An Interview with Fred Arroyo, by Robert Kralovec

Fred Arroyo is an immense talent. In works such as Western Avenue and Other Fictions and the novel The Region of Lost Names, Arroyo muses upon the effects of time and memory. Posing questions about the gritty subculture of immigrants and migrants in the United States, he writes lyrical prose that creates an intimacy with the reader. We spoke with Arroyo about how this issue’s theme of Obsession finds its way into his life and work.

Western Avenue by Fred Arroyo book cover

How is your writing connected to obsession?

Good writing arises out of obsession. With obsession there is emotional depth and a certain weight and gravity to the language and story. Without obsession I would be empty, and, literally, I wonder if I would even have any substance. The body is like a cathedral, and the cathedral needs music and prayer filling its grand spaces. Obsession turning over and over within the body creates music, prayer, substance that, although providing the depth, weight, and gravity I first evoked, also allows for lyricism, lightness, and flight up into the various arches and ellipses of the cathedral. Obsession is filled with slowness—and so obsession in my writing, for good or bad, doesn’t come about because of an immediate intellectual idea or problem, nor a quick flash of inspiration. There’s this slow energy at work, and I begin to become a part of that when I’m very close to silence.

In Western Avenue and Other Fictions and The Region of Lost Names, fatherhood is a recurring subject. Do you obsess about this subject?

I do obsess about fathers and fatherhood. No doubt. Maybe because my father was a mystery to me; there were many things about him I did not like; there were the choices I was making to go to school instead of to work; and the main story I had of my father was that his own father made him quit school in the third grade so he could begin working. There were these larger cultural contradictions I sensed in America: one has to become an angry young man, cherish one’s childhood and yet hate one’s family, and whatever one decides to do it should be a singular and original act (and yet if failure was imminent one could always call one’s father for help). This made no sense at all to me. And when I look back now, I suppose there was some larger silence, pain, secret, and life I couldn’t understand, and these forces had something to do with family, respect, and the presence of the Spanish language I needed to come to terms with.

While being such a voracious reader of English-language works, how do you “come to terms” with being an émigré of your native language?

I appreciate the way you phrase this: “an émigré of your native language.” There’s this strong sense of being pushed away, of being displaced or uprooted or fleeing, rather than choosing to emigrate. But it is best to say I don’t know my “native language.” It wasn’t Spanish. Nor was it English. Sure, in school and in the larger society English was primary, and yet at home and in our community, Hartford, Connecticut, there was Spanish (and Portuguese). This is nothing especially remarkable because many parts of America can be viewed through a linguistic map, where you see that there are distinct places where English is not the dominant language, where communities are not monolingual.

So I was growing up “bilingual,” although Spanish seems much more present in those memories of home, in the playground, and on the street. In the first grade, as the story goes, it was suggested at school that I was disruptive, perhaps not learning as others did, and perhaps hyperactive. There was discussion of medication. Looking back now, I wonder if whatever problems I manifested at school might simply have been a form of linguistic confusion—and to go back to your question, I did not know how to negotiate that movement between languages. My parents decided the best thing for me was to move to Michigan, where I would live with my maternal grandparents. I experienced a sea change that year, maybe a pushing away—boarding a plane to meet and live with people I had never met, beginning first grade at a new school, and hearing no Spanish at home or in the community. But they thought this move was for the best, and in a way, I suppose, that year helped to form my quiet, reserved, introspective nature. It took me to the edges of silence, where languages don’t exist consciously on an exterior plane, as much as they become more interior, individual, and spoken and heard within the mind (and deeper in the cavity of the chest) as if silent. A place where one builds memories, stories, and I would say a special language that mysteriously drives one to form it on paper through writing.

I considered being a Spanish major in college, with an emphasis on Latin American literature. I realized I had no choice but to write in English, and I decided that I must create a prose that was better than the Queen’s English, an English in which others could hear the beauty of linguistic diversity, the landscape, and memory. Maybe an individually inflected prose on the page. My developing sense of language was (and still is) Caribbean, meaning there is a sense of hybridity, métissage, a mixing of Englishes, and most importantly an openness to the landscape because it is inhabited by voices, memories, and stories even when there seems to be no human presence in place. My sense of language is more geographical, musical, and emotional—all moving to something deeper. Even when I’m in the Middle West there’s a layered awareness of how I’m striving to be in place and yet an émigré, if you will, with another landscape there. You are close to naming things, then, and also very close to silence. I don’t think about this much as of late, but maybe my writing often captures that very motion of expression and silence, emotion and music. And so even though I make a conscious effort to stay in touch with Spanish (its literature, history, and culture) it is through place or landscape that I “come to terms” with being an émigré of languages.

In Western Avenue and Other Fictions, your stories “Finca,” “The Shadow of Palms,” and “First Love” exhibit great finesse, especially with landscape and setting. What are the biggest influences that have contributed to this particular visual sharpness and esteem for place?

Perhaps the biggest influences are found in growing up both urban and rural, as well as the continual sense of movement and migration. Perhaps the differences and movement made me more aware of place with a “visual sharpness”—that silent stillness of sitting in a car and watching things disappear and appear, things becoming very close and then receding into the background, while yearning to find a place to become more rooted in. The eye was sharpened in this way. Also because I have to stay physical—working, walking, being out following a line of trees, the city streets without route or destination, trying to understand the makeup and shape of a particular place. The answer to your question is in my conviction as well that stories are in the land; they exist within a place, and I need to listen closely to discover them. The lived, storied earth is more central to me than an idea, or the mind. In writing fiction, I guess I need my characters to be rooted in a physical world. In creating from the physical world, the land itself begins to offer a grammar, a syntax, begins to offer an outline of composition or form I try to make the most of. I’m drawn to the visual and the sensual, the wind, an open sky over a rolling field, the rush of the sea over a stone beach, the feel of dirt in my hands.

Many writers have shaped my “finesse” of setting, or place, as you say. Key, though, are the pages and pages (years) of writing. This morning, after a week of onehundred-degree days, the temperature has dropped, there’s a new breeze filling the oak and pine trees outside my balcony doors, and the shiny gold and green light seems fresh, suddenly free to be alive. And that light grounds me in the moment and creation. I’ve spent years simply drawing in place, putting words in motion on the page in order to discover or draw out a place. Or I’ve continued—via Wright Morris—to develop the camera-eye/camera-I, and I’ve done so through practice in various times of day and light, weather and season, so the camera of self and writing might intuit the “decisive moment” in setting, and capture it in prose that allows readers to take part in developing visual sharpness within the story of the place or setting.

If you had to recommend one short story or novel for the world to read, what would it be and why?

My answer to this question changes often, and it depends on my living situation and what I’m working on. Immediately today, though, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is the novel I recommend. It is a beautiful, compelling, and classic story of family, work, identity, and the power of memory and imagination. As you read this novel you slowly become attuned to the force stories have in our lives. (Your being becomes fully alive with the potency of story.) Out Stealing Horses is an exquisitely written novel of seemingly simple prose—seemingly simple because it is graced by elegance, poetry, and the living filaments of memory. Petterson is highly aware of the borders we must cross in life, those thresholds between the credible and the mysterious, the desired and the shunned, the lived and the dreamed. He charges these borders with characters we are emotionally connected to.

Where is your favorite place to travel in the United States?

In the past ten years I’ve often gravitated toward the Bay Area and Northern California. This has become a favorite place in part because I wrote the penultimate draft of The Region of Lost Names there, and I had some very important experiences—perhaps breakthrough experiences—as a writer there. I love the city—the walking, the weather (from cool to warm, sunny to foggy, sweater to shirtsleeves), and the food. It is, for me, as cosmopolitan as it gets in America, and still, as with much of California, there are great rural pockets too.

With that said, though, there’s a lot of privilege there that I get very nervous around—and it’s sad, and I want to run away after a few days. Somewhere I’m remembering Jim Harrison writing about driving some ten thousand miles around America before a very productive time, and most of that driving following county maps. To get out into areas on the borders of consciousness, say with a box of books and a bottle of whiskey in the car, he suggested, ain’t bad at all for a writer. I often find myself traveling north along Lake Superior or Lake Michigan, or along the border between the United States and Canada. I just returned from such a trip, and being there on the edges—geographically, economically, culturally, historically—is good. I hear different voices up there, follow the shape of the land and weather, and in this rhythm I get caught up in a time between the old and the new, when I feel I’m both an insider and an outsider. That is essential for my writing, the people who populate my imagination and memory, and my life. Up there lying in a tent on the edge of a huge lake, as I was the other night, in the middle of a lightning storm followed by fifty-mile-per-hour winds, well, that sharpens your senses in the right ways. Up there I like to let the distances in life—the phony or artificial ones, or even the technological or media ones—fall away. You discover you have to become the storm.

Author photo by John Lamb 

Fred Arroyo is the author of Western Avenue and Other Fictions and the novel The Region of Lost Names, a finalist for the 2008 Premio Aztlán Literary Prize. Arroyo is a recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, and in 2009 he was named one of the Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch (and Read) by Currently, he is working on a book of essays, Close as Pages in a Book. He is also writing a novel set primarily in the Caribbean.

Robert Kralovec is a writer from Sonoma, California; he lives in New York City. His current interests include safety razors, duck feet, frog legs, rabbit heads, and Mulatu Astatke.