For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Manuel Gonzales: The Short Form Interview

A zombie story will end one of two ways, and my hope was to make the reader forget that there were only those two ways it could end.

Author the short story collection, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories

The Interview

Much of the book requires the reader to suspend certain rules of nature and science. So much so, that when we come to the journalistic tellings such as “The Artist's Voice” or the “Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe” it becomes easy to simply assume you've written something completely true. I'm interested in the decisions that went into organizing the ‘journalism’ stories against the rest of the works. And do your goals differ from writing the more fantastical stories versus the journalistic?

I’ll take the second question first: my goals are really pretty similar—to see how far I can push an idea and still make it believable, either through tone and structure or through grounded emotion and character, or both. The method changes, but my hope is to create a world that is still believable. As for the placement of them, the organization, I wanted the whole book to move into greater and greater entropy and potential for disaster. I mean, I know that the collection starts off with barely plausible ideas and already a sense of things coming undone, but I had this sense of the arc of the book moving deeper and deeper into a tragic dissolution, and I set up the journalism stories toward that same kind of end. I also used them as a way to create space between the straightforward narratives so that the book would have a balance to it, but also I liked the idea of using these pieces to lend a non-fictiony authority to the whole book, as if the voice and tone of them might bleed out over the rest of the stories.

Right after that lengthy science-jargony explanation, I almost immediately call bullshit on my own outlandish idea.

When I started “All of Me” I was thinking ‘Okay, let's see him get me to like a zombie story.’ And of course, it ended up being my favorite in the collection. For unnecessary reasons, a lot of us assume genre fiction and literary fiction are mutually exclusive. Are you actively thinking about combining/pushing these worlds when writing, or is it just the kind of story at which you naturally arrive?

I’m glad you liked it, especially coming to it with some skepticism the way you did because it’s a kind of skepticism I expected for that story, what with all the zombie action going on in the world. What’s funny—or not—is that I wrote it just before the world of zombies broke wide open again, just after World War Z, I think, and The Walking Dead comics, but well before the AMC show, and I was worried, publishing it in this book so long after that, that the story would be lumped in with all of that and dismissed. So I’m glad it won you over. As for my own aims when writing, I’m not very interested philosophically in pushing or combining these worlds to make a point. Mostly, these are the kinds of stories I come by naturally. I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy and horror and those ideas and themes and characters carried through even as I read more contemporary literary fiction—became a fan of realists and metafictionalists and magical realists and lyricists—and has spilled into the stories I write. And honestly, I think the distinction is a bit of a silly one. Granted, readers of a certain kind of book will have expectations that I won’t necessarily meet if they go in looking for a straight sci-fi or horror story. I have these elements in my work, but mainly to explore character and because it’s fun to take these iconic creatures or tropes and upend them, throw a wrench in the mechanism for a little while, and then pull that wrench out again at the last minute—“All of Me,” for example, despite everything that happens in it, is still a zombie story and will end one of two ways, and my hope was to make the reader forget—forget that there were only those two ways it could end. 

I have a hard time enacting lasting personal change in myself and so can’t rightly and in good conscience offer it to my characters.

When writing the fantastical stories, how far do you let yourself go in the early drafts? Are you staying pretty firmly planted in your loose realities, or do you give yourself permission to get as out there as you want?

I never thought about how far I'd let myself go when writing or that I had my feet firmly planted in these realities but now that you asked, that's probably what I do–the latter–though it's more of an intuitive sense of what the rules are for the world, what is allowed and what isn't. And mostly what I'm thinking about when thinking about the fantastical elements is: what can I get away with and what do I need to do to make sure I can get away with it. So, for “Pilot,” I mention (but also discount) perpetual oil, and then the clear liquid drops, but use these to make a nod to some justification without going too deep into the details. Or, with the “Artist's Voice,” where I do go into extreme detail about Tinnitus and how this might be reworked to make a person talk out of his ears, right after that lengthy science-jargony explanation, I almost immediately call bullshit on my own outlandish idea–Dr. Johnson literally says it's a bullshit idea–because I know that's what most readers are going to want to say, too. So I say it first with the intention of disarming the reader's immediate dismissal of the idea so that I can then bring the idea back and, with any luck, make it seem even more believable after undermining it in the first place.

Can you talk about the genesis of the “Meritorious Life” stories? 

I wrote a bunch of them all together my second semester in grad school, and put them into a story I called “An Illustrated Chronicle of Meritorious Lives,” illustrated because I’d found these old strange illustrations in old medical texts and science texts in the Columbia library and photocopied them for no good reason at the time, and then, and I don’t remember exactly why, I got the idea to create a series of semi-encyclopedic pieces. I say I don’t remember why, but I do remember what I had in mind when I started piecing them together, but it’s A) an old idea I don’t cotton to anymore and B) has nothing to do with the stories as they developed, so I’ll leave that a mystery. A writer needs mystery, right? What they became, though, was this game of creating a life-story in a page, but of people whose lives weren’t particularly successful, exploring them, hoping to create some sense of sympathy for them and their failures or mediocrity. 

In a host of your stories, you elect to not give us a sound resolution. One story ends with the narrator preparing for battle with his wife, and another with the narrator gashed on the street after attempting to steal a unicorn. You give your characters life-altering problems but stay away from any clear cut solution. What's the motivation behind such endings?

I have a hard time believing in lasting personal change. I have a hard time enacting lasting personal change in myself and so can’t rightly and in good conscience offer it to my characters. Also, I find myself when faced with movies or stories that offer clearcut solutions or this cathartic moment near the end, asking, Well, what happens after that? In the next scene? Or a few months from now? After this moment has ended, and when it’s been forgotten? I think a lot of people have the tendency to feel in an emotional moment that the moment will be remembered forever and will have an outward ripple effect, but just as often, it seems that we revert back to our habits, our routines, our old selves. Not that change isn’t possible, but that it’s harder than it’s made out to be, and I think that also there’s something interesting in that failure. Not to mention the short story itself lends itself not to easy resolutions but the capturing of a moment, of characters on cusp.

Definitely the nature of the short story lends itself to one moment, and how you say “characters on cusp,” which I think is a great distinction. Often, zeroing in on that moment and realizing your character will extend way beyond the narrative you've provided is a skill that eludes many writers. I'm wondering, then, if you arrive at your endings smoothly? Or do you tend to overwrite and pare them down?

The first story in the collection, “Pilot,” didn't have an ending when I first submitted it to One Story, and a few months after I submitted it, they wrote to me to say they'd like to publish it, but could I write an ending for it first. So sometimes I pare them down or maybe what I do is not get around to writing the endings at all. I think though, with my strongest endings, the image of the ending, the moment where the story will end, will come to me in the middle of writing the story. I'll be writing and won't be entirely sure where the story will be heading, and I'll be teasing out ideas and moments, and I won't be thinking about the ending, not directly, but then the way I want it to end will arrive, not complete, but the basic sense of it, and I'll jump ahead and write this out, this rough ending, and that will help me piece together the rest of the story. In general, though, I'm an under-writer, not an over-writer. I pull things too far back more often than not and have to be goaded into putting more onto the page, and that goes for beginnings, middles, and endings.

It’s fun to take iconic creatures or tropes and upend them, throw a wrench in the mechanism for a little while, and then pull that wrench out again at the last minute.

I'd read that you were working on a novel, ran it through a bunch of drafts, but it just wasn't doing. Asking a writer to explain his process is fruitless, but if possible, what kind of differences were happening when writing these stories versus the novel?

Once, I wrote a story titled “A Brief History of Plumbing,” which was modeled after a high school history essay and was, more or less, up until the last couple of paragraphs, really just a brief, dry, not very well written history of plumbing, which wasn't horribly successful as a story, but when I had the idea, I knew the shape it would take, knew what I wanted to try to do with it, had a sense of what I was aiming for, and that's generally–not always–but generally that's how I feel about my story ideas, and when they don't work, it's easy to see how and where they don't work because of the length of them. It's not always easy to fix what isn't working but it's usually pretty clear the thing that isn't working. The novel–I had an aim for it but when it didn't work, I couldn't figure out exactly what wasn't working. It was too large and the problems were possibly too numerous. The things I tried–more narrative, more connection between chapters, less this, more that, different of the other–didn't address what was wrong with it, and I couldn't figure it out, banging my head against it for so long. What's funny is that, after working on these stories and after writing and selling a different novel, the idea of how I could fix that first novel came to me and I think it would work, can see how it would work, but now I can't seem to make myself interested anymore.

Tell us a little about your story recommendations:

“The Swimmer” by John Cheever was the first short story I read that I didn’t understand, didn’t completely understand for a long time but felt compelled and enchanted and saddened by.

“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” by George Saunders first introduced me to the elegant way in which Saunders is able to combine really sharp humor with the commonplace and all the more devastating because of being so tragic.

“Tender Buttons” by Gertrude Stein, who creates this strange and magical world with language and language alone.

I don't know if this will fly, because it's not a short story, but the essay, “Canal Street” by Ian Frazier. As a fiction writer, I return to it time and time again.

“Mermaids” by Deborah Eisenberg—I’ve been reading a lot of Eisenberg lately and I’ve included this one becuase it's the most recent, but in every Eisenberg story I’ve read so far, there is not just one moment but three or four or five where she will land a sentence or a phrase that will make me have to stop and close the book and take a moment to recover—from what? I haven’t been able to pinpoint, but I also don’t care.

Recommended by Manuel Gonzales

The Swimmer
Excerpt

He took off a sweater that hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering the project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb—he never used the ladder—and started across the lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
Excerpt

His office is in City Hall. He agrees that the gangs are getting out of hand. Last month they wounded three Visitors and killed a dray horse. Several of them encircled and made fun of Mrs. Dugan in her settler outfit as she was taking her fresh-baked bread over to the simulated Towne Meeting. No way they're paying admission, so they're either tunneling in or coming in over the retaining wall.

Mr. Alsuga believes the solution to the gang problem is Teen Groups. I tell him that's basically what a gang is, a Teen Group. But he says how can it be a Teen Group without an adult mentor with a special skill, like whittling? Mr. Alsuga whittles. Once he gave an Old Tyme Skills Seminar on it in the Blacksmith Shoppe. It was poorly attended. All he got was two widowers and a chess-club type no gang would have wanted anyway. And myself. I attended. Evelyn called me a bootlicker, but I attended. She called me a bootlicker, and I told her she'd better bear in mind which side of the bread her butter was on. She said whichever side it was on it wasn't enough to shake a stick at. She's always denigrating my paystub. I came home from the Seminar with this kind of whittled duck. She threw it away the next day because she said she thought it was an acorn. It looked nothing like an acorn. As far as I'm concerned she threw it away out of spite. It made me livid and twice that night I had to step into a closet and perform my Hatred Abatement Breathing.

But that's neither here nor there.

We read it in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.

Originally published in Kenyon Review.

Tender Buttons
Excerpt

Why is there a difference between one window and another, why is there a difference, because the curtain is shorter. There is no distaste in beefsteak or in plums or in gallons of milk water, there is no defiance in original piling up over a roof, there is no daylight in the evening, there is none there empty.

 

A tribune, a tribune does not mean paper, it means nothing more than cake, it means more sugar, it shows the state of lengthening any nose. The last spice is that which shows the whole evening spent in that sleep, it shows so that walking is an alleviation, and yet this astonishes everybody the distance is so sprightly. In all the time there are three days, those are not passed uselessly. Any little thing is a change that is if nothing is wasted in that cellar. All the rest of the chairs are established.

A success, a success is alright when there are there rooms and no vacancies, a success is alright when there is a package, success is alright anyway and any curtain is wholesale. A curtain diminishes and an ample space shows varnish.

We read it in Tender Buttons: Objects.

Canal Street
Excerpt

The unit of exchange on Canal Street is the dallah. Dallahs are dollars crossbred with dinars, pesos, yen, dirhams, zlotys, rubles, piastres. Salesmen in storefronts and sidewalk venders who know almost no other English yell “Fifty dallah!” and “T‘ree dallah!” and “Ten dallah!” up and down the street. Dollars often exist only on paper or video-display terminals; dallahs are always real. Dallahs are green, of small demonination, faded, crumpled, marked with ink and duck sauce and fingerprints and smears of blood. Dollars are carried in a bankbook or a wallet; the proper way to carry dallahs is in the right-front pants pocket in a folded wad with a red rubber band around it. When I ask Gary to lend me forty, he says, “Take sixty.” He pulls his wad from his pocket and peels off three twenties. Then he stands looking at me with his eyebrows raised and his thumb poised above the bills, in case I might want more. He says, “All you got to do is ask.” He says now if he gets robbed that’s sixty he won’t lose.

We read it in Gone to New York.

Originally published in The New Yorker: April 30, 1990.

Mermaids
Excerpt

“Well, darling—” Her mother simled gently. “Because I need time to see my friends just as you need time to see your friends.”

But the point was, Kyla thought, she didn’t need time to see her friends. All she and her friends had was time—time and time and time. Waiting through the long, dull afternoons, the whole funnel of Kyla’s memory, playing upstairs with the dolls or games or trading cards they’d been given to play with, doing each other’s hair, pretending Brides or Baby or Shopping just like Alice did now, pretending—there was nothing else to do—they they were pretending, until it was time to come back down for milk and cookies or for one of them to be take home. Waiting to understand the point of the dolls or games they’d been presented with, waiting for the afternoon to turn into night or for Sunday to turn into Monday, or for August to turn into September, or for nine years old to turn into ten and ten to turn, heavenly, into eleven. Waiting alone in front of the television for the long evenings to fall away. Staring at the screen as if they were staring through periscopes for land, and in the dim evening rooms, the world, the distant world—which was what they must be waiting for—approached, welled into the screens, and the evening fell away in half-hour pieces. And then, finally, there was bed, and another long day had been completed. “What friend do you need time to see?” Kyla said.

“Stand up straight, darling,” her mother said. “You don’t want to look like Margie Strayhorn, do you? Doctor Loeffler.”