Creating a fiction that's real

Sat, Jun 13, 2009, 01:00

CARLOS RUIZ Zafón doesn’t look like the kind of guy who loves old books. Clad in an orange and purple rugby shirt and cool-dude glasses, he exudes the kind of easy amiability you’d find at any gathering of the sporting variety, or even in the pub. He certainly seems to be plugged straight into the zeitgeist, for despite being steeped in mists, mystery, melodrama and – yes – old books, his novel The Shadow of the Windhas sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, writes ARMINTA WALLACE

No matter how you count it, that’s two copies for everybody on this island with more than three million left over. How does he do it? He smiles. “I write for people who like to read – and even for people who don’t know that they like to read,” he explains. “Reading is for pleasure. That’s the first stage. You engage people and get them to have fun. Lose themselves in a book. After that, there are many different layers. They may want to get into those layers or not.” Ruiz Zafón is passionate about the pleasures of reading. He is considerably less enthusiastic about the conventions of the publishing business, which have led to The Shadow of the Windbeing billed as “the most successful Spanish novel since Don Quixote”.

If I had written a book that was even mentioned in the same sentence as Cervantes’s comic masterpiece, I’d be found hopping around somewhere over the far side of the moon. Ruiz Zafón, however, just shrugs a very Spanish shrug. “Well, that’s kind of a statistic,” he says. “A fact, in terms of the number of copies sold. But what does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just one of the things that they say. And okay, it’s better to be the most successful novel in Spanish publishing than the least successful one – if you have to choose. Okay, I’ll take the best. Why not?”

He has a similarly sceptical attitude to the adjective “bestseller”. “A bestseller is not a genre. It’s simply a book that sells a lot, from James Joyce to the Bible to Don Quixote.” With millions of books in his credit column, Ruiz Zafón can afford to be sanguine. But while he’s often hailed simply as the author of The Shadow of the Wind, his own back story goes further than that.

RUIZ ZAFÓN was born in Barcelona in 1964, but has lived in Los Angeles since 1993, which helps explain the fluency and rapidity of his spoken English. “I’ve always been a writer,” he says. “This is what I’ve been doing forever.” He published his first novel in 1992, but at the age of nine, with the help of four friends, he set up his own publishing venture. “The father of one of my friends owned a paper-supply company,” he recalls, with a fond smile. “And they had a Xerox machine there – which, at the time, was magic technology. So he was our production man. We had an artist who drew the covers, and we had our marketing guy, who was very outgoing. He would go out in the hallways and playgrounds selling the books.” The lads built up a big readership for their tales of ghosts, horror and “aliens from outer space who came here and killed everybody”. Even the teachers in the school ended up as customers. “And that’s what eventually got us in trouble,” says Ruiz Zafón with a rueful smile.

One of their tomes got into the hands of the school’s Jesuit principal. “He decided the material was subverting the souls of an entire generation of future captains of industry. Oh, my god: all these stories with ghosts and vampires and violence. So they shut us down.” Even at that early stage, he says, he knew he would grow up to be a writer. How to make a living out of it, though – that was the problem. For a few years, he worked in advertising. “It was a very well-paid job. I was 19 years old, and my father thought I was in drugs or organised crime or something. He’d say, ‘What is it you guys do there?’ I’d say, ‘We make TV commercials. It’s legal. It may not be ethical, but it’s legal.’”

Ruiz Zafón persevered with his “real” fictions, and when his novel Prince of the Mistswon the Premio Edebé, he became a household name in Spain. His first three novels were published in Spain as young adult fiction – not that he approves of the term. “What is young adult fiction?” he asks. “Jules Verne? Sherlock Holmes? Robert Louis Stevenson? There are just books. There are just stories. I’m writing for people nine years old to 90. Your mental age is your own business.”

His new novel, The Angel’s Game, returns to the territory he explored in The Shadow of the Wind; an old house, a young writer, a shadowy and powerful book. “It inhabits the same universe, but it’s an earlier time. It’s set mostly in the 1920s and 1930s,” he says. Fans will be glad to hear that the two novels are part of a planned four-book cycle. “What I thought would be really interesting would be to create this quartet of novels about the world of books. Each will stand alone but they are also interconnected, as a Chinese box or a labyrinth with four doors of entry. You can read one, or two, or three, or four – in any order you want.”

The Shadow of the Windtells the story of a reader who becomes obsessed by the work of a mysterious writer. The new book is about a writer who is commissioned to produce a book unlike any other – a book that will change people’s lives. Soon after he accepts the challenge, he realises that he has made a big mistake, but it’s too late; he has already been sucked into a web of murderous intrigue. “It’s about the process of storytelling,” says Ruiz Zafón. “It’s much darker than Shadow of the Wind. It has strong Gothic overtones.” But it also has the trademark Ruiz Zafón humour. The story opens with the young writer serving his apprenticeship in a newspaper, where his boss sports a bushy moustache and subscribes to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives is “the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency”.

Another trademark is Ruiz Zafón’s use of his native city as a major protagonist. His is not the sunny Barcelona of the tourist posters, but a city of dark alleys and medieval buildings, rain-sodden, fog-shrouded, sometimes carpeted by a sprinkling of snow. “The Barcelona I try to create is a very literary Barcelona,” he says. “It’s an extreme stylisation. I try to have the city as a character, and so you do with it what you do with characters – which is, you put on costumes. You add make-up. You give lines, directions, motivation. What the stories do is give people the key to see beyond the sunshiney, purely touristy impression of the city – which is very recent, and very superficial.”

In his quest to recreate what he sees as the soul of the city, Ruiz Zafón says he’s punctiliously faithful to the physical reality of Barcelona – except when he’s making things up. His skill is in blending the real and the fictional so seamlessly that visitors to his website can “take the Shadow walk”, a guided tour that can be downloaded and used in the streets of Barcelona – complete with hand-drawn map which, even by itself, is a delightful thing. You can also download music to “accompany” the books, composed by Ruiz Zafón himself. He has, it turns out, been composing for years. “Music is what I enjoy most in the world,” he says. “To me it’s part of the process of writing. Instead of making sketches of the characters, I might write a piece of music. It’s a way, also, to let off some steam. It relaxes me. So when I finish a book, I have 90 minutes of music which is some sort of a score.”

Because he writes this music for himself, he doesn’t want it to be marketed or sold, but he likes the idea that readers can download it and listen at their leisure. He smiles. “It’s a strange thing, I know,” he says.

WELL, TRUTH ISsupposed to be stranger than fiction. Besides, fiction is a pretty strange thing in itself. Sometimes the most apparently “out-there” creations have echoes in the real world. Take the cemetery of forgotten books. One of Ruiz Zafón’s most striking literary creations, it features both in The Shadow of the Windand The Angel’s Game, lurking behind a carved wooden door down a narrow laneway in an obscure back street of Barcelona. Inside, it’s “a labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves . . . woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges”. Well, there’s no such thing as a cemetery of forgotten books in real life. Or is there?

Ruiz Zafón admits to being a big fan of the kind of sprawling, second-hand bookshops that are a rarity in Europe, but which often haunt the unlovely suburbs of American cities. In fact, his description of one of his all-time favourites – the now-defunct Acres of Books in Long Beach, California – has an uncannily familiar ring. It was, he says, an enormous warehouse filled with tunnels. “The fiction section didn’t even have electric light. You had to bring a flashlight . . . ”

And he’s off again, telling the story of how he read something the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote about it, and how he hired a car and drove along the Harbour Freeway to get there, and how, after many years of struggles and narrow escapes, the developers finally managed to get it closed down.

If you’ve been doubting Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s ability to produce an entire quartet of books about books, don’t. It’s my guess that he has acres upon acres of tales still to tell.

The Angel’s Gameis published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £18.99