Manuel Gonzales takes impressions other writers might discard and spins gold from them. He had a juggernaut of plane travel once so instead of complaining that he couldn’t get any work done because of all the travel, he wrote a story – the first one in his debut collection The Miniature Wife and Other Stories – that takes place over many years with a crew of beleaguered plane passengers who have to become comfortable with the idea that their plane may just never land. A child is born on that plane but it just keeps flying around. Gonzales’ stories are funny, confident, weird, inquisitive and inviting; he doesn’t traffic in surrealism just for surrealism’s sake. He’s more invested in creating a coherent way for readers to think about his characters and the decisions they make and what you might do if you were faced with the recognizable but bizarre circumstances his characters confront. Gonzales is one of a crop of new writers who not only mix tropes of science fiction or horror into literary fiction but seem entirely unfazed by the fact that combining those different approaches not even that long ago seemed like a set-up for failure. Given the far-out set-ups of his stories, I couldn’t keep from asking him how he settles on the ideas for his plots.
I try to not ask writers this question but the plots of your stories are so vivid, imaginative and surreal that I want to ask how your ideas come to you…
A lot of times I’m in a situation and I extrapolate that situation to its Nth degree. I wrote that first story [“Pilot, Copilot, Writer”] because over four weeks I took planes to four cities and it felt like I was on the plane all the time. And I just thought, ‘What would happen if I was on a plane forever?’ In “The Wolf,” in which the narrator’s father becomes a werewolf, or maybe doesn’t, I’d come across a lot of friends of mine, mainly women, who’ve had horrible, horrible fathers. The father is supposed to be this benign Norman Rockwell kind of thing and I had a great father relationship, but they had these men who everybody didn’t realize were monsters when they were inside the house and everything you did you did to prevent from waking that beast. And so I made this nebbishy, quiet birdwatcher guy become a werewolf. The last story, “Escape from the Mall,” I was teaching 10th grade high school English in a small town in northeast Texas and it was awful. And the only thing I could do about it to make myself feel better was during my lunch hour I would write all across all the white boards and then type it up and erase it and start again with the next section and I realized afterward that I wrote about these people trapped in this institution infested with monsters, overrun with monsters. If you’ve ever worked with 10th grade boys, they can be horrible people. Some of them are great but I just felt trapped and that’s what that came out of. They usually come out of a normal place that I take as far as I can and see if I can break it. How far can I push this fantastical or science fictional element and still keep somebody believing that this can still happen?
But you present much of the fantastical imagery in these stories in a resolutely matter-of-fact way, almost like you’re reporting the stories. Is that because it’s more effective to present odd ideas if they’re conveyed in a demure tone?
I think it is. You give it to them up-front that there’s going to be this weird thing going on and it’s accepted knowledge that this guy got a unicorn in a Houston suburb or a guy shrunk his wife down to the size of a coffee cup. You can draw too much attention to the fantastical part of it through the language; these little set-ups aren’t the point. They’re just these situations that happen to go on and the point is the character and how they react and what these fantastical things bring out that might be sub-surface, and these develop into a catalyst. In “All of Me,” the zombie narrator, it’s the whole idea of trying to be something that you’re not or something you’ve been for so long. A lot of people I know have this history they want to jettison and become different people and try to discard all of that from their past. For me, I don’t know why, but I can’t imagine writing a just straightforward bedroom drama or relationship story, even though those are the emotions and ideas I’m really interested in. I find it difficult creatively to work in just a straight form like that.
Do you feel like it’s difficult to get alternate visions like yours published?
Right now, I think that there’s a bit of a resurgence of speculative fiction–George Saunders, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, the Grossman brothers, this slipstream writing. My concern when I went out with the book–the book had been almost the way it is now and no movement had been made on it at the time by my agent and there were two zombie stories and I was worried; there’s a shelf life on that kind of story. Even my editor was worried about people seeing there was a zombie story and writing it off without seeing what different things I do with that story. The zombie story, “All of Me,” was originally titled “I, Zombie” and my editor said, ‘That makes me worried.’ Colson Whitehead was about to come out with his zombie book and everybody was already talking about the zombie story being over. We had to think about that more than anything else. The stories themselves aren’t trend chasing but they fit a certain mold right now.
There’s a blurring of genres that happens in your work–are you conscious as you’re writing of combining literary fiction with horror or even science fiction, or do you just write about what interests you?
It’s really the second, what interests me. Although I don’t know that I would’ve taken on that kind of writing before investing in TV series like Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fantastical series that walk the fine line between storytelling and genre and character development. Before I got to grad school, I was really just aping a lot of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and they’re both great writers but my writing didn’t have a lot of heart to it. It was a lot of mimicry. And then in graduate school, I was introduced to writers like Ben Marcus, Judy Budnitz, Gary Lutz, George Saunders, a number of writers who were blurring the lines. My hope is that my stories seem easy to digest on the surface but for people who are interested in it there’s a lot to reread and they’ll see the different games I’m playing.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.