In Say Her name, Francisco Goldman tells the fictionalized story of his late wife, Aura Estrada, who died suddenly in 2007.
Why did you decide to write your and Aura's story as a novel?
My way of telling the truth was to fictionalize. I would take one sentence from her diaries and create a whole scene around it. I've also worked as a journalist, which for me is about telling the truth, respecting facts, exercising complete integrity. I've never agreed with the idea of making composite characters, or moving events around in time, exaggerating, and still calling it nonfiction. The word novel, though, is capacious; it can be lots of things. Not all the facts are true. I didn't do everything the character does. I didn't quit my job. I didn't live off Aura's savings. There's a Shakespeare quote about how public laments are just shadows of an unseen grief "that swells with silence in the tortured soul." Writing the book certainly worsened my grief at times. It made me miss her so much.
There's a subtle but insistent emphasis on fate throughout the book, from Aura's recitation of Yeats the first night you met, to the painstaking recollection of events that after her death felt doomed or fateful.
I was always aware that I was doing what I do as a novelist, constructing this parallel universe that tries to seek meaning in the way only art can. Novels are about the search for the right form, or shape, the right way to tell something. In a novel, I want to create a world that people will utterly believe. Roberto Bolaño wanted to be a detective; I'd like to be a prosecutor. In this novel, I prosecute myself.
Your role as prosecutor is evident in the book's attention to detail; Aura's death isn't described until near the end, in which you describe every detail of that day.
Recounting that was horrible. When I sat down to write it, I had a knot in my stomach, I was crying, I thought, "I can't do this anymore." A voice inside me told me if I didn't finish it then, I never would. So I wrote the full account of that day. I finished it at about two in the morning, put my work down, and didn't touch it again for months.
What was it like to pick the book up again and write the ending?
The ending is so important because a big part of writing this book was about playing with Aura's imagination. Our imaginations were always playing off one another. The original plan was that, in the ending, my book would merge with her book, the novel she was writing when she died. And I think that is sort of what happened here. She was so gifted. She was going to be a star. One of her stories was published in Harper's magazine after she died. The editor there wrote to me and said, "Please send more, this is just the type of young writer we're looking for."