Reading from the right place

Lara Moreno and Kattie Whittemore in conversation

Originally released in Spanish as Piel de lobo, Wolfskin was published by last year by Structo Press. Here, the novel’s author Lara Moreno and its translator Katie Whittemore discuss writing, translation, and how Wolfskin came to be.

Katie Whittemore: Congratulations, Lara. Wolfskin is out in English. The culmination of our first meeting in Teruel in 2018. Full circle.

Lara Moreno: We’ve told that story before and we’ll tell it again. Go ahead and tell it; it was so funny.

KW: Well, let’s see, we first met in person thanks to a talk you were invited to give on your first novel In Case We Lose Power—and we should note that I received a 2022 NEA Translation Fellowship to translate it this year­. You were going to a very small village of I-don’t-know-how-many inhabitants. Not many. We’d been in touch because when I was starting out, I’d written and asked you to send me some of your stories so I could try my hand at them, and you were very generous with me. Anyway, I’d just moved to Valencia, and you asked if I wanted to come up to Teruel. You were going be there with Aroa Moreno Durán [ the author of The Communist’s Daughter, my translation was published by Tinder Press]. After your talk, the three of us went for lunch in a village restaurant, where men sat outside drinking and smoking in the sunshine and we bared our souls and ate leg of lamb. All very picturesque. That was three years ago. A lot has happened.

The author Lara Moreno

Lara Moreno

LM: Our lives have changed once or twice since then. You’ve started to translate half of Spain and I’ve written a few books. Not too shabby.

KW: Not too shabby at all. You’ve published two books of poetry, a work of non-fiction, and you’ve just finished your third novel. Hitting a variety of genres there. Do you want to talk about the relationship between your poetry and your prose, in particular?

LM: Well, it’s interesting—I was asked about this a lot when my first novel came out. I had already published poetry and people would ask about me switching to prose, right? But I was actually very young when I started to write prose, I’d always written it. The thing is, my prose has always been really poetic, lots images, lots of rhythm. Over time, I’ve diluted the type of poetic prose that were really intense, for example, in my first collection of stories. In Case We Lose Power has a heavy dose of it, Wolfskin is a bit denuded of it, and my new novel is much more stripped down. With each novel, I’ve found that, more than anything, the poetic aspect is really the gaze—the gaze and the rhythm. I find that I want get closer to the story I need to tell, that it’s increasingly important for me to tell, tell, tell, and that clarity is important in the telling, the naming, the documenting.

The root of my poetry, then, is actually that poetic prose, it branches from there. You know, I try to make less and less of a distinction between the two genres, because the truth is that they’re born of the same intention. Each has its own architecture, its own logic, but I don’t believe there’s much difference deep down. The games I can play with rhythm and image in my poems, I can also grant myself that license in my novels. There are chapters, for instance, that function like drum solos, with practically no periods. There are always a few chapters in my novels, or ends of chapters, that work just like a poem, where I allow the narrative to be ruled by the rhythm, or poetic images if necessary.

Translator Katie Whittemore

Katie Whittemore

KW: I can think of instances in Wolfskin where that fluidity, that rhythm, is very much present. I see where it blends with other elements of your style to create a sense of intimacy, of nearness to the characters—to Sofía, the main character, in particular. We’re so close to her psychology, to her body, even. The lack of dialogue markers, long sections with few paragraph breaks, the infrequent use of periods and a favoring of the comma, the moments of stream of consciousness . . . Are these elements that we can perceived in your work in general?

LM: Well, you mention style in this case, but it’s actually the narrator’s perspective, which is something pretty particular to Wolfskin, I think, and I’ve used it again in this new book I’m finishing. My first novel, In Case We Lose Power, is a choral novel and so it’s the first-person voice of each character, individual voices that alternate. In Wolfskin, there are three characters at the center of the book—Sofía, her son Leo, and her sister Rita—but I didn’t want to do a choral novel in this case. There is, however, a very marked temporal distinction: the present is narrated by what we call the third person subjective, which is really a kind of false third person because the point of view is aligned very closely with one character, Sofía. For the most part, this voice narrates everything from inside Sofía, but it there is some distance. The first person can be a bit oppressive for certain things. But it’s a false third person because we’re seeing everything through the character. And this facilitates my “style,” in the most organic sense of the word, because I can stick dialogue right in the middle of the narration with commas, I don’t break it out spatially in the text, right? When I have a third person that’s subjective and very close to one character, when that character has a thought, I can just include it directly. Everything blends, the narration and the character’s thoughts, and there’s a sense of closeness, of directness. But the narrator is a bit above the character and can see other things, observe her with a bit of coolness.

I use Sofía’s first person voice only for narrating the past, which are Sofía’s memories. Although, wait, I think there’s a chapter in the present narrated by Sofía, I used to read it at readings in Madrid after the book came out, it starts with something like “My son plays on a patio”—

KW: YES! I love that chapter. It’s my favorite in the whole book. It’s a sort of stream of consciousness. I’ve done readings of that, too.

LM: Wow, I just connected with my Lara from 2016. Well, that chapter is also in the first person, but it was like a one-off concession I gave myself. The last chapter, too, is Sofía’s voice, when the narration blends with her memories.

KW: Those childhood memories are so intense. This is an interesting time, I think, to write about lived experience, but as fiction—not memoir, not autofiction, which is really having a moment among contemporary writers in Spain. Even if there are fragments of your own experience in your work—and I’m talking about your prose, not poetry—you write fiction novels, and they are published and promoted as such.

LM: Yes, that’s my point of view, my point of departure. I really do construct it all as fiction, it’s how I need to construct it, because narratively, this is what’s important; the rest, shall we say, is “backstage,” what’s behind the work, where it comes from. We have to accept that—even in the greatest masterworks of fiction—there is always “where it comes from.” For me, when we talk about fiction, what needs to predominate is fiction, which is really just a narrative system of communication. In other words, I have to be faithful to that system. I prefer to situate my work in that fictional space so I can have a minimum amount of distance.

KW: How was Wolfskin received by readers when it was published in 2016?

LM: Well, I think it would be interesting for you to talk about feminism at some point, because in 2016 this book wasn’t considered especially feminist or anything, it didn’t figure into that discourse. But I’m interested in your approach when you first read it, and how you read it now, since we read with another perspective now, a more feminist perspective, against the grain.

KW: Well, my reading of the book has always been that it’s an inherently feminist text. I don’t know if you remember, but when we met I asked you about this, and you said that writing this novel was a kind of political act, which was fascinating to me, and something I kept in mind when I was translating. But even from the outset, I read in Sofía’s circumstances a kind of critique, or at least an exploration, of the relationships that exercise power over a woman and her desires. In the depiction of her ambivalence about motherhood, daughterhood, marriage, I see this tension between inertia and dissatisfaction and spurts of energetic passion that I find really intriguing and realistic. She isn’t always off flying into a rage, she’s not out there to break the system, she’s just trying to hold it all together. And at the same time, she’s reckoning with her childhood, with her relationship to her little sister and memories of violence that occurred in the very heart of their family. And questioning the nuclear family, I think, is a feminist question.

LM: That’s right, I’m talking about the nucleus itself. I’m trying to blow it up, that nucleus, which is the foundation of violence against women, it can start in early childhood, the abuses that come from within and are protected by the family. Yeah, so I was actually quite surprised.

KW: That it wasn’t read as an explicitly feminist novel?

LM: I mean, there were some interviews where I was able to say something about it, but it was another time, you know? Things have changed in just a few years. We read everything differently now.

KW: But there was an intention.

LM: Of course, I wrote the book as a huge allegation, an accusation. For me it was an accusation, not a personal one, but societal. A societal outcry.

KW: I’m curious to see how it is read and interpreted now, and in English. Speaking of the novel in English, do you want to say a few words about the experience of “being translated”? It’s been a joy for me to translate your work because I’m such a big fan. And you were always available and generous with my queries or doubts, but I have to say, you were pretty hands-off.

LM: Well, first of all, I absolutely do not have the command of English required to supervise a translation. That’s the first thing. Although I know plenty of people who could do it—my daughter’s daughter is a literary translator, as you know. And I worked for a long time with translations into Spanish, as an editor. Revising translations from English and French, like Jiminy Cricket whispering in the background. But here’s the thing, translations are versions, different versions. The translator has their own authorship of the text. And that doesn’t seem like a job I should insert myself in at all. Do I to tell you that the metaphor you chose isn’t exactly the same as mine? I’ve already written my book. Now you have to choose, you have to write your own book. In your language, which isn’t mine.

Besides, I’m coming from a place of trust, which is obviously the case with you. This isn’t the same situation as a press wanting to do my book and going out to find a translator; in our case, you really read me, I believe that you empathized and synthesized with my style, which is, I think, a challenge when it comes to translation, right? So, I know that first, you approached my work and felt the need, or desire, to write your own version of it. So, what do I have to say there? Nothing. Except thank you.

KW: Translators do need to have that liberty, I think. And the books go on to live their own lives in other languages.

LM: Right, like, I’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s stories translated by Julio Cortazar. Cortazar’s version of Poe’s stories. There is so, so much translated literature in Spain, but this doesn’t mean that the translators stay in the shadows, right? Marta Rebón, for instance— don’t know Russian, but I know she’s an excellent translator and I can appreciate how she writes in Spanish. Even though she’s translating a work, I can appreciate her own style, her way of understanding the text, her approach.

KW: I think the way a translator approaches the text is so critical, their reading, their interpretation. As translator, you don’t always have the same kind of connection to every work or author, it isn’t a prerequisite for the job (though I’ve been lucky to translate only books I really wanted to do personally), but I was so drawn by your voice, your style, the themes you take on as a woman, as a human being. While Wolfskin is indeed my interpretation of your Piel de lobo, it departs from a place of very close reading of not just this book, but your oeuvre as a whole.

LM: You’re reading from the right place. That’s why I say that I’m totally at peace with the process. I believe you’ve read me well. And that’s what we need, right?

Wolfskin is available now from Structo Press in the UK and Ireland, and from Open Letter in the US and Canada