Words Without Borders (WWB): Tell us about how you became a writer. Was it a vocation, an accident? How has your relationship to writing changed over time? Have your goals and objectives changed throughout the years?
Antonio Muñoz Molina (AMM): To become a writer was my dream and my driving ambition since childhood. I can’t remember myself dreaming about becoming anything else. I was always mesmerized by stories, in whatever format I found them: comic books, radio shows and serials, oral narratives from adults, songs, films, anything with some degree of narrative substance. I very clearly remember the first time I became aware that books were always written by someone: I was reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and noticed Jules Verne’s portrait on the back cover. He was this mysterious thing, an author of novels. I wanted to become one myself. My enthusiasm about the job has never wavered over the years. Perhaps the only substantial change has been my awareness of how rich reality itself is, how full of literary possibilities. In my youth I gave too much credit to sheer imagination. Now I think I know better.
WWB: How do you see your writing within the larger context of your country’s/language’s literary tradition? What influences/writers/groups of writers there do you draw on, or what literary currents does your work disavow?
AMM: I reached young adulthood at the time of the great political and cultural upheavals between the end of Franco’s dictatorship and the first shaky step of democracy in Spain. My education as a writer was indistinguishable from my education as a citizen and my engagement with the causes of civil liberties, social justice, and openness to the outside world. My Spanish literary tradition goes back to Cervantes as a model of narrative daring and ambition and freedom of spirit. Some other literary heroes of mine were also political ones: murdered poets like García Lorca, nineteenth-century novelists of a strong liberal leaning like Pérez Galdós or Clarín. But another decisive part of my education came from Latin American authors from the fifties and sixties who were writing novels that were deeply embedded in their national realities and also universal in their scope and in their shameless modernism. My idea of fiction writing comes partly from them, and also from the models they were following in turn. I came to Faulkner, for example, through García Márquez and Juan Carlos Onetti. And I learned to read and love Flaubert through the essay Vargas Llosa wrote about him. The writing I love to read and emulate has to combine an encompassing engagement with the real world and ordinary people and a formal ambition to transcend sloppy or old-fashioned narrative conventions.
WWB: What’s your favorite book from a literary tradition other than your own and how has it influenced your writing?
AMM: My favorite book from a different literary tradition (although I see it as fully and deeply mine) is Ulysses. It has everything I admire in fiction writing, from the beauty and flexibility of style, to the ear for ordinary speech, to the political fury, to the profound moral imagination, to the technical skills required to create characters that are true to life. It is a comic novel, like Don Quixote or The Pickwick Papers, and it has a narrative contraption as complex and almost as chaotic as a Mahler symphony. And it is also absolutely uncompromising about its own literary terms: you take it or leave it. As with Don Quixote, it is a novel that grows within you at every new reading.