Before becoming a finalist (not the winner) in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, I tried to pitch my collection of short stories to some five university presses and publishers. Only Cinco Puntos Books, I think, took the effort to read my book proposal.
The exercise was very worthwhile in any case, since I was forced to think about my own writing and describe it.
For those of you who might be interested in this process, or in a context for reading my stories, or in Mexico generally, I include portions of the book proposal, in a kind of question–answer format, for ease of reading.
What is the collection about, in a nutshell?
Along the lines of Quinones’ True Tales of Another Mexico, my manuscript called Foreground – a collection of twenty-seven short stories – focuses on a Mexico where cataclysmic events erupt, where war, mob hysteria, sudden dark preoccupations, collapsing structures, and anarchy lie just below generosity, intelligence, humor, and stubborn patience.
My stories reflect two Mexicos. In the first, modern freeways connect major cities, with their Costcos and Radio Shacks. But beside the highways, beyond the shopping centers, advanced health centers, tourist hotels and beaches, across the mountains, covering the entire country, there is a parallel world of human, horse and burro paths, still used, which connect villages, milpas (corn patches), memory, hunger, love, loss, and war. This is the deep indigenous landscape of the Mexican psyche from which comes the vocabulary of poetry, song, food, folk medicine, and art – a landscape as essential to Mexicans as the forests of New England were to the Transcendentalists. This landscape is vulnerable to extinction by modern institutions, both legal and illegal. Big media, government, business monopolies, and the church point away from deep landscape, while using its customs and images for their own narratives. The state does not invest in its human capital. Farmers give up and move to urban poverty. Rural and urban youth turn to the drug cartels, or cross the border to the North, in both case at great risk.
These two Mexicos – deep culture and modernizing culture, and the tensions that build between them – form the background tectonic rumble, as I write my stories about the good, intelligent, generous, and hard working people I live among.
What about research?
Since this is not a non-fiction book, I choose to re-define the word research, as it applies to my work. Non-fiction, it seems, acquires a body of knowledge, through research, in order to explore an area of interest. A fiction work begins with the storyteller’s story, which may be triggered by something experienced or read. After the story has been told, then the research commences, in order to strengthen the credibility of the tale.
As for the first step in my process, as in Boccaccio’s Decameron, I tell my stories to someone. I write them at a wobbly coffeehouse table, surrounded by university students (not the plague), in the presence of my Mexican writing partner – each week. I read them to him immediately, then often embed them in a framework story later. That is the second step, layering time, place, and narrator.
A third step is listening to my Mexican writing partner. I have suffered his wisdom at all points, for a long time. If a there is a unique flavor to my stories, it is because of what I have learned from him, from his confirmations and re-directions. It also helps to have studied Spanish for twenty-five years, with very special people, reading the local and national Mexican press, and opening myself to the knowledge of Mexican friends, especially those in Michoacán.
What have reviewers said about the stories?
Fred Hills, a former Editor-in-Chief of McGraw-Hill and subsequently Vice President and Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster, who had edited Raymond Carver and William Saroyan, worked with Vladimir Nabokov, and published the Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, read five of my stories and wrote these ringing words:
“Sterling Bennett is a beguiling and gifted writer, a virtuoso who intrigues and fascinates, like a poet whose work suggests more than can be fully grasped or absorbed in a single sitting, or a single reading. The world he evokes is a strange and sometimes enchanting place, but also dark, bewildering, even unfathomable. Where one cannot easily walk away from this writer, where he is clearly a considerable talent.”
On the other hand, the person that advanced me to a finalist position in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award wrote the following less ringing note to his/her fellow judges,
“Historical search stories triggered mostly by old parchments, manuscripts, letters, records in libraries or family drawers when someone dies. Most shorts, in a 19th Century style of writing. German, Mexican, French stories about the diaspora in Mexico after WWII. Much flashback about WWII, structured as straight narrative about past events, little embellishment. Layering of metaphysical on these events feels unearned to me, definitely sentimental, but the events themselves are mesmerizing.”
I have to give this critic credit for having found me out as moonlighting in the 19th Century. Except that my style itself is a little more modern. It is true, though, that my approach was partially formed by a career of teaching 19th and 20th century German short story writers: Tieck, Kleist, Keller (Swiss), Droste-Hülshoff, Goethe, and Mann. From Goethe’s “Novelle,” 1828, I take the idea of the Wendepunkt, the turning point, and the concept of eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit, a unexpected unheard of event – often also the moment of transition between predictable order and chaos.
What about your voice and style?
Being my own graduate student, in this case, I would define my voice and style as the following: the unique choice of image, cadence, sound, sentence structure, juxtaposition, speed of flow; and plot – where I see the storyteller (inside me) moving like a snake through a field, choosing his path with a kind of revealed inner logic. Then there is the dimensionality of words – as in the story “The Hair and the Heart,” when Miguel Angel and Claudia make love on floating vegetation, hidden by rushes from the entire Purépecha town, with “… warm dark water seeping up through the reed bed…” touching their bodies. With the background question, from the very beginning of time: How many young lovers have done that along the shores of lakes? The formation of character; and, finally, the right painterly strokes in description, so that the reader can complete an image and see it fully with less information. Luis Alberto Urrea does this with great skill in The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
I add humor, irony, a sense of plot and action. I populate various stories with family names (as does Luis Alberto Urrea in The Hummingbird’s Daughter), usually uncles and grandfathers, partly in efforts to re-invent family, partly, – I suppose – to fill the yawning silence on the male side. I like to think that my stories contain universal themes, and that the events I describe – often discordant with habits of reason, order, and predictability – are events that happen everywhere, and to all peoples, with local variation. And that a good yarn can deepen and humanize a view of another people, and thus inform as well as entertain.
What would you say to the timeliness and appeal of your stories?
I have always thought the U.S. served as the spiritual backyard of the German imagination. Mexico may serve the same purpose, though a darker one, for the U.S. imagination. Most Americans know something about Mexican language, beer and beaches. Far fewer have a grasp of Mexico profundo – the foundation of generosity, intelligence, humor, and patience. Many equate Mexico with danger, a perception that repels, but also attracts. Americans need to know about their neighbor to the south: about its cultures, histories, languages, and what’s going on right now, and how Americans are involved: the drug wars are fueled, for example, by U.S. consumption of drugs and the U.S. sale of weapons to the drug cartels. They need to know, for example, that at the end of the Mexican-American War 1846-48, Mexico was forced to concede (the U.S. occupied Mexico City) 55% of its prewar territory to the U.S., including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Many Mexicans remember this historical fact, while few Americans do. The overflow of Mexico into the U.S. is an old and continuing process (see John Ross’s book The Annexation of Mexico, 1998). Poverty and the leadership’s lack of interest in providing jobs and education drive the courageous and hopeful toward the U.S. border or into the hands of the narco-cartels, who will supply jobs.
Who would you say you are writing for?
I have always written with the idea of sharing my stories with an audience. I have read to live audiences for something like the last thirty years. It is very hard to answer whom the storyteller is writing for, in the moment of writing. The only analogy that comes to mind is the compulsive liar, who fabricates seamlessly, for almost anyone. The storyteller’s audience, then, is anyone who is listening.
Who will buy this book?
Well, clearly the paper book publishers decided no one would buy it, at least to the extent that they the publishers would make any money. In a sense, this may have been a good thing for me, in a time of changing fortunes for paper book publishing. It would appear that eBooks are the future or, one could argue, the present. E-publishing removes the skeptical or uninterested gatekeepers. The potential for audience – the whole point of writing, in my opinion – greatly increases, if the writing is good and readers recommend it to other readers; and if the proper links are placed, which direct new readers to the site. The stories, I have decided, should be free. In the meantime, the only English language publisher in Mexico has picked up and published my novel Playing for Pancho Villa, a novel expanded out of my short story “Mr. Leibniz and the Avocado.” Playing for Pancho Villa was available for purchase in Mexico as of February 2, 2013 (www.editorialmazatlan.com) and will be available in the U.S. market in April, 2013, wherever books are sold, Amazon, Kindle etc.
Who would read the stories as a eCollection?
People who like a short, complete, well-written, yarn; retirees sniffing out Mexico; travelers; expatriates in Mexico, who are beginning to look more closely at where they are living; readers with limited time (most of us); readers beginning to focus on Mexico because of the Bicentennial (Independence 1810) and because of the hundred-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution (1910); and because of growing fiercely politicized immigration issues; students, at all levels, of Mexican social and political affairs. Anyone with a Kindle, lying on their side, reading for a few minutes before sleep pulls down their lids.
Who else writes stories (novels) about Mexico that you would recommend?
Well, I would include Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, for its wonderful voice and writing; its compelling images of end of the 19th century Mexico. Every writer runs across another writer who he or she thinks is threateningly good. Urrea is that for me. I recommend him highly.
Then there’s Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, but especially the collection of short stories El Llano en Llamas (The Burning Plain), which takes us down into México profundo as unerringly as an hungry burro going home; I know of no one – Mexican or otherwise – who can match his vision and language, when it comes to very deep Mexico. Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho comes close to it. Not to be missed is Cate Kennedy’s Sing, And Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal – a passionate and loving observation of life and lives in rural Mexico.
Who are other expatriates writing from Mexico?
This is the specific group for comparison and includes: John Reed, Mexico Insurgent, 1914, a work that is Homeric, accurate, and beautifully written. This is a wonderful book. Not recent, but timeless.
Then there’s B. Traven, especially his story “Macario.” His writing answers the question: Can an expatriate write about the deep culture of the country he or she is living in? I think the answer is yes.
Daniel Reveles with his Tequila, Lemon, and Salt honors the Mexican village and its characters, with great generosity.
I highly recommend C.M. Mayo’s (the 1995 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winner) collection of short stories Sky over El Nido, especially the remarkable stories there: “The Wedding” and “Rainbow’s End,” which show the collision between Mexico profundo and Mexico imaginario. And, of course, her novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, with lines like: “… in the night the crows flew to Mexico, to feed on dead soldiers. In the day, they digested the flesh.” Writers and historians should make regular visits to her blog at madammayo.blogspot.com.
Last, I would include Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, stories, from Mexico, edited by C.M. Mayo, 2006, especially the story “The Green Bottle,” by Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, which echoes the grinding hopelessness (and beauty) of Juan Rulfo’s El Llano en Llamas “The Burning Plain.”
Thank you! This has been a wonderful fake interview.
[To read the stories, go to the sidebar on this blog and pull down “2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award finalist collection “Foreground.”] Two sample chapters out of Playing for Pancho Villa are also near to top of the list on this blog.