The Penmen Profile: Guatemalan Novelist David Unger

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

UngersDespite writing in English, David Unger was awarded the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature in 2014, the most important literary award in Guatemala a writer could receive. Unger, a Guatemalan novelist, had his most recent book, “The Mastermind,” published in early April by Akashic Books. “The Mastermind” is based on a true story of a Guatemalan attorney that plotted his own assassination in 2009.

Unger’s other published works include “Life in the Damn Tropics,” “Ni chichi ni limonada,” “The Price of Escape” and “Para mi eres divina.” He has also translated many Latin American authors’ books into English.

Have you always written?
Poetry, from the time that I was 14. Pretty much stopped writing poetry at 47. Began publishing fiction at age 51.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I am not a professional novelist in any sense. I write basically when I think I have something to say. Sometimes I hear the voice of one of my protagonists, at other times I develop a scene which I hope reveals character or impending conflict. I suppose it would be better to be more organized, less susceptible to chance, but it’s not the case. I know there are writers that say they would die if they couldn’t write – Joyce Carol Oates must have died a dozen times – but I can well imagine doing lots of different things, equally necessary to the act of writing. Walking on the beach, skin-diving, having dinner with my wife and daughters. I don’t mean to be facetious or to discredit any other approach to writing. This is just the way I’ve developed as a writer.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
The biggest challenge, in this country, is the fact that I don’t have an Hispanic, Latino or Latin-American name. It hasn’t been a problem for Akashic, thankfully, but I do think that my writing would be considered differently if my last name were Padilla or Mendoza. I feel that editors, critics and interviewers always look a bit askance when I tell them I’m Guatemalan. For the last 15 years or so, I say that I am Guatemalan-born (faces seem to relax when I tell them that), which may make people feel that I am aware of the fact that I’m not 100% Guatemalan. I don’t look “Guatemalan” (read Mayan) so I imagine that’s a challenge. It’s not only an “estadounidense” problem – I think European editors are equally doubtful. I prefer for people to feel at ease, confident in their perceptions, however misguided they might be.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I published my first novel at age 51 and I am very grateful for that. I know too many fiction writers in their 30s and 40s who are climbing over the supine bodies of their fellow writers to be noticed. Andres Neuman is a notable exception – he is kind, generous and totally committed to his writing and his friends. I don’t know if I would have been that generous in my 30s.

How do you market your work?
I work in the publishing industry, which might lead you to believe that I can use my position to my advantage. On the contrary, I generally lean over backward not to let people know that I’m a writer. Better to let your publisher and agent promote you. On the other hand, Latin-American journalists and publicists are extremely generous and respectful. One thing leads to another south (of the border).

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
As an incipient poet, I was at once insecure and deserving. I wish I had understood that you can’t force things, that life proceeds in a kind of crazy and unpredictable manner. I wish I had been less anxious and less needy. I was easily wounded and very dismissive. I regret that. I also confided in what people revealed to me, only to realize that a lot of things were said because there was no accountability. I too often believed in older, established poets who promised to get me published who never kept their word… I became much happier writing fiction.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
As a teenager, I read lots of Steinbeck, Joyce and Thomas Hardy. Steinbeck helped me develop social consciousness; Joyce to be extremely careful with language; Hardy to write about subjects deemed controversial or unseemly. I wish I had read Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers sooner to understand earlier or better a female perspective. This finally happened when I translated the work of Elena Garro, Barbara Jacobs and Sylvia Molina. I learned to write fiction by translating Mexican women novelists. But Keats, Blake and Vallejo were, to me, little gods.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
“Moby Dick” because Melville is the consummate novelist in the English language; “The Dubliners” because Joyce wrote great stories unlike those of any other writer, Chekhov included (I know this is a sacrilege); and the Bible because it is the most fantastic work of fiction that we have and the Biblical stories are pure myth, in the best sense of the word.