Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio García Ángel

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 5)

Antonio García Ángel thought Mario Vargas Llosa was going to help him write a new novel. In fact, Llosa showed him a whole new way of working. “Work on your writing eight hours a day, like at a regular job,” Vargas Llosa commanded at a session early in the mentoring year. “That’s the secret of success.”

Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio García Ángel

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 5)

An Interview with Antonio García Ángel early in the mentorship

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts initiative?
The category of the artists who have been mentors in the programme was very attractive to me. There was no other way in which a beginner like me could work with a master such as Vargas Llosa.

Also the type of work that the Initiative proposes. Literary workshops can be very useful, but sometimes the divergent interests of the group of writers can make it difficult to give full concentration to your own work. On the other hand, sometimes creation deals with solitude and lack of guidance during the writing process. The mentor and protégé system takes both working styles: the support given by a colleague and the centered focus in the most personal projects.

Finally, because it gives me the possibility of having time for writing and not having to worry about money.

Have you ever had a mentor before?
I’ve had teachers who told me things that would be useful for my work. But never a mentor in the sense of someone who guides you. A teaching relationship involves more than two people. With a mentor, it is an exclusive and privileged relationship. A mentor is committed in a more profound way.

What do you hope to get out of this collaboration?
My second novel and a lot of discipline! I hope to broaden my vision of literature and deepen my commitment to it. I want to impose more difficult tasks on myself. My expectations are higher than they were before. I want to do risky things, to put pressure on my work. This collaboration gives me confidence to do those things. For the time being, we have a rule that I send part of my writing to him regularly, almost once a week. And I concentrate on this.

So far, what is the best part of being a Rolex protégé?
A greater sense of assurance as I write my second book, rather than only reaching a real sense of purpose at the end. I am no longer working in a fog. Automatically, the fact that you show your work to a master makes you better, makes you feel stronger, helps you do things better, makes you give more of yourself.

What was your first impression of your mentor, Mario Vargas Llosa?
He was very warm, very friendly. The first things he said made me think that he knew my work and that he cares. That was important to me. I felt honoured.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s?
He has clearly been an important influence on my work already. We share the same vision of literature. He writes realistically, paying attention to every detail. I want to write like that, with the same minuteness. He has an innovative technique, but keeps his writing readable. I, too, want to find new ways of saying things, without making my work difficult to read as a result.

Do you think that Mario Vargas Llosa’s guidance will change your approach to literature?
I think he is enlarging my idea of what writing can be. In that sense, I think he will influence my work. The most interesting and the most important thing is that I am trying to find the most personal and appropriate voice in which to write.

Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio García Ángel

A year of mentoring

Literary relationship (Chapter 3 of 5)

His master’s voice
In mid-2004, as the second cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative was just moving into full swing, Mario Vargas Llosa was delivering a lecture series at Oxford entitledThe Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables'. In the audience at one of the lectures was the young Colombian writer, Antonio García Ángel, 33, Vargas Llosa’s protégé in the Rolex programme.

Afterwards, the two bookworms shared a train compartment from Oxford up to London. Over the soft clatter of the rails, they took up their favourite topic – literature – in a more informal vein. The rapport between mentor and protégé is relaxed, companionable. Already, they have spent time together at the theatre and the movies, and they call each other by the familiar Spanish pronoun tu.

Under Vargas Llosa’s tutelage, five long years after completing his first novel, García Ángel has plunged into his second. “It’s a tragicomedy of middle-class life,” he says. His protagonist this time is a corporate executive juggling a marriage, a mistress and a company celebration. “You laugh,” García Ángel promises, “but it hurts, like when you have a broken rib.”

Words of wisdom
“Work on your writing eight hours a day, like at a regular job,” Vargas Llosa commanded at a session early in the mentoring year. “That’s the secret of success.” As he specified from the outset, Vargas Llosa expected to see a new chapter every Friday, which they would discuss the following Sunday, whether in person or (more often) by telephone. “A chapter a week!” García Ángel repeated to himself in a daze. “That’s a lot of stress!” But his wide eyes and the grin he cracked from ear to ear conveyed a wild thrill of anticipation.

“At first,” Vargas Llosa recalled months later in Paris, “Antonio was a bit lost. He was proceeding by impulse, by drive. I suggested at least a very loose structure for his story, thinking that would be useful. Now he has worked it out in detail. He knows how the story begins, how it ends, all its branches, all the principal characters. He wasn’t used to working this way. Now he has a plan.”

Has Vargas Llosa ever said that something is just wrong? “No, not wrong,” García Ángel answers. “He says something could be better.” And does he ever say that something is excellent? “Twice or three times. And then the next week is a good one for me. I keep looking back as I move forward.”

At first, García Ángel recalls months after they began working together, Vargas Llosa would critique new material chiefly for what it left out. “For 60 pages, I was describing a building. Finally, Vargas Llosa said” ‘Fine, but you’re crazy! You have to start telling the story.’ Those descriptions of the building are still there, but they’re broken into pieces and used where they’re needed.”

As the end of their year was approaching, Vargas Llosa set a deadline for completing the manuscript. “Now,” García Ángel said, with two months and a projected third of the way to go, “I’m working Saturdays, too. But now I have 212 pages. When you have pages, life is different.”

Extracted from a chapter, written by Matthew Gurewitsch for Unique Voices, Common Visions,a record of the 2004/2005 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio García Ángel

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 4 of 5)

Antonio García Ángel talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

What was your most important artistic achievement before you began participating in this programme?
Publishing my novel – finishing and publishing my first novel.

How did the mentoring year progress?
Very well. When we started, my second novel was in the early draft stage, and I was very insecure. Now, I’m almost 300 pages away from that moment and working constantly, feeling very sure and very happy with what I’m doing.

What was the best part of being a Rolex protégé?
I travelled to different countries, most of them new to me. It’s good to come out of your little provincial shell and see the world. That, and working with such a master as Mario Vargas Llosa. Working with him: that was the best thing. And the pages that came as a result.

Is there one incident or remark that sums up or typifies your relationship with your mentor?
I wouldn’t want to mention only one. But the first time we met in person, he told me that he had read my novel and the other texts I had sent. I could tell then that he had read it in careful detail, and that he was very interested in helping his protégé to do a good job. I felt that if he picked me, we would already have made a good start. The tone of the relationship was given by that first encounter.

What was the single most important lesson or piece of advice your mentor gave you?
The discipline. The discipline to write always, and to maintain a constant routine of writing.

Is your work similar to or different from your mentor’s?
Of course the work is different! Literature is very personal, a very intimate response to your own ghosts, your inner obsessions. In art it’s not a matter of whether you work by hand or with a computer. What’s important is the inner drive, which depends more on your soul than on your method. But the differences are very interesting in work like this, because they give you new points of view about your writing.

Did you learn from your mentor any lessons beyond the practice of your art?
Yes. I got the sense that you must really be faithful to what you think, and defend your point of view, no matter how many enemies you make or fights you get into. I’m talking about politics, ethics, and ways of thinking. Be coherent.

Can you describe in two or three sentences the most beneficial aspects, for you, of the mentoring year?
It gave me the time to focus on my writing, which otherwise I would have had to do at night when I’m really, really tired. So that’s the first thing: having the time, free from worry. And it gave me a strong commitment to discipline, to a sense of my duty. It gave me a real focus on what I am doing.

Has your approach to your writing changed or developed during the mentoring experience?
I am more disciplined, and I’ve gained a wider knowledge of literature. So reading was important. But most of all, my ambition has grown. My view is wider. Before, my goals were very near to me. Now I put my goals far, far in the distance. I want to make greater things.

Now that the mentoring year has ended, which direction will your artistic career take?
I’ll keep writing. I will not stop. I want to grow as a writer. I want to write work that is richer and more deeply researched, in ways that are new and original. And I want to reach more readers.

Is there any other comment you would like to add?
I’m very grateful to Rolex and Mario Vargas Llosa. He’s been the best teacher I’ve ever had – not because of who he is, but because of how he works and how he thinks, how he focuses the process and the goal of making you better.

Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio García Ángel

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 5 of 5)

Interview with Mario Vargas Llosa

What interested you most about the Rolex Arts Initiative and influenced you to participate in the programme?
I was very curious about the idea of working with a protégé. I’ve never done that before. I was curious to see if the working relationship could give me insights into my own work. No two writers are alike: the work is the projection of one’s personality. This project offered a special opportunity to work closely with a writer on a creative project.

Do you think the passing down of artistic knowledge to younger generations is the duty of a successful artist?
I think that the duty of an artist is to be creative, rigorous, authentic – not to lie. Write whatever novel you like, it’s never the objective truth. The writer’s truth is his own. Who you are, what you believe: you must be loyal to your vision of the world. Do this, and you’ve fulfilled your duty. But it’s valuable to share what one has learned with younger writers so that literature will continue to be an important force in society. In literature we have a problem today. Light literature has taken over, literature that wants only to be pure entertainment. Of course literature must be entertainment or it is nothing. But literature that wants only to be entertainment is doomed. It can’t compete with the audio-visual media. Literature has to have its own point of view – a critical point of view on the times and society. It’s important to fight to keep this concept alive at a time when literature is threatened by frivolity.

Is there a difference between a teacher and a mentor? If so, what do you think the main difference is?
I think this will be much more private than teaching at a university or an academy. I don’t think you can teach how to write a novel or a poem. What you can do is share your personal experiences as a writer in order to help a young writer to discover his own voice, his own literary goals and maybe help him with some reviews, with some books, authors, or ideas that helped you a lot when you started as a writer.

Did you have a mentor and what influence did he/she have on your career and work?
That’s an interesting question. Maybe some friends at university, students who like me in those years wanted very much to become writers one day. I think it was in conversations with them, exchanging books with them, that I learned about my vocation and I did my first literary training. Probably I learned from these friends, young fellow writers more than in the literary classes at university. But of course the major mentors were certain writers. I think in the early 1950s it was French and American literature. The “Lost Generation”: Hemingway, Dos Passos, in my case Faulkner. I think Faulkner was the first writer I read with a pen and a piece of paper, trying to devise the way in which he organized time, space, points of view.

What made you choose Antonio García Ángel as your Protégé from among the finalists? What made him suitable for this programme and to work with you?
He has published just one novel and some short stories. I very much liked his first novel. It’s set in Bogotá, it’s written well and, I think we can say, in a humorous way. But behind all this extravagance and humour there is a very serious problem which is described with insight and literary cleverness. I found also in his short stories a personal world, and also something which I think is very, very important in a young writer: ambition – the propensity to bear difficult things.

Is there a similarity between your approach to literature and that of your Protégé? Is this important to your work together?
I think there is a similarity. Antonio is ambitious. He doesn’t just want to be successful – which in itself is a legitimate desire. He also wants to be important – and this is essential for a young writer. It vastly increases the chances that he will be good. Antonio is very young, and he hasn’t read all the writers from whom I’ve learned a lot of the novelist’s craft, so I can give him suggestions in that direction. But another thing that’s important in this kind of work is empathy between the people involved. And that exists in this case: he’s friendly, open, easy to work with.