August 8, 2016

Interview with José Carlos Andrés

Please join us to celebrate a party where the center of attention is not the birthday child this time, but the clown: José Carlos Andrés (Madrid, 1969) has talked to us about his book Mi papá es un payaso / My Dad Is a Clown, as well as his experience as a clown and storyteller, his social vindications, the new kinds of families, or the importance of education for children.

SPANISH GAY FICTION: Is Mi papá es un payaso / My Dad Is a Clown your first experience in LGBT literature? Where does the project come from? How familiar are you with the LGBT universe?

JOSÉ CARLOS ANDRÉS: In my view, the story Mi papá es un payaso / My Dad Is a Clown can be labeled (labeling is so exhausting!) as children’s literature. However, there is a potential audience that I would like to aim at: the grown-ups, since the children—if not swayed by their adults—do not question same-sex parenting families.
The story came from the need to introduce to every audience the existence of other types of families, and there are only a few key things about them: love, affection and respect.
That is why the story begins with something that I have been claiming for years: a polite use of vocabulary in our society. Why is clown pejorative, and not lawyer? Are some professions more respectable than others? And, are traditional families more respectable than the others? I want the readers, no matter their age, to enjoy my stories, but also question things at the same time.
Regarding my familiarity with the LGBT universe, I must say that this is part of my life and my culture.

SGF: Why is it published as a bilingual book? Did you intend to cross borders with this book? If that is the case, do you know how it has been accepted abroad?

JCA: Publishing the text in English and Spanish was a decision of Nube Ocho, a publishing house very committed to diversity themes. When same-sex marriage was legalized in Chile, its administration purchased a big amount of Mi papá es un payaso / My Dad Is a Clown books, interested in the portrait of a same-sex parenting family. It is also selling pretty well in Mexican bookstores. Yes, the text is bilingual, but it is actually succeeding in Spanish-speaking countries.

SGF: And what about Spain? Is Mi papá es un payaso / My Dad Is a Clown highly-regarded? Did you expect more of it?

JCA: I know, and the publishing house also knew, that this is not the kind of book that conquers the market. But it was necessary, and the fact that we are right now talking about the story is a sign of this. You could hear good reviews on the story even on a very conservative radio station! This is not a best seller, but the people who have read it say good things about it.

SGF: The story depicts a same-sex parenting family. As far as I know, you use to dramatize your books, so you can see the audience reaction before your very eyes. How does this story use to be accepted? Is there any difference when it is an adult audience instead of children?

JCA: This is a very good question! When I have told this tale I have found a wide range of responses in adults—“Not suitable for children!!”—. From satisfied faces to expressions denoting: “What am I doing here?”
But this is our society. I am not surprised, that is true; I knew what was going to follow after telling this story: for children, this is a nice story, with some funny situations, but for some parents—phew! They had some trouble.
The best thing that happens many times is that, after finishing the storytelling, lots of people come to me and give thanks for it: mothers, fathers. . .EVEN GRANNIES AND GRANDPAS! Something is changing. We are doing something well.

SGF: Is children’s LGBT literature important to you? Do you think that we give importance enough to LGBT education for children in Spain?

JCA: Literature is the most important thing to me: it is my job, my vice and my vocation.
I think that we must not use the LGBT literature for children label. It is literature for children dealing about certain issues—Normal issues such as death, divorce or same-sex parenting families. These issues are still all taboo for many people. However, these issues do exist, and children need that we talk about them.

SGF: Would you highlight any LGBT work for children that you like, or even used as a reference in Mi papá es un payaso / My Dad Is a Clown?

JCA: There are two wonderful illustrated books in which two women fall in love, or there are families of two fathers and two mothers: La princesa Li / Princess Li and El lapicero mágico / The Magic Pencil, by Luis Amavisca.[1]

SGF: Do you believe, as you say in the book, that doctors and clowns are “the most necessary professions in the world”?

JCA: Of course I do! “One heals the body and the other heals the soul.” Although there is another group left: teachers.
In this little story there are many vindications: love in the family, love between two men, opposition to the use of certain words with offensive purposes, dignifying and valuing a profession that our society considers minor (or even worse!), love for a vocation that is your job—I have gone overboard!! [Laughs]
My father was born in 1920; my mother, in 1925. They did not understand that I could proudly say that I was a clown. For them, I was a teacher (that is also true), but a clown—
Saving lives and making people laugh, along with educating children, that is what our society needs. We all know people who have lots of money, but no education. And without health or happiness, what is the use of money?

SGF: There is an intention to dignify the profession of clown throughout the story. To what extent do you think that this occupation, your occupation, is still denigrated? In your case, have you ever felt the need to defend your vocation against contempt or criticism?

JCA: In the story I explain how hard being a clown is. Day after day you need to study, rehearse, shape up. . .Like a doctor. Like a teacher. Like an aeronautical engineer. Why are some more highly regarded than others? Is it a question of salary?
A first team soccer player works hard physically for twenty years in his lifetime, more or less. Then he retires. The best clowns reach their peak in their forties (wonderful exceptions aside).
And of course I have had to stand up for being a clown against many people, but that is because not everybody knows my profession or is sensitive enough or wants to understand the huge effort behind being a clown.

SGF: Is there any autobiographical note in the story, beyond the fact that one of the characters is a clown?

JCA: Unfortunately not. It is just fiction.

SGF: The boy’s final decision (becoming a doctor wearing a clown nose when he grows up) reminded me of the true story reflected in the film Patch Adams,[2] starring the late Robin Williams. Did the film or the story it was based on have any influence when writing the book?

JCA: I love Robin. I say it in present tense, since he will always be alive, but I do not think that his film had any direct influence on me, apart from the fact that, when you are writing, every single thing that you have lived, read, seen or heard leaves a trace that you use in the creative moment.
I wrote the story because I wanted to talk about a boy living with two fathers who are in love. That is all. The rest just came up.

SGF: And what about the illustrations by Natalia Hernández? Did you two previously discuss the style, or did she work freely? For instance, why the exclusive use of colors red, black and white throughout the book, or the fact that the three main characters are bald?

JCA: Natalia’s work was coordinated by Nube Ocho, I had nothing to do with it. But when they sent me the sketching—I LOVED IT ALL!!
There is a very nice story about the colors: In 2007 I set up my clown & theater company, El Clan del Clown, and my friend Joseph Sylvestre, from designed its awesome website (he also designed my own website). He chose the company colors—a marketing issue that I was ignorant of—: white (from the whiteface clown), red (the most typical color of the clown), and black (usual to outline contours and the clown’s eyes). And then I found that Mi papá es un payaso / Mi Dad Is a Clown shared the same colors. THAT WAS MAGIC.
I guess that the fact that both dads are bald is because baldness is sexy, natural and sweet, isn’t it? Or just most boys’ fate! [Laughs]

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

JCA: I can tell you, secretly and exclusively, that I am focused on creating stories for illustrated books. Two new books will be released this year. And for next year there are two more projects.
Not big deal, but I tell you for sure that it makes me happy. Really happy. Like a clown in a party balloon store.

[1] Both bilingual books are also published by Nube Ocho.
[2] Patch Adams (1998), directed by Tom Shadyac. Based on the real story of Hunter “Patch” Adams, a revolutionary doctor who founded the Gesundheit! Institute, a project of reforming health care system by complementary therapies, in which the concept of “humanitarian clowning” plays a key role. The film was an astounding box-office success in its time.

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