Interview with John Caviglia

Arauco cover“Outside perspectives dismantle the complacent inbuilt bias of cultures, and this dismantlement is at the heart of my novel.”

I haven’t done an interview on the blog before, but I took nerve in hand and asked John Caviglia, author of Arauco. I thought Arauco a spectacular book. It stands for me alongside Robert Polevoi’s Port Royal as a major work of historical fiction, independently published. I expect them both to be alive in fifty years (the books not the authors — sorry), in the faith that originality lasts. Ebooks, as we know, last forever; I hope so does major work, even in these new times of trad and indie.

Here’s the interview. My questions, his answers. Links at the bottom, if you first need an acquaintance with the novel.


Arauco gives equal story time to the Spanish and the Mapuche. Was that the way you determined to tell the story, from inception? Do you feel equal-time isn’t often done?

Loving historical novels as I do, and having been born in Chile, when I finally got around to researching a novel I chose Inés de Suárez as the starting point (long story in itself)….  Without knowing it, I had discovered something like a magician’s hat….  Pulling on that first handkerchief, I found it attached to another—Pedro de Valdivia.  To that was knotted his enterprise.   I kept pulling—the entire emergence fascinating …  eventually taking me to Valdivia’s death and the catastrophic defeat of the Spanish by the Mapuche at the battle of Tucapel.  This, when Cortez and Pizarro had conquered empires with paltry handfuls of men!  It was time to rethink the book and I became fascinated by the fact that no accounting of the Spanish invasion included the Mapuche perspective.  So—as I knew almost absolutely nothing about the indigenous people of Chile—I dipped again into that magician’s hat….  When I actually began to write (still researching), my plan from the outset was to devote equal time to both Spanish and Mapuche, though the pressures of storytelling created an evolution in that decision….

Equal-time is seldom done, I think, when both cultures and languages are foreign to the reader, and especially when the novel is set in a different era.  So much has to be explained or glossed, simply left out or left to the imagination.  Also, in my novel, the landscape, the fauna and flora, are unfamiliar to most readers of English. This is the main reason Arauco is so long.  In my blog,, I supplement the novel with image and explanation, that the reader may better see and understand the time and place, and the Mapuche.

What made you choose your main point-of-view characters on each side? I thought your leads more or less unusual choices. For instance, the Mapuche we are most intimate with may be called outcasts.  While Juan was idealistic for a conquistador.

Let’s just think of the main point-of-view characters in Arauco as having outside points of view, the outsider as narrator being an old chestnut of a literary convention (Think of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in which two visiting Persians attempt to understand 18th century France).  Outside perspectives dismantle the complacent inbuilt bias of cultures, and this dismantlement is at the heart of my novel.  So, take “equal time” in Arauco to mean that the Spanish and Mapuche cultures are being equally examined from outside by the main characters of the other culture.  This interactive inquisition defines the relationship of Juan and Raytrayen, and the difficulty of their love.

Now, in my novel (as in most societies) almost all the characters lead lives largely unexamined—accepting the ‘roles’ in the drama given them by their time and culture.  Thus, Pedro de Valdivia and his minions are embarked upon an enterprise in which horse, armor and sword will wrest gold and land from people they have no real interest in.  Valdivia wants to conquer, not understand them.  As for Lautaro and the Mapuche he led to war against the Spanish, ditto—no real interest, save as how to fight the invaders better.  What I needed were characters enough at the “edge” of their culture—outsiders, if you will—to be at least curious about difference.  There is a fascinating book by Mary Douglas—Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo—that long ago changed the way I looked at societies.  From MD, I derived the notion that cultures have “edges,” and that there, in being different, lies the power given those such as Ñamku.  And—though it’s been decades since I read MD—it makes sense to me that the “hearts” of very different cultures can only fight each other—so that whatever meeting there is to be must happen at the periphery.

I chose Ñamku as a principal character  because shamanism has always fascinated me.  Also, if you examine the Mapuche culture of the time, there was scant choice for a male—you were a warrior, unless something different in you made you shaman—and I needed more than just a warrior’s simple hate as  perspective.  I made Ñamku albino to give him curiosity about the invaders, creating at least the illusion of kinship with them.  Also, to have him yearn for contact.

As for Juan de Cardeña, he was an ‘outsider’ in being educated, a literate conquistador being something of an oxymoron.  As secretary to Valdivia, he was also largely outside the action, observing, sometimes quite literally recording it.  Also, he was privy to Valdivia’s intentions, and very interestingly close to Inés de Suárez (which made it possible to embed the novel I initially thought to write within a larger novel).  And finally, one of the things I wanted to include in Arauco was the astonishing intellectual ferment of the time, which made the invasion of the Americas what it was—so I chose a lettered man as my lead.  And being educated at that time in Spain—as Cervantes wonderfully and ironically illustrates with Don Quijote—was likely to make you idealistic.

Did you have a soft spot for Inés de Suárez, the historical/your fictional woman? Or do you believe a novelist ought to be more objective than Henry Fielding who confesses to us his own love for Sophia in Tom Jones? Any thoughts on putting a personality into a once-alive figure from the historical records?

In my novel it is Juan that has a “soft spot” for Inés de Suárez.  And it’s due to his perspective that she is presented as she is in the novel, “romantically”—and by this I mean as a character colored by the fictions (the romances) Juan projects upon her.  Personally, I see her as a strong, complex and very unusual woman, but still defined by her bloody time and place.

When so few actual facts have been recorded about the historical characters you write about, true objectivity is ultimately impossible, for it would mean knowing what once existed in the blanks you fill.   What I attempted in Arauco with all the actual historical characters, both Spanish and Mapuche is a kind of evenhandedness, not demonizing or ensainting….

One of my heroes, Pablo Neruda, loathed Inés de Suárez.  In his poem, Valdivia, which poetically recounts the founding of Chile, this is what he says about her:

soaked by entrails, screaming,
Inés de Suárez, soldier,
supported the imperial necks
with the knees of an infernal harpy.
And she threw them over the palisade,
bathing herself in noble blood.

 He is of course referring to the beheading of the six captive Mapuche caciques during the battle of Santiago, and the hurling of their heads over the city’s palisade to “discourage” the attackers (an act I ‘tiptoe around’ in the novel).   So yes, I gave Inés de Suárez far more latitude than Neruda does, and maybe more latitude than strict objectivity would require … but then, again, for Juan’s sake.

Ultimately, if “soft spot” means filling in the blanks that History leaves in your characters with good, rather than bad or questionable, then Juan de Cardeña—about whom nothing as an actual human being was recorded—is the ‘softest’ cake that I confected.  Chances are excellent that I took a somewhat literate conquistador, brutal as almost every other, and made something richer, deeper and gentler of him.

You have ghastly events to write about. I think I can tell you put a lot of thought into ways to present them. Can you share a few thoughts on how a novelist might write about horrible histories?

War is the axle about which the wheel of Arauco spins—whatever happens on that war’s periphery—and war is never other than brutal and ghastly.  As Tostoy writes, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.  Just so, every war is differently ghastly.  What I attempted to do is be a ‘fly on the wall’ at this particular time and place, attempting to record the conflict of Spaniards and Mapuche as it was.  Also, the conquistadores were themselves never far from civil war, if not actually engaging in it.  This also I record, for that is what was happening, then and there.  The horror came with the ‘territory.’   Horrible histories should be written as they were, in my opinion.

My personal, fictional, answer to history’s horrors was to have wonderful things happening at war’s edge, and of course I have Juan flee war, across the Andes, at the end.  I wish him well.

How did you research Mapuche shamans? What about your choices, in creation of your shamans’ mental/spiritual world?

I began to research Arauco before there was an internet, but read absolutely everything about the Mapuche available to me at the time (thanks be, for the Library of Congress!).   And in reading about Mapuche, one cannot help but repeatedly bump up against shamans and sorcerers, both being so important to their culture.  According to traditional Mapuche lore, by and large human illness, and many things that go wrong with your animals or crops are due to sorcery of various kinds.  So, if you want somebody sick, you hire a sorcerer.  Conversely, if you want that sorcery cancelled, you hire a machi—a shaman—and so it goes….  Most of my information about machi derived from anthropological studies.  I learned a lot from the works of Inez Hilger, done in the sixties.  More recently, in 1997, Ana Mariella Bacigalupo published a fascinating work devoted specifically to Mapuche shamanism—Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power and Healing among Chilean Mapuche.  If that study had been around when I began to write Arauco, the novel would have been a different thing.

Also, I should mention that I did research not just into shamanism among the Mapuche, but in greater Latin America.  This led me to the ritual use of datura stramonium, which is widespread—and the visions of the shamans in the novel follow the characteristic course of that psychoactive plant.  Interestingly, this was a time in which visions were also happening in Spain.  St. Teresa of Avila was Juan de Cardeña’s contemporary.

How much time have you devoted to the novel? Who or what helped with your labours?

From inception to publication the novel took about three decades (though much of that time was spent on back burners).  Through it all my wife, Barbara—who has the patience of angels—provided unfailing support and lucid, ongoing feedback.  She also helped with research, which came to include such things as sleeping among chickens in a Mapuche campground in Chile, where a traditional ruka—a Mapuche dwelling—was being built.  My brother, Mario, read all three drafts—the first being over a thousand pages, typescript—and his comments resulted in a great improvement and shortening of the novel.  And finally, a wonderful book group my wife belongs to, the Sisters in Reading, which definitely does not read FLUFF, was gracious enough to be a focus group for the penultimate draft.  I am honored to be the only male ever physically admitted to their conclave.

Who are your writing heroes? And, if these differ, are there writers who fed you for the book?

In my adolescence I must have read every historical novel in the Carnegie Library of Crawfordsville, Indiana (which took time, but was doable).  My heroes then were such authors as Robert Graves, Rafael Sabatini, Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas….  To them I owe my abiding love of literature eloquently transporting one through time and space.

As one born in Chile and brought up in the United States, I owe to Pablo Neruda—whom I read later in life—the realization that one never leaves the place where one was born.  With him I also share a love of the land going back to times before history.  And I admire him as a man who had principles, and never, ever, compromised them.   I just read a wonderful biography by Marie Arana of Simón Bolivar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spain, and one of the things that struck me about his short and brilliant career, is how much he had to violate his beliefs to get done what he believed in.  Neruda chose exile over compromise, but his poetry never left Chile.

What’s next?

Far as novels go, I’m thinking of doing another set in Chile.  No title.  No plot.  No anything yet, except the idea of including the infamous Latin American/Nazi connection.  There’s a fascinating Chilean called Miguel Serrano, who was an acquaintance of Herman Hesse and C. G. Jung, and became one of the foremost figures in contemporary Nazi “philosophy,” propounding what he called “esoteric Hitlerism….”

Hmmm … far as time and place….  My mother intended to study in France after college, but WWII was breaking out, so she went to study in Chile instead, and arrived to find Valparaíso, and its university, totally destroyed by an earthquake.  She traveled down by ship of course, and many of her fellow passengers (according to her letters) were Jews fleeing Europe.  Powerful stuff.  And then of course, Nazis fled to SA not so many years later….  Am in the research stage right now.  Being retired, I may be able to get it done in fewer than thirty years and still live a life on the side.


Arauco: A Novel

Paperback, 698 pages
Published November 28th 2012 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Kindle Edition, 698 pages
Published February 9th 2013 by Kindle Direct Publishing

John Caviglia’s website

Goodreads author page

My review of Arauco on Goodreads

End comment from Bryn
I’m glad I asked the questions. I already have Shamans of the Foye Tree and must explore Purity and Danger. I’ve found out that my third novel — the clashes in my third novel — is almost entirely about frontiers (Genghis only fought, you know, where steppe and sown had interpenetrated. The rest came after his lifetime). So John on the “edges of cultures” is valuable to me. Mind I’ve always been one of those who read books like The Outsider

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *