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SunLit Interview: Andrew Altschul’s spark for “The Gringa” grew from his years in Peru

The author followed the story of Lori Berenson, an American convicted of terrorism, and pursued a fictional account based on her character after her parole

Andrew Altschul is the author of the novels “The Gringa,” “Deus Ex Machina” and “Lady Lazarus.” His short fiction and essays have appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Wall Street Journal, Ploughshares, Fence, One Story, and anthologies including Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best New American Voices, and O. Henry Prize Stories. He is a contributing editor at ZYZZYVA and directs the Creative Writing program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

“The Gringa” was inspired by the real-life story of Lori Berenson, an American woman arrested in Lima, Peru, in 1995, and sentenced to life in prison for collaboration with terrorists. The novel follows the case of Leonora Gelb, an activist and Stanford graduate, who gets mixed up with a militant leftist group in the years after Peru’s dirty war against the Shining Path. After her friend is disappeared and murdered by government forces, she and a cell of militants hole up in a house in a wealthy Lima neighborhood and plot a decisive act of protest.

I lived in Peru for a couple of years in the late 1990s, soon after Berenson’s arrest and trial. Even though she was in a military prison, she was still in the news from time to time, and every time her name came up people went crazy – she was the most hated person in Peru, the foreigner who’d come to try and restart a war (or so the government alleged). I was intrigued by this, and also by the question of what had brought her there. She and I have certain things in common – we’re the same age, we both grew up in secular Jewish families in the New York area, went to great schools, etc. etc. I like to think of myself as a liberal or even a leftist, but I had never gone “all in” the way Berenson had, or really risked much of anything in the name of my political beliefs. So there was something about her story that was both chastening and frightening to me, and part of writing the novel was to try and understand why one of our lives went in one direction, and the other’s went in such a different direction.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The excerpt is a slightly abridged version of the novel’s prologue, which poses as an “Author’s Note” like you might find at the beginning of a biography or a history book. Such notes usually try to give a sense of why the author has chosen his material, and also to lay out any difficulties, limitations, or biases he had to overcome in order to write “the present work.” 

In the case of Andres, the ex-pat novelist who narrates “The Gringa,” he is only partly aware of his biases, and though he tries to cop to them in his Author’s Note, he has by no means overcome them – as becomes painfully clear later in the novel, when we see him trying and failing to write an “objective” account of Leonora Gelb’s story.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

The time I spent in Peru in my late twenties – close to two years, plus many extended visits since then – was among the most important periods of my life. But I look back on it now with some discomfort about the questionable ethics of a privileged American kid using another country as the backdrop for his “reinvention” or “self-discovery.” I got a lot more out of living in Peru than Peru got out of having me there! So I’ve always wanted to figure out a way to give something back.

I had paid attention to the Berenson case – it was regularly in the Peruvian press, even years after her conviction – and when she was paroled in 2010 I had the idea of writing this novel. I wanted to explore those parallels that I mentioned earlier, the limits of both of our perspectives and how that made both of our experiences in Peru morally problematic.

I also wanted to say something about Americans’ understanding – or lack thereof – of other countries and cultures generally, and how that has historically abetted interventionist or even imperialist behavior by our government. It’s simply impossible, from inside the U.S., to understand how profoundly the U.S. has shaped and altered the lives of people around the world, and how much resentment and cynicism there is toward the U.S. as a result. I wanted to tell a story that shows how even Americans who “mean well” can do great damage.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

What were the biggest challenges you faced in completing this book? 

“The Gringa” was the hardest thing I’ve ever written, at both an artistic and an ethical level. There are gaping holes in the historical account of Lori Berenson and what she did or didn’t do in Peru. The competing stories – on the one hand, that she was a “terrorist mastermind,” according to the government, and on the other hand her claim that she was an innocent dupe who was framed by security forces – both seem preposterous to me, given what we do know. 

No one has ever written a truly reliable account. So I had to come up with an alternate history that felt both true to the characters I created and plausible in the context of Peruvian history and culture. And that’s where the ethical challenges came in, because I was conscious all along that I was playing with real people’s lives and histories and tragedies – not only Berenson, who certainly suffered a great deal, whatever her faults, but more importantly the people of Peru, who lived through a twelve-year dirty war that claimed 70,000 lives and are still, to this day, trying to move past that national trauma.

I had to find a way to both honor that trauma and contend with its complexities and ambiguities, the infinitely conflicting stories about the war that Peruvians tell, while still telling the kind of satisfying story that readers of novels demand.

I worked on “The Gringa” for eight years, including four or five research trips back to Peru. I talked to dozens of people – journalists, human rights lawyers, government officials, former militants – and one of the hardest things is that so many of the people I talked to told very different stories about the war. 

One day I was talking to a Peruvian friend who’d been a student activist during this period, and he said, “But Andrew, that’s always how it is. No two Peruvians agree on what happened or why.” So my novel had to acknowledge this uncertainty, to look at the history of the war as something unstable, subject to manipulation and bias. Finding ways to enact this instability in the novel’s structure, while still providing an engaging and satisfying experience for a reader, was a completely new struggle for me as a writer.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Oh, yes, though not in the ways I expected. 

I was bracing myself for criticism from Peruvian readers, or people with extensive knowledge of Latin America, or the Dirty War, or the Berenson case. I was painfully aware of the liberties I was taking, as a white U.S. writer trying to speak to the experiences and suffering of people from another country. However well I thought I understood Peru and its history, I could never see it from the inside or speak with the authority of someone who’d actually lived through these events.

But everyone I heard from in Peru was full of praise – and pleased that a U.S. writer would take their country and its troubles as seriously as I tried to do, to get past the clichés and stereotypes we usually hear in the U.S. and really grapple with the complexity, to pay Peru that respect.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

But in the U.S., there were a couple of reviewers who were put off by exactly this complexity. Some wanted a more “personal” story – more tightly focused on the American character of Leo Gelb, with less of an emphasis on Peru’s politics and history. Others assumed that the novel was autobiographical, and took me to task for the behavior of my narrator, Andres – as if my depiction of him were an endorsement of his selfishness and entitlement, rather than a deliberate critique.

The harshest review came from a writer in The New York Review of Books, who was incensed that the book wasn’t sympathetic enough to “the cause,” that I didn’t mount a full-throated defense of Lori Berenson and her Peruvian comrades. She couldn’t seem to grasp that it was a work of fiction, not of history – and that either way, it’s not a writer’s job to take sides, only to see things in as much complexity and humanity as we can.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I try to write every day, first thing in the morning, before any other concerns or obligations can get into my head and crowd out whatever I’m working on. In the early stages of a project, I’ll take weekends off, but the closer I get to finishing something, the more I need to be at it every day, to keep up momentum and to hold all the fragile threads of character and theme in my mind. I have a small home office – I’ve never been someone who can write in coffee shops or public places – and I’ll usually hole up there until late morning, trying to get something done. But my office doesn’t have a door, and I have a rambunctious five-year-old son, so there are limits to how well I can sequester myself! I’ve had to make a lot of adjustments in the past five years, and to let go of some of the more precious habits I had as a younger writer. One way or another, I try to make it work.

What was it like to publish your book in the midst of a global pandemic?

Great!

Just kidding. It was awful. “The Gringa” came out on March 10, 2020, the day before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. I had fifteen events set up during the first month, and after the first one – a reading in Massachusetts – they all got canceled. 

Instead, I spent the spring and summer doing over 30 online events, scrambling to promote the book on radio, social media, tiny blogs, etc., knowing all the while that with bookstores closed and major newspapers focused on the pandemic, there just wouldn’t be that many ways readers would hear about new books. Everyone’s heads were, understandably, elsewhere.

At the same time, there were some consolations – one of which was the deep solidarity I found with other writers who were in the same boat. I’d particularly single out Mary South (“You Will Never Be Forgotten”), who formed a group called Lockdown Literature that I was an early member of. By last fall the group had grown to over 90 writers with recent books and was a source of priceless support throughout the year. 

We shared tips and experiences, recommended one another for events and other opportunities, and celebrated one another’s successes during a time when most of the world wasn’t paying much attention to books. I’ve always tried to be a good literary citizen, and to give back to the literary community, so this groundswell of support felt like a real silver lining through a difficult time.

Tell us about your next project. 

I have a number of projects going these days, including what might be a collection of novellas that picks up where “The Gringa” leaves off, looking at American expatriates and the ways their lives intersect with the lives of people in their adopted countries. I’m also working on individual short stories – short stories are my first love, and I haven’t spent much time on them in the last many years while writing “The Gringa.” I’ve also just finished a book-length essay about American masculinity. So we’ll see what comes of any of these.


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