December 23, 2015

Interview with Julia Ortega

This is the time of Desde Londres con glamour bilogy author Julia Ortega (Barcelona, 1971). She has thoroughly answered questions dealing with a variety of topics such as feminism, homophobia, current affairs, science fiction, the importance of music in creation or—Prince Charming! Wish the reader will be pleased with her amusing, unusual, somehow controversial, non-filtered pouring speech.

SPANISH GAY FICTION: How important is Desde Londres con glamour bilogy for you in your work up to date?

JULIA ORTEGA: This marks a milestone in my career. Caprichos del destino (the 1st part) came after a seven-year hiatus, and from the very beginning this was a very personal, intimate, almost necessary project in an emotional viewpoint. This has been an awesome project for me.

SGF: Did you conceive the project as a bilogy since the beginning, or the second part came later?

JO: Caprichos del destino was supposed to be a stand-alone novel at first. But several readers went enthusiastic about Gillian, and that encouraged me to dive deep into her story. I also was sure that I wanted to produce a situation comedy to balance all the dramatic content of Caprichos del destino—I anticipate that this is a total weeper—. Since 2014 I seriously started to think of this pair of novels as a whole, but it has not been too long since I have finally understood the concept as a bilogy and given a special, exclusive name to it: Desde Londres con glamour.

SGF: Although there are also male characters, in both novels women have the power. Both Judith and Debbie are the ones who call the shots in their corresponding relationships with Josh, as a sort of matriarchal society; the same happens with Saffron’s and Sam’s mothers. Would you say that this depiction has been a way to highlight the power of women currently, or the power that you would want women to hold in the future? Is it a reflection of what you have experienced in your family environment?

JO: Right now I openly say that I am an ardent feminist—in the best sense of the term, okay? Some people are not clear about this thing called feminism—. But the women in my fiction do usually have a strong personality and rule over men. Not old-fashioned men, but those who do not feel superior and treat women as equals (unlike my grandmother’s days).
Regarding my family environment, it is just the opposite. I belong to a family of very submissive, male chauvinist women. I want no thing alike at all in my novels—at least in those set in the 21st century. Entirely different when historical fiction is concerned, where women act submissively in accordance with old times’ fashion. But in Desde Londres con glamour I look to the future; this is futurist, though not in a dystopian, sci-fi way. I am an incurable optimist, and I am certain that future will bring great achievements to women. We have already reaped great success for long, but this is just the beginning. We have a long way ahead, and it is very important that women must fight together.

SGF: Women are so predominant (and men are so small) in both novels—no wonder several lesbian relationships occur throughout their pages. Apart from real-life psychological explanations, can it be seen as a literary symbol of the lack of men at the height of these women, as if love between women could be their only understanding comfort?

JO: This does not arise from feminist thoughts or inquisitiveness. Caprichos del destino is certainly based on true facts, and that lesbian triangle did happen time ago. From that point on I have written a story of women for women, though, curiously enough, men like it more than initially imagined. I see it as a very positive attitude, telling the evolution from the macho values towards a new behavior, more tolerant and appropriate to the century we live in now. Yes, it really could be said that my babes do not find men who make the grade—at least intellectually and emotionally. In the case of Judith, Josh is a trophy husband that she can socially boast about; actually, he is a weak alcoholic man whose weakness too much highlights the strength of the leading lady in Caprichos del destino. Regarding Gill and Alex—especially Gill—, I could really say that this is a sheltering love—But I will not say a word.

SGF: The heterosexual male type is anyhow redeemed in Sam, who is a kind of sensitive, understanding straight boyfriend, with a pinch of enthusiastic madness. Did you create Sam with your own personal idea of the perfect boyfriend type in mind?

JO: [Laughs.] Yes, probably when I was a child (like every little girl), I have dreamed of my incredibly idealized Prince Charming; that knight in shining armor, holding firmly his lethal sword, who rescues the maiden from the usual evil villain’s clutches so as to live in eternal love with her. Sam really is that knight, though adapted to the 21st century circumstances. He is a modern, urban knight; a bit nuts and too absent-minded. But he makes himself loveable—Or that is what some female readers have claimed.

SGF: Although there are women who love other women in your bilogy, you also describe inflamed detestations. I refer to Michelle’s towards Judith in Caprichos del destino, or Olimpia’s towards Gillian in Nuestro lugar en el mundo. Would you say that your novels support the old saying that women are their own worst enemies? To what extent do you agree with this statement in real life, beyond fiction?

JO: Absolutely, you have hit the nail on the head. There is something you can call hate, and in both cases you can talk about the binary jealousy/fear. Both women are exaggeratedly possessive, and dreadfully scared of losing what they do not own, but mainly they are afraid of being on the shelf, as my grandmother used to say. Yes, as I said before women must stay together since there is still a long thorny way ahead. Women facing women, either straight or gay, do feminism a disservice. Though this may sound quite old-fashioned, quite suffragette, I am sorry to say that just a few things have really changed since 1915 up to 2015, and you only need to see the news to realize that, like it or not, women and men still do not compete on equal terms. In my personal viewpoint, I only say that we all are humans, we all have passions and impulses, and from that undeniable fact on, everything is possible.

SGF: From the whole list of characters, which is the one you can call Julia Ortega’s alter ego?

JO: Judith, period.[1] People who know me well see me behind this character. Anyway, Judith and I do not always go hand in hand, or share the same opinions, or react the same way under the same circumstances. Because there is a time (I will not go into detail) when Judith separates from any preconceived notion at all and goes it alone. Judith is bigger than life: indomitable, rebellious—a free, wild Amazon.

SGF: Is there any character which is not necessarily similar to you, but you would like to be akin to?

JO: They have asked me this question before [Laughs.], but I will answer the same, no matter how many years go by: Alex. Alex. Alex. It is not only that she is red-haired, or turquoise-eyed, which is something that I go crazy for; it is almost everything—Anyway, Alex is a totally invented character, and that may be why I have endowed her with all those divine and human features that I have always missed in me. Buy I do not think that I am the only author who does this sort of things, so I do not regret or find pleasant that this could be held against me.

SGF: In your bilogy you quote pop song lyrics, both Spanish and international. How important is music for Julia Ortega when writing? They all are sung by female artists—

JO: Inevitable. Music is everything to me. I am incredibly sensitive to music; I do not think I could live without music for more than a day, I mean it! As Caprichos del destino is concerned, every life has their music score, and that is, of course, Judith’s case. And in Nuestro lugar en el mundo music puts Saffron’s life in motion; she lives and breathes for and because of music. She can sacrifice everything except her singing career. And if she had to give up music and public life as an artist, she would never stop singing in the shower. There are some male singers amongst my favorites, but it is undeniable that women win by an overwhelmingly wide margin when I am creating a playlist for any of my novels.

SGF: Your bilogy is set in the future, but it is clear that you rejected the idea of depicting a world full of inventive devices and fabrications since the very beginning. Was it a response to this tendency to romanticize about the coming future beyond any realistic boundary, so usual in futuristic fiction? What is your opinion about this genre?

JO: The truth is that I feel that they took the 60’s and 70’s younger generations for a ride through sci-fi movies, and then we all became disillusioned when 2001 (the space odyssey year) came and nothing happened. At least nothing that took place in the outer space and concerned each and every one of us. Well, I had my own 2001 odyssey, but it had nothing to do with space, and I did not leave the planet Earth or even my place. And the same happens with New Yorkers after 9/11. Disasters? Yes, but they are all earthly and human. Also I openly admit my lack of imagination to create this kind of dystopian societies like The Hunger Games (by the way, I do love it!). Anyway, the future that I have created for that particular universe in which my babes live in is for the next 25 years more or less; I honestly do not believe that a post-apocalyptic society or civilization could take place in so little time.

SGF: To continue with the future topic, you present Catalonia as totally emancipated from Spain. The characters are too critical of this independence. What is your opinion about this issue now that this is breaking news in any Spanish TV bulletin?

JO: Jeez!!! I am talking about this on September, 27.[2] I wrote that part relating to a hypothetical independent Catalonia at the beginning of 2014; it should be February more or less, and you could perfectly see that a commotion would take place, though nobody knew (and nobody still knows, actually) how it is going to end. I do not think that Ruth, who lives and works in California nine or ten months a year, is worried; and the same happens with Gillian, who visits Barcelona as a tourist and does not give a damn whether Catalonia is independent—unless this would be somewhat detrimental to her. Judith might have been more controversial about this, but by then she had already assimilated London lifestyle, and whatever happened to the Spanish or the Catalonian—she found it irrelevant.

SGF: According to your novels, in two decades’ time homophobia will be still present in the Western world. Do you think that this tendency is so difficult to eradicate?

JO: My grandmother used to say: “Te mastico pero no te trago.”[3]  That is to say: people are beginning to tolerate homosexuality, but they are light years away from accepting it naturally. Great achievements have been made on paper, and we all are used to applaud when celebrities come out, but this is just for show. When in small groups, with family, at home, with reliable friends—then people openly speak their mind and admit they do not like gay people, as they feel that gays are disgusting or unnatural—. I can even state that I still experience it myself today. We are still far away from a total tolerance, and I am not sure up to what point gay pride marches or any other flamboyant mass celebrations of the same kind may help the cause—

SGF: Judith Ordóñez is killed by an Islamic terrorist group. You describe Judith as an outspoken feminist. Do you think Islamism is nowadays a menace to all the rights that women have achieved after centuries of struggle in the Western society, and then a menace to the Western culture in general?

JO: Radicalism is shocking. So is fanaticism. Judith struggles against fanaticism. And it is a fact that now in the 21st century, religious fanaticism comes from the Middle East. I am sure that people will say that Christian fanaticism does also exist. And I do not question it; Protestantism, especially in the USA, can reach a high level of fanaticism, actually. I mean what I say: I have lived among them for seven years and I know well their weak points. However, I am much more worried about Islamic fanaticism, since it is absolutely unfavorable towards women. Furthermore, the LGBT community is also enduring their homophobic attacks. I know that they will always defend themselves, claiming that this is not true, that we the Western people are manipulating reality to show them as the bad guys. I will not enter into debates—this would be a never-ending interview otherwise. I only say that the facts that I was describing in 2009 have unfortunately become much more prophetic than I would have expected.[4]

SGF: I admit to have a soft spot for villains in fiction since ever. According to this, you can well understand that my favorite character is Michelle. I enjoyed her depiction as a twisted, hopelessly mean bitch so much that I missed her in Nuestro lugar en el mundo. In fact, you played with the presence of Bárbara here—and then you never tell what happened to her. Why did you get rid of these characters so easily in the second part, when they had been so significant in Caprichos del destino?

JO: I confess that I am more into villains than heroes. They are more human, less self-righteous, more believable and quite much appealing. You may be missing Michelle in Nuestro lugar en el mundo, but you should be OK with me when I say that, once Judith is dead, the presence of Michelle cannot be justified at all. So I had to come up with another bad girl, and then Olimpia was born. Saffron’s mother could have played a much more important role, though I decided to leave the Gone with the Wind theme as a mere funny remark, without further ado.
Regarding Bárbara, she could have been more prominent in the second part—But we are back into the same thing; neither Judith, nor Michelle, nor Bárbara have any business in Nuestro lugar en el mundo, mostly because they are not together anymore. I felt that adding Bárbara in the plot could mess it up, therefore I decided that this character was not worth it.

SGF: In Caprichos del destino you defend two awarded Spanish female authors. On one hand, Lucía Etxebarria and the reference to her Nadal Prize for Beatriz y los cuerpos celestes (“Beatriz and the Heavenly Bodies”); on the other hand, Maria de la Pau Janer and her Planeta Prize-winning novel Pasiones romanas (“Roman Passions”),[5] on which critics were really harsh. Why did you want to sing their praises? Was it just a literature issue, or is there anything else behind? Do you think these authors are/have been injured more than they deserved?

JO: I liked Lucía much more when I was younger, and I just wanted—needed—to mirror an author’s manners. I read Pasiones romanas in 2007, and I loved it; when I heard that this book had received so much negative criticism, it really shocked me. And as I was intensely working on the novel by then, I decided to make a mention. But this is just another mention, another anecdote. Caprichos del destino is a novel knitted on old remnants from the storehouse of memory. This is nothing but a simple literature remark, as well as Judith’s criticism, since she is an over judgemental woman.

SGF: Have you thought about what is going to happen in the life of little Maerwyn? She represents the future of woman—

JO: Do not even mention it. At the present time, I flatly refuse to write a trilogy. Believe me, I have more than ten projects waiting for the go-ahead; I imagine that any story may get sequels or spin-offs if the author is determined and readers are longing for. But I really mean that I have too many projects to be held up embroiling a thing that looks good just the way it is now. I actually have fantasized about it, that is true; but this is just fantasy, a dream. “Que toda la vida es sueño / y los sueños, sueños son,”[6] as Calderón said.

SGF: What are you working on now? What are your next steps?

JO: Now I am involved in several things, and I do not know pretty well which one must go first: a historical saga, another new adult saga, a love triangle drama (I am really keen on these issues, as you can see), a couple of weepers with a touch of historical facts—So much to do, so little time. Horreur!!!!

[1] Julia Ortega / Judith Ordóñez. Note they both share same initials. This way, the author makes obvious this affective connection to her creation.
[2] This day pro-independence parties won the regional elections in Catalonia, and this administration consequently organized a popular vote on November 9, in which people expressed whether they wanted to break away from the Spanish nation. This referendum has not been considered legal, and ongoing political and judicial proceedings on this matter are being carried out at present.
[3] The more or less literal translation would be: I chew but cannot swallow you. It is used to express you can hardly get on with someone but never be friends with. I do not know any equivalent expression in English. Perhaps cannot stomach something or somebody, but this expression sounds to me a bit more categorical than the Spanish one.
[4] Even more, as this interview was made months before the terrorist attacks in Paris last November. In addition to the Catalonian independence issue abovementioned, Ortega’s novels have undoubtedly achieved a trending dimension.
[5] Nadal and Planeta literary awards are extremely popular in Spain, so their presence in mass media is nationwide. Some of the most outstanding Spanish (and Latin American) authors have won these awards. Regarding the Planeta, two Nobel Prize-winning authors (Camilo José Cela and Mario Vargas Llosa) are on the list of past winners.
Etxebarria’s novel is about the story of love/friendship between two teen girls and its progression over time, somehow similar to Ortega’s creations Alex and Gill’s. I still have not read Pasiones romanas, but according to several references, this is also a romance novel dealing with non corresponding love stories—a predominant topic in Ortega’s bilogy.
[6] Since one’s whole life is a dream, / and dreams are dreams themselves. Well-remembered last lines in Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream (Original title: La vida es sueño); a total classic from the Spanish Golden Age literature.

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