A Word About Writing

An Interview with Emma Straub, by Celia Johnson

Fall is here. Some people love the cooler weather, but if you’re like me, as you walk along the sidewalk, leaves crunching beneath your feet, you’re yearning for those blissful, balmy summer months. Picking up a copy of The Vacationers is one way to escape. Emma Straub’s latest novel has everything you’d expect from a summer getaway in a far-off, exotic location — sunshine, beaches, museums, clubs. Add to that romance, fights, and laughter. The story follows the New York-based Post family and their friends during a two-week vacation in Mallorca. And on this trip, for better or worse, they’re forced to deal with many of their problems. I spoke with Straub about her characters, her creative process, and how she handles rejection.


An Interview with Scott Cheshire, by Celia Johnson

We published “Romantics,” a short story by Scott Cheshire, in Issue 12 of Slice. The theme for that issue was Obsession, which is fitting, because, as you’ll see in the following interview, Cheshire’s debut novel, High As the Horses Bridles, is the sum of many obsessions. The book begins with a stunning scene, set in Queens in the 1980s, in which twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk stands before a congregation of 4,000 people and experiences an overwhelming apocalyptic vision. The story plays out in three parts and this structure is a true feat of literary framing. Each section recasts the story, offering even more nuances to the themes of religion, mortality, and family. It’s the kind of book that, when you reach the end, you realize you’ve got to go back and start again. I spoke with Scott about the inspiration for his debut, his creative routine (or lack thereof), and his next book, which he hopes will “scare you shitless.”


An Interview with Michael Perry, by Heidi Sistare

Michael Perry writes memoir that straddles the philosophical and the mundane. He’s also riotously funny. In addition to memoir, Perry writes young adult novels, hosts a radio show, performs in a band, and raises pigs on his farm in rural Wisconsin. His books include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story and The Scavengers. We talked about his next novel, parenting, and his favorite poets.


You write a lot about the people and places around you, in your small town in Wisconsin. How do your neighbors respond to being written about? 

For the most part, folks don’t take much notice. Occasionally someone will say something funny and ask, “So is that gonna be in the next book?” My friend Bob the One-Eyed Beagle (who says a lot of very quotable things) got in the habit of trying to generate a quote every time I saw him. I told him his quality was slipping and he needed a better editor. We had a good laugh over that. I do my best to write honestly but respectfully, and I think that helps. It also helps that I really do live close to the ground, I really do walk into the same post office, I still carry a fire department pager, I still have an old pickup truck and a deer rifle, that sort of thing. I have had at least one person get upset with me for something I wrote, but the interesting thing was she didn’t contest the facts, she just wanted to tell her side of why it happened.

Your most recent book, The Scavengers, is a young adult novel. Can you talk about how it was different to write for a younger audience? Did being a father influence your decision to write a book for children?

As a Dad with two daughters, I did want to write a book with a strong, smart female protagonist who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. But mostly, I focused less on writing for a younger audience than just trying to tell a good story, an interesting yarn, something that would keep readers of all ages turning the pages. The book is coming out right about now, so readers will make the final call on that.

How has becoming a parent changed your writing routine? 

For years and years I was a bachelor and I usually started writing at 6 or 7 p.m. and wrote until the wee dark hours. I still do that once or twice a month (and last week pulled two all-nighters in a row) (SO MUCH COFFEE) but ever since I became a dad the schedule has shifted and most days you’ll find me at the desk by 7 a.m., trying to get as much done as I can before the day derails. Most importantly, however, I want to be around for dinner and bedtime whenever I can. I’m on the road 80-100 days per year so I don’t always manage it, but my favorite thing is to end the day reading books with my children, just as my parents did with me.

One of the things that struck me about Population: 485 was the way your writing moves easily between side-stitch humor, philosophical musings, and the details of everyday life. Is this cocktail of humor, philosophy, and the mundane important to you? Does it reflect how you naturally think?

My head skitters all over the place. I can’t keep track of things, and I’m constantly going off on tangents. So that certainly accounts for some of the variegations in the ol’ tapestry, if you will. But it’s also a reflection of the people who raised me. They were readers and conversationalists, they were thoughtful and reflective, but they were also rural roughnecks who loved goofball humor and thought nothing was funnier than seeing someone get hit in the head with a monkey wrench as long as there was no long-term damage. So yeah, it is how I think, for better or worse. You aim high, but you don’t ride high. If that makes any sense.

When did you know you wanted to write? Were there particular authors who inspired you?

I was out of college and working as a nurse and EMT before I really got serious about writing. There were little things that led up to that moment, clear back to the first books my Mom read to me, and a 7th grade English teacher who gave me my first free-writing assignment, but it wasn’t until I started writing every day in between nursing shifts that I realized how badly I wanted to be a writer. The list of writers who inspired me is endless, but I’ll mention Jim Harrison (his book “Legends of the Fall” became the famous movie, but it was his collection of essays, “Just Before Dark,” that changed my writing forever and for the better) and a whole raft of poets from Rita Dove to Lucille Clifton to Sharon Olds to Olena Kalytiak Davis to James Wright to Dylan Thomas.

It seems like you do a lot of things beyond writing. Does farming or performing influence your writing? How do you balance all of the things that you do?

Sure, everything we do filters through our unconscious and back out in some form. Going out to feed the chickens influenced me literally (The Scavengers features a silly fictional rooster based on a real rooster) and figuratively (writing in Visiting Tom about fireflies as cosmic teardrops). Performing music helps me consider how words are received upon the ear as opposed to the eye, and thus informs the rhythm of my prose, I suppose.

As far as balancing all of the things I do, it’s economic triage. Do what has to be done to keep the clodhopper dream alive. It’s no more complicated than balancing all the responsibilities of any given person out there working hard to keep the family afloat. My brother the farmer/logger/heavy equipment operator juggles jobs like crazy; he just doesn’t write essays about it.

What are you working on next? 

At the moment I am headed out on book tour for The Scavengers. But in my backpack on the passenger seat is a draft of my next book, a novel about a bachelor farmer whose cow gives birth to a calf bearing the image of Christ. I’ll be pecking away at that in my motel rooms between tour stops, because the final draft is due in less than five weeks, and based on my editor’s markups there are miles to go…

Michael Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love StoryCoop, and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” perfrms widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums including Never Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow and The Clodhopper Monologues. He can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.

Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.



An Interview with Elissa Schappell, by Maria Gagliano

I wouldn’t want to imagine the contemporary literary world without Elissa Schappell in it.

She is fiercely dedicated to celebrating new writing, and her generosity of spirit touches so many facets of our community. As an editor, she learned from mentors at the Paris Review and in the 1990s went on to cofound Tin House, one of our generation’s most revered literary magazines. These days, Schappell contributes to Tin House as editor-at-large while also penning book reviews in her “Hot Type” column in Vanity Fair—making her role as a reader just as influential as her editorial work.

Schappell is a fiction writer to the core. Her latest book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, was chosen as one of the best books of the year by outlets as varied as the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and O magazine. And perhaps not surprisingly given her obsession with new writing, Schappell also makes time to teach creative writing in the MFA programs at Columbia University and Queens University.

I’m equally inspired by Schappell’s ass-in-chair dedication to writing as I am by her literary hustle. Writing doesn’t come any easier because of her many lit jobs: the first drafts are still rough and rambling, the distractions always tempting, and the self-doubt raging. We talked about how she manages to get it all done; how writing, reading, and editing have shaped her; and why a discombobulated household is a sign that Schappell’s writing is right where she wants it to be.

Blueprints for Building Better GirlsYou wear several hats in the literary world: you are a book reviewer at Vanity Fair, the editor-at-large of Tin House, and a writer. How do these three very different roles influence your work in each space?

I don’t think you can be much of a writer if you don’t read. I’m appalled by the number of writers and writing students I know who say, I don’t read because I don’t have time, or I don’t read because I don’t want to be influenced by other writers’ work, or My busy reality-TV-watching schedule doesn’t permit me time to read books, only blogs.

Because of my job at Vanity Fair, I am inundated by new books, which can be very inspiring and exciting. I feel particularly lucky that because of my position, I get books from indie publishers as well as mainstream publishers. Thus I am able to discover books that I’d otherwise likely have missed. That said, as a fiction writer and essayist, the sheer number of books, the tonnage, can be overwhelming. In dark hours I can’t help but think, Does the world really need another book from me?

My first job in the literary-magazine world was at the Paris Review. It was so cool to see the work of writers I admired, my heroes, before it was edited and published. From working there, I learned a great deal about the craft of writing, the writer’s life, what it takes to be a great writer. Whatever skills I have as an editor come largely from observing George Plimpton, who was a virtuoso editor, wield his red pencil. As a cofounder and the editor-at-large of Tin House, I feel particularly privileged whenever I have any small hand in publishing a new writer in the magazine, or finding an audience for a book that deserves to be read. I take my role as a literary citizen seriously.

You cofounded Tin House sixteen years ago. How have you seen the literary landscape change in that time? And how have those changes affected your work on Tin House today?

A lot has changed. Thanks to the online journals and the rise of independent small presses, there are a lot more places to publish—which is marvelous. What is less pleasing is the number of publishing houses that have been gobbled up by large corporations. This consolidation of power and influence, of taste, can only lead to a further homogenization of literature. The world would be better served if some of these houses just went into the toilet-paper business. Increasingly, writers who feel undervalued by their house, dissatisfied with the traditional publishing model, or simply slimed by the übercorporate, monolithic publishing complex are seeking to publish with smaller indie publishers. As a publisher of books as well as a literary magazine, Tin House has been more than happy to throw open our doors and welcome these writers into our home.

How do you write? Do you have a dedicated writing space and schedule, or do you take a more fluid approach?

When I was a girl, writing was as necessary to me as water. Writing was the one thing I was good at. It sustained me. It kept me from exploding into flames. When I got older, I wrote all the time because I was in love with the idea of being a writer. It was how I defined myself. I believed in the divine. It was easy then because I was little more than a psychic lightning rod. Of course, inspiration struck me, and did so over and over, and I valued each bolt equally. For me, writing was about feeling, an experience I was having in my body; it wasn’t about craft or storytelling, so I wrote easily and a lot. When I was in my mid-twenties, when I started really working, and writing for money, I became more self-conscious. Writing was still the way I figured out what I thought and how I felt; it was still the one place where I told the truth, the place I dumped my fear and anger, my fiction the place I was most myself, but it was much harder. I knew what I was writing wasn’t good or good enough. It was easier to not write. To beg off. I was too tired. I was too busy. It wasn’t like I was getting paid.

In my twenties I realized that the muse is a bum. The muse only shows up when you bait her by putting your ass in the chair. She can only be lured to your side by the sound of pounding keys, the smell of paper and ink. At some point (I imagine it was when the telephone company cut off our service) I realized it was time for me to start taking my life and my writing seriously. People who are serious about their work show up to work, day or night. So I started setting myself little goals and deadlines. That helped. When I had a project I was excited about, I was manic. I worked mornings, afternoons, nights—whenever I could steal the time. I became infatuated with my writing, obsessed, in love. Perfection was writing all day in bed until I was spent. When it was going exceptionally well, any time I wasn’t writing I was thinking about writing. It was bliss. Until, of course, it burned out, or blew up sometimes with the same degree of passion with which it had begun. All it took was time and distance, some sleep and a few square meals, and suddenly I couldn’t stand it.

My writing was so tedious, so phony, so wrongheaded and stupid. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with it. I wanted it gone. It was just a reminder of how tedious, phony and wrongheaded and stupid I was. And then I wouldn’t write for weeks and weeks. There is nothing like having a baby to enforce routine. It quickly became clear that the only way I could get time to write was to ask for it. The only way that worked was for other people—my husband, babysitters, friends—to know when I was going to work so there would be someone to care for the baby. I found that when I told people that I was going to write, and then actually did it, they made space for me to do it. (Here I must say that I am married to an extraordinarily generous, supportive man and blessed with great family, friends, and babysitters. Also it should be said that I am not particularly pleasant to live with when I’m not writing.) In order to get that time alone—which I craved and needed—I had to keep writing. So I got into a routine.

What works for me is to begin working as soon after waking as possible—before my hypercritical voice wakes up and starts in with the insults and whining. It’s also best if I leave my house. I don’t like working in cafés. I know it works for many, but it feels too performative for me. I feel self-conscious, like: Regardez, the artiste! The writer at work! Admire my beret! I focus best and am most productive when I’m working in a friend’s empty apartment, or ideally at the Brooklyn Writers Space, which is just a short distance from my home. I make myself tea, put in my earplugs, and sit down and work. I can easily go for six hours, longer if I am obsessed. It’s hard for me to work at home. Too easy to procrastinate online, too easy to be distracted by the state of perpetual domestic chaos that rules my home, too easy to convince myself that I really ought to tackle some of the household chores I’ve been putting off. Things I should have done ages ago, like regrout the tub and toss the mold-furred produce in the crisper, find my tax receipts for 2012. The truth is, when my work is going well, everything around me goes to hell. The quality of my housekeeping exists in inverse proportion to the quality of my work.

I’m not the first person to admire your writing for its honesty. When reading Blueprints for Building Better Girls, I stopped reading midway through “Monsters of the Deep” to google (and then find, and email) my eighth-grade math teacher, whom I hadn’t thought much about in twenty years, because the scene between Heather and Ms. Sandberg really resonated with me.

I think we all have a teacher, if we’re lucky, who saved us. For me it was two English teachers. In middle school there was Mrs. Dudkowski, and in high school, Ms. Kipp. I didn’t need what Ms. Sandberg gives Heather, but what I needed—encouragement to write, support, and praise for doing something that I felt just made me a weirdo—that mattered greatly. We don’t forget those teachers. And we shouldn’t.

*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 15 of Slice. To purchase a copy and read the full interview, click here. Schappell will also take part in our upcoming conference as a panelist (details about registrations/tickets here).

Photo credit: Emily Tobey

Elissa Schappell is the author of two books of fiction: Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, which was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. She is a founding-editor and Editor-at-Large of Tin House.

Maria Gagliano is a writer and editor and the business director of Slice Literary. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, BUST, and Salon. When she’s not doing things with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.


An Interview with Justin Taylor, by Celia Johnson

I met with Justin Taylor at the Housing Works Bookstore Café in Soho. It’s a renowned literary hot spot, by day a used bookstore with a vast selection that runs floor to ceiling, and most nights an event space jam-packed with exciting talent. The café is at the back of the store, and on this unusually quiet afternoon, it was only half full.

We were there to discuss Flings, Taylor’s latest short story collection. There’s no one place that binds these stories, nor one character. They take place on both coasts of the United States and as far away as Hong Kong. They are about the old and the young, men and women, parents, children, and widows. Under Taylor’s masterful hand, these characters are unified not by circumstance but by different manifestations of desire, grief, or regret. It’s unsurprising, then, that you’re just as likely to laugh at the horny young man wearing a mushroom suit in one story as to cry over the excruciating grief that follows the death of a boy in another.

As we spoke, I lost track of the questions I’d written down because, as you’ll see, Taylor is full of marvelous surprises, like setting a solid framework for a story with a real place, but finding inspiration far beyond those geographic boundaries. Or quoting Ernest Hemingway in an epigraph, not simply to align one story with another, but as a nod to the painstaking process of creation and rejection.


What’s the inspiration behind your collection?

I guess it started in 2010. I had been working on a novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, on and off for years, but I had spent the last year working on it exclusively to get it finished and turned in. Around the same time I turned the manuscript in, my story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever was published, so I was suddenly talking and thinking about stories again. One thing I love about the short story form is being able to hold the entire story in my head at once, to revise a whole draft over the course of an afternoon. You just can’t do that with a novel; however comprehensive your sense of it, you’re going to end up dealing with it in fragments and chunks. I wrote very early drafts of what became “Flings” and “Poets” around that time, and I think the sense of liberation or reunion I felt is evident in the prose even in the final drafts. Those stories are fast moving, kind of overstuffed, and they cover vast passages of time.

Anyway, sometime in 2012 I realized that I had what looked like somewhere between half and two-thirds of a story collection. When I did Everything Here, I had no sense of what made a collection. My agent and my editor and many generous friends helped me figure out how to make that manuscript into an actual book. With the second collection I had the advantage of that experience. I was able to look at the material I had and think, well, if this is half to two-thirds of a book, then what might the other half or third of it look like? I tried to see what was missing as well as what was there.

So it’s not surprising that many of these stories seem like they could be consumed as disparate complements, like a culinary pairing. “Adon Olam” and “Mike’s Song” come immediately to mind, with those shadows of grief in both. What stories would you recommend pairing for interesting commonalities?

“Adon Olam” and “Mike’s Song” are set in the same town at different points in time, and a main character from each story makes a small cameo in the other one. There are a number of instances of that happening in this book. I didn’t want to write a novel-in-stories or even necessarily a “linked” collection, but I did want to suggest that these people occupy a common reality, so sometimes they pop up in each other’s stories. “Flings” and “After Ellen” are the most directly linked. To me, they’re part of a trilogy that culminates in “The Happy Valley,” even though the connection of the latter to the first two is highly tenuous, at least if you think about it exclusively in terms of character. But there are other ways to think about how stories connect or speak to each other. Resonance can be enough.

A couple of these stories were inspired by your family: “Carol, alone” and “Happy Valley.” How did they evolve? And when did they find their way into the collection?

I don’t know that I’d say the stories were inspired by the family, though there’s a lot of family history in them. “The Happy Valley” is set in Hong Kong. My cousin Caryn and her husband, Andrew—who are close friends, as well as family—moved there in 2007 and were there for several years. I would go visit them and their kids every summer and usually stay for three or four weeks, since I didn’t have summer teaching work. I wrote part of The Gospel of Anarchy there. I started researching the cemetery because I thought I could make some easy money writing a piece on the Jewish history of Hong Kong, but I’m kind of a bad journalist, so I never figured out what the hook was. At some point that material became enmeshed with my experience of the place itself, and when I made the turn toward fiction, I no longer had to use magazine-stand or click-through logic to justify that sense of connection. Once the story revealed itself as being to some degree about family, it made further sense to give a bit of my own family history to my character. It was also convenient, because I’d been soliciting family histories and stories in the course of writing “Carol, Alone,” and I had more than I could use. So there was an economy there.

“Carol, Alone” came from a couple of specific places. One was going down to South Florida to spend time with my grandparents and my great aunt, and just becoming interested in their lives and asking them about my family history and seeing what memories and stories stuck out for them. That went on for a period of years and continues to go on when I see them. It’s a sad story, but part of it started in kind of a funny way. Like many families of writers, they’re always asking me, “Why don’t you ever write about us?” or “Don’t talk in front of him, he’ll put it in a book.” You know? And I started to think, well, maybe I should. It seems to be something they really want, though I suspect they didn’t know just what they were asking for. But I also thought that maybe there was something to the idea. The elderly are, as a group and as individuals, under-represented as protagonists. They’re usually written as ATM machines of wisdom or repositories of prejudice, or people are fighting to claim their money. I tried to see if I could do better than that.

Have you had any reaction to either story from your family?

My cousins liked “The Happy Valley.” I think it amused them to revisit those places and that time. Nobody’s seen “Carol, Alone” yet, and I have to admit I’m apprehensive about how they’ll take it. I mean, it’s in no way a straight portrait of any one or even any several of them. It’s a composite of all my grandparents, my great aunts, my great uncle, memories of my great grandparents, and also friends of theirs and other folks one encounters when spending time in Boynton Beach. But Carol’s experience is based in large part on my great aunt’s experience after my great uncle died. And I don’t know how she’ll feel about my depiction of her or of that time. It’s a hard thing that she went through. I would hope that she—or anyone else who perceives themselves as depicted—would feel like an attempt had been made to do them a kind of justice or witness. But in the end you never really know, and in the end it’s not nonfiction anyway. I mean, if my intention had been accuracy, a completist representation of something that actually happened, the whole thing would read differently. Like in that story all the stuff about Macau. That’s my own experience of visiting Hong Kong. My partner, Amanda, and I went to Macau and visited that cathedral, and it was just something I really wanted to write about. It didn’t fit into “The Happy Valley,” so I found another place to stick it. These are examples of the kind of resonance I was talking about earlier. The stories do not share characters, setting, or even too much in the way of theme. But you can feel there’s kinship there. You can trace the DNA.

In terms of your creative process, there are so many different and fully realized narrative voices, and that’s something I really gravitated toward in this book. I often found myself wanting to read aloud; the prose feels so personal and immediate. Do you revise out loud?

I do a huge amount of revision by ear, to make sure the rhythm on the page is matching the rhythm in my head. Because I can hear it in my head, and if I can’t speak it the way I hear it, then something’s wrong with it. Part of it is I go back a lot when I’m drafting between first person and third person in a number of those stories. For me that’s a very useful part of the process.

Some of the episodes in these stories felt very real to me, like being in a mushroom suit in “Sungold.” Did you ever have to wear a suit like that? Or are there any moments of real-life inspiration that come to mind?

The things I tend to lift from reality are very rarely actual experiences. They tend to be places. I’ve worked in some fast-food-type environments. And in “Adon Olam,” that neighborhood is my neighborhood and that summer camp is a fictionalized version of a place where I worked. I find it much easier to make up characters and events if I don’t also have to make up where things are taking place and deal with figuring out where streets intersect and where stoplights are and how far things are from each other. It’s always easier for me to just dump a bunch of pretend people in a real place and then let them run around on the map. And part of it, too, may just be the way that I respond to places, I don’t know.

To me, a big part of the story “Flings” is Portland, Oregon, itself, where I lived for a little while. I wanted to revisit the places that I had occupied and the feelings that I’d had around that time. Some of the events and relation- ships depicted in that story are completely nonfictional, and some are nonfiction edited and recontextualized to the point where the term “nonfiction” becomes highly suspect. And some shit I just made up. But those distinctions seem to me like the least interesting part of the story. When I think back on living in Portland, what I remember was living across the street from the pioneer cemetery. In the story, the character remembers it’s there and then on a whim goes over there and climbs the fence, but I actually lived across the street from it for a couple of months and spent a lot of time looking at it and thinking about it. Seven or eight years later it was still knocking around in my brain, so it ended up in the story. I don’t think about it that much anymore.

Did you go back to visit as you were working on the stories? Did everything come from memory?

It all pretty much came from memory, though I’ve been to Portland many times since I lived there. I have a very good friend there. And Powell’s Books is there, so I’ve been back to read as well as to visit. But it’s funny how as the time goes by you can go back to the same place and it feels like a different place. My friend and I are in our early thirties now. The demands of her day job, the part of the city she lives in, our idea of what makes a good night out on the town—it’s all different. Other than having a couple of the same restaurants and the same street grid, it might as well be a different city from the one I describe in my story, where a bunch of early-twentysomethings are all puppy-piled in this shitty apartment in a part of town that hasn’t become too gentrified yet. You couldn’t get that apartment today for what those characters paid for it in the early-mid-aughts. Even the same place isn’t the same place anymore.

*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 15 of Slice. To purchase a copy and read the full interview, click here. To purchase a copy of Taylor’s book, click here.

*Taylor will also take part in our upcoming conference as a panelist (details about registrations/tickets here)and will read from Flings at a Slice reading at powerHouse Arena on 9/6, open to the public (details here).

Photo credit: David Benhaim

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collections Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Believer, Tablet, Tin House, and the New York Times Book Review. He lives in Brooklyn and at justindtaylor.net.

Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two books, most recently Odd Type Writers.


An Interview with Domingo Martinez, by Heidi Sistare

Domingo Martinez made a big impression with his debut book, The Boy Kings of Texas. His memoir of life in Brownsville, Texas, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in nonfiction. Martinez’s writing is filled with powerful characters, complex histories, and the kind of rich details that are rooted in family and place. We talked about the writing process, how to research family history and childhood memory, and why no one has asked him about addiction.

The Boy Kings of Texas

In a piece for All Things Considered you said you wrote The Boy Kings of Texas “…without the help of academics, writing groups or peers.” How do you think this way of writing impacted the story? Do you always write without external support? Or, if you find support outside of the academics, writing groups, and peers, where does it come from?

Isolation, when you’re trying to “create” something, I think can be a bit dangerous because of the obvious fallacy: what impresses you usually fails to impress others.  That’s what the internet and Amazon publishing is for.  

But I also believe it to be the most authentic form of creation, in a way.  If you begin a writing project and then farm it out to your peers for reactions or contributions or response — at what point does it become an interactive / shared credit project?

What I did was, over the course of all those years of just coming home at night and writing the original manuscript of “Boy Kings of Texas,” I wrote what I needed to write, what was burbling up, and then upon revisions, I would read each piece or whatever I was revising using an internalized perspective of either my brother’s or my sisters’ voice, or maybe a friend who’s opinion I trusted. I read it through what I thought was their perspective. And because of this, I eventually developed this fantastic ability to read what I’ve written from a tertiary point of view, in my own head.

Also, I would often play back the piece d’jour (whatever I’d written) electronically using the “voice” thing on my iMac, then pace my apartment here in Seattle listening to what I’d written in the middle of the night, smoking cigarettes out the windows but not inhaling and sort of conducting the rhythms of the sentences, layering stories and making adjustments. There was usually some cadence I was working against, like a book I’d read by Annie Proulx or Michael Chabon at the time, and their structures would unconsciously work their way into my style here and there, but I always welcomed it, when I realized it. Because that’s what art is, as an organic, living thing: you’re directly influenced by what you absorb daily.   

You said that it took you 15 years to write The Boy Kings of Texas. How did you change as a writer over those 15 years? Are you approaching your second memoir differently in any way? 

You can see the sensitivities develop in my book as you begin the opening chapters. Some sentences are so old, they could buy a round of drinks. The book was obviously intended to be a collection of short stories until I realized there was a narrative through-line that could be extended into a larger project, and my earlier stories have bits of archaeological flint that still manage to make me cringe, when I read them again.  As an author, you can’t help it.

Anyway, again, getting back to your question: You, or at least, I, can see the tone and language shift, settle down as a style, as the page count increases.

My next book, due out in November, I wrote in a matter of a few months.  I attempted at first a narrative braiding, but in the end it didn’t seem to sustain the atmosphere I was hoping for, so I went back to an triptych-type structure, Acts I-III.  This story was much more on the surface, and it was horribly painful to write, but it needed done.   

What were the differences between writing the chapters about your childhood self versus the later chapters when you’re an adult? 

Height, mostly.  By that I mean perspective.  The early memories are more like flashes of emotions and feelings, images like you’d see in early motion pictures, except in feelings, totally without sound, so you have to string them all together to make the story.