The Immortal Boy from Raincoast Books and Levine Querido is an interesting story in content and presentation. Told in both Spanish and English, it shares the story of two different families and “how they weave together will never leave you.”
I asked Francisco about writing The Immortal Boy, his other work and working with a translator. This Q&A is translated by Yvonne Tapia.
Q. Congratulations on your book The Immortal Boy, the first book of yours that has been translated into English. Have you written other books? Can you tell me a bit about the others?
A. First of all, many thanks for reading my novel, which indeed is my first novel translated in English. I’ve written many more books, known in Colombia and in other Latin American countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Regarding the other books, I think I’ve had various stages as a writer. In my first stage, I was interested to, above anything else, get the transparent middle-grade and young adults’ outlook on their experiences.
From there came “Bajo el cerezo”, and “Las primas del primiparo Juan”. Then, I began to investigate the social reality that surrounds me – Colombia, one of the country’s with the most inequality in wealth distribution.
From this point-of-view came “Los tucanes no hablan”, “No comas renacuajos” (The Inmortal Boy), and “La muda”. In those books, I ask myself about kids living in misery (i.e., poverty) and abandonment, about the possibility of that childhood and also, of course, about the way in which literature can give visibility to it.
Afterward, I began to think about the history as a literary topic, and three novels followed that: one about New Granada’s war of independence against Spain, and two more about left-wing political party’s genocide. They are “El gato y la madeja perdida” and “El sol indiferente”. I also write stories about love and having fun, such as “Historia de amor verdadero entre una rana y un cucarrón” or “Cuentos de Susana” and “Cuentos de Tomás”.
Q. The Immortal Boy is presented in both English and Spanish. Why was the decision made to offer this young adult book in both languages? What was it like to work with translator David Bowles? Can you please tell me the process of working with a translator? Do some things get lost in translate? Are there any differences between the English and Spanish versions?
A. There were great changes, without a doubt, because it’s my understanding that the translation’s work went far beyond adapting the text in another language, it also involved thinking about how the text could be legible in another culture, like North America’s. The decision to maintain the original text and simultaneously do an English-version filled me with emotion because readers will have the possibility to get close to the literary quality of the text, in two tongues.
I think David’s work was impeccable. David is a writer himself. He had the necessary sensitivity to ensure that the English version retained the fundamentals of the original text. Because, undoubtedly, the perfect translation is impossible, it does not exist. There is always a loss and a win. When there’s another text (i.e., a translation) made, it’s exciting and at the same time gives vertigo. In this case, including the title of the novel, there were changes. The original title had a strange name, “No comas renacuajos” (Don’t Eat Tadpoles).
Q. Is this book set in the present time? If yes, would the situation David and his siblings find themselves in be a common occurrence where you live? Is there a reason why you didn’t tell readers what time period this book is set? Why or why not?
A. Without a doubt, this book is narrated in the present time. In fact, it’s part of a story that was told to me in the city’s public school. In my country, the class differences are defined among others by having either a public education and fewer resources or private education and more resources. The story I’ve heard actually happened and it can probably continue happening these days, and the story is only an additional testimony of the immense problem in countries like Colombia. I think I chose not to make concrete references to a historical moment precisely because the novel’s story may still have be happening in present days.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for The Immortal Boy?
A. One day, when I was visiting a school, I saw a boy who made a hand gesture like he’s shooting me with his hand (the hand represented a gun). He was too old to be playing and just enough to be threatening.
Shocked by his gesture, I understood that it was best to follow his game and I made a gesture similar to dying. Intrigued, I asked about his story and they told me that he was part of a family of five siblings, whose mother died and whose father abandoned them. The oldest sibling, 13 years old, decided to take care of them, but he was exploited and robbed, until he found someone who taught him how to handle a weapon. And he used it to kill his siblings and himself. That story was so shocking that I had to write it down to get it out of my head.
Q. The story flips between David and his siblings and their fight for survival and Nina, who lives in some type of home for other children. Every character in your book was unique, each with a different voice and personality. How do you develop your characters? What is your writing process?
A. The first thing I need to have is an image of a specific narrative place to go to, and in this case, it was the image of Nina and David together. For me, that was the most important. Then, I start working on the characters’ voices. Maybe because I studied script writing in the ex-Soviet Union, I learned a lot about the challenges of giving a voice to a character and being able to build the character only throughout the voice.
Once I understand how they talk to each other, I can understand how they look, what do they do, what they fear, what they desire, and from there, I organize the plot for them to be able to appear. It’s not always this way — sometimes the plot comes first, and then the characters.
Q. How long did it take to write The Immortal Boy? Did it change from the way you pitched it to what we see today? Explain.
A. Oh yes, this book was the result of a strange work. Usually, I take notes and write a lot before I reach the novel aspect. In this case, since it was about a horrifying story, I didn’t want to tell it. But my brain was very happy to love it and to propose to myself the possibilities of narrating it. In this way, when I decided to write it, I already had most of it resolved. Then, I worked a lot with the editors where we made a lot of versions of various moments until we agreed which was the better option. The story changed a lot from what was originally written.
Q. There is so much going on in The Immortal Boy and the choices the children make are choices no child should have to make. What do you hope readers will learn from your book? What action do you hope they will take?
A. It’s an interesting question, there’s a lot I hope readers will learn from my book and I’ve thought about it many times. I think that memory is one of the concerns that has traveled with me throughout my life. I believe it’s important for readers to have a complex experience with the reading — through it; love, delicacy, brutality, and abandonment. I would like readers to live those experiences (through the reading) because of the simple fact that those are human experiences — just as much as childhood is humane, and which in certain social contexts, stops being so.
Q. Are you currently working on anything else? Will English readers see more of your work?
A. Yes, I’m currently working on two novels that should be appearing soon. One is a fantasy novel about the memory about the unending Colombian war and the other about an adolescent who must take care of his addict father.
Read my review of The Immortal Boy here.