I fell in love with the writer Francisco Goldman in 1992 when I read his semi-autobiographical first novel The Long Night of White Chickens, in which a young man who is half Central American and half American Jewish becomes obsessed with the political murder of a Guatemalan woman he has adored since childhood. Since then Goldman has published the novels, The Ordinary Seaman (1997) and The Divine Husband (2004), a nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder (2007), and the very autobiographical Say Her Name.
Say Her Name, which first mesmerized readers as a Personal History piece in The New Yorker called “The Wave,” is an account of the author’s relationship and marriage to a much younger Mexican writer and literature student, Aura Estrada. After four years of intense, transcendent intimacy, Aura was killed in a freak bodysurfing accident. The book entwines stories of the couple’s time together with a harrowing journey through loss. Goldman’s grief takes him into the beds of Aura’s friends, into drunken head injuries, into behavior that is both pitiable and disastrous.
His new book, The Interior Circuit, takes up where Say Her Name left off because, as Goldman recently said in a telephone interview, he wasn’t ready to go back to fiction. “Aura’s death was a massive event in my life. One book wasn’t going to take care of it.”
To me, The Interior Circuit is three books in one. There’s the memoir about your ongoing recovery from losing Aura. There’s a quirky travel book about Mexico City. And there’s a true crime narrative. Did you originally conceive it this way, or did it morph as you were writing it?
This book started when I told The New Yorker in the summer of 2012 that I was going to do a piece on my Guia Roja driving game for an upcoming travel issue.
That was where you decided to learn to drive in Mexico City—a different thing than driving anywhere else—by taking driving lessons, then by using the massive city map book as a kind of I Ching, opening it randomly and putting your finger down on a street.
Yes, and once it was done, Morgan [Entrekin, of Grove Atlantic] was going to publish it in an anthology with two other magazine articles, one I’d written the year before for The New Yorker on stolen grandchildren in Argentina, and one for The New York Times Magazine on Camilla Vallejo and the student movement in Chile. But then—that summer happened, and it was a really trying, dramatic summer.
It was the fifth summer since Aura’s death, the fifth year of mourning, and it was like I was dragging this enormous weight everywhere. Am I going to be trapped in this forever? I wondered. How long is this sadness and loneliness going to last? I was working on a novel. But I was also drinking too much, hanging out too much, and the driving project—well, I was procrastinating about that, and for a while wasn’t that interested in it anymore, and then things came to a head with the party bus beating.
Getting in a senseless after-hours brawl with a bunch of rich young Mexican guys where they almost kicked you to death.
That was my lowest point. But less than two weeks later I was in a cantina in the Condesa with some of my closest Mexico City friends, we’d bought a bottle of Herradura for the table, and I was discussing the beating, and everyone else joined in with accounts of their own marches to the bottom, all being extremely funny about it. I was laughing so hard my sides hurt. I asked myself, what is that pain? And I realized I hadn’t laughed that hard in five years. Two hours later, pretty drunk—I don’t mean falling down drunk, because for worse or better, I can drink a lot and usually you won’t be able to tell—I ran into Jovi. And I thought, oh, there’s that girl I dated a couple of times. Back when I first met her, I wasn’t ready to get involved with someone. This time I knew she would be my next love.
Meanwhile, I still had this magazine article hanging over me. At the end of August, right before I had to go back to New York to teach my classes, I finally started the driving exercise. Then Say Her Name came out in Spanish the fall.
I don’t remember reading much about that in the book.
Right, well, I didn’t want to blow my own horn too much, but publishing the book in Mexico was a wonderful experience, not at all what I’d been bracing myself for. Mexican readers connected with the book in a different way than in the U.S. Some people felt that I’d captured something important about the Mexican middle class, for example, the dominating mother with big ambitions for her daughter, the father who abandons the family, the terror of poverty, what it has been like to be a girl or woman from one generation to another—all those Mexican cultural points—but most of all, people really, really connected to Aura.
But all the focus on Say Her Name churned up things for me emotionally, and of course was not easy for Jovi. I was doing interviews all day, sometimes, talking about Aura, Aura, Aura. At the same time I was really falling in love with Jovi, coming out of those five very sad, grueling years.
But then in early February 2013, Jovi very suddenly and unexpectedly left me and just as fast, all those terrible trauma symptoms were back. I couldn’t let it happen—I felt I’d just gotten back in control of my life. I dove into the writing project to fend off that breakdown.
Meanwhile, by now, I was getting pressure from my agent and publisher—where’s that third piece for the anthology? By now it was a bigger story to me, including the driving project but also everything else that happened that summer—I’d fallen in love, Mexico had had a transformative election that summer, I’d gotten interested in the student movement, and it turned out that the outgoing mayor of Mexico City, a politician I actually admired, was living in my building, and I wanted to take advantage of that, to learn about the city from him…Mexico City, of course, is where Aura had died, and that alone had profoundly deepened my connection to the city, and then the city had brought me back to an engagement with life again. I thought, I’m going to reconnect with those good things, my whole journey through last summer, by writing about it. It was intense, sometimes I was writing 20 hours a day. And then Jovi started talking to me again. By May we were back together.
At that point I still thought the piece would be published with those two other articles. But it just grew and grew. All that year I’d been commuting almost weekly to New York to teach a night-a-week class (at Trinity College, in Hartford) and to be with Jovi. By the spring of 2013, when I’d finished writing about the summer before, I realized that things were changing, that some terrible things were happening not just in Mexico but also in the DF [Mexico City]. And I realized that I was going to have to write about the summer of 2013 too.
This is the part of the book I was calling true crime—it focuses on a mass kidnapping of 13 young people from an after-hours club.
The sort of narco cartel crime that happens elsewhere in Mexico all the time, but that wasn’t supposed to happen in the capital, in the DF. This is the other side of the kind of romanticized, city-in-a-bubble view I give in the first half of the book. Now Mexico City was also becoming a place of trauma and death. And I also had a deep emotional compulsion to get as close to that as I could. I mean—the first half of the book is like the opposite of those knowing travel books about a city. I practically brag that I rarely leave my neighborhood; it’s an unapologetic account of how I live in the city. But in the second half, I do venture out, I have to, and by now I really wanted to, mostly into Tepito, and I did become fascinated by Tepito.
This is the ghetto market neighborhood where most of the kidnapped young people came from, where you interviewed the families, and got obsessed along with them about the investigation.
Yes, and in the midst of it, it’s the sixth anniversary of Aura’s death and I go to mass as I have every year on this day. Every year I want that mass to teach me something, to reveal something—about death, about my relationship to death, something, anything—and, almost comically, it never does. But this year was different. To me that was one of the most important moments of those two years, and so of the book too—a culmination of what those two years have been about. As soon as the mass was over, I ran to the bar across the street and wrote down in my notebook what had happened, tried to describe the sort of very visceral and so unexpected epiphany I’d experienced.
So in a couple of weeks, you’ll be back to Mexico. In the book you say that with your dual ties to Guatemala and the US, Mexico is like the girl next door for you.
For me, Mexico used to be a responsibility-free zone. Guatemala has always been a moral burden, something like Jews with the Holocaust—Aura used to always say I had a love hate relationship with Guatemala, and I think that’s true—and the US, for some reason I always eventually have to flee it. Mexico was my freedom place, at times practically a playpen, all those amazing friends I’ve been so fortunate to have there, a writing retreat, the city I’ve written all my books in, the city where I’ve fallen in love, it’s a magic space. But now it’s a little different. The innocence is gone, and that’s a good thing.
I’m going to work really hard for the next seven months, I can’t wait. I already told Jovi, I’m going to work like 10 hours a day. I really want to dig in, see where it goes, get into the deep play of it, the way I like to write fiction.
Go write me a novel. I’ll be waiting.
FRANCISCO GOLDMAN is the author of Say Her Name (2011), a deeply felt ode to his late wife Aura Estrada in the form of a novel, which won the Prix Femina Étranger, and four other books, including The Art of Political Murder (2008), a work of investigative reportage into the murder of a Guatamalan bishop and prominent human rights activist. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Cullman Center Fellow at the NY Public Library, and a Berlin Fellow at the American Academy, among other awards and honors. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Believer, and numerous other publications. Every year he teaches one semester at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and then hightails it back to Mexico City. His new book, The Interior Circuit, publishes this month.
Author photo credit: Mélanie Morand