Q&A with Aaron Shulman

We were incredibly lucky to have the chance to talk with OUT LOUD reader Aaron Shulman, author of The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain's Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2019), about his book and his writing process. Aaron will be sharing an excerpt from his book at our March OUT LOUD Reading, and we could not be more thrilled to hear from him about his work. Check out Aaron's book here, or visit his website to learn more.

There’s a recurring theme in your book about storytelling as a means of shaping the arc of a life, how we make myths of our histories (personal and collective) that don’t always hold up to the reality. Or, “the allures and hazards of nostalgia,” as you so eloquently phrased it. How did you arrive at this theme, and how did it inform your own storytelling as you wrote the book?

The more I examined what the members of the Panero family did, wrote, and said, the clearer it became to me that this was the central thematic through-line of the book, though perhaps it also has to do with my own obsession with storytelling, with converting the raw, often formless-feeling material of life into sculpted narratives. The Paneros were all obsessed with the past—a "fatal nostalgia" as the ex-girlfriend of one of the sons put, since it often sabotaged their behavior in the present—but they were also very self-aware of this obsession and as a result often interrogated their relationship with nostalgia. Near the end of his life, Michi, the youngest son, seemed to feel that actual experiences weren't as good as the stories later told made them out to be. I suppose in my writing of the book, the themes of storytelling, myth-making, and nostalgia affected some of the scenes and digressions and descriptions I included, and how I framed certain events. They formed a guiding lens.

You obviously spent a good amount of time doing thorough research for the book, not only on the Panero family but also on the culture and history of Spain. All of it is fascinating, and I’m sure there was so much more that didn’t make it into the book. What are your tips for researching for a book without falling into a black hole? How do you choose what to put in, and what to let go of?

It's so hard not to fall into that black hole! My first draft of the book was 600 pages (the finished version is 400), but even so, I felt like I had left so much out. There was this urge to forget about forward motion in the narrative and just sprawl out and branch in all directions to include every interesting sub-story and fact and person. Of course, I couldn't do that, not just because it wouldn't be readable, but because, though the book is long and epic in scope, I still wanted it to read swiftly. From the outset, my mandate to myself was, "Only put in the coolest shit." That helped to start with, but when I finished the first draft I hard to force myself to really think about what was indispensable and cool, and jettison whatever wasn't. So it was learning to question every sentence that I had written and ask myself why each was there, and determine if they really and truly helped the story. Naturally, I couldn't have done this alone. I had a few very honest readers who saved me from myself.

Even though rife with research and history, The Age of Disenchantments reads in a way that feels very novelistic. How have your experiences in writing fiction supported your efforts to not only tell the story of the Panero family, but to also make it such an engaging and compelling read?

From the very start, after I first discovered the Paneros, I felt like their story was one worthy of a novelist's imagination, except the astonishing part was that it wasn't fiction—it was all real. (That said, in certain ways the Paneros' story is a product of their literary imaginations, in how they lived and told stories about their lives, so it's not a coincidence it feels so novelistic.) Yet even an intrinsically good story can be ruined by a bad storyteller, so it was on me to do justice to the scope, complexity, and color of their family history and its intersection with Spain's. So that, I suppose, is when my years of studying and writing fiction came in, and subsequently studying the work of novelistic non-fiction writers like Erik Larson, David Grann, Catherine Bailey, Stacy Schiff, and Emanuel Carrrere, among others. Relying on primary and secondary sources instead of my imagination, I nevertheless still used the tools of fiction: scene creation, dialogue, interiority, physical description, and so on. And of course, I always thought about what the stakes were in any given scene or moment in the story, and where conflicts and tensions emerged from to heighten the drama and hopefully increase the engagement for the reader. These are basic principles of good storytelling, I think, that generally transcend genre, categories, formats, etc. 

You mention in the book that in a way, you came to love the Panero family. Throughout the book, the reader can sense your admiration for and fascination with each individual in the family, as though they became, in a way, your family too. Because of that, I found myself as a reader also caring for the family deeply. It made me think about the importance of loving who (or what) you’re writing about. That’s not a question, I know, but perhaps you care to comment or reflect…

Well, to speak to what I think you're getting at, it's impossible to overstate how important it is to write things you're passionate about or obsessed with. The work will always be better because of the writer's connection with the material. Pretty much every time I've ever written something I was meh about it didn't turn out well.

In the Prologue, you write that “While monumentally unique, Spain’s story is nonetheless a universal story. With both savagery and grace, it has battled the angles and devils that every person, family, and nation must sooner or later confront: hate and the love, the past and the future, crime and punishment, and remembering and forgetting. History is both individual and collective.” I loved how this comment echoed through time, resonating with a much larger, human experience. While you were working on this book, did you find yourself thinking about what our present experience will look like as history? 

It's funny, while writing the book I knew that the history of Spain underlying my narrative echoed with our present historical and political moment (the tensions between democracy and fascism, authoritarianism and freedom, art and politics, etc.), but it was hard for me to understand exactly how they spoke to one another. This was probably because I was so close to the Spanish material on the one hand that I had little distance, and on the other, so close to the present that I had little distance. In the last few months I've finally begun to see some of the links, parallels, and echoes between there and here and then and now, and it's given me some new insights.

Can you give us a peek into what you’re working on now, or next? 

I've got a new book proposal coming together for another narrative non-fiction work, but for now I don't want to say more. If it works out, it'll be an exciting project.

Finally, what’s the most important piece of advice you would offer to aspiring writers? 

That's so hard. There are so many facets to the writing life. I suppose: Prepare for it to be a long road with more hard work than you ever imagined.

Aaron Shulman is the author of the non-fiction historical narrative The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (Ecco/HarperCollins, March 2019). After growing up in Michigan, Aaron attended Johns Hopkins as an undergrad and then the University of Montana, where he received his MFA in creative writing. A former Fulbright scholar, his work has appeared in The Believer, The New Republic, The American Scholar, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other places. An editorial coach, collaborative writer, and developmental editor, he works with Idea Architects Literary Agency to bring the research of visionary scientists and thinkers to a wide readership. Aaron writes a periodic newsletter with reading recommendations that you can sign up for here. He lives with his family in Santa Barbara, California.