I do think being a poet helps train you in the belief that every particle of language matters intensely

Ben Lerner is a poet and published several poetry collections. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel.

Spain is currently commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Atocha bombings. Why did you choose to connect the narrative to this particular event?

I lived in Spain during that time and so my memories of that particular year—including that tragedy—are vivid. But the bombings matter in the book in several ways. The bombings are important in the book for a variety of reasons: they are the moment in which historical violence irrupts into Adam Gordon’s often solipsistic meditations; they represent a world reordered (or disordered) by the American “war on terror,” and so confront Adam with the fact that even while he’s abroad, he’s still dealing with the ramifications of American empire; they also stage a confrontation in the book between Adam’s aesthetic preoccupations and the political realities of his moment.

Adam’s life in Spain is a series of lies, deceptions and misunderstandings. He feels that everything is unreal, and that his residency in Spain is at best “an experience”, but very distant from reality—or at least his reality. Is fiction writing comparable to this experience?

Henry James said a novelist should be someone on “whom nothing is lost.” But does that mean that you should live your life fully or that you should step aside from lived experience in order to be able to record its significance with a kind of aesthetic detachment? It is an old debate among artists: is writing a way of intensifying life or is there a tension between producing art and inhabiting the reality of your life? In Adam’s case it’s worth noting that while he tells a lot of lies to other people, he is ruthlessly honest about his own shortcomings. Perhaps he achieves a kind of authentic experience by being so frank about his inauthenticity?

Besides including details from paintings and excerpts of poems, there is in the novel a conversation between Adam and his friend Cyrus on an Internet chat whose formal simplicity makes it all the more striking. How meaningful is orality in your work?

I’m not sure what you mean by “orality” in the sense that the chat is written. But it has the speed of a real time exchange. What interests me about Internet chat as a novelistic device is how it places novelistic dialog in lived time. Hesitations, pauses, etc—all of that can show up realistically through the inclusion of a chat. It’s worth mentioning that, while Adam says very little in the chat, it’s actually the most realistic depiction of his “voice”—because, unlike all the other dialog, it isn’t filtered through his unreliable Spanish. This medium is incredibly immediate in that sense.

You are also a poet, and Leaving the Atocha Station is your first novel. Is it a necessary step for a writer?

I don’t think it’s necessary. I still write poems and, even though I’ve just completed a second novel (a novel that includes a poem and some thoughts about poetry), I tend to consider myself first and foremost a poet. That’s where my education is, where my strongest commitments are. It’s probably a cliché to say so, but I do think being a poet helps train you in the belief that every particle of language matters intensely—instead of conceiving the novel primarily as about characters and plots you develop a sense of a novel as also about the quality of the signifier and the event that is the sentence itself.

Through his own experience and with the translation of his poems in Spanish, the issue of the language barrier is always present. Yet, Adam often feels that his thoughts and words are more faithfully represented and expressed in Spanish, even though he doesn’t always understand the language down to the very last detail. Do you feel there is a tangible difference between Spanish and English in the imagery each language conveys?

I’m not sure Adam thinks his thoughts are more faithfully represented in Spanish—I think he has a fantasy that his fragmented Spanish will imply depths of intelligence and meaning and feeling he does not himself possess. I think there is a tangible difference between every language—and every language within a language (we all speak many kinds of English or French or Polish or whatever). Wittgenstein said that to imagine a form of language is to imagine a form of life, and I think that’s what’s so exciting and terrifying about existing in another language: how much of you survives? How much of your life survives translation? You have a sense of vertiginous possibility that is not easy to extricate from a sense of dissolution.