An Interview with Liza Monroy
Liza Monroy’s debut Mexican High offers a refreshing look at a timeless genre: the coming-of-age novel. When readers meet Mila (short for Milagro), the protagonist of the story, she has just found out that her mother, who works for the U.S. Foreign Civil Service, is being transferred from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City during her senior year of high school. Mila is devastated to leave, but soon after landing south of the border, she transforms from an innocent, studious, well-behaved teenager into a chain-smoking, combat-boot-wearing, peyote-chewing rebel. From there, the story begins its careful unraveling of the lives of Mexico City’s elite. Although an outsider, Mila is able to tap into the secret lives of the fresas (strawberries), the elite group at her high school, and navigate a world where sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are given an unlimited supply of money and freedom, which usually ends disastrously. The blending of cultural critique and adolescent drama in Mexican High makes being in the throes of teen angst seem exciting and relevant rather than awkward.
In a recent interview, Monroy discussed growing up abroad, the pros and cons of MFA programs, and how she transformed her distant past into a tell-all story about the upper echelons of Mexico City’s teenagers.
Like Mila, you moved to Mexico City during high school with your mother (who's also in the Foreign Service). How similar was your experience to hers? Is there much crossover between your life and the story?
There is some crossover, but not enough to call the book mostly autobiographical. I spent four years in Mexico City. Mila only has one. That was a pacing decision. There were certain true stories I mixed with complete fiction, though I'd say there's a lot of emotional authenticity. I had a similar reaction to Mexico City when I first moved there to start high school: like Mila, I was overwhelmed by the city's size, masses, and freedoms. I get asked a lot about the rape scene, which is fiction, and the peyote trip in the desert, which is not. The faking of a robbery in my own house is something I actually did in high school to try to cover up that I'd stolen money to bribe a policeman, to my great embarrassment now.
The novel overall is really a mixed bag of experience and invention.
Why did you decide to write a fictional coming-of-age story rather than going the memoir route?
I had originally started the book as nonfiction before realizing that, even though there was probably enough material for the memoir, I wasn't the right narrator for the stories I wanted to tell about Mexico City, particularly in regards to the facets that deal with the sons and daughters of the elite “ruling class” who went to my high school. My mother, too, is really sweet, whereas Maggie, the mother in the story, is a difficult and demanding person. The characters are archetypes, and not based on people I actually knew. I was outside of everything that was happening, whereas in memoir it's crucial for the narrator to be at the center.
A lot was going on around me, but nothing happened to me. I wasn't suffering from an eating disorder, sexual trauma, or drug addiction. The dramatic fodder that makes for good memoirs was absent from my life at the time and I felt like I was a pretty typical teenager. I wanted the freedom to make things up rather than have to be married to what actually happened in my own life, which would have made for a less dramatic plot. Additionally, I wanted the narrator to have agency to speak about the socioeconomic strata of Mexico City society, which clearly would have read as false in the memoir but could be woven into the novel because Mila is Mexican herself.
I had a lot more I wanted to put in the book than just what went on with my friends and me in Mexico. The memoir would have read, “Then this guy's father was assassinated, and so was this head of the main federal prison, and here was the time I bribed the cops.” It would have been very episodic and rambling, and I wanted to work with a cohesive plot and a protagonist who had something to gain. So I invented the subplot of Mila's search for her Mexican father, which was something I wanted her to pursue through the book. It also gave her a link to the world she was trying so hard to understand.
One of the greatest things about Mexican High is its true to life descriptions of Mexico City. What was the research process like?
Well, I had my high school years to draw on, fall 1993 to summer 1997, and the book takes place over the course of the '93-'94 school year. I read back over what was going on in Mexico at the time, studied news sources and read about the '90s a lot. I scoured my old yearbooks, photos, and diaries. Thankfully I keep everything. I did a lot of online research about Mexico and read the most amazing book about the country, The Life and Times of Mexico by Earl Shorris, where I took one of my epigraphs from. Travel writing is a passion of mine, and when the book was almost done, I was hired to write parts of an MTV travel guide to Mexico, so I got to go back for an actual research trip. That helped me flesh out a lot of the descriptions and revisit the actual places. I was obsessed with Mexico City for years leading up to writing Mexican High.
Besides publishing a novel, you're also an accomplished essayist. How have these separate forms complemented each other in your work?
Writing essays was how I got started, especially since I often wrote personal essays about my time in Mexico. I'd always wanted to write books but was hesitant about jumping straight into long form. I ended up using a lot of the material from my essays for Mexican High. The “Visa Barn” chapter was written in a different form for the “My Turn” column in Newsweek, and Camille Cusumano's great travel writing anthology Mexico, A Love Story included an essay about living in Mexico City during high school, parts of which made their way into the novel. Fiction still has to feel true, so writing creative nonfiction was a great way in. I also love switching gears between the freedom of writing fiction and the recall and search for meaning of personal essay writing. The personal essay form is one of my favorites, both to read and write. One book I'd recommend is Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth, which I think shows how much the boundaries of the form can be pushed. I think the best creative nonfiction reads like fiction.
As a journalist who chose to write a novel based loosely on actual events, how do you feel about writers like Augusten Burroughs and others being attacked for writing memoirs with hints of fiction?
I admire Burroughs's and Sedaris's work. I think James Frey's novel is excellent, too, and that the publishing industry didn't claim enough responsibility for what happened back then. As soon as an event passes from the moment in which it's happening to the realm of memory it becomes fiction anyway. It is obviously wrong to write an entirely fictional story and try to pass it off as memoir, a la Margaret B. Jones, but exaggeration, embellishment, and mistaken memory is common in all “factual” storytelling. And sometimes you have to re-create scenes of things you weren't there for -- I’m writing about my parents meeting and falling in love. I have the facts, but obviously I wasn't there, so any dialogue is an invention. I think it always is. The important thing is intent. Intent to lie and deceive is not okay, accidental misremembering is natural and, in my opinion, even likeable, as it confirms the narrator as a human person with flaws.
Lately it seems like everyone is debating the usefulness of getting an MFA and most people enter a program hoping to sell their first book. You've already achieved this, but you're still pursuing a Masters. Any advice for other young writers debating entering a program versus writing on their own?
It is absolutely possible to go either way and come out with a book. If you have an idea you're passionate about, you don't have to go to school to write it. It's such a personal decision. Going to an MFA program versus just writing on your own are, to me, just two different means to the same end -- one version of which you'd have gotten a lot of feedback on drafts of, and another version that's more your own, uninfluenced vision, but you can always ask a couple people whose judgment you trust to read it. I always showed my drafts to writer friends so I'd know if something was totally off the mark, so MFA or not, smart feedback is crucial, whether from one or two people or a workshop group. I don't think one approach is better than the other, though I will say the MFA program has helped me a lot, and I'm also glad I finished Mexican High before I got there, or I might never have finished! MFA programs give you a lot to think about and a lot more tools to consider working with, which in turn makes it more challenging to make creative decisions and stick to them, in my opinion.
What's up next?
I'm going to do it for my second book, I'm just going to go for it… I'm writing a memoir about marrying my gay best friend. This time, I am absolutely the right narrator for the story I'm telling. I don't want to say too much right now, but basically it's a story of immigration, gay rights, and defying conventions for friendship and family, set in L.A. and New York City. Again, I began with short pieces -- two of which were published: in the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, and Psychology Today's “Two Minute Memoir” section. I have about a quarter to a third of the book. I hope I can work with Cindy Spiegel again, she is so fantastic. The memoir is a big departure from Mexican High, but it also feels like a natural follow-up at the same time.
Aside from that, I'm teaching personal essay writing for Mediabistro over the summer, and freshman composition in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia in the fall. I love teaching; it's the ideal counterpart to writing.