What Lurks Below: A Conversation with Chloe Aridjis

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I came across Chloe Aridjis by chance. As I scrolled through Instagram, the cover of her forthcoming novel, Sea Monsters, caught my eye. I immediately contacted her publicity team for an early copy, wanting nothing more than to immerse myself in the world she created. I was not wrong to do so.

Aridjis is a Mexican-American writer who was born in New York but grew up in the Netherlands and Mexico City. She received her BA from Harvard and a PhD from Oxford University in Nineteenth Century French Poetry and Magic Shows. Her first novel, Book of Clouds, came out in 2009 and won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger, France’s literary prize for first foreign novel/foreign debut. Her second book, Asunder, was released in 2013. Sea Monsters will be released on February 5 from Catapult.

What makes Aridjis’s forthcoming novel so fantastic is the combination of mythical and historical traits that entwine throughout the book. I was transported to a beach I have never seen, while at the same time back to my youth, when time seemed infinite and my desire to be an adult was omnipresent.

Over email, Aridjis and I discussed the various characters in her novel, specifically her protagonist, Luisa, as well as Aridjis’s own interest in objects, best friends, and her writing routine.

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The Rumpus: Luisa, Sea Monsters’s protagonist, is such a three-dimensional character. Her awareness of her place in the world reminds me of myself as a teen, trying to find my footing, longing for something bigger, and then attaching onto the first person who presented what I wanted. Where did Luisa come from? Is there a little bit of her in you or vice versa? Or was she more of a creation, a catchall for who you could’ve been?

Chloe Aridjis: To a large extent, Luisa is a creation. Of course, I poured many of my own memories of those years into her, but in some crucial ways she is not me, not even a younger self. For instance, I have a sister I’m extremely close to who was my companion throughout those years, and Luisa is very much an only child, forced to seek kindred spirits outside her home. Her parents are definitely not my parents. Yet I too was very susceptible to what I was reading (also a lot of nineteenth-century poetry) and liked to imagine some sort of mysterious connection between my life and the words of writers. There’s so much drafting and redrafting of fantasy when one is an adolescent; daydream and desire are in constant motion, one day pinned to one person, the next day to someone else.

Rumpus: Time and space appeared to be themes in the book. Of course, the narrator moves between her time at the beach where she is and how she got home, entwining her relationships with others, especially boys, as well with the sea. Why did this story take place on the beach? It seems almost vital, inevitable maybe, that Luisa and Tomás end up there, but did you ever consider another setting, another escape destination?

Aridjis: Because this episode is completely based on a real episode in my life, when I was sixteen, it had to be Zipolite! Like my character I have never been much of a beach person so I would have never chosen such a location were I purely inventing the scene but in this case the location was already written in history. In general, however, spaces play an important role in all of my work, starting with my first novel set in Berlin, my second novel in the rooms of the National Gallery in London, and now this one, in Mexico. I’ve always been very interested in the effect a space has on a character’s psyche. I’ve read my Bachelard and Perec.

Rumpus: There’s a decision Luisa faces between the time she makes her escape plan with Tomás and when she’s back at home; watching her parents in their routines almost convinces her to stay. In her own specific way, I think Luisa is dealing with feelings we all experience when faced with choosing between our wants and our needs. In other words, conformity, staying, routine/ritual, versus what causes our heart to stir mid-night. Why did you choose this to be the central dilemma for the narrator? Maybe you disagree, but it seemed that Luisa was much more self-assured when it came to other things.

Aridjis: After coming across the article about the dwarfs who escaped the circus touring Mexico (an article we really did see in the paper at the time), those themes of orphandom and autonomy are posited against one another, and before long Luisa’s own life seems driven by them. It’s easy to be assertive in day-to-day matters but the stakes are much higher when it comes to doing something that could deeply upset your parents. Guilt is a difficult and very complex emotion; we search for ways of avoiding or disguising it, dressing it up as something else.

Rumpus: Objects in Sea Monsters take on a life of their own, hold more meaning than first meets the eye. The table map is one of my favorite objects in this book, because of course it represents so much more than a quick drawing done by Tomás at dinner. Have you always had such an intimate relationship with objects? Or is this something completely fictional? A way to make the world that exists between the pages of the book more alive?

Aridjis: Yes, I have always been drawn to the inner life of objects. My home in London is full of objects, most of which, I like to think, hold some sort of hidden meaning. I need to feel I’m surrounded by mystery.

Two of my favorite objects are a bronze replica of an aquamanile (a medieval drinking vessel) in the form of a gryphon and a slab of polished marble that resembles an imaginary landscape.

Rumpus: It’s often the case that one person leads you to another—at least that’s what my experienced older cousin told me: never write someone off since they may be the conduit who leads you to something more important than the original… I’ve found this to be incredibly true in my own life. But also, as a teenager, I didn’t have the words for the same feelings that Luisa experiences. Where does Luisa find these words? And likewise, do you think Tomás lacks them/doesn’t believe them/moves past them quickly?

Aridjis: There is one line in the book that suggests this is all a memory—an older self looking back on an episode from her youth. Whilst writing I tried to find a balance between the emotional state of an adolescent who is precocious with language and has the occasional insight but remains immature in other ways. How would she express herself? Tomás is self-absorbed and never really tries to know her; he too projects on to her, but judging from the evidence his projections are short-lived and not terribly elaborate.

Rumpus: What does the merman represent? When we first meet him, he creeps me out, but as the dynamic between Luisa and him becomes more routine and less shrouded in mystery, I’m comforted she’s maybe found a distraction from Tomás. When he sleeps with her, it feels so… disappointing, like he’s intruded or broken some sort of truce between the two of them, despite the fact that Luisa does seem to want it/enjoy it. Is this what leads her parents to her? Is that a more esoteric way, her parents know she is losing her childhood/they are losing their daughter?

Aridjis: The merman represents disenchantment—after Tomás, he’s the next vessel for daydream until there, too, the spell is broken. Luisa projects on to him, imagining him to be a mysterious man from overseas, and is shaken when she discovers the truth. The simple matter is, if you close any distance you risk breaking the spell. (I didn’t have her parents in mind at all—at least not consciously—when writing this scene!)

Rumpus: One of the last few lines: “It was futile, for regardless of how hard you try to keep memories at bay, after a while even bays erode, sandcastles collapse, and drowned mermaids resurface.” When I read that, I did cry a little because to me it spoke to me in a very personal way. I feel like the world at large is going through this right now—what we thought was once in the past isn’t, what’s political has become personal. What would you add to that list to reflect our reality?

Aridjis: Everything comes back to haunt you, as an individual or as a society. And yes, we’re seeing it everywhere and it’s terrifying.

There’s nothing more troubling, or more urgent, than what is happening to our planet. Even politics will become anecdotal if governments don’t start addressing climate change and species extinction and loss of habitat. Immediately.

Rumpus: I wanted to discuss the relationship between parents and children. In Sea Monsters, we encounter Luisa’s parents mainly in the background of the story, until the very end. At times I wondered if they were even looking for their daughter at all. Did you mean to isolate Luisa as she embarks on her strange journey away from home? Did you imagine the parents’ day-to-day back at home as well, parallel to Luisa’s at the beach?

Aridjis: During adolescence you tend to focus on other matters, not necessarily your parents—unless there’s major conflict with them, and then they become more of a theme. Luisa has a healthy if somewhat stifling relationship with her parents, so they don’t occupy her thoughts a great deal of the time. The mind dwells on what’s elusive and unresolved rather than on what is there peacefully in front of you. Once in Oaxaca, it upsets her to think back on home too much, so she shuts it out. I often returned to The Tempest while writing this novel—Miranda ultimately has to choose between her father Prospero’s magic and the man she fancies and, in choosing the man, her father’s spell is broken and his magic loses some of its potency.

I was [also] reading a bit of Ann Quin at the time, for the voice of a woman stranded in strange atmospheres and alien environments. And I always return to Joseph Roth’s essays in The Hotel Year—a completely different place and period (1920s and ‘30s Europe) but the prose and outpouring of humanity are tremendous, and always inspiring. I also reread Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, about a young man who endlessly tries to revisit an enchanted moment in his adolescence, idealized beyond hope.

Rumpus: What is your writing practice like? Run us through the day. Any implements or tools you favor?

Aridjis: First thing in the morning I have a cup of tea, followed by a cup of coffee. That’s my caffeine intake of the day. I write for several hours, have lunch, then often walk over to the British Library and work for several hours more. I have many notebooks in which I jot down ideas but tend to do most of my lengthier writing at the computer. I read mainly at night before bed, but also on most forms of public transportation. There’s nothing like a long tube journey (if you have a seat) to make headway into a book.

Rumpus:
 Why fiction? What was the pull?

Aridjis: I grew up watching my father, primarily a poet but also a novelist, sitting writing at his desk, and from an early age decided that was what I too wanted to do to. I spent my twenties in academia, and it wasn’t until I moved to Berlin that I sat down to write fiction. Why fiction? Because it allows me to invent new worlds while addressing some of the themes that keep me awake at night.

Rumpus: There’s a wonderful line on female friendship in your book: “The friendships were all-consuming but quickly consumed, and the moment the match was struck it hurried towards its extinction.” I feel the truth of that line in my bones. Does this line speak towards any particular relationships in your life? Is this a realistic observation? I know for me, my female friendships are the most powerful, animate, and extreme relationships in my life. A female friendship break-up can be devastating.

Aridjis: I was referring very specifically to female friendships at that age, during adolescence—female friendships in adulthood are entirely different (I too would say that nearly all of my most important friendships are now with women). But at that age you tend to have one best friend and then another and then another, and each time the friendship is obsessive and immersive but before long it combusts since that kind of closeness just isn’t sustainable. And yes, it would be devastating each time.

Rumpus: Why Sea Monsters? Why is what lurks under the sea both the one thing Luisa bonds over with her father as well as what fascinates her so very much about her adventure destination?

Aridjis: The working title for this novel was actually very different: The Antikythera Mechanism, playing on the word “mechanism,” and on what the Antikythera Mechanism comes to represent for Luisa apart from an ancient feat of engineering—it’s basically a metaphor for romantic disenchantment. But it was probably too complicated a title, and all of my editors took issue with it. So, I finally conceded. Why Sea Monsters? I wanted to find something that was both playful and mysterious, which hinted at the adolescent imagination and its many chimeras. And I’ve always loved the sea monsters that appear on medieval and Renaissance maps, as well as Dürer’s engraving.

At one point late in the book I mention history as being decompressed from a shipwreck, if and when discovered. I think this is the main allure for Luisa’s father, a Classics professor. And for Luisa herself, it has more to do with the mystery of this sealed off domain that lies at the bottom of the ocean, as well as the array of micro-organisms that feast on it.

And of course, a shipwreck is always an attractive metaphor for any undertaking that goes horribly wrong.

Rumpus: At times the book felt part historical, part mythological, always a perfectly seamless mix. How much research went into your book?

Aridjis: I read quite a bit about ancient shipwrecks, particularly Greek ones. There’s a lot that didn’t make it into the book! In terms of other sorts of research, I wandered around the Colonia Roma with my camera and notebook, and also read through my journals from the period—those now count as historical sources.

Rumpus: For the last question: Luisa has a very specific relationship with music. If you could pick one song to be the soundtrack of Sea Monsters, what would it be and why?

Aridjis: I suppose it would be The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” I don’t actually mention it in the novel, but it was my song for the person on whom Tomás is based and there’s a line in it that says, “Show me how you do it, and I promise that I’ll run away with you…” To this day I think back on Oaxaca whenever I hear that song.

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Photograph of Chloe Aridjis © Nick Tucker.


Haley Sherif is a nonfiction writer living in Boston, MA with her partner and dog. Currently her writing can be found on The Rumpus. She writes for her personal blog, Living Inside the Grey, assists at Hobart Pulp, and reads poetry and prose for Muse/A. You can find her on Twitter @HaleySherif. More from this author →