What I loved so much about your book was that it wasn’t just a love story between people, but a love story about culture, family and community—which sometimes is a more star-crossed lover than a person. Could you care to comment on this?
The portraits here, from Clara to Tito to Deysei to Raul, were so indelible and so crackling with life. How do you go about shaping character and what surprised you as you were writing?
I'm an improvisational writer. I don't work from an outline. I never know what's going to happen when I sit down at my desk. Writing a story or a novel is, for me, a slow and stumbling process of discovering who my characters are. This process of writing aspires to mimic the surprises and revelations that a reader experiences.
I also loved all the library details of Thomas’s life, especially the term, “knowledge manager,” which means I now get to ask you about your job as head librarian at the New Yorker. What’s that like?
I was also really fascinated by how the details Thomas finds in the library reveal to him the inner workings of a man’s mind—ie. that one particular client wants control. So you can tell a person by their covers (i.e. books?)
So much of your novel is about yearning for a better or maybe the better way of saying this is--a different life. Thomas years for a glittering NYC life, Clara for a baby, Tito for the Clara of his youth. But these struggles for the life they want vs. the life they have take a toll. Do you ever think it is possible for the real and dream life to merge?
Well, I suppose there’s a reason it’s called the American Dream and not the American Reality. I think it's human nature always to be yearning for something you don't have or something you feel that has been denied you. Isn't that what drives people to leave their homes and move to a new place? (Robert Olen Butler has argued that yearning is the key to fiction.)
Contentedness is not far removed from complacency. I'm always interested in the way that desire and longing manifest themselves in people’s lives. If you're not careful, or if you’re unable to recover from a few setbacks, you can end up like Tito, whose life is overwhelmed with unconsummated yearning. By the end of the book he can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t.
What’s obsessing you now in your work?
I am working on a book about Northern Ireland set in the early nineteen-eighties. It began as a memoir, but I found that sticking to the facts was a major inconvenience (I don't know how reporters do it), so it has lately morphed into a novel-in-progress. When not working on that book, which requires a fair amount of research, I've been plugging away at some short stories, which are mostly set in the same milieu as “When Tito Loved Clara,” and require no research at all. Being able to go back and forth between those two projects is beneficial to both, I'm finding.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
There were a number of books that served as guiding lights for me as I worked on “When Tito Loved Clara” and I would welcome any opportunity to acknowledge my debt to them: Edith Wharton's “The Age of Innocence,” Zadie Smith's “On Beauty,” Jay McInerney's “The Good Life,” George Pelecanos's “Drama City,” Edward P. Jones’s “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” Junot Diaz's “Drown,” Tom Perrotta's “Little Children,” and Richard Ford's Bascombe trilogy.