An Interview with Luis Sepúlveda
Born in Santiago, Chile, Luis Sepúlveda is the multi-award-winning author of many adult novels and stories for children. Politically and socially engaged, he was persecuted and jailed by the Pinochet regime and worked for years as a crew member on a Greenpeace ship. The Story of a Seagull and The Cat Who Taught Her to Fly has been translated in over 40 countries with several film and theatre adaptations, it is out now in the UK with new illustrations by acclaimed illustrator Satoshi Kitamura.
Q: What inspired you to write The Story of a Seagull and The Cat who Taught Her to Fly?
A: I lived for ten years in Hamburg and they were the most magnificent years of my life. I wasn’t allowed to go back to Chile so I was there in exile. Three of my sons were born in Hamburg and we lived with a big cat called Zorba, and a she-cat called Bouboulina, like the characters from the novel of Nikos Kazantzakis. Several times before going to sleep my sons were begging me to read them a few pages from the book. In this way the book was born, by telling the story of Zorba to my children at night time. The book was a way to say thank you to Hamburg and to those fantastic ten years when I found solidarity and love.
Q: Why choose a cat and a seagull as your main characters?
A: The necessity was to put two very different characters, like a cat and a seagull, together. I wanted to show people that they could discover that even if you are different you can still understand one another and have feelings for someone who is different.
Q: Describe the process of writing the novel? How long did it take? When did you decide it was done?
A: In this story, like all my books, the real writers are the characters. The characters have a life of their own and the writer is just a person who writes their life down chronologically. It took my two years to write this story, with the help of my children and other children. I was reading the chapters to them and waiting for them to comment. Their comments were a great help, because there is nothing more difficult than writing a story for children. Children have an imagination in a pure state, they are surrealists, they love a language without ambiguities but at the same time poetic. I decided that the book was ready when the seagull dared to fly along with Zorba!
Q: The book has a strong environmental theme; did your experience on a Greenpeace ship inform that?
A: These are the values I strongly believe in, particularly our ecological responsibility towards the environment and in this way my experience as a Greenpeace activist helped me a lot – all I have seen on the journeys I did on ships like ‘Sirious’ or ‘Moby Dick’, showed me that the sea is threatened by the criminal irresponsibility of some big companies.
Q: The book is almost like a fable or parable, was that your intention when writing it?
A: This is a fable, at the same time it’s a metaphor of human and social values. But this is not a way of preaching or manipulating ideas to make people agree with me. My intention is basically to say that the human values like solidarity, respect for those who are different, the duty to protect the most vulnerable, are all promises that you have to stick to.
Q: You wrote the book over twenty years ago, how does it feel to have it re-released in the UK now?
A: The book is already twenty years old and I feel very happy to know that it still alive and that various generations of readers have discovered the adventures of the cat Zorba and the seagull. It is a story that has been translated into more than 40 languages, has sold several million copies and new editions keep appearing. And it has been adapted into a beautiful animated film. All of this makes me very happy. The seagull continues to fly.
Q: What do you feel illustrator Satoshi Kitamura brings to The Story of a Seagull and The Cat who Taught Her to Fly?
A: Its a great honour to have been illustrated by Kitamura. His illustrations are precious and very beautiful.
Q: You have lived an incredible life – working on the Greenpeace ship, jailed in Chile, in Nicaragua with the Simón Bolívar International Brigade – how did these adventures lead you to writing children’s books?
A: I happen to have been born and to have lived in the second half of the 20th century, a contradictory, interesting, cruel century and at the same time a period full of hopes that would later be frustrated. In my life I have done what I needed to do at the right time. I know that for many people my life has been that of an adventurer, similar to Indiana Jones, but in reality I was and am still a coherent man and I have lived in conformity with my principles. And it is precisely because I have nothing to be ashamed of that I can also write books for children.
Q: Why did you want to write for children?
A: The main incentive for me to write for children has been my children (I have six children, one girl and five boys), and now my grandchildren (six grandchildren, three girls and three boys). Sometimes I feel a story coming into my head and then it becomes an obsession and therefore I say to myself, “my children and grandchildren will love this.” This is how I wrote The Story of Max, Mix and Mex, a book which tells the story of a blind cat, a child and a funny Mexican mouse. This is also how I wrote the Story of a Snail that Discovers the Importance of Bring Slow, the story of a snail that wants to know it is slow, and recently The Story of a Dog Named Loyal, which tells the story of a dog that remains loyal until the last seconds of his life. Moreover this is my first story that is based in the world of the Mapuche, the original inhabitants of Chile.
Q: What children’s books inspired you growing up in Chile?
A: I grew up reading Selma Lagerlöf, Charles Dickens, for many years my favourite books were The Last of the Mohicans by Fenimore Cooper, White Fang by Jack London and the novels of Karl May.
Q: Which South American or Spanish children’s authors would you like to see published in English?
A: It would be fantastic if the children’s books by the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga and the Argentinian Graciela Cabal would be translated into English. Two fantastic authors.
The Story of a Seagull and The Cat who Taught Her to Fly
Caught up in an oil spill, a dying seagull scrambles ashore to lay her final egg and lands on a balcony, where she meets Zorba, a big black cat from the port of Hamburg. The cat promises the seagull to look after the egg, not to eat the chick once it’s hatched and – most difficult of all – to teach the baby gull to fly. Will Zorba and his feline friends honour the promise and give Lucky, the adopted little seagull, the strength to discover her true nature? A moving, uplifting and life-enhancing story with a strong environmental theme, Luis Sepúlveda’s instant children’s classic has been a worldwide best-seller and is presented here with new drawings by acclaimed illustrator Satoshi Kitamura.