Alejandro Varela, author of the debut novel The Town of Babylon, has had his writing appear in numerous publications including Boston Review, Harper’s Magazine, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Pariahs (an anthology, SFA Press, 2016), and many more. In 2019 he was a Jerome Fellow in Literature and was also a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction.
Debutiful asked him to answer the recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know him better.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
There weren’t a ton of books in my household when I was growing up. But we had a World Book Encyclopedia set, which was formative—they’re why I know the capital of Liechtenstein and that daffodils are poisonous. It wasn’t until middle school that I became aware that humans read for pleasure. I was a latch-key kid who watched General Hospital, A Different World, and Melrose Place. I didn’t know the other kids were making their ways through Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Madeleine L’Engel’s oeuvres. There was also The Three Investigators series and The Chronicles of Narnia. I tried to read these books, but none held my attention. For book reports, I’d choose from the Newbery Medal shelf in our school’s library. (Nb: It was then that I began to equate quality with embossed badges on book covers.) And yet despite reading some great, award-winning books, none of them defined my childhood. I can think of only two books that came close: a children’s version of the Bible—I was raised Catholic—and Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. The latter is my earliest memory of a piece of literature that captivated me from start to finish. The details are hazy, but I recall clearly identifying with the protagonist’s feelings of betrayal, as well as admiring his comprehensive odyssey of revenge. I suspect the story of Edmond Dantès resonated because of my own outsider status. I was a closeted, 2nd-generation brown kid raised in a primarily white working-class Catholic community. To me, the world was oppositional, and the only way I’d have a chance at surviving was to climb out of my circumstances quickly and quietly. Dantès was a self-made superhero who outwitted his foes. He was everything I was told I had to be in this world: smart, savvy, and suave. In retrospect, it doesn’t bode well for a society that its children should identify with revenge seekers. Alas.
Tangential bit of trivia: my mother named me after the author of the book. She was reading one of his other works (Twenty Years Later) when she went into labor.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I was raised in a home where nothing was censored. As far as my parents were concerned, the potential for education could be found in most things. They were thrilled to see my head buried in an encyclopedia or newspaper—which is what my father read—or something with a Newbery Medal on it. Some of the laissez-faire parenting style was undoubtedly a consequence of long workdays and language barriers. It’s markedly different with my own children. We monitor their media intake. They are ensconced in the mainstream book series that all their peers seem to enjoy: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson, Middle School, Dragon Masters, etc. But we expose them to books that center non-white protagonists, queer protagonists, women. It’s a constant job to shift their focus from the mainstream to the margins. In that regard, we’ve relied on radical publishers and books, like Flaming Rampant, which publishes “feminist, racially-diverse, LGBTQ positive children’s books.” As for The Count of Monte Cristo, I’d be fine with my kids reading it. I wonder, too, if they’d identify with Dantès in the same way that I did.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
I tried several times to read The Catcher in the Rye. I read a chapter, put it down. I read more chapters, put it down again. I couldn’t get past how insufferable Holden Caufield was, even it was by design. In hindsight, I might have seen a bit too much of myself in him. At some point in college, I read it. Quickly. I was bitter then. I was closeted and not adjusting particularly well to life. Caufield’s misanthropy sat well with me. Love, however, is too strong a word. I learned to appreciate it.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
It was very easy in high school to not read anything. I skimmed more than I read. I relied on friends and CliffsNotes. In fact, I managed to skip Hemingway (except for The Old Man and the Sea), and I happily avoided The Great Gatsby—that shade is from my adolescent self, not my adult self, even if I have yet to read Fitzgerald. But it’s worth noting what I was never assigned anything by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Natalia Ginzburg, or Ishmael Reed. I remember, instead, Wharton’s Ethan Fromme, Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Lewis’s Babbitt. All of them ponderous and intolerable for my adolescent, TV-addled brain. This is all to say that I didn’t read enough to answer this question.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
I wrote The Town of Babylon in 13 weeks. The first six chapters poured out of me in three weeks because I was desperate to sell my short story collection—all the interested editors wanted to see a novel. But I wasn’t happy with what I’d written, so I took three months off. I lost momentum, and I feared I’d have to scrap what I had. I decided to take a reading sabbatical. Over the course of a month, I read without writing. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, The Monkey Wrench by Primo Levi, A Small Place and Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, among others. Morrison and Le Guin were the most influential because they reminded me to be empathic, unabashedly political, and to time travel a bit. Kincaid was a lesson in how to be as devastating as a hammer with the precision of a scalpel. And Egan reminded me that delving into history requires a significant degree responsibility—Beach is so well researched, it’s a page-turning textbook. With those works under my belt, I dove back into writing. The remainder of the novel took an additional ten weeks, during which I continued reading. Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies stands out as the most influential of the books I read in that period. The heartbreak, humor, and expansive view of oppression under the Trujillo regime stayed with me as I tackled the American suburb. When I was nearly done with my first draft of Babylon, a fellow writer who’d read the first chapters of my manuscript—the original six—told me Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous might be a good touchstone. I devoured it and then panicked because I feared my themes of working-class queerness and his might have too much overlap. I live in fear of being accused of theft.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
I know this is annoying, but I’ve never thought that. I have, however, thought Damn, this has too much in common with my book! Which I felt with Vuong, Torrey Peter’s Detransition, Baby, and Patrick Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disturb the Peace. There’s a dread to the feeling of retreading someone else’s ground, primarily the ignorance it reveals on my part—why I didn’t I get an MFA so that I could be aware enough of all the types of literature and common themes out there? Why am I not a faster reader, so that I can keep up with the contemporary? Sometimes I pick up a book and think, Damn, I will never write as well as this person. There are too many books that fall into this category, but within the last year, I can think of Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat and Actress by Anne Enright.
What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
I plan to read or reread the books written by the various interlocutors I’ll encounter on the tour. Frankly, I’m afraid of sharing a stage with someone and not being well-versed in their work. This includes Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, Edinburgh by Alex Chee, All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques, Solito by Javier Zamora, We the Animals by Justin Torres, Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel, Riding with the Ghost by Justin Taylor, Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez, I’m Not Hungry, But I Could Eat by Chris Gonzalez, Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen, The Women’s House of Detention by Hugh Ryan, Lot by Bryan Washington, and 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell, which I just put down. I’m currently reading the touching and hilarious Boys Come First by Aaron Foley and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s gorgeous and transporting The Freezer Door.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
An eight-episode dramedy.