David Lida Interview
“And then I realized I had to get out of the house, and walk around the city. I had lived here long enough to clearly identify what I knew and what I didn’t know. I had to be on the street with all of my senses engaged, talking to strangers, going to neighborhoods where people warned me not to go, wearing out the soles of my shoes to get it right. I had to drink in the energy of the city every day, so that I could go home and then transmit that energy in the writing.” –David Lida on writing, First Stop in the New World
David Lida is a Mexico City based author and journalist who wrote the books, First Stop in the New World, Travel Advisory, and Las Llaves de la Ciudad, as well as a plethora of magazine articles about Mexican culture and society. After reviewing his book, First Stop in the New World, which is a “street-level panorama” of life in Mexico City,I found his writing to be highly engaging, unpretentious, and, simply put, written from the ground up. I admire these qualities in a writer, and, to these ends, I sought to do a follow up interview with Lida to further delve into his world as a writer working from the streets of Mexico’s capital city.
What were your initial impressions of Mexico City when you first went there 18 years ago?
My initial impressions were … impressionistic. You can find nearly all of them in the first paragraphs of the introduction in the book.
I actually first arrived in 1987. I had a layover of a day and a night. I had a rather long night that night. Something which didn’t make it into the final manuscript of the book, is that I went to the Teatro Blanquita. At the time, they still had vaudeville at the Blanquita, and I saw various comics, chorus girls, singers and dancers, as well as the orchestra of Pérez Prado, the king of the mambo, a couple of years before he died. Another performer that night was Sasha Montenegro, an Argentine of Yugoslavian descent who moved to Mexico in the early 1970s and became the star of a series of sex comedies. She sang a little, danced a little, but mostly pranced around the stage nearly naked, assisted by a pair of diminutive, male, sexually ambiguous assistants.
Somehow I knew I was in the right place. Mostly this was an intuitive reaction, and I couldn’t really explain why I knew.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Brooklyn, New York City- October 20, 2008
Travelogue — Travel Photos
What makes you think that Mexico City has the potential of becoming the cultural capital of the 21st century?
I call it the capital of the 21st century (rather than the cultural capital) for the following reason. More than half the people in the world live in cities. And most of us do not live in neat, orderly cities like Paris or London, New York or Toronto. Most of us live in cities that have grown in an ad hoc, willy nilly manner in the last few decades, with populations that have ballooned to 10 million or more, with little or nothing resembling urban planning: Shanghai, Beijing, Sao Paolo, Istanbul, Lagos, Mumbai, etc.
I am not saying that all of these cities are alike. Each deserves its own book. But if you understand how Mexico City works – economically, socially, culturally, politically, sexually, etc. – you will at least have a clue, or a window, as to how much of the world works, and how many of these city dwellers survive.
I am impressed with how you intertwined the anecdotal nature of First Stop in the New World in a way that comes together to reveal a holistic view of Mexico City. How did the structure of this book come about?
There were two moments which I consider key in the three-year journey from the inception of the idea to the bound book. I worked for the first six months or so at home, trying to write what I already knew about. And I despaired because it wasn’t working. The material I was accumulating seemed static to me.
And then I realized I had to get out of the house, and walk around the city. I had lived here long enough to clearly identify what I knew and what I didn’t know. I had to be on the street with all of my senses engaged, talking to strangers, going to neighborhoods where people warned me not to go, wearing out the soles of my shoes to get it right. I had to drink in the energy of the city every day, so that I could go home and then transmit that energy in the writing.
The worst thing that one Mexican writer can say about another is escribe con las patas – he writes with his feet. I actually wrote this book with my feet, walking around and then coming home to sit at the computer.
The other turning point was when I came up with the idea of interweaving long, analytical chapters with short vignettes. Initially I had only planned to have long chapters. But I realized two things. First, there are certain topics – like the Centro Histórico, for example, or the wrestling matches – that I could either try to capture as a succinct snapshot in five pages, or else I would have to write a 300 page book. There is no way that I could imagine doing 30 pages about the Centro.
Secondly, I believe that these short takes and anecdotes truly reflect the fragmented nature of experience in Mexico City. Or at least the fragmented nature of my experience here.
Could you tell me a little of the trials and errors that accompanied your journey to becoming a professional writer?
I’m not sure how much I would define them as trials and errors as I would as ups and downs. I got my start on a daily trade newspaper in New York that services the fashion and retail industries. I began as a copy editor and five years later I was editing the arts page. The paper was widely read by editors of women’s magazines, so when I quit and became a freelance they all gave me work.
I thought it would be smooth sailing from there on in. I figured that in a couple of years I would find three or four editors who would give me lots of work on a regular basis and that would be that. In fact, within a couple of years all the editors who had been giving me work had either quit or been fired, and I had to start from scratch. And that is pretty much the way it has been for twenty years. I’ve had to reinvent myself constantly.
It has helped that I learned to write in Spanish. This expands my chances of getting published at all. I am especially happy about Las llaves de la ciudad, a book that came out here in Mexico at more or less the same time as First Stop in the New World. It’s a collection of magazine pieces about Mexico City, mostly profiles of people (from a guy who claims to be the D.F.’s first private detective, to a deaf-mute transvestite who has created her own sign language, to one of the city’s most notorious socialites). I wrote all of it in Spanish, and the response here has been extremely positive.
Having said that, I believe it is harder and harder for a freelance writer to survive in the world. I want to keep writing. However, one of the reasons that, in addition to writing, I became a mitigation specialist (there is a little bit about this on my web site, www.davidlida.com) is that I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life hustling magazine articles in an increasingly hostile market.
Do you have a crazy or funny personal story from Mexico City that you could share that was not included in First Stop in the New World?
Whenever I feel I have seen everything here, I walk through some door and am surprised. A few months ago I was in the Plaza Garibaldi, an area notorious for mariachis and dive bars, with a friend. She insisted on going to a table dance bar, where women strip and dance for an exclusively male clientele, with the exception of the occasional adventurous woman, like my friend. In any case, we went in there and saw a woman dancing who was clearly, visibly pregnant – I’d say she was four or five months along in her term. That was certainly a first for me.
David Lida’s Homepage and Blog