Daniel Loedel grew up in New York, but always felt a connection to Argentina. His father grew up there and left to raise a family in America. However, Loedel’s half-sister, who was killed in 1979 during the Dirty War after a 1976 military coup to overthrow the government. Her ghost haunted Loedel’s father and eventually led him to write his debut novel Hades, Argentina.
While Hades is Loedel’s first novel, he has worked for a decade as an editor and is currently a Senior Editor at Bloosmbury. I spoke with him via phone about his debut book and family history.
Your characters have connections with both New York City and Argentina. Is your relationship with those locations similar?
My father is Argentine and I was born in New York. My father moved here around 1959. I grew up going to Uruguay every year and not Argentina due to my family’s history with Argentina. I finally went to Argentina in 2010 when I moved there. I moved back to New York a year later and have been working at a publisher since then.
Argentina wasn’t an ideal place to visit for your family. Can you explain a little more about that?
It wasn’t that it wasn’t a good vacation spot. In many ways, it would have been. It’s more that my half-sister disappeared during the military dictatorship in 1979, which is the backdrop for the book. I had very little family in Argentina while I was growing up. A lot of family fled the country at that point. My father also had a lot of bad feelings about the country when I was a child. He told me he only went back for death, basically. He just didn’t want to go back. The festive place for him was Uruguay where cousins were and where he had only positive memories whereas Argentina had a lot of painful memories for him.
Growing up, did you identify with Argentina or did your dad try to push that aside?
It’s very difficult to answer that. I actually wrote an essay about that question. It was both things at once. My dad never took me to Argentina. He spoke very fondly of his childhood in Argentina. We rooted for Argentina in the World Cup. He definitely raised me to not feel American. He viewed American foreign policy as being a big contributor to what happened not only in Argentina but in South America and around the world.
His feelings about Argentina were very conflicted though. I grew up with this fondness for a place I knew very little about. Never having been there, it was weird. I feel that Argentina is a place where stories happened, where my father’s childhood happened, and it was a kind of paradise they left. I just never knew what it was like until 2010 when I moved there.
What was the decision to finally go in 2010?
I felt I should. I felt I needed to be in that country that I did sort of identify with. I’d been telling people all my life I was half-Argentine, but I had never been there. I wanted to connect with my roots and to find myself as a person and as an artist. I needed to understand that country [to understand myself].
Were you working on Hades at that point?
I was actually working on a different book at that time. I was trying to write while in Argentina. That was one of the aspirations of going there. Hades came out of what happened to my half-sister. In Argentina in 2010, I was not focused on her. Growing up, she was not talked about because it was painful for my family. She existed behind a curtain and because of that, it didn’t occur to me to investigate her then. A friend wanted to go see a former detention center while we were there and I didn’t go. That’s how removed I was to her.
At that time, I was more interested in my father’s childhood and understanding him. In short, I was not working on Hades and it was very far away at that point.
During your time in Argentina, did you find yourself like you wanted?
I learned that inevitably that Argentina was going to mean something different to me than what it meant to my father. He grew up in a very different time. Some of the places I visited from his childhood had changed so much. I stayed in Buenos Aires, which my family wasn’t from, and that became a city I felt very close to. It was very important that I could feel this closeness to a city that my father felt no closeness to. I learned this country was something I could identify with through avenues that weren’t my family’s. After New York, Buenos Aires is the city I know best in the world and the one I feel closest to.
When did Hades become something you were sincerely working on?
In 2017. I tried to write stuff around my sister and my father as well as the dictatorship for years dating back to 2014. So 2014 was the first time I started trying to learn about my half-sister in 2014 though it had nothing to do with Hades. The concept started for me around March 2017 when my father was diagnosed with colon cancer.
While in the hospital with him, I had an epiphany where I figured out some things. I felt there was an unclosed wound in his life [regarding my half-sister] and realized now was the time to tackle this big thing that my family was hiding from. I think in all previous attempts to write things about my half-sister, I tried to write her as a hero and a very moral figure. In some ways, she was very brave and idealistic; she was fighting against a dictatorship when she was killed. For some reason, in the hospital, I had a realization that to write her, I had to write her with true moral complexity and make her a real person. I felt a bit of permission in my father’s illness somehow to show the real complications of my sister. The connection between those two things is a little tenuous but that’s how it came to be.
This book isn’t your half-sister’s biography. It’s not about you. How Hades evolve from her story into the characters’ stories?
In some ways, there were a few different pieces that all got jumbled like a jigsaw. Obviously, this is not a biography of my sister. Because I never knew her, I was always creating the character of her in my head. Her personality is both as accurate as I could make it from what people told me but also the Isabel I had been imagining for many, many years.
I had always known my half-sister and her partner were killed together. They had been living together and fighting together when they were discovered and murdered. At some point, while talking to my family, I learned her partner was frightened at the end and would have wanted to leave Argentina. However, she was so determined to keep fighting and would never leave. So they didn’t.
I began to wrestle with what it meant that her extreme moral resolve ended up getting not only herself killed but also the love of her life. While he was involved in the cause for political reasons, he may have been involved more for love. Tomas isn’t based on her partner, but the idea of being pulled into this for love became this central idea.
While I was haunted by my sister growing up, my father was also haunted by the guilt of not being able to save a child. That guilt was so powerful that it found its way into Tomas as well. What he is feeling ten years later in the book, that came from my father.
How did the Hades part of Hades come about?
I grew up with my half-sister as a ghost in my family and this book began with investigating her in 2014. It really was searching for her ghost. That’s what the creative process was at that time. At some point, that metaphorical idea became a literal one in the book. I tried at first to write the book as a realist story of 1976 but it just didn’t feel true to my own emotional experience. Entering a world of ghosts was a way to access the greater truth of my family’s experience that I couldn’t have accessed in a realist approach.