The Second Wave: How The Quiet Of The Pandemic Inspired Author And Poet Alberto Ríos
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: In the pandemic's early stages in May, I spoke with Arizona’s original poet laureate, Alberto Ríos, about what it was like to try to create art when the world had changed dramatically, and human contact was becoming less frequent and close. Though he wasn't happy about it, he had adjusted well with some creativity being sparked by an increase in quietude. Now, five months later, and with his new novel, "A Good Map of All Things" being published, I'm checking in with Ríos again. Alberto, how are you feeling now and how has the pandemic continued to affect your creative process and productivity?
ALBERTO RÍOS: Well, it's moved me clearly toward the personal and away from the public. Even though there are Zoom events and in a variety of ways we are trying to connect as artists, I feel like I'm in an artistic hibernation, which is not a bad thing for an artist, for a writer, for a thinker, for somebody in the arts that is not based on simply performative elements. As a writer, I need some downtime, some quiet time. However, in the past, of course, that's always been something of your own choosing. And you've always been as a writer, kind of seeking sort — you know, quietude — seeking that hibernation. But to have it enforced, have it put on you — that's got a different feeling now several months in. It's difficult. It is the thing you wish for and yet once you get it, you're not so sure it was the thing you ultimately wanted. So I'm in that space where I find this very useful. I've been writing. I've been thinking. And I think that's good. However, the lack of contact with people is it's, it's extraordinary. And it's surprising to me that I miss it in the ways that I do.
GOLDSTEIN: Your new book, "A Good Map of All Things." Let me start with a very simple question. It is called a picaresque novel. What does that mean?
RÍOS: Picaresque, traditionally is defined first as a novel of adventures, though it normally has a hero — a pícaro — someone who goes through it all. You know, "Don Quixote" is probably the most famous example of a picaresque novel. But you've got that central character, a Don Quixote, and in this particular — in my particular book, it is a novel of adventures. But I think 20 people this is about, in essence, 20 people. And I think they share the role of the hero and though perhaps more in the adventure sense than anything heroic, they create a communal narrative. They do it together. And I love that idea. As I was writing this and thinking about how it might go together. that the hero role is a shared role. It's not one person.
GOLDSTEIN: The tone of it, Alberto, from my reading is — and I mean this in a very positive sense — feels very old-fashioned. How much of that played into it for you, even from a tonal standpoint, of wanting to take people back to a novel that has a lot of depth to it but also is quite accessible?
RÍOS: I think that's a perfect description of it. And it's an ideation that I work with all the time. You know, I think this particular book is about quiet in its own way, and quiet is not an easily told story. You know, loud — everybody turns toward loud, and we're living in very loud times. Loud is a magnet. Loud, you know, people are drawn to it. Quiet — that's a much harder sell. And while I use guise or the setting of the mid-20th century, I think really what I'm trying to write is to the quiet, to the dark side of the moon, if you will — you know, equally there, absolutely there. But getting little attention. And what I'm especially trying to, to make a point of is saying that all of the loud around the border. Well, it's just loud. The 98% of the rest of people's lives is this quiet, everyday kind of experience. I was on a panel many years ago with Ursula Le Guin, the great science-fiction writer, and she said something that has always stayed with me. She said, "You know, science fiction," She said. "It's, it's 98% regular, everyday. And 2% on Mars." And what she was trying to say is the 2% on Mars got all the attention, but it wasn't accurate to the actual way that we live. And I think in this book, I'm trying to get to the depth of the everyday, which is that 98% of how we actually get through life. And the '50s happens to be — you know, I was born in the '50s. That's when I was growing up. These, the particular adventures, if I can call them that, came from all of the towns that I grew up visiting and spending time in, and that my grandmother and her sisters had been teachers and mercantile workers in these towns. So they were always being talked about and remembered, and they were towns like Rayón and Cucurpe and Ímuris and especially Magdalena, all in the corridor of northern Sonora. And it's a corridor that's traditionally been called the Pimería Alta, and it extends from certainly Tucson, you could argue Phoenix — but certainly Tucson all the way to Hermosillo and Guaymas. That corridor, which was a longtime historic trading corridor. That ancientness, that oldness, that old-fashionedness is inherently in the place. And that's what I'm trying to write to.
GOLDSTEIN: So how much of the novel is from your head and how much from your heart?
RÍOS: Well, that's, that's an excellent question. I would say it is — and when you look at the novel, there's interstitial material. I appear in the book in-between each of these adventures in the form of rite of passage evidences: a death notice and a tax bill and a telegram and a poem and whatever. These are from my own very personal life. Those are actually my family's documents. And so there's an actuality that I wanted to keep pointing at, saying I have imagined these stories, but they are something only I could have imagined based on the upbringing I had and the people I was around and my grandmother and her sisters and my mother-in-law and everybody else who was engaged in all of this sense of place.
GOLDSTEIN: The book is "A Good Map of All Things." Alberto Ríos, among many other things, professor at ASU, also Arizona's first poet laureate and also an Emmy winner, now, for “Art in the 48.”
RÍOS: Thank you so much, Steve.
GOLDSTEIN: A virtual reading of the new novel is taking place [Oct. 29] at [6 p.m.], and it's hosted by the Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU.