Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

Event Summary: Carlos Ruiz Zafon in conversation at the Wheeler Centre

Carlos Ruiz Zafon author photo 300x180 Event Summary: Carlos Ruiz Zafon in conversation at the Wheeler Centre



On Monday I popped along to the Wheeler Centre to see Barcelona-born, LA-based author Carlos Ruiz Zafon in conversation with local writer and broadcaster Sian Prior. As usual, I went bearing pen and paper, and took copious notes. (A video of the event will be forthcoming from the Wheeler Centre, but a sort-of-verbatim transcript never hurts.)

Prior began the conversation with an observation regarding'Ruiz Zafons obvious passion for books as artefacts, as well as the power of stories, and how these appear as recurring motifs in his work.

Stories have always been an important part of Ruiz Zafons life: even as a child he was fascinated by the concept of storytelling, and by all types of stories, between which he never differentiated as a young reader. Everything was, to him, a big bag of stories. He was intrigued not just by stories, but by their structure and architecture, and was always toying with them and analysing them to determine how they worked. It was only later that he began to differentiate between different forms of storytellingfor example between books, graphic novels, and filmsas well as the different genres within these forms.

As seems to be surprisingly often the case for bookish individuals,'Ruiz Zafon was the only keen reader in a family that was generally not especially interested in the arts and entertainment. As such, he was always seeking out books wherever he could find them, an approach to which he partly contributes his omnivorous reading diet. He would read through his fathers book collection, which comprised large sets of beautifully bound, poorly printed classics and heavy booksthe types of books bought for display rather than for reading, and which Ruiz Zafon joked were probably bought by the metre. In addition to these, he would also read the Marvel comic books that his grandmother would buy for him.

A book is a gothic cathedral of words.

Prior commented that this kind of genre agnosticism is evident in Ruiz Zafons own work, which mixes genres and stylistic elements in a way that is redolent of a labyrinth.

Ruiz Zafon agreed, saying that he relishes working with complex, challenging systems and developing labyrinthine, layered works. His approach to plotting is one that takes time to coalesce into something concrete, involving as it does a good deal of time spent on thinking and musing over various themes, elements and characters and the way that they will overlap. Its also one that requires re-plotting and re-working: no matter how much time is spent on developing these things, everything needs to be continually redrawn as the book progresses.

Its a system that has evolved over time, however. When he first started out, he tended to work without much of a plan, and would let himself reach the end of a work before going back to fix problems or analyse the devices he had incorporated. Now, however, he thinks of plotting a book as something akin to building a gothic cathedrala complex structure made from words. Its essential to keep restructuring and reworking until the final result is as close as possible to the original idea.

A good deal of planning was required when developing the four-book'Shadow of the Wind cycle, which he originally conceived of as a single, epic volume. Having got about thirty or pages into the manuscript of the first volume, he realised that the result would be something so monstrous that it would probably be physically impossible to shelve it (and, he joked, there was the risk that people might perish under the weight of the thing). He didnt, however, want to write the cycle as a sequential series or 19th Century-style saga, but rather as four books, each representing a different entry into the labyrinth of an overarching narrative, and thus creating a variety of different possible reading experiences.

The aim was to deconstruct storytelling, to play around with it, and to make storytelling itself the heart of the story: he wanted to explore readers often complex relationships with books, how genres and so on work, and to combine it all using whatever tricks were available to him as an author. All of this was pinned against the skeleton of the classic saga trope of a young boy growing up and trying to find his place in the world.

Ruiz Zafon believes firmly that character should always usurp plot, and that good plots arise from good characters, not the other way around.'Each of the characters in The Shadow of the Wind saga'has a variety of roles to play. Fermin, for example, is an homage to the picaresque tradition. Hes the fool, the madman, the jester, but at the same time, has the freedom to speak the truth when no one else can. Hes the moral centre of the books even though hes not necessarily going to be taken seriously by the reader due to his strange and outlandish theories. But these are theories and are always well-meant: he always attempts to be a decent person in a profoundly decent world, something at which all of the other characters eventually fail.

To destroy books is to destroy the mind.

Prior suggested that in the books theres a sense of books and reading being in a way dangerous, and'Ruiz Zafon concurred, saying that books and knowledge can be a curse for some. You can fall in love with literature, he said, but literature never falls in love with you. He added that books are a repository of beauty, knowledge, memory and identity, and that they help us understand who were are. Its this power that makes them so very dangerous in the eyes of someto the extent that some groups seek to destroy books, hoping that in doing so they can destroy all that books represent.

When you destroy language, you destroy identity. And to destroy books is to destroy the mind.

Prior commented on the connection between language, culture and place, and asked to what extent the cycle is an homage to Barcelona, a place with which tourists so famously fall in love. Ruiz Zafon responded that'Barcelona is his mother, something so key to his identity and experience that he cannot see it in the way that a tourist does. Rather, he seeks to get to the true heart of the city, to explore the truths of its characters. He has a conflicted relationship with the city, seeing it as he does through the eyes of a native, but like all writers he needs to engage with it in order to come to terms with his roots and origins. He is, though, very aware that its impossible to portray a city exactly as it is: there are many Barcelonas.'

When asked about both the difficult history of Barcelona and the research that goes into his books,'Ruiz Zafon responded by saying that he believes that most residents of the city today dont necessarily think, at least deliberately and consciously, of events such as the civil war or WWII, and that theyre disconnected from the past in a way, having not been alive during those times. He says that this is something thats true for all of Europe: The end of the world happened there sixty years ago, but now its all Benetton shops.

However, even so, its impossible to escape the history of a place. As someone whos a natural autodidact, hes always seeking to learn more about his home city, and about the world generally. Rather than researching something specifically, for specific purposes, he tends to simply read widely and supplement this reading with his own deep knowledge of specific things. He would not write about something about which hed need to begin from scratchfor example, he would be shy writing about Melbourne as not only does he not know the city, he feels as though he could never know it.

Interestingly, the majority of'The Shadow of the Wind cycle was not written in Barcelona, but rather in Los Angeles, where'Ruiz Zafon prefers to write, believing that he is more productive and creative there.'The Angels Game, however, was written in Barcelona, and he believes that it shows: place inevitably taints the writing. He feels, too, that the books are not at all Spanish in feeleven the Barcelona of the books is very much a constructbut rather have a very LA-style sensibility, something that was an issue when he attempted to sell the books into Spain, which saw them as entirely un-Spanish and outside the Spanish literary tradition. It wasnt until the books become hugely successful that they were gradually accepted into the Spanish literary scene.'

Young readers are sincere and passionate, but theyre also merciless.

Prior drew the conversation around to matters of audience, noting that although'Ruiz Zafons first few books were for young readers he seems to write now for an audience thats more adult-oriented, or that at least has crossover appeal.'Ruiz Zafon rather sheepishly explained that he found himself writing for young readers after his first book won a prestigious YA award that came with a large monetary prize. He was all too aware of how difficult it was to make a living as an author, and so felt in a way that he had to pursue this path, even though in his heart he had never wanted to write within a specific genre or for a carefully delineated audience. Perhaps out of conservatism or cowardliness he continued writing young adult books until he realised that he was betraying not only himself, but his readers by doing so.

He noted, though, that when he first began writing for young readers, the market was nothing like how it is now: there was no internet, and no young adult category. There were certainly no paranormal romance shelves, he said, lamenting about such books, man, its the end of the world. We have like six months. However, though YA isnt his genre as such, he believes that young readers can be among the best readers an author can have. Theyre sincere and passionate, but theyre also merciless. Unlike adult readers, they cant be swayed by reviews or awards, and will put down a book immediately if it doesnt grab them.

The conversation steered around to the place of the bookshop in todays world, something that is of interest to'Ruiz Zafon given the subject matter of his books. When Prior suggested that we might be seeing the end of the bookshop,'Ruiz Zafon disagreed, arguing that although many of todays bookshops will disappear, others will appear. The problem is, he says, we have a habit of thinking of ourselves as the end of history, when really were merely passing through. Everything changes, and will change even in our lifetimes. Publishing, for example, has changed dramatically over the past century, and what we think of as publishing or bookselling is really only a brief moment of transition in a changing model.

Beauty and knowledge the redeemers.

Whether books, stories, or minds survive, however, is something that is up to us.'Ruiz Zafon believes that there are two redeeming values in the world: beauty and knowledge.

Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing'Carlos Ruiz Zafons books'using one of the affiliate links below:

Amazon'|'Book Depository UK'|'Book Depository USA'|'Booktopia

or support your'local independent.

Books by Carlos'Ruiz Zafon:

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon Event Summary: Carlos Ruiz Zafon in conversation at the Wheeler CentreThe Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon Event Summary: Carlos Ruiz Zafon in conversation at the Wheeler CentreThe Angels Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon Event Summary: Carlos Ruiz Zafon in conversation at the Wheeler Centre
The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon Event Summary: Carlos Ruiz Zafon in conversation at the Wheeler Centre





  1. Im so jealous, hope you had a great night

  2. Michelle Farrugia (Mish) /

    I attended this event too and I've been on a high every since :) Thankyou for this wonderful post Steph, you summarised it so well and I know I'll read it again and again.

    The biggest surprise of the night was hearing him say how difficult it was for the Spanish to accept his book 'The Shadow of the Wind'. I felt is was Spanish through and through but obviously I'm wrong.

    • Oh, what a shame I missed you, Mish! Next time, perhaps. :)

      Glad you enjoyed itI was completely taken with Ruiz Zafons manner, and his way with words.

  3. He sounds like a fascinating speaker! I still havent read The Angels Game and need to get to it.

  4. I wish to see Carlos Ruiz Zafon in my country someday too. I absolutely love all his books. And it is true that The Angels Game feels a bit weaker than the rest of the Shadow of the Wind cycle, but in the light of The Prisoner of the Heaven the perception of that particular novel changes. And his YA novels are so touching, something that it cannot be easily achieved.
    Thank you for sharing this, Stephanie! I cant wait to see the video too. :)

  5. I would have loved to attend both this talk and the Patrick Ness one. Unfortunately I had to do parent things!