By Rebecca Boyle
Argentinian novelist and poet Federico Falco first came to the University of Iowa this past August, as a participant in the renowned International Writing Program’s (IWP) fall residency, a three-month program that provides what all writers long for and seek: the time to sit down and put pen to paper, to read their work and to share it with fellow writers.
As one of 30 international writers in the 2012 residency, Mr. Falco hails from a small town in central Argentina, a region known as the Dry Pampas for its temperate climate and grassy plains. While much of his work takes place amid this landscape and its surrounding areas, Mr. Falco notes that the autumnal Midwestern plains made its way into the backdrop of the work he completed as an IWP resident.
“The time here has been invaluable,” he said of the months he spent in Iowa City.
During the residency, even “when I was not writing, I was thinking about the novel, whereas back home, I would have other distractions and responsibilities — friends, jobs, etc,” he said.
During the last couple of years, Mr. Falco’s name and work has surfaced on a number of “Best Of” lists, growing his budding stockpile of literary honors. A near decade of writing has produced two books of poetry, a novel and three short-story collections, one of which was among Revista Ñ magazine’s best Argentine books of 2010. That same year, Granta magazine honored Mr. Falco as one of its Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. However, despite the accolades, Mr. Falco’s initial career was not in writing, but mechanical engineering.
“I think I knew from a young age I wanted to write,” Mr. Falco said, recalling a memory of writing at age nine, but “it took a long time to be able to say, ‘I am a writer more than anything else.’”
He left his university studies only after taking a long trip to Patagonia, during which he realized he could not return to his former life as an engineering student. “The feeling was like an acrobat taking a big leap with no net underneath,” Mr. Falco said.
It was a leap worth taking, however. Fellow Granta winner Esther Freud has compared Mr. Falco’s writing to the likes of Flannery O’Connor, praising an economy of language that accrues a certain power and beauty as the story unfolds. This is particularly evident in the short story “In Utah There Are Mountains Too,” which follows the teenage protagonist Cuqui, as she falls in and out of love with a Mormon missionary who passes through her city in Argentina. In this coming-of-age portrait, we see the snap, jagged evolutions Cuqui undergoes, as she declares boldly at one moment that she is an atheist only to fall in love with a missionary on the next page, as if identity was an outfit to be tried on, but not purchased. She is at once defiant and vulnerable, impetuous and resolved. At the end of the passage, we see her giving the missionaries tin hearts, a memento to remember her by, at the precise moment she chooses to move on, to relish the precious last month of summer, to make up for time lost.
The story originally began as a biography of a poet and good friend of 15 years, Mr. Falco recalls, and evolved into fiction after classmates in his Spanish MFA program at New York University suggested he break from the non-fiction genre.
It proved “an impossibility for me to put this life on paper,” Falco said, but in the end, the character shared an untiring quality with the person who inspired her. In that sense, the protagonist “is both a character and not…I think all authors create a fiction and non-fiction (in their work),” he said.
As a backdrop to Cuqui’s story, there is a sense of a persistent distrust between the tourists, who storm city attractions with a barrage of camera flashes, and the inhabitants of the city. This dynamic figures within the landscape of the story to allow characters to “realize another world” and “different landscapes. It puts the character in front of a mirror to confront his- or herself: who they are, why they are different,” Mr. Falco said.
Following his time in Iowa City, Falco will continue to work on the third novel of a trilogy. Mr. Falco does not describe himself as a fast writer by any means, though he considers the draft-writing process to be drastically shorter than the painstaking cut-and-paste revision process. That, Mr. Falco notes, with dry earnestness, “can take years.”
“In Utah There are Mountains Too,” translated into English by Alfred MacAdam, can be found at http://iwp.uiowa.edu/sites/iwp.uiowa.edu/files/Falco_sample_formatted.pdf.