. Then I get up again and think a little more. I try to work every day. It takes me six or seven hours to convince myself that I am a writer and actually one hour to write something. In a way it works that way. I spend most of the day trying to get into the mood of writing something that I think is going to be good enough, and then I actually sit down and write for two hours.
3:AM: Your books are very cosmopolitan. Is that because you are well-travelled?
RL: Yes. Having the money and the possibility. Not having a job that keeps you somewhere helps. That, of course, is a great luxury. I travel a lot because of my work: I get my book published in different countries so I have to go but I also travel because I like to travel. Funnily enough, not all my books reflect this. My second novel is about a man who is stuck in a room and doesn’t go anywhere. So I have it both ways. But the last two novels, Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore and the one after that, are both set in many different places. Maybe because my life is like that. In a way, they reflect me. Not only because I travel but also because the way the character in Tokyo travels. Not going anywhere specifically, not looking for anything, just enjoying the airports and hotel rooms and discovering places without connections, without memories. I like that. I love it. I have the feeling whenever I am in my house that everything I am is there — my past, my future. I have photos, I have papers and those things get into my mind so I cannot think properly. Whenever I jump on a plane I have the feeling that my brain is beginning to work again because I’m free of myself in a way, free of all those things I cannot connect with the past.
3:AM: Is this what you’re writing about, in one way pointing to the self but at the same time getting away from yourself?
RL: Yes in a way. I don’t know what the deal is. I guess at some point it’s something that you do. Like, if you’re a boxer you go on boxing. And as I was saying before, at some point in my life I decided I wanted to be a writer and I don’t see a way to stop it now. I don’t even think about it, about why I do it or is this fun or not. The craft of course is what’s important to me. If I go to a funeral, I’m thinking ‘This would make a good scene’ but that’s another thing with writers. They’re not people that can be trusted. We’re looking at a car accident and where other people are thinking ‘It’s horrible’ or ‘Let’s help’, you’re thinking ‘Oh I like this for a scene where I could do this or that’. We’re kind of like observers, always looking at things and trying to get some profit out of accidents and everything.
3:AM: Do you find different places respond differently to your work?
RL: Oh yes, you find there are little differences between places. Like for example, this book has had a pretty big reaction for some reason in Germany. Now that’s a country that really needs to forget. So whenever I was doing the readings there were these people dreaming with the idea. In other countries, Spain for example, the reaction was that these people were so sad, these are people without memories. For them it’s the worse thing that can happen to somebody. Whereas in Germany it’s something they dream of, it’s a freedom. I had a guy come up to me and he said it would be fantastic if just for a day people would forget that he was German. It’s a country with such a heavy history and they have such a burden of memories. So you do get different reactions from people in different places, yes. Although I think this book is being well reviewed all over because it tackles a subject that everyone is involved in. Memory is such a big deal for all of us. It has to do with everything. It has to do with relationships, it has to do with love, friendship, hope. With dreams, our history, it’s in every context. Look at the world now — we’re fighting a war which started thousands of years before, and people are still remembering things that happened in the past and acting according to past events.
3:AM: So is this a political novel really?
RL: Well I think it is. Most people only get the idea that this is a personal issue, it’s about a guy who is trying to forget a love story or whatever and you see all these people trying to forget all these things. But when I was writing it I was thinking it was about bigger things too. I mean, I was talking about the relationship between memory and freedom. How free can you be if you are what you are? You cannot be something else just out of the blue. You have to keep being what you were. So that affects everything. For example, it’s a big issue in religion. I’m a Catholic so we’re born with sin and original sin and that’s all about memory. It’s the same thing for Jews and Muslims. We have to carry on with traditions and carry on with faiths that are not ours in a way. They are something that passes on from generation to generation to generation. So in a way trying to forget, or the possibility of forgetting things in order to make us free again, is the idea of reinventing yourself and offers society and politically the same promise. So yes I would like to think the book has a little light that illuminates some other issues.
3:AM: Is this a very European perspective?
RL: I think it is actually. The book starts in Arizona. I think it’s pretty clear that this guy is European right from the beginning. Probably one of the conflicts I have with living in America is that we Europeans are so divided amongst ourselves, but we have so much in common — a common history and a heavy past that we carry, and at some point you feel we look back more than we look forwards. Whereas in America it’s the other way around. It doesn’t mean whatever they’re saying or whatever they’re seeing is better than what we’re doing. It’s not a good thing in itself. But it’s true: Americans are more like little kids in a way, they predict themselves in the future. We’re the old people now. So I would say it’s basically a very European book in that sense. I mean, I consider myself a Catholic but I don’t go to church or anything. I wanted to be an agnostic. I tried as hard as I could but I cannot get rid of it. At some point I decided instead of getting rid of it I should try to deal with it. I was raised as a Catholic and it’s in my bones, it’s in my blood. So I felt part of it. I don’t believe in religion, I don’t respect it, I don’t even respect the Pope or anything — this one or any of them. It’s hard to respect any Pope! But I assume that is part of what I am, who I am. I used to hate it. Now I think it’s good. It’s especially good for a writer, it gives you subjects in your mind that are always there. It’s terrific to deal with that.
3:AM: Sex. Sin. Death.
RL: I always think it’s funny to talk about death although it’s not funny to die of course. I was looking the other day at this new pack of cigarettes they make with ‘Smoking Kills’ and I want to make one with the slogan ‘People Who Don’t Smoke Die Too’. People who don’t smoke are not going to live forever. I don’t see the point of it. I’m told that smoking can take away ten years of your life but those are the worse ten years, stuck in a wheelchair, all alone, not being able to talk, losing your sight — so who cares? I think about death as something you just assume is there because there’s no way round it. It’s no big deal. It’s so random and accidental. It could happen at any moment. I think if you assume that death could come along at any point means that you appreciate more what you are doing at the present moment.
3:AM: Have you changed as a writer over the years?
RL: Yes, I hope so. It would be terrible to be the same writer that I was fifteen years ago. Things happen, the things you see and basically the things you read are the things that shape you as a writer. Whenever I start again I always think I’m going to be a different kind of writer from the writer I was, and I don’t even know what that is. One of the best things about being a writer is that it’s a profession that keeps changing as much as you can change. It’s an interesting prospect to see what kind of writer you can be. I don’t know what kind of thing I’ll be doing ten or twenty years from now. Some writers, and some writers I love — Bukowski for example — they don’t change, they keep writing the same thing over and over and over in a fascinating way. I thought I was going to be one of those but then I found myself doing a whole lot of different things.
3:AM: Where did the Tokyo book come from?
RL: It started with an interesting memory itself, what it is, how it forms, why we remember some things and forget others. I’m an epileptic and I think that started the whole thing. Most of the experiences, the painful experiences I talk about in the book, are real. After having a lot of epileptic episodes I’m having lots of memory blackouts and not being able to talk sometimes I’ve seen how fascinating the whole process is. Suddenly all your memories come back. So I started doing some research, reading neurological books on treatments and stuff and I found it fascinating and full of poetic possibilities. And it has a lot to do with literature itself. Literature is about memory, you have to remember things, even things you invented, in order to write. So I started from memory itself. Then I thought of this character just wandering around and I thought of the opposition between freedom and memory.
3:AM: Will it be made into a film?
RL: Some German took an option on it some years ago but then the bottom fell out of the market in Germany and nothing came of it. I put no hopes in that. I don’t think about it. I got into film through Almodovar. He called me in to write Live Flesh with him. I always wanted to get involved in film. I’m writing a screenplay at the moment and I’ve finished another. I’m getting a lot of offers as a screenplay writer but I would like to direct again. I love working with actors. That’s the best thing about directing. There are two things I like about working in film, working with actors and the visuals. I love creating images. It’s something of a dream for a writer to do something that has no words in it. Shooting images is a beautiful thing to do. I admire so many people, from David Lean to David Lynch, everything in between! I love Scorsese. Murnau. So many. I take so much from them, even as a writer. So in a novel like this one there’s a lot from film: for example, the use of random images, bits of things being connected without the use of a narrative, so I use film not just in my own film work but also in my novels. I have always loved films. When I was young I’d spend all day at the movie theatre. I have a huge collection of videos and DVDs and I go looking for films when I’m in Japan. I love filmmaking.
3:AM: So what future projects have you lined up?
RL: Well I’ve just finished a screenplay which they’re just shooting now in Madrid. Carlos Saura. He’s quite old now. He was married to Geraldine Chaplin for a while. He’s one of Spain’s great directors. After that I have a movie I want to do with Penelope Cruz, I’m writing the screenplay now. Penelope likes it a lot so we’re going to do that together. I have a book that I’ve been trying to finish for three years now and it gets harder and harder and harder. They’re stories form New York City called The Man Who Invented Manhattan which is all about interconnected stories trying to paint a landscape of New York City. I’ve been living there for the last four years.
3:AM: How has 9/11 changed things for you?
RL: I was there and it was scary and I have a little kid so it was worse. Since then there’s been a paranoia about Anthrax attacks and so on. They have orange days and red days for different levels of threats so whenever the CIA think there is a threat they raise the level, so one day you’re on orange which is bad enough and then the next it’s red. You’re buying gas masks and being told not to use the subway. It’s pretty scary. And the whole political reaction against what happened afterwards in the war against Iraq and those unexplained wars. It’s been a hard time not just in New York but everywhere. Funnily enough, New York, London and Madrid are the three legs of this new army that is trying to save the world and those are my three cities. I get a lot of comments from all sides because it makes sense that America is doing what it is doing. It’s cruel and unfair but it makes sense. If you think throughout history, any Empire that is attacked will just put its army on the streets and wipe out the enemy motherfuckers! That’s what the Roman Empire would have done, the Spanish empire. No Empire can survive without being aggressive, especially when it’s been hurt and hurt badly. Saying that gets me a lot of criticism though from left-wingers. They say I should be saying they are the devil and maybe they are. But any empire is the devil. In order to survive we have to do nasty things. That’s not to say that I like them, I totally regret what’s going on, I totally hate it, and I try not to be cynical abut it, but it is logical, it does make sense historically. It would be nice if it was the other way round, that people could, once they’ve been hurt, understand the reason why they’ve been hurt and try to undo things that we’ve been doing. And it’s not just Americans. That’s another thing. Americans are fighting a war we started with colonialism. All those things we did — England, Spain, France — we played a big part. We’re all part of the same deal here.
3:AM: Have you ever thought you might write about this stuff?
RL: I don’t know. I don’t see myself writing directly about it but maybe finding a way of talking about it without talking about it. Whenever you find the right metaphor for something I think you’re on the right track. I’m not the sort of writer who’ll write an essay about this but maybe I’ll write a story about a fight in a swimming pool that’s a reflection of these issues. It’ll be more like that if I do. I was asked to write about what was going on in New York City for a Spanish newspaper and I couldn’t write a word because I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. That’s another thing. We’re supposed to talk about things without information. We don’t really have the information. What we have is whatever they want to feed us. Look at the media. Most of it isn’t true. So without knowing things it’s hard to talk about it.
3:AM: Do you find yourself more or less European now?
RL: Funnily enough, I find myself more and more European. Being from Spain I always thought we were so different, the English, the French and whatever. Then you go to the United States and Europe becomes a bond. There’s a huge difference between us and the USA. Our approach to things and the rhythm of our lives are so similar and then you go to the United States and it’s like another planet. Some things are so hard to understand.
3:AM: But you like it?
RL: Oh yes, I like it. There are so many things I don’t like about America but then there are so many things I don’t like about Spain and there are so many things I don’t like about myself.
3:AM: Do you have connections with the Spanish-speaking community in New York.
RL: Not in New York. I’ve travelled to South America a lot and I have friends who are South American writers and so on. But I feel more at home in Munich than in Buenos Aires. We Europeans have ways which I think of as being home. South America is such a different world. They speak my language but in a way that just helps me to understand better just how different they are.
RL: Tokyo is very strange. Actually the title of the novel was taken from my feelings I had when I was there, that you are both there and not there at the same time. It’s like you’re looking at the city from behind glass. It’s so different from what I am used to and the people there are so closed to foreigners. They walk past you. I always had a fascination with Japanese culture — film makers, writers, everything. I went there with an eagerness to learn about it and came back with the feeling that I hadn’t been there at all! But I was fascinated by the fact that the city was such a difficult place to connect with. That’s where the title came from. Those feelings.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Ray Loriga is an author, screenwriter, and director. His first novel, Lo Peor de todo (The Worst Thing of All), was published to great acclaim all over Europe, and his second, Héroes, confirmed his status as a cult literary figure. My Brother’s Gun and Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore are both published by Canongate.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 7th, 2004.