Tag Archives: Mario Alberto Zambrano

An Interview with Mario Alberto Zambrano

31 Dec
Mario Alberto Zambrano is the author of the novel Lotería and recently won a prestigious NEA Fellowship.

Mario Alberto Zambrano is the author of the novel Lotería and recently won a prestigious NEA Fellowship.

Mario Alberto Zambrano was a contemporary ballet dancer before writing fiction. He has lived in Israel, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Japan, and has danced for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet Frankfurt, and Batsheva Dance Company. He graduated from The New School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His debut novel Lotería was named to many lists of the best books of 2014, and this month, Zambrano received a prestigious NEA fellowship to work on his new novel.

To read an exercise on creating structure with images and an excerpt from Lotería, click here.

In this interview, Zambrano discusses how he began writing based on Lotería cards, the You that his narrator Luz speaks to, and how the Pedro Infante film Nosotros Los Pobres influenced the novel.

Michael Noll

The most distinctive aspect of the novel, and it’s no surprise given it’s title, is the way you use Lotería cards to organize the chapters and the novel as a whole. You’ve discussed in other interviews how and why you chose lotería, but what I’m really curious about is how it impacted your process for writing the novel. A lot of novel drafts get stuck at various points, often about 70 pages in, because the novel expands or changes in those moments. Was Lotería helpful to you in the middle of the book, in terms of maintaining and advancing the story?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Honestly, the way I started writing the book was mostly a game for myself, to create vignettes of a young girl’s life. Though I knew the story in my head from the beginning, I used the cards as a vehicle to explore other parts of her life that I didn’t yet know anything about. I would shuffle the deck and flip over a card as a way to prompt me into a scene that might reveal something about her and the story she was trying to tell. The obstacle wasn’t so much how to propel the narrative forward, as sometimes is the case, but rather, how to arrange the cards in a sequence that could feel organic yet carry a narrative thru-line from beginning to end. Near the end of the editing process, I would lay out the cards on my table and rearrange them. With 53 cards, the options were endless. It did teach me however, that even when you’re working on a novel that doesn’t deal with cards, but rather with scenes, chapters, acts, what have you, the sequence in which the story is being told can disrupt or heighten the dramatic tension that fiction relies on.

Michael Noll

The novel is addressed to You, to God. Was this always part of your sense of the novel, that Luz would be writing/talking to a particular person/entity and not just in general?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Because Luz suffers from a traumatic event at the start of the book and is suffering from selective mutism because of said event, I felt it was important for her to address the narrative to someone she was comfortable with, someone who might help her find solace in the devastating aftermath of what happened in her family. The act of prayer is a means to achieve grace, especially in the face of loss. But even though the You in the book is addressed to a divine other, in some way it’s also addressed to herself, so that in having a dialog with God she’s having a dialog with herself too, in the way prayer can be a form of mediation.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a passage about what kind of story this isn’t. A counselor visits Luz and brings Fama magazines because she thinks they are “going to open me up like some stupid jack-in-the-box.” She also tends to stare at Luz in a kind of incomprehension, which prompts Luz to think this: “¿Y? It’s not like I’m a piece of news in the Chronicle she can pick up and read.” Luz goes on to explain how her story is more like a telenovela or the film Nosotros Los Pobres. Was it important to you, or did it seem necessary, to tell readers in advance, look, here’s the kind of story this is? Was there a genre or form of storytelling that you wanted to avoid or distance the novel from?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Part of the cultural background to the story comes with the popularity of telenovelas, this melodramatic genre invigorated by the music that propels it. So, in a way, I wanted to reference it.

Personally, when I read a novel I always get a sense of what kind of music is playing in the background, whether it’s alluded to in the text or not. Voice and tone, along with style, is usually what creates this kind of sound for me. In Lotería, I wanted a kind of ranchera-soundtrack, a resonant yet sweet pitch that is similar to the voices of Lola Flores or Rocio Durcal, or even Selena. It’s this kind of music that runs in Luz’s mind, and I wanted it to be on the page as a form of reflection, whether spoken or not.

Michael Noll

In this 1948 film, A poor carpenter (Pedro Infante) is framed for the murder of his employer and sent to prison.

In the 1948 film Nosotros Los Pobres, a poor carpenter (Pedro Infante) is framed for the murder of his employer and sent to prison.

That early passage about the film and the kind of story this is stands out to me because the novel returns to it. For example, in the El camarón chapter, Luz watches her father punch a wall, and she understands this action by thinking about Nosotros Los Pobres, in which a character does something similar. Did you have that film in mind as you wrote, or did you discover that it had resonance for the novel at some point as you were thinking and writing about Luz and figuring out that she would be thinking about the film?

Mario Alberto Zambrano

Nosotros Los Pobres is a film with Pedro Infante, the very actor that Pancho Silva is a double for. In Luz’s youth, she grows up with this figure on the screen. To her, it’s a symbol similar to the greatness of God. By way of attention, the family adores and glorifies the altar almost as much as what’s on screen, and so these two figures, the divine and commercial, make up a kind of confused representation of what her family and community turn their attention to. As a young girl, she almost overlaps them so that they each represent a similar importance. The film is also a story about a father and daughter living without a mother. In the scene of the movie you mentioned, when Pedro Infante punches the wall, he slaps his daughter, then feels guilty, and therefore slams his hand against the wall due to his profound guilt. What I love about that scene, and why it’s in the book, is that it represents the complexity of action and consequence. Yearning for redemption even though guilt is an insufferable truth. It’s something Luz is aware of, and in many way, how she exonerates her father even after all of his abusive tantrums.

December 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Structure with Images

30 Dec
Mario Alberto Zambrano's novel Lotería uses a deck of cards to chart the story of a young girl's family and its demise.

Mario Alberto Zambrano’s novel Lotería uses a deck of cards to chart the story of a young girl’s family and its demise.

When working on a novel, writers often reach a point where the thrill is gone. Whatever impulse that kicked off the project has vanished, and all that is left is plot: who did what, what they will do next. The novel begins to resemble an outline. One way to solve this problem is to create a structure that doesn’t hinge on the next plot point. This is why you often see flashbacks and backstory at the beginning of chapters: that information provides an emotional context for the present action that follows. Another strategy to provide that same context is to use images.

There is probably no novel that demonstrates this approach more clearly than Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano. You can read an excerpt here and see a preview with images here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is structured around images from the game lotería. It’s a Mexican game, played like bingo but with illustrations called out (through the recitation of riddles) rather than numbers. In the novel, each chapter begins with one of these lotería images, for instance La araña (the spider) and La sirena (the mermaid). The result is one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever see and a strategy that offers the writer as many possibilities for structuring chapters as there are cards.

The novel begins with La araña and this opening:

This room has spiders.

¿Y? It’s not like You don’t see them. The way they move their legs and carry their backs and creep in the dark when you’re not looking. You see us, ¿verdad? You see what we see? It’s not like You don’t know what we’re thinking when we lie down at night and look up at the ceiling, or when we crawl in our heads the way these spiders crawl over furniture. It’s never made sense why people think You’re only there at church and nowhere else. Not at home or in the yard or the police station. Or under a bed.

The card is used to create setting (the room with spiders) but also a metaphor for the character’s mind. Because the narrator is talking to a specific entity (the You in the passage is God), the introduction of spiders colors that conversation. If God can see spiders, then He can also see everything (like what goes on in police stations, a place the novel will quickly move to).

Sometimes the image doesn’t enter the chapter until the end. For example, in El cantarito (the water pitcher) the chapter is about the narrator interacting with social worker, and the imagine arrives in the last paragraph:

Standing there, all of a sudden, I was like a jug of water trying to be taken from one place to another, and little by little, I was spilling. The nurses didn’t even look at me anymore.

At times, the image informs the novel in the lightest way. In El alacrán (the scorpion), the image is never referenced directly. But the word sting appears.

Some images inform characters or their actions, as does El borracho (the drunk).

And, of course, the cards can inform plot. The El pino chapter (the pine tree) begins like this:

“The truck is a piece of shit,” Papi said. He’d bought it from someone he worked with. I liked it because it had a handle for the window to go up and down instead of a button. So the window was going up and down, up and down, and Rocío Dúrcal was on the radio, a cassette we listened to all the time of a live performance in Acapulco. It was Sunday, early morning, and while most people were headed to mass we were going to buy a tree. Just the two of us. It was going to be the first Christmas without Mom. It had been awhile since she’d disappeared and it seemed okay to talk about her.

The cards give the novel a way to resist or slow down plot, which gives it room to develop place, character, and voice.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use image to structure passages, using Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano as a model:

  1. Choose a series of images. Zambrano has used the images from a game, but your images don’t need to have an official connection. They could be connected by theme or place or geography or culture or job. Think of the way that children’s vocabulary books (or chapters of a foreign language textbook) introduce words: restaurant, home, workplace, shopping, animals, things in the sky. Give yourself a filter so that you can quickly choose an image rather than starting from scratch each time you need one.
  2. Use the image to inform setting. Zambrano does this with the spider. Because the room has spiders in it, he’s able to assume other things about this place: not just the room but the world around it and the characters within it. Every place has spiders, of course, but focusing on them in the first sentence creates a very different passage than if the first image was a bottle of champagne. So, insert the image directly into your prose and create a passage around it.
  3. Use the image to inform emotion. At the end of the water pitcher chapter, the narrator explains how she feels like a jug of water. You don’t need to wait until the end of a passage. Choose an image and force yourself to connect it to emotion or sensation—what things feel like. You may end up writing a sentence that begins like this: It was like a _____ (image)…
  4. Use the image to inform diction. The only presence of the scorpion in Lotería is the word sting. Yet that’s a powerful word. Try word-association. Choose a few that seem loaded in some way (charged, not neutral) and give yourself the goal of working them into the passage.
  5. Use the image to inform character. If your image is a drunk, the possibilities are clear. We do this all the time: pig, dog, even the word animal. What does it mean for a character to be ____ (image)?
  6. Use the image to inform plot. Obviously, if your image is a gun, then the plot possibilities are clear. But it might be more useful to choose an image that doesn’t seem directly connected to dramatic action. Zambrano uses the pine tree and turns it into a trip to buy a Christmas tree. This trip provides his characters an opportunity to interact away from others. In a way, the image inserts a kind of detour into the plot, which is often where the most interesting moments of a story appear.

The goal is to use image as a structuring devices and create space for play and imagination within plot.

Good luck.

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