Readers of all ages have found themselves mesmerized by Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s words. He has mastered writing across genres and styles, putting forth successful poetry books, adult fiction and colorful children’s stories. The award-winning author was born and raised in New Mexico and often intertwines Mexican and American culture throughout his work.
As a current Texan, some of his novels read as a love letter to El Paso, a largely populated city that sits near the border of Mexico and the United States. As one can expect, it is a diverse, bilingual city, loaded with rich culture. While the city only buzzes in the background, Sáenz brings it to life in his breathtaking 2012 novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
This story tells the tale of its titular characters, Aristotle and Dante. Although the two contrast heavily when it comes to their bold personalities and upbringings, they share one thing in common: Their love for each other, the world around them, and the joyful things in life (like Ari’s dog, Legs). But things aren’t all fun as games as these two Mexican-American teenage boys find themselves in the light of racism and homophobia in the late-1980s, struggling to come into their true identities.
“We cannot run away from the world just because confronting it is so difficult and painful. That just because the world doesn’t understand you or care to, that isn’t enough of a reason to hate the world you live in. You live in it, and it belongs to you, as much as it belongs to anybody else.”Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Throughout the novel, Sáenz effortlessly guides the reader through the conflicting thoughts in Aristotle’s head: Making them cringe over his outrage and anger, yearn for the love he holds for those dear to him, and cry over the pain he suffers at the hands of an uncaring world. Complimenting Sáenz’s careful writing, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe instantly developed a cult following, with fans taking to social media to share their theories and fanfiction websites to continue the story well beyond its ending.
Excitingly enough, Sáenz returned to the Ari and Dante scene (not that he ever left) and announced the novel’s sequel, Aristotle and Date Dive into the Waters of the World, which is expected to debut on October 12.
Teasing his triumphant return, he told us, “I have been writing for over thirty-five years and I have never written a book that was ‘long-awaited’ or ‘greatly anticipated.’ No one has ever waited for my next book to hit the bookshelves. But nine years after its publication, Ari and Dante is selling more copies than ever before. And when I started to write the sequel, all I could think was: ‘What the hell was I thinking?'”
He continued, “After three years of working on a book that was worse than bad, I threw it out, took a deep breath, and got to work. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And I finished. So now, the book that will be compared to the much-beloved original will hit the bookstores. To say that I am nervous is an understatement. Some days, I go to sleep thinking about the long journey that has brought me here. Some mornings, I wake and find myself crying—though I can’t explain why. Other days, I take a walk and realize that my heart is full of gratitude. Some days I merely doubt myself.”
“In the end, I ask myself the only question that matters: Would my mother be proud of me for having written this book? I know the answer to that question. And then I smile. She died on the day Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was published. I will always believe that she blessed that book. Just as she now blesses this one. I’m 67 years old and I feel like a kid again. I’ve never felt so alive,” Sáenz concluded.
Sáenz’s dedication to the Aristotle and Dante Universe and the heart that drives his story is evident through every word he writes, every page he spills his heart onto. Queer readers have praised this novel and critics have recognized its relevancy as it has reached high levels of critical acclaim. Monsters & Critics had the opportunity to ask Sáenz a few questions ahead of the release of Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Deep Waters of the World, a sequel that will leave fans breathless.
A preview into Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World
Monsters & Critics: How do you prepare to write, and how did it change during the pandemic?
Benjamin Alire Sáenz: I don’t know that I am ever prepared to write. I don’t think any writer is prepared to meet the demands that a novel requires of them. You have to gather your work ethic, your discipline and desire, your stamina, your commitment—and all the courage you have within you, to write something that really matters. Which is to say that writing a novel that matters to you hurts like hell. You have to go to the place of the pain. And you can do it because you don’t focus on the pain. What you do is focus on the writing.
I usually get up early and write through the early afternoon. Then in the evenings, I write for a couple of hours—then call it a day. But it was different during the pandemic. I wrote like a madman. Maybe it’s because I felt as if the world had gone completely off its rocker. There was something urgent in the air—and I breathed in all that urgency.
Some nights, I would work all night. I didn’t even notice that the night had passed. I would sleep for maybe four hours—and then get up and write again. There were days I didn’t sleep at all. And then there were days, I was so exhausted that I would sleep all day—then wake, in the middle of the night, write for four or five hours—then go back to bed, only to discover I couldn’t sleep.
I’d go back to writing. I had no schedule. I had no place to go. I felt lost—and at the same time, I felt centered. There were days I didn’t take a shower or brush my teeth. My life was in chaos, and I just kept on writing. The only order I knew was the order that existed in the novel I was writing. And in the bark of my little Yorkie, Chuy.
M&C: Were Ari and Dante easy to write? To elaborate, you’ve mentioned before that your characters all came from you, that you were all of your characters. Was it easy to confront parts of yourself to be able to bring them to life in these books, or did they take a life of their own at some point?
Benjamin Alire Sáenz: Nothing is easy to write. It’s not easy to confront the parts of yourself that exist in your characters. But it has to be that way—at least for me. You have to forget about the fact that every character you write is really you. It’s not a good idea to be your own therapist. So, you have to ignore what’s really going on. You pretend the characters are just people you made up, complete strangers—and that they came from nowhere. And then you begin to believe it. That’s when they take on a life of their own—and when that happens, it’s as if they’re telling you how to write them. That, of course, is utterly insane. Preposterous. But it does feel that way.
This is how it rolls: I wake up every day and get told what to do by people I made up and don’t really exist. It’s a wonder that I really love my characters. It’s a wonder, too, that I haven’t been committed. There’s still time.
M&C: The synopsis of the sequel mentions that Ari will experience a shocking loss. When these events happen in your writing, are you yourself personally affected by the losses your characters face?
Benjamin Alire Sáenz: Of course, I’m personally affected by the losses my characters face. I wish I didn’t over-relate to them and the things they experience. I get too involved. I’m that therapist that falls in love with all of his patients. I’ve experienced a good many losses in my life.
I know what it means to lose someone you love, to grieve them, to wake in the morning and feel so much pain that you never want to feel anything ever again. I’ve experienced that hurt many, many times. Maybe I put my characters through what I’ve been through. Maybe I work out my own losses through my characters— or visit those losses time and time again in my writing.
A reviewer once said of one of my adult novels, “Saenz is not kind to his characters.” That isn’t true. That isn’t true.
M&C: What do you hope people will take away from Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World?
Benjamin Alire Sáenz: That we cannot run away from the world just because confronting it is so difficult and painful. That just because the world doesn’t understand you or care to, that isn’t enough of a reason to hate the world you live in. You live in it, and it belongs to you, as much as it belongs to anybody else. That you matter to the universe, more than you think.
That whatever price you pay in order to love, it’s worth it because it’s true, love is the only thing that matters, but love is much larger and far more generous, and freer than anything we imagine it to be. That it is our job to ensure that everybody gets their rights respected. That we can hate someone and still love them. That to live with dignity, we must recognize the dignity of others. I know, I know, that’s too long a list.
What’s coming next?
M&C: Are there any ongoing projects right now that you wish to draw attention to? It can be your own projects or that of other creators.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz: Most people don’t know that I am an artist. I love painting almost as much as I love writing. But I’m a better writer than I am a painter. I have a small online store, where I sell Ari and Dante merchandise, and in the future, we will be selling merchandise that promotes progressive social change. And in the very near future, I will be adding an online gallery where I will be selling my paintings.
All profits from the business will go toward opening a gallery to promote artists whose work is focused on social change, and, in addition, the gallery will promote street art and give the artists who produce it the respect that they deserve. In addition to the gallery, I have a dream of opening a people’s museum that features the art of border communities around the world and a wing that pays tribute to the history of the working-class people of the El Paso/Juarez border region.
M&C: The AIDS epidemic and its resulting devastation among gay men is depicted a bit in this book. Having lived through the epidemic of the 1980s, how have your own experiences shaped the experiences of Ari and Dante in this book?
Benjamin Alire Sáenz: My oldest brother died of AIDS, one of my mentors, Arturo Islas, died of AIDS, and one of my closest friends died of AIDS. There are too many memories from that era that I will take with me to the grave. Essentially, everything that Ari and Dante feel, I felt. One of the major reasons that I had to return to this novel is that I couldn’t quite forgive myself for the complete omission of the AIDS pandemic in the first book. I kicked myself every time I thought of that.
As I was writing, it didn’t surprise me at all when I discovered that the COVID pandemic we are living through today has a lot of parallels with the AIDS pandemic.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World will be released on October 12. It is currently available for preorder by most major book retailers.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s artwork can be purchased at his website.