I interviewed Joel D. Hirst, who is a gifted magic realist novelist and a political writer. As a graduate of Brandeis University focusing on humanitarian issues, Joel has worked all over Africa and Latin America, He grew up in Argentina, Venezuela and Central America and is a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Leslie: How did your childhood in Argentina contribute to your creative development? What experiences stand out most for you from that period?
Joel: Growing up overseas taught me that there are different ways to see things, and showed me how really diverse and remarkable the world is. I’m from Phoenix, USA, going from there to wandering around old Inca Indian ruins looking for pottery, looking for rock art high in the mountains and then going down to the jungles where the Guarani were involved in sacred rituals. It was the interplay between these worlds that made me thoughtful. I was also growing up there at the end of the military Junta, the Falkland wars and the messy transition to democracy. Politics – everything in Latin America is about politics, which is probably why my writing is so political. No facet of life: family, food, magic – is left untouched by the grasping totalitarianism that is widespread in Latin America.
Leslie: Since then, what are the seminal experiences that have influenced your work?
Joel: The single most important experience that affected my work has been my life in Venezuela. I lived there in the early 90’s, in the early and then the late 2000s. Seven years total. It was during this period that I watched Venezuela go from an unequal oligarchy to a communist dictatorship. But the way they did this – through the use of the magical and mystical to cement the authority of the dictators. It was during this time, especially the period of 2004 – 2008 when I was working there, supporting human rights and while watching the collapse of a democracy that I also picked up a copy of Atlas Shrugged. There it was, on the pages of a book written 60 years before by a Russian Jew living in California – everything that the government was up to. How could Ayn Rand have written with such precision what would have happened a hemisphere away and three generations in the future. That affected my work – the politics I’ve talked about before – the magic I experienced in Latin America all melded together in a style that is political but mystical; which nevertheless focuses all of it on the individual struggle to be free.
Leslie: Can you give an overview of your work in fiction and non-fiction, please? How is your work in these two areas related and/or discrete?
Joel: My most important non-fiction work is the first and only comprehensive review of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alliance. How Hugo Chavez set up a regional infrastructure to cement and advance communist dictatorships across the region. I wrote this during a year I took off, as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’ve also written chapters about similar stuff in multiple books: I’m a latinamericanist by interest and creeping authoritarianism has been the great issue surrounding Latin America for the last fifteen years. My fiction, however, is where I have more fun. Books on policy are a dime a dozen; that represent all the opinions across the spectrum. Limited readership, and the lack of creativity make these books dull – to read and to write. My editor once said “good writing trumps all” – I started writing fiction to try and tell the stories of real people – opinions and experiences about what it’s like living in these tumultuous times. There are no villains in my novels – although there are some heroes. Everybody is a rational actor, making decisions to advance his or her interests in the ways they believe will work. We all do this, everybody is a hero in his own mind. Nobody looks in the mirror and says “wow, I’m a real SOB”. I try to capture that. In my most recent novel, coming out in September I write about a Tuareg from Timbuktu who is radicalized through some personal mistakes; and deradicalized because he is human after all and starts to come to grips with the caliphate agenda. ‘The Making and Unmaking of a Jihadist’ – its full of magic too; Saharan, Muslim and Tuareg magic that overlaps in that arid desert. It comes from my 3 years living in Mali working on the peace process. Writing it has been my greatest challenge yet.
Leslie: Who (or what) are your most important creative influences? What have you learned from them?
Joel: I learned magic from Garcia Marquez (not 100 years, but more “Love in the Time of Cholera”) and Allende (Eva Luna). I learned about the power of the individual and the driving factor of the fight to be free from Ayn Rand. And I learned how to tell a story from W. Somerset Maugham and Pearl S. Buck. I suppose those are the greatest influences.
Leslie: Has bilingualism influenced how you write?
Joel: I speak French too. Yes, Spanish makes you think differently – even the basic way they construct sentences and develop ideas. My first novel The Lieutenant has been criticized for having rabbit trails and flashbacks and background stories. ‘Reality of Chavez’s Venezuela was lost’ is the criticism. That is an American way of looking at it – and one that I accept. In Latin American literature however one must weave in the richness of what makes the story come alive; and I have tried to incorporate that into my novels while at the same time respecting the beats and the plot movement necessary for American audiences to enjoy. I hope I succeeded. My new novel about Timbuktu “Lords of Misrule” tries to capture the immensity and antiquity of the Sahara and her Tuareg guardians; lots of colors and flavors. We have to write with all our senses. The interesting thing is that the French version (coming out simultaneously) is 13,000 words longer than the English. The simple translation from English (I write in English) added 15%; which is an example of how Latin based languages are a little more elaborate than English.
Leslie: What helps you to write most effectively? How do you create and maintain a ‘writerly’ persona for yourself?
Joel: It’s hard to bifurcate my mind from my day job which is very programmatic and administrative and the necessity to explore the deeper emotions in my writing. “You’re a great writer; but maybe you reveal too much about yourself” I have been told before – the realization that it maybe is because I allow myself to be vulnerable and reveal my inner tribulations that makes me write. But actually, the reality is that it is hard. What works best for me is to write early in the morning, right when I wake up before my mind is full of budget figures and personality conflicts and authority. When my mind is still clean from the morning – with a cup of coffee and silence. A recommendation, turn off the wifi when you write. The second you open a news report or check out social media, you will ruin the serenity you need to write.
Leslie: As a Magic Realist author, do you recognise any conventions that belong to the genre? If so, how do you use them and break them?
Joel: Its funny, magic realism I think doesn’t really have any conventions. And there are many who would argue that it is even a genre at all. Some would say it’s just a writing tool. At any rate, I use magical realism to capture that which in the world around us is not answered by the rational but which still gives people motivations or helps them make decisions. The best description I’ve heard of magical realism is “it is magical realism if, were you take out the magic, the plot and story would be the same. Everything else is fantasy.” That makes sense to me.
Leslie: What do you feel is your best work so far, and why?
Joel: My best work is the one that has just come out “Lords of Misrule” about a Tuareg Jihadist from Timbuktu. It is my best work because it is unique; trying to understand what makes someone become a terrorist. Because it is about a place that is magical and huge and old – a place many westerners don’t understand. It took me 2 years of research before I started to write. Learning about Tuareg traditions and culture. But, more importantly, about Islam. In my research I found a rational strain of Islam that was the protector of Aristotelian Greek philosophy, which worked to create the golden age of Islam before it was abandoned. Learning about Islamic theology was hard – but I have a degree in Christian theology and a lot of the struggles of these two disciplines are the same. The role of God in the world, the problem of pain and the limits of human responsibility as it relates to God’s omnipotence. But also, because it is a well written story – it is receiving the ‘Editor’s Choice’ award from my publisher.
Leslie: Why do you write?
Joel: I don’t write to lecture, to judge or to preach. I do write to show my interactions with the world around me, to make people human, and to make common cause with their struggles to be free. Individual freedom up against the desperation of poverty and misery and authority is the greatest human motivation and makes for inspiring and remarkable stories. I am always amazed by people that I meet in faraway lands – who have risked everything (and sometimes died) for their liberty. I write to honor them.
Leslie: Thank you, Joel, for your insights. I think you’re a tremendous magic realist novelist, but when it comes to world politics I think our ideas about the causes and solutions are different. So we agree that there is a crisis in governance and that poor people are on the receiving end, but there our views differ because:
- I think the 5th IPCC report on climate change tells us that we’re facing an emergency, and that Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything means that we must challenge laissez-faire capitalism (or neoliberalism) to stop plundering the planet for profit. So I believe in Scandinavian-style regulation to develop renewable energy sources and equitable distribution of wealth.
- You see the problem as corrupt, crony capitalism and totalitarian regimes, which makes the climate change dialogue: ‘…a Trojan horse for those who seek control, not for those who care about the planet. What works? entrepreneurship. increase in wealth which allows people excess income to focus on green areas. Economies big enough that they can collect taxes to pay for massive public parks. Electrification (yes, through privitization). etc. That to me is the saddest thing. By the time we realize the climate debate is a giant fraud, all the animals will be dead and the trees will have been burned…’
To put it another way, in the USA presidential election you leaned towards supporting Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party, I’m a member of the Green Party and supported the views expressed by Jill Stein. But I respect your report from the ground, as brilliantly expressed in your book The Burning of San Porfirio. It was great to hear your thoughts and read your writing.
Next week, LINDA’S SOUL KITCHEN, is an interview with Linda Anderson about how she has built up a community business in Croxley Green, near Watford.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir and a collection of lyrical essays. In brief: ‘Heaven’s Rage is an imaginative autobiography. Reporting on feelings people don’t usually own up to, Leslie Tate explores addiction, cross-dressing and the hidden sides of families. Writing lyrically, he brings together stories of bullying, childhood dreams, thwarted creativity and late-life illness, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. Both are innocents who have to learn more about long-term love and commitment, earning their independence through a series of revealing and closely-observed relationships. Purple is the first part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. Boosted by their ‘wider network’ they take secondary partners, throw parties and observe the dance of relationships amongst their friends. But finding a balance between power and restraint, and handling shared love, proves difficult… Blue is the second part of the Lavender Blues trilogy. You can read more about/buy Blue here.