Black Lawrence Press
August 9, 2011

Deborah Clearman: The Author in the Land of Shamans and Desperados

Deborah Clearman, whose novel Todos Santos is set in a small Guatemalan town, recently had the chance to tour the country to promote her book; here is her account of the trip:


How many copies of my novel Todos Santos could I pack in my suitcase and stay under the airline’s weight limit? And more importantly, make it downstairs from my fifth floor walkup apartment in New York City. Thirty? Hooray for wheeled luggage!

With thirty books I arrived in Guatemala City to launch Todos Santos in the country that inspired it. Big, dirty, and dangerous, Guatemala’s capital city is the unlikely home of one of the most welcoming independent bookstores you’ll find. Sophos (from the Greek word for wisdom) boasts tables and shelves well stocked with classics and contemporary titles—mostly in Spanish but a good supply in English—armchairs and nooks to curl up in, a café that serves not only snacks and espresso drinks but also wine, balconies overlooking a gleaming courtyard where fountains splash and bougainvillea blooms. Sophos is a writer’s dream of paradise.

For my book presentation at Sophos, I was introduced by my friend Carlos René García Escobar—anthropologist, author of stories, novels, and numerous articles on Guatemalan culture and history, and past president of PEN Guatemalan Center. The day before the presentation—they’re not called “readings” in Latin America, for a reason: the author doesn’t read! Rather, he invites a panel of literary luminaries to discuss his work—Carlos René told me that he’d prepared his comentario in Spanish. “What do you think, Deborah, should I translate it into English?”

We had no idea who would show up, since the announcement on the Sophos website was in Spanish, with no indication that the novel is in English. So I advised Carlos René to make his remarks in Spanish. I figured I would read a few short passages (in English), but to be on the safe side, I prepared some comments in Spanish as well. The evening of the event our gracious host, the bookseller Philippe Hunziker (a native born Guatemalan), supplied us with—instead of the usual water bottles—large glasses of wine, which kept getting refilled.

Carlos René spoke very generously about the anthropological detail and accurate descriptions of Guatemalan life and customs in the novel. I gave my Spanish comments, then polled the audience and decided that there weren’t enough English speakers to warrant a reading. So I didn’t read! Instead, Carlos René (to whom I give great credit for reading and remembering the entire novel!) gave a recap of the plot in Spanish.

The next day, leaving a stack of books on the English language table of Sophos (Is there any sight dearer to an author than a stack of her novels on a table in a bookstore?) I packed up the rest and hit the road. In Antigua and Panajachel, the towns favored by foreign tourists, I approached owners of bookstores that sell books in English. Explaining that I had no distributor in Guatemala, I wanted to sell the book outright at a discount to them (instead of leaving it on consignment). I was surprised at how many were willing to buy two or three copies. Todos Santos is now available at seven different bookstores in Guatemala. By the time I left at the end of the month, several of the stores had already sold copies. I left my remaining copies with a friend in Guatemala City, to act as my distributor until my next trip, and I came home with an empty suitcase and a happy heart.