The 2010 Debs are proud to welcome Carolina De Robertis as our very first guest. Carolina’s debut novel, The Invisible Mountain, published on Aug. 25 by Knopf, has won the kind of praise every author dreams about. The novel is “extraordinary,” (Publishers Weekly), “incantatory” (Elle magazine) and “exceptional” (Booklist). Please check out Carolina’s website to learn more about her and the story behind her book.
Q: Tell us a bit about your novel. What was your inspiration for writing it?
The Invisible Mountain traverses ninety years of Uruguayan history and culture through the eyes of three generations of women. From rural gaucho life and Italian immigrant experiences at the turn of the 20th century, to the revolutionary 60’s and the dictatorship that followed, I was hungry to explore and understand the legacies of this nation that is part of my heritage, a heritage both intimate and distant as I’ve never actually lived there. Having grown up in three other countries, writing this book was a way to write my way back into a connection with Uruguay—as well to connect with the grandparents and great-grandparents whose stories I’d listened to throughout childhood, and on whose lives the characters are based.
I believe that novels can do this: that they can stretch your world open or knit it back together, or both, all at the same time.
Q: You’ve worked in women’s rights organizations for ten years, on issues ranging from rape to immigration. How has that informed your writing?
One of the marvelous things about being a writer is that you can use everything. Even the most painful or difficult experiences of our lives can ultimately become fuel for our work. In my five years as a full-time rape crisis counselor, I supported and listened to over a thousand rape survivors and their siginifcant others—people of every age, race, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, personality type, and life situation. I had the profound privilege of witnessing peole as they grappled with the intimate, intricate effects of trauma, right after the fact and also decades later. I also had the even greater privilege of witnessing the incredibly resilient, resourceful, and infinite ways that people heal.
All the counseling was of course confidential, and I have never used anyone’s specific experience in my fiction. However, I have drawn from the well of understanding that these women and men carved for me, in writing about violence, but also in many other aspects of my characters’ lives: their cherished dreams and secret hopes, their woundedness and courage, the risks they take and scars they bear and complicated ways they confront reality.
Q: Writers are always interested in the process of successful authors. Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”? And what is your daily writing routine?
I need a quiet space to write. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; just a place where I can drop down from this reality into the nebulous one where inspiration lies in wait. I write best in long swaths of time, meaning that, if I have to choose, I’d rather carve out a six-hour stretch every few days than steal an hour here and an hour there; the longer I go, the deeper I can sink into the world of the book.
I start out with a persistent image, theme, or character, but I certainly don’t have everything plotted out before I begin. I think that if I did, I’d get bored by the writing process. Writing can be terrifying, but it can also be a thrill ride: when the story takes over and reveals itself to you under your own hands, when the words seem to flow from a place that is both within and beyond you, it is possible to wrap up a writing day with the thought, today, I have truly lived.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you in writing The Invisible Mountain?
There were many challenges along the road, but the largest one was making the time to write. I say “making” rather than “finding,” because if you wait for writing time to be “found” like a sudden dollar bill on the sidewalk, you are bound to stay broke forever!
I worked on the book for eight years, all told. For most of them, I was either working full-time, or in graduate school full-time and working to pay my own way. This meant that I usually had far less time to spend on the book than I wanted to. I had to be determined, I had to be self-disciplined, and above all I had to be patient.
Q: How did you feel when you learned your book had sold after a two-day auction?
I was in shock. I was overjoyed, of course, but it also felt somewhat surreal, like suddenly catapulting into the narrative of someone else’s life. I continued to pinch myself for months.
Q: What’s the best advice you can give to other writers?
Keep going. Go for broke. Follow your most ambitious, absurd, and spectacular visions, and trust that they have come to you for a reason. Don’t be afraid to work your butt off. Don’t be afraid to have fun—exhilerating fun—while you write. Read and read and read, especially authors whom you admire or who push you to think about literature in new ways. Don’t be afraid of messy drafts; that’s where the vitality comes in. Make the time, steal the time, commit to the time. Get support, trust the process, or don’t trust the process but don’t get off the train. Whatever you do, keep going.
Q: You’re already hard at work on your next novel. How does the process compare now that you’ve got a book under your belt?
In some ways, it’s just as challenging, in that there’s still the sense of roaring forward in the dark, without knowing where you’re going, forging the road out of chaos as you go.
On the other hand, having done it once before, there are parts of the creative process that are now more familiar. For example, I know how I work best, where my personal pitfalls are, and when to let a draft sit and breathe. And when I get to the part where the draft seems sprawling and unbearably messy and impossible, I’m able to say to myself, ah, yes, here’s the part where the draft seems sprawling and unbearably messy and impossible. I must be on my way toward something.