Telling the story of you: An interview with Manuel Gonzales

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One of the few perks of being an intern at a literary magazine is that you can request books from publishers. This past summer I happened to be an intern at such a magazine. So once I became privy to this information, I started scouring the Internet for books that might be cool. I found a bunch that were amazing. Some short story collections, a few biographies, poetry, even a couple books of photos. But the crown jewel, the one that popped open my brain cave, was Manuel Gonzales’s The Miniature Wife: and Other Stories. Gonzales writes stories that I wish I were smart enough or brave enough to write. These narratives are fun and interesting and fantastical. They’re stories filled with unicorns and zombies and werewolves and shrink rays.

But they aren’t just fantastic because Gonzales puts real heart into them. He tweaks reality to see how normal people deal with Unknownextraordinary situations. Never once while I was reading did I think, well this is just preposterous. Gonzales carries you through them and forces you to believe the unbelievable. My disbelief has never been so suspended! He brings you into his world and offers you the La-Z-Boy nearest the television.

I was super pumped to get to talk to Gonzales. We chatted on the phone. The guy saved my summer in a lot of ways. His book was a way for me to chill out after some highbrow literary dick-measuring sword fights. So for that, I owe him a whole bunch of high-fives.

Gonzales is also the Director of the Austin Bat Cave, where he works with youths in the community and shows them an amazing world of words and literature. Talking to him really brightened a rainy Wednesday. He was never as lively or passionate as when he was talking about the Bat Cave and working with kids. It made me real hopeful to see that the writing world isn’t always as cutthroat and gloomy as people make it out to be. That there’re folks in it trying to help others.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, so I’m going to quit rambling and just tell you to read his book and this interview. He’s one of the good ones. Now hasten to a bookstore ya beefbot!

Phil McCausland: How did you start writing?

Manuel Gonzales: I didn’t like writing in school, in high school or middle school, until my senior year. Then I had an English teacher who made us write interesting things and was really good at highlighting the good things that I did and downplaying the bad things that I did in writing – the bad things being grammar and clear expression of my thoughts. Her focusing on my ideas, even though I didn’t express them very clearly, made me want to express them more clearly. After that I kind of caught the bug.

So I went to the University of Texas, majoring in English, with the idea of becoming a lawyer. But one day over the summer, between my sophomore and junior years, I woke up with this idea in my head for a story, and I just started writing it without having any idea of what I was doing or where I would go, which ended up being nowhere. But that became my focus, I became obsessed with writing these stories that weren’t very good and then making my friends read them with me standing behind them. I’m sure it was horrible and annoying.

After that I decided I wanted to be a writer and not a lawyer, and I made that decision without knowing what that really meant. For a few years it meant just floundering in Austin, acting like I was a writer without actually being very much of a good one. Finally, I decided I should take it more seriously, and I applied for graduate schools.

First I was going to apply for PhD programs in English and realized that I didn’t really like writing the critical papers I was writing for those applications, that I would rather work on the fiction stuff I had in my head. And so at the last minute, I changed track and applied to a couple of MFA programs, ended up going to Columbia.

PM: Is it then that you figured that writing was a viable option?

MG: I never really thought about it as a viable option or not a viable option. My parents both spent a good portion of their lives working jobs that they didn’t necessarily like and putting on hold the things they maybe would have done, my father especially.  He wanted to be a writer and he ended up working for the IRS for thirty or thirty-five years. So they always impressed on my sister and I that we should do what we want and do what we love.

I think they were really happy that what I wanted to do and what I loved to do was law [laughs], and then that changed. But they still said, “Manuel, you should totally do what you want.” So I never really thought of it as a way to survive on writing alone. Even in grad school I had a job, and I’ve had a job consistently and sometimes multiple.

PM: But at what point did you think, writing is really working out for me?

MG: I think it was before I started grad school but after I got into grad school that I felt pretty happy with what I was writing. The happiness with what I was writing changed very quickly, but I get a lot of pleasure out of sitting down and making stuff up and creating stories. There have been times I really doubted, before the collection came out especially there was a lot of doubt in my own mind about whether I would be a successful writer based on just having publications outside of the few journals I’d published in, but I never doubted that writing was the right thing for me.

But they’re weirdly separated for me, or until just recently they’ve been very separate: that I would not stop writing. Even if it was not writing as part of a career versus “what other things am I going to have to do to support me and my family?” Since I’ve started, writing has always been something that has worked out for me and that I’ve just enjoyed so much that I can’t go very long without doing it. Only recently, once the collection was sold, and that same summer the collection was sold I started progress on a novel that I became very happy with – whereas the first novel I tried to write took me six years and seven or eight drafts and none of them ever working – have I felt as though I’m making a career out of being a writer. That happened summer of 2011, when the collection was sold, and I started that novel.

PM: I’ve found that the first lines of all your stories are killer. I was wondering is that the starting point or are do you header swamp monstersconstantly tinker with them?

MG: Thanks. I do tinker with some of them. Some of them become starting points. The “Pilot, Co-Pilot, Writer” was a starting point. In “Life on Capra II,” that whole first paragraph came to me one night while I was grading high school English papers and was frustrated and needed a break. I was like, “I’m going to write the dumbest first few sentences I can think of.” And I thought that robots and swamp monsters attacking seemed pretty dumb because I didn’t have anything to go with it. I enjoyed writing that paragraph, and I was like, “I feel better.”

But I shelved it, I put it away. Two years later, I came back to it and wrote the rest of the story, once I knew what it was going to be about. But those first lines came to me as a test to write the dumbest thing I could think of [laughs]. And the challenge became well how do I make it into an actual story even though I’m talking about swamp monsters and robots.

PM: Your stories are really fantastical, but you’re amazing at suspending the reader’s disbelief. You create whole new realities. How did you get to these fantastical stories? Who did you look to?

MG: Growing up I liked a lot of fantasy and sci-fi and comic books. As I got older and going through college, I got invested in a lot of Faulkner and Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich and Hemingway and Milton and Shakespeare and all the things you should read when you’re an English major. But when I was casting about my first year of graduate school, I also got introduced to – you know – I’d never read Borges, I’d never read Kafka. I didn’t know anything about George Saunders. There were all these writers that were contemporary and iconic that I had no idea about, and they kind of all, after a while, smashed together in my head.

I mean, Kafka does so many things with the fantastic, and Borges too but in a weird, clinical way. I thought that those were both really interesting counterpoints to Garcia Marquez, who I was reading a lot when I was in college.

What I found was that I enjoyed the storytelling most when I would try and introduce these outlandish concepts into what should be everyday lives and see how those two butt up against each other and see the tension that comes out of them. But I always think back to Kafka and “The Hunger Artist” and the “Metamorphosis.”

But then I love very realistic nonfiction writers like Joseph Mitchell and Ann Frazier. I read their work whenever I’m stuck and have no idea what to do when writing, and they’re maybe the polar opposite of the fantastic, except that they create these rich, interesting stories out of real things. It’s always a nice grounding effect for me.

PM: Who are you looking at now?

MG: I was in Cork in Ireland for the International Short Story Festival, there I was introduced to a couple of short story writers I’d never met. I just finished Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection that won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, Safe as Houses, and that’s an excellent book. And then I met a Londoner, Adam Merrick, who’s published by Carcanet Press. I’m reading his book, Instructions for Swallowing, which is also a really good collection.

But I recently, for personal reasons, I got onto a thriller kick, so I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. And I was reading, it’s not JPPORTIS1-popupreally a thriller, but I always think of Charles Portis as a driving narrator. I was just reading Norwood by Charles Portis.

PM: He’s one of my favorites.

MG: Yeah, he does really interesting things. Instead of just moving the story along, all of sudden there’ll be a guy that does a thing and then you’re off in another direction [laughs].

PM: Have you read Dog of the South?

MG: I haven’t, no. I’ve read Masters of Atlantis, Norwood, and True Grit.

PM: Oh, you really ought to. I think Dog of the South might be his best.

MG: Cool, I’ll check it out. I’m going to the library this afternoon. I’ll see if they have it.

PM: So are you happy with how the collection came out? Do you feel good about it?

MG: I am, I feel really good about it. I’ve always liked the stories, but I was really happy with the way Riverhead handled it. I think the cover’s awesome and hilarious because I’d imagined, with the title The Miniature Wife, that the illustrator might come up with something weird or precious. And it’s not that at all. Yeah, I’m really happy with the book as an object. They’re keeping it all the same for the paperback, which doesn’t always happen. They like the design as much as I do.

When it was in copy editing, I read through it so many times, but when it came out as a book, I read through it just to feel how it came together as a book of stories. I thought it came together pretty well. It’s been fun working with Riverhead and those people – they’re good.

PM: So when did you start working for the Austin Bat Cave? What kind of work do you do?

MG: We first moved back to Austin in 2010, which is when I first started working for them – August of 2010. They’d been around for about three years already, and they brought me in. Their current director was going out, I finished graduate school, and they brought me in and wanted to find somebody that shared the vision that the founder and board president had. I’d had a lot of experience doing afterschool and summer workshops with kids and knew pretty well the 826 [Valencia] model that Dave Eggers started and had a lot of ideas coming in of how to expand programming and raise more money for the programming. So I persuaded them I was the right guy.

They pretty much handed over the reigns to me to do what I could to expand it and to make people know more about it. I had a vision for theletterhead kind of programs that I wanted us to offer and the kind of volunteers I wanted to work with us, to work with these underserved kids. I just wanted to make things fun in the classroom and afterschool, and they were kind of doing that already with screenwriting workshops and hip-hop poetry, but I also wanted to make sure the focus was – just thinking back to my own high school career and how frustrating that was for me until somebody finally pointing out the good things I was doing instead of focusing on the things I was doing horribly – I wanted our volunteers and everybody who worked with us to focus on: anything the student wrote you just say, “that’s amazing,” “that’s funny,” “that’s heartbreaking,” or “just write more.” Just to get them to write more because it’s such a daunting thing when you’re that age to write, especially since all the crap they make you write in school never feels internal. It doesn’t feel like it comes from you, even though they try to make it that way. But it still never feels like it’s you that you’re trying to get on the page.

So my focus has mostly been to make sure that people really coax out the kid and the kid’s voice and the kid’s story, whether it’s in rap lyrics or a poem or a comic strip. Or even if it’s just a drawing. If a drawing is the first way to get them to put pen to paper, then let them draw and then from that drawing something will come out of it. You just have to be patient and be persistent, and once they get to that point they just don’t want to stop, which is amazing. That’s what my goal has been to make it so they don’t want to stop telling their stories.

PM: That’s awesome.

MG: Yeah, and it’s really important, too. A lot of people are like, “What’s creative writing got to do with success?” And I try to explain to them that being able to tell the story of you will serve you well long after you leave high school, it will serve you well in any interview that you have, any college application that you put together, or any time you’re just trying to meet a new person. Having these stories about you and having a command over your own life and your own history and being able to talk about it yourself in any kind of articulate fashion is going to make your life easier and give you a leg up on every other person who doesn’t know where to begin when somebody asks them, “tell me about yourself” or “tell me about the hardship you’ve had” or “tell me how you’ve handled a situation where this happened.”

And that’s kind of our focus. I mean we play around with it. We make them write about fantasy stuff and horror stuff and make them come up with movie ideas and travel logs to places you can’t go to and stuff like that. But it all boils down to them discovering they have some power with words and then being able to use it for themselves. 

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