On June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead-up to the event, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.
This week we’re talking to Manuel Gonzales, author of the collection The Miniature Wife, published by Riverhead Books. The Miniature Wife includes the innovative story Manuel published with One Story, “Pilot, Co-Pilot Writer,” which tells the hilarious, strange and moving story of a writer trapped on a hijacked airplane–circling Dallas–for 20 years.
Gonzales is the Executive Director of the Austin Bat Cave, a great non-profit organization that offers writing classes for children and teenagers in Austin, TX. So it’s no wonder that his stories are chock full of wild creatures–unicorns, zombies, and even werewolves. As the LA Times said in their review of the book: “Manuel Gonzales is a writer who can’t wait for the next, magical thing to surprise him—so he makes them happen, in the big Texas sky of his abundant imagination.”
Your collection includes, “Pilot, Co-pilot, Writer,” which you published with us in One Story. What happened from when you published in One Story to when your first book was accepted?
I wrote that story in late 2004 and it was published in late 2005. I was in the middle of writing or trying to write a novel when this story was published, a novel that I spent maybe five years writing and rewriting, but that I could never pull together, regardless how many drafts I wrote. I was living in Houston, and then moved with my wife and daughter back to Plano, where we lived for a year at my parents’ house while I continued to work on the novel, and then we moved to Paris, TX, where I worked more on the novel, lost a job working from home, became, briefly, a high school English teacher, quit work on the novel, went back to stories I wrote during and right after grad school, tried to look for a book in them, wrote more stories to make them into a book, and then I, when I finally did, tried to find the right agent for them. So. Seven years and six novel drafts and nine new stories later, the book was accepted at Riverhead.
Your collection showcases enormous imagination and inventiveness yet manages to remain grounded in story and the details of everyday life. How have you learned to exercise such restraint while working with wild ideas? How do you keep your concepts and premises from running away with things?
What helps keep these ideas from running away from the story I want to tell is that I’m mostly interested in the characters and the details of their every day lives, in how these lives must continue functioning in the face of the apocalypse or total body paralyzation or the purchase of a unicorn, how these things don’t ever really take away the deep-seated problems or concerns facing these people, their relationships with each other, and in fact might make them worse.
Do you write stories to explore ideas or do you come up with ideas in order to write stories? Is this a false binary?
I’ll plead the third (option). I do both. I’ll write a story based on an idea and sometimes I start a story without any idea but a character or a line in mind, and then as the story moves forward, I’ll recognize ideas I’ve explored in the past or that are new ideas but pretty clearly present in hindsight. Take “Pilot”. I had the idea while traveling a lot for work that I felt like I was on a plane constantly and that I wouldn’t ever not be on a plane and then played around the idea of how I would act or how a person would act if actually in that situation. But also a lot of what’s going on in this story—looking back at it now—there’s a strong sense of stasis, of circling, and looking back at that time—I had recently left New York and my circle of friends, had been having difficulties working with my literary agent, felt myself stuck in a distant and barren suburb of Houston, in a job that wasn’t fulfilling, was little more than work — I mean, looking back at that moment in my life, it’s almost more surprising that I didn’t write twenty stories about circling a city in an airplane.
Do your stories or characters ever surprise you? Has the writing of a particular piece caused you to view what you were writing about differently?
What’s usually surprising to me is that moment when the story becomes a story. Often I’ll have an idea or a character in a situation–trapped on a plane forever, told from the point of view of the zombie, the African continent sunk into the sea–but I won’t know very much else, won’t have a direction, won’t have a story itself, and I’ll put these characters through paces, or I’ll play around with language, and then I’ll write a line or a phrase–everything went dark, I got the notion I should steal this creature from them–and suddenly this weird, amorphous piece of writing I’ve been working on is suddenly a story, has a shape that I can see. Every time that happens, and every time it’s a surprise, a thrilling surprise.
Your collection features a number of pieces written in the style of a non-fiction profile and I’ve read elsewhere it’s one of your favorite forms to read as well. What is it about the non-fiction profile piece that piques your interest as a writer and as a reader?
As a writer, I love the ability a person writing non-fiction has to simply lay out details of a person or a situation. There is no fictional trickery or obfuscation, no worry of show don’t tell with the nonfiction essay. That straightforward, declarative sentence is amazing fun to work with in fiction but you can’t usually get away with when writing a short story. I mean, nonfiction writers have the benefit of writing from facts, and so of course readers are going to be inclined to suspend disbelief because the intention is straight belief without any suspension. As a reader, I love the ability great nonfiction writers have of taking something so rigid and potentially anti-narrative as facts and crafting an affecting story out of them.
What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th?
Buying a kickass ball gown. It’s funny because the coming out party, or the debutante ball, is huge in Mexican culture, with the quinceañera, but that’s reserved just for girls, and also my parents didn’t really get into that when my sister and I were kids, but still. Here is my chance to horn in on that quinceañera action. Also, it’ll be a great party and a lot of fun connecting with good friends I don’t see often enough and making new friends with the other debs, and to do all of this and also help support an outfit like One Story Magazine makes the perfect kind of sense.