The world's greatest movie on a subconscious screen: In bed with Oscar Hijuelos - Life and Style - The Independent

The world's greatest movie on a subconscious screen: In bed with Oscar Hijuelos

OSCAR HIJUELOS won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for 'The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love'. His latest novel, 'The 14 Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien', is published by Hamish Hamilton. Hijuelos is 42 and lives alone in New York City.

BEFORE I'd even written my first novel I dreamt that I went into a bookstore and saw a book with my name on the spine. I pulled it out and it was called Our House in the Last World. I wrote the book and it was published with that title.

I also dream intact narratives and sequences, which I use in my novels. I write them down in my notebook as soon as I wake up, which I usually do, automatically, at around 3 or 4am. I make notes for a couple of hours and then go back to sleep.

I always have television sets or movie screens in my dreams. I'll see the greatest movie in the world and then wake up and realise that what I've actually been watching is some little room in my consciousness.

It might seem more logical that I would write film scripts rather than novels but I think films are an inferior art form. Even a great movie is like a magnificently presented broth that goes through you in 10 minutes. But a good novel is like a Christmas feast. I once said this when I was speaking in Manhattan and the audience booed and hissed. I am unrepentant. In recent years I've become something of what the media term a literary celebrity. I'm often away on publicity tours and stay in a lot of hotel rooms. It's all part of the business but it's hard to live out of a suitcase, making acquaintance with strangers and having friendships that are fleeting. I get some kind of continuity by taking a box of books around with me. I also watch the television and am particularly soothed if Laurel and Hardy are on. Laurel and Hardy appear in all my novels.

I got pretty much bored with the New York celebrity scene. Cocktail parties every night and you're mixing with Lauren Hutton or Barbara Walters, then some movie star might drop in, or Paloma Picasso. It's very weird but not even surreal. It's like 'so what?' because celebrities never actually talk to each other. They just have a secret code that communicates as 'yes, we're beautiful and interesting aren't we?' So I don't hang out doing that anymore.

After Mambo Kings was so successful, everybody thought I should move to a bigger apartment in a better area but I stay in the area I was raised in. I live on the 12th floor of a block near Spanish Harlem and it's a horrid dump. I've been there for years. I've still got my childhood friends and lots of them are musicians. They come round in the evening and we jam. I play piano and like to improvise jazz.

The apartment is pretty sparse. The only luxury I allow myself is collecting antiquities. I figure that if you surround yourself with interesting objects, you have interesting thoughts. I recently had a bad experience in the night, though, and had to get rid of a couple of items.

I was asleep and suddenly became aware of a presence in the other room where the antiquities are. I walked in and, because I'm nearsighted, everything was very blurred in the moonlight. I had an Egyptian sarcophagus facing some mummified remains that were very sandy. It seemed that these had very slightly shifted. I went to the john and turned on the light and my face was covered in sand, there was sand on the floor, too, and then it very quickly faded.

Incidents like that are usually more symbolic than genuine spooks, though, of course, they're frightening. When I was writing Mambo Kings my dead father appeared to me in the night and said 'soy ciego' (I am blind). He asked me to turn on the light and when I did, he disappeared. It was some part of my subconscious telling me to have more faith in my insight into the world. The confidence I got from that led to the audaciousness of Mambo Kings. I find sleep a nuisance when I'm working. I can usually get by on four or five hours. I fall asleep watching television, unless there's a woman around, which there sometimes is. I consider my apartment to be a studio rather than a home. I work hard because when you're in an artistic profession you don't know how many more good years you can count on. I have to be alone to write and, of course, this makes long-term relationships difficult. I've been seeing Lori Carlson, to whom 14 Sisters is dedicated, for three years but I'm taking time out to think things over right now.

That's not to say women aren't immensely important to me - 14 Sisters was intended as a tribute to the female sex, to their inventiveness and durability. All my life I have associated women with the day and men with the night. I write best in sunlight, it has the same beauty and energy as women, something men do not have. I always long for the dawn and sometimes get very sad at night, imagining it will never come.

(Photograph omitted)

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