It was wonderful to feature the fantastic Silvia Moreno-Garcia on the show! She came by to talk to us about her novel, Signal to Noise, a story featuring friends in Mexico City who cast spells with vinyl records. Part of the novel takes place in 1988 and part in 2009, with very interesting results.
Silvia told us that she grew up in a Mexico City neighborhood, and had always "wanted to [write] something that had to do with sound." She is a third generation radio person, so her first attempt was writing something to do with a radio station, but it didn't work to her satisfaction, so on her second attempt she decided to do something with vinyl records, focusing on her neighborhood. Most of her research, she says, was fact checking the years of particular songs and music, what was on TV, and what people were wearing.
Brian asked how she went about portraying the emotional content of the music without actually giving people the ability to hear the songs, or being able to use the song lyrics (copyright forbids this). Silvia said that some people might already remember the songs, but others might be curious enough to pursue their questions and research the songs. One of her readers actually put together a playlist of songs from the book! (Here is Silvia's playlist.) She says she wants people to work with her, and go with her on the journey of the book. She asked whether the era of the internet has caused music to lose some of its magic because it can be accessed too easily. She told us she wanted to put four words from a song somewhere in the book, but ended up having to take them out due to copyright issues. Translation from Spanish adds an extra complication to these issues.
For some of her research, she told us she went to her dad, who she calls "the actual music fanatic." He owns hundreds of vinyl records. She spoke to him about the mood of the era, and his favorite bands, especially things from the '60s and '70s. She also looked at old photos of her mom, who she says was post-punk, pre-goth, with black clothes, chains, and big hair. The ability to look back at Polaroid photos, she says, "helped ground me in the moment." She also looked at album covers.
I asked her about keeping distinct voices between the two time periods she used. She said that it wasn't too hard, since the past time period used different points of view, and gives the impression that it is happening in real time, while the present period is a mystery confined to the protagonist Meche's point of view. The novel is built so that the present timeline informs the past and vice versa, even though the two time periods progress chronologically.
I asked her about her tendency to face things like pain and death head-on, without shrinking away from it. She approached the question by talking about how people try to take control of their lives. She said, "I'm not the only one who stared at the soap trying to move it with telekinetic powers." And she said she wanted to hit someone in the head with it. She described the frustration of growing up, especially on the wrong side of the tracks. She says that most people want to think they were better than they were. People have power struggles and crush each other while they are young, but this also happens even among adults. Silvia says, "I think books should be about truth."
I remarked on the fact that some reviews of Signal to Noise have described Meche, the protagonist, as "not likeable," but some have really loved her. Silvia does not think characters have to be likeable, and cites Game of Thrones, Hannibal, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Madame Bovary as examples of highly successful work without likeable protagonists. She remarks that we are more likely to accept unlikeable characters who are men. Women are who they are: difficult, with lots of different facets. I compared Meche to Sei Shonagon, the diarist of Heian Japan, in that part of what makes their stories come alive is the pure attitude that they radiate about the things around them.
When asked about her book's magic system, Silvia said, "There is no magic system," and describes the idea of magic systems as "a very Western way of seeing the world." She wanted magic in her book to be organic, where knowledge is passed on orally and there is no school of magic. She compares it to cooking, or folk magic in a Latin American sense. She didn't want "a magic system." The only rule is, "there are no rules, per se." She says that often people like linear organization, but it's more messy and chaotic in her world. I asked if she would compare it to the Magic Realism of Latin American authors, but she felt that was too restrictive. At this point people have a very strong view of what magic realism is: it takes place in the past, and is very rural. Hers is more modern and urban, but doesn't fall into the category of "urban fantasy" either. "By naming it, you end up almost kind of killing it." Signal to Noise ended up with 6 or 7 different classifications!
Silvia says she has always struggled with labels, especially when it's a question of putting a book on a particular bookshelf. Getting put on a "Latin American" bookshelf would be too dismissive. Virtual shelves help diversify the placement of books, but browsing becomes very difficult. Bookstores and libraries are much better for that.
Thank you so much for joining us, Silvia! It was a fascinating discussion full of ideas to explore. This coming week we will be joined by Usman Tanveer Malik, who will speak to us on Google+ this Wednesday, July 8th, at 6:30pm Pacific. I hope you will join us!
Here's the video of our discussion: