SHELDON LEE COMPTON: Really happy to have the chance to talk with you, Hugo. Thanks for taking the time. I want to start with your story “The Ritual.” I was proud as hell to get the chance to publish that at The Airgonaut the summer of last year. It tore me down in the best way possible. I knew right away I was in the hands of an extraordinary imagination. Do you mind starting with how that story took shape?
HUGO ESTEBAN RODRIGUEZ: It’s really an honor to me! I’ve always found that my fiction is a little bit weird and a little bit strange and when The Airgonaut gave me a chance I felt like I finally had that validation. On to the story! It’s really what happens when you get one particularly strong image and have it chug a whole lot of Julio Cortazar. In this case, the image was that of a diving board at a swimming pool I used to visit when I was a kid. I might have jumped from it once, but just once, and what I remember the most was how high it was, and the paint chipping off the blue metal rungs leading up to the platform. There wasn’t a diving board, either, just an elevated platform. The image stuck with me for a long time after, in a little folder in my head of random and disconnected images.
A few years ago, as a student at the UTEP’s online MFA program, I had the fortune of having Daniel Chacón as both professor and thesis advisor because he exposed me to the works of Julio Cortazar and Jorge Luis Borges and the power of magic realism, where the line between the real and the fantastical could be blurred to create the most powerful images and stories. One particular story we covered in class sticks out: Cortazar’s La autopista del sur. What Cortazar does with the concept of time and place in that story basically told me: “You want to get weird? Let’s get weird.”
So I wrote an entire manuscript with those ideas, with my heart set on releasing a book that would put me in a literary space somewhere between Raymond Carver, Neil Gaiman, and Sandra Cisneros. But The Ritual, for all its weirdness, didn’t feel like it belonged there. Once I made the edits to the manuscript, it was the first story removed. Coincidentally, the second story removed from the manuscript eventually became This Nocturne of Misplaced Questions, published by The Airgonaut earlier this year.
But on to “The Ritual” even after I had made some more edits free from the constraint of continuity or of the manuscript, something was not quite there. It wasn’t until I heeded the call for submissions from The Airgonaut that I realized what my problem with the story was. It wasn’t what I wasn’t saying, but rather what I was saying, and using the sharp 1,000-word cut-off requirement, I took a scalpel and removed all the excess fat from the story, resulting in what you see now. My belief with “The Ritual” was that there should be an emphasis on the real part of magic realism, where there was more creativity invested in writing something concrete than in something ethereal, vague, and abstract.
To sum it up “The Ritual” came about as a vivid image frozen in time bolstered by learning about magic realism and then using a scalpel to remove unnecessary detail in a weird story that’s both an ode to the Latino greats that influenced me and an introduction letter to the literary world broadcasting that I’m going to bring the weirdness.
COMPTON: I like that – an introduction letter. It has the feel of a story that is announcing something important, the arrival of a genuine storyteller. You mention some of the Latino influences such as Borges (who I’ve read extensively) and Cortazar (who I have not read at all, as of yet). I wonder when writing in proximity to these huge shadows of magical realism and innovation how does a writer manage to create his own voice and his own style, and so on? It’s clearly something you’ve managed to do very well. I only wonder was there a great deal of effort that went into it or were you able to open up in original ways without much problem?
RODRIGUEZ: I have kind of a simple view on things like that. I don’t see it as daunting or intimidating. I see what’s been done by people like those two and I think to myself: “Wow, that’s really cool! Now how can I do something like that with my own twist?”
It goes beyond those writers I mentioned and extends to poets and journalists and songwriters and what they’re able to do with words. That’s what inspires me and gives me the fuel to figure out the how to make my voice unique. And to answer that question, I think I benefit from an outsider’s approach. I only started writing literary fiction in 2013 and then only because it was part of my Advanced Fiction Writing workshop. Before that, the bulk of my writing experience came from six semesters as a journalist for my alma mater, angsty online journals, and writing bad genre fiction and even worse fanfiction. So you take that and then you add the fact that my main social circle isn’t writers or poets but rather accountants, engineers, IT professionals, and teachers and you get a guy who has no idea what rules and norms The Literary Establishment™ has set and decides to instead carve out his own place. That comes easy to me. The effort and the real fun*, I think, comes from the trial-and-error figuring out which inspiration will work with which weird/vivid imagery. I compare this to cooking, another hobby I go into with the same reckless abandon. Sometimes the idea will work, like the years-long process that’s helped me develop the best gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes the idea will crash and burn spectacularly, like the time I thought adding marinara sauce to ramen would be a good idea.
It wasn’t, and the effort resulted in the next two hours being spent in complete misery, but it was still fun attempting it.
*writers have quite the masochistic view of fun.
COMPTON: You say angsty online journals. I feel like I can relate. An online journal should be the rebel torch in the literary darkness right now, I think. Not a throw-away jumble of hasty ideas spread all over the place. Can you expand on what you mean and also share your thoughts on online work in general, especially as opposed to the increasingly uptight world of print?
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, to clarify, I meant angsty online personal journal sites, such as Xanga. However, there is one thing in common that those monuments to my teenage angst have with stories I’ve seen published: self-serving, navel-gazing bullshit. Not that there isn’t great work out there, because there is, plenty of it, but I feel like it gets buried in mountains of stories about sad people feeling sad about sad things.
Last year, I briefly worked as an assistant editor for the literary magazine Bartleby Snopes and one of the things that I loved the most about it, besides the fantastic people I got to work with, was that they weren’t afraid to push into the weird to get awesomely engaging stories. Editor Nate Tower had set a few submission guidelines for things that we would be wary of: “Stories written in present tense (especially third person present tense); stories with graphic dead baby scenes; stories about writers; stories about struggling marriages; stories set in bars; stories with more backstory than plot; stories with undeveloped characters; stories that are overly reflective; and stories that rely heavily on second person usage.”
It didn’t mean we weren’t going to publish stories that had some of those things, it just meant that writers should take risks and Bartleby was going to do its best to take away as many crutches as they could from those who submitted. That’s how the final issue’s dialogue contest winners included stories-in-dialogue about: a Godzilla-like monster who recited haikus; two men talking about pillows; two AIs talking at a bar; and one about a store receiving magical unicorn polish. I repeat: Bartleby Snopes was not a genre magazine, but it was a magazine that wasn’t afraid to get weird.
I’m a traditionalist in the sense that I prefer to work within rather than without the Literary Establishment™ to change things. Why? Because a lot of the criticism levied against it is completely valid. One of the biggest problems is the one you mentioned: We’re very uptight. We don’t want to mess with what’s established. We don’t want to take risks. We don’t want to try and take notes from the indie crowd when it comes to building up market. We act as if being able to interpret Joyce and loving the classics is the only way to enter this rarified air.
(And all of this just gives more ammo to those in the indie community who then claim we’re some sort of exclusive country club)
But these are not lofty spaces. What we do is really no different than what anyone with a passion/talent does. Success shouldn’t be defined by what you publish, awards, conferences, tenures, it should be defined by the simplest question: “Are you happy?”
And not in the blissful, okay-we-are-done-no-more-effort-required sense of happiness that’s fatal, but rather, the happiness, or rather, the satisfaction of knowing that what you do is what you want to do. That’s success. Y’all think some of these best-selling and allegedly “hack” writers give two shits that some stuffy professor with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop thinks? They enjoy what they do.
That’s success. I consider myself successful because I get to do what I like to do on the side, but success comes with a huge side helping of hunger. There are still a lot of things I want to do and am able to do and I’m just getting started. I can’t stop. My grandfather once wrote to me: “Venado que se para, lo flechan.” (The deer that stays still gets killed)
And maybe, maybe part of it is that I just don’t “get it” and it would make sense. I’ve hated most of the classics I’ve read, I didn’t study literary theory until my master’s, got a C in the last proper English class I took in undergrad, and but for a few exceptions didn’t really like the rest of my English classes. There are things I still don’t like about the approaches: such as how anything published online is automatically considered published. Sure, Sturgeon’s Law applies but it’s also a good way to grow your market versus having to order a book that even with the author’s discount comes out to $10 if you want to show someone what you’ve written. (Don’t even get me started on submission fees)
But, to be fair, that uptightness extends to those levying that criticism against the Establishment, too. Writers who can’t take criticism at all. I have seen people say, and I’m paraphrasing only a bit: “Oh I had a story that got turned down by an editor therefore all gatekeepers are snobs. I am just going to throw a few words on CreateSpace and show it to people who’ll blow smoke up my ass and flip my shit when someone gives me three stars or less on my review.”
You have to have thick skin as a writer. You’re going to get rejection after rejection. That’s good! The first one’s always a little bit jarring but after that, they get much easier. The mentality should be that rejections are the expectation and not the exception. Eventually you start wanting to get rejections because you know every rejection is an opportunity to fix something and you know that in the end it’s a numbers game. Writers need to be able to handle that. Before I landed a book deal with La Casita Grande Editores, I had emailed around 60 different queries to 60 different agents. A year from now, I won’t necessarily remember the 60 queries or that of those, only 10 agents responded, with 9 of those being a variant of “thanks but no thanks” and one “wow sounds interesting, and thanks but no thanks”. I will remember that out of a hell of a lot of nos, I had one yes. That’s all that mattered.
This, by the way, is not a dig at the agents that turned me down. If anything, I’m thankful, because that’s 60 different look-throughs and edits that improved my queries each time. And as a Latino writer, I felt that it was my responsibility to go this way, because there is another very valid criticism about the establishment: it’s too white. You don’t see a lot of us in this space of literary journals and MFA programs. So I have to challenge my fellow POC writers who are tempted to go indie to not give up on their dreams of getting published the “traditional” way for the sole reason that by retreating we give the people who don’t want to see us there win by giving them exactly what they want.
If doors are closed, you kick them open. If they won’t budge, you open a window, if the window’s closed, you find another way in. If the space is too white, what is gained by leaving? How are you going to change the system when you can’t get traction at all? I may be just one person, but I’m there. I’m there because I saw other Latino writers and poets stirring up shit inside those literary spaces. My hope is I am able to do the same for even younger POC writers. As one friend put it: We should infiltrate, not segregate. Get your name out there, start a blog, go to events, change the system from within. I think online journals are a great way to start because it puts your story out there, one that’s vetted. Don’t hide behind paywalls. Get your work out there because people need to see it.
COMPTON: Oh man I love your views on all this. I think what you just said should be put in chapbook form and handed out to all young writers at some point in their lives, like a driver’s license, like a class ring, like a diploma.
So what’s on tap for you? What’s the realistic, day to day, version of what’s next and then what would be the next thing if you had a magic wand and could just make it happen instantly? In particular, do you have anything in book form that you might be shopping around in the near future?
RODRIGUEZ: Right now, I’m finishing up the edits to my manuscript and my editor and I are hoping for publication by February of next year, with as many readings and appearances to promote it as I can get in the fall. On the individual level, I’ll do a lot of self-promotion but I’ll do my best to be mindful not to cross over into the “we get it, Hugo, you wrote a book” point. I also don’t want to be that guy on Twitter only posting links to his book because that’s going to get old and annoying real quick. However, I’m still going to be active in my social media presence. I’m mostly on Twitter @HugoEstebanRC and Facebook (www.facebook.com/DosAguilasWrites) and I post a weekly writing-related (mostly) post on my John Scalzi/Chuck Wendig-inspired blog at www.dosaguilas.org/random-strands.
What kind of stuff are you going to see there? Well, writing-related stuff, nonsensical musings about food, the occasional retweet of something political, and words of praise for heavy metal and the San Antonio Spurs.
On the other writing fronts…oh man, lots of writing ahead! I’m going to keep on writing short stories and flash pieces; I’m going to finish the edits to my poetry manuscript and start shopping that around; and finally, well, I really want to start making serious inroads into the fantasy epic that I’ve been developing over the last decade and change.
If the magic wand only applies to me and only my writing, I’d probably use it on having that genre project off the ground and at the very least having a manuscript I could start querying agents with. Like I said, it’s been about eleven years since I first came up with the original idea, and I have nothing to show for it. I’ve started to write something several times and gotten as far as 70 pages in before letting the crippling self-doubt get to me and forcing me to abandon the projects because they’re burning piles of garbage. If anyone were to read them right now I’d want them to sign a medical waiver; that way they wouldn’t have grounds to sue me after the neck injuries they’d sustain from cringing so hard.
But honestly? I want to get better, and I know I really need to just devote more time to actually getting better, devoting time to the process that I love, with all its highs and its lows. If I were to flick my wrist and poof I have a completed and non-cringy manuscript…it’d rob me of all of that, so…it’d be a really tough call.
That’s really pretty much it. I want to thank you so much for your time, and for any one interested in getting to know more, please feel free to reach out to me! I love talking to people about writing, and really, anything.