Most of the time, interviews about an author’s new novel take place a year or so after the book’s completion. So it might take a bit of doing for an author to feel up-to-date, especially if he or she is already ears-deep into the next project. Carlos Ruiz Zafón had to travel much further back in time when he spoke with BookPage from his home in Los Angeles about his fourth young adult novel, Marina: A Gothic Tale, which was first published in his native Spain in 1999.
In the intervening years, Zafón (who also has a home in his native Barcelona) has become best known for his three (and counting) adult novels, worldwide mega-sellers The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven. His books have been published in some 45 countries, and translated into 40-plus languages. (His English translator is Lucia Graves, novelist and daughter of poet Robert Graves.)
But Zafón’s career was launched in the YA realm when his first book, The Prince of Mist (Spain 1992; U.S. 2010), won Spain’s Edebé Literary Prize for Young Adult Fiction.
“It never crossed my mind that I wanted to be a YA writer,” he says. “My first novel happened to win an award for young adult fiction, but when I wrote it . . . it was just a tale of adventure that had young characters in it.” But Zafón’s literary magic was met with a captive audience: His next two YA books, The Midnight Palace (Spain 1994; U.S. 2011) and The Watcher in the Shadows (Spain 1995; U.S. 2013), found success around the world.
Marina is sure to follow suit, thanks to a mix of mystery, adventure, suspense and horror, plus a touching story of love, both romantic and familial. It’s an exciting read with a lot to take in—which makes sense, since the story’s protagonist, 15-year-old Oscar, is overwhelmed, excited, intrigued, besotted and terrified, often in the same 24-hour period.
Oscar has no idea what’s to come one day in 1979 when he, as is his habit, leaves the grounds of his Barcelona boarding school to explore an abandoned section of the city. His imagination is already on high alert when he encounters a well-fed gray cat and hears beautiful music coming from a decrepit mansion. His curiosity about these signs of life in the seemingly abandoned house proves impossible to squelch, and he ultimately learns that the lovely, enigmatic Marina Drai lives there with her father, Germán, an artist (and with the cat, Kafka).
Thus begins a tale of adventure and suspense, as the teenagers’ romance blossoms against a decidedly unusual backdrop. They follow a mysterious woman who goes to the cemetery every month to wordlessly perform a strange ritual. Soon they find themselves venturing into the long-hidden Barcelona underworld and the terrifying history of a man whose desire to heal turned into something twisted and gruesome.
Zafón doesn’t shy away from the grotesque, and there’s no shortage of scary scenes in Marina; under his skilled hand, readers will push forward even as they fear something scarier waiting around the corner. It’s deliciously thrilling, with echoes of Dickens, as well as Shelley’s Frankenstein.
He adds, “I tend to go for the Gothic—a lot of my influences come from that, and I tend to pay homage. . . . I always like to look back, because there’s something in those works, that world, that appeals to me and my personal sensibility.”
And, Zafón says, whether in his YA works or his more recent adult fiction, “One of my ambitions has been to go back to what those great authors were doing then, and try to reinvent . . . the language through deconstruction and reconstruction. That’s always the direction I’m trying to hit. Marina on a small scale tries to do that, to bridge that sensibility of old Victorian Gothic tales and reconstruct them in a modern way.”
"One of my ambitions has been to go back to what those great authors were doing then . . . to bridge that sensibility of old Victorian Gothic tales and reconstruct them in a modern way.”
Speaking of modern, Zafón’s work appeals to fans of—and draws comparisons to—Stephen King’s novels. Not least, Zafón explains, because, “As a child in Spain in the ’70s, I always felt many of the things I was interested in were not available to me because I was born in Spain, so I was forced to learn English to access certain books, magazines and newspapers.” He adds, “I would go to newsstands and buy paperbacks they were selling for tourists, usually bestsellers and mass market paperbacks. In the beginning, it was like going to the Rosetta Stone—I didn’t understand anything, I’d get a headache—but I began to figure it out, and I’d read a lot of Stephen King paperbacks. I’ve always said he was my English professor.”
Zafón adds, “He’s extremely good at creating character and dialogue, and I learned a lot of idioms . . . and from the perspective of someone learning a language, I became aware of how different people and different registers work. On top of that, he’s a great storyteller.”
King thinks the same about Zafón; they haven’t discussed storytelling in person, but King wrote a lovely review of The Shadow of the Wind.
“For me, he’s such a great figure, and he wrote a very generous article,” Zafón says. “On top of that, he exactly nailed things. . . . It’s the only time in my life I’ve gone to a newsstand, bought a magazine, cut the page out and kept it.”
Perhaps the two authors will meet someday soon—say, at a book-centric event where Zafón is promoting his upcoming novel, the fourth in the adult fiction series set in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? “I’m working on it right now. . . . It closes the circle,” he says. “It’s the big one.” Here’s hoping both stories get a happy ending.