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Bookend: Marie Arana On Bringing Latin America To Life

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Marie Arana standing in the Madison Building at the Library of Congress.
Jonathan Wilson
Marie Arana standing in the Madison Building at the Library of Congress.

Marie Arana is the former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post Book World, and is a literary fixture in the D.C. region. During her 17 years at the Post, Arana shaped the city's bookworm tendencies. She has also helped plan literary events for the Kennedy Center, organized the National Book Festival, and written a memoir and a couple of novels of her own. Her latest work is a biography of the Venezuelan military and political leader, Simón Bolívar. Jonathan Wilson sat down with Arana on the sixth floor of the Madison Building at the Library of Congress, where she currently serves as a Distinguished Scholar.

Excerpts from the interview:

On her work:

"It's true, all my books have been very different. But I tell people, in fact, they're all part of the same 'building' in a sense. I've been trying to build a building in which I explain to American readers who Latin Americans are, how we think, how our history has been so different. Even the novels, which are based on my family, the memoir also, which was based on my childhood, and now, this biography of a quintessential Latin American hero; it all is of a piece, even though it doesn't look that way."

On power:

"You begin to think about power and how people get it and how people lose it when you live in Washington, D.C. And certainly, Bolivar's story is about gaining power out of nowhere, and then losing it, drastically. It was probably very colored by the fact that I was sitting in Washington, D.C."

On working:

"I'm lucky to have worked at a newspaper because the sense of deadline is always there. I can't afford to suffer the blank page syndrome. Something has got to go down. So what I do is I do my best writing when the sun goes down. I wish it weren't that way, because I end up, you know, at 4 in the morning, still writing. But that's when I'm most creative, at night, when everything's quiet and I've got a room to myself and no phones are ringing."

On writing:

"When I'm writing, at first, I feel like it's disastrous. I feel like I'm not getting what I want down, but I do it anyway. I put it down, and it's a muddy mess — the next morning when I get up, and I slap it around, it gets better."

[Music: "Frost Bit" by Mello Music Group from Odd Seasons / "Our Lips Are Sealed" by Twilight Trio from Pure Instrumental: Pop It, Vol. 7]

AUDIO EXTRA: Arana reading her account of how one of Bolivar’s mistresses, Manuela Sainz, saved him from assassination in Bogota, Colombia.

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