Romanian-born novelist Gabriela Popa (author of Kafka’s House) recently interviewed Rick about his new memoir and his work. Following are excerpts from that interview.
GABRIELA POPA: What can you tell us about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.
RICK SKWIOT: It’s been described—aptly, I think—as “sexy, surreal and darkly comic.” In it I paint an intimate portrait of Mexico and Mexicans, a people who stole my heart over my years living among them. It’s also a story about how, with their help, I changed who I was—evolved from a man I had come not to like very much to someone with a healthy serving of Mexicano self-love. The book can be enjoyed by anyone planning on visiting Mexico, to help them better experience the nuances of the culture. Conversely, for those put off by swine flu epidemics, dysentery and narcotraficantes, it’s a good way to travel south of the border without leaving home.
GP: What is your journey as a writer?
RS: My journey as a writer is long and circuitous, all uphill, with numerous cul-de-sacs—but also with some spectacular scenery and stirring adventure along the way. The journey for a writer, or for any artist, is very different than that of, say, a scientist, lawyer or carpenter. For a writer, the best training, mentoring, and educational credentials guarantee you nothing. You have to be lucky as well as good—it’s that competitive and difficult. Like a lot of writers, I started out as a newspaper reporter, which helped me build discipline and practice concise writing. I still work as a freelance journalist. But my Mexican days were pivotal in my development as a writer. My sojourns there gave me some great material, which I’ve now mined in two novels and this memoir. But that experience also helped expand in me my human sympathy. All literature, I think, works to expand the bounds of human sympathy, by exposing us to the lives of others. A writer needs to find that sympathy within himself in order to ably convey it.
GP: How did you arrive at writing a book about spirituality?
RS: This book is as much about sensuality as spirituality—and how one can find spiritual deliverance through the senses…Like a lot of gringos traveling south, I went to Mexico in part for the sensuality. But the Mexicans won’t let you let alone with your rigid Anglo-Saxon verities. They infect you with their ample humanity, religiosity and spirituality. Virtually all Mexicans I met, from all classes and backgrounds, assumed spiritual existence, the presence of God or some greater force in our daily lives, as a given. How could they not, what with all the supporting evidence all around them—all the miracles, supernatural occurrences, and grace that seem to seep from the haunting land there?
GP: I enjoyed very much Sleeping with Pancho Villa, one of your novels situated in Mexico. What drew you to that country and its culture?
RS: When I first visited there I felt as if I was time-traveling. The simple lives that people lived in Mexico reminded me of my frugal childhood, which I wrote about in Christmas at Long Lake. The people reminded me of my parents, first- and second-generation Americans who still carried with them European folkways, which you’ve written about so effectively in Kafka’s House. The Mexican people were dignified, warm, whimsical, and soft-spoken—and, then, yet to be massified. It was like a homecoming for me. I kept going back until I found myself there.
GP: It is not easy to introduce any public (American or otherwise) to foreign cultures, such as the Mexican one. How does one go about doing it successfully?
RS: By telling stories that place the reader inside the culture. By layering in the sensory details and dialogue in scenes that work to transfer the emotion inherent in the lives of your characters—in both fiction and nonfiction, such as in a memoir. The trade secrets that the creative writer employs work to bring those people to life, so the reader gains an intimate acquaintance, so the reader can see them and their surroundings in his or her imagination. Fortunately, I kept an extensive journal when I lived in Mexico, which helped me immensely when, at a distance of some years, I sought to recreate that culture in words. In those volumes I had recorded incidents, dialogue and images from Mexico, which stimulated memories and my imagination.
GP: What do you think are the recurring themes in your work?
RS: I think that perhaps someone other than myself—someone with a little distance and perspective—might be better qualified to answer that. I have been told that loss and redemption seem to figure importantly. I like very much the idea of redemption or metamorphosis—perhaps influenced by my own life story as well as by the writings of Carl Jung and by great literature, such as Homer’s Odyssey, that recounts the hero’s quest. As readers, we are terribly moved by the story of anyone who struggles against great odds, against monsters and tyrants, and ultimately succeeds in some way, finding a boon or an answer that somehow brings order to chaos…Also, like most literature, my books, both fiction and nonfiction, involve a search for home—either in the larger world or within oneself.
GP: Can you share with us your next project?
RS: I have been at work preparing manuscripts for the re-issue of my previously published works, Sleeping with Pancho Villa, Death in Mexico (formerly titled Flesh) and Christmas at Long Lake. They are being re-released this fall 2010 by Antaeus Books in both trade paperback and e-book versions…I’m also putting finishing touches on a new novel, Key West Story, set here in the Conch Republic and in Cuba. It tells the story of a down-and-out writer/gigolo—though not autobiographical in the least!