Devil’s Lake


Interview with Salvador Plascencia

Q: In the winter of 2010, Poets & Writers hailed you as one of the ”Fifty Most Inspiring Authors in the World.” What do you think inspiration is? Can it be harnessed or captured, or is it always feral? What does it mean for your work to be inspiring to others? Is it a weight, or the opposite of?

I’m not sure about the methodology of that list. I think someone mistyped some data into the spreadsheet and miscalculated my inspirational quotient. Katherine Dunn, C.D. Wright, Márquez, and Bolaño are on that list. I’m an odd duck in that pond. Maybe not even a duck, more like a chicken with styrofoam taped to his belly.

For me, inspiration is the force that compels you to get to work. I mean, my approaching Verizon bill does that too, but say I had a healthy surplus of money and no rent to pay, what would be the works that make me feel itchy and idle?

The other thing I would say is that I’m mostly propelled by books that are not in complete control—maybe this speaks to what you mean by feral—if a book is too tidy, too perfect, it squashes my own desire to write.

As a reader, I feel extremely satisfied when I read The Virgin Suicides or Junot Diaz’s short stories—these are the perfect literary machines of American letters. String them up next to the Spirit of St. Louis. Every gasket is intact and they perform with a phenomenal efficiency. But I’m not inspired by these works. It’s Middlesex and Oscar Wao that put the fire under me. In those works I feel more than the author’s technical proficiency. Something starts to wobble, I feel a danger, and I’m not sure they’re going to be able to pull out before it is all over.

If people are finding The People of Paper inspiring, I’m positive it’s because of its wobble.

… it’s nearly impossible to pick up a book and not understand it as a contraption that you must take apart, reverse engineer and then learn from.

Q: Do you think the act of reading is different for a writer, then? What do you do when you read?

I try to unclip the work belt when I’m reading, I do. Unfortunately, one of the occupational hazards of writing is that it’s nearly impossible to pick up a book and not understand it as a contraption that you must take apart, reverse engineer and then learn from. Certainly, there are stretches where the alphabetical voodoo is purely magical and not a technology, but those spells eventually give way. It’s an awful thing, I can’t remember the last time I read a book where I didn’t at some point stop to poke at its wires and levers.

Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. I read Neal Bascomb’s The Perfect Mile, a sports book of all things, and somehow he tricked me. I didn’t think I could be that old innocent reader anymore. But I finished the Bascomb and I felt that old eighth grade thrill. Maybe because I was reading for the subject, old timey sports nostalgia, and had no idea who the author was. That must have turned some of my annoying writer parts off. Whatever it was, I want that feeling back.

Q: You’ve talked about the wobble and the wires. How do you go about organizing a novel like The People of Paper, which is told from multiple points of view, as you write it? We hear legends out there of color-coded notebooks or mountains of loose-leaf paper—which camp do you fall into?

To my own detriment, I become a bit too obsessive about my organizational apparatuses. There’s a really irrational part of me that believes that if I have the right system in place, the novel will write itself. All I need to do is establish a framework of columns, holding tanks and chutes, and my subconscious will take care of filling in the space. What ends up happening is that I set up conflicting and competing structures of order, which, needless to say, makes for more disorder and confusion than if I had nothing in place. For The People of Paper, I used a series of graphs, maps that I made on PageMaker, a long series of sketchbooks from a time I decided that the whole thing had to be handwritten first for it to work. There are residues of all these systems in the novel itself: the cryptic table of contents, the cameos of doodles, the column chapters. If you’re asking if I have an efficient system, well …

Q: Is there anything that didn’t end up making it into The People of Paper (I’m thinking here of Faulkner’s “killed darlings”), or something that as time’s passed you’ve realized you left out? What would a “director’s cut” look like, if you could have one now?

I’m such a pathetically slow writer that I’m not much of a darling killer. If anything, I take my malnourished and weakling ideas and find ways to keep them alive.

It’s one of the most repeated axioms of creative writing: you must shave off the excess and let go. Don’t be too sentimental about that paragraph that you labored over a week for. And it’s good advice, so much so that I practice a form of pedagogical hypocrisy. I don’t have the courage to do it, yet I often find myself telling my students this very thing.

… at the time it was frightening news for me. It had taken me years just to get to a hundred pages and now I had to throw away two-thirds of it?

When I was a student at Syracuse, I remember George Saunders telling us that he would write a hundred and thirty pages and then whittle them down to forty. Given the phenomenal compression of Saunders, how could it be any other way? But at the time it was frightening news for me. It had taken me years just to get to a hundred pages and now I had to throw away two-thirds of it?

If I had another crack at PoP, I would fix typos, misspellings, and a music bar that is embarrassingly ignorant about the working of music. That’s about it. I don’t have that Henry James or Dave Eggers impulse to revisit and revise what has already been sent to the printer.

Q: As someone who’s been both a student and a teacher, what do you think the relationship between writing and academia should be? Are there parts of writing that are easier to learn in a classroom? What about out “in the real world”?

I think I might have oversold my academic credentials. I flunked out of my PhD program and I day labor as an adjunct. I have my little islands that are my classes, but I’ve never had to deal with the more difficult challenges of thinking about a wider curriculum.  My experience with students is that they’ve never had a creative writing teacher seriously read and line-edit their work. So that’s what I do, I respond to their sentences. I show them the innards of their stories.  Whatever else I say about the workings of the epistolary novel and Genette’s narrative theories is pub trivia.

For me, nothing approaches the sensation of traversing through a novel. Whatever I feel, which is not insignificant, while watching The Wire or listening to Chavela Vargas is only a faint mark on the Richter scale compared to what Geek Love or East of Eden do to me.  For this reason, I feel a little treasonous when I say that my primary influences are rarely literary.  The People of Paper is much more indebted to the The Queen Is Dead, Goya, and Carlos Marcovich’s Who the Hell Is Juliette? than it is to any novel. My sense is that you alleviate some of the anxiety of influence by crossing mediums. If the Miltonic weight is too much on you, maybe what you need is some Bach in your Walkman.

Q: Finally, looping back a ways to your first response, I’m wondering how you mediate the success of your first book with writing new material. What do you do with the pressure of audience expectation? Do you have another book currently in the works?

The People of Paper took almost a decade to write. At least five hours of the day and fevered weeks where I left the house only for my compulsory run. The People of Paper was the novel of my youth. It was written with a metabolic fire that I will never have again. That level of recklessness, commitment, and complete disregard for everything that was not the novel is not something I can repeat.

There’s this idea that as you work through a book you come out at the other end a wiser artist with a stronger cardiovascular system. Instead, I felt even more illiterate than when I began and my sentences eked out even slower.  I felt like Alberto Salazar after the Boston Marathon, victorious and done, but destroyed.

I took a few years off after The People of Paper and only recently put a real push behind the second book. This is a really long way of saying that I don’t feel an anxiety about the audience. What I feel is an uncertainty about my ability to write without letting everything else fall apart. I think Novel No. 2 will be done in a year. We’ll know then.

SALVADOR PLASCENCIA is an American writer, born in Guadalajara, Mexico. He is the author of the cult favorite The People of Paper (McSweeney’s, 2005), which was named a Best Book of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, and The Financial Times. The People of Paper has been translated into a dozen languages and been widely anthologized and adopted in Chicano/a, Postmodern, Creative Writing, and Design courses throughout the country. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Lucky Peach, Tin House, and The Los Angeles Times. He holds a BA in English (Whittier College) and an MFA in Creative Writing (Syracuse University). He is the recipient of the Bard Fiction Prize and a Moseley Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is currently completing a novel about shapeshifters and a waning ocean.