Essential Algarve writer James Mayor sat down with the celebrated author Richard Zimler for a close talk about his success, life story and creative process
One wet early December afternoon, Essential Algarve met with the much-translated American writer Richard Zimler as the Atlantic Ocean roared outside the café in Foz, near Zimler’s home. Thirty-one years ago, Zimler crossed this ocean and began a new life in Portugal. Today, he has won international acclaim with 11 novels translated into more than twenty languages. This is what he said.
I’m a mutant: half my brain thinks in English, half in Portuguese, with Portuguese political, social and cultural references. My four Jewish grandparents came to America from Poland around 1905. In our household, the people who were venerated weren’t prime ministers and generals, they were the great novelists. I studied journalism and became a journalist because I didn’t have the confidence to believe I could write fiction. In the 1990s, Porto was a provincial, closed city, unused to foreigners. Just being gay in Portugal was an issue. It’s changed enormously. Look at the options available to young women. Their grandmothers weren’t allowed to open a bank account!
Zimler’s successful first novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, was the career tipping point that propelled him from journalism to become a writer of fiction.
I think writing The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was my way of shutting out the outside world and being back in Portugal in the early 16th century. It was turned down by 24 publishers, and I was extremely depressed and thought I’d never be a writer. Eventually, it was first published in Portugal, in 1996. Suddenly I’m a published writer, with a book that’s number one on Portugal’s bestseller list. Everybody then expects you to write Rocky 6, Rambo 7… I didn’t want to do that. It’s only what you love that’s going to make a really wonderful book. The kind of readers you get is entirely determined by the kind of books you write. I get readers who tend to be well-read and sensitive.
I’m very interested in people who’ve been eliminated from history, like the Jews in Portugal. The 1506 pogrom had been excluded from Portuguese history books, so no one knew about it. I’ve developed an enormous appreciation for Jewish writing, mythology and mysticism, and I love Sephardic and Yiddish music. It’s so exciting to know melodies that come from 500 years ago.
Writing is a constant tightrope walk. My first chapter determines the second chapter, which determines the third, and so on… but I’ve no idea what’s going to happen at the end. Otherwise, it’s like one of those colour-by-numbers books we had as kids, where you always know number 14 is green. Novelists who plan each chapter sometimes don’t leave enough room for the novel to develop.
I’m a very subversive person. Unless we learn from history, we’re going to keep being unfair to people. I want everyone to have options: gays, lesbians, black people… We have to fight against hate and discrimination and call people out. In my children’s books, in between the lines, I say, “Be whoever you want to be”. Covid has had the perverse effect of making the publishing industry even more commercial. We may be witnessing a complete fractionalisation of the market, with shorter attention spans with Twitter and Facebook. We live in extremely polarised times. We go all the way from post-gender people to Trump and Bolsonaro who categorise everyone and don’t like certain categories. In the US our sense of community has been virtually destroyed. I know entire families who don’t talk to one another, it’s a sociological phenomenon.
I believe storytelling has a place in helping us to find our way through this. To become adults, to cope with this difficult world we’re living in, we have to read “intelligent literature”, with complex, sensitive stories. Otherwise, we’re going to tell our own story in a very silly way. Most of the films made today are for adolescents. Is it ok for a 50-year-old to watch Spiderman 6 and think this is a great movie? It’s perpetuating an eternal childhood. Are we telling adult stories to adults, or are we telling superficial, juvenile stories?
When I’ve finished a novel I’m exhausted — there are three or four months when I can’t write, so I garden, cook and play my classical guitar. I have an obsessive personality, but I think if you’re going to write good novels, you have to be completely committed to your project. I sometimes dream about my characters. I wake up at two in the morning with an idea, so I’ll write little notes to myself. My partner Alex says he knows that when I’m writing and completely absorbed, just to let me do my own thing… I recently finished a new novel, started four and a half years ago. It’s 1,100 pages long and will be published in two volumes. I needed a calm place to be every day during the worst period of confinement, and for me, 17th-century Portugal was this wonderful calm place. In a way, Covid gave me this novel.
Follow Richard Zimler’s work here.