“The success of Permagel was like another flash flood that washed over me”

Eva Baltasar

Portrait of Eva Baltasar

She was unjustly obscure until only very recently and that may have been largely due to poetry. Eva Baltasar (Barcelona, 1978) had published a dozen or so books of poems, almost all of them prize-winners, before becoming the rising star author that she is now thanks to the novel Permagel (“Permafrost”) (2018, Club Editor), for which she has just been awarded the Premi Llibreter.

She now lives in Cardedeu and, as she says, she is surrounded there by many other possessives: her house, her family and her poems. And now also, inevitably, by the warmth of her readers. She is discreet. If she were a non-human animal, she would surely be a feline. She has the knack of elegance when keeping secrets and when revealing them at the right time. She often breaks into nervous laughter, a gesture that the interviewer cannot help but find charming. Her presence is friendly and uncluttered, bright and clear, although it would not take much effort to perceive that her smile has a great deal more behind it to be discovered. We decide to do just that, and she joins in.

Let’s start with the good news. Your novel Permagel was awarded the latest Premi Llibreter, granted by the booksellers of Catalonia as voted by them. How was that experience?

It was like another flash flood that washed over me, after the Sant Jordi Prize. Up until then, I had published poetry, and we all know that poetry is a genre that, if it causes upsets, they are felt by the reader, within their own personal sphere. The poet isn’t involved. Then I write a novel, and, little by little, I start hearing that buzz in the background. What could it be? A plague of locusts? A sandstorm? Hmm, very desert-related images. But that’s where I was living, in the desert, my very own tailor-made desert, with my town (now it’s Cardedeu), with my family, my household knickknacks, my fancies, my poetry. Oooh, how frightening, so many possessions! As it turns out, that buzz is growing as it is boosting Permagel, and now I have to deal with a lot of demands that are new to me: interviews, reading circles, proposals for work with the media ... So, what the hell, I decide to play along. It has been fun, I have lost my clear-cut vision of the world that I was contemplating, the rocks around me, the sky and the whole landscape, everything has become a rushing river that carries with it all sorts of different things. It has been lovely. It is not my particular tempo, but I hope that it is just a series of flash floods and nothing more. Both the positive reaction to the book by readers and the Catalan booksellers prize have been blessings that I have received with gratefulness and happiness.

Before the prize, the book seemed to have been very well received. Were there any special stories in connection with that reception? Some confession, some secret, some declaration of love for the main character ...?

How did you know that? Yes, of course, there has been a bit of everything, and all very quickly. A few people have touched me very deeply, just a few, but all of them very sincere, very coherent, who had tried at some point to commit suicide, others who were taking antidepressants and had suicidal impulses, and who thanked me for writing the book, for dealing with the subject of suicide as I did. I asked them, how do you mean? And they answered, well, without taboos, without dramatising, with a totally natural approach. Well, that’s just how I see it. I have a hard time sensing all those social ploys: what is taboo and what isn’t, for example. I must lack some sort of skill in that regard, and, look, I just talk about things as I see them and feel them, and in talking to these people, I realise that they appreciate that because they have been subjected to those social ploys. On the other hand, yes, one of the readers of a reading circle came out to me, she stayed afterwards to tell me that she had fallen in love with me because of the book. I understood her perfectly … The same has happened to me, on occasion.

If you had to describe Permagel to someone who was totally unaware of it and wanted to read this interview, what would you say?

That in Permagel there is a woman who wants a meaningful life, and that desire and the life that results from that desire make her suffer. But how she enjoys it when she is able to create an oasis of delight somewhere along the way.

Could you explain the title of the book for us?

It is a metaphor for the book, for the main character. Permafrost consists of layers of ground that are permanently frozen, found in many cold regions of our planet, and it is also the membrane that separates the main character from the world around her, a world that she finds very aggressive. Permafrost insulates, preserves and protects, and it is not invulnerable.

This novel will surely be remembered as your transition from poetry to prose. How did that transition happen?

I don’t think there has been transition, but rather an amalgamation of a genre in which I was working and where I felt very comfortable, with a new genre. There was that love affair between poetry and narrative in Permagel, because it is a book that is simply overflowing with poetry. The real work for me with Permagel was to handle the language, to treat each sentence as if it was a line of poetry, to find just the right word that the rhythm demanded. It was a sort of symbiosis that isn’t prose poetry, but rather a novel conceived as a poem, as a poem with a huge desire to get things across.

In fact, some readers are of the opinion that the first pages of Permagel are in fact poetry, a springboard to the more narrative prose that is to follow. Were you aiming to give that impression, or is it just an impression?

I couldn’t say. You know, I am very surprised by all these discourses, theories, suppositions and interpretations that get built up around the novel. I hear them and I wonder: is that how my subconscious works? All I did was write a novel, it was a simple act, I enjoyed doing it, it’s finished, and that’s it. But, it seems that that is not it. I have baptised the first chapter as a bugbear for readers, because it is true that is a bit more, I wouldn’t say poetic, but hazy. You start reading and you think “What is this woman going on about? Has she gone mad or what? Am I supposed to let myself get carried away by her voice?” Frightening, isn’t it? To let yourself get carried away by a madwoman’s voice. What I like to think is that the reader discovers that she is not as mad as she appeared and that she doesn’t spend her life giving voice to her thoughts. She masters them through speech, and she shows that as the novel progresses. I think that the most poetic passages, in fact, are found towards the end.

Do you write poetry differently from how you write narrative?

In my case, not really. The difference is mostly in the time it takes. I spend a day on a poem, and two or three weeks, maybe a month, on a book of poetry. Writing a novel took me quite a few months. With a poem, it’s like you are doing it the service of writing it; it wasn’t there before, and then it is, I am the writer. On the contrary, the novel made me feel like it was the novel that was doing me the service. It was there already, long before I realised, somewhere in my head there was this voice that needed to be heard and that allowed me to take it over.

Have you got a ritual, a habit, something that you need in order to write?

I like writing at home, in a simple little room that has everything I need: a desk, a huge window, yellow and green things … I find it easy to do with my computer, a poor old thing that only remembers how to process words, I don’t ask anything else of it. I have been drinking a lot of green tea lately, I used to drink black tea, but my heart told me that maybe I had had enough of that colour.

How do you deal with the question of autobiography in writing now?

I don’t deal with it. In fact, when I am writing, I don’t deal with anything, I just write, I let myself go, I let the voices I hear speak for themselves, I play with the language ..., I have a wonderful time! Writing is like going on vacation, hiking up and down mountains, visiting museums, meeting people, swimming in lakes. It is a blessing to be able to do that every day! I write what comes out of me, there are totally fictitious passages, others that are more autobiographical … But life itself is like that. I like to think that a large part of my life is also fiction. This interview, for example, what we are doing here between the two of us, is it biography or fiction?

In June this year you took part in the first occasion of QLit, the city’s queer literature festival, organised by the Catalan Language Writers Association, and your first statement was that you couldn’t imagine yourself writing a main character that wasn’t a woman and wasn’t lesbian. Isn’t writing also a sort of fabrication?

I suppose so, but I believe that the act of fabrication requires a certain distance between the writer and what they are writing. That is the space where fiction is made. In my case, I just don’t find that space. When I wrote Permagel, I was so her, the voice of the woman speaking there, that the concept of fiction becomes irrelevant. I don’t care about what she’s saying, but rather what she means and how she is saying it, the voice that is behind it, and that voice is me, a woman who feels lesbian. I would have a hard time writing anything else and making it convincing.

Do you feel comfortable with the label autofiction, or has the term been taken perhaps a bit too seriously?

I don’t feel comfortable with any label. I find labels reductionist, dangerously comfortable.

The motto that Club Editor promotes to its readers is in fact “If you want to understand the world, read fiction”. How did you come to publish the novel with that house?

I had the original of the novel in my hands, a copy printed at home, and I asked myself “Which publisher would you like to bring it out?” The answer was Club Editor, because of its catalogue, because of how refined all its publications are. I found its e-mail address on the Internet and I sent it to them. I ended up meeting Maria Bohigas, who invited me to work with Club Editor.

What was it like working with Maria Bohigas? They say she is capable of snipping whole pages of authors’ works …

Working with her is like finding a basket of gifts every day at your door without being entirely convinced that you deserve them … She makes you feel loved and fortunate, and it is easy and really fun. Maria makes little things interesting and she makes big things intimate and real. And yes, she must collect scissors and she doesn’t like them to get rusty tucked away in a drawer somewhere. But she doesn’t oblige, she suggests, which is worse (laughter). She is a fantastic editor.

In your career as a poet, you had worked with the leading Catalan publishers. Was there a noticeable difference in your experience with an independent publisher like Club Editor?

It was very different. It was the first time that I felt that I was working with a real person throughout the whole process. Maria looks you in the eye when she is talking with you and that’s good. It’s also true that publishing a novel takes a lot longer than publishing a book of poems, and maybe that made it all feel so much closer.

The Club Editor catalogue is full of writers about desire and other desires, such as The Sea, by Blai Bonet, My Parents by Hervé Guibert, and the always hybrid and indomitable textualisations of Victor Català. How do you feel in such company?

I feel as if I have been accepted into a brotherhood that is after all a bit above me. I feel like a novice, small, inexperienced, clumsy, and I think to myself … whew, just keep your head down and carry on, with a little luck and a lot of attention to what the others are doing, you might end up learning something.

Blai Bonet, precisely at the beginning of The Sea, says “Man is like the sea, he penetrates and is penetrated, he reflects and he is moved by celestial life.” What would you say to that?

Nothing. There is no answer to a sentence like that.

The main character of Permagel is a woman who desires other women, but the character seems to be searching for a more molecular, more multi-faceted identity: “A lesbian is in competition with a whole other range of simultaneous roles, like some set of intensities. My person is inhabited permanently by trustee tenants: daughter, sister, friend, former university student, neighbour, reader, auntie, owner, customer, user, steadfast and flighty, and so on. All those beasts co-exist and compete with the lesbian.” What part does sex play in your story?

We have run up against labels. Sometimes we end up thinking of ourselves in terms of labels, and that sort of rationality doesn’t spur thought, but instead directs it. The main character of Permagel enjoys sex in itself and she realises that it keeps her linked to the present, it saves her from memories of the past and conjectures about the future, it keeps her safe in a secure place.

… And what does her sexual identity have to do with her suicidal tendency?

I don’t think it has anything at all to do with it.

The discourse concerning the body is one of the threads that runs through the whole book: “There are parts of the body, like oversized pieces of furniture, that you do not know how to face.” Did you do some sort of theoretical research to write that?

Nothing at all outside myself. Approaching myself, listening to myself, touching myself, surprising myself, that is what led to such reflections.

The body is one of the ways that the main character of Permagel relates to the individuals closest to her, in other words with her lovers. More specifically, she plays with fruit. What led you to propose that game and where did you want to take it?

Nothing led me there and I didn’t intend to take it anywhere. The main character knows how to enjoy life: art, sex, reading and eating are her totally healthy vices. And since I myself go overboard with those pursuits, she turned out like that … Why not enjoy two vices at once and so lose yourself in woods that are a bit deeper?

In one passage of the novel, the main character refers to her “clitoris, incredibly tripled in size, like a haughty micropenis”. What are the ultimate bounds between the two main genders that we have traditionally been taught exist?

I love to think about the dissolution of those bounds, all sorts of dissolutions: coupling, substitution, cannibalism, incorporation … I hope there is no end, because sometimes the flesh needs to transcend the limits of the mind. And when it does, the mind is surprised and it grows.

Is it possible in today’s world to live as only a woman or only a man?

I wouldn’t venture to say either yes or no, I would have to think about that, and surely I would have to live longer before I could answer. I’m sure that there are people who are convinced that they live only as a woman or as a man, and I value the feeling. In general, I see myself as a woman; but then, what is it to be a woman? Well, I can’t answer that. Me, I’m a poet, I can look at myself and see men, I am attracted by the masculinity I see in many women … do I live only as a woman? I live as who I am, someone who loves and lives her life, over and above everything else.

“Sex distances me from death. Even so, it doesn’t draw me near to life.” To what extent can we say that it is sex that saves the main character of Permagel?

I think she saves herself, she is quite strong. Sex accompanies her.

Is being born a misfortune, as in the quote from Thomas Bernhard that you place at the beginning of the novel?

Being born is the radical act par excellence.

When she talks about her sister, the narrator says that “both of us have had this overbearing need for intensity, and life with the family diluted it. The family, what a magnificent solvent!” Is the family the antithesis of sex and therefore of an intense life?

That depends on the family (laughter). In Permagel, the family represents life only half lived, attenuated life, and sex is finding the body again in the body of the other. I don’t think there is any antithesis because the terms advance on different levels.

How does the main character relate to Barcelona? Does she experience it as a place of passage, a safe haven, a provisional space, an endless move …?

It’s odd, because the city’s name is never mentioned, right? But I imagined that most of the novel, when it wasn’t specified otherwise, took place in Barcelona. I think that it’s the Place, where she comes to discern herself, a geographic simile for her own body.

To what extent do you consider Barcelona a friendly city for feminist movements and the LGBTI community?

On that subject, I think that I would need to live more in Barcelona, to have more knowledge and information about Barcelona, in general, in order to give a realistic answer. I could answer based on my personal experience of the years that I lived in Barcelona, from the age of eighteen to twenty-six, as a woman, as a lesbian, and for me it was a welcoming city, where I lived my life and my sexuality with freedom. And I could say the same of all the other places where I have lived.

Are all cities provisional?

For me, if it is a city, it can only be provisional.

But towns are not?

Oh no! I’m sure that somewhere there is a tiny village waiting for me. When I get there and fall in love with it, I’ll stay there if I can.

Maria-Mercè Marçal said that she had lived her whole life moving from one place to another and that that feeling was intensified when she learned that in Greek, metaphor means movement, quite literally. Do you think your work opens some sort of dialogue with Marçal’s work?

Whew! I had never thought of that. I really don’t see my work in terms of dialogue with other writers, but if someone perceives such a dialogue with Marçal, well, that’s lovely.

Who are your literary influences?

Oh, there aren’t many: Walt Whitman, Carson McCullers, Theresa of Avila, James Salter, Mercè Rodoreda, R. S. Thomas, Sylvia Plath ...

And outside the sphere of literature?

Egon Schiele, Rubens, Johann Sebastian Bach, Vivaldi, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Raimon Panikkar, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Matisse, Van Gogh, the Bauhaus, Jung ... Okay, that’s probably enough.

To finish up, let’s talk about the future. Permagel is the first instalment of a trilogy that is announced in the afterword to the book, to be followed by Boulder and Mamut. What’s the status of those works?

Hopeful. I have been working on one and then the other, off and on. Lately Mamut has been really taking off, I have been concentrating on it, it is moving along.

When will we be able to read a new book by Eva Baltasar?

When I get my crystal ball, I will give you a call.