An Interview with Pablo Medina, by Robert Kralovec

Pablo Medina is the author of fourteen books. He has published works of poetry, fiction,nonfiction, and translation. His most recent books include The Man Who Wrote on Water and Cubop City Blues. With its musicality and haunting, lyrical prose, the latter should be read by every New Yorker and all who seek to wander into the underworld of their own city. We met Pablo in Greenwich Village to discuss his writing and this issue’s theme of The Unknown.

Cubop City Blues Pablo Medina book cover
How did you become a writer, Pablo?

The simple answer to that question is that I became a writer as a function of being a reader. More specifically, I believe the closest thing to being a writer is being a reader. Writer and reader are involved in a contract of sorts. It is obvious, but it bears saying: one could not exist without the other. As a boy I wrote, but I never thought myself a writer. I was just someone who liked to scribble, much as I liked to draw. There were no literary pretensions in what I did. I read a lot as a boy, but I didn’t think of myself as a reader, either. Then in college I showed some poems to a professor I trusted. He kept them for the longest time. One day he asked me to come to his office, which I did with great trepidation. My poems were on his desk. He looked at me and then down at the poems and said, “These are very good.” It was the encouragement I needed to shift my whole view of myself from an aspiring scientist to a promising poet.

What writers whom you’ve read have influenced you the most as a novelist, and what writers whom you’ve met have influenced you the most as a poet?

First list: Cervantes, Chaucer, García Márquez, Hemingway (who hasn’t been?), Cabrera Infante, Roberto Bolaño. This list will change tomorrow. Second list: James Wright, Octavio Paz, Derek Walcott, Nicanor Parra, Heberto Padilla, Jorge Luis Borges. I’ve known all of them, in some cases slightly.

How does contemplating the unknown affect you as a writer?

When I start writing something, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, I’m not interested in the known. I’m interested in the unknown. I’m interested in what I’m going to learn about myself from whatever I’m writing and in how I’m going to learn about the world. I think writing is a three-step process of encountering, engaging, and understanding the world. I think all these three things happen sometimes in tandem, sometimes simultaneously, but they’re there and it’s hardly worth it for me to begin from the point of understanding. So I always begin from an initial encounter. Then there has to be an engagement that keeps me going; hopefully this will let me reach some understanding. But I don’t mean an answer.Sometimes understanding comes in the form of questions that aren’t really answered. If there were no questions, this whole thing wouldn’t be worth it. I’d just go home, sit in front of the air conditioning and stay cool.

Your new novel Cubop City Blues includes a story called “The Spanish Tinge.” it’s an overwhelmingly beautiful piece. How does the unknown affect this story?

As you know, when you begin to write, you don’t know where a story is going to lead. In “The Spanish Tinge,” the character Adalberto Fuentes, the horn player who is full of himself, comes to New Orleans thinking he is the best horn player in the world, and even though he is very good, he finds out that there are people who are better than he is. So that story is an epiphanic story. He learns his limits, but he also learns how to cope after he’s unable to play because of the knifing. In some ways—I didn’t say this, but somebody else did—Adalberto is closest to me of all the characters in the book. He is the one I’m closest to. Set the character in motion and you don’t know where you’re going to end up; set yourself in motion and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. This story follows that trajectory: you never end up where you think you’re going to end up. In the case of Adalberto, he ends up not as a man driven by his ambition and vanity but as somebody who learns to accept his situation in New Orleans as an old man who teaches kids to play music.

Cubop City Blues begins with a narrator legitimizing his storytelling abilities by listing certain books he has read as a prelude to the stories introduced in the novel. Why did you begin the novel this way?

I think there is a whole tradition of novels beginning that way. Take a look at Don Quixote,for example. Don Quixote begins with a description of the character of Don Quixote, and then soon after that moves into a whole catalogue of the books that Don Quixote has read, in order to justify his present condition: that of a man who has read so much that his brains have dried up and he has gone crazy. There is a tradition in that kind of work, and maybe I was just fishing for something, a way to begin; that’s just what I pulled out.

Cubop City Blues is anecdotal in many ways because of the short-story-like chapters, but you connect these stories seamlessly. Can you describe how this novel began to take shape?

 A lot of the chapters were published as individual stories. That’s not unusual for me I’ve been doing that throughout my development as a novelist. Even from my first novel, I published several of thechapters separately as stories; I don’t know why I do that. I originally started writing the stories, and then I thought there was a common thread through these stories, and how do I pull that thread and tie it to a central line? I don’t want to use the word “narrative,” because I want to think in terms of melody and music and a central melodic line out of which these stories act as riffs. That’s how the character of the Storyteller came about. The Storyteller is blind. Somebody asked me why he is blind. I said I don’t know; a lot of storytellers are blind, going back to Homer. That’s the character I used, and that’s the situation I used to tie these stories to a central line of development. At first I was uncertain to call this book a novel. I’m not anymore, but it’s not necessarily a novel about character. It’s really a novel about a particular condition, and that’s the condition of the exile, of the dispossessed person: a person who has been taken out of his natural condition and placed in an unnatural one. That all relates back to the narrator, and the storiesfuse together; the narrator always returns.

It is a very rhythmic and lyrical novel, hence the title. But throughout the work, the same chapter title, “Storyteller,” reappears; these chapters act as musical notes, patterns in a certain key . . .

To bring it down to a level of prose, if you wish, what I was trying to do in this book and what I’ve been thinking about since The Cigar Roller is what is the relation between the narrative drive and the lyric impulse, and how can I bridge narrative gaps with lyricism and lyrical language? I’m basing this on books that I’ve read where this occurs, books I find intriguing and interesting. And since I’m a poet as well as a novelist, I’m interested in how to create those bridges between narrative sections. In a very technical way that’s what I tried to do in Cubop City Blues.

This is an excerpt from issue 13. To purchase a copy of the issue and read the full interview, click here.

Pablo Medina is the author of fourteen books. He has published works of poetry, fiction,nonfiction, and translation. His most recent books include The Man Who Wrote on Water and Cubop City Blues.

Robert Kralovec is a writer from Sonoma, California; he lives in New York City. On Fridays he barters at the Chinese fish market and then pays a visit to the butcher.