The Confession Book: Antonio Munoz Molina

Best-selling author Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.

/ by Noah Charney

Name a scent, taste, or sound that you associate with your childhood.

The smell of the freshly mowed grass my father fed his cow and mule.


Where and what did you study?

I went to college in Granada, Spain. My specialty subject was History of Art. I didn't learn anything attending

classes. Professors were high on Marxist jargon. The managed to teach seminars on the Quattrocento without

showing you a single slide of a painting or a building.


Where do you live and why?

I used to live between Madrid and NYC. Now I have moved back to Madrid for good. Madrid is a no-nonsense cosmopolitan city, very welcoming to foreigners, with a very rich and wide ranging cultural scene. It is also a

wonderful place to eat well and meet people. Social inter/action, old fashion human contact, is far more rewarding in

Madrid than in New York.


Describe your morning routine.

I have to leave the house in the morning: To take a long walk, to ride my bike, to go to the gym. In New York I used

to spend a couple of hours reading or writing at the nearest New York Public Library branch. Staying at home in the morning gives me

an unsurmountable anxiety.


What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

To walk for hours on end, to write in longhand, using a pencil. There was a time when I felt as a remnant of the

discredited past, writing on my notebook at a Starbucks, surrounded by people transfixed by their iPhones and

laptops. Now I don't care. I don't even go to Starbucks anymore.


Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers, and tell us why you like them.

L'education sentimentale, by Flaubert, Joyce's Ulysses, The Magic Mountain by Mann. The three of them attest to the prodigious accomplishment of the novel as an art form at its best: To embrace the world, to encompass the width and depth of what we might call the human soul and the complexity of the world at a certain period and place.


Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map

out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

The older a grow, the less I can say for sure about the work ahead. Sometimes I am not even aware of being

in the process of writing a book. All I have is a thin thread, a hint. The thing is to follow it stealthily enough so

as not to spoil it, like a very skittish prey.


What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

The sense of being swept along by a very powerful stream: the excitement of a beginning.


Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have


There are not many routines I am aware of or I stick to in a significant way. I can write practically anywhere. I need

a suitable notebook, a good pencil, or pen, sometimes the blank back of an invitation to some event I would never

attend. I tend to prefer late afternoon/early evening. It depends on how far along are you into the book for some new

routines to set in. The work on the computer comes later: the transfer from the handwritten draft to the word process

text is full of interesting possibilities.


Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

For many years, in New York, I've written by a window facing north. I saw a wide sidewalk, the tall prewar

building across, the sun moving west, I tall ginkgo tree right in front of me. It was all I needed to set myself into the

mood. But once I am well into my writing I don't pay attention to anything. Now, in Madrid, what I see are the upper floors and the terraces of some beautiful buildings from the mid Fifties.


Describe your evening routine.

I love to cook a simple and tasty dinner and share it with my wife, or else to go out and enjoy some beers and

"tapas" at one of the many first rate taverns in the neighborhood. A few years ago, after finishing a difficult book, I

awarded myself with a state-of-the-art stereo and home movie system. I can spend hours watching old movies or listening to jazz LPs.


What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Any Seinfeld rerun. More embarrassing perhaps, any Leslie Nilsen Naked Gun movie.


What is guaranteed to make you cry?

The "Nana" (Cradle song) from Manuel de Falla's "Siete canciones populares espaiiolas;" some moments in Faure's



Do you have any superstitions?

Nope. I try to be a rational man.


If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

I would bring back my beloved maternal grandmother. If only to say goodbye. I was abroad when she passed away.


What is your favorite snack?

A cold beer, some very good Spanish ham, perhaps salty fried almonds.


What phrase do you over-use?

I can't believe it.


What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

The very first one, a collection of literary essays along the lines of Baudelaire's "Spleen the Paris," was a self-publishing affair, in very provincial Granada, where I lived at the time. I felt ashamed of having to pay to see

my book printed. But then it caught the eye of a mainstream editor and it allied to a contract for my first

novel, which was sheer luck.


Was there a specific moment when you felt you had "made it" as an author?

There were, have been, specific moments when I have felt that I was on the brink of achieving something

substantial: Writing a very good book, getting a more solid or wider recognition. But then something happens

and the unattainable still looms ahead.


What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you've had a productive writing day?

Sometimes a few pages drafted in a kind of frenzy; sometimes for or five lines of a paragraph which

suddenly provide me with a much awaited break-through.


Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

A reader came up to me after at a book signing, with a novel in his hands and an expression of enthusiasm, almost

awe. He said I was by far his favorite writer. He said he treasured every piece of my writing he came across, not

only novels, but essays, journalism, whatever. With trembling voice and hands, he gave me a novel to sign. It was not

mine. It was a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Since I didn't want to embarrass him in front of other people, I signed

the book on my colleague's behalf. Weeks later, a received a letter from this reader. He very politely apologized for

his confusion and thanked me warmly for having been so gracious.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Henry James's timeless admonition: "Be one of those on whom nothing is lost."


What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

The name and the dates are just fine.


Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I would have loved to be a botanical artist.


What is your next project?

After a number of increasingly experimental works, I would like to short streamlined novel, as straight as an arrow.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.