Mariana Enríquez, 48, lives in Buenos Aires. She is the author of nine books, including two short story collections, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed and Things We Lost in the Fire, both translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell. In 2019 Enríquez won Spain’s Premio Herralde, previously awarded to Javier Marías and Roberto Bolaño, for Our Share of Night, her first novel to be translated into English, also by McDowell. It follows a father and son whose ability to commune with the dead draws them into a bloodthirsty cult in junta-era Argentina. Kazuo Ishiguro wrote last year that the “beautiful, horrible world” of Enríquez’s writing “is the most exciting discovery I’ve made in fiction for some time”.
What attracts you to the genre of horror?
It’s very difficult to write about Argentina using only realism. In the 50s and 60s there was a strong tradition of fantastical fiction here: Borges, Silvina Ocampo, Julio Cortázar. Then the whole region became politicised with the dictatorship [1976-1983], the consequences of the Cuban revolution and the intervention of America. That led to the Sartrean dilemma of literature that has to be political and speak about the times, but of course Sartre never said literature had to be realistic, only that it had to be involved with what was going on. I think what happened to people like me who grew up in the 80s and 90s is that slasher movies, Stephen King and Twin Peaks all got mixed with our reality, which was already full of the language of horror: the disappeared, the children of the dead, children of the lost generation…
Do those real-life atrocities justify your more graphic scenes?
I don’t think there’s any need for moral justification but those things did happen here. Women had children in captivity and the children were stolen. They were torturing people next door to your house. They threw bodies into the ocean. I understand the [notion of] respect but I don’t want to be complicit in any kind of silence; to be timid about horrifying things is dangerous too. Maybe I turn up the volume to 11 because of the genre I like to work in, but the genre puts a light on the real horror that gets lost in [a phrase like] “political violence”.
Is that violence part of Latin American fiction’s overseas allure?
There is a lot of fiction from the region that dwells on violence and suffering. You can be worried that readers [abroad] don’t get the context and that they’re consuming it only for the craziness of it. But as a writer, if these things affect your life then that’s your material, so what are you going to do? My only solution is to talk about it and explain. I try to be near the reader, near the media: if I have to give you a history lesson, it’s not a problem. One issue is that we’re used to reading in translation and other countries aren’t. We know more about your history than you know about ours. There’s two ways to deal with that. Get angry at the inequality. Or try to explain what’s going on.
How has your work been received in Argentina?
I was terrified when I published the first short story I wrote with this genre vibe [Back When We Talked to the Dead]. These girls play the Ouija board and try to connect with the disappeared so they can get famous by knowing where the bodies are. Then history slaps them in a supernatural way to say, don’t be silly. I was afraid that the human rights organisations working here would think I was making fun of them.
But what actually happened was that my work inserted itself into a new genre. In my generation there are a lot of children of the disappeared. Many of them were starting to write about it in ways that were ironic or bizarre or even funny – stories about what they’d do with the subsidy that the state gave them for killing their parents, for example. That opened the door to a new sensibility about what happened. I was doing something different, but I wasn’t alone.
How did you approach writing the all-male sex scenes in Our Share of Night?
I have male testers to tell me how out of line I am! My first novel was a love story between two men. I wrote it when I was 17 – it was published when I was 21 – and in those days I didn’t really know anything; the main source was My Own Private Idaho. I watched a lot of porn with my gay friends, who were like: “These kind of acrobatic things are actually pretty difficult… that takes a bit of practice.” Two gay male friends tell me stuff [about their sex lives] and I ask them what I get wrong. I say: “One: is this possible? And two: is it hot?”
Who have you been reading lately?
Mónica Ojeda, from Ecuador – she’s totally twisted. Less brutal but also amazing is another writer from Argentina, Maria Gainza. She does autofiction, something I don’t do, but she mixes it with art and other stuff. Many writers do that, but I don’t think anyone does it like Maria. She belongs – or used to belong – to the very upper class here, the elite of the elite, whose first language was French. They lost all their money, so there’s a kind of ruined decadence to her work.
Name a book that made you want to write.
My uncle gave me Stephen King’s Pet Sematary one Christmas. I guess he was thinking: “It’s a bestseller, the girl likes to read, it has a cat on the cover…” I read it when everybody was asleep, probably passed out after the celebrations, and I was so scared I had to throw it away. But I picked it up again and went on reading. I remember thinking, wow, I’d really like to make people feel something so real as this under their skin. It’s clearly a novel about how scared he is to lose his family. I was 12 or 13 but you understand it at that age too; you never think it’s only about the supernatural. Everything I learned about blending reality and horror, I learned from Stephen King.
Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell, is published on 13 October by Granta (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply