Jacinto Lucas Pires
What attracts you to the short story form?
To be honest, I don’t know exactly why I started writing short stories. I was studying law at the time, and maybe I had a little spare time to do things. I also enjoyed the cinema, and music, and at one time I wrote terrible poems – you know when you’re in love, and you’re young, you do these things that you call poems but they’re really not? – and somehow these bad poems, they became readable stories. And they were short.
I think the short story’s a format where you can be really free. You can experiment much more, and you can be radical with your experiments. Far more than in a novel, where you have to maintain a certain pace. It’s like if you’re running: you can’t go fast, then slow down, then go fast again, because you’ll get tired very soon. But in a short story you can do that. You can jump, and run, and you don’t have to maintain a certain pace to get to the end.
In Portugal, we have these verandas, where people who don’t have space build gardens in very imaginative, distinctive ways. And they reveal themselves in this – the way they add flowers, or whatever sort of plants they like. And I feel that building a garden, an imaginary world, in a very tiny rectangle like a Portuguese veranda, is a good image for the short story – for the pleasure of the writer. You can put the whole world in it. Even if a writer doesn’t have the space for a novel, he has a veranda for a short story.
Who are your main influences, both Portuguese and internationally?
Portuguese? José Cardoso Pires, an older writer, influenced me. Not exactly in the short story format, but with his novels. Some parts of his novels read like short stories. He wrote through the fifties and sixties, through to the late eighties, nineties. He died in the nineties. He’s the generation that made a revolution in Portugal. But I read lots of things. I love Alice Munro, Chekhov – obviously – Flannery O’Connor, Don DeLillo. These are some of the writers who’ve influenced me in terms of the short story.
Do you feel there’s a certain style of Portuguese writing that differentiates it (apart from just the language it’s written in)?
Yeah, there’s an identity, but it’s difficult to set it apart from the language, really. Fernando Pessoa, our national poet, had a saying: ‘my country is the Portuguese language’. It’s a language that almost pushes you into poetic writing. Sometimes you even have to try, as a fiction writer, to write against this. Though our tendency, as a people, is to be, maybe… poetic. Making these beautiful sounding sentences, maybe complicating it a bit too much. There’s also a tendency to be sad, towards a feeling of longing. Maybe it’s changing now, but it’s always there, this weight of tradition, and it’s not very easy to escape that. A bit like the Irish, in a way.
In terms of Catholicism?
Maybe it is linked to the Catholic thing. The nostalgia. Maybe it’s some kind of guilt, or a longing to be free from something, some original sin.
Is dialect and slang important in your writing?
Sure. Sometimes language becomes the theme. Sometimes the way a character thinks and speaks, which is abnormal, becomes the story. I get to his character through his voice, shall we say. But I don’t decide this is the character, and then the story will have this plot; I discover everything at the same time. Through the voice and the action. That’s why I love writing short stories – you can do it like that. You can’t write a novel like that, because you risk spending two years and then saying ‘this is rubbish’. You need a minimum structure. A voice is not enough. But with the short story, it’s a freedom. You can just have a guy talking to himself and others, and doing things; fighting for something. And then you just see where it goes. That becomes the structure.
Is structure important to you in your short stories?
Yes. Very important. For any writer, I think. There are these two moments: One, when I’m very close to the images and the voices, and I really don’t know what’s going on. But it fascinates me – the mysterious quality to what I’m hearing, seeing, feeling. And I want to capture it. I have to put it into words. Like those women in the law courts, who type with those machines, the wonderful women who type very fast.
So who’s telling the story, if you’re typing?
The character! Of course I know it’s me – I’m not a magical realist. And then secondly, there’s another moment, when I step back and think about structure: how do I make this clear? And then I become my own editor.
How much do you edit yourself?
I don’t have a rule. With short stories, I don’t have one version, and then the second version, and so on. I do it through the writing of the thing. I write it in two or three days, dat-dat-dat (mimes typing), and then I stop and go back and there’s one or two days of trying to find a way out, or a structure, or I go back to a different idea that this pause somehow brought to me. So it’s a bit of a chaotic process.
This dual approach, it’s similar to writing songs – music and lyrics. Normally you have some part of the music, and then when you write the lyric, you have to change the music a little to fit it; you have to go back. It’s more or less the same process in writing; you cannot separate it.
Your work has been translated into English, Croatian, Italian, Spanish, and Tai. How does the process of translation feel to you?
I’m very okay with it. Most of the time translators will email me questions, and having translated stage plays myself, I know what it’s like on the other side. I’ve read my own work in English – for instance in the US, in Boston, recently – I do it with no problems, but there’s a moment of strangeness to it. It is still my story, but some other person changed it into a different linguistic universe, let’s say.
Does it feel like you have someone else’s words in your mouth?
Even when they’re very well translated, certain characters and ambiences change. Sometimes they change for the better. There’s a play of mine, Figurants, that was translated into French. It means ‘Extras’. And when I read it, I really thought oh, this is better! Because in French, these things sound better. It’s a joke, but it’s also true. And there’s a pleasure in translation because you finally get a distance – from your own work – that you thought would be impossible, even after a long time.
So you can see beyond the voice? You see the story behind it more clearly, after translation?
Yes. But also you see small details – of language or plot – little things that are illuminated by the translation. Maybe an expression that you took for granted in the Portuguese. Suddenly, in another language, it becomes luminous.