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Luis Negrón: The Short Form Interview

Marginalized communities tend to use humor as an armor against hate.

Puerto Rican author of the short story collection, Mundo Cruel.

The Interview

Despite the title of the book, Mundo Cruel, there's a lot of humor in your collection. “We’ve learned how to survive and be happy no matter what” is what you've said of the gay culture we find in your stories. On the other hand, there's a great deal of cruelty in your essay “The Pain of Reading,” it's almost like a prelude to your collection, would you agree?

Yes, this essay probably is the background to Mundo Cruel. For the boy in the essay to survive he needs to adapt to his misery. That is why I say we have learned how to be happy no matter what. Some of us don't have the option of running awaying from experiences like that. We can't rely on the absence of homophobia in order to be happy, so we adapt for different reasons. Those are the kind of characters and stories that attract me. 

Do you find that for you tragedy and comedy go hand in hand?

Tragedy is not my thing, melodrama is. Marginalized communities tend to use humor as an armor against hate and they use it to make themselves stronger.

Your story “So Many” has elements of a play. The whole story is two women conversing from the opposite sides of a fence, which seems like a perfect setting for a stage, and you can almost hear a chorus “So Many!” punctuating their conversation. Where did that come from?

I love to use minimum details in my writing. I love to challenge the reader to discover the atmosphere in the characters' dialogue. But in fact, Mundo Cruel was adapted for theatre by Jacqueline Duprey, a local director and actress. “So Many”, to be a theater piece, has to have many details needed for a short story, and it was necessary to make changes for it to work as a play. It is written in dialogue, but with the traditional elements of a short story that aren't so obvious.

Was the whole book adapted?

No, just “Junito”, “La Edwin”, “For Guayama”, and “So Many”.

Did you see the plays?

I saw the plays every night and loved it each time. It was fun to watch the audience's reaction and to see them leaving the theater laughing. It was a great experience and a total hit.

You seem to agree that to be a great writer you have to engage in living as much as you do in writing. It's not surprising you studied journalism instead of creative writing. Do you find it dangerous to put too much emphasis on craft? 

Studying journalism makes you humble as a writer. The story has to be honest, credible, with no tricks. I have never taken a creative writing course, but I would suggest to be aware of too much emphasis on learned craft because writing needs risk, one has to confront the challenge of avoiding the ready-made tips. Reading is a better way of “learning” how to write. But, the most important element, at least for me, is life itself. There is no better school for writing than listening to people. I love to listen to people talk. They don't have to be eloquent to have a great story in their conversation. Sometimes I'm truly amazed by how, with few words, people can retell a whole universe.

In “The Garden,” the narrator describes Esperanto as “a senseless invention of words that did not resonate with any lived experience whatsoever.” The style you write in seems to be the opposite of that description.

In that story the boy is more educated, so his descriptions are more detailed. The other characters are educated, too, so it was necessary that the narrator used a richer vocabulary. That kind of authenticity is another important aspect of craft, another element for the writer. I like to give my character the freedom to express themselves beacuse they give the reader enough information to follow the stories.

Do you still write film reviews? How does cinema influence your work?

Cinema is a crucial influence on my work. It taught me about editing, the use of dialogue. For example, Pedro Almodóvar is a great inspiration in my work. But I have stopped writing film reviews, I work for the Museum of Modern Art, together with Ricardo Vargas. Now I prefer to spend time on what will be my next fiction.

What are some of the new movies you've enjoyed? Any American directors you're fond of?

I love the early John Waters. Woody Allen still amazes me. Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Douglas Sirk are among my favorites. Recent movies I've seen are Silver Linings Playbook, I love that movie and The Fighter by the same director, I also love Drive and Django Unchained.

And you also work at a bookstore. Is it something you own? 

I just work at the bookstore. It is call La Mágica. I have being working there for seven years. The funny thing is, now that I'm a published writer, most of the time I'm at the cash register and people ask me to sign the book. If they don't know I'm the writer of the book I don't say anything about it. I can be very shy when it comes to my book.

Do you have a bookstore pet?

We don't have a pet, but my coworkers will agree that I'm the closest thing to it since Mundo Cruel made me well-known.

Do you guys host a lot of literary events?

Yes, we're a very popular bookstore when it comes to local literature and we have many events with local writers and independent publishing houses.

How did your stories find their way to New York?

It is difficult for an unknown author to be published here in a Puerto Rico, more so in New York. Let me tell you the story of how it happened. A lady who owns a cafeteria bought a copy of Mundo Cruel in Spanish and gave it to her son. He, Gabriel Espinal, happens to have a job at Seven Stories and saw a potential in the book. Not only did he convince the editor to publish a book from the Spanish, but brought along one of the best translators in the field, Suzanne Jill Levine, who took the challenge to translate a book people thought was impossible to translate. But the translation is very loyal to the original, I dare say that whoever reads the English version is not missing much from the original.

What cafeteria was this?

The cafeteria is in La Tertulia, another great bookstore in the same neighborhood, Río Piedras, in which the University of Puerto Rico is located. Although we are the competitors we get along pretty well and often collaborate. There are at least six bookstores in the same area.

How often do you write, do you get to write at the bookstore at all?

I can't write at the bookstore, it's always busy. I write every day, though, sometimes more, sometimes less. But every day.

You make a joke in “In The Garden” about Sharon being Pisces in both moon sign and rising sign, and we've come to learn that you're also a Pisces in both moon and rising sign. I read that if two Pisces date each other they will be horrible at managing money. Does that mean you're horrible with money too?

Ha ha, I am awful when it comes to money, I am always giving it away, but I think that's a blessing because for some reason I always have some. Money is something that I don't think about. As a good Pisces people are what matter to me.

Please recommend up to 5 short stories and tell us a little bit about each of them.

Difficult question. Anything by Salinger, who taught me how to write; by Raymond Caver for its directness and simplicity; “Milagros, Mercuro Street” by Carmen Lugo Filippi, a brilliant Puerto Rican storyteller. “Miss Lora” by Junot Diaz and “We the Animal’ by Justin Torres, even though it's a novel because each chapter works as a short story. “The Lady and the Dog” by Chekov, a well-told story that's a great portait of the human condition and delusion. There is also Borges and Cotazar. If you have a writer's block, read any by them and your craft will bounce right back. Trust my words.

Recommended by Luis Negrón

Milagros, Mercuro Street
Excerpt

The tourists amused me a lot, particularly the Spaniards. Junito let me take care of them because he said I treated them with class. Let's just say that yours truly was the only one there with three years of college behind her and experience abroad, and that gave me the upper hand among Junito's ten assistants. Of course, such consideration had at first led to a lot of resentment from the girls, resentment I was only able to allay by dint of many smiles and kindnesses. Maybe what calmed them down was the sincerity of my protestations: three years of comparative literature don't guarantee anyone a spot in lofty intellectual circles, especially if one hasn't completed the blessed degree. In some measure I sweetened the bitterness of their frustrations by assuring them that many women with brand new degrees in literature were forced to get jobs at airports or work as stewardesses if they didn't want to starve. You earned more with some hairstyling courses than with three years of literature or languages...

We read it in Callaloo: Vol. 17, No. 3.

Cathedral
Excerpt

Now this same blind man was coming to sleep in my house.

“Maybe I could take him bowling,” I said to my wife. She was at the draining board doing scalloped potatoes. She put down the knife she was using and turned around.

“If you love me,” she said, “you can do this for me. If you don't love me, okay. But if you had a friend, any friend, and the friend came to visit, I'd make him feel comfortable." She wiped her hands with the dish towel.

“I don't have any blind friends,” I said.

“You don't have any friends,” she said. “Period. Besides,” she said, “goddamn it, his wife's just died! Don't you understand that? The man's lost his wife!”

I didn't answer. She'd told me a little about the blind man's wife. Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That's a name for a colored woman.

“Was his wife a Negro?” I asked.

“Are you crazy?” my wife said. “Have you just flipped or something?” She picked up a potato. I saw it hit the floor, then roll under the stove. “What's wrong with you?” she said. “Are you drunk?”

“I'm just asking,” I said.

Right then my wife filled me in with more detail than I cared to know. I made a drink and sat at the kitchen table to listen. Pieces of the story began to fall into place.

We read it in Cathedral.

The Lady With The Dog
Excerpt

Experience often repeated, truly bitter experience, had taught him long ago that with decent people, especially Moscow people—always slow to move and irresolute—every intimacy, which at first so agreeably diversifies life and appears a light and charming adventure, inevitably grows into a regular problem of extreme intricacy, and in the long run the situation becomes unbearable. But at every fresh meeting with an interesting woman this experience seemed to slip out of his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed simple and amusing.

Teddy
Excerpt

“I'll qualify you, buddy, if you dont' get hte hell off that bag,” Mr. McArdle said. He had just lit a fresh cigarette. “I'm going to count three. Oneˆ, God damn it... Two...”

“What time is it?” Mrs. McArdle suddenly asked the back of Teddy's legs. “Don't you and Booper have a swimming lesson at ten-thirty?”

“We have time,” Teddy said. “—Vloom!” He suddenly thrust his whole head out of the porthole, kept it there a few seconds, then brought it in just long enough to report, “Someone just dumped a whole garbage can of orange peels out the window.”

“Out the window. out the window,” Mr. McArdle said sarcastically, flicking his ashes. “Out the porthole, buddy, out the porthole.”

We read it in Nine Stories.

Miss Lora
Excerpt

Of course you knew her; she lived in the building behind, taught over at Sayreville H.S. But it was only in the past months that she’d snapped into focus. There were a lot of these middle-aged single types in the neighborhood, shipwrecked by every kind of catastrophe, but she was one of the few who didn’t have children, who lived alone, who was still kinda young. Something must have happened, your mother speculated. In her mind, a woman with no child could be explained only by vast untrammelled calamity.

Maybe she just doesn’t like children.

Nobody likes children, your mother assured you. That doesn’t mean you don’t have them.