Zibby speaks with rising literary star John Manuel Arias about his lush and atmospheric new novel, WHERE THERE WAS FIRE. They talk about the intricacies of familial bonds, the haunting shadows of historical transgressions, and the poetic narrative that bridges the past with the present, set against the unforgiving backdrop of Costa Rica. John shares the profound influence of women in his life, the dance between personal and collective history, and the compelling journeys of characters grappling with loss, love, secrets, and legacy.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John Manuel. Congratulations on your book, Where There Was Fire: A Novel. This book is so beautiful. Oh, my gosh, what a work of art. Wow.

John Manuel Arias: Thank you so much. I appreciate all of the support and all of the kind words. It’s really meant a lot.

Zibby: I was trying to describe your book over lunch yesterday to my colleagues. I was like, it’s like Gabriel García Márquez meets modern-day, maybe, memoir. Maybe this is his family. I don’t even know. I was trying to encapsulate — and the most lyrical, beautiful language. Maybe you should do a better job and explain the actual plot, which of course, I know, but go ahead.

John Manuel: Thank you. In 1968 in Costa Rica, there is a sinister American fruit company. Its most lucrative banana plantation burns to the ground. With that burning plantation goes the future of a family of Costa Rican women. Thirty years later, we have our matriarch, Teresa. She is haunted by the ghost of her mother, the missing husband. She is estranged from her eldest daughter, Lyra. During a freak hurricane, they have to reconnect in order to build a future together before it’s too late.

Zibby: There you go. See, I knew you’d have a better summary. One of the most pivotal things around which I feel a lot of the book centers or orbits is the death by suicide of Carmen and what that — I’m not giving anything away because it happens early. Right? Are we okay to talk about this?

John Manuel: It does happen pretty early. It’s really funny, I’ve said it before, and people are like, no, no spoiler alert. I’m like, it happens in the first fifteen pages.

Zibby: I feel like it’s okay. I think this is fair game. If you don’t want to hear what happens in the first fifteen pages, just fast-forward five minutes or something. It’s really the ramifications of this sudden, unexpected loss that drives several people to either mutism or complete mental disrepair or has such profound effects, as any loss, particularly a death by suicide, does. Talk to me about that and how — I know we have the whole backstory of their lives and everything in Costa Rica, but how you chose to make that moment a pivotal point, where it came from. Just talk about it.

John Manuel: Something kind of funny is that everyone in my family is currently reading the novel. It is out. They’re excited. They have the ARC or whatever it is. People will identify themselves between Lyra and Carmen. My aunt will be like, “I’m Lyra.” My sister is Carmen. My sister was like, “I’m Lyra, and you’re Carmen.” I’m like, am I prone to suicide? It’s a very intense embodiment. Carmen is a very sensitive person. She has always been sensitive since she was a little girl. She could hear other people’s thoughts and feel their emotions. That’s a lot of weight. During this tragic night in 1968, there separates something from her. She goes throughout the rest of her life haunted and unable to reconcile it within herself. She tries, and she tries. After the birth of her son, she enters a state of postpartum depression. It just becomes much too overwhelming for her. Those with traumatic histories are more prone to postpartum depression, are more prone to suicidal ideations. I really wanted to document that. I thought that it was important for Lyra, it was important with Teresa to rattle them, rattle their relationship to see how much it could take.

Zibby: Wow. Then you have the foil of Cristina, the neighbor, who’s on the outside looking all socialite-y and happy and whatever. Of course, she has her own demons and her own troubled marriage, and Desiderio, who feels these effects forever. Then you get to watch as they all age together and what that means and that feeling of responsibility and friendship versus enmity or whatever and that complexity of female friendships too. Where are you getting all this? This is amazing. It’s amazing.

John Manuel: I’ve always lived with women, my mother, my sister. For four years, I lived with my grandmother in Costa Rica. That was full time. My three great-aunts were living there as well, and so these different dynamics of generational dynamics and also this friendship. Is there a little bit of animosity between family members or between friends? It really played out in the novel in the way that I wanted to put these characters through these obstacles between themselves, between each other to explore what they do. Friendship is such an interesting place to be, an interesting clay to manipulate. It was very fun to have Teresa, who is much more reticent, who is unable to reconcile the past outwardly, with Cristina, who is still stuck to the socialite status, who is still stuck to, my life is perfect. I live in a very rich house. My husband was a sculptor. He molded my hips out of marble. They’re both unable to let go of the past, but they express it in different ways. This also causes this frenemy dynamic between them, but the love that they share, the love that all of the — I want the reader to take away the amount of love that these characters have for each other because it’s there. That’s why they’re so hurt. They wouldn’t have been so hurt if their love wasn’t so deep.

Zibby: I feel like their relationship speaks to this bigger theme of, really, responsibility. What is your responsibility to your good friends? What is the country’s responsibility to its workers? What is a parent’s responsibility to a child? All these things are people not exercising what should be their responsibility. What happens when all of that falls to pieces? All of the Erin Brockovich-style investigative stuff was really interesting too. Tell me more about all of that.

John Manuel: Totally. I love that, actually. It was a great movie. “He left me in f-ing ugly shoes.” Great line. Like I said, a lot of people are unable to let go of the past, just like we in real life are often unable to let go of the past. Lyra expresses it in being incredibly curious about the night where this banana plantation burned and the parallel of the family being ruined. In order to understand emotionally what happened, because she cannot speak to her mother — she cannot access the emotional familial history at this point. She turns to the actual history, which is gossip columns of why the banana plantation burned to the ground, newspaper clippings, first-person narratives. She’s desperate. One day, she finds — I don’t know if this is too much of a spoiler.

Zibby: Let’s just not say. One day, she finds something .

John Manuel: One day, she finds something that is the clue that she needed, which is the spark that she needed in order to light this fire within herself and understand and illuminate what she needed.

Zibby: When did you think of that piece of it? How did all of this come together?

John Manuel: There is this fabulous book out of Duke University Press called Banana Wars. There was an anthropologist who went to Costa Rica. He was interested in the banana plantations, the leftover United Fruit Company plantations and the workers, to interview them. Finally, when these Costa Rican workers trusted this white guy enough, they said, “Hey, we got a box of memos here. We have a box of United Fruit Company memos.” They go back a hundred years. They reveal this very — I said the word sinister — this very intricate conspiracy of organized assassinations, of quelling of revolts, of ways to manipulate workers. It’s all there in black and white that they’re just admitting. Because some Costa Rican foremen decided not to destroy this box of documents, it’s revealed how we Latin Americans knew. We knew the meddling. We were well aware of it, but now it’s for all the world to see. It is from the horse’s mouth. It is fascinating.

Zibby: What can be done now? I know you’re approaching it in fiction and getting even more people to know about it, which is wonderful. Don’t you feel like, now what? What now?

John Manuel: It’s true. There is this very infamous pesticide known in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and parts of Central America known as Nemagon. It was used by Standard Fruit Company, which is today, Dole Bananas. It was known, it was told to them through empirical evidence that it was sterilizing male workers. Instead of allowing to discontinue, they sued them for everything that they had. They used Nemagon for another ten years. It sterilized thirty thousand workers. They’ve been trying for the last fifty years to litigate across countries from Costa Rica to , from people in California — it was used in California. It is still in the water tables in California. It’s this conversation that’s very hushed. That’s the point because these lawyers — besides organizing assassinations, the lawyers of these fruit companies are so powerful. They have overwhelming power. It’s a conversation that is intentionally silenced. If I can publish this book, if I can start a little bit of a conversation, if I can tell someone or if they could read the novel and say, huh, Nemagon is a very evil name, I wonder what it is — they google. They find this history. How does that radicalize them in the same way that it radicalized me? How does it start that conversation? Once we’re confronted with it, there is something to do. I only have the power to spark that conversation. That is the way that I feel that I can.

Zibby: That is a lot of power. That’s pretty good.

John Manuel: I hope so. I really hope so. It’s been super surprising. Like I said, these lawyers are very powerful. The fact that they’ve let my novel get this far is kind of bananas to me.

Zibby: To use a fruit reference.

John Manuel: Yeah, it is a little bananas to me, very honestly. When I went back to Costa Rica in April, I was telling everybody, of course, about this novel and about the nature of this pesticide. They said, “They’re going to put you in jail.” In Latin America, we know the consequences of going against something this powerful. Here, there is a little bit of, maybe, unfounded paranoia. I do know that historically, something like this couldn’t really have happened.

Zibby: For anyone listening, if John Manuel ends up missing suddenly or something untoward happens, you heard it here first.

John Manuel: Literally. Exactly. If I disappear one day at a book sale — no, I’m just kidding.

Zibby: Actually, that’s an interesting book in and of itself. I guess it’s kind of like The Plot a little bit. Anyway, doesn’t matter. I was going to say .

John Manuel: Everyone is asking for a sequel. It’s really funny. Everyone is asking for a sequel. I never thought of that. Cristina García just published a sequel of Dreaming in Cuban, Vanishing Maps. It took her about twenty years to even think about it. Who knows? 2043, sequel to Where There Was Fire.

Zibby: I’ll save you a podcast spot, God willing. I know we’ve spoken a lot about that element of it, but I feel like that’s almost in the background to the relationships and the interplay of all of the women and even the mental health aspect of the book and how you have us enter into a church-run mental health asylum. I guess this is another way that the country is sort of shirking responsibility. What was to happen with this whole class of people who were resistant or there weren’t the meds at the time? What do you do with them? What do you do when a loved one is there and all of that? Was this research based as well? Is this from a pocket of history and you wanted to explore it? Which pieces of this instigated the whole novel-writing process, or did it all just come together as you got going?

John Manuel: I’ll answer the last part first. There was so much research involved. There were so many trips even before I lived with my grandmother. I started this novel, I wrote the first sentence in 2009. Throughout college, I worked on it. It called to me. It wouldn’t let me sleep. I had to go back to Costa Rica. I had to do research. Even something just as simple as taking a ride with my grandmother to visit where my great-aunt, who was a nun, used to work, even those things are research. Even those things bubble up into a novel. It’s not just all essays or anthropological accounts. Mental health has always been very important as a disability right. A lot of readers might find this novel a little — is the word in Spanish. I’m trying to think of the word in English. They might clash with it a little bit because there’s a huge geographical and there’s a huge generational gap that one has to jump. A Costa Rican can absolutely jump in and say, oh, of course, the government didn’t handle mental health at all. We as a culture have not talked about mental health at all, especially women’s mental health. Women are held to a standard in Costa Rica where they have to be graceful and always put together. They have to be the perfect mother. They have to be the perfect homemaker. Patriarchy doesn’t allow them room to express any sort of mental health concerns or mental illness, which is very important to treat, which is where Carmen came in as well. That was always a very important thing for me to go through, to portray as something that happens, that is valid, to give enough space and generosity as the novel could to these women, and to allow them to live and breathe and live authentically.

Zibby: I can totally see why people are asking for a sequel because the characters are just so real. Everybody in this book feels — the way you go through different perspectives and different timelines, we get to see so much of the whole environment, and even the physical stuff. There’s even one passage that I’d like to read that shows what a fabulous writer you are and the way that you really take us into the scenes, into the place and feel it and smell it. This was Cristina, Barrio Ávila, 1995. Forgive my accent. “An aberrant hurricane arrived on Tuesday morning. Rain swelled and burst from the sky forcing bright-beaked birds to seek refuge in car mufflers, underneath bromeliad umbrellas, or inside crowded chicken coops. No one in Costa Rica knew exactly when morning had actually begun because roosters, distracted by the storm or by the bright-beaked invaders, forgot to crow. Vendors tried and failed to open their stands. Beggars filled their empty cups with clinking hail. Politicians stayed secure in the warmth of their canopy beds. The old women who once danced to rain had indeed been right, as always, but who could remember the last time a hurricane had fluttered its heavy body this far south?”

So beautiful, oh, my gosh. You just go on and on. Just this last one. “In Barrio Ávila, the ruins of La Guaria Railroad –” I’m sorry for butchering your language — “became a violent river of rainwater. From the current emerged a cartel of cane toads, gray and bulbus as the clouds. They hopped out of the river as triumphantly as the first organisms to haul themselves out of the sea and made their way beneath the rickety doors of concrete houses. Once inside, they deflated their bodies and scrounged for any unfortunate bugs that might have sought the same sanctuary.” How great is that? You basically just told us about a frog. Why would I care about — now all of a sudden, I’m really caring. I’m in the perspective of a flattening frog underneath a house. That is so cool that you do that because you can feel everything. How did you learn to write? Did you teach yourself to write? Did you always write like this? Tell me more about that.

John Manuel: Thank you. Besides starting this novel when I was much younger, I was always attracted to poetry. I actually didn’t start reading intentionally until I was in late high school and college. Academics and literature and me have always had a bit of a clash, to bring it back to the word . In college, I was allowed the freedom to actually read who I wanted to read. I could read Edwidge Danticat and leave Jane Austen behind. Sorry, Jane Austen fans, but she just wasn’t for me. She didn’t speak to my literary heritage, my literary legacy. I could read these writers. All writers, I think, at the very beginning, we mimic or we evoke the style of other writers. A huge one that actually gave me a lot of permission was Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things. The way that she plays with language, the way that she takes a colonial language and she makes it her own was so fascinating. A poet, you take language, and you mold it to what you need it to be. You create new words. You use alliteration in order to hop a reader throughout a sentence. You add momentum. You add a different dynamic. It is so much start and stop. That was always very fascinating to me about language. There’s joy. There’s so much joy in writing in the way that you can play. I think I’ve always been like that. A lot of other writers gave my work a lot of permission in order to grow.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

John Manuel: Keep at it. Keep at it, but also be strategic. I think there are very few writers who want to do it out of fun. A lot of us definitely want to become authors. There is a way to do it strategically. Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum is a really fantastic book. She did it for the culture. She did it for all of us. Thank you, Courtney. Shout-out. Just doing your own research. A lot of people submit to literary magazines because it’s a really great way to get your start. It’s a really great way to access other writers as well. I’ve seen the logic that the point is to receive a hundred rejections and that lets the once acceptance be special. No, no, no. You look for the acceptance. If there are a hundred rejections, you’re doing something wrong. You are not listening to the journal. You are not following its guidelines. You’re not in conversation with the other writers in the issue. The point is not to shotgun everything, just like it is with agents, just like it is with editors. You have to be strategic. You have to look for your own success because no one is going to help you as a writer. There might be friends. There might be people in the industry who you are connected with. Being an author is a very solitary act, not just writing at our desks, but also when we’re trying to navigate this industry. All of us are different. Success looks different for all of us. Sit back. Analyze. Really take stock of what success looks like to you and the best route you can get there.

Zibby: Love it. Excellent advice. If it’s not a sequel, quick preview into what’s coming next for you? Any ideas?

John Manuel: Novel two might be done with novel three in the chamber. I will say that novel two deals much more with brotherhood and with revenge and destiny and a river full of man-eating crocodiles.

Zibby: Whoa. That was a very good teaser.

John Manuel: It’s the crocodiles. The crocodiles are really, really, really great. Who doesn’t love them? They’re terrifying.

Zibby: Totally. Bring back the Peter Pan clock-eating — maybe that was an alligator. Crocodile? Alligator? Anyway, I don’t know. John Manuel, thank you so much. Congratulations again on Where There Was Fire. So beautiful. I feel like my kids will be reading it in an English class many years from now.

John Manuel: Thank you. Thank you so much for the generosity. Again, I appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Have a great day.

John Manuel: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

John Manuel: You too.

WHERE THERE WAS FIRE by John Manuel Arias

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