About the book: This loosely-linked collection of stories is above all about people in exile –from their native countries, their families, their objects of desire. Political refugees from Argentina’s “dirty war,” survivors of a Cuban shipwreck and of Franco’s Spain, all navigate life far from home, whether in Madrid, Buenos Aires or suburban Washington, D.C. Minor characters in one story become protagonists of another, as different generations confront a legacy of loss and longing.
“Kathleen Wheaton’s characters are exiles: from their nations, their native families, their objects of desire. These ‘ruined specimens,’ as one character calls them, are almost always rescued – if not by circumstance, then by Wheaton’s compassionate, penetrating prose. These cleverly interlinked stories are a homeland of their own.” – Michael Lowenthal, author of “Charity Girl” and “The Paternity Test”
“In ‘Aliens and Other Stories,’ Kathleen Wheaton captures the disparate narratives of immigrants adrift in middle-class America – from the displaced and underemployed to the haunted legacy of Argentina’s desaparecidos. She imbues these stories with warmth and nuance and – perhaps most remarkably of all – with humor.” – Susan Coll, author of “Acceptance” and “Beach Week”
“With a keen eye and a rich and precise prose, Kathleen Wheaton embarks on a journey into the hearts and minds of exiles and expatriates. From the alienated and somber atmosphere of Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ to Madrid and Washington D.C., her characters are castaways, trying to find meaning in a reality that seems suspended in a moral vacuum. ‘Aliens and Other Stories’ is a remarkable first book.” – Mario Diament, former editor of La Opinion, author of “Lost Tango” and “Martin Eidan”
“What a pleasure it is to read Kathleen Wheaton’s collection of short stories, all of which expose with knife-like clarity the all-too-human flesh of contemporary life. Wheaton connects her characters to the world beyond the front door and the community while at the same time, and often with a sweet touch of humor, invites us into the heart of the family. Wheaton reveals the worst and the best of people unsure but still trying.” – Anne Bernays, author of “New York in the Fifties” and “The Man on the Third Floor”
What inspired you to work on this book? When I went to Buenos Aires to write a guidebook to the city, Argentina was recovering from the trauma of a brutal military dictatorship in which 30,000 people disappeared. It was a strange time to be writing a travel book. Often I’d be in a cafe discussing maps or photos with a contributor and the person would casually mention having been arrested during the “dirty war”, or having gone into hiding, or that someone close to them had disappeared. These abrupt revelations haunted me, and later I wrote a couple of short stories based on them. When I moved to the D.C. suburbs, after years of living abroad, I identified more with people who had come from other places and were struggling to adjust than with fellow Americans who’d always lived here. These experiences have informed the stories in “Aliens.”
Have you visited Buenos Aires since you were there to write the guidebook? If so, what had changed? What was the same? My husband and I returned together in 2007 and then with our teenage sons in 2009. There were some shiny new shops and condos built along what had been a smelly and derelict wharf, but in 20 years the city had changed less than I’d expected—some of my favorite cafes had the same waiters, 20 years older. But the dirty war was farther in the past, so it wasn’t the subtext of every conversation. The internet has connected Argentina more to the rest of the world, and yet there remains this sense of remoteness. Most Argentines have roots somewhere far away, and so Buenos Aires has an air of melancholy and nostalgia that is very enticing to a writer, since we traffic heavily in those two emotions.
Do you consider yourself more of a journalist or a fiction writer? I began as a fiction writer and fell into journalism when I went to South America and fell in love with a journalist. It seemed like such an interesting life, though I felt I wasn’t aggressive enough to be a real reporter. But I was encouraged by something Joan Didion said to the effect that a harmless appearance can be an advantage. If you are just quiet and willing to listen, you hear the most extraordinary things. In DC, where people are practical and career-oriented, I’ve noticed that a lot of fiction writers use their day jobs as cover. Then they’re outed when they publish a novel or story collection. But I continue to enjoy doing journalism—connecting with real people, not having to struggle to make an unbelievable story sound plausible.
How do you juggle your two writing careers? When we moved to Bethesda I had the good luck to begin writing for a bimonthly magazine that was just starting up, and which has continued to give me assignments. This meant that if I was diligent I could spend a month reporting and writing a nonfiction piece and then have a month free to write a short story. This has made both kinds of writing feel like a “vacation” from the other—at least for the first few minutes, until I actually sit down and start working. Because then you come up against the reality that all writing is really, really hard.
Have you used stories you’ve reported as a journalist in your fiction? Journalism would seem to be a rich source of plots and characters, but the truth is that once I finish a nonfiction story to my and my editor’s satisfaction, I’m done with it. I might claim some high-minded refusal to use the people I’ve interviewed as fictional fodder, except that I do steal things from them—their home furnishings, their mannerisms, something they mentioned in passing about their grandparents. Fiction writers are magpies.
You lived in Spain and Latin America for 12 years before moving back to the United States in ‘97. Why do you think these stories stuck with you for so long? Maybe even more than childhood, a person’s twenties are a really formative period. So many great (and not-so-great) works of art seem to center around the themes and preoccupations of that time of life. And it takes a while to figure out what it all means. At least it has taken me a while. Because the minute I say this I think of writers from Fitzgerald to the Spanish novelist Carmen Laforet, who wrote so beautifully and profoundly about youth while they were young, as it was happening.
What do you hope readers take away from “Aliens and Other Stories?” For me the experience of going to live in another country and learning another language was a revelation—my sense of the strangeness of life was suddenly, objectively, true. Being an actual foreigner struggling to understand was both freeing and reassuring. So I hope that readers who literally have been aliens as well as those who simply have felt that way will find they have something in common with my characters.
What countries would you like to visit next? About a year and a half ago I wrote a magazine piece about an Iranian family and decided to study Persian, which sounded to my uncomprehending ear beautiful and poetic. I don’t have much hope of visiting Iran or even of mastering the language enough to read the Persian poets in the original, and yet I keep at it. It’s opened up another world.
About the author: Veteran journalist Kathleen Wheaton’s byline has appeared in publications all over the world, and this fall, her name will grace the cover of her newest work, “Aliens and Other Stories.”
Wheaton was born in 1957 on a U.S. Army base in Germany and grew up in Pasadena and Palo Alto, Calif. After graduating from Stanford University in ’79 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and Spanish, she packed her bags and headed to Madrid, Spain, where she taught English for two years. Wheaton earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Boston University in ‘82. She lived in New York until ‘86 and returned to Spain for a year to write and edit a travel book for Insight Guides. She then traveled to Argentina for a second guidebook, where she met NPR reporter David Welna. They married in 1988 and lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Tepoztlan, Mexico before returning to the United States in ’97 along with their two sons, Ben and Alex, both born in Latin America.
Wheaton has been honored with three Dateline awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for profiles of public radio host Diane Rehm and opera singer Denyce Graves as well as a story about teen suicide published in Bethesda Magazine. She has received three grants from the Maryland Arts Council and in 2005, and she claimed the top spot at The Baltimore Review’s fiction contest. Her interviews and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The San Francisco Examiner, The Paris Review, Town & Country, European Travel & Life, Via, Applause and Smithsonian Magazine.
Wheaton’s short stories have been published in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Byline, Flyway, The Baltimore Review, Timber Creek Review, New South, Smokelong Quarterly, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Artisan, River Oak Review and Narrative as well as anthologies Flash Fiction Forward and Amazing Graces.
Wheaton’s collection of short stories, “Aliens and Other Stories,” will be released Oct. 15, 2013, by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House. The book recently won the publishing company’s 2013 award for fiction.
Wheaton is an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. She works as a Spanish and Portuguese interpreter for Montgomery County public schools in Maryland. She lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband.