Author explores America's fascination with Latin America


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David Winner normally works on his writing at his New York home in the office he shares with his wife. But when an idea hits, the 46-year-old is ready to capture it, no matter where he is.

This was exactly the case one day when he became so excited about an upcoming novel that he whipped out his tiny netbook and began furiously typing in the middle of a Brooklyn subway station.

That book, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, later won the Gival Press Novel Award in 2009, and it will eventually be turned into a movie. The author will read from the novel at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

"Sometimes, I write essays and the occasional terrible poem, but mostly just fiction," Winner said.
The Cannibal of Guadalajara is about a recently divorced middle-age white Manhattanite, Margaret, who is having an affair with a much younger and troubled Mexican-American man named Dante.

Problems arise when her ex-husband, Alfred, veers out of control in Latin America and threatens to come back to her. Eventually, her troubled lover bares a secret that is gradually revealed as the novel progresses.

"It's also the story of a grand old Mexican family and its demise," Winner said.

Filmmaker Jack Newell had always been interested in the idea of "the traditionally structured family" and people's never-ending search to find one. That's part of the reason he chose to option Winner's novel for a movie upon reading it.

"I feel like we've always built families when we don't have one," Newell said. "The novel is ultimately a hopeful one … it is this sense of community and togetherness and family."

Winner first began writing toward the end of high school. He wrote stories depicting oddball characters around his hometown of Charlottesville, Va. One character was a headmaster of a "hippy-dippy" high school who was obsessed with the idea that people were wearing hats with illegal drugs in them.

Other ideas and inspiration came from looking hard at the stranger and darker sides of the author's own inner nature and from allowing characters to explore thoughts he himself never would. Walking around Guadalajara gave him specific ideas for the novel.

"When I travel, strange things happen, and I imagine the possibility of even stranger more twisted and funnier things," Winner said. "Those things become fictions."

Cannibal was based on his love of Latin America, which shows through Alfred, who has darkly comic misadventures in Ecuador and Brazil. His experiences are exaggerated, altered versions of Winner's own experiences.

"I had made other attempts at novels, but this was the first one that I think I got right," he said.

He has written and published close to 14 stories over the years. Topics include disgraced corporate executives misbehaving in distant countries and young men trying to rescue Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.

"I've often tried to write more normal-seeming stories but have never been able to make them work," Winner said.

He was sure he was going to make writing part of his career after college when he moved to New York. While he has written for a long time, he always worked at something else at the same time. He tried out various jobs, from furniture mover to temporary secretary to a "disastrous" stint as an editorial assistant. But when he started teaching at a community college in Tucson, Ariz., while working toward an M.F.A., he found comfort; he realized teaching would be how he would earn his living.

"I've done that ever since," he said.

Though he has other passions in his life — movies, exercising, and teaching being just a few of them — being a writer gives him the greatest joy.

"It's a wonderful experience to be able to create a fictional world and make things happen in it, and later, to have people visit it for a while as they're reading my work," he said.

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