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Carlos Ruiz Zafon at Powell’s

August 14, 2012

The hugely popular author Carlos Ruiz Zafon was at Powell’s the other night to talk about his new book, The Prisoner of Heaven. It’s the third book in what will be a quartet that began with The Shadow of the Wind (2001), and was followed by The Angel’s Game (2008). Hundreds of fans showed up, and were dazzled by the thoughtful and entertaining Zafon who talked about his early days as a writer, his writerly goals, the commonality that readers share, and about not being an over-night success. A huge thanks goes out to Gerry Donaghy, a devoted Zafon fan and Powell’s employee, who asked Zafon all the right questions.
Here’s what Zafon talked about:

His Early Days

My first professional experience in publishing and writing was when I was 10 years old with a bunch of friends at the school I was attending. We created a publishing house. We were four guys. I wrote the stories. The stories were horrendous horror stories about martians coming from outer space, killing everybody on earth by page two, with ghosts and monstrous creatures, who were bloodthirsty, and things like that. I would combine things like the Titanic, with flames from The Towering Inferno, with monsters on top of that. These things were about 10 pages long, and they were the most dreadful material ever printed. We had a guy who was an artist, who would draw covers and illustrations. The production guy was the son of a very wealthy bookseller. Imagine the times when booksellers were wealthy; I’m dating myself. At the time there was this big bookstore in Barcelona, and he was the son of the owner. They had a Xerox machine. I’m talking about the mid-seventies. At the time, in the mid-seventies, at least in Spain, a machine where you put a piece of paper on one side and then… it was supernatural. It was like “Oh my god!” Finally, we had a very outgoing guy and he was our marketer. He would take these things, and go around the playgrounds or the hallways of the school, and sell them. We were extremely successful. We were floating in cash, by the standards of kids at 10 or 11 years old. It was like hip-hop. We had our bling. We bought first-class tickets for the subway so we wouldn’t have to ride with the working stiffs. We had first-class candy that none of the kids at school could afford, but we could. We were living large for awhile, and then I think we became too successful. What happened was that there was a guy at the school – I was gong to a Jesuit school, and the guy was not a Jesuit, he was just a bureaucrat. Somehow, some of these stories got into the hands of this guy who read them, and he became horrified. He thought that they were immoral and subversive, and were corrupting the souls, and minds, and hearts of generations of the future captains of industry, or something like that. So he shut us down, and our operation had to go underground. That was an interesting lesson. It was my first experience of getting paid to write stories, and actually listening to readers tell me what they liked or not. And, it was my first experience with publishing and censorship.

My experience in advertising was very brief. I got a job when I was 18 years old, or something like that. I was never interested in advertising, per se, but at the time I always knew I wanted to be a writer. The problem for me was how to figure out how to make a living being a writer, which was not very easy. So, I found out that some of my talents were useable by the advertising industry. I’m talking about the mid-eighties. It was a crazy time in advertising. It was a business with tons of money, and tons of money to be made by a very young person. Unless you were in rock n’ roll or organized crime, it’s unlikely you have access to that kind of cash. I was making obscene amounts of cash making TV commercials, and things like that. I remember that my father thought that what I was doing was illegal. He’s saying, “You make more money in a month than I made my whole life. It cannot be legal.” It was an interesting time. I learned many things back then that had to do with human nature, and also, how corporations work. Advertising, at the end of the day, is communication. It forces you to think about language, symbols, images, sounds, words, and how to use these things, and how to create the structures that will elicit a reaction from an audience even if it’s just to sell them a Mercedes. I worked for a few years until I was able to make a living as a writer.

The years I spent working as a screenwriter taught me a lot about the architecture and economics of storytelling.Working as a screenwriter forces you to understand many things about the structure. I think that was more influential than advertising. Advertising was just fun and very profitable.

His Writerly Goals

I write books for people who love to read. I try to communicate the joy and the pleasure of reading, and the pleasure of literature through my work. I think that’s why it appeals to a wide range of readers, very different readers.

One of the things I try to do when I’m writing a story is…I always say I’m not a priest, I’m a novelist. I don’t want to preach, I don’t want to convince anybody of anything. I don’t want to sell any moral issue to people. I just want to provide readers things to consider, and let them decide for themselves what they think about it. So because of that, when I’m using elements in the stories that have to do with historical elements that quite often become associated with very dogmatic points of view, such as the Franco regime, or other things, what I try to do is be very hygienic, in that I don’t want to endorse any kind of dogmatic view of things.To me, what is interesting is what you think about it, not what I think.

What’s important in literature is that it encourages a critical point of view in readers, and that we stop taking for granted or accepting everything that has been handed to us as the truth. We just decide for ourselves. If there’s any message I’m trying to convey, that’s it. I try and stay as far away as possible from any dogma because I’m profoundly skeptical of all those things.

The Nation of Readers

There’s a big difference between the United States and many other markets. Books here are not in the mainstream. They’re not in the media. You will never see novelists
featured on the media. Essentially readers know about it, but it’s not like movies that you get at the end of the nightly news. They tell you what movies are opening this Friday. Nobody’s telling you what books are coming, even if it’s a huge bestseller.  When you have books featured in the media, they tend to be books that are not really books, or books by TV celebrities. They’re something else. They’re made of paper, but I don’t know…it’s a different thing. But when it comes to books and readers, readers in India, the United States, in Sweden, in Italy, in Germany, in Holland, they are the same kind of people. People who read have intellectual curiosity, they keep an open mind, and are interested in things. Their reaction to things is the same. What I’ve learned over the years is that readers are a nation of their own. They are very similar people. They’re interested in the same things: in language, in ideas and trying to find new things, learning, and having fun reading. To readers, their passport is a good book in their hands.

No Overnight Success

Most of my books were word-of-mouth successes. Before it was even published, I would hear from editors and people, who were supposed to be very knowledgable about the publishing industry in Spain, telling me that Shadow of the Wind was the most uncommercial and unsaleable book conceivable by the Spanish publishing industry. That it was impossible to sell a book like that. That I was crazy. That it was going to be a very sad story, because that book would die in the first week of publication. That it was completely against anything that should be done. In fact, it took a long time in Spain to pick up. It would not get any reviews. There was this major reviewer who said that he had to read the book three times, and he could not review it, because he didn’t know what it was. I don’t know if it was a problem with his medication…I don’t know. The book first started to become a success when it was published in Germany. Nobody had any trouble understanding it. Nobody had any trouble reviewing it. Once it became a success outside of Spain, it started becoming a success in Spain. Then it started coming out in many other countries, in France, in Italy, in Holland, the U.K. and eventually little by little…readers would like it and give it to friends who would give it to friends. Booksellers would recommend it to their customers. This went on and on until the book became quite a bit successful in many different countries. By 2003-2004 the book had become a very successful book. Most of my books become what you call “longsellers.” They were never overnight sensations, but they stay there for years and keep finding new readers. In the first week, or the second week, they are not Fifty Shades of something. I wish. That would be wonderful. The first book I published over 20 years ago is still doing very well. The others do, as well. So, it’s in the hands of the readers. I am very grateful for that. I am very fortunate.

Harper, 2012

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the author of six novels, including the international phenomenon The Shadow of the Wind, and The Angel’s Game. His work has been published in more than fifty different languages, and honored with numerous international awards. He divides his time between Barcelona, Spain, and Los Angeles, California. To read a snippet of his new book, CLICK HERE.

  1. Diane, thank you for taking the time to transcribe this. I remember a similar early publication “career” in Junior High when I and three friends took on the persona of each Beatle and wrote stories about what it was like behind the scenes, although ours was a secret club. We knew if anyone in authority read one, that would be the end of our group. Others were fascinated by our stories and as they became more extreme, they became more popular. That was death knell. One of the stories was confiscated by a teacher and we all ended up in the principal’s office. I only wish we had sold our stories. That was a smart move.
    He’s a fascinating man and so is his path to success.

  2. Zafon said much more that was interesting, but the post was growing longer than most people’s attention spans. I may put it up at a later date. How funny about your early pub experience. Which Beatle were you?

    • I was George Harrison and it was funny that I was interested at that age with the spiritual as he was later. (I was also interested in boys & love, natch.) Seems funny to think about that time. I wish I had the stories, but as I did with my diaries, I destroyed them.

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