The Rumpus Book Club chats with Manuel Gonzales about The Miniature Wife, subverting genre, building a believable fictional world, and the invention of paper towels.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Lauren O’Neal.
Brian S: Well, it’s the top of the hour. Who has a question or comment for Manuel?
Noah Sanders: I loved the fantastical worlds that your stories lived in. When you read, do you read fantasy and sci-fi?
Brian S: Something I’ve been wondering: What made you decide to use genre fiction elements in these stories, particularly the horror motifs? I’m glad to see it, because I think genre fiction gets treated unfairly by critics and “serious” writers.
Melissa Stuart: I also want to know who your favorite writers are. Your stories are so unique, and yet I see little hints of some of my favorite writers.
Roxane: Hi all, Manuel. One of the things I loved was the balance between the plausible and the implausible. How did you make those decisions about where to push the boundaries?
Brian S: Answer these as you can. If you have to skip something, we understand. These things can get out of hand sometimes.
Manuel Gonzales: When I was younger, I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, and my television tastes run to sci-fi and fantasy, though the light stuff. Now I read a lot of everything. I just read Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be, which is kind of like dystopian fiction, and I love Borges and Nabokov—the regulars. George Saunders and David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan. I wrote an essay for NPR’s “You Must Read This” about The Princess Bride, which I still love. But then I also really enjoy something quiet and serious, like the short stories of Ian McEwan, etc.
Brian S: The Princess Bride the film, or the novel, or both?
Manuel Gonzales: I love both, but I wrote the essay about the book, which not many people have read, and which is weird and funny.
Brian S: I fell in love with the movie first but discovered the novel when Spider Robinson excerpted the duel on the Cliffs of Doom for a sci-fi anthology when I was a teenager.
Manuel Gonzales: Roxane, I love the idea of trying to take something weird and implausible and making it not only believable but kind of understated, so that it can, if possible, fall to the background for a lot of the story, and then rear its head again toward the end. I do a lot of trial and error, though, when deciding when things have been pushed too far. And usually it has less to do with the weirdness or implausibility, and more to do with the story as a whole—something about the character or the pacing doesn’t work, and sometimes it leads me back to the world and its rules, which I then tweak.
Pia: And when have things been pushed too far? Do you have an inner gauge?
Noah Sanders: Do you create the rules of each little world your stories take place in first? Or do they develop as you write?
Hannah Kaufman: I wanted to know why you chose to write about zombies. They are so pervasive in our culture right now. Why do you think that is? And what made you enter the fray?
Manuel Gonzales: The zombie stories: the first one I wrote ages ago, just on the cusp or right before the cusp of all the zombie stuff happening (“All of Me”), and then a former agent I was working with never did anything with it, and I didn’t either, and then it ended up in this collection because I really liked it. The other one came about because I was teaching high-school English and felt like I was trapped inside an institutionalized building surrounded by soul-crushing tenth graders and needed an escape.
What’s interesting is that I usually don’t change the weirdness or implausible quality of a thing when rewriting a story, but how it’s couched. Because, I don’t know, I have a guy in a plane for at least twenty years, and that was the idea from the beginning, and it never varied. I have a guy who talks out of his ears, and what I did to make that work was create this long, medically languaged riff about how he could talk through his ears, and then immediately following that, have another character call bullshit, because of course any sane person would, but then have that character who is now believable because he called bullshit on something you thought was bullshit come back around and say, But, yeah, it’s true. Bastard talks through his ears.
And usually the rules are built as the story is being built.
Hannah Kaufman: A comment: I appreciated how the supernatural never seemed to detract from the story. Each world seemed completely legitimate.
Noah Sanders: Agreed. The rules of each story were so perfectly constructed and adhered to.
Melissa Stuart: I agree with Hannah. I somehow accepted each one right way, without the need for a moment to settle in. You do that very well.
Manuel Gonzales: Thanks. That’s really important to me, that the reader accept the premise.
Melissa Stuart: That first story reminded me a bit of Saramago—how so many tales are told in a tiny little space/world.
Manuel Gonzales: That’s nice. I love Saramago. He is a master at creating worlds with specific and compelling rules.
Brian S: The speculative fiction I enjoyed most when I was younger always had that adherence to a set of rules. That was the deal I felt I was making with the author: you can take me somewhere weird, as long as the rules hold together.
Manuel Gonzales: Well, when I teach, that’s one of the things I tell students. The world can be completely imagined, but it must have its own physics, then, its own biology, its own rules. You don’t have to give them all away, but you need to know them and adhere to them, and when you break them, do so deliberately for a good reason.
Roxane: World building is so important. I’m glad to hear you talk about that, because I think it applies to all writers, regardless of genre.
Noah Sanders: Are there premises you’ve toyed with but then backed away from?
Manuel Gonzales: There are premises I’ve toyed with but haven’t been able to work out yet. But they’re still in my head. There was one I have completely let go of, in which a man and his wife communicate through the clothes they wear, except you realize that the man does this, not so much his wife.
Noah Sanders: Why did you decide to release that one?
Manuel Gonzales: Noah, I couldn’t get the narrator right, couldn’t find the right tone, and worked and reworked it out of something I wanted to work on anymore.
Brian S: Where did the idea for “Life on Capra II” come from? I recognized the moment when the character gets stuck outside the game from the times that happened to me when I played Medal of Honor (my one first-person shooter experience).
Hannah Kaufman: Oh, I wondered if Capra was a video game!
Manuel Gonzales: Ha. Brian, I didn’t even know you could get a character stuck outside a game. That’s awesome. The story started as a way to get me out of a rut. I was rewriting a thing that refused to be rewritten, and I decided to write the first sentence because it was ridiculous and completely removed from what I was working on. Then, months later, I came back to that first paragraph and thought, “What story would that thing exist in?”
Brian S: Seriously? That’s amazing. As a player, on the rare occasions when it happened, I’d have to just start the level over. Most of the time, it involved me getting stuck in a wall.
Manuel Gonzales: That makes me exceedingly happy, Brian. (Not that you were stuck in a wall, mind you.) And Roxane, I agree. It’s key to writers of any genre. Any world, whether realistic or fantastic, needs its rules, and those rules can be broken, but not because you didn’t know them.
Brian S: Something I wanted to do but ran out of time was to reread the “Meritorious Life” stories on their own and see if they held together in some way, but I’m going to ask instead if that’s how you came up with them.
Noah Sanders: I loved that idea, Brian.
Manuel Gonzales: They were written originally as one story, but not all of the ones in the book were in that original story, and not all from the original made it into the book. And they were originally “An Illustrated Chronicle of Meritorious Lives,” and were accompanied by weird, disparate images from old textbooks and medical books I’d find in the library.
Brian S: Oh, that sounds like an awesome idea.
Melissa Stuart: Indeed.
Manuel Gonzales: It was short enough that it worked okay. I think something like that that goes on too long can become, without an obvious thread that connects them, difficult to pay attention to. I also like that they’re broken up here, because the language in them—which can be similar, because they’re kind of encyclopedia entries—is broken up too.
Noah Sanders: Do you have a journalistic background, Manuel? It felt like a lot of the stories had first-person narrators who were New Journalism reporters.
Manuel Gonzales: I don’t, Noah, but always wanted to have a strength as a journalist. One of my favorite writers is Joseph Mitchell, who wrote profiles for the New Yorker, and Ian Frazier, whose essay “Canal Street” for the New Yorker is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. And so, since I like that style so much, but am better at making stuff up, I thought I’d play around with the style paired with fiction. Usually, outlandish fiction.
Hannah Kaufman: Have you always been more inclined to write short stories? Or is a novel in the works?
Noah Sanders: I’m curious about that, too. So many of these stories seem ripe to expand upon.
Manuel Gonzales: I’m in the second draft of a novel, and before returning to stories, spent about six years writing and rewriting a novel that still hasn’t played out yet.
Hannah Kaufman: Is the novel a similar genre?
Manuel Gonzales: The novel I’m in right now plays with some similar genre themes, mostly the super-secret agency or organization peopled by superpowered female heroines, à la Alias or Buffy or Dollhouse. But not exactly that, either. And then the other novel played more with the journalism-styled pieces.
Noah Sanders: It also felt like your stories were steeped in a cinematic language. Are you a film buff?
Hannah Kaufman: Or TV?
Manuel Gonzales: I wouldn’t say buff. I like movies, and I like TV, and I like all those tropes, but I also like to mess them up.
Brian S: One of the other things I enjoyed in this book was the way you subverted the things we thought we knew—like the unicorn, for example. Especially the way it affected the men and didn’t look like a unicorn and was, well, a dick.
Manuel Gonzales: I know. That unicorn was such an asshole.
Noah Sanders: Yeah, the image of it spearing the mailboxes as it ran away still makes me chuckle.
Manuel Gonzales: I still think that one of my better ideas was that what you feed unicorns is ground-up fairies. Mixed with beer.
Brian S: That was pretty awesome.
Noah Sanders: That it actually won’t drink ground up fairies mixed with water—just alcohol.
Hannah Kaufman: I wanted to know what they would have done when they ran out of fairies to feed it.
Sky: Several of the stories take place in Texas or have characters that come from Texas cities and universities (once even mentioning Whataburger!). Is this simply because you live in Texas now, or is there another reason Texas locales so often appeared?
Manuel Gonzales: I grew up in Texas, mostly, and so it’s a landscape and people that I’m very comfortable with, which makes it easier for me to create a scene, create a place that feels—to me, anyway—imaginable and believable.
Noah Sanders: Did you have an idea of what job Ralph was going out to get?
Manuel Gonzales: Oh, just an office job, any kind of job. The idea always being that he could have, any time, gotten this sort of job and done well enough in it but never did because he hated the idea of that life. I was thinking specifically, though, of a job I had for a year working in a commercial property development office here in Austin after I left college.
Noah Sanders: Did you see the two stories about zombies existing in the same zombie-plagued world?
Manuel Gonzales: After I wrote the second one, kind of, but nothing too specific. Because also, I wanted the second, “Escape from the Mall,” to encompass any kind of sci-fi disaster: Godzilla, zombies, alien invasions.
Noah Sanders: I would love to see a Godzilla story written by you.
Hannah Kaufman: I almost wish “Escape from the Mall” didn’t have a named enemy. I like that it could have been any sci-fi disaster.
Manuel Gonzales: A Godzilla story would be fun. I don’t know what I’d do with it, though. I think that’s also a thing. When playing with these genre ideas, I want to have something specific I want to toy around with. “All of Me,” I wanted to tell a story from the zombie’s point of view and then make you want to root for him, and then also have it end really the only way a zombie story of that nature could end. Whereas with “Escape,” I wanted to play around with those peripheral characters in sci-fi disaster movies who always die and are never the heroes.
Brian S: I Googled William Corbin of the “Meritorious Life” stories and discovered that there was a man of that name who was important enough to get a Wikipedia entry. He “invented” paper towels.
Manuel Gonzales: What? Brian, dude, you are blowing my mind. How did anyone invent paper towels, A, and why didn’t I think to Google people I named my characters after?
Brian S: Have you read John Scalzi’s Redshirts? He toys around with that idea of the secondary sci-fi character who gets killed all the time as well.
Noah Sanders: When I was reading “All of Me,” I spent a lot of time wondering where that zombie got his makeup from and how early he had to wake up to apply it.
Manuel Gonzales: Those are very good questions, Noah. And I’ve heard good things about but haven’t read Redshirts yet.
Brian S: Is there a reading tour in the works?
Manuel Gonzales: A bit of a tour, yes. I’ll be hitting a few places in Texas—Austin, to start, and then Dallas the next day, and then New York after that, then LA, and then back to Texas for a thing in Houston and another Austin gig, and then to New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams Lit Fest.
Noah Sanders: What was the inspiration for “Cash For A Killing”? It seemed just a little bit outside of the rest of the stories.
Brian S: That was one of my favorites, by the way. I loved the way it kept escalating even when you thought it couldn’t go any further.
Noah Sanders: I loved the idea of a meticulous planned killing ground. It was so delightfully evil.
Manuel Gonzales: That one was a thing for Esquire. When they hired a new fiction editor, he sent out cocktail napkins and asked writers to write a full story on a cocktail napkin, and I toyed around with a lot of ideas before, for some reason, that line about a hamburger after burying the body came to me, and with that first line, that guy came into focus for me.
It’s funny you think it’s evil. I mean, it is, it is evil, but I also think it’s weird and goofy that he would have a grid, which seems meticulous, but that he would also mess up his own grid, which seems the opposite.
Brian S: He’s an evil subgenius.
Noah Sanders: Just a few IQ points shy of true evil brilliance. You ever have thoughts about just doing a straight-up crime novel?
Manuel Gonzales: I tried one once, and I think I’d do a better job of it now, but I didn’t have any idea what it was about and was stuck with just the voice. In fact, I have an idea that’s a crime novel in structure but that will also subvert that genre that I want to start working on.
Brian S: That’s the real key, isn’t it? To subvert the genre, do something unexpected with it.
Noah Sanders: Do you read a lot of crime fiction?
Manuel Gonzales: I read a little. Not a lot. I cherry pick crime and fantasy and sci-fi and spy-thriller writers.
Noah Sanders: Genre is great, because it offers you this entrenched structure that you can just squish into whatever amazing shape you want.
Manuel Gonzales: That’s what makes it fun, as a writer, at least. Subverting it, playing around with these ideas we all recognize.
Noah Sanders: It’s guiding and freeing all at the same time.
Manuel Gonzales: You have to be careful, though, Noah, because if you lead people to believe what you’re writing is a crime novel, they’ll expect a crime novel and those enthusiasts will feel let down.
And Hannah, if you’re still here, I just saw your comment about the unnamed evil in “Escape.” I like that idea, too, and I tried to imply that it could have been any evil disaster, because those characters and the situation they’re in—it’s all kind of stock, right? But somewhere along the line, I felt I had to show what the evil was, and when I did that, it coalesced.
Jack W: Manuel, “The Artist’s Voice” kicked so much ass that I accidentally reread it four times and have not finished the rest of the stories as a result (yet cannot wait to finish the rest).
Manuel Gonzales: That’s hilarious, Jack, and thanks, and I hope you like the rest of them as much or nearly so.
Brian S: “The Artist’s Voice” struck me at first as very similar to one of Oliver Sacks’s case studies, like from The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.
Ana: I liked the stories playing with marriage. I’ve cited the dirty-dishes-by-the-bed incident to a few friends. Where did that come from? Also, on that note, did your wife have any thoughts on “The Miniature Wife”?
Manuel Gonzales: Ana, all the domestic stuff comes from just being domestic. And that dirty-dishes-by-the-bed thing happened when I was in college and was living with a friend and his girlfriend. I won’t say she was or wasn’t OCD about things, but I’ll also own up to being a lousy roommate while I was in college.
By “being domestic,” I mean a lot of it comes from stuff that happens in our home, or that’s something not far from what could happen in our home. Mostly, I hyperbolize the mistakes I feel I’ve made as a husband or friend or whatever and turn those into stories. And my wife is a bit upset by the title, The Miniature Wife, because she’s petite and feels people will think it’s a direct reference to her.
Brian S: About five minutes left—any lurkers want to get in a question?
Jack W: Are any of the characters from The Miniature Wife going to appear in future works? We were introduced to so many wonderful characters.
Brian S: I also want to say that “The Animal House” gave me a bad dream or two. As did “Wolf.”
Amy C: Just a comment from me. Like Jack, I found it hard to move on to the next story. Every time. Each one was fantastic, and even though I was anxious for the next one, I found I needed to absorb it before moving to the next one. It made for a wonderful month of reading—thank you.
Noah Sanders: Was it coincidental that in “Farewell, Africa” and “The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe,” the narrator and female lead seemed to be romantically connected?
Manuel Gonzales: I’ve had lingering ideas about some characters (Denise from “Sebali”) and some situations (Klouns) that I might toy around with in the future. At one point, I had this idea of writing a fake biography of Abbasonov and having a musician friend of mine write fake scores for it, but that hasn’t happened. Yet.
Ann: I had trouble letting go of the characters.
Manuel Gonzales: Thanks, Amy and Ann. That’s nice to hear. It’s strange to me that black and white symbols on a page can become so much, but I love it when it happens to me as a reader, and it’s stunning to think that something similar happened to you.
In my mind, Noah, the guy who wrote those—as well as “Artist’s Voice”—is kind of the same guy, and the girl, though different in “Sebali” and “Africa,” is kind of the same girl.
Noah Sanders: Awesome. That connection adds so much to the stories for me.
Brian S: Any chance you’ll be at AWP in Boston this year?
Manuel Gonzales: I don’t know yet. I’m running around a lot this winter/spring and am leaving my wife in the lurch with the kids for an amount of time that makes me uncomfortable, so it’s still in the air, AWP.
Roxane: That is romantic!
Manuel Gonzales: Also, Brian, glad to have affected your dreams.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight, Manuel. Loved the book. If you make it to Boston, make sure to stop by our table.
Noah Sanders: Thank you so much, Manuel. Thank you, Brian, for organizing all this.
Brian S: And thanks to everyone else for your great questions.
Manuel Gonzales: I will, Brian. Thanks for having me. This was a great time, and I appreciate all the love and support from the Rumpus and its readers.
Jack W: Abbasanov, to me, is Stephen Hawking + Brahms + Joan of Arc. Thanks for opening up many worlds to us, Manuel. I look forward to following your career.
Manuel Gonzales: No, thank you. I’m glad you all enjoyed the stories.
Brian S: Good night, everyone!
Manuel Gonzales: Good night.