An Interview with Salvador Plascencia
Reading Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper is like going on a mental carnival ride in each of the letters and sentences he’s crafted. A story told from each character’s point of view, Plascencia’s El Monte examines the life and loves of its inhabitants and those who watch over it. Perhaps what is most puzzling about the prose is how surprisingly straightforward it is, while keeping true to his playful images and the experimental style. The People of Paper journeys to other figurative places in our solar system while keeping curanderos, wrestlers, warriors, lovers and enemies alive all within the city limits of El Monte.
Having studied with some of contemporary literature’s finest surrealists, including Aimee Bender and George Saunders, not to mention the likes of T.C. Boyle and Mary Caponegro, Plascencia has unknowingly carved himself a place in this hybrid line of quality writers. In a town known to most Angelenos for its gangs and crime, Plascencia offers up a place where we identify with its people and their stories, whether flower pickers, bee collectors, famous movie stars or even Plascencia himself. The People of Paper is the kind of novel that asks the reader ignore metaphor and to really listen to what the words on the page are saying to us.
Plascencia has given all of us license to stay firmly grounded in the roots of El Monte, in its city, its people, while allowing us to escape when necessary into the mythological places he’s created for us. Salvador and I met in Echo Park for breakfast to discuss The People of Paper and the labels it’s garnered, McSweeney's, his life at Syracuse and USC and why he thinks the athletes of the UFC are better than any superhero in a comic book.
McSweeney's published The People of Paper. Given the nature and style of the book was it difficult to find a home for it?
Well, it was rejected by every major house. Grove/Altantic, Random House, I can’t even remember all of the different ones, but I have the rejection slips for them. It took awhile but once they saw it, they were like, “This isn’t going to sell,” and it just took a phone call from Eli Horowitz [McSweeney's managing editor] to say, “Hey Sal, do you want us to do your book?” and that was all the formality and so I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
I remember seeing a portion of The People of Paper in McSweeney's 12. At that point was what we were reading a portion of what you had been working on or had you already completed The People of Paper?
It was done but that chapter was the only one to me at the time that seemed readable, so I sent them that. It was pretty quick and then after that it took awhile -- it was actually a year after that it was a completed novel.
There are certain stylistic choices in the book that I’ve never seen executed before. Some places you’ve chosen to remove certain names by actually cutting out the character name from the page. It’s done quite well. Did this choice pose any problems with McSweeney's when they were putting The People of Paper together?
In terms of layout, if you look at the McSweeney's background, after they did the Vollman book and the Robert Coover story, in terms of topography and the material of the book, they’ve already done these crazy things. They were happy to do it. And the cut out was actually my editor’s idea. Before it was just blacked out, but it conflicted with the Baby Nostradamus, so that was their idea. It was like, “Let’s fix this somehow, is this a possibility? Let’s cut this out!” So, there was this excitement about it.
It was very intriguing. But then I found myself trying to see if there was some duality there, some other meaning behind the cut outs. Because of these stylistic nuances and the story itself being told in a non-standard way, does it bother you that the book in some cases has been labeled “experimental”?
It’s experimental, it’s meta-fiction, it’s surrealist, it’s a war novel. I mean, there are all these different things you can call it but I’m okay with it as long as it’s not being said in a sort of... in a way, in terms of experimental, if you’re telling people, “it’s experimental” then it’s a warning. As long as it’s in the spirit of... as long as it’s playful -- I’m perfectly happy with that. But if it’s as a warning to readers then... I don’t think “experimental” should be a warning.
Things often do get dubbed “experimental” when stories or novels don’t follow a set form or standard style. When you bend the so-called rules in fiction it would seem that experimental comes from wanting to exist outside the norm, the expected. But in wanting to do so, the work gets labeled, which often times proves to be a stigma.
I think a lot of what happens too is that especially when McSweeney's takes these books that have no clear genre and it becomes “a McSweeney's book” and that becomes the umbrella. Obviously there are some people out there that are suspicious of McSweeney's for that, but at the same time, they’re very welcoming to these other books that people want to make.
And that is one of the most alluring things about McSweeney's. It would seem appropriate that The People of Paper found its home there. From the onset McSweeney's has always tried to go break boundaries in any way they could.
There’s this funny thing where they say McSweeney's... even my book, they said was gimmicky, that it’s a parlor trick and the thing to me that works, like when I saw McSweeney's 4 came in this box, I became really excited that they were very invested in the actual material. Even looking back at old books, early manuscripts -- they were these wild, crazy things with wood cuts and even pages on top of pages and it was a very diverse way of looking at the book. And those were original books, the initial books. And there was this weird prudishness toward the book, like if you deviate from that, you’re not being true to the book. But the book was always crazy. Only recently did the book become a single problem on a page. So, that always kind of irks me. “Ugh, parlor trick!” but the book was always crazy. It’s been tamed recently. Sorry, I’m on a rant.
Ranting is good. I’ll try not to do that here, though. In The People of Paper you use a great deal of descriptions about the physical world the people of El Monte live in. In many ways, this helps to keep the reader grounded in that world but at the same time, you allow the reader to float through the city and its landscape and experience all of its mythical elements, a mythological world if you will. Is that something that was a conscious decision on your part?
I don’t know how conscious it was, this idea that if I’m going to talk about this woman made out of paper, it becomes very physical and material... little things matter, like how do you cook if you’re made out of paper? Do you burn yourself? How do you make love when you’re made of paper? Will you dissolve? Will you cut people? So, it’s those very physical traits that become part of the physical world. So, you’re always stuck in a reality. It’s not just vapor. But there is physicality to it.
The People of Paper has some great stories within it. And there’s an art to storytelling -- written or otherwise. Do you think that the stories within The People of Paper were derivative of someone/something else that had stuck with you until you had this opportunity to write about it or did they evolve on their own?
When I hang out with my family and my friends, I’m the worst guy there in terms of chewing the fat. They are the ones who are telling jokes. And every joke in a way is grotesque or a joke is always hyperbolic, so the joke has always been this really surreal mode. I sometimes try to think, “What is it about my family and the way I always gravitate towards and do these absurd jokes and family stories?” They become jokes in a weird way, so there’s a little bit of that, but I’m not a comic writer and I’m not a funny writer, but I’ve always loved Richard Pryor and George Lopez and I always got a lot of energy from that. These stories, these comedians were macho, but they were always undermined by something and they are always telling it in this concept of community. But to me, comedians were the best model of that. And my family was very comic. They were always telling jokes. I didn’t take up that comedic instinct; I took more of the community narrative moment, or whatever you want to call it.
I think it’s interesting that so many authors are not good storytellers when it comes to that comedic style of storytelling or even just being animated when you’re face to face with someone. Aimee Bender also claims to not be a good storyteller in that regard, despite how well she writes fairy tale surrealism and parable.
Maybe we’re the observers, we’re the ones who are there listening in, stealing stuff. We’re not really active in that community except when you steal it and make money off of it.
You are a product of the Syracuse MFA program. A lot of writers, after completing their MFA, choose to teach and write, but you opted to go the PhD route at USC. Why?
It becomes about economics. When you’re writing a novel, what do you do? It’s perfect in a way because at USC I teach and I’m a grad student. So, I get to teach, I get to take classes, I get a little bit of money and I’m hanging out with all these great readers and writers and book dorks, which is a dream when you’re a writer -- hanging out with a bunch of book dorks who read! The PhD was just kind of an extension of the MFA with a little pre-1970s reading.
Did you want to come back to Los Angeles to get the PhD or did you just go where you got accepted?
No, I wanted to come back to LA. I love Los Angeles. Also, I was finishing the book and there was this thing where I had enough of LA in me to be away from it for a couple of years and kind of finish and for the last stretch of the book I felt like I needed to be home to finish the book.
John Fante was such a lover of Los Angeles and he wrote about it in so many of his novels. Los Angeles was its own character in his stories. I think your work reflects that passion Fante had for Los Angeles in writing about El Monte.
It’s strange even, as an Angeleno when you read about LA or you watch something about LA, or an article about LA, it’s a completely foreign, strange LA because you don’t recognize it. I remember the first book I read about El Monte, the James Ellroy book, which completely criminalizes El Monte... it doesn’t criminalize it, but it makes it this really dark place. I mean his mother died there, so in a way you understand the perspective, but it’s weird to see your hometown in that light -- this dark place of murder. Growing up, I loved my neighborhood, I loved my friends, I loved the community, and in a way I wanted to pay tribute to that, to El Monte. In a way it was always seen. It was on Cops a lot, it was a James Ellroy crime novel, but that wasn’t my El Monte.
There was one interesting parallel in the book and I don’t know if one has anything to do with the other. Your table of contents has a series of dots that note each chapter. Similarly, there is a lot of domino playing in the book. Any hidden meaning there?
Not so much the dominoes but the structure. My editor, Eli, and I thought it would be clear what [the table of contents] was but it’s not and we were a little fascinated by that. We were like, “people think it’s a code,” and it’s not. If there are three dots, it means three narrators; if it has one dot, it means one narrator. If it has a slash, it means a column chapter. People were so interested in that. “What does it mean!?”
I noticed that Tingle Alley was hypothizing what the dots meant. One dot equals Saturn and three equals El Monte and so on.
That was really exciting. I sort of regret now, saying what it is. It had all these possibilities I never thought about! I have these ideas that even if you write the book, things still run away from you. I get this idea that has more to it than I’d planned. Although you don’t have complete control in that way, but if it runs away from you, it’s your fault for maybe not... securing it. But it’s also exciting that the possibilities themselves are there.
The book does have this sense of unraveling or something similar towards the end. The city and the people and the madness of it all come full circle. All of the characters reappear and there is a strong sense of chaos, with the flip-flopping of simultaneous points of view and various narrations taking place. Is it difficult for you to write with so much going on on the page?
It’s difficult, but it’s also the work in a way. It’s a smaller work because you have to get a character. You don’t have to be responsible for sustaining one single voice for 250 pages. You get used to this thing of jumping around. You get tired of that voice, I can hop to this voice and in a way I think that was my own sort of ineptitude. I couldn’t sustain one single voice. So, how do I resolve this? Well, if I have three dozen voices, then you can’t say that you’re bored of one voice. So in a way it was difficult, but it made the novel very fun for me because I could just move on. If I’m bored, I move on and go somewhere else.
Do you think you’ll attempt to write any short stories or will you stick with the novel form?
I think short stories are much more difficult to write. A good short story is much more difficult than to write a novel. It’s so compacted, it’s so intensified. There’s no room for mistakes because they’re exposed. In a novel, you write something, if you don’t tie it up your reader might forget about it because it’s 200 pages before -- you’re not responsible for everything. In the short story you’re responsible, you’re accountable for a lot more. There’s less time to get done what needs to be done. George Saunders, he’s a great short story writer. Can’t write a novel, but he can break your heart in 40 pages. He doesn’t need a novel. But I don’t have that economy to break someone’s heart in 40 pages. But if you do that and make them laugh in 40 pages, why would you write a novel?
I read an interview in the Denver Quarterly where George Saunders said “we write around what we don’t do well.” Do you feel there were certain aspects of The People of Paper where you had to do that?
That’s classic George. [Laughs] George was my mentor. So, every time he said that I’d get really excited about it, like, “Oh, so I don’t have to learn how to do it, I just have to learn how to avoid it.” I always wanted to steal that line from him. It’s so true, right? You have certain strengths and powers as a writer and certain limitations, right? How do you get to what you want to do without having to worry about the -- whatever it is? That’s a great George aphorism. It’s so true. How do you get to what you know how to do, where there’s energy in writing, but how do you hop over the stuff you can’t do? George said it best. He’s my teacher. I can’t say anything better than him.
Is there any advice that George gave you that still resonates with you now when you write?
It’s the sophistication of not having a type of character but a really well-rounded, tough, shy, aggressive -- everything that’s possible in a single character in a multi-dimensionality. That was the big George lesson. You don’t need to put up these characters that are archetypes. You need to break them down. And also, it creates tenderness. His characters are really just tender people, ultimately. That was a big Syracuse lesson: just be softer. Don’t make it so rigid and sharp.
From start to finish how long did it take you to work on The People of Paper?
It took me five years to write and it took a year and a half to get published after it was done. So, the rejection, the editing, all that stuff.
Was there ever a point where you started to think it might not get published?
I never really thought about that until last year. In a way, an experimental novel by a Latino author, it’s like, “what was the last book, the last experimental novel by a Latino author?” It wasn’t like I didn’t have any ambition for it. I just thought this is a book I want to write. So, I wasn’t thinking market-wise, I was thinking, “I have this book, let’s see what happens.” I wasn’t really invested in the literary or publishing world for the first four years. I was in Syracuse with my buddy talking about sentences and writing so there was none of that intrusion. So once it became about agents, publication then the fun disappeared a little bit.
Do you feel experimental fiction is ever going to be something that bigger publishers won’t shy away from?
What’s strange is that the companies that have the resources to take the risks don’t take them. Those who take them are some little independent like McSweeney's. They take something on when they have very few resources. I mean they have three full-time employees running it out of a one bedroom apartment. In a way, they have more to lose, but they are the ones that take it. The independent bookstores will take the risk. Most big bookstores, the Barnes & Nobles, you can’t even find the book, but if you go to Skylight, the book will be front and center. There’s a bookstore in Arizona, Changing Hands, and the staff just took over my book, recommended it; they brought me over. So independents really keep these things going, alive. The majors could care less. Most of the rejections I got weren’t about the quality of the writing, it was about the market. I’m kind of like fuck you, you care about the market. So, the independents really keep the aesthetic of it and the art of it up. It’s not this crass business venture. It’s not just all stock market. My paperback is being done by Harcourt and I can tell a difference. The cover is really beautiful though. McSweeney's will give me a version of a cover or say five versions of a cover. Harcourt will send me one and say, “This is what you’re having.” I mean, the editors are great over there and they’re fine to me, but you have these limitations. I was really naïve too. Harcourt sent me the cover and I thought it was my opportunity to give feedback, “I like this, I like that,” and they were kind of not giving me a choice. I felt like an asshole.
Do you have people read the book and take it too literally?
It’s a confused book; I mean I’m confused about it. I think there’s people that want to know what’s real, what’s memoir, what’s made up. A lot of the book was meant to be taken very literally, like the woman made of paper. It’s not a metaphor. You read everything literally and you escape the metaphor. I wasn’t trying to be elusive. Read it as you would science fiction or whatever. It is what it is. These mechanical turtles are really mechanical turtles; they are not a symbol. People ask me, “Were they Volkswagen bugs?” I’m like, “No! They’re mechanical turtles.” They’re looking for the metaphor.
You do try and get a mental picture in your head about things. You try to get a visual.
There’s a turtle in the end pages to help you too. Trying to summarize the book was a big problem too. You’ve got to sell this book and so you say, “it’s a war-novel, it’s a memoir, it’s about immigration, it’s a meta-fiction, and it’s a love-story.” If you read the McSweeney's description, it’s absurd. No major publisher would use that as a description, you’re going to find a tag like, “it’s a father-daughter story.”
When you wrote the Merced characters in the book, did you realize you were writing about three different characters (Merced de Papel, Merced and Little Merced) that would eventually all have the same name? Did any one of these evolve first?
Merced de Papel came from this sort of cheesy and planned idea to have this woman made of paper; it was initially a short story. In reading this story, the woman unravels and at the end you’re holding the paper. So that was just too much. That was the ultimate meta-fictional story, you know? So I figured, what’s more awesome than holding the actual body of the character. So, if she’s made of paper, you end up holding the paper. But then it was too heavy, too gimmicky. But Merced de Papel took on a life of her own. I think the name Merced -- it’s a little bit about admiration of Gabriel García Márquez. You have one name that is shared by eight different characters. And part of it is parody, part of it is tribute, part of it is homage. And also that Merced -- two Merceds make sense, but then Merced had Little Merced, so the Merceds could be seen as one.
There are a lot of animals in the book. You mention cock-fighting. In the real El Monte, are there cock-fights?
I’m sure there are. Before town homes started going up, there were people with goats and roosters, little chicken coops. There’s a part in the book where the county comes and takes away the roosters. And that’s what happens in El Monte. The county would come and say, “Why do you have all this stuff in your front yard?” [laughs] and take it away.
There’s a part of the book where Juan Meza and Satoru fight. It reminded me of a more modern day Ultimate Fighting Championship fight.
You thought it was more UFC than WWF? Do you watch the UFC? There’s a big match coming up.
I do, yes. I know Matt Hughes and Gracie. It’s new to me, but I’m very knowledgeable about arm bars and submission holds. We watch it on Spike. Right about the time I was reading this book I was getting very into the UFC. And the story of Juan and Satoru reminded me of it, but sans lettuce and animal crackers.
I think I tried to keep it leaning toward Mexican wrestling, even some of the WWF moves. It’s like a soap opera, a novella. That’s what it is. The big culture in Mexico, in Tijuana, you can watch these live crazy matches in little rings. But the UFC is real! The WWF, not really, but UFC is a sport. I really do want Gracie to win, but I think Matt Hughes will win it. They are almost like superheroes: they’re each good at one particular aspect of the mixed martial arts. They have special powers. You don’t need to read comic books anymore, you’ve got the UFC.
Do you think your next book will be centered in Los Angeles or El Monte?
It will always be LA if I’m writing. I already started the second book but there will be days when I think, what if this is all I have? What if I only have one book in me? I mean, there are other authors that have only written one book. Harper Lee only wrote one book. That’s not to say The People of Paper is anything close to Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s this idea that maybe that’s all you have. Maybe I’m done. Depends on what day you catch me. Today I’m done; tomorrow, who knows.
You’re working on a new novel now?
I think I am. It’s a novel about three new undiscovered oceans, I think, either that or I’m done writing forever.