I met one of my favorite writers before she ever published a single story. We were classmates vying for our MFAs in Creative Writing from Florida International University and would smile at each other from across the room. She was shy, but never defensive, in workshop and always strove, really made the effort, to answer questions about her work and decisions on the page as fully as she could. But the stories Patricia Engel shared in class seldom matched her calm, friendly demeanor. They were heady, identity-driven, tour de force affairs that sought motives and searched deep into the caves that safe-kept her character’s feelings.
After a few workshop sessions, it was obvious to me that this young girl was an old soul who’d hung around with brilliant older souls, probably at dawn, drinking absinthe and discussing physics-based emotional theories. She then boiled all this in some kind of cauldron and used it all to create opportunities to teach herself how to recreate the most intense of feelings. It’s no wonder Junot Díaz has referred to her as devastatingly intelligent.
Later, after we’d both published our first books, I found out my notions about her secret intellectual life were not so very far away from reality. Patricia is an adventurous reader, an amazing listener, and as you’ll see in her answers to my questions for this interview, really, truly addicted to thinking about the things that shake us thoroughly, sometimes destroying us, sometimes building us up again, if anything, more human than before.
The Rumpus: You capture nostalgia and the yearning for a place, a time, a person, so uniquely. What are some of the elements you bring into your recipe for writing about longing?
Patricia Engel: The thing about yearning and longing and sorrow or even joy is that it feels unique to the person experiencing it. There are times when I, or you, or anyone, probably feel nobody in the world has ever felt the way we are feeling in a singular moment, as if this pain or this happiness was invented only for us. Emotions and pain are individual even though they are what unite us as a human race. What’s interesting to me is the alchemy of a character’s past in relation to a particular moment in the present, and the causal feeling or reaction. So I approach those elements of what appear to be nostalgia and yearning through the eyes and heart of a specific character whose psychology I already understand intimately, to discover that moment when every particle of their emotions is fresh, new, and inescapable.
Rumpus: What prompted you to make Nesto’s story such a crucial catalyst for Reina’s own in The Veins of the Ocean?
Engel: I knew that Reina was so shut into her world of loss and remorse that nobody had ever really been able to reach her, and that it would take a person who had experienced similar loss and confinement to understand all she’d endured and had put herself through. Reina and Nesto begin to trust one another, grow together, and provoke changes in each other without pressure or burden. To me, that is the best kind of relationship, and the most transformative.
Rumpus: Second novels tend to be the ones that kick our asses most of all. This has certainly been the case for me. What was hardest for you about The Veins of the Ocean?
Engel: Each book has its own unique demands. With The Veins of the Ocean, I had to do an incredible amount of research that pretty much took over my life for several years. I read over a hundred books, made a dozen research trips to Havana and Cartagena, and opened myself up to the world of Veins in ways that would change me forever. This book was my life. There was no other way to do this. In order to write the novel I wanted to write, I had to let my life be hijacked by the art, and such a state of being comes with both great rewards and great sacrifices.
Rumpus: With It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, you wanted to write a great love story in the tradition of the great French romance works. What did you set out to accomplish with The Veins of the Ocean?
Engel: I wanted to show how incarceration affects the family members of the imprisoned and how we can either resist or welcome transformation through the natural world. It’s a story about loss, redemption, and the complicated nature of love and loyalty.
Rumpus: When it comes to depicting intense emotion, are you more of a romanticist or a historian? What is the bigger story you try to tell?
Engel: I’m neither. I just try to write in a way that is both honest and true to life. I don’t write with an emotional agenda. My duty is always to the characters and to the integrity of their experience. How that comes across is up to the reader and subject to their own emotional biases.
Rumpus: Would it be fair to say you write about the human face of immigration in all its stages? And if so, what would you say are the themes that complement this in your work?
Engel: I’m not interested in portraying immigration as a concept or a condition. I’m interested in writing people and very often, the characters that I pursue are those who’ve experienced the process or legacy of immigration in some way. This surely has to do with my own background as a Colombian American. But the idea of “theme” only arrives after the completion of a work. So it’s only in hindsight that I can point out, as anyone else could, that I often write about family, relationships, specifically what in Spanish we call amor y desamor, and the exploration or reckoning of conscience.
Rumpus: Are you a feminist?
Engel: Yes. I am very grateful and aware of how I personally benefited from feminism by virtue of being raised in this country. I continue to be most interested in and angered by the inequalities imposed upon women of color.
Rumpus: What sacrifices have you had to make for your writing?
Engel: Most notably, time. The time given to writing is time taken away from everything else. Loved ones and friends as well as other responsibilities, activities, or interests. Something or someone always suffers from neglect.
Rumpus: How do you bring yourself out of a writing slump?
Engel: I don’t force myself to write. Instead I go deep into my other passions like art, music, film, and reading. I spend time with friends or family and forget about writing altogether. Or I hand myself over to nature, going for long walks or just sitting out in open air or under the sun. Usually, once I free myself of the obligation to write, something comes to me.
Rumpus: What are you yearning to write about next?
Engel: I’m in the early stages of writing another novel.
Rumpus: What three books come to mind that have strengthened you as a writer?
Engel: The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. These were the some first novels to affect me in profound ways and they continue to be the novels that have stayed with me all these years. In each of them, what I adore is a voice that is both intimate and urgent, as if this is the story the narrator needs to tell in order to save their own life. That’s something I try to carry into my own writing.