Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel Q&A: ‘I wrote one of my first novels sitting up a tree’

Author from Equatorial Guinea on what he reads and how he writes

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is a novelist from Equatorial Guinea, who writes mostly about social, political and economic ineqality in his country and in Africa more widely. His latest novel By Night the Mountain Burns (translated into English by Jethro Soutar) is shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the winner of which will be announced on Wednesday.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

I was very attracted to books as a child and so I vividly remember the ones that first thrilled and captivated me - the holy books! For a long time after learning to read, The Bible and The Missal were the only books we had in the house, so that's what I read.

What was your favourite book as a child?


The only books I had regular access to were books about God, so they were my favourites. Then I remember an encyclopedia, which covered all the subjects taught on a certain primary school course in Annobón in the 1970s. They were the books that marked my childhood.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Books I recall particularly enjoying include: Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías; Los renglones torcidos de Dios (The Skewed Scribblings of God [unavailable in English]) by Torcuato Luca de Tena; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; Aké by Wole Soyinka. From Equatorial Guinea, I'd say Ekimo by María Nsue. And oh yes, there was a collection of tales by Italo Calvino that made quite an impression on me, The Baron in the Trees, The Nonexistent Knight and another one I can't remember the name of. They're magical.

What is your favourite quotation?

I’m not a big fan of quotes. You often see people bandying around famous quotes they’ve failed to understand, which is a form of treachery in my view. So forgive me for quoting one of my own lines: “I’m not afraid of being right. But just as truth can hurt, being right can’t help life’s ups and downs.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Cosimo di Rondò from Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees.

Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?

I prefer traditional books, for they’re the ones I know. Besides, the way I lead my life, I don’t like being reminded that things expire, it makes me nervous - I’d be ill at ease knowing the book’s energy might run out. In any case, I’ve never read an ebook.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

One Hundred Years of Solitude or Los renglones torcidos de Dios. I didn't buy either of them, they were presents; almost all my books were given to me, though I don't necessarily recall by whom.

Where and how do you write?

These days I usually write at home, but in the past I used to write wherever I could. I remember that I wrote some chapters of a book called La Carga (The Load [unavailable in English]), one of my first novels, sitting up a tree. It was before there was even, I can safely say, a single computer in the whole of Equatorial Guinea. You could only write in the day, for there was no light at night. I also took to writing at the side of a main road, to take advantage of the street lights. I'm 48 years old and I only started having access to computers in 2000.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

None. I don't feel the need to change the way I think about fiction. But in a broader sense, a book that did represent a significant leap forward for me was One Hundred Years of Solitude. Why? Because García Márquez could have been too afraid to write certain things. For example, he could have downplayed the fantastical and written a more apparently normal story. But he didn't hold back. In any case, Cervantes did this too, so maybe García Márquez learned from him.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

Besides my novels, I've written two non-fiction books about Equatorial Guinea: Guinea Ecuatorial, Vísceras (Equatorial Guinea, Entrails) and El derecho de pernada: Cómo se vive el feudalismo en el siglo XXI (The Droit de Seigneur. How Feudalism Lives on in the 21st Century [neither book is available in English]). I had to keep myself constantly informed while writing them, because it was important that they reflect reality as much as possible.

What book influenced you the most?

None, really, as a writer; I wrote most of my books before I gained access to the books I now consider important. But as a student, picaresque novels, like El Buscón (The Swindler, by Francisco de Quevedo) and Lazarillo de Tormes (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities, published anonymously) made a big impression on me. Quevedo is an example of an author I hold in high regard. He had a lot of registers.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

I’ve never given a book as a birthday present, at least I don’t remember ever having done so. I grew up in an environment where books didn’t exist.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Write whatever you want, don’t hold back. But understand that a lack of recognition is not necessarily a reflection of a lack of quality.

What weight do you give reviews?

I like reviews. It shows that someone has read the book and is willing to discuss it. And I ought to add that reviews are sometimes the only satisfaction the author gets, because all the other things that might happen due to you being an author could just as well happen if you weren’t one. For example getting rich, becoming famous etc... So positive reviews nourish the author’s soul. And yes, they do often inflate the ego too.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Personally, I think it’s a shame that even a single book gets published without having a reader. I sometimes get the impression that books are published just to keep the industry going, in which case it’s not about the books at all, it’s something else entirely.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

What you read sometimes teaches you things, other times it guides you. Either way, books are a constants in our lives, even if you don’t read. It’s the same with television these days, for certain channels are like books on a screen.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

What for? Having their books is enough. And it’s best not to kid ourselves: just because someone’s a good writer, it doesn’t mean they’re a nice person. The author’s characters will often have a better character than the author.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

Television makes it very difficult for a funny or comic scene from a book to really stick in the mind. But if pushed, I’d say some of the scenes in El Búscon.

What is your favourite word?

I don’t have a favourite word. There ought not to be favourites, for they all have their uses. But some sound different compared to others. Ánfora (amphora) and cántara (pitcher) have a different sound to say besugo (sea bream) and comedor (dining room), and I like the first ones better.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

I could mention a number of obscure Africa figures you won't have heard of, or in Annobón there's an oral story people tell about a man who came to fight them dressed in a copper suit and I could write about him. But let's say I'd write about Napoleon. Why? Because he was exiled in Saint Helena, an island that's a long way away from Annobón, but is in the same vicinity, meaning Napoleon could have easily ended up exiled in Annobón instead. Our history would have taken on a different colour and its a scenario you can play around with and speculate on. In fact I touched on it in a novel I recently completed, Los chinos duermen contigo (Sleeping with the Chinese [as yet unpublished]).

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of delights, although there are a lot of Aurelianos, it has to be said, a confusing number of them.

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?

You’d be better off asking the child what book they enjoyed having read to them. If I decide to read a story to a child, it’s because I like the story already.