About The Author
Jesús Carrasco was born in Badajoz in 1972 and currently lives in Seville. Since 1996 he has worked as an advertising copy writer. His first novel, Out in the Open, was declared Book of the Year by booksellers in Madrid. The Dutch translation was shortlisted for the European Literature Prize 2014.
His debut novel, Out in the Open, is already scheduled for publication in 19 countries around the world. The book is set in an unnamed, drought-stricken country ruled by violence, as a nameless boy flees his home into an equally uncertain and dangerous future. When he meets an old goatherd, his prospects change but survival is no more guaranteed than it was, as danger and the vagaries of nature pursue them across the devastated landscape.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Jesús about the origins of his story in a childhood myth, how his book started life as two novels with different premises, and why the exercise of ethics is the only thing that can save the world.
Author photo © Raquel Torres
Questions & Answers
Can you tell us the inspiration behind your novel?
I’d had the book in my head for several years. The idea of a boy who decides to run away from home is a childhood myth I remember from when I was a boy in a village in central Spain. The fact that this boy decides not to go home, moreover, I found really intriguing because it let me confront extremes that interest me: what is pure and what is contaminated; one’s natural self and one’s social self; a life that’s just starting out and one that’s coming to an end.
Clearly the drought-stricken and violent country in which your story is set could be any one of a sadly large number, but did you have a specific place in mind when you set out?
Yes, of course. I wanted the novel to take on the form of a mythical tale and so I decided not to specify the place or the time in which it was set. But when it came to writing, I needed a consistent landscape where I could actually develop the action, and so I searched my childhood memories, from when I lived with my family in a village in central Spain. The castle, for instance, really does exist and is just as it’s described in the book, although, sadly, in the last few years it’s started to crumble and turn into a real ruin.
There are obvious parallels between your book and the work of Cormac McCarthy and even a direct reference or two. Can you say more about his influence?
Cormac McCarthy is one of those authors who make an impression on you, who succeed in writing in a language at once singular and universal. He is one of my favourite authors, I admit, but that aside I follow my own path when I sit down to write. Like lots of other authors, I’m looking for a way to explain the world, to represent it and stylise it, even.
It’s a very bleak landscape emotionally as well as physically, with almost the best it gets being God temporarily slackening ‘the screws on his torment’. Were you always confident that the boy would survive the miseries heaped upon him?
In order to answer that question I should first clarify certain aspects of how I actually put the novel together. When I began to write it around eight years ago, I set myself the challenge of writing two novels with different premises. One started from a character and a conflict, the minimum elements needed for a story to unfold. The other would be written starting from a preconceived structure, a plot that was detailed as possible. Over the years, the first idea turned into Out in the Open The result of the second was a book I consider a failed novel, and so one which shouldn’t be published.
I started writing Out in the Open accompanied by the little boy and his conflict. We walked together through the dry fields, but there came a time when there was nowhere left to go with him. I hadn’t planned out the journey he would take and I had to put the novel to one side. That is, I didn’t know what would become of the boy, whether he’d survive or not. Years later I went back to it with new tools and, as the boy advanced, confronting the challenges of life out on the plains, I realised his courage meant he deserved a better life than the one he’d been forced to flee from back home.
Trust and self-sufficiency are the keys to survival in this world, but would either of these qualities have been enough on their own?
They might be enough on their own if we lived alone in the world. Someone who is self-sufficient can get what they need to survive, but human life goes beyond mere survival, at least the life of those of us fortunate enough to live in wealthy, secure societies. The moment we choose to live with others, that second quality, trust, becomes essential. Trust is that common space we give each other in order to live together and to make life something more than simply a matter of survival.
What stops the boy from becoming vengeful or in other ways as corrupt as his pursuers?
To a large extent it’s his encounter with the character of the goatherd. And more specifically, with what this man has to say to him. The goatherd is a man who’s had a hard life and has experienced good and bad, an experience the boy lacks because of his age. His encounter with the ethical model represented by the goatherd is his salvation. And more generally, the exercise of ethics is the only thing that can save the world because it’s the only thing that doesn’t call on force, wealth or power.
You’ve worked as an advertising copywriter for the best part of 20 years. Could any form of writing be more at odds with the style and tone of your novel than that?!
From the point of view of the content of what’s being written, yes, of course that’s true. Advertising generally focuses on communicating products and services, most of which we can do perfectly well without. Out in the Open aims to be a book focussed on ideas that are fundamental to life, such as dignity, justice, love and pain.
From the point of view of the style, though, I do think there are similarities. Spending so many years trying to say many things in few words – which is what advertising does, really – has influenced the way I write. I get rid of a lot, trying to make the end result as clear and to the point as possible.
How easily did the spare, pared-down style come to you, and how much of it was done by continually revising and editing and distilling the first version?
I’m a man of few words, more quiet than talkative. This aspect of my character naturally comes through in the way I write. That said, I am a stickler when it comes to editing and cleaning up the text. I tend to feel that less is more.
Your book has already been shortlisted the European Prize for Literature in its Dutch translation. Have you been able to read any of the translated versions and have you been involved at all in the process for any of the languages?
The work I’ve done with the translators has been very varied. The book has been translated into twenty languages, and I worked very closely with some translators and with others I didn’t get sent a single question. I’d like to be able to read fluently in all these languages but I can only judge the English and Portuguese versions. I must say that Margaret Jull Costa, my English translator, is the one who asked me the most questions and together we did the most precise, complex work on the book. It’s been an absolute privilege having her work on the book, something I will always be grateful to Harvill Secker for.
Can you say anything about what you’re working on now?
Right now I’m working on my next novel. It’s a book I’ve been working on more almost three years now. It has some similarities with Out in the Open in the sense that the presence of nature is very important, but it has a very different structure.
Jesús' answers were kindly translated by Rosalind Harvey