Best-selling author Carlos Ruiz Zafon tells Susan Mansfield why nothing is lost in translation of his first children's novel
IT'S raining the day I meet Carlos Ruiz Zafon, so we begin with a discussion about rain. London rain, according to Zafon, is "annoying, not spectacular".
"I spend a lot of time in LA, and when it rains there you get the entire rainfall for the year in two days, raindrops the size of mangoes. And in Barcelona, the Mediterranean storms come up from the sea, thunder and lightning, it's like the end of the world."
Readers of Zafon's novels, The Shadow Of The Wind and The Angel's Game, will recognise those rainstorms. They will also recognise the natural flair for drama. In Zafon's world it's not enough for rain to be rain, it has to be a spooky, mist-swirling drizzle, or an apocalyptic downpour.
In The Shadow Of The Wind, Zafon spun an ambitious, gothic tale of lost books and crumbling Gaudi mansions, part mystery, part romance, at times impressively spooky. It sold 12 million copies worldwide. The Angel's Game, the second of four Barcelona novels and a kind of prequel, is more playfully postmodern, though still with a powerfully driven story. It sold 600,000 copies in its first week in Spain, the fastest-selling Spanish novel ever.
Now Zafon is in London in the unspectacular rain to promote a different book. The Prince Of Mist is a children's book (though he is keen to point out its crossover appeal) and his first book, written 20 years ago, which made him a household name in Spain, now in its first English translation.
Max Carver is 13 when he moves with his family to a deserted house on the coast. Mysteries abound: the tragedy which seems to have surrounded the previous owners; the strange garden of statues behind the house; the stack of old cine films in the garage. As Max seeks out the truth, old secrets begin to stir. Some elements here will be familiar to Zafon readers: the cinematic spookiness (the wardrobe door handle which turns slowly from the inside…); the misdeeds of one generation coming back to haunt the next; even the suave, unflinching personification of evil.
"Many of the themes I've been developing since are in The Prince Of Mist," says Zafon. "Especially the theme about moral choices, how people become the people they are based on the choices they make, and how the consequences of the choices of one generation are delivered on another generation."
Re-reading the novel 20 years on, he can see back through its pages to the man he was: an advertising copywriter in his mid-twenties, desperate to write, thinking of leaving Barcelona for LA (which he did soon afterwards). "I was much younger, but back then I didn't feel younger. I always felt that I was a writer, that was what I had to do. Probably, that was an early start, but to me it was late. When you're very young, you're hungry for things."
As a child in the playground at school he had told stories to the other kids. When he was ten, he and four friends set up a publishing house, selling his work around the school. They were raking in cash until their Jesuit headmaster read the "stories about demons, vampires and Martians who would come from outer space and kill everybody".
"We ran into some problems with censorship," he says, "but it was fun while it lasted."
Even then, he was on fire with the power of stories. He consumed them, in whatever form they came. He loved films: David Lean, Billy Wilder. One of the first movies he remembers is Citizen Kane. He didn't understand it, but the images stayed with him. He knew this was the power of storytelling, and he wanted to know how it worked.
It was the same with books: he devoured Raymond Chandler, Tolkien, Dickens. He says he learned English by reading Stephen King with a dictionary. He wrote an 800-page gothic novel when he was 13. "All this was mixed together. I would read Dickens and re-interpret it from some Citizen Kane visual sense. I went from Billy Wilder to Flaubert. I've always ignored the labels people put on things."
Today his writing is equally eclectic. Sometimes it reads like Borges, at other times like Dan Brown. But Zafon says the greatest works are fusions. "I'm interested in everything. I don't see why Borges can't work along with Neil Gaiman, or Stephen King can't be mixed with Balzac. It's just storytelling, it's different ways of using codes and images and words and sounds." One day, he says, he may write a horror story, "to get it out of my system".
Success hasn't changed him, he says, but it's taught him a healthy cynicism about the publishing world. On one level, The Angel's Game is a satire on it, a paperback writer prepared to make a Faustian bargain in exchange for literary adulation. He plays with the conventions of mass-market fiction even as he fills pages with them. It is with wily humour that Zafon casts the devil as a publisher.
He knows what it's like to be hailed as an "exotic" new discovery, then suddenly to be dismissed as ubiquitous. He pays little heed. "I knew when I was writing The Angel's Game that a lot of people would be upset that I didn't write Shadow Of The Wind 2. That's okay, that's part of the game. You do what you have to do. If they like it, great. If they don't, too bad. What are you going to do?"
The Prince Of Mist, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is published by Orion, priced 9.99
• This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, June 13, 2010