For decades, Elia Barceló has been the queen of Spanish genre literature. She started very young (she was 22 years old when she published her first book, in 1981) and became an obligatory reference in Spanish science fiction and fantasy. She also practiced other genres, both those not considered 'minor' (horror, juvenile), as well as the more general ones. In 2017, a novel of hers changed everything for her. The color of silence (Roca), a family story about our recent history, hit the key of the best seller and Barceló became one of the most popular authors of the moment. She has sold 200,000 copies of her last seven novels, and several of her classics (El mundo de Yarek or El contricante, renamed Uke) are being republished. She has also left her job as Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Innsbruck (Austria), where she has lived for more than 30 years, to dedicate herself exclusively to literature. She is also columnist for elDiario.es. She has just published Muerte en Santa Rita (Roca), which she labels 'Mediterranean noir' and which is the first, she hopes, of a series of crime novels spiced with the light and jasmine scent of the land of her birth. she, Alicante.
Death in Santa Rita is the story of a murder in a very particular setting: a transgenerational community created on the premises of an old spa. Where did this idea come from?
I had finished La noche de plata (Roca) in the midst of a pandemic. It was a very dark novel, very wintry, with a very hard theme. Then the lockdown ended, they let us come to Spain and when I found myself swimming in a pool and looking at the sky, I thought: "This is life". And, suddenly, a place began to come to me where different people live and enjoy all this, bread with oil, the sea, and spring has just arrived. And Santa Rita occurred to me, and also Sofía, the owner. And I said to myself: "Look, girl, we are going to make a happy, bright, very Mediterranean novel. And let there be a crime, to give it that point of joy" [ríe].
A post-confinement trauma?
Well, speaking with journalists, I have realized, consciously, what I did subconsciously. I really wanted society, sun, people talking to each other, eating delicious things. And I also wanted to pay homage to the light of my land and my childhood.
And it seems that it will give for more than one novel…
I have the second written, in the absence of polishing it, and the third in my head. Santa Rita was founded in 1862, and many shady things have happened in it, which have been hidden and forgotten. Well, consciously but not unconsciously forgotten, which is something that fascinates me a lot and that is in other novels of mine. When I was a child, in catechism they told us that the sins of the parents pass on to the children. And then I have realized that there is some truth in that concept; that there are things that our elders bequeath to us narratively, systemically as well as genetically. For example, if your great-grandmother was raped and killed, even if the family doesn't talk about it, even if that great-grandmother has never been mentioned to you, the trauma remains in the "after eight o'clock you don't go out on the street" or in the "cross the sidewalk if a man approaches". You know there is something there.
Sofía, Greta… All the main characters are over 60 years old. A claim against ageism?
I wanted to give voice to women of a certain age, who almost never star in soap operas. I thought: if a 50-year-old woman statistically has 35 years to live, isn't that interesting? In 35 years nothing can happen to you, you can't have projects, or illusions, you're not going to fall in love again? What nonsense.
Sofía is a writer of erotic and black novels and has a pseudonym for each facet. With as many genres as you have practiced, have you been tempted to do something like that?
Ever, ever. But my dream has always been that readers would want to read a novel by Elia Barceló because it is by Elia Barceló, without further ado. It is something that I am achieving now, and for which I am very grateful. I notice it when I go to fairs or signings and someone tells me: "I would never have thought of reading a science fiction or fantasy novel, but I thought: 'since it's by Elia, I'm going to give it a try'".
And now I'm beginning to realize that because when I started, very young, I only did what I liked. I was lucky enough to run into Miquel Barceló and publish in his magazine, Kandama. At the festivals we were [la escritora] Susan Vallejo, [la traductora y escritora] Cristina Macia and me. And a lot of girlfriends and wives of authors who were very bored. But I was not aware that I was doing something groundbreaking. It did happen to me that many people, teachers or friends, told me: "As well as you write, why do you write such nonsense?". Is that science fiction is not nonsense: it is the genre that opens the minds of readers, the only one that has new themes. But everyone thought they were idiots, robots and green bugs, something that did not speak of our problems or our time.
Imagine, if they have given a Nobel to Kazuo Ishiguro and the Goncourt to Hervé Le Tellier! We are improving. What happens is that, as I have been in this for 40 years, I realize how much progress we have made; And maybe a 25-year-old kid thinks that it's still not enough. And it's not, of course, but we're making progress. Then, in terms of genre literature, there is this idea that if something is sold it has to be shit, like Stephen King, for example. For me, King is the great American realist. The important thing about his books is not the monsters, but how people react to them. Jolines, is that it is Galdós.
Do you think that young people participate in this intolerance, that they are less open than before?
Yes, definitely. I think that in my time we were more open because, since we had been locked up so much, we opened ourselves to all the possibilities to see what else there was. And today's young people seem that, once they have defined themselves, everything else no longer applies to them and they are not open to anything. And that is getting into a box. I understand that, for example, you don't like Orson Scott Card's vision of homosexuality, and nobody is going to force you to go to one of his lectures; but maybe it's interesting to go and see what he has to say and ask him: "But do you really think that homosexuality is something terrible?". And see what he answers. Because today things are distorted a lot. And they are decontextualized, and there is a great desire for confrontation. Everything they've been saying to JK Rowling… It seems to me that they have passed three towns. She has a perfect right to her opinion, and to continue writing her novels. And you not to buy them, of course. But it is also young people who have begun to include characters that were not there before, of other races, religions or with disabilities. And there are times when I don't include them out of respect, because I'm afraid of doing it wrong or with bias. In Death in Santa Rita there is a blind man because they asked me to in a presentation of The Color of Silence that I did for ONCE. I hope they look good to you.
Is there a limit to what an author can imagine, in that sense?
It is an interesting topic. For centuries, men have made female characters, and no one was throwing their heads in their hands. But if you're a woman and you play male characters, that sparks debate.
And then there are those who imagine their own identity, like the Carmen Mola case.
I didn't like that. I did not like anything. Men have always dominated everything and now, when we women slowly begin to gain a space, they also colonize it. You feel cheated. If i were a matter of danger of death, as in the case of Yasmina KhadraWell, well, I don't know, it's something else. But this was pure marketing.
In his career there was a before and after The color of silence (2017). Why did it happen precisely with that novel?
In large part, it was because the publisher, Roca, believed in the novel and worked hard to make it known. For me it was a radical change. I had already decided to leave the university and the success of The Color of Silence made me realize that I was beginning to have a place in Spanish literature; not only in our ghetto, in the fandom, but in literature in general, without labels. And that made me very excited.
Are you worried about labels?
I am struck by the need to label everything exhaustively. In Twitter bios, where you have minimal space to explain who you are, I'm surprised by how many people find it necessary to include their sexual orientation. I don't like being reduced to three or four labels. I can't fit everything I am in a Twitter bio.
And now that you have been a writer exclusively for five years, what do you think of the change?
My life is great. The only damn thing is that I work a lot more. I love getting into trouble and say yes to everything. I read more things from other people, I collaborate with newspapers, I travel a lot. It is a very beautiful life, but very tiring, and I am getting older.
And the next book of his that we will see will be…
Oh, my daughter, that is a problem. I have the following Santa Rita novels underway, but I wouldn't be surprised if the second part of The Frankenstein Effect got in the way [la novela juvenil por la que ganó el Premio Nacional de Literatura Infantil y Juvenil en 2020], that they have been asking me, or that some other idea crosses my mind and I fall in love. I have four novels very well started. And I'm worried, because this year we've seen people die who weren't supposed to die, like Almudena Grandes Y Fernando Marias. And I am very fond of thinking about death, especially mine. Whenever I start a novel I wonder if I'll have time to finish it, I think about how many more I can still write. That's why I work so hard. And because it's the most fun thing in the world.