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May 23, 2020

A Q&A with Andrew Altschul, author of The Gringa

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March 2020; Melville House; 978-1612198224
audio, ebook, print (432 pages); political fiction
The Gringa is inspired by the real-life story of Lori Berenson, an American who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for terrorist activities in Peru in the 1990s. What about Berenson’s story inspired you to base this historical novel on it?

I lived in Peru for a couple of years in the late 1990s, soon after Berenson’s arrest and trial. Even though she was in a military prison, she was still in the news from time to time, and every time her name came up people went crazy – she was the most hated person in Peru, the foreigner who’d come to try and restart a war (or so the government alleged). I was intrigued by this, and also by the question of what had brought her there. She and I have certain things in common – we’re the same age, we both grew up in secular Jewish families in the New York area, went to great schools, etc. etc. I like to think of myself as a liberal or even a leftist, but I had never gone “all in” the way Berenson had, or really risked much of anything in the name of my political beliefs. So there was something about her story that was both chastening and frightening to me, and part of writing the novel was to try and understand why one of our lives went in one direction, and the other’s went in such a different direction.

How did it come to pass that you left the US to live and work in Peru in your 20s? 

Oh, for the most clichéd reasons. I had nothing better to do, my writing career wasn’t taking off, I’d gone through a bad breakup, I had a little money saved up and I knew that I could live in Peru for quite a while on it. I was the stereotypical American expat: “finding myself,” and totally unaware of the ways my privilege made that possible. At the same time, it’s also true that I recognized something very sheltered in myself, something very American, and I wanted to change that, to become something more than your typical ignorant U.S. citizen who knows nothing about the rest of the world. It was the era of the Clinton impeachment, and as a young man I was slowly coming to realize just how limited and poisonous the American cultural and political discourse is. I wanted out – and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity and the resources to get out, so I did.

What did you learn about yourself and your country of origin from this experience of making your way in a foreign country as a young man?

Well, see above, for one thing. My privilege and shelteredness came home to me very quickly, as I came to understand the lives of my Peruvian friends – even those who came from privileged backgrounds in their own country. It’s simply impossible, from inside the U.S., to understand how profoundly the U.S. has shaped and altered the lives of people around the world, particularly in developing countries – and mostly for the worse. It’s impossible to understand how much resentment and cynicism there is toward our country – but not, usually, toward Americans themselves. Almost everyone I met was warm and open and accepting of me as an individual. But everyone had very strong opinions about the United States – and they all knew a hell of a lot more about our country and its actions than most Americans know about theirs. Little kids in Cuzco can recite the first ten U.S. presidents. I’ll bet there aren’t 5% of Americans who could name even one Peruvian president. (Come to think of it, I’ll bet most Americans can’t name the first ten American presidents!) It was sobering, and made me want to do better, and to be better.

The point of view in the novel is that of an American journalist living in Peru. How closely is that perspective based on your own life experiences?

Well, he’s sort of a “reluctant” journalist – he’s a failed novelist and a “refugee from George W. Bush’s” America, who gets strong-armed into writing the story of this paroled terrorist. He’s left the U.S. for a lot of reasons, and many of them are somewhat similar to mine. And his life in Peru, too, isn’t so different from mine – he thinks only of himself and his enjoyment, rather than trying to do anything to contribute to this country he claims to love. In that sense, he’s an exaggerated version of me, and I wanted to use Andres to both investigate this American propensity for self-centeredness and self-misunderstanding and to maybe think through what it might take to get Americans to think in more complex and responsible ways about the lives of people in the rest of the world.

In writing about the radical group the Shining Path, what common bonds did you see between them and the Weather Underground and other revolutionary movements?

Well, the Shining Path was unique in many ways. Though they split off from the Communist Party of Peru (PCP) and espoused a fairly boilerplate Maoist ideology, they were also a kind of personality cult, bent around the vision of a philosophy professor named Abimael Guzman. They were indiscriminately violent, and though they claimed to be waging a “peasant war” it was really the peasants who suffered most throughout the years of the conflict. Of course, Peru’s history of oppression, racism, and oligarchy created a fertile ground, which Guzman exploited – in this sense, the Shining Path was no different from most revolutionary movements, who see a monolithic political system in which the wealthy and powerful are not responsive to the needs of common people, a system which they see as impregnable to normal avenues of political change or protest and which therefore can only be changed through violent struggle. This is always the diagnosis, and I can’t say I disagree with it, given the stranglehold that the wealthy and the right-wing have on politics in our own country. That’s not to say I support violent revolution – I don’t – only that I understand how one comes to such conclusions.

How long did it take you to write this book? What was your writing and research process like?

It took eight years. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written – largely because of all these ethical questions: How do you write about a war? How do you write responsibly about another culture, another history, particularly a history that claimed so many lives? I worked on it nonstop, and made four or five extended trips back to Peru to talk to people and get to know Lima better than I had when I lived in Cuzco. But there were many times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish it, that I just had no business, as a privileged white American, trying to take on this material. “Who am I to write this?” I kept asking myself. “Who am I?” What finally turned it for me was a conversation I had with a journalist friend, who told me, “You’re Lori Berenson.” What she meant was that I, too, was an outsider, an interloper, a gringo, and so there was a direct analogy between my relationship to the material and Berenson’s relationship to Peru and its history. It was this realization – that I had to write it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t really know how to write it, and maybe has no business writing it, and that I had to cop to that in the form of the novel itself – that enabled me to finally finish writing it.

What has the experience been like of publishing your book in the midst of a global pandemic?

It’s been great! Ha ha. It’s been hell. I had five events set up during the week after publication, and ten more throughout March and April – but as I travelled from city to city I would get notified almost as soon as I arrived that the event was cancelled: Worcester, MA; Providence, RI; New York City, Denver, San Francisco… one by one, they all went down. I spent nearly a year putting this tour together and I’m crushed. And since then, I’ve spent all day every day trying to shore up the book through online events, social media posts, etc. It’s far more exhausting than the book tour would have been, and I feel like it’s just getting started. Still, there have been some nice things, one of which is forming a kind of unexpected fellowship with other authors in the same boat, sharing tips and experiences with them, recommending one another when we hear about possible events, etc. I’ve always been a big believer in the literary community, and the outpouring of support I’ve heard – for authors, for bookstores, for small publishers – has been a real silver lining through this difficult time.

What are you working on next?

Uncharacteristically, I have a number of projects going simultaneously, including what might be a cycle or collection of novellas that picks up where The Gringa leaves off, looking at American expatriates and the ways their lives intersect with the lives of people in their adopted countries. I’m also revising a short story collection and possibly working on a book-length essay about American masculinity. All very challenging in the age of coronavirus, of course… At some point, I’d like to work on getting some sleep and some exercise. Maybe this summer?

Buy The Gringa at Amazon


A gripping and subversive novel about the slippery nature of the truth and the tragic consequences of American idealism.

Leonora Gelb came to Peru to make a difference. A passionate and idealistic Stanford grad, she left a life of privilege to fight poverty and oppression, but her beliefs are tested when she falls in with violent revolutionaries. While death squads and informants roam the streets and suspicion festers among the comrades, Leonora plans a decisive act of protest—until her capture in a bloody government raid, and a sham trial that sends her to prison for life.

Ten years later, Andres—a failed novelist turned expat—is asked to write a magazine profile of “La Leo.” As his personal life unravels, he struggles to understand Leonora, to reconstruct her involvement with the militants, and to chronicle Peru’s tragic history. At every turn he’s confronted by violence and suffering, and by the consequences of his American privilege. Is the real Leonora an activist or a terrorist? Cold-eyed conspirator or naïve puppet? And who is he to decide?

In this powerful and timely new novel, Andrew Altschul maps the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, author and text, resistance and extremism. Part coming-of-age story and part political thriller, The Gringa asks what one person can do in the face of the world’s injustice.


Andrew Altschul is the author of the novels Lady Lazarus (2008) and Deus Ex Machina (2011). His work has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney's, The Wall Street Journal, Ploughshares, Fence, One Story, and other publications, and in anthologies including Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and O. Henry Prize Stories. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers Conferences, the Ucross Foundation, the Fundación Valparaíso, and the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. He was the founding books editor at The Rumpus and is a Contributing Editor at Zyzzyva. The former director of the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University, he now directs the Creative Writing program at Colorado State University. He lives in Fort Collins, CO.

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