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Xochitl Gonzalez on novel 'Anita de Monte Laughs Last'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Raquel Toro was working on her summer fellowship at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, doing her thesis on the famed minimalist sculptor Jack Martin, who's rich, well-born and well-regarded. But something is stirred within her as she learns what her professors don't teach about Jack Martin - the death decades earlier of his wife, the land and body artist Anita de Monte, after a tragic and spectacular 33-story fall from the couple's Manhattan apartment.

Did Anita de Monte slip through a window, or was it something else? And was her art overlooked in the shadow of her husband's? "Anita De Monte Laughs Last" is the latest novel from Xochitl Gonzalez, staff writer for The Atlantic, whose previous bestselling novel was "Olga Dies Dreaming." She joins us from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

XOCHITL GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure to hear the book discussed that way. It's like - it gave me a little chill. So thank you.

SIMON: Oh. Well, good. It gave me a chill reading it. What does Raquel Toro see in the story of Anita de Monte?

GONZALEZ: You know, I think she sees what she hadn't found herself while at Brown, which is where she's at school. Raquel has been trying to navigate a way of, how does she show up and be Raquel from Brooklyn while trying to seemingly please people that don't understand what that means? And I think in Anita's art, she's like, this woman was totally herself. Something about it feels raw and primal and unapologetic and not trying to squeeze itself into what the Western canon was in the moment, and it gives her some kind of confidence to, like, kind of assert her own self and be more fully her.

SIMON: And I have to ask, how much is your novel inspired by the the life and, for that matter, the death of a real-life artist?

GONZALEZ: Oh, I mean. This is an homage, I think, to Ana Mendieta. And it was sort of inspired by my own story of discovering her towards the end of my senior year at Brown, after being a very devoted and obsessed art history student. I rarely stumbled upon women, let alone Latinas like myself. So when I connected with Ana Mendieta's art, it stirred kind of an awakening in me. And this book was almost an alternative history of what would have happened for me - you know, a version of me had I encountered her maybe a little bit sooner.

SIMON: We should explain that Ana Mendieta died in September 1985 in a fall from a 34th-floor apartment, if I'm not mistaken.

GONZALEZ: Yes.

SIMON: And she was married to the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was acquitted of her murder.

GONZALEZ: Yes. He was acquitted of her murder. But I think there were a lot of people that were dubious about the circumstances of that. But I think what was beautiful in fiction was that I took the biography, and I used that as a base. But then I had the ability to then kind of make Anita de Monte this repository because she writes it from the afterlife, right? And it's written from her point of view.

And I was able to kind of give this character all of the sense of frustrations that I myself have experienced as an artist and trying to, like, make art about Latino people and that people kind of connect with. And then I also was able to allow her to have agency and give her voice and not just have the story end with death, you know, to say like that isn't actually the end, and now what you felt about your legacy as it continues and that maybe even what you thought was the end of the legacy isn't the end of the legacy.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Jack Martin.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

SIMON: He's a scoundrel, and maybe worse than a scoundrel.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

SIMON: Can he also be appreciated as a talented artist?

GONZALEZ: A hundred percent. I think there's a part that I was really explicit, you know, when Raquel sort of figures out what he's suspected of doing and confronts her professor about why they don't talk about it. And he's like, well, what should I do, not teach every artist that fights with their wife, you know? And she was like, absolutely not.

You know, I think the idea is, let me take in the full person. Like, if we're being told that this person's psychology or that person's psychology or background inform their art, let me understand this so I can look at it with my own eyes. But I think he is talented, and I think there's absolutely a part where, you know, you're sort of hearing why this professor was so obsessed with his work. And it speaks to what the power of it was.

Like, he was - like, in a time of tumult in society, he saw a way to strip away persona and make art about something else and make you just sit in space differently. And so I think that two things can absolutely be true, particularly with artists. And I thought that was one of the things that was interesting to be able to kind of take on, which is like, how do we not throw the baby out with the bathwater to some extent?

SIMON: Earlier in the novel, Anita de Monte says, somewhere along the way, I lost my rigor, stopped working, stopped dreaming.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

SIMON: And then, just as I'm getting used to that, she says, it can feel so important to matter to someone.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

SIMON: I found that so moving.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

SIMON: You know - I mean, that's where we're all vulnerable, isn't it?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And I think she becomes really obsessed with success - right? - and mattering. I think she was so worried about being overshadowed by her partner, Jack Martin, that she really becomes very focused and determined. But then in that, she's like - there was so much isolation in that, you know? I think I wanted her to have this very human feeling of why it wasn't so simple to just leave this husband who's, like - cheats on her and is kind of obnoxious. Like, it wasn't so simple because she did know at the end of the day, she really mattered to him, and that made her feel - she says - she's like, that gave me the feeling of a life.

You know, she's really talking to the reader, right? And that honesty, that moment of honesty I felt was kind of beautiful because I think we have so much judgment - for women and men - that stay in sort of dysfunctional relationships. And sometimes it's actually as simple as that. We all just want to matter to somebody.

SIMON: You note in your acknowledgements, so many spirits and ghosts running through this book. So something as personal as a novel is also a collaborative art - isn't it? - even if there's the one name on the cover.

GONZALEZ: Oh, my gosh, so collaborative. I mean, just the entire origin of this. I was working on an adaptation of "Olga Dies Dreaming," trying to turn that into a television show, and my producing partner sent me a joke, and he was like, art and commerce, what can you do? And the next thing you know, it reminded me of an art history textbook title. And then I found myself remembering my time in an art history classroom. And then I wrote a whole little outline. And I texted him 20 minutes later, and I was like, I think I know what my next book is going to be. So even the very moment of inspiration really is a collaborative process, right?

And most definitely the spirit of Ana Mendieta, the spirit of a college friend that passed away far too young - just revisiting that time of my younger self in some funny way in that era of being a young woman in the '90s, when we're sort of like, we don't quite know what is feminism, what is the ambition, like, for a woman now? What are all these things? Like, that felt almost like a spirit of the forgotten me. So, you know, it was - really, really, truly, there are spirits all over this book.

SIMON: Xochitl Gonzalez, her new novel, "Anita De Monte Laughs Last." Thank you so much for being with us.

GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for having me. This is lovely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.