Breaking down the barriers: An interview with innovative author Sierra Ernesto Xavier on release of new novel
“Xavier’s latest novel, Distortion, has been hailed as “the most daringly original and breathtakingly powerful work of literary fiction to emerge in recent years”. Noted as innovative yet approachable and deeply engaging, it is defined by its dialogue-only narrative, which aims to immerse the reader in the lives of its characters.While his 2012 debut, The Malady of Love, explored the emotional and psychological landscape of the characters, Distortion focuses on the protagonists’ physical landscape, with their perceptions of their own physical differences jeopardising the future of their relationship.
To mark its release, we spoke with Sierra to learn more.
Q. Your works of literary fiction are very distinctive and innovative, focused on telling the story solely through character narrative rather than with external description. Why did you choose this approach?
A. You could compare it to pasta. One can eat pasta every day. The shape of pasta may change but in terms of flavour only the sauce (white, pesto green, tomato) varies. You may love it but, essentially, it is still pasta. Look at the books in a bookshop; they have a splendid variety of pasta.
Perhaps one may want to try something different when the cliches and the sameness gets too much – dark clouds and rain, for example, will always evoke a certain mood in every book.
Q. What do you think this particular approach to narrative offers readers that a traditional style does not?
A. Portability. The dialogue can be in any place at any time, wherever the reader wants it to be. By not assigning character names or places, one can assign it to whom or what you can relate to (your skin or hair colour, accent, cultural mannerisms). It reduces that distance between the reader and character, and provides the best fit for the reader. The reader can actively complete the picture for themselves.
Intimate dialogue guides us from listening into a conversation to being present with the conversation. The reader is more involved by being-with the conversation and not removed from it with the exteriority – what people wear, how they say things, where they are saying it.
Q. How has your background as a mental health counsellor informed your novels, in terms of storyline, themes, and style?
A. The human predicament fascinates me: how we respond to events, circumstances, to each other, to our lives and to the personalities we evolve into. There is something moving or touching, that elicits sympathy, about knowing or seeing someone not understand the situation they find themselves, to have things inflicted on them or not be able to cope. It is this essence that I use for the storylines and themes. I hear the struggles through dialogue and not, for example, through what they are wearing. It is there, in their voice – a voice of humanity.
Q. Both your new novel, and your first novel, The Malady of Love, deal with trauma, but in different senses. Can you explain more?
A. Trauma piques intrigue and propels an interest in how it impacts lives and relationships. The Malady of Love features central characters living with traumas of different forms: inherent anxiety of ‘selective mutism’, a condition affecting many children, ‘twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome’ (where one foetus has a greater blood supply than their twin and may become the lone survivor), of separation and loss of a child.
Distortion deals with individuals who suffer from visual and physical differences. They both look at the impact on individuals and on their relationships. The Malady of Love is contrasted with some haunting and rhythmic dialogue that tries to convey some musicality. Distortion contrasts these themes with creativity and imagination.
Q. What made you opt for the title ‘Distortion’ for your new novel?
A. Funfairs used to have mirrors that distort your reflection, presenting it as misshapen. Move away and you restore yourself. These were the elements of the book: how two people see themselves and how others see them. When everything around you is telling you that you are that reflection, you may see yourself as that reflection.
It is also about whether the hope and aspiration of being with someone is a distortion when faced with immense challenges.
Q. How much research do you conduct before writing a novel?
A. Just as someone would do research on a historical novel then why not about emotions, psychology and peoples’ experiences? In this respect, I do a lot of research. I make notes, summarise those notes and then pull out what might be useful by looking at common themes and occurrences. But there has to be a cut-off point.
Q. Your latest novel is also different from the norm in revolving around the relationship of two lovers with physical differences. Why did you think this important, and what do you hope readers will glean from this presentation?
A. Whilst the characters seem very different to us, by the time you get to the end of the novel you do not sense any difference. They are people with problems, just like you or me. Therein lies the point of the novel. There is an underrepresentation not only of the visually and physically different but also of a positive representation. Other books illustrate how a child with a visible difference can be positive about it, but they fail to take account of the harshness of the adult world. I confront it head on. Representations make for awareness, familiarity and understanding. With understanding, perhaps, a reality emerges such that we begin to accept less the stereotypical images.
Q. What is your preferred environment for writing, and why?
A. A quiet place, where I can find it. I like working in cafés, where you can experience a private and public space, work in isolation and yet are with others. The quiet isolation needs to be filled and this is where the imagination emerges.
Q. Who are your main literary inspirations, and what have you learned from them?
A. Samuel Beckett and Marguerite Duras. Beckett’s pared-down minimalist description and his existential themes are amazing. Duras, at least her later works, provided fragmentary and hallucinatory prose with simplicity in dialogue.
For what I wanted to do, dialogue could not be pared down but the exteriority could. However, the language and dialogue are simple to follow.
Q. What can readers expect from you next?
A. The Malady of Love was about the minutiae of getting together, confronting an issue and then a separation. Distortion is about getting together. The next might be about moving away from one another, who knows!
Distortion by Sierra Ernesto Xavier (Grosvenor House Publishing) is available on Amazon in paperback, hardcover, and eBook formats priced £10.99, £16.99, and £6.99. Xavier’s first novel, The Malady of Love, is also available on Amazon, priced £8.99 in paperback and £3.99 as an eBook. For more information, visit www.sierraxavier.online.
EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM DISTORTION BY SIERRA ERNESTO XAVIER
Distortion redefines the relationship between story and reader, with critics praising it for taking them on a richly satisfying and deeply emotional journey like no other. Here is an exclusive extract from the beginning of the novel.
There is nothing wrong with you, my love. You are perfect.
You cannot say that. Can you not see the meandering river, that scar where my tears have flowed and which your finger has now brushed aside?
I do not see the tears. I see the beauty of your back in all its nakedness. Such horrors do not bother me, such tears I do not see.
There have been tears … many tears, all of which have run down that river.
I believe it. But when I am with you, I do not see the river meandering.
And when I am with you, I feel that there are no bends in that river. It becomes a dry river where there are no tears. I am happy, I feel beautiful and all the possibilities of the world are not needed. They are not needed when you are here, when your finger runs down that river, down my spine.
When you are with me you do not need those possibilities, but I think that you still wish they were real.
My heart wishes, because of the way you make me feel, that for you this river should have no bends, that the river shouldn’t have this deformity.
I love the “S” shape of your spine. Your scoliosis does not bother me. When I look at you I do not see any deformity. I see a river that runs straight.
Do you see the pain, my love?
I see tragedy.
That’s why I like you: it’s because you understand. You understand what it means to know the tragedy of it.
Yes, you seem to be stuck in wanting the river to run straight and believing it meanders.
Is it not there for you to see when you run your finger along my spine?
I see beauty … and a woman who believes she is not beautiful.
I feel beautiful. I am beautiful when I am with you.
When you are with me? You are beautiful always.
How can you say that? How can you say that the river runs straight when I am lying here like this? Can you not see the rock formations, how tall they are? Can you not see the unevenness?
You are beautiful without your clothes on. I like it when you are here next to me like this.
Cut me, cut me once more! Show me how to be happy!
Here … my finger … along this horror …
Do you feel it? Do you feel the peaks next to this river?
I feel nothing of the sort.
You feel it, I know you feel it. My shoulder-blade – it juts out …
When I touch you, there are no peaks … there is no unevenness, only a woman who is beautiful.
It is a price of failure – the failure to achieve what is possible, to achieve … normality.
As I am here, you are normal.
As I am here, I am a deformity.
You mustn’t say that word. You promised.
I’m trying. I’m trying to like the beauty you see. These are only our first few steps. But you must tell me the truth. The truth about what you see. The truth about what you touch. The truth about what you feel. That is the only way.