Monday, April 18, 2011

Interview with Manuel Muñoz regarding his new novel, “What You See in the Dark”

Manuel Muñoz is the author of two collections of short stories, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 2007, and Zigzagger, published by Northwestern University Press in 2003. A recipient of a Whiting Writers Award in 2008, Manuel was a finalist for the 2007 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize and the recipient of a Constance Saltonstall Foundation Individual Artist's Grant in Fiction, a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a 2009 O. Henry Prize for a short story. A native of Dinuba, California, he is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

Manuel’s first novel, What You See in the Dark, has just been published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It is, in a word, thrilling. Manuel weaves two stories together: that of a young couple in Bakersfield whose love will lead inexorably toward tragedy, while the great director Alfred Hitchcock uses their community to shoot scenes for his new film, Psycho. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review saying: “[A] stellar first novel…with a subtlety worthy of Hitchcock himself.” He is currently on a book tour that includes an interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm which will air on April 21.

Manuel kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga to answer a few questions about his new novel:

DANIEL OLIVAS: What inspired you to weave the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho with the lives of two ordinary people from Bakersfield?

MANUEL MUÑOZ: I’ve told the story about seeing the road sign for Gorman, CA, when I first saw the film on the big screen, but I haven’t written much yet about my attraction to Janet Leigh. We speak about “identification” so much when we talk about films and books that we sometimes neglect our willingness to see a mirror of ourselves in the creators of the work that inspires us (not just the characters we learn about). Leigh has always struck me as an actor who was quite capable of producing terrific work when given the chance, but opportunity didn’t strike as often for her as it did for Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor. Still, handed this role, she knocked it out of the park: I like how that speaks to me as a Chicano writer. The attention we get from mainstream publishing and review outlets is so scant, and every attempt we have with each of our books is a precious chance. I felt I could meet Leigh halfway in her chapters: I could bring all the self-doubt and anxiety to her character as she prepares for the role because I know it from sitting at my writing desk. I felt that I knew the question she might have asked herself as an artist: Can I do this?

DO: It seems as though you did extensive research on the making of Psycho. Did you? What was the most interesting (or puzzling) thing you learned about the film’s production?

MM: I read a lot of the making-of books, scholarly essays and critiques, and, of course, watched many of Hitchcock’s films. Nothing really surprised me, since I’ve been learning about this film since I took a Hitchcock course during my undergraduate days at Harvard. Still, I’m glad I decided to listen to the DVD commentary. At one point, a member of the production team openly guessed that the Bates Motel would have been near Tulare, CA. So I felt affirmed in thinking that the Central Valley was crucial to this film’s geography. Some of Hitchcock’s best films—from The Birds to Shadow of a Doubt—involve themselves quite a bit with small-town life.

DO: Your Bakersfield lovers, Dan and Teresa, are of different ethnic backgrounds (he is white, she is Mexican) at a time when such relationships were far from acceptable to the society at large. Why did you want to explore such a relationship? What do you think readers will take away from your depiction of their love?

MM: I was very apprehensive about this at first because I didn’t want the book to lapse into a didactic meditation on 1950s societal norms. You know from the jacket flap that this relationship ends violently, so I’m not giving anything away. In fact, my interest was less in this couple than in the people who watch them: I wanted to explore how small communities tend to react to transgressors, to people who cross the lines—mostly with silence, then later with rumor and innuendo. Our tendency is to read people like Dan and Teresa as ignorant in their courting of public disfavor (with us in the background waiting to say, “We told you so,” if such relationships end up in violence). But I think, in these situations, there’s more deliberation than ignorance when it comes to doing what makes us happy, no matter what people around us might say or even how dangerous it is. Remember, I’m a gay man: from Obama on down, I live in a time in which my own nation is telling me it should have a say in how I construct my life and meaning. Do you really think today’s societal norms, dangerous as they currently are, have ever put a stop to my desire? Why would this have been any different for a couple like Dan and Teresa? Why do we work on the assumption that the codes of times past ever kept people apart?

DO: Were there any particularly challenging moments in the writing of What You See in the Dark? Do you prefer novel writing over short story writing, or are they too different to compare?

MM: I was plagued by self-doubt over the five years (and five drafts) it took me to complete this book. All along, I was really shaken by the persistent question about Hitchcock and what, if anything, he had to do with Chicano/a literature. I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew. But if we really believe what we say about the universality of all art, then our quest for easy, transparent connections between ideas shouldn’t hinder us from enjoying the pleasure of investigation. It’s okay for books to make us work. Short stories will always be my love, as they provide tremendous access to all the aspects I love so much in literature: sentences and style and word play and mood. Novels offer all of this, of course, but they can’t do it in such concentrated ways as the short story. I recognize that not everyone loves stories for this reason, but that’s why I love to write them. I get to drown in language. Content is so easy to dismiss—that’s primarily why mainstream publishing and the press ignores our output. But you have to be really willful to ignore a good, well-written sentence—better yet, a good, well-constructed book. It takes work to say you didn’t notice.

DO: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

[Photo credit: Stuart Bernstein.]


◙ Author C. M. Mayo blogs over at Madam Mayo…check it out.

◙ The UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, MALDEF, and Diane Rodriguez invite you to a book release and signing of The Latino Theatre Initiative / Center Theatre Group Papers 1980-2005 (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press) by Dr. Chantal Rodriguez. Monday, April 18, 2011, 7:00 p.m. at the MALDEF, Edison Room, 634 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles. For more information, visit the CSRC website.

◙ The Tucson Weekly published a very nice review of my new novel, The Book of Want. If you missed my recent book appearances, you may purchase inscribed copies (in person or via online order) at Vroman’s or Kepler’s. For my future appearances, visit here for details. Finally, Poets & Writers magazine published my writing recommendations online. Take a peek and feel free to leave a comment.

◙ That’s all for this Monday. In the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!