People First, Characters First: Talking with Manuel Muñoz

Kristin Seabolt

Manuel Muñoz is the author of two collections of short stories: The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue and Zigzagger, as well as the novel What You See in the Dark. He was a recipient of a Whiting Writers Award in 2008 and a finalist for the 2007 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. In addition, he was the recipient of a Constance Saltonstall Foundation Individual Artist's Grant in Fiction, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship. A native of Dinuba, California, Manuel is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Manuel recently visited the University of San Francisco  as part of the MFA program's Lone Mountain reading series. I was lucky enough to have some time with him that afternoon.
Manuel Muñoz
Switchback: I saw in one of your interviews about What You See In the Dark that you dreamt about Teresa’s blue cowgirl dress and then you wondered, Who is this woman? How did you get from dreaming about this blue cowgirl dress to weaving in Psycho and asking these questions of how people handle the dark?

Manuel Muñoz: Well maybe I should start with how I moved on from the blue dress. To me it was a basic  story telling question. I had the who, what, where that I had to figure out. And you probably gleaned from those interviews that the Psycho thing had been swirling around in my head for a long time, so it felt like the perfect opportunity to do it, because a blue cowgirl dress is so strange to my world. It meant a certain kind of thing. It meant country music. And that’s how I landed in Bakersfield, and thinking about Bakersfield is what emerged. And Bakersfield is just right over the hill [from Hollywood]. It’s close, it’s palpable. It’s a natural setting, so let’s try it. It’s a little risky, and it’s not what people were going to be expecting of me, but why not? You have to take a risk somehow, right?

SB: Did you have to jump over any personal hurdles to take that risk? Did it make it more difficult to sit down and start?

MM: Yeah. One was writing directly about violence, which I’m not comfortable with. Considering point of view in terms of violence. That last chapter in the novel, I wrote from Teresa’s point of view at one time. I wrote it from Dan’s point of view at one time. And either way it just felt like an ugly thing to do. And so I was just trying to wrap my head around how to solve a technical problem.

Also, I was writing from points of view of women, exclusively almost. There’s one chapter - it’s Hitchcock - that one little chapter is it. That was kind of scary. I could get this really wrong. But I think I did ok. Those were some of the big ones.

The other one I think I’m sort of struggling with is that expectation problem. I still feel that people don’t quite know what to make of the book and that its coming from someone like me. I think if someone else had written it, if the Chicano factor had not been in this at all, I think people would be fine. But I think the two things shouldn’t be colliding and they are, and I think that’s causing some perplexed responses.

SB: Do you think that comes from people who read your previous works and then are reading this and thinking this is different, or just readers in general?

MM: It’s a little bit of both. I have a feeling I have some first time readers because it’s a novel, and some people don’t read short stories. Then there are people who know what I do in a small form and then the novel comes. I know I do it too. I raise unnecessary expectations on a short story writer when they make that big jump over. And it isn’ fair. But I know that’s a little bit of where it comes from. But that’s all speculation, I have no idea.

SB: With the title What You See In the Dark, and then inside the book there are more questions about the dark - what you do in it, what you do with it - the characters ask all these questions, but to me there was no one answer for what the dark is and how it affects us. Would you agree? What were you doing with the different questions the characters had?

MM: Well I’ll say one thing. The final title wasn’t my title. It’s a variation on the title that I really wanted but I didn’t get to have. But it’s ok because the phrase, or the title, is still a phrase that brings you back to movies, or it brings you back to imagination. Or it brings you back to the idea that when you don’t know the story, b you make it up. And we all have a tendency to do that. I think it fits really nicely with what Candy does at the close of this book. She’s just willing herself to see something gruesome that she was not witness to. The only way to do that is to almost enact it. Or to sort of step into someone else’s shoes. Not literally but almost literally, she’s in her mind doing it, with her own actions.

I was in a class and the students had read the novel, which was really cool, and we were talking about the ending and why they couldn’t see what happened. I just came back and said, Well what happened in the last chapter? Forget the mystery for a second. Just, what happened in the last chapter? And no one really wanted to put their finger on what Candy was doing while she was imagining. And that was sort of half my fun. I don’t know if it starts bordering on the erotic or not, but to me its an odd thing, this imagining taking over and wanting to create stories in our own heads.

SB: Was she, in your mind, escaping from what she’s doing with her fiance?

MM: I don’t know. I purposely had her in sexual situations at both the beginning and the end. Even in the act of doing it she sort of loses herself and her mind goes somewhere else. It’s all because of Dan. What she has in front of her is not good enough. It’s never going to match that. I don’t know what that energy is about. Well, I think I know what it’s about. I mean that is what erotic imagination is about. We’re sort of thinking beyond the here and now. It wasn’t that kind of book, but it’s the same kind of energy

SB: Right, the passion

MM: Absolutely. Passion has a tendency to be, suggests being, excessive. And that’s exactly what she does. Even though she’s dressed in her little pink blouse and a scarf, what goes on in her head is more important than the outward appearance.

SB: It’s interesting to hear you talking about Candy in third person, because I just finished the book, and her voice is in second person. I feel like you do a really good job of it - you take the reader by the hand and lead her into the story by starting it in second person, and then the reader is almost escorted out of the theater, or out of Bakersfield, at the end by having it in second person again. But I know that can be controversial, to write in second person, so I wondered what the reaction has been to that.

MM: I’m aware of two reactions. I know that some people just don’t like the second person at all, and I’m fine with that because I knew the risk. But to me being against the second person sometimes can be a failure of thinking of what the you can do. The you isn’t an imperative. It’s not telling you what to do. It is a voice, and it’s essentially Candy talking to herself. It’s not really me, author, talking to anyone, to say, Here, imagine yourself in this place, even though that is the effect.

I’m hoping for the reader that knows Psycho, for the reader that knows when Janet Leigh is driving the car and she hears the narrative as she’s driving on the road, and it’s impossible. It’s for the audience. That’s how we figure out that everyone in Phoenix is onto it. Pay attention to the moment where she commits the crime and she escapes from Phoenix. When she’s in the car the audience is watching her face as she’s driving, the camera is in front of the window, and you hear a voice over, and it’s the voices from Phoenix discovering what she did. Narratively we figure it out but in the real world of her scene, it makes no sense. Where are those voices coming from? And that to me is what triggered that first chapter. It’s Candy narrating to herself how she goes through what she’s doing. To me the you is so personal. It becomes really sensual and that’s why, I had her book-ending chapters super sexual, super erotic. I don’t know if it worked or not. But the challenge for both of us as writers is we learn how things are and then we wan to take the risk and see if we can do it in another way. It might not work. It might get some readers excited and others it just completely turns off. But you have to try. 
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