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Author Snapshot: National Book Award Finalist Alejandro Varela

Friday, November 11, 2022

By Sherri Puzey

Today we’re spotlighting author Alejandro Varela and his novel The Town of Babylon, a Finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction! Alejandro Varela is a New York-based author whose writing has appeared in The Point, Boston Review, Harper’s, The Rumpus, Joyland, The Brooklyn Rail, The Offing, Blunderbuss, Southampton Review, and The New Republic, among others. Varela’s debut novel, The Town of Babylon, released earlier this year to universal acclaim. Publisher’s Weekly called the novel a “dazzling debut” and Book Riot named it “a richly textured portrait of ordinary queer life.”

Varela’s graduate studies in public health were part of the inspiration behind the novel. In The Town of Babylon, protagonist Andrés returns to his suburban hometown following the discovery of his husband’s infidelity. Andrés attends his twenty-year high school reunion and is confronted with old habits, past loves, and past wounds. It’s a brilliantly written coming-of-age story examining the importance of community and the undeniable impact our relationships have on our health.

What inspired you to write The Town of Babylon?

This question has a two-part answer. First of all, I wasn’t looking to write a novel. I had a desire to publish my short story collection and, frankly, to get a paycheck. But my agent and I couldn’t convince any publishers that the stories would sell. Editor after editor insisted that they loved my writing, my voice, my humor, etc., but collections don’t sell. “Would he write a novel?” they asked. At the 100th time of asking, I gave it a go. And I’m glad that I did. I enjoyed the novel-writing process itself, as well as the outcome.

The other inspiration was Roseto, Pennsylvania. I wanted to tell the story of that town, which factored heavily in my public health education. The lessons of Roseto are that cohesion and camaraderie are more deterministic of a community’s positive health outcomes than diet, exercise, genetics, etc. I’d been carrying that story around for years. I assumed it would one day be a short story, but it became my muse, in a way, for the novel.

Publisher’s Weekly called your novel “an incandescent bildungsroman.” Did you always know you wanted to write a coming-of-age story? Is the novel autobiographical in any way? (And do you tire of people asking novelists that question?)

I guess I’ve grown a bit skeptical of the question. I’m curious about whether it’s asked broadly. I’ve surmised that the autobiography question tends to be put to writers who are underrepresented in the literary world. In other words, if there are only a few queer Latinx writers being published, the reader will assume they’re reading veiled memoir because they’re not familiar with the experience or the voice, leaving them with a desire to corroborate their beliefs. Whereas white men and, to some extent, white women writers have dominated the publishing world for decades (centuries?), readers tend not to get caught up in the “is this you” of it all.

As for the coming-of-age part, I didn’t know I was going down that route. I knew I wanted to revisit a place, and I considered it more of a going-back-home narrative, particularly because I wanted to explore what class-jumping does to relationships. Andrés, the narrator, began working class and is now upper-middle-class. His hometown, however, remains what it was. As I began writing, I realized that the present of the town and its inhabitants could only be told well if I also explored its past. This excavation brought about the coming-of-age pieces.

Tell me about the experience of finding out you had been nominated for the National Book Award. With whom did you first share the news?

I was in the bathroom, minding my business, not remotely entertaining the possibility that I would be considered for the National Book Award. It was my husband who was keeping track, and he opened the bathroom door with his phone in hand and an ear-to-ear grin. “You’re nominated,” he said. But even when I saw the New Yorker font—the announcement was published in the magazine—I didn’t believe it. My mind first entertained all the possible behind-the-scenes errors that had led to this very public error. Typical middle-kid, marginalized-human insecurities.

You have a second book—a collection of short stories—publishing in 2023. Do you feel more pressure as an author now that you’ve been recognized by this nomination?

I suspect everything I write from now on (at the very least the story collection, The People Who Report More Stress), will receive more critical attention than my novel. In that way, I feel more exposed. But no added pressure. No one can put more pressure on me than myself, my ancestors, and whatever Reaganomics has wrought on us all.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Town of Babylon?

That community is everything. That taking care of one another is beneficial to our own health. And that being welcoming is much easier than one thinks. We’re on this earth for so little time—76 years and dropping for people in the United States. If we want to see true liberation, everyone’s going to have to pitch in. And soon. I also hope readers will find humor in the pathos.