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Following up on his award-winning 2012 novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz offers the long-anticipated sequel, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, out next month. I recently had the privilege of talking with him about the new book; find our lively, engaging conversation below.
Cart: Was there a specific catalyst for your decision to write a sequel?
Sáenz: I usually stop paying attention to the books I’ve written and move on. The problem with Ari & Dante is that the novel wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept thinking about all the things that were missing in the novel. I eventually decided to write a sequel and had no idea what I was getting into. I have to be nuts.
Cart: The new novel is told, once again, from Ari’s perspective. Did you ever consider writing from Dante’s?
Sáenz: I did consider writing from Dante’s point of view; he’s a very popular character—much more than Ari—but that didn’t seem like a very good reason. I also quickly began to think of the sequel not so much as a sequel, but as my attempt at finishing the novel I had started.
Cart: Ari says, of love, “It’ll always be harder for me.” Why?
Sáenz: Ari isn’t a people-person by nature. He’s an introvert; not a natural at anything, and has to work at things. Virtues are behaviors that you acquire through discipline and intent. But some people seem like they were born with an ability to love and be affectionate. Dante is like that, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a better person. It does, however, make him more likable.
Cart: Ari says, “People say that love is like a kind of heaven; I was beginning to think that love is a kind of hell.” Why does he say that and which is it?
Sáenz: Ari is very aware of the fact that the society he lives is not only disapproves of his love for Dante, but disapproves of the very way in which he loves. In order to survive, they have to keep their love a secret and lie about themselves. That is the hell he speaks of. The heaven, that’s easy: loving Dante without the world’s intervention.
Cart: Ari’s late Aunt Ophelia once said, “Words might even save you.” Do they have that power?
Sáenz: Ari is a version of me—as is Dante. Words have saved my life, reshaped my mind—everything about me. When I made myself sit down to write without the aid of drugs and alcohol, I poured out all my pain, confusion, vulnerability, and self-hatred in what became my book of short stories, Everything Begins and Ends with the Kentucky Club.
Words DO have the capacity to save you—just as they have the capacity to destroy you. Words are too strong for all of us. That’s why most people hate to write. When I find words overwhelming, I stop writing and turn to painting to say the things I have to say.
Cart: Ari says, of writing, “I have things inside that I have to say and they are things I need to say to myself.” Do you, too?
Sáenz: Absolutely. I discover what I think and feel and explore the deeper roots of who I am. I examine what it’s like to be a human being. Writing novels has taught me to forgive myself and others. Writing has taught me to know who I am. It’s an incredible thing to know oneself. very painful. But isn’t that our task in life—to know oneself?
Cart: Ari says it’s easier to talk to Dante in his journal than in person. Why does he say that?
Sáenz: Because that’s true for him. In his journal, he doesn’t censor himself and tells Dante what he really feels. In his conversations with Dante, he’s more reserved. He holds back. We all do that, I think. In the days of letter writing, letters were very intimate and letter writers opened themselves up much more than they did in person. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Cart: Dante teasingly says, he’s a cultural anthropologist. Are you?
Sáenz: Oh yes! I’m a mess. When I first started going to gay bars, having come out so late, I found myself studying the culture of gay bars even as a man was trying to get my attention. I’m in a room as a participant and I’m taking notes in my head.
I especially become a cultural anthropologist when I go to ALA conferences. It’s no secret I happen to admire librarians. Librarians are kinda like me—we’re all a little nuts, in a very unthreatening, fun, and dorky way.
Cart: At one point Ari says, “We are all cartographers.” What does he mean?
Sáenz: Maps don’t really mean anything unless we ourselves find our way, take the roads we must take to find ourselves, to travel to our destinations. We’re looking for a place to call home. We don’t have any training in any of this stuff, so we become cartographers, cultural anthropologists, and well, writers.
Cart: Ari and Dante must be very real to you. May we hope there will be another novel about them?
Sáenz: These characters ARE very real to me. As Faulkner would have it—I truly felt my own heart struggling against itself as I wrote. I wanted to say so much and we are living through such terrible times and our children don’t even have the idea of normalcy to comfort them. I wanted to write a beautiful book for them.
I’m still suffering from the aftershocks of what went through me in the writing of this book. It was as if there was an earthquake inside my body, inside my heart. I’m not sure I want to do this again.
But you can always hope. And that is so lovely and such a huge compliment to me—that you would hope for another Ari and Dante book. How very lovely.
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