Andrea Yaryura Clark joins Zibby to talk about her debut novel, On a Night of a Thousand Stars, which focuses on the history of Argentina’s Dirty War. The two discuss how the book grew out of a fascination with the children of those who had been disappeared in the 1970s and 80s, as well as how the project originally began as a documentary about those she interviewed. Andrea also shares why she wrote the two timelines as two separate books, who she would cast to play her protagonist in a movie, and what her children think of her work.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Andrea. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, On a Night of a Thousand Stars.

Andrea Yaryura Clark: Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me. It’s a total pleasure.

Zibby: Thank you for whisking me off on all of these adventures around the world. I actually went to Buenos Aires during business school on one of our retreats — I don’t even know what you call them — where a whole group of us go to another country. I have a visual of my own to compare some of the scenes to, which just made it that more interesting. Oh, my gosh, even the food. I don’t even like lamb. There’s some scene in here where everybody’s sitting around having this lamb dinner. I’m like, that sounds amazing. I want to be in that scene right now.

Andrea: I’m so happy it transported you there. I have to say that that was really one of the highlights — can you say highlight? — of the pandemic. I was able to be lost in that world, just be transported too. Food is a big part of my life, and Argentine culture. I think that’s why it appears a lot in the book. I had to delete some scenes because it was just too much. When I think of Argentina, I often think about the food that I miss, and the wine and the gathering of family, of friends for a lunch that will start at one and finish at four followed by coffee, pastries. Then maybe you’ll go on to your aperitif. You could spend all day, especially on a weekend, maybe in the countryside. I was in my book, so to speak. I was living that time again because I was there in the nineteen nineties. I had grown up in Argentina, but I had left. We left sort of in time. I’ll tell you a little bit about the premise of the book.

Zibby: Yes, go ahead. I was getting there. Go ahead.

Andrea: I could continue talking about food for the rest of the episode, but I won’t.

Zibby: We could do that too. Yes, what is your book about?

Andrea: It’s two stories, two threads. One takes place in the 1970s with the return of General Perón, who had been the president of Argentina in the 1950s and had been forced into exile. His government was overthrown. His return in 1973 is when my novels starts, that period. It’s the story of two university students. It’s a love story, basically, against the backdrop of ever-increasing darkness in the country. The second story is the story of a young woman in 1998 who returns to Argentina, has the opportunity to go to Argentina, back to Argentina with her Argentine parents. She had met an old friend of her father’s from his university days. This woman sparks a curiosity about her father. She has this opportunity to do a little digging around her father’s time as a student, and so goes on this journey in doing that.

Zibby: I loved her investigative chops, so to speak, and how as soon as she goes on this trip home, or to Argentina, and starts asking everyone from family members to people, she goes on this, not wild goose chase because it has results, but this investigation into their lives. Who was this woman, Grace? How did this all happen? Who are these people? You can see her mind putting everything together as she’s getting all these clues. It’s very fun. It’s not a mystery, per se, but this investigative element. Then to see it all actually unfolding at the same time, it was very neat the way you did it. It made for a very vibrant, exciting read where you can’t wait to get to both storylines again because they’re so enmeshed. It was very, very interesting culturally and from a reader standpoint, edge-of-your-seat type of reading as well.

Andrea: Thank you.

Zibby: I know that, as you’ve mentioned already, your family was from there. You also have this whole background, which you knew about, families and kids and people who would disappear during that time of dictatorship, so to speak. Tell me a little more about that time, what you knew from your own anecdotal — what that looked like for you growing up. Then why spend however long fictionalizing it here? Tell me more about where that came from.

Andrea: I moved back to Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s. It was around that time that there were some headlines about a former naval officer who confessed to some atrocities that they had denied. The dictatorship was over by the time I arrived. He came forward and confessed that some of these awful atrocities that they had committed had actually occurred. At the same time, I met a young man, who was my peer, who told me about his father having been assassinated during the 1970s. That really sparked my curiosity about the children, my generation, whose parents had disappeared. We, fortunately, left in time. My father could’ve been a target. He was a writer, a poet. His editor had been disappeared. He was also a psychiatrist. Therapists were being targeted. I did not know that, of course, when we left. Even up until the nineties when I was a full-fledged adult, my father never talked about it, really, like a lot of families in Argentina. People weren’t talking about it.

My curiosity, much like Paloma’s — she was intrigued about her father. I became intrigued about these children. I was able to find out that they were meeting. They were starting to meet at this human rights center. They accepted me. They let me sit in on their meetings. I just thought, these stories need to be documented. At that point, they were a support group. Then they became more activists. My initial plan had been to interview them, which I did, and then start documenting them on film. Then I met my husband. Life took over. We moved to New York. I came back with an unfinished documentary. This is in the early two thousands. What happened was that the stories of these hijos, children, stayed with me. I thought I would try some creative nonfiction pieces. I tried a screenplay. These were all these different iterations that eventually led me to write fiction many years later when it still wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d had my children. I was working. I decided that I would try to write fiction. This is my first attempt. It’s my first novel. It took me many years, but it was worthwhile. I thought that if I could at least get it on the page and have a few people look at it or even have my children read it one day, that was my approach, very low bar.

Zibby: Maybe that’s the way to go.

Andrea: Yes. I was a mother. We moved around for my husband’s work, so I had to leave my career aside for a while, which was okay. This was a great opportunity for me to be able to do it. I was running to school, picking up the kids. They had their activities. I would carve out a little piece of time for myself. I was very quiet about it, Zibby. I didn’t have an MFA. I had friends who were authors who later on became a great support group, giving me advice on how to get the manuscript read, introducing me to people. I was very fortunate. We were all moms together. We had met through our kids. I was very lucky, also, to have that support.

Zibby: It’s lucky to have the support, but you’re also really talented and also really open to it as well. You could’ve just bypassed that whole thing. I love this idea of you quietly working on this. When I started my podcast, I was like, I’m just going to do this over here in my bedroom and not tell anyone. I feel like there’s some risk. You’re putting yourself out there. You don’t want to be a failure. You’re like, I’m just going to take this little thing.

Andrea: I my bedroom as well. My husband knew, but he wouldn’t ask questions. He knew that I was up to something. It was great, and not feeling the pressure either. I don’t know if you felt a lot of pressure. You were doing a podcast. Really, it was my own thing. I didn’t have to share it with anybody if I didn’t want to. I think it was important just to have that time first. Then you slowly start telling people about it. That’s what I did, and asking for huge favors of friends. Read it. I’m so grateful to them too, those initial rough, rough drafts going through them.

Zibby: Did you write one storyline before the other? How did you do that?

Andrea: That’s a great question. Because I felt more comfortable with Paloma’s story — that’s the name of my protagonist in the 1998 story. Initially, it was just her story with very brief flashbacks to the 1970s. Her story remained the same. When I eventually landed an agent, who turned out to be the best one — that’s the other thing I would say. Don’t give up. There were several agents who were always very nice but would pass on the manuscript, but some of them with some really nice feedback. When she took me on and she gave me notes saying, “You need to make a deeper dive into the 1970s,” it’s interesting that I was sort of avoiding that, I think because we grew up in Argentina, and those of us who grew up outside of Argentina as well, with a silence around it. Our families weren’t talking about it. I feel like I was doing the same and not able to look at that chapter. Luckily by then, the two thousands, we had these great books by journalists or historians in Argentina. That was what I did. I did a lot of research. I wrote the 1970s as if they were a separate novel. That’s what my agent, Johanna Castillo — she’s wonderful — said. “It’s a different novel. Not different, but just write it separately.” I did that. When I was ready, I tried alternating them. They all fell into place. I had to work around that a little bit, but they naturally aligned. It was really great. The 1970s came later.

Zibby: So interesting, wow. I wonder what it would’ve been like as two different books.

Andrea: I don’t know. I have to say that it gave me, really, the possibility to learn much more about our history. It brought back memories of my time there as a child. It gave me the opportunity to talk to family, friends. It was really a different journey for me too as a child from the 1970s in Buenos Aires.

Zibby: I kind of love this Paloma-Juan relationship situation. Tell me a little bit about that. You have, from the start, this flirtation and all of that. Tell me about building that up and everything.

Andrea: Paloma and the young man she meets, Franco — her first boyfriend is Juan. Then Franco comes around. He is an activist. Not to give too much away. She appears at this human rights center. She sneaks into a file room where she finds some file cabinets. He catches her. She weasels her away out of it. There’s some sort of attraction from her, this interesting young man who then introduces her to all these other people who she learns have had a very different upbringing from hers. She lives a very sheltered life, a life of privilege in New York, which she’s uncomfortable with, but she still recognizes that. She’s only going to be in Buenos Aires for a short period of time, but she’s attracted to him. They run into each other again another time. She takes the first step. As he says, he’s not used to having a woman ask him out for a drink or coffee. It’s true. Maybe that has changed. Definitely in the nineties, it was still like that. Women didn’t necessarily take the first step in asking someone.

Zibby: Who would you cast as Paloma in a movie?

Andrea: That’s a great question. If it didn’t matter how old they are now, but in any time in their acting career, I would say someone like a Penélope Cruz, maybe. I don’t know if you know Anya Taylor-Joy. She’s actually Argentinian English. She would be wonderful too.

Zibby: That would be good. It’s been a couple months, as we were discussing earlier as I was apologizing, since your book came out. What has been the reaction? What has been something surprising or most rewarding about people falling into this novel and what they’ve learned and what you’ve gotten out of their reactions?

Andrea: I love that it has gotten the conversation started with some Argentinians that I knew that would not have told me before about their own family’s experience. There seems to have always been someone with — people say just part of the country was affected by it, but all of society was affected by this dictatorship. Some people have come forward that I’ve known for a long time and shared their stories with me. For the American readers, so many have apologized for not knowing about this history. I tell them they don’t have to. Even in Argentina, children are not really being taught. They’ll know all the names. They’ll learn the names of all the presidents and dictators, but they don’t go in depth into what happened at the time. It’s been wonderful to hear, also, from readers that my book has spurred them on to do more research and to learn more about that time. They keep saying, I would go on Google. Then what other books can I read? That’s great. That’s been really nice to hear. Others have said how much it resonates with what’s happening today. History repeats itself in different parts of the world, sadly, unfortunately.

Zibby: I literally can’t believe the stuff that is going on. It’s just hard to wrap your head around and then get up and have your day as normal when the stuff that’s going on — it’s very unsettling and disturbing and all the other things. Anyway, now that you have masterfully written this novel, it may have started out quietly, but now there is attention on you and your skills and all the rest. Are you working on another novel? Do you feel a lot of pressure? What is it like for you now?

Andrea: I am working on another novel. I’m glad it was suggested to me that I think of a second one. I thought that was all I had in me, Zibby. I didn’t grow up thinking, I want to be a writer. No. It was just like, I have this story. How am I going to get it told? I thought, okay, I wrote the book. I’m done. In doing my research when I started to write the 1970s, I came across something else that made me so upset to find out that had also happened during this time, the 1970s, ’80s, that I held onto that. I’ve come up with another story. It’s sort of a sequel. It’ll follow another family based around true events. It’ll be the later part of the dictatorship. That is what I’m working on. It’s great to have this project as I also do my book tour and events. It’s just nice, again, for me, that quiet time. I’m sharing it with you. A couple of people know that I am doing this. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: I won’t tell anybody. I’ll keep it very quiet.

Andrea: It’s nice to be back in that space again, I have to say. At this point, I’m telling myself the story. That’s what this is. Again, no pressure. Let’s see what happens. Just get it on the page.

Zibby: No pressure. There aren’t that many things we do these days with the craziness and the pace of modern life that you can’t do while being distracted and interrupted. I think that’s some of what’s so powerful about writing. I might have to carve out time. I’m going to take these two hours. While you’re in it, your brain is just so engaged. Your imagination’s so at work that you can’t possibly multitask while you’re doing it. It’s so rejuvenating, really, because multitasking is so draining, when you think about it. I feel like when you can take these times of engaging with your brain and imagination and stories, then how can you not reenter life a little bit fortified?

Andrea: Absolutely right. Don’t you find that sometimes your best ideas come when you’ve left your desk and your computer or your writing? Then suddenly, pop, something when you’re cooking or driving your kid to his soccer practice. I’m like, oh, my gosh. You want to pull over to the side and write it down. My mind, it just can’t retain that much. You have to write it down. That’s why, for me, it’s always better to work in the morning, write in the morning because it seems like then it still percolates as I go on with my day and doing whatever I have to get done. That’s when, sometimes, problems get resolved.

Zibby: I went to bed last night with this great — I had some really interesting ideas going. I was really excited about it and talking about it. I was like, all right, I have to go to sleep. Then I woke up this morning. I was like, my brain kept going. I have answers to some of these things. It didn’t stop just because I slept, which is great.

Andrea: Very satisfying when that happens.

Zibby: If you don’t take the moments, though, of the quiet, then you can’t get the other stuff. I don’t know. This is sounding very hokey, but I hope you know what I mean.

Andrea: Yes, I do. I do.

Zibby: What do your kids think about this? You were so in it with the kids and all the activities and the moms and all of this. Now suddenly, here you are, a novelist.

Andrea: They’ve been very proud of me. I feel like they now understand a little bit about what I was doing. They would tell their friends. Again, this was going about eight years, so they were young, really young. They would just say, my mom is working. They weren’t sure what I was doing. I had my little project. It’s been really nice to share the final — I didn’t want anybody reading it until the final copy was out. My oldest son was like, “When can I read it? My friends know that you have a book coming out. I want to read it before it comes out.” I said, “No, no, no. Just wait until the real thing comes out.” That’s been really nice. Of course, during the pandemic, we all had our little spaces. That was also nice for me. Although, it was terrible that they couldn’t go to school. They did a Zoom that first year, basically the whole year. We would all take breaks at the same time. I felt like I was a student, like I was in school too. It was kind of fun. Because they were in class all day, I felt like I — I was really productive. We were all at our desks. That was very helpful because that was the editing stage, too, when they were at home online.

Zibby: You’re a really great writer, seriously. The historical stuff is great, but also just being in Paloma’s head. I like how you did the first-person and the third-person. It was just so interesting the whole way through. I’m very impressed. It’s a great, great book. You should be very proud. I’m delighted to have had a chance to chat with you about it and to have met you in person at the launch party, which was so nice. I’m just so excited for you. It’s really inspiring and awesome.

Andrea: Thank you, Zibby. It’s been so fun to talk to you. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Me too. You’re in New York, right? Our paths need to start crossing more.

Andrea: Yes. We have a couple of friends in common. I would love that. Rachael Horovitz, Greer Hendricks.

Zibby: I love them. They’re both amazing. Awesome.

Andrea: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you, Andrea. Have a great day. Thanks. Congrats again.

Andrea: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


ON A NIGHT OF A THOUSAND STARS by Andrea Yaryura Clark

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