The journalist Silvana Paternostro was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, the place where Gabriel García Márquez congregated with friends and fellow writers, several of whom became characters in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Paternostro had moved to the US as a teen before she grasped Márquez’s towering importance for herself. Later, she would attend a three-day journalism workshop led by the author. In writing Solitude & Company, her oral history of the Nobel Prize winner’s life before and after he found fame, she learned that several people closest to the author (his friends called him Gabo) had essentially taken a vow of silence to protect his privacy, “as if you were in the mafia”. Paternostro talks about finding plenty of others who’d talk, Márquez’s superstitions and discipline, and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I got the idea to do the book in 2010, and it came out in Spanish in 2014. But it had been gestating without me being aware of it in many ways. I was born and grew up in the exact geographical area where One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place. I would hear stories about him and his friends; they were a crazy bunch, like our own Beat poets. My uncle knew them. I went to school with some of their children.
When Tina Brown started Talk magazine, she did a section of oral history. I got a call from the magazine in 2000, saying “We want to do an oral history of García Márquez, would you be interested?” I was, of course. It was a magazine piece, 2,000 words, but I just couldn’t stop my tape recorder. I knew there was this pact among people who wouldn’t betray his friendship. But there were others — everyone had an encounter with García Márquez. Talk closed before the oral history appeared. I published it in The Paris Review.
In 2010, by chance, I saw García Márquez at the inauguration of a museum in Mexico City. He didn’t look so well. There were thousands of people there: the president of Mexico; the richest man in Mexico. And I saw how thousands of people, instead of going up to them, all went to García Márquez. With love. My heart skipped a beat, and I was curious: Who was this who had turned into our Latin John Lennon? So I think the book was born that day. I realised that I needed to give it more of a structure, so I went out and did a second round of interviews.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I was really surprised that he was as superstitious as he was — that he didn’t attend funerals, even of his friends. Some people maybe begrudged the fact that he didn’t go, but he was really superstitious and panicked by it. These are little things, but they’re very telling.
The one big thing that really struck me was his discipline. Because I know where we come from, where pranksterism and Caribbean laissez-faire are the rule of the day. This young boy who grew up with really very little in his favour turned out to be the man who put Latin American literature on the map. And he wanted to; it wasn’t a fluke. He told himself that he would write a book that would be as important as Don Quixote, and he did.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
There are people that have spent most of their lives as Gabo experts. I don’t think I’m a Gabo expert. I had a curiosity in understanding the man before and the man he became later. But along the way, I became the repository of all these incredible stories, and I felt it was almost my obligation to share them. It turned into a book that explains our music, the violence, the idiosyncrasies of the region. When I was growing up, it was red alert: Don’t go. Now that Colombia has become a travel destination, the book, while it’s not a travel guide, is a companion to travel to Colombia with.
It also became a perfect, fun thing to have if you want to go read his books again. It became many, many things more than the magazine story I set out to write.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
I am in awe of ballet dancers. I took many classes in my youth. I spent a lot of time in Panama. Margot Fonteyn, who to me was the epitome of the elegance of ballet dancing, was there, and she brought a lot of incredible dancers to Panama. So I had the great privilege to see a lot of amazing ballet dancers live. When I was just a young intern at a Panama newspaper, Alexander Godunov was going to dance “Don Quixote”, and I asked my editor if I could go interview him. And I did. I waited for him to come out, a summer intern with a tape recorder and a photographer. He was exhausted but agreed to sit with me. It was my first interview.