In 2012, Benjamin Alire Saenz brought the characters of Ari and Dante into our lives with his best-selling novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. The fierce friendship and relationship between the two young men stole our collective hearts and left us yearning for more. After nearly a decade following the first book’s publication, Saenz returns with the continuation of Ari and Dante’s story called Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World.
The sequel picks up where the last novel left off
Ari and Dante having fallen in love and getting together. Ari has begun to open himself up to bonds that he previously disregarded in his life, to familial ties that he shut himself off from, and to fights—some physical, some not—that he desires to fight for both himself and others like him.
But life has ways of throwing unexpected, devastating wrenches into your plans, and while Ari and Dante’s devotion to each other is strong, they must learn how to stay together in a society that scorns their love and refuses to accept them.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is a highly anticipated novel following the huge success of its predecessor, and it was a feat that its author, Saenz, had to deliver in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Young Folks was given the incredible opportunity to interview Benjamin Alire Saenz, a widely celebrated poet and novelist, who was gracious enough to speak with us about his upcoming sequel, his writing process, and his devotion towards his creations.
You previously mentioned that writing the sequel to Aristotle and Dante’s story was incredibly daunting and intimidating. Seeing as how we’re quickly approaching its release date, how are you feeling?
I have been writing for over thirty-five years and no one has ever waited for my next book to hit the bookshelves. Not ever. But nine years after its publication, Ari and Dante is selling more copies than ever before. And when I started to write the sequel, all I could think was What the hell was I thinking? I love to cuss, and I had a few choice words reserved myself as I wrote the book.
After three years of working on a draft that was worse than bad, I threw it out, took a deep breath, and got back to work. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And I finished. So now, the book that I imagine will be compared to the much-beloved original will hit the bookstores.
To say that I am nervous is an understatement. Anxious would be a better word. Some nights, I go to sleep thinking about the long journey that has brought me here. Some mornings, I wake and find myself crying—though I can’t explain why. Other days, I take a walk and realize that my heart is full of gratitude. Some days I merely doubt myself. Doubt can be a word that haunts you everywhere you go.
In the end, I ask myself the only question that matters: Would my mother be proud of me for having written this book? I know the answer to that question. And then I smile. She died on the day Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was published. I will always believe that she blessed that book. Just as she now blesses this one. How am I feeling? I’m 67 years old and I feel like a kid again. I’ve never felt so alive.
How do you prepare to write, and how did it change during the pandemic?
I don’t know that I am ever prepared to write. I don’t think any writer is prepared to meet the demands that a novel requires of them. You have to gather your work ethic, your discipline and desire, your stamina, your commitment, and all the courage you have within you, to write something that really matters. Writing a novel that matters to you can hurt like hell. You have to go to the place of the pain. And you can do it because you don’t focus on the pain. What you do is focus on the writing.
I usually get up early and write through the early afternoon. Then in the evenings, I write for a couple of hours—then call it a day. But it was different during the pandemic. I wrote like a madman. Maybe it’s because I felt as if the world in had gone completely off its rocker. There was something urgent in the air—and I breathed in all that urgency.
Some nights, I would work all night. I didn’t even notice that the night had passed. I would sleep for maybe four hours—and then get up and write again. There were days I didn’t sleep at all. And then there were days, I was so exhausted that I would sleep all day—then wake, in the middle of the night, write for four or five hours—then go back to bed, only to discover I couldn’t sleep. I’d go back to writing.
It went that way. I had no schedule. I had no place to go. I felt lost—and at the same time, I felt centered. There were days I didn’t take a shower or brush my teeth. My life was in chaos, and I just kept on writing. The only order I knew was the order that existed in the novel I was writing. And in the bark of a little Yorkie named Chuy.
Were Ari and Dante easy to write? To elaborate, you’ve mentioned before that your characters all came from you, that you were all of your characters. Was it easy to confront parts of yourself to be able to bring them to life in these books, or did they take a life of their own at some point?
Ari and Dante—easy to write? Nothing is easy to write. It’s not easy to confront the parts of yourself that exist in your characters. And that is exactly what you’re doing. It has to be that way—at least for me. But you have to forget about the fact that every character you write is really you. It’s not a good idea to be your own therapist. So, you have to ignore what’s really going on. You just pretend the characters are just people you made up, complete strangers—and that they came from nowhere. And then you begin to believe it.
That’s when they take on a life of their own—and when that happens, it’s as if they’re telling you how to write them. That, of course, is utterly preposterous. But it does feel that way. This is how it rolls: I wake up every day and get told what to do by people I made up and don’t really exist. It’s a wonder that I really love my characters. It’s a wonder, too, that I haven’t been committed. There’s still time.
What information can you share about a possible screen adaption that is in the works for Ari and Dante’s story?
I can tell you that I think Aitch’s screenplay is brilliant and that she really captures my novel. We have been working on this project for almost six years. The first time she came to visit, we sat and read her screenplay in my living room. It was the loveliest of moments. Aitch has already cast the roles of Ari and Dante. I think they’re perfect. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that they are both Mexican-American boys—and they are just as I imagined them. It’s going to be a great film. But if people walk away from the movie and don’t say, “The book was better,” I’m going to become a recluse and go back into therapy.
The synopsis of the sequel mentions that Ari will experience a shocking loss. When these events happen in your writing, are you yourself personally affected by the losses your characters face?
Of course, I’m personally affected by the losses my characters face. I wish I didn’t over-relate to them and the things they experience. I get too involved. I’m that therapist that falls in love with all of his patients. But my characters don’t experience anything. It’s me who’s a mess. They’re fine. They’re not real. I’ve experienced a good many losses in my life. I know what it means to lose someone you love, to grieve them, to wake in the morning and feel so much pain that you never want to feel anything ever again. I’ve experienced that hurt many, many times.
Maybe I put my characters through what I’ve been through. Maybe I work out my own losses through my characters—or visit those losses time and time again in my writing. A reviewer once said of one of my adult novels: Saenz is not kind to his characters. That isn’t true. That isn’t true.
The AIDS epidemic and its resulting devastation among gay men is depicted a bit in this book. Having lived through the epidemic of the 1980s, how have your own experiences shaped the experiences of Ari and Dante in this book?
My oldest brother died of AIDS; one of my mentors, Arturo Islas, died of AIDS; and one of my closest friends died of AIDS. There are too many memories from that era that I will take with me to the grave. Essentially, everything that Ari and Dante feel, I felt. One of the major reasons that I had to return to this novel is that I couldn’t quite forgive myself for the complete omission of the AIDS pandemic in the first book. I kicked myself every time I thought of that. As I was writing Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World, it didn’t surprise me at all to discover that the COVID pandemic we are living through today has a lot of parallels with the AIDS pandemic.
What do you hope people will take away from Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World?
That we cannot run away from the world just because confronting it is so difficult and painful. That just because the world doesn’t understand or care to understand you, that isn’t enough of a reason to hate the world you live in. You live in it, and it belongs to you, the world, it belongs to you as much as it belongs to anybody else. That you matter to the universe, matter more than you think.
That whatever price you pay in order to love, it’s worth it because it’s true, love is the only thing that matters, but love is much larger and far more generous, and freer than anything we imagine it to be. That it is our job to ensure that everybody gets their rights respected. That we can hate someone and still love them. That to live with dignity, we must recognize the dignity of others. I know, I know, that’s too long a list.
This is your time to promote! What books/shows/projects that are ongoing right now do you wish to draw attention to? It can be your own projects or that of other creators.
Most people don’t know that I am an artist, a serious one. I love painting almost as much as I love writing. I’m a better writer than I am a painter. But still. I have a small online store, Benjaminsaenz.com, where I sell Ari and Dante merchandise, and in the future, we will be selling merchandise that promotes progressive social change. And in the very near future, I will be adding an online gallery where I will be selling my paintings.
All profits from the business will go towards opening a gallery to promote artists whose work is focused on social change, and the gallery will also promote street art and give the artists who produce it the respect that it deserves. In addition to the gallery, I have a dream of opening a people’s museum that features the art of border communities around the world and has a wing that pays tribute to the history of the working-class people of the El Paso/Juarez border region.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Saenz will be released on October 12th, 2021.