Roberto Moulun’s life reads much like his Kirkus-starred indie narrative, The Iguana Speaks My Name: he’s adventurous, passionate and brimming with sumptuous stories. An 88-year-old native Guatemalan, Moulun has spent most of his life in Hawaii, practicing medicine and sailing the Pacific Ocean. After retiring in Ajijic, Mexico, Moulun heard a calling that was surprising even to him: that of storyteller. His thoughts on writing and the writing process reveal a childlike wonder at the unexpected turns his life has taken.
Have you been writing all of your life?
No [lauging loudly]. All I was writing before I came to Mexico were prescriptions! One day I started writing and the characters [seemed to be] hanging up in the air, saying, “Bring us to life!” I didn’t go to them; they came to me. I didn’t look for the Iguana; she came to me, and whispered my name.
Your book is set in the Guatemalan highlands. Did you base the characters on people you have observed, or are they purely a product of your imagination?
Well, I would say that they are both. I ran into some of them but they would not recognize themselves in the book. For example, La China, who everybody falls in love with, she was just a regular woman who worked in a bordello. She used to be at her door every morning when I went to have breakfast, and there we were, watching her little child learn how to walk.
You worked as a psychiatrist for more than half a century. The depth of your characters suggests an intricate understanding of the human experience. How has psychiatry influenced your writing?
That’s such a good question, and I don’t know how to answer it. Psychiatry has become such a big part of me, and I wrote the book, so there must be some connection that I’m not aware of. The characters in my book tell the story; I could not do it that well.
Why did you retire in Ajijic?
Ajijic and Lake Chapala are famous as a retirement destination because of the climate. It’s in the same latitude as Hawaii. Once I closed my office in Hawaii, I couldn’t afford living there anymore! In addition, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, there’s something about Ajijic that has attracted artists, painters and writers. Some of the most notable are D. H. Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer and Somerset Maugham.
Did you know when you were writing the manuscript that it would eventually become a book?
I always wished that it would be a book, but I didn’t have any hopes. I never really thought about getting published when I wrote.
So how did the publishing process unfold for you?
It must’ve been meant to be. I moved from one house to another, and I had the manuscript in a Ziploc bag. I had a lot of books in cardboard boxes in the back of an open truck; it rained and everything got ruined. One box after another had to be thrown away. One morning I got up early and found the trash man going through the last box of books. I asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “I am looking for a Spanish-speaking book.” I started digging through the box to help him, and right there at the very bottom was the manuscript for The Iguana Speaks My Name, intact, because of the plastic covering.
And from there, you submitted it to different publishers?
No. I had become friends with Richard [Stafford] after he retired here from the United States, and he was familiar with my writing. While visiting Ajijic, Richard’s friend Mikel [Miller] read some of my writing in a local magazine and asked to see the manuscript. He and Richard decided that my stories needed a wider audience, so they agreed to help me publish them. Mikel is one of the founders of EgretBooks.com, a company comprised of independent authors who are devoted to helping others publish their work without the help of traditional book publishers.
What are some of the unique challenges you’ve faced as a writer?
Well, unfortunately I can no longer read, and therefore can’t read what I write. For many years my life consisted of my psychiatry practice and racing my boat in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Between the sun reflecting on the water and my age, I seem to have burned out the retina in my eyes. I won’t go blind, but I can’t read anymore. However, I am always writing with my mind, and can quote large blocks of text I’ve written from memory.
What are you working on now?
I’m almost finished with another book; the working title is Catharsis.