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22 septiembre 2022

Ana Alcolea: “Literature in Aragon is in very good health”

A native of Zaragoza, Ana Alcolea is a writer specializing in children's and young adult literature. Awarded with several prizes such as the Cervantes Chico or the Premio de las Letras Aragonesas, the Aragonese writer has published almost thirty books. A Distinguished Alumna of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, this graduate in Hispanic Philology and English Philology from the University of Zaragoza, debuted in the literary scene with her work 'El medallón perdido' (The Lost Medallion) in 2001

What was the beginning of this literary adventure like?

I was a teacher of Language and Literature, I had written articles on literature and didactic editions, but never any work of fiction until a tragedy happened in the family. A cousin of mine who lived in Gabon (Africa) died in a plane crash in 1998. He was a person I loved very much and when he died I had the need and the desire to write something that had to do with him, that was a kind of tribute to him and a way to keep him alive. That is why I wrote El medallón perdido, published in 2001.

You began your literary career with El medallón perdido in 2001 and today you have written almost thirty books. Now you are immersed in the process of correcting a novel that will be published in Colombia, as well as another book that will be published in December. Can you tell us something about your latest works?

Regarding the first one, it is a very different novel, it is almost the monologue of a girl who has had an accident and cannot communicate. She communicates with the world and with herself through dreams, what she is dreaming will lead her to mysteries and secrets of her ancestors. It is set in Colombia and is to be published by the South American publisher Norma. It is titled Por los caminos del sueño. From the other work, in December I will bring out a book that I am especially excited about in the Aragonese publishing house Libros de Ida y Vuelta by Javier Hernández. It is a small book about Beethoven with illustrations.

If you had to live in one of your books, which one would it be and why?

This is a very difficult question. Books are like children and you love them very much. Although right now I would stay to live in The Wonderful World of Books, so I don’t have to choose a book because it talks about many others. It talks about characters, writers, alphabets, literary places… If I choose it I can stay and live with Don Quixote, with Juliet, with Scheherezade, in the Ramayana, in short in many different places.

The wonderful world of books. Ana Alcolea David Guirao
Is there any book that you are particularly fond of because of a specific anecdote?

They are all very personal. My husband is from Trondheim (Norway) and my in-laws’ house is in a neighborhood that was a labor camp during World War II. Serbian prisoners were taken there to build submarine moorings, and our house is the only one that has a different orientation because in the garden area are the remains of an underground bunker. I heard about this and I had to write about it. That’s why I wrote Donde aprenden a volar las gaviotas (Where the seagulls learn to fly). It is a work that has to do with Norway, with World War II, with a blue box that belonged to my mother… in short, with this space that surrounds me and is very special to me. Where the houses are now, there were prisoners, especially from Serbia and Poland. When I am in a place it fascinates me a lot to think about what happened there before I arrived, what life that place had, what other people were there, and so on. And when that place has to do with something as dramatic as war, it becomes very personal and special.

Why juvenile and children’s literature?

I don’t believe much in the ages of books. I write what I feel and what I feel like writing. The thing is that in El medallón perdido I invented a teenage character and as I had done some didactic edition with a children’s and young adult literature publishing house, I sent it there because they knew me. They did not publish it in that publishing house. Then I sent it to Anaya, where I didn’t know anyone and they published it right away. I started with a young character and decided to continue. I also have books that are not in juvenile collections, but most of my work is for children and young people, or at least they are in those collections. Then you can read it, as in the case of El maravilloso mundo de los libros, which is being read by many adults because it is a popularization book, it can be read by a 7-year-old child to a 90-year-old adult and learn or at least enjoy it. The books I write for juvenile collections can be read by an adult without blushing. I don’t deal with the topics that are fashionable for young people, I don’t feel like it. There is a lot of juvenile literature that deals with certain topics and I don’t feel like touching that, there are people who do and do it very well. I go the other way, I like to keep that point of adventure, of mystery. I don’t write self-help books.

Do you think that aspect is your hallmark?

I hope so. It’s the right thing to do, to write in every moment what you feel, what you feel like. I don’t write thinking about the reader. I don’t write thinking about whether the reader will like it, will understand these words, whether it will be part of his or her daily life, and so on. As a reader, I don’t want to be told what I live every day, my life at school or my life at the office, I want to be told other things, to go beyond. I want to be enriched by the books I read. So I want to tell my readers things that make them think, that interest them and move them, but that they don’t encounter what they encounter every day. Literature transcends and tries to be universal because it tells you what you are living but with what someone who lived thousands of years ago may be living and in whom you can recognize yourself. I want my readers to recognize themselves and be enriched, especially emotionally. I want them to have a good time, and to cry if it’s time to cry. Literature has to have that point of emotion from the writer. If the author believes in what he is writing and lives it, then the reader can live it.

As you said, a large part of your audience is young and they are in a key stage of their personal growth and development, are you aware of the power of influence you have over this sector of the population?

Yes, and that is very dizzying. I don’t know at what stage of life each of my readers is at, I can’t know that. With the first book (The Lost Medallion), which begins with the death of the protagonist’s father in an accident -as really happened with my cousin-, twice I have met students in schools who, when they read it, were living that grief for the loss of a mother or a father. So they were reading it in a very different way from their classmates. Because the words say different things to each one of us, because we project ourselves in the words. The book is like a mirror in which we are projecting ourselves. That’s why we each read a different book. That gives you a certain vertigo. I write the book I feel like writing, but I don’t know at what point in their lives the readers are going to read it. You know that in many cases young people only read prescription books, the ones they are sent to school or high school. This gives me a lot to think about, because those are the only books that someone I don’t know is going to read and that are going to influence their lives, just as I am influenced by what I read. We are what we eat, what we drink and what we read.

Do you believe in the transformative or therapeutic power of reading?

As therapy in general, as education. If you had not read all the books you have read, you would be a different person, neither better nor worse: different. If we didn’t have all our cultural references thanks to reading, if we didn’t have them, we would be much poorer emotionally, psychologically, socially, etc. I believe in the power of literature, because more than transforming us, it shapes us. We are metamorphosing every minute. I can’t imagine myself without everything I’ve read, I’d be a different person.

How to recover young readers who lose the habit of reading after the age of 17. What is going wrong and how do you think it could be recovered?

That’s the million-dollar question. It’s the one that everyone asks but no one has a clear answer. Now there are so many things (cell phones, video games…) that it is a challenge. From the institutions we are promoting different programs to encourage readers and so on, but it is difficult. It is true that in that age group, those who read, read a lot, more than adults. Those who are lost along the way are recovered, others are not. There are many promotion policies, many libraries that do wonderful work, especially in the neighborhoods and in rural areas.

Recently the Atrapavientos Association of Zaragoza won the National Award for the Promotion of Reading 2022. One of your projects to recover young readers is through your writing workshops, do you think this is one of the possible solutions to the problem?

The writing workshops teach you to love writing from the inside. They are creating young people who are eager to write, and hopefully to read. If you don’t read a lot, you can’t write. Associations like Atrapavientos, who should be congratulated for the award they have received, encourage literature in general. Those who sign up for these workshops are already very hooked on reading. I don’t know if new habits are created, for that they will have statistics. In my classes I had them write a lot, and if you write you get a taste for words. Everyone has books they will like.

As a writer, have you ever had to face the blank page syndrome?

I start writing when I have a good idea, a story that I think is good. That thing of having to deliver and nothing comes to you… if you put your mind at ease, it comes. If it doesn’t come to you, you have to wait. But not forcing yourself to write for the sake of writing. Or force yourself to write because a topic is in fashion, I don’t do that either. I wait for an idea to come to me that makes me feel.

And on the other side of the coin, as a reader, what are your favorite authors and genres?

I like to read mostly novels, essays and when I am in Norway I read poetry. There we have a house in the mountains and I really like to read poetry, because it connects you with nature, with the essence. Favorite authors? There are so many that it is difficult to choose… Of contemporary authors, I love Irene Vallejo of course, El infinito en un junco and all her work, it is immense and wonderful. She is the great voice we have in Spanish literature now, full of wisdom and mastery in her words. She knows how to say, she knows how to write very well. She is a magician of words. Among the classics, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Stendhal, etc. In the classics of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century are the great novelists who should not be forgotten, Thomas Mann of course, is one of the greats.

Since you started your literary career, you have received several awards such as the Cervantes Chico Award (2016) or the Aragonese Letters Award (2019), among others. Which one is the most valuable for you?

The most important award is the one that readers give you every day. When I go to give talks and I see the readers’ faces and their enthusiasm, that is the great prize. When they tell you “it’s the best book I’ve ever read,” that’s priceless. Recognition awards are very nice because they recognize you for a career, not for a book you have written. In my case, it is a very honest trajectory with the readers, I don’t think about the reader when I write, I don’t give him what he wants to hear, I give him what I feel. That’s why I think I respect the reader a lot. If I give him what he wants, I am not respecting him as much. I respect my reader a lot, that’s why I write what I feel, without thinking about spoiling him. These are awards that make me very happy. You never really expect to be awarded prizes like this. The Cervantes Chico made me very excited. As for the award of the Aragonese Letters, to be recognized in your homeland has an extraordinary value for a writer. That your people consider you worthy of having an award that bears the name of Aragon on your resume is wonderful and I am very grateful. Then there is an award that made me very excited, Distinguished Alumna of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of Zaragoza. It is your own university that recognizes you as a distinguished student. It was very nice and it was the last award that could be given before the pandemic, so everyone and all the students were there. An award in the auditorium in a beautiful ceremony. I remember it very fondly. I carry these last two awards in my heart.

Speaking of Aragon and of writers like Irene Vallejo who have boosted the Aragonese literary scene, what future do you predict for literature in Aragon?

I think it’s very good. There are also very young people who are writing very well and are publishing very valuable things. Aragon has been living a golden or silver age of literature for many years. All kinds of literature or illustration. The great authors of Spanish literature: Irene Vallejo, Manuel Vilas, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón. We are talking about powerful names of the highest quality with Aragonese names and surnames. Apart from many others that I will not name. In children’s and young adult literature, we have Daniel Nesquens, Begoña Oro, Sandra Araguas, Fernando Lalana, David Lozano, etc. Names of the highest level. Literature in Aragon is in very good health, and so is illustration. We have great names like David Guirao, Alberto Gamón, María Felices?

And finally, what advice would you give to a young person who dreams of becoming a writer someday?

First of all, read a lot. He should be honest and write from his own emotions what he feels. Don’t think about trying to write a bestseller about something that is in fashion. And that he thinks that writing is a long-distance race, it’s not a question of “I write because I’m 16 years old, I write and publish and I’m already a writer”, no. You are never a writer. No. You are never a writer. When do you become a writer? I don’t know. After writing a lot, after reading a lot, after seeing life with different eyes. And for that you need years, experience and, above all, to be a reader. You have to write from the emotions to reach the reader’s emotions and be very honest with what you write. That means being honest with yourself and with the reader.

Interview with writer Patricia Esteban Erlés

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