A Conversation with Sebastian Castillo
By Laura Liu
Sebastian Castillo is the author of 49 Venezuelan Novels (Bottlecap Press). He lives in New York where he teaches writing.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask Sebastian some questions. Read on for the result!
Laura Liu, Interviewer: To begin, what led you pursue writing? Was there a moment at which you felt yourself transition from “a person who writes” into “a writer”? How did you psychologically navigate that experience?
Sebastian Castillo, Writer: Reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 when I was 20 had a big impact on me. I think Bolaño in general is what first spurred me toward writing. The first generation of New York School poets, too. Both made literature feel open, immediate, and playful—something living, existing in the present tense. Later on, the Oulipo group and other contemporary writers who were playing with form (like Dennis Cooper, César Aira, Lydia Davis) confirmed this for me. I felt encouraged by reading them—that literature was continuous and possible and that by loving the writers I did, I was given consent to participate.
LL: You were born in Venezuela, grew up in New York, and have also lived in Philadelphia. How has your childhood has influenced your writing? Which of these places do you draw inspiration from the most, or do you rather find that they come together in your writing?
SC: I assume my childhood influenced me in the same way it influences everyone. I’m not sure if I can draw exact distinctions regarding place and its effect on my writing. I’ve sometimes felt that I don’t write about this life, but another one—the one that exists in writing itself. I don’t want for that to sound too stuffy. For me, the life I encounter in reading, in literature, feels distinct from my experiences outside of it. Reading is inside of life too, of course, but I prefer living in that corner. Life is boring, mean, etc.
LL: Speaking of Venezuela, let’s talk about your most recent book, 49 Venezuelan Novels (Bottlecap Press, 2017). Was the number 49 intentional? How did you go about writing those novels and piecing them together—were they originally in a different order?
SC: I was originally aiming for 99. I had a few more than that once I was done with the first draft, and felt unsatisfied with several of them—either they strayed too far from my concept of the book, or were stretching a thread that felt redundant. I decided on 49 because the number felt incomplete—one less than 50, which for some reason seems whole, a reliable unit. That “lack” spoke to my desire for the reader to co-author these novels with me—to move beyond what I had written and into their own imagination, where they would have the freedom to expand or extrapolate from what I had provided. Maybe they would add the 50th? The fact that 49, as a “random” number, seems coded with intention was also a reason—that someone would ask why 49 was the case. The answer is the question!
I wrote much of these “novels” over a period of several years and re-arranged them multiple times. I think, though, that the intended order can and should be perverted—I asked the publisher not to include page numbers for that reason. It’s really a toilet book: pick it up, flip through as you please, go back to life outside the bathroom, whatever.
LL: Switching gears a bit, what is your greatest fear when it comes to writing or being a literary community member? What’s one way you’re working to manage it?
SC: I would like to get as far away from those concerns as possible! I like writing because I like reading. Writing is just another way for me to participate in literature within my life—I really do privilege reading over writing itself. In terms of your question regarding community: I’m always happy to meet people who love the same things I do. It makes me feel close to them, maybe closer to the world in general. But I really don’t want to invest any importance on my input within the “literary community,” or whatever we might call it. Sharing a loved thing with friends and comrades is enough.
LL: You have also released an album called Skinned Genie and the Same Chords. Is your songwriting process a distinct process from that of your other genres?
SC: I used to make music more frequently than I do now, so it feels a bit distant for me. That being said, I do think one useful thing I gained from recording music was to rely on the material rather than any idea I might have invented for myself regarding how something was supposed to sound. Playing around with the object as it actually exists is more important, and puts away a lot of the anxiety that might arise with perceived expectation, “results.” It’s more difficult for me to have that attitude with language, but I think the guiding principle is a good one, and I try to follow it.
LL: To wrap up, you are currently teaching creative writing. I’m sure you encounter many students who hope to pursue writing. Do you have any advice for prospective writers, or perhaps students who are on the fence?
SC: My advice is to read things that charge you with permission, and write what feels exciting and nourishing. The further away you can get from thinking your work should resemble something familiar, the better.
Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.
Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation, and has won top prizes in competitions such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest, and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.
Header Image: Sebastian Castillo