KR Conversations

Patricia Engel

Patricia EngelPatricia Engel is the author of The Veins of the Ocean (Grove, 2016), a New York Times Editors’ Choice; It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris (Grove, 2013), winner of the International Latino Book Award; and Vida (Grove/Black Cat, 2010), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and Young Lions Fiction Awards. Her stories appear in the Best American Short Stories, the Best American Mystery Stories, and elsewhere, and have received numerous awards. A recipient of a 2014 fellowship in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts, Patricia currently lives in Miami. An excerpt from her story “Aguacero” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Aguacero”?

I’m fascinated by how trauma informs and affects our everyday lives. Most of the time, people have no idea that their behaviors, down to their speech and gestures, can be traced to some forgotten or even inherited trauma. I also know a few people who’ve experienced kidnapping. I’ve seen firsthand how it changes a person, down to the way they interact with their immediate surroundings, sights, and sounds. I wanted to show how two strangers can find comfort in one another without really knowing each other at all, how intimacy can be born of distance and displacement. Each of the main characters has endured great pain and loneliness, and within that space of shared or withheld secrets, they find a bit of peace.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I used to write more impulsively and now I tend to sit with an idea longer before I begin writing even a word of it. I still love the thrill of executing a full draft of a story in one sitting but such moments are rarer now, as I’ve become more conscious and deliberate with language and structure. I’ve also developed greater discipline for committing to the long haul of writing not just a first novel, but a second and a third. . . .

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

Nearly everything from my non-writing life influences my writing! Conversations, observations, relationships, daydreams, my travels, other art forms, landscapes, nature, and of course my communities, which have always been of immigrants and the culturally exiled, and my parents’ homeland of Colombia. I essentially live half in a dream and am constantly mentally archiving for my fiction.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

I sat next to Jacques Cousteau on an airplane when I was about fifteen years old. He was my absolute hero at the time, and my dream was to be an oceanographer or marine biologist even though I was terrible at math and science. I confessed all this to him and asked if he had any advice for me. First, he said there were many ways to love the ocean besides through science. But he quickly added that the best advice he could offer was to never listen to anyone’s advice and instead to learn to obey my own instincts as they would never betray me. It’s not exactly writing advice but I often come back to his words when I’m struggling with a story or a book. Nothing destabilizes an artist like doubt. Remembering to tune into my inner voice helps sustain the process.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’m finishing a collection of stories, swimming in another novel, and have a few other more experimental things in the works.