Lee Bob Black interviews Alberto Ferreras about his new novel, B as in Beauty
In this interview, Alberto Ferreras talks with Lee Bob Black about overemphasizing the future, unglamorous jobs and happiness, sexy obese women, how Borges’s Aleph is Google Earth, café culture, vampires, how he was born a New Yorker even though he was born in Madrid, and his novel, B as in Beauty.
Lee Bob Black: How did singing lessons help your writing?
Alberto Ferreras: The cool and subversive thing about "Healing Singing" is that its premise is that we all can sing. We're just afraid to do it. So when you stop judging yourself, you open up and let it out . . . .
Since English is my second language, I was very afraid of writing professionally. My grammar sucks, my spelling can be pretty screwed up, but I guess my ideas were good enough for people to notice me, overlook my shortcomings and give me the chance to write . . . .
But if I were worried about all the things that can go wrong with my writing, I'd be paralyzed. Healing Singing opened me up.
LBB: What other activities complement your writing?
AF: I like writing in a coffee shop because you can observe people who don't even notice you. So I'd say that people watching is definitely one of my complementary activities.
Also, music is very important in my writing process. It gets me in a sort of trance--for good or bad. I don't know if I could write before the phonograph was invented.
LBB: What do you listen to while writing?
AF: For my novel B as in Beauty I played a lot of Brazilian stuff, Paula Morelenbaum for instance, and a great album of Coldplay arranged for string quartet, and the French artist Keren Ann. If I listen to music in languages I don't speak, I don't get distracted.
LBB: Even though you talked about not worrying about your writing, what are your fears about writing?
AF: I guess the biggest fear of anyone in our culture is being rejected. It screws your love life, your career, even the chances of getting laid. Any artist can be afraid of being judged: '"They think that my ideas are old, stupid, shallow." Or: "So-and-so writes so much better than me, what's the point of saying anything?" Or: "Who am I to write?" Those are the voices I hear in my head sometimes. I'm just better at shutting them up now.
LBB: How do you shut those voices off?
AF: This is going to sound so new-agey, but I actually believe that God has a plan, and I'm following it. The voices are distractions, crap from the past, things we heard when we were children. Most people think they can't sing because they were told so at an early age by someone completely unqualified. It marked them for life. Back to the singing, when you convince yourself that the negative thoughts are not natural, you open up. I think that an artist is a vehicle for higher power to communicate things to fellow humans. When you stop listening to the voices of the past, you tune in with God, so to speak.
By the way, I am not religious.
LBB: Will there be another installment of Dr. Truth (www.doctor-truth.com), an alter ego you created for a performance art series?
AF: Yeah baby! You are talking to Dr. Truth right now!
Photo: Albert Ferreras as his alter ego, Dr Truth.
LBB: Looking back, you’ve worked for MTV, ABC, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Lifetime, and HBO (including campaigns for "Deadwood", "Rome", "Family Bonds", "Sex & The City" and "The Comeback"). How was that?
AF: Baby . . . everything is a preparation for the revelation.
LBB: You mean your novel?
AF: Who knows, maybe B as in Beauty is a preparation for another revelation. Sometimes I wonder if the revelation is serving coffee in a corner café. I'm tired of our success-driven society. I admire people who have totally "unglamorous” jobs and live happily.
LBB: I know what you mean. Last week I was offered $30,000 as a receptionist, and $60,000 as an IT consultant. I took the IT job.
AF: Which would make you happier?
LBB: The receptionist position was specifically advertised for a creative type. It was supposed to have lots of down time--and I could have written half the day. I was so close to taking it. But I decided to chase the bigger money, and then in the future take time off to write. Which is a pattern of mine: I plug into capitalism, make a bag of money, and then unplug and just spend all my time writing. But sometimes I feel like I’m delaying my dreams. It’s always a trade-off.
Where did the first impulses for your novel, B as in Beauty, come from? When did you start writing it?
AF: It was a dark and stormy night . . . just kidding. A dear friend of mine who's gorgeous and overweight was offered by her female tax preparer to "hook her up" with men who paid good money for a girl of her size. My friend didn't accept. The novel is basically my fantasy of what would have happened if she did.
I got the time to start writing it when I had appendicitis. I was curiously peaceful and content throughout the whole process. Maybe it was god-sent. Anyway, since I couldn't go to work and I got sick of watching television, I dragged my laptop to a coffee shop and started working on it. That appendicitis is the best thing that ever happened to me.
LBB: I’m guessing your novel is character-driven not action-based.
AF: Interesting that you bring that up because I originally wrote it as a screenplay, so it's very action oriented. Before I started working on the novel all the "plot points" were in place. The "writing" adventure started when I decided to write the novel in first person--from the perspective of a fat girl who becomes an escort to build her self-esteem. I had to create a voice for her, and developed the thought process. And I loved that part of the writing.
LBB: Which cafés, other than Snice Café [in Manhattan; where this interview was conducted], do you invest literary time in?
AF: I'm spoiled now, because I like to have my Internet WiFi where I write, but I worked a lot at Doma on 7th Ave, and the disappeared Mary's Off Jane. That coffee shop was fabulous to write in, maybe because that building--according to the coffee shop owner--is haunted.
LBB: What are the pros and cons of writing in cafés?
AF: The pros for me are I don't see any cons--unless you happen to be sitting in the toilet and someone storms in. [See Endnote1.]
The pros for me are that I don't get distracted with domestic little things, like the fact that I haven't cleaned my bathroom in weeks. If I'm home, I also feel a little lonely.
LBB: What are your thoughts on café culture?
AF: Café writing has to do with a couple of New York factors. New York apartments usually suck. My writer friends in Spain, Venezuela, and Chile have fabulous apartments with gardens and views, or little houses. In New York with a writer’s salary, you’re lucky if you can rent half a shoebox. So being outside grants you a little bit more of space, daylight, and company.
And I also think that New Yorkers have--more than in many cities--the need to interact, and to feel that they’re taking advantage of living in this great city. If I sit in my stoop for half an hour, I’ll see something that’s worth writing about, from the homeless guy in the corner to the old lady with the insane facelift and the miniskirt. We all know that there's something happening on the streets and we don't want to miss it.
Photo: Albert Ferreras.
LBB: The tortured and struggling artist is such an overused metaphor, but it separates the men from the boys. If you can't hack it, can't make your mark on the literary world, then you'll be eaten alive.
AF: I’ve been frustrated while finishing the novel, but I wouldn't call me myself tortured. Again, going back to the singing, the people who torture themselves in class are those who think that they sing better when they strain themselves. And, guess what? It’s never the case.
I think that when you love what you’re doing, you might have more or less money, you'll go to better or worse restaurants, but you’re happy in the moment. I’m happy when I write--and that was the sign I took when I decided to leave a steady job and take the chance of investing my time in "writing.” We put way too much emphasis in the future, in the destination, in the results of things. If we enjoy the process, then we're always happy.
LBB: You mentioned loneliness, and also how you have literary friends abroad. Cafés offer a community, of sorts. How important to you is it to be within a community of writers?
AF: Writing is very personal for me. I talk about it with my friends, but I'm not sure if I can talk about it with other writers. It can turn weird and competitive. If you really see your work--and other's work--as a manifestation of the divine, you must respect them even if you don't like their work, and--naturally--they should respect your work too. It’s way too easy to fuck with people's self esteem with innocent comments and hints.
LBB: How have you set your life up so that you can write? How do you stay in the moment?
AF: One day at a time, that's my motto. I started free-lancing in 2005, directing television and advertising. That pays the bills, and gives me some downtime to focus on writing. It's still too early to decide if I can actually make a "comfortable living" writing. But luckily my "day job" somehow connects with my writing and also allows me to hang out with inspiring people.
LBB: Who are some of the real people your characters are based on?
AF: All the characters in my novel are actually me--the nice and nasty ones. That's the only way to understand their motivations--and keep you from getting sued. In any case, my friend--who was approached by the Madame--is not really like my character. I can look out the window of this café and pick anyone as a character. I might use their face--in my mind--but the essence of the character is always a part of me--the nice and the naughty.
LBB: What are some of the themes of your novel?
AF: I think the main theme is the perception of oneself. There's also sex, relations, and there's corporate culture, and the role of women in society. I'm a big fan of the twelve steps--I’m a twelve stepper myself--so I tried to take some twelve step wisdom and apply it to a non-addiction related situation.
LBB: How was researching for your novel?
AF: I did a lot of Googling, and a couple of field trips to Coney island, but this being my first novel I tried to write about what I knew, so most of my experience was already there. The fact that I wrote in first person--which is something disdained by Hemmingway (right?) facilitated some parts of the process. By the way, I hate Hemmingway.
LBB: Tell me about your novel’s acknowledgements section. Who has helped the most with your writing?
AF: I could write a whole book of acknowledgements. I have friends that I haven't talked to in 10 years that contributed to this novel, simply because they introduced me to something or someone who made an impact. I like being grateful. It's a feeling that gives me peace, so I tried to acknowledge as many people as I could. Even someone who grabbed my ass in a bar once. I'm not kidding.
LBB: Okay, here’s a big, silly question: How is your book spiritual, emotional, and/or psychological?
AF: Gee, it's all of the above I hope. I think we are all in some sort of search--what is the meaning of life? Why are we so unhappy sometimes when we are neither hungry, nor homeless? Why do we feel less than other people? What is the impact that culture has in our perception of life, and oneself? Can we change? Can we be happier by choice? I think that's the quest of my character--and some of her pit stops are spiritual, emotional, and psychological--if it's believable or not, predictable or not, I’ll leave that in the hands of those who do me the honor of reading the book.
LBB: Why did you title it B as in Beauty?
AF: Latin immigrants sometimes give weird names to their kids and the main character's name is Beauty Maria Zavala. However, since she doesn't feel particularly beautiful, when people ask her to spell this unusual name she spells it as, "B as in boy. E as in elephant . . . ." She would not say, "B as in Beauty"--that's her problem.
LBB: How do you experience the editing process? Do you edit while you’re writing? Or, do you get it all down, and then later go back and edit? Or something else?
AF: I write fast, poorly, and in a frenzy, then I go back and I fix it. I've been sending it to my editor and she gives me comments that first I refuse to incorporate, but that sooner or later I realize are right on the money. Damn editors!
LBB: Who’s your editor?
AF: Andie Avila at Grand Central Publishing.
LBB: Your novel is in first-person, is it in present tense or past tense? Is tense important for you? Or was it just a natural outcome?
AF: Great question, because that was actually something that my editor pointed out. I originally tried to do it in present tense but it was way too weird, so it ended up being in past tense.
LBB: Who’s your agent?
AF: I'm with Kara Baker at the Gersh Agency.
LBB: What more can you say about the plot points you put together for the initial screenplay version? How do you go about outlining a novel?
AF: In this particular case I allowed the story to unravel based on the character’s actions, and then expanded those actions with her thought process and the type of descriptions that you'd expect in a novel. I'm very action oriented--I hate people who tell you unnecessary details of a scene, or irrelevant actions just to fill the paper. I guess when you have to deliver your 65,000 words and run out of ideas, it comes handy to start counting sheep.
LBB: What do you want to write books about in the future?
AF: Vampires--tee-hee! But first I got to read all the Ann Rice books, which I'm not looking forward to, with all due respect.
LBB: Maybe read every thing except Rice. Or maybe read her last. Maybe you have to know the competition so that you can out-write her.
AF: Too late. She's written so many that I got to make sure she hasn't already written the novel I want to write. I hope not! Otherwise I’ll have to write about white retired ladies with ethnic earrings--I'm not kidding, I’m very interested in them as characters.
LBB: In my opinion, the best book that has vampire “elements” to it is Bret Easton Ellis's The Informers. Just throwing that out there.
Do you daydream about writing your autobiography or a memoir?
AF: I try not to, that feeds crazy egos. If I ever catch myself on that mode I try to remind myself that I’m barely a drop in the bucket--as we all are.
LBB: Who do you expect will read your books?
AF: The book is geared towards females, but I hope that the story can be appealing to anybody. I would think that gay guys might get a kick out of it. Years ago I met a very good looking Moroccan hustler in a bar, and he confessed that his favorite movie was Real Women Have Curves, the story of an overweight girl growing up in East L.A. Who could have guessed that? I guess that as an artist you throw the pebble in the puddle, but you can't predict the ripples.
LBB: Do you have an ideal reader?
AF: Tough question. I think I’m my ideal reader. If I read that thing for the "nth" time and I still find it amusing and moving, I tell myself that I did a good job.
LBB: Do you read your work aloud when you're editing?
LBB: I know you like Jorge Luis Borges; his “The Aleph” is brilliant. What other writers do you admire?
AF: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, José Donoso. I love Latin American writers. I like David Sedaris, I think he's great. I like Shakespeare, believe it or not.
The Aleph is Google Earth--have you noticed that?
LBB: What book have you read more than any other?
AF: One Hundred Years of Solitude--it has so many layers, and of course I reread Borges stories often to remind myself of how awesome he was. As soon as I learned English, I reread Oscar Wilde's Salome to hear it in its original language--it was so beautiful in Spanish that I was dying to see the original.
LBB: What kind of writer do you expect to be branded as?
AF: I prefer branding as a sexual practice--just kidding. If I'm labeled a "writer" I'll be happy.
LBB: Don't you think you'll be labeled incessantly as a “gay writer”? Or a “Latin gay writer”?
AF: Like Jesus Christ used to say "forgive them god because they don't know what they're doing." Again, as long as the word "writer" comes right after whatever the label is, I’ll be happy.
LBB: Do you read poetry or go to readings?
AF: Funny... I'm not crazy about poetry. I've cried with Jacques Prévert, and I love the "old fashion" style of reciting poetry that was developed in Argentina in the 40's with Berta Zimmerman and Graciela Lecube--forgive the maybe obscure references--but I don't go out searching for Urban Poetry. I love a performer called La Bruja here in new York, but that's as far as I go. I’d rather read than be read to.
LBB: Anne Lamott advises writers to write towards vulnerability. Your thoughts? Did you mine your own weaknesses (in addition to feelings of rejection) for your novel?
AF: Oh, I'm not afraid of being rejected--nobody has ever rejected me!--just kidding. I think that when we explore our vulnerabilities we hit strains of social and psychological viruses that go around. I love David Sedaris because he writes about his envy like nobody else does. I’ve never read anyone who so courageously acknowledges his envy, and I think that's fabulous. I think that younger generations raised by both working parents will have very particular feelings about it that will and should be expressed by their work--and those are feelings of abandonment that maybe no other generation as felt before. I hope that they’ll dig in and write incredibly moving books.
LBB: How do you plan to approach literary reviews/criticism of your work?
AF: Denial. Pure denial. What other people think of me is none of my business.
LBB: Do you intend/hope to teach writing one day? If you had to pass on any knowledge that you've accrued as a writer, what would it be?
AF: I think that Alcoholics Anonymous, or the 12 step groups in general, are what religion should be. A place where people go to share their troubles and victories in life, where you connect with your tribe, your community, and a higher power without anyone profiting and without anyone mediating between you and the divine.
I'm starting to teach this fall at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, I'll teach a course on writing and producing movie trailers--my former profession. Copywriting is a great way to develop your writing skills--but I’m not sure if I would or could teach creative writing. [Note: This interview was conducted in 2006.]
LBB: Do you keep a journal/diary?
AF: Nah, I'm lazy. I have enough with the voices in my head--we discuss everything that happens to me in excruciating detail. No need to immortalize it on the page.
LBB: Would you marry a writer?
AF: I'd love to marry somebody--I’d certainly love to have that option if I fell in love with someone. I've dated writers, musicians, lawyers, and hairdressers, and believe it or not, I had the best and most fascinating conversations with the hairdresser.
LBB: How has living in NYC been? How does it compare to Caracas, Venezuela?
AF: I think that you are born a New Yorker--even if you've never been in New York City. I was born in Madrid, but I was born a New Yorker, then I moved to Caracas and I always managed to surround myself by "New Yorkers" at heart. Even anywhere in the world. I've been lucky.
LBB: What’s the most untrue thing said about you?
AF: Someone called me a junkie once--and I’ve hardly tried drugs in my life. That was funny.
LBB: What recurring dreams do you have?
AF: I dream that my father didn't die and that he comes back. He actually died when I was 10 years old.
LBB: What are the most romantic and hateful things you’ve ever done?
AF: I wrote a love letter once--only once. The most hateful thing . . . gee, I don't want to talk about it, but I've looked for that person for quite a while to ask forgiveness. I'll find him one day.
LBB: Sex and men are very time consuming. Your thoughts?
AF: I don't know where to start with men and sex. There’s so much and so little to be told. It's a tough question, but I must acknowledge that the pursuit of men and sex takes a toll on my schedule. However, all I need is love. Or so I think.
LBB: Love?! What’s the best orgasm you’ve ever had?
AF: The good ones are usually in the middle of the night--when you’re dreaming that you’re having sex with the person who's actually sleeping next to you. And then you go at it.
LBB: What song have you listened to more than any other?
AF: I have to answer with an album that I've played to death: Pop Pop by Rickie Lee Jones. She's a genius.
LBB: What movie have you seen more than any other?
AF: All That Jazz [a 1979 movie directed by Bob Fosse]. That movie is pure art. I recently interviewed Ben Vereen [who played O'Connor Flood in All That Jazz], and he told me that Bob Fosse didn't know how to end it, and he re-shot the whole ending. Turned out that this movie--that closely resembled Fosse’s life--ended just like his life. He died just like his character, and he made that decision by pure intuition. I think that the lesson is that intellect is overrated and intuition is underrated. In this world where people mix art and entertainment, and writers and filmmakers are constantly controlled by executives who keep trying to make their material more likable for focus groups or marketing targets, art is suffering the consequences.
LBB: Thank you with all my literary and silly heart. You gave a courageous interview. I really admired how you jumped into it. Thanks for that.
Endnote1: I first met Alberto after accidentally busted in on him sitting on the toilet at Snice Café in the West Village. Alberto forgot to lock the door. Oops.
Interviewee: Alberto Ferreras, AlbertoFerreras.com
Interviewer: Lee Bob Black, www.LeeBobBlack.com
Interview date: Aug 28, 2006.
Interview venue: Snice Café, West Village, NYC.
This interview was originally published on AlbertoFerreras.com.
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