You get to the end of the book, and you have Yunior sitting down to write. Oscar Wao concludes with talk about writing again. And it’s like writing is the most hopeful thing that can happen in the world.
That’s no accident. In my heart of hearts, I really believe that the writer is just a more explicit form of who we are. It's our ontological vocation to narrativize. What happens when somebody commits suicide is, they can no longer generate a narrative. The narrative suddenly becomes a terminus: a thing that ends. It's our endlessly regenerative ability to narrativize that keeps us going in this random universe. Having a character write makes that more explicit, gives it a concrete form.
It’s so hard to say, “Well, now I’m going to keep going.” Okay, whatever. But when a guy starts writing, at least you can say, “I know what he means. He's going to keep going even if he sucks.” Getting up off the ground after somebody whoops your ass, really, is just you saying, “I am going to strike my narrative in a new direction.”
I know what it means to be moved by a book in my body so much that I go looking for its analog in the real world.
But with This Is How You Lose Her, the end just brings you back to the start. It feels a little hopeless.
I mean, you’re the reader. But when I wrote it, I thought that the joke of the book is that you suddenly realize, at the end, you've read the book Yunior wrote.
You’re back where you started.
But the question is: Having read the whole book, and having gone through his feelings and having seen how Yunior lays himself out, do you believe that he's capable of doing better?
Changing for the better?
Just capable of doing better. That’s the game of the book—the game asks each reader, "This is him saying who he was. Now, based on that, do you believe he can be better?" And for a lot of people, the answer is "no." I’ve got mad friends of mine who were like, “Nope. He’s an asshole, he fucks it all up.” Others say, “As a man, I wish I had gone as far as he did.”
Yunior is a nickname of yours, right?
By using that name, you open yourself up to people trying to read these stories autobiographically.
But they will anyway. So the approach is never to distance. The move is never to distance. It's that Philip Roth move. If you distance yourself from the reader, it ends up backfiring. But to try to play with people’s expectations—not play in a manipulative way, though you are manipulating, but to productively engage in someone's expectations about this as biography. The only reasons people are going to think this is biography is: A) If they read it; and, B) If they’re moved by it. And some people, sure, they’ll dismiss it, saying, “This motherfucker can’t write. This is just regurgitated memoir.”
He has no imagination.
Regurgitated memoir and no imagination. But other motherfuckers will say, “If I tried to write my life, I could not fucking write it as this structural game." And so depending on who you are, there’s room for you to accept or reject. I enjoy that as a reader. I know what it means to be moved by a book in my body so much that I go looking for its analog in the real world. I felt shit for this book in my body; it is real to my body. Therefore, my mind is like, “There’s got to be an analog, this had to have happened.” Because it really happened to me! As a reader, it did happen to you, and so, you don’t want it to be like a ghost.
It’s a problem if there’s not a real-world analog, if you can’t find it?
No. But people long for it. You know, I don't think there is one. But [wanting it] helps us turn away from what fiction does best; fiction makes you have the most lucid dream that you can never get rid of and think that it wasn't real. So every time someone says, “This had to be real,” what I’m hearing is the magic of reading. At that moment, I know that reading is still alive. As long as there is someone out there who makes that kind of solipsistic jump to “This is fucking autobiographical,” I know that we've got it. We’ve still got the magic. Because the day that magic dies, there’s no reading: Fiction is done. We will read for information. We will not read for contact with our human selves.
We remember childhood because childhood is about narratives living in us so powerfully. When you'd hear a story as a kid, when you'd hear a rumor, when you'd imagine something, your imagination was so powerful in childhood that you didn’t need an interlocutor. What happens after a certain age is that a story requires an interlocutor. Without this, we become something else. It's like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. He pieces himself back together, but he’s not human. And what happens when you piece yourself back together with no ability to believe in the magic of story, is you look like a human, you act like a human, but you ain’t fucking human! I fear that more than anything.
Everybody says mainstream writers are revitalizing genre. They’re not. They’re using genre to revitalize their bottom line.
Look how bad we are as humans. I don’t even want to think about what humans are going to be like when I'm gone. When you spend as much time as I do writing, you allow yourself to think about this shit. Instead of being on deadline, you’re like, “Let me reflect.” I also think—to respond to your earlier comment—I think that we’re so unused to feeling pain.
We think that if we feel a character’s pain, that means that shit is wrong, or that shit is going to go bad. No, feeling someone’s pain means you're mourning. You’re getting better. I feel the same way about this book; this book was a long act of mourning. In my mind, I’m like, “Wow, Yunior at least just cried. He’ll get better.”
When I said "hopeless" before, I didn’t mean that the experience of the book had failed me.
Oh, I know you didn’t mean it that way. No, no, I’m being didactic with my response. I wasn’t responding to the content of your question, more the opportunity it provided.
Who are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of motherfuckers. They’re driving me crazy. I’ve been obsessed with Aracelis Girmay, the poet. Dude, get her fucking books. Get Kingdom Animalia. It'll give you a power up for your work. It’s like an extra life. It really is.
What do you look for in new novels? This is a conversation I’ve had with some of my friends—we all feel bogged down reading things that aren't going to matter in 10 years.
Yes, of course. Jesus. When I read, I want to read something that's going to become part of my family. I don’t want one-night stands. We’ve got so many people that write one night stands, and that’s okay, they’ve got their role. But I hunt so hard. I spend as much time reading and looking for books as I do writing. You’ve got to be on a non-stop search, because otherwise you won’t find these grand slams.
The last writer where I really felt that was Bolaño. When Bolaño came into my life, it was over.
But have you read Natsuo Kirino?
The woman who wrote Out? The woman who wrote Grotesque and Real World? Read her. And read Yoko Ogawa, the woman who wrote The Housekeeper and the Professor. Do not fuck around now. And I don’t normally read police procedurals, but Karin Fossum has a novel called The Indian Bride. Slam dunk. It’s good to see shit happening in genre, especially when you’re not expecting anything.
I get disappointed with some people who try genre and turn it into a big publicity stunt, like, “Hey, I’m writing genre now.”
Everybody says mainstream writers are revitalizing genre. They’re not. They’re using genre to revitalize their bottom line. As a writer, everything you publish gives you privilege; it’s what you do with yours that matters. Mainstream writers have an abiding disrespect for, and appropriation of, genre that is beyond troubling. You can sell a million books writing genre but you’ll never get a fellowship from the NEA.
Is that weighing on you as you write this future novel, since you know you’re that dude that people look to?
I cannot wait to get into the conversation. Honestly, I can't wait. Because I want to talk about privilege. No one else does. It’s like someone saying, “I’m down with black folk, I’m down with poor folk.” Okay, I believe you. You could be. But it doesn’t change our fucking privilege, vis-a-vis, the people we’re talking about. And what fascinates me, ultimately, is how erased the people actually doing this work in the trenches are. But we’ll see how it plays out. First I have to finish the damn thing.
Who are some genre writers you champion?
Nalo Hopkinson is amazing. Kristin Cashore, who wrote Graceling, is awesome. Philip Reeve writes a series called Hungry City Chronicles—so good. Steph Swainston, she wrote The Year of Our War—super ridiculous.
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)