The debut short-story writer, whose book The Miniature Wife is now out in paperback, talks about his Tumblr project, vampires and werewolves, and a dessert that’s named after him.
Describe your morning routine.
So when I’m writing, and it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to do this, because it’s just been really busy…I try to get up around 5:30 in the morning. I have two kids, and my wife and I trade off getting everybody ready, but if I’m going to get any work done, I need to get it done before my day takes over, which it usually does around 7:30. So I’ll get up at 5:30, get dressed in the dark, quietly grab my bag and computer and drive out to one of a couple of 24-hour coffee shops I know of. Grab a really big coffee and just open up what I was working on. I drink coffee and write until I wake up.
Do you have a goal for each day?
Well, I don’t know, it’s about time in those mornings—a certain amount of time when I feel productive. Then I reach a threshold when I realize that I’m just scrolling up and down over stuff I just wrote. So about two hours, if it’s a really good day three hours, in those early morning stretches. Sometimes I’ll have time later in the day, but usually that morning stretch is the bulk of it. Mainly because I have a full-time job and family obligations.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
A lot of times all I’ve got is the first line in my head, or a scene or an image or a very vague idea. I’ll just start writing it. Nine times out of ten I’ll get a paragraph or two out, and I won’t know where else to go, and I’ll have to set it aside. And it might be a month or a year later, and I’ll remember the story I started and I’ll go back. I’ll remember that idea and have a good direction for the character, for the story to go in, and I’ll just write it. Sometimes I’ll get an idea in my head and the story will just come out in the first draft. A crappy first draft, as they usually are, but the bones will be there in that first draft. I never really outline or take very many notes before I start writing. It’s usually as I get stuck. I’m an impulsive writer.
Your Tumblr blog project begins with a photograph that inspires a short short story. Many of your stories are very visual, and readers come away with a surrealist image. How often will you begin with an image, or is it really a line of text that kicks things off for you?
Well, it’s about half and half. For the Tumblr stories, the images were instrumental: my pivot points, my jumping off points. But for stories it often is just the first line, like in the story “Life on Capra II” I was in the middle of grading maybe 60 tenth grade English essays, frustrated with the other writing I’d been doing, and I just had to take a break. So I felt that I’d give myself the opportunity to write the dumbest sentence I could think of, just to give myself a break. Then somehow swamp monsters and robots found their way into my head, so I just wrote that sentence out. And it became the first sentence for the story. The line popped into my head once I gave myself the freedom to stop thinking about tenth grade English papers.
I’m interested in the recent trend of books about Jungian archetypal monsters: werewolves, vampires and zombies. I wrote an article for Esquire on this not long ago. What’s your take on that trend? You write about them, but in a different way from the clichés. What is it about us, going back to archetypal monsters for the past few millennia, and why has there been comeback over the last five years or so for first vampires, then zombies, and now werewolves?
That’s interesting, yeah, werewolves are back now, with the Ben Percy book (Red Moon) and Glenn Duncan’s book (The Last Werewolf). I think that they’re easy archetypes onto which we can place whatever real, actual fears are acting on us. Whether it’s a real global kind of fear, like, Percy’s book tackles a lot of high-minded, global issues that we’re all struggling with, as well as individual character issues. Or, like, when I play around with zombies, it’s about personal fears and concerns and worries, but I think that they create a really good shorthand that you can mold, manipulate, twist around the worries that you want to write about. And then it becomes, not a blank canvas but…a lot of readers have come up to me and put their own personal interpretation on what’s going on with the zombie, or what’s going on with the boy and his father who turns into a werewolf, and the same with the unicorn in the “One-Horned, Wild Eyed” story. A lot of people come up to me and they’ve made very specific, personal interpretations of what the unicorn is supposed to represent. That’s the beauty of these great, classic archetypes. So we keep coming back to them, because they’re always malleable.
That must feel very cool, when people keep coming up to you with their own interpretations. That’s the sign of a great work of literature, that it sustains multiple interpretations.
Yeah, I’m really excited when people give me their idea of what’s going on in the story. Reviewers have done the same thing. It’s exciting to see how many stories people can place upon the structure that I’ve put out there.
Are you a fan of Borges?
I am a big fan of Borges. I knew about him a little before I went to graduate school, and there I really immersed myself in his stories, and in Kafka. Also writers like George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Deborah Eisenberg. But Borges has always been a big influence in the way I like to think about storytelling, and how you can use non-fiction to tell fiction.
You once said that a few of your stories were framed as non-fiction reportage, and it was good way for you to frame something fictional and otherworldly. How do you decide what sort of voice to use for a given story?
Usually the story I want to tell helps me frame and structure it. The “Farewell, Africa” story I tried a number of times to tell the story of a guy who wrote a speech about the sinking of the African continent. I tried to write it as a straightforward story, and I kept not being able to find its emotional core, find what I found interesting in the idea in the execution. After a number of failed attempts, I finally thought, Well, what if I tried to write it as a very long “Talk of the Town” kind of piece? Then I was able to create a different narrator for it, a reporter, and then the tone of the “Talk” pieces gave me a lot of freedom when writing the rest of it. The weird, horrifying largeness of the idea kept me stymied when I tried to frame it as a straight story, but trying to frame it in the light, “Talk of the Town” tone, it gave me a lot more freedom in writing it. Sometimes the story that I want to tell begs for a certain kind of treatment.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Do you have any superstitions?
I grew up in a Catholic family, and my mom was always lighting Virgin Mary candles. That’s something that’s carried over, in terms of how I navigate life.
Does that mean that you’re lighting candles regularly?
Right now I’ve got a Virgin of Guadalupe candle and a San Martin Caballero candle. San Martin is to dispel bad luck.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
It would be my Uncle Jesse, who was just a really interesting guy, but I didn’t understand how interesting, because I was still kind of young when he died of cancer. He had a relationship with both my mom and my dad, so he had a lot of stories about each of them that I just started hearing before he passed away.
What is your favorite snack?
Starburst jelly beans.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
The thing that I always find interesting about book events is that I never know what to write in people’s books when signing them. Usually I’ll just parrot back what we were talking about at the table when I was signing. One woman said that she found the “All of Me” story really funny. And I said, “But also sad, right?” And she said, “Well, yeah, but mostly really funny.” So I wrote that she was maybe the most heartless person I’ve met…in her book.
The question is if she’ll then buy your next book…
Yes, that will be the test. I’m hoping she thought it was funny!
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Be your first reader. Do everything you can to make yourself laugh when you’re writing, or sad, or unsettled, or creeped out. If you can’t make yourself feel these things, it’s hard to expect a random reader to feel them.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“I told you I was sick”
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
There is a pie that you can buy at a bakery in Paris, Texas that is named after me, and that I helped create. Manuel’s Mexican Chocolate Pie.
What’s in it?
Well, it’s like a brownie pie filling, with ancho and chipotle and cayenne and cinnamon. You get the spice and chocolate flavor. I’ve making it for a while, but a friend of mine who owns this bakery asked if he could start selling it, and then he named it after me. It’s a fabulous pie.