Snapshot courtesy of Manuel Gonzales
SOMETHING MADE REAL
By Ada Limón
I first met Manuel Gonzales last summer in Lexington, Kentucky, when I unwittingly walked into his kitchen, opened his fridge, and pulled out a bottle of white wine. As he handed me the corkscrew and grinned, I realized he had no idea who I was. We introduced ourselves. It was, of course, his house, his party. I’d been invited by two other writers and, with my bold “poet’s manners” aside, we laughed at how he’d caught me with my hand in the proverbial cookie jar. (It was a bottle I had brought, in case you’re keeping score.)
Since then, we’ve shared writerly gossip and regular gossip over his famed (for real, though) Mexican chocolate pies; we’ve spent late nights at my table, laughing with our partners over enchiladas, old Brooklyn stories, and deep pours of bourbon. In the short time I’ve known him, I’ve learned that Manuel Gonzales has a not-so-disguised superpower: the ability to make ordinary life seem excellently enjoyable.
Gonzales brings that generosity to his writing. His new novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack, is wonderfully fast-paced—thrilling, strange, and fantastical. In his short story “Grandmother, Revisited,” in the Summer 2016 issue of the Oxford American, Gonzales somehow distills all of the wildness of his brand into one haunting and hilarious page. Last week, the magazine asked if we’d bring our conversation to readers. What follows here is an excerpt.
First, let me begin by saying I thoroughly loved your novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack. This book (as well as your short story collection, The Miniature Wife), is jam-packed with thrilling magical and fantastical elements. What attracts you to inventive fiction?
Magical and fantastical is what I grew up on—that and horror and the science-fictional and the soap operatic worlds of comic books—and to me it feels like a natural mode of telling a story. You learn about a character by watching him or her run the gauntlet of some horror show or run through some lengthy, fraught journey filled with monsters and magic and pitfalls. When I first started writing, though, I was deep into my college career as an English major and when I went to graduate school I aped mid-century realism—Carver, Yates, O’Connor, the like—trying to write austere, terse stories of disillusionment and vague regret, but these bored me. And they probably bored my workshop instructors and everyone else, too. And then one day I got an idea for a weird story, unrealistic, not quite full of magic or the fantastic, but certainly not a story located in the real—and it was so much more fun to write than what I had been writing. That kind of opened up the floodgates for me, and since then, the strange and the fantastic have arrived in my fiction naturally.
Aside from surprising us with the fantastical, your novel features female protagonists, as well as anti-heroes. What made you want to write a book that focuses on women? Is it just that we’re so darn awesome?
Women are darn awesome. I’ve long held the belief that women are tougher and stronger and oftentimes way smarter than me, and that to underestimate women is to invite some kind of peril, or at least deep embarrassment and regret, onto myself. For a while, when people asked this question, I would say that I come from a family of strong women—but really the more I considered it, the less necessary the adjective “strong” seemed to be. I cannot think of a woman who isn’t already by default stronger than most all of the men I know, including myself.
But one story that I always think of when I think of the women in this book is one about my mother, who was a hairdresser for thirty-five years, and who convinced my dad to quit his job to go to school full-time because she knew that was what our family needed, even though I was six months old and she would be the only earner in the family and she was cutting hair at a salon during the day, and at night and over weekends out of her home. What I think about is when her mother died, how she and her sisters were the ones who dressed their mother for the funeral, how my mom was the one who fixed her hair. She’d always fixed her mother’s hair when her mother was alive, and she decided it shouldn’t be any different now. And I asked her how she—I might be alone in this, but it seems to me a horrifying, untenable kind of thing to need to do, frightening and heartbreaking, to be the one to comb and style your dead mother’s hair, and I didn’t think then and I don’t think now that, in the same position, I would be able to do it because of sadness and my own weird discomfort with death—so I asked how she’d been able to do this, how she and her sisters had been able to do any of this, and she told me, “We just,” and then she shifted into Spanish and said, “Aguantarse como las mujeres,” which roughly translates as We suffer through like women, and which I understood as, We suffer through only as women can.
I think of this moment—and of a host of other moments of other women I know, of incredible things they’ve both done and gone through, that to them seem nothing more unusual than simply navigating the world as a woman—and I mean, why wouldn’t I want to write a novel that focuses on women?
Agreed. Why wouldn’t anyone? That’s an amazing story. Now, I know you’re from Texas, and I found it somewhat ironic that one of your main characters has a goal of escaping her small town Texas life. Did you find your childhood in Texas influence your writing?
Sure, growing up in Texas influenced my writing to an extent—I don’t know if it’s to a greater extent than just childhood in general? Just growing up, regardless of where, feels like it would carry more weight than the specific “wheres.” I say that, though, having grown up in a large, conservative suburb of Dallas, which looked to me very much like the neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands, with its perfectly manicured lawns and excellent schools and popular kids and strangely bland families. Except that, if I remember correctly, while I was in elementary school, it was the suicide capital of the world? And after I left high school and the town in general, it was labeled the black heroin capital of the world? So even this bland, vanilla, high-property-taxes Dallas suburb had its darkness, and I guess that’s a way in which it influenced my writing. But I also grew up outside of that darkness, because I was never involved with any of it, because I was just as bland as the town, and the boredom I experienced fueled the day-dreams I had, and my early love of reading, and these have bled into my work.
Speaking of vanilla culture—as someone who has personally struggled with using the f-word in my poems, I felt a wild release when I read the slew of swear words used by your girl assassins. Was it fun to write in the tough and foulmouthed voice of Rose?
Jesus, yes, it was amazing fun to write Rose. Mainly because I was able to put forward this façade—bolstered by her language—of someone who didn’t give two shits about anything, and then I also got to dig into what was underneath, which was full of contradiction. We’re all full of contradictions, and people who aren’t contradictions, I don’t know that I trust those people—but Rose, deep inside, contains strength and vulnerability and disgust with her family and friends and their smallness but still yearns for the comfort and familiarity of those things that make home a home. She wanted to get out, and then when she did get out of her small and small-minded Texas town she wanted to go right back again. So what made her fun was that she was tough but never as tough as she made other people believe and always a bit tougher than she gave herself credit for. And her foul mouth epitomized this—to some it made her seem tough, and to others, like Henry, it seemed what it was: overcompensation.
I missed her when I finished the book. I found myself wondering what she would do in certain situations. What was your favorite part of writing this book? What aspect of the process do you find most exhilarating?
Discovering the world is one of my favorite parts of the process. Starting something without any sense of where it’s going and what it will be about, just pushing myself through the dark and coming across bits of character and story, inventing and building and inventing some more. But then, in the process of writing the novel there too came a moment where I had invented all I thought I could and I thought I understood where it was supposed to go, what it was supposed to be doing, and the book still didn’t work, didn’t read the way I wanted. And it felt too confusing or like I was leaving out certain readers—readers who weren’t already fans of the kinds of stories I am a fan of, stories I lean on heavily in this book—and so I wrote a new beginning to the novel, and in doing this I realized how bad the rest of the novel was, and so I cut it all out, I cut everything after the very new beginning I’d written. And I started with that new, blank page. That was also one of my favorite parts of writing this book. Because I had discovered everything I could about the people, about the Regional Office itself, or so I thought, and by cutting out everything I found the freedom to cut characters who weren’t working, and to start in better and more interesting positions the characters I loved. I cut away all the flim-flam and convolutions I had injected into the story with the hope of patching things here or there, and the penultimate draft took less than a month to write, once I sat down to write it, and it was a moment of simply playing in a world I knew intrinsically, if only because I’d spent the past four years exploring it.
So, weirdly, my favorite parts of the process were in the time I spent exploring the world—including that moment when I realized, Oh, I know the world now, and its story—when I started over from scratch.
I think the world you created here is an epic one. You have a real gift for mapping the brain, for stream of consciousness writing, which is something I love to explore in my own work. I find your stories and the novel full of highly engaging internal rants that illustrate how the mind unwinds. These feel real to me; they’re full of essential truths. Do you find living in a quieter place like Kentucky, as opposed to, say, your time in New York, beneficial for listening to the mind’s weird language?
You know, it never seems very quiet, not even here. Not because Kentucky isn’t quiet, but because I have a couple of kids who are both loud and talkative, and also because I don’t like working at home—when I write, I like to leave and find a place where people are talking and music is going and I’m not in control of any of it. But I don’t know what that has to do with the mind’s weird language other than that I think, no matter where I go, I couldn’t get away from it, whether here in Kentucky or up in New York. What’s funny is that the mind’s language doesn’t feel weird to me—it’s full of connections and digressions and back-and-forth movements, of memory and speculation, and it is inefficient. Necessarily so, I think. And isn’t that just how the mind works? For everybody? I haven’t been trying to map the brain, not at all. I’ve been stuck inside a character’s head and her head sometimes works like my head works, and then sentences double back and one thought reminds me/her of another, and the hope is it all makes some kind of sense.
It does to me. It makes sense. Back to Rose, since I love her—she has no patience but tries to have patience. In one scene she tries to wait to attack and it reads:
Rose ducked out of sight. She pulled herself together. She counted down from ten.
Then, at seven, she charged.
Are you a patient writer, or do you need to get it all down in a fast-paced fever? Do you count down from ten and charge at seven?
I’m not a patient anything. Which is, like, the worst thing about me. Actually, I’m sure there are even worse things about me, but I always feel bad about how little patience I have. I mean in real life. I don’t feel so bad about how impatient I am when writing, but I’m impatient there, too. I send stories to readers even before the stories are finished, because I’m impatient to get them off my desk and out of my head for a bit. I start handwriting things—stories, chapters, scenes—because I think it’s better for my writing, but then lose patience with myself and jump to the computer screen because I can type way faster than I can write. I don’t like waiting, and I don’t always know how to finish things so I’ll pull the trigger on something before it’s ready. I don’t know how it affects my writing in the end. I don’t try to get it all down in a fast-paced fever, really. When in the chair and in front of a page or my computer, I mull and write and cut or scratch out and mull some more. There are days when things are feverish and fast-paced, but most of the writing days are just as slow and normal and frustrating, as they are for other writers, I’m sure.
Yes, the work of it all is still the work, isn’t it? One of the things I admire about your writing is that magic just happens, as in the short story you recently published, here, in the Oxford American. In your work there are parallel universes, magic powers, uncanny physical abilities, spells, and enchantments, but it’s not built up as strange; rather, it just IS. Typical of magical realism in the Latin American tradition, these things aren’t fantasy, but rather they exist in this world. Is there a part of you that believes this?
I believe in alternate universes and in reincarnation and that the weirdness of the world and the universe far exceed the weirdness that I can concoct. I don’t believe in ghosts. Or, if there are ghosts, I don’t think they’re effective—I’m not sure what’s supposed to be frightening about them since they’re incorporeal if they’re around, and maybe they would hang around to remind people of their failings?—to bring up old regrets, etc.? But I already roll around in a reckoning of my failings and regrets and small, stunted desires, so ghosts have little sway over me.
My disbelief in ghosts flummoxes my wife and my children. That being said, I believe that, if we can think of a thing, it potentially exists or can exist or has existed. So ghosts are probably real, too. I recently learned, from one of my undergraduate students, the term tulpa—which is maybe a Tibetan term?—and which represents something made real by our very belief in its existence?—which sounds amazing and also true to me.
If these things aren’t happening to me—alternate universes and time travel and spells and uncanny physical abilities—then that’s just it, right? They’re not happening to me. Doesn’t mean they’re not happening at all.
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