José Ignacio Valenzuela is a prominent and prolific Chilean writer who has been featured in film, literature, television and theater. His work includes almost twenty books published in Latin America, among which are best sellers Trilogía del malamor and El filo de tu piel. He was selected by About.com, then part of the New York Times Company, as one of the 10 best Latin American writers under 40. The script for his film La sangre iluminada, co-written with Mexican director Iván Ávila, won the support of the Sundance Institute in 2001. Miente, written by Valenzuela, was selected by Puerto Rico as its representative film for the 80th Academy Awards (2008). Amores, a TV series he created and wrote in 2004, was nominated for an EMMY Award (Suncoast chapter). His telenovelas La casa de al lado and Santa Diabla, both produced by Telemundo US, have been seen around the world beating audience records. For more information visit www.chascas.com.
Describe the moment in which you knew you wanted to write for the rest of your life.
I knew I wanted to write before I could understand what writing meant. When I was three, my mom gave me an old set of Disney stories on those old vinyl records no one uses anymore. As I soon as I opened the gift, she said I started crying. When she asked me if I hadn’t liked the gift, I complained that there was no way I could store those discs in a library. Even that far back, I knew writers stored books and not albums. I always wanted to be a writer.
Do you remember your very first literary project?
When I was seven, I wrote a short story in school about the adventures of a pencil that kept trading hands. With each new owner, it would experience a new adventure. In fact, on a recent trip to Chile, a childhood friend remembered that story more than thirty years after I’d written it.
They say what inspires writers are the things that keep us up at night with worry. What inspires you?
I don’t believe in inspiration because I don’t want to wait for it. Writing is a job and inspiration is the perfect excuse for lazy writers. I’m not going to leave my profession in the hands of the fairy tale that is inspiration. What I’m writing about better interest me enough to keep me up eighteen hours a day for however many weeks and months it might take. I can’t wait around for “the muse to call me.”
You have a lot of projects going on at once. How do you split the time?
By days of the week. While I was writing Santa Diabla, I would work on scripts Monday through Friday. Saturdays and Sundays I would work on the last installment of the Malamor. Once the telenovela was written, I would work on Microtheater Miami plays Thursdays and Fridays. Mondays through Wednesdays I would work on my latest full length project, Mi Abuela, la Loca.
Discipline is so important to me. I write every single day. The first two hours I dedicate to “office work:” answering emails, press interviews, organizing book tours. Once all that real world stuff is done, I escape to my fictional universes.
You’re a full time writer. I know many writers, myself included, who would love to have your job. What’s the magic formula? What advice do you have for part-time writers aspiring to make it a full-time gig?
At fifteen, my aunt, the writer Ana Maria Guiraldes, hired me as her assistant to help her write scripts for a children’s show. It wasn’t long before they started noticing I was a pretty good writer and at nineteen, they offered me a full-time gig writing my first telenovela. It wasn’t easy. I was willing to starve those first few years in order to realize my dreams. I had a blast.
You have to write every day. Even if you get home and have no energy left, do it. If you’ve started a story, you’re chained to it. Dedicate it all your energy and then some. Pour a big pot of coffee, be willing to lose weight, sleep, and any kind of social life. The brain’s a muscle like any other. Give it a work out or it will atrophy.
Of your many accolades, which convinced you of being a good writer?
I have never thought, and never will think, I am a good writer. Every time I write a script, novel, any kind of project, I do it with a shaking fear it will be my last project ever. My constant fear is that someday someone will realize I’m not that talented.
What happened with Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe?
Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe is a Chilean senator known for being controversial, especially when it comes to her views on equality. She made comments to the press basically labeling same sex marriages as unstable and violent. And because with each passing day I become less patient with politicians insulting the very citizens who pay their salaries, I decided to invite the senator to my house, all expenses paid. In this way, she can see for herself that my domestic life is just as normal, and perhaps as boring, as her own.
Name a book, movie, and TV series that makes you envious.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Garcia Marquez is a perfect novel. Orphan Black suspended all activity around the house for a few days. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown left me in envy of Almodóvar.
How is technology changing literature?
Whoever thinks social media is the enemy of literature is going to be left behind. Social media and literature can be the best of friends but you need an open mind. You have no idea how much of the Malamor trilogy’s success I owe to the internet. There were fan clubs, Facebook, Twitter, and BookTubers. Technology has democratized literature. It forces authors to really be on their toes. If you don’t grab the reader’s attention, they have millions of other stories to choose from.
Two dead authors you recommend.
José Donoso and Ernest Hemingway.
Two contemporary authors.
Michel Houellebecq and Junot Diaz.
You’ve lived in many different places throughout the world. What’s another place you’d like to live a few years?
Barcelona. I have a persistent vision of settling there. I tend to stay in places for much longer than I originally plan for… Who knows? I might end up in Paris.
How do you distract yourself from writing?
I don’t know if it’s possible to distract myself from writing. When I have to, I love to travel, eat, and watch movies. Lately, I find myself traveling to places I’ve been before to look for things I didn’t see the first time. In the same way, I find myself going back to books I read a long time ago. After spending so much time alone behind a desk, the thing I love most is to go out and have long conversations with intellectuals who love what they do and want to share their passion for their life’s work.