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Jolts: an interview with Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti interviewed by Sylvia Warren.

Fernando Sdrigotti was born in Rosario (Argentina) in 1977. Expelled by the economic crash of 2001, he lived in Dublin and Paris before settling in London in the early noughties. His latest book, Jolts, is published by Influx Press on 30th April.

3:AM: Magazine: Okay, so it’s an obvious question to start with, on legibility. You wrote an essay on this for Numero Cinq in 2014. Some of these stories in Jolts — Only Up Here, for example — are based on short stories you have had published before (for Issue 17 of Open Pen), but you’ve changed the Argentine setting from Buenos Aires to Rosario. Is it that you are more comfortable being illegible? Is it a challenge to the monolingual reader in English to look things up, to expect a level of curiosity? Is it freeing?

FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI: Oh, yes, the Rosario / Buenos Aires thing… well… I don’t think it was a calculated move. I think it all comes from the fact that I have been writing in English for the past ten, twelve years, and I was trying to figure out many things about writing in this other language, about myself as a writer, but also about myself as a person, what I am, how people perceive me. So many of my earlier stories used Buenos Aires as a setting. I guess there was maybe some kind of inferiority complex here, but I didn’t think Rosario would have the same punch, when it comes to synthesizing Argentina, to making myself legible. I already start with a difficult name for an English speaker; do I want to give them a place that might not say much (beyond Guevara or Messi)? Then I started to play with this other possibility — using Rosario as the other place, the place that is not here anymore — round 2015 or 2016, I can’t remember now. But I think, that the change took place quite definitely in 2017, when I wrote the first version of Notes Towards a Return, for Numéro Cinq. I wrote that piece after I returned from a trip to Argentina. It was supposed to be an essay, but I ended up writing something in between fiction and an essay. And that’s when this “confession” (we could call it that) took place. The internal debate about rejecting and embracing what and who I am became explicit in this piece. And it felt great to get this out of me, and embrace it, yes. I don’t believe in writing as a form of therapy but accidentally I ended up accepting a lot of things about myself writing these stories, and then turning them into a book.

3:AM: You came to London before you moved here, right?

FS: Yes, in 1994. I came to London on a holiday with my mum.

3:AM: You said you fell in love with it, hence the block capital LONDON tattoo on your chest, and it was snowing, which, as you know, isn’t usually normal. But the London presented in Jolts is not the same as a holiday. Do you feel disillusioned, making it your home? I’ve visited, and lived there for a summer, and I know it feels different. Talk to me about your London.

FS: IT SNOWS EVERY YEAR! At least once a year, it does! I swear it, I’ve been here 18 years and it has snowed every winter and people always tell me “it doesn’t always snow in London”. Anyway… that London tattoo… fake news… I don’t have any tattoos. But I do love London and if I had to get tattooed LONDON in my chest it’d be in capital letters… The London in which I live is definitely not the same London as when I came on a holiday. And yes, at the beginning I was disillusioned and the plan was always moving to Madrid or going back to Paris (where I had lived before here). But thank god that never happened because I can’t imagine living elsewhere. I need London like a fish needs the water. I know this is likely to enrage many professional London haters but that’s how I feel. I found what I wanted to find in London. People who don’t like London are entitled not to like it. Everyone is entitled to their own mistakes.

3:AM: I know that “writing in English as an Argentine” is a boring question, but there are different rhythms that stick out as a regular reader of translated Latin American short stories…

FS: That’s not a boring question and this self-deprecation is very English. Ha ha. What do you mean by different rhythms?

3:AM: Some of it is the outlook, which is the same (wry, elegant, funny, a different sort of bleak to English-bleak), but for example in Ceci n’est pas un mémoire there’s a sentence where you say “But all this I don’t know yet”. It is a this and a now and I know you’ll understand that – so I suppose this is an editing question. How do you work with your editors to keep in linguistic differences?

FS: By “I know you’ll understand that” you mean that moment when I play with those words, thises and nows? For me that “this” you mention has to do more with the word “esto” in Spanish, it’s a translation of that, more than being a reference to the earlier thises and nows. Does this mean that the this in “but all this I don’t know yet” grammatically wrong? I can’t answer that! But if it is let me know so that I can be a pedant with the editors… to answer the other part of your question, I have always been lucky to work with editors who understand that they won’t be able to make me sound like Thomas de Quincey or Virginia Woolf. There’s an accent to my writing and all the editors I have worked with have understood this and respected it. So I never had any problems, really, with people overediting me, not getting the different rhythms, etc. I think the linguistic difference is there in my writing, always. Even in a book that are very “un-Latin American”, like Shitstorm, or written with other people, as is the case of Grey Tropic.

3:AM: The cigarette question. Everyone smokes a brand. We don’t have tobacco adverts any more, and it manages to feel simultaneously like an anachronism, but also deeply true, and it catches somehow in the writing, like the reader is viewing a scene. And then you reference Warhol in one of the stories, and I was wondering whether it was a similar way of using distinctive brands to set a place or feeling?

FS: Oh, yes, the brands… true, I do that a lot, and not only in JOLTS. I don’t think this ruse serves a narrative intention… well, not beyond adding a bit of alienation to the stories, as in the case of the story in JOLTS that takes place in a supermarket, Methylated Spirits. But mostly, those kinds of details are like a punctum to me. You know, what Barthes in Camera Lucida says about a photography consisting of a studium (what the photography is about) and a punctum (an unexpected detail, in brief). That’s what they are, puncta. Sometimes those details add a bit of realism, a realism of details, that forces you to see those specific details as a reader. Other times they have a baiting effect: what will happen with this detail… and then nothing happens… you know what I mean? I like to have the reader thinking “why is he telling me this?” And then I leave that hanging. It’s nice to betray the reader like that; writing is a teasing game too, not everything can be resolved. Would Ceci n’est pas un mémoire be different if Fred smoked Lucky Strikes? I don’t think so. But the readers need to know that he smoked Marlboro red. What they do with that information when it’s left unresolved in none of my business.

3:AM: This feels like a cruel one to ask, but it’s about what constitutes your hated phrase, ‘auto-fiction’. I’m not going to out you and say that you’ve said that are things are from life, but it’s curious about how fictionalising reality works, and I’d like to know how you reconcile this.

FS: I don’t think the label auto-fiction means anything. Is it fiction written in the first person? Is it fiction that due to its theme is possible? Is it fiction with a considerable level of narcissism, that is not a memoir, I mean? I don’t think there’s much to gain from this label — maybe publishers have something to gain from it — labels are good for marketing purposes — but I don’t have anything to gain from it. I just like to write things in which the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, not only in this book. In some of these stories the “real” element (real in the sense of lived by me, let’s not even go into a debate over what constitutes reality) is just an image I’ve seen, or a phrase I heard, or a situation. In other stories the “real” element (real in the sense I said before) is bigger. Sometimes the “real” as lived is not even referred to me at all! I’ll leave it to the readers, once more, to see what they do with these reals.

3:AM: We’ve touched on this lightly before, but could you talk a little about the use of cameras and film in your fiction? I know you’ve done academic work on film, so how does using them as a plot device and inserting directors into your work in general, or putting yourself in the position of the viewed / watched / looked at work?

FS: In an interview in Spanish a while back — when they asked me about the “cinematic element” in my writing (apparently there’s a “cinematic element” to it) — I got in trouble for saying that film is an aesthetically superior language to literature and that I write books because I can’t be arsed to make films. I’m not going to get in trouble again, suggesting the same here so I’ll just say that I guess it’s a way of paying homage to film. I love film, always did, so the references creep in. At least in the case of The Kid and the Telephone Box, I think that’s the story you are thinking of, that could be the reason for the camera. Maybe I wanted to write a story that somehow paid homage to an Antonioni film — there’s something about that in the dialogues too. Or maybe the camera and the dialogues are “real” and there was someone pointing a camera at me that day, and things did feel like an Antonioni film when they happened. It’s a story I wrote a long time ago, so I don’t know any more. And if I did know, would it even matter?

Fernando Sdrigotti is the author of Dysfunctional Males, Shitstorm, Grey Tropic, and Jolts among other titles. He lives in London. Twitter: @f_sd

Sylvia Warren is an academic editor and writer of short fiction. Twitter: @sylvswarren

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 29th, 2020.