Carlos Ruiz Zafon – Interview with a true storyteller

The Prisoner of Heaven at Christchurch City LibrariesCarlos Ruiz Zafon is a publishing legend. He has published three novels out of a planned four that centre around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a metaphor for all the forgotten ideas from the world of thought, a depository of collective memory. He has sold 25 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages.

The author is passionate about storytelling, stage craft and the imagination. In his work he uses what he calls trickery or stage craft to enable his readers to ‘internalise history and feel they were there’. He is a highly visual person and says his stories unfold in the theatre of his mind.

I had the opportunity to talk to Carlos Ruiz Zafon (pinch me – it really did happen!) after his book signing session. I had to wait some considerable time. The queues of people waiting to see him looped around the auditorium like a restless python. His readers greet him like an old friend. Whatever Carlos Ruiz Zafon does, he connects with his audience in a way that touches people deeply. Finally, I grabbed my moment:

Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Rachel Huston at AWRF 2013The books you wrote around the Cemetery of Lost Books have become international best sellers. I know our customers at Christchurch City Libraries love them. Why do you think they’re so popular?

I think what makes books, movies or any piece of creative fiction  popular can be for different reasons. In general, I think when things are popular they are popular over time. They are not just the hype of the moment, or a fad. I think stories are about the way they are told… It’s the language, the story telling, the way things are staged. This is what the reader wants to experience. I think if you can enjoy that, then you want to share it with your friends… In this case, with my perception over the years and listening to readers, I think it is the way in which these stories are told… that provides excitement and engages readers and allows people to enjoy them and this is what lies at the bottom of their success.

Paula Morris referred to the four books as a cycle rather than a series. You referred to each book as a door into a central labyrinth. Each book reveals a different part of the story, the puzzle. Has this always been your intention?

Yes, that was my intention from the beginning. What I wanted was to create some kind of world that would allow people to explore the stories and the characters and the themes from different directions and to have a series of books in which a reader would read one of the books then perhaps two or someone would read them all and in any order and the experience of them all would be different…

Barcelona has become almost a character in your books. It is complex. It is full of dark forgotten places, mystery and intrigue. I come from Christchurch, a city that has has been virtually destroyed in our recent earthquakes. I’m missing our dark places. Where can I find them?

Every place has its own memories. Some cities are very old. Some are very modern. I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles which feels like a very modern city although it is much older than it seems. I’m intigued by cities. I see cities as if they were creatures. For me they’re organic. I look at them and I’m intrigued by their history and how they’ve become what they are. Every place, every city has its own history, its own soul and many, many cities have been destroyed many times… but still you can go there and you can smell the weight and the haunting of history. Your home place has been obliterated by an earthquake but I think there is a way – a city, the stories, the memories of people survive and if you’re there and you listen, the stones will talk.

Zac Harding and Carlos Ruiz Zafon at AWRF 2013I love the image of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. On Gala Night you spoke of the labyrinthine Acres of Books bookstore in Los Angeles. These containers of memory are like libraries. As a child, did you have much to do with libraries?

For me libraries and bookstores are kinds of repositories. They are a place for people meet books and for me that is what is important about libraries… because people are going to meet books they didn’t even know existed. This is a chance encounter. People may find a book that can change their lives and open their mind to many things and that wouldn’t happen if that place wasn’t there… Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by places where the books are. It’s important to have places where people can find an old issue and this can’t happen online or at an algorithm at a company that wants to sell you what they decide you should run into. No. You just walk into a library or a bookshop and you find books and one of these books talks to you. Why? We don’t know why it is one book or the other but when you read it things happen and I think that’s important.