Manuel Gonzales’s first book, The Miniature Wife, a collection of short stories, was often compared to work by George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and Karen Russell. Three years ago, shortly after the book’s release, The Rumpus Book Club read the book and had a conversation with Gonzales, which you can read here. The collection featured storylines as wide-ranging as a feud between a man and his accidentally shrunken wife, a plane hijacking that lasted decades, and a friendship destroyed by a pet unicorn. Like the writers he is compared to, Gonzales’s stories’ fantastic premises are always anchored in real-world conflicts that hold universal familiarity.
The Regional Office is Under Attack!, which will be available on April 12 from Riverhead Books, carries some of his stories’ thematic arsenal into a book length narrative. It’s about a secret organization of supernaturally powerful female assassins that operate under the guise of a travel agency and fight against evil. The story nods to tons of tropes—from Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels to Blade Runner and The Karate Kid—but it frequently subverts those tropes and uses them to flesh out characters that dazzle. A little summary to get you primed for our conversation below: The Regional Office really is under attack by another group of assassins. Its operatives are all young women but they’re led by The Director (Mr. Niles) and a mysterious, powerful woman (Oyemi) who has a team of future-seeing Oracles. Henry is a young man who serves as a handler for the team. The two main characters are Rose and Sarah; the former has “natural” powers, while the latter is given powers through augmentation.
Due to his work with the nonprofit organization Austin Bat Cave (part of the 826 Valencia network) as well as other Austin-based literary goings-on, Manuel’s name is frequently in the air here in Texas. He’s since moved on to take a position at the University of Kentucky’s fledgling MFA program, which is where I caught him by phone for this interview. The conversation below has been edited for cohesion, clarity, and concision.
The Rumpus: Can you talk some about how it has been shifting from leading the Austin Bat Cave to teaching in the MFA program at University of Kentucky? How does that feel for you and your writing?
Manuel Gonzales: With the Bat Cave, I loved the work, and I loved the people I was working with, and the kids were just spectacular, and fun, and funny, and full of energy. It was great. But I didn’t do very much of my own writing. This morning I woke up really early, at four, because of sinus problems, which used to happen all the time when I was in Texas. That was really the only time that I’d get serious writing done. I would go to a 24-hour coffee shop and write until seven instead of wake up everybody in my small house sneezing and coughing.
The other thing about nonprofit is that there’s not a whole lot of profit in it, hence the name. And at the time, my wife and I, we had two kids. My wife wasn’t working, she was at home with our youngest, and so we had to do a lot of other things to tie things together every month. I was doing freelance content creation for elementary school activity books. I was baking pies during the holiday season and selling those. I was running my own workshop at night, which I loved, but I also did it because I needed the income. And now, I don’t have that. My job requires that I spend fifty-five percent of my time writing. I feel like I won the lottery.
Rumpus: And even if the work wasn’t so closely tied to your writing, not having to worry about the uncertainty is probably a huge thing.
Gonzales: It is. I’m a much more natural instructor in this environment than I was a manager of people when running the Bat Cave. I have strengths that are good for putting the word out and getting people excited, and I have other skills as well that I brought to the Bat Cave, but I am a very poor administrator, honestly. I think when you get to a certain level the administration part of running a nonprofit becomes more important than the shouting from the rooftops. By the end I felt like I was not doing as much as a service as someone who was better at those things would’ve done. And now I feel like I’m actually pretty good at what I’m doing.
Rumpus: Do you feel like there’s some overlap between working with the often college-aged or even MFA-attending volunteers through the Bat Cave and your current work with students at UK?
Gonzales: Yeah, I do think it overlaps a little bit. I also have my own experience with the mentors I had, but also the questions that I had leaving an MFA program and figuring out what I was supposed to do next. There was eight years between my degree from Columbia and selling the collection and three different literary agents in that time and ten different jobs and just a lot of self-doubt. I remember when I was getting out of graduate school; it was the time when people were getting huge advances. We were just coming off the tail end of that kind of boom. A lot of six-figure deals. A lot of young new author promotion. It set up weird expectations that took me time to push past so I didn’t feel like a failure just because I hadn’t gotten that in the first year or two of graduation.
Rumpus: The Austin Bat Cave is connected with 826 Valencia, and those tutoring centers often have covers to help kids feel at ease with coming in, like the pirate shop in San Francisco and the superhero shop in Brooklyn. I couldn’t help but think of those cover stories while reading this novel. Were you thinking of the Bat Cave when you made The Regional Office’s storefront a travel agency?
Gonzales: I did think back to it. There was a meeting a long time ago when I first started with Austin Bat Cave where we were trying to figure out if we got to the storefront part, what would that be? There was a lot of talk about caves and cave exploration, and I think for a little bit we hit on the idea of a cave travel emporium, where it was just a travel agency for various intricate fictitious cave systems. That was in my mind when I started putting together the backstory for the Regional Office, which didn’t show up until one of the final drafts. I didn’t explore it until I finally realized I needed to create an entry point for people. So I wrote that opening section, explaining the Morrison World Travel Concern.
Rumpus: In the interviews you did right after The Miniature Wife, it seems like you had a pretty clear idea of this novel. Besides coming up with the travel agency, what have you been wrestling with since from the collection to the completion of this novel?
Gonzales: I had at least half of it written, and then the next summer I wrote the rest and sent it to my agent. That draft was really different from the next few drafts, and the final version was worlds different even from those. Henry and Mr. Niles had their own lengthy sections in the same way that Sarah and Rose do. Oyemi was a man early on in the draft. There was a whole section that was in second person. It wasn’t pacing the way I wanted it to pace, or the way editor and agent wanted it to pace, and it felt like there was still a barrier of entry. If you love the things that I love like Alias, Buffy, and Dollhouse and just that whole spy and secret agent scene and Kill Bill kind of pop culture stuff, then you’d hopefully get into it and see what I was doing. But if you weren’t into that, I didn’t want to turn people away. I wanted to invite them in somehow. So I wrote that intro and liked it a lot, and my editor liked it a lot. I put it in front of the draft and everything after that was shit. It was the worst. So I set it aside and started with a blank page after that intro as a starting point. My wife was super nervous. This happened while we were moving from Austin, the summer we were packing up our house and moving from Austin to Lexington. I ended up rewriting the whole draft when we got here and I got into this office and didn’t have classes yet. Just started pounding away, hoping eventually I would catch up to some other stuff I had written before, so I wouldn’t have to rewrite it all from scratch.
Rumpus: I’m really curious to read reviews for this book when they start coming out. I think there’ll be a lot of the unending discussion of literary versus genre, but I think there’s an argument to be made that this fits both an adult and YA audience. I loved it, but I was also thinking how awesome it’ll be to give to my niece when she’s maybe sixteen. I’m curious, have you had that kind of conversation with your editor, about genre or categorization? Any concerns?
Gonzales: Not from my editor or my agent. The concern came from me. I feel like I pulled off what I wanted to pull off. I’ve read it a couple of times since we finalized the draft and I still really enjoy reading it, which is a surprise. But they didn’t have any questions about what I was doing and they weren’t trying to find some way of labeling it. I was trying to be ambitious with plot, and action, and the genre tropes that I was playing with. But then I was constantly worried whether the emotional and character ambition was strong enough, because that’s also something that I care very much about and I wanted to make sure these people came off as complex and tragic in a way that made me happy as a writer and a reader. There’s also something about coming out of a house like Riverhead, which is known for literary offerings like Helen Oyeyemi and Daniel Alarcón. They’ve got Junot Díaz; they’ve got Marlon James.
Rumpus: I was just going to mention Junot Díaz. This novel definitely made me think of Oscar Wao, and also Station Eleven. One of the criticisms that book got from people who were reading it more as science fiction was that they felt like there wasn’t enough world building. You have that brief moment towards the end of the book where you mention all these other organizations that are out in the world, and so I’m curious if you, in any of your drafting or planning, went down that rabbit hole of wanting to include another organization in the actual storyline?
Gonzales: Yeah, the Hammersmith Seven. Also, because it’s “The Regional Office,” that means that it’s that office that’s doing that for that region, and so I was like, “Oh, I wonder if there’s regional offices like that all over the world?” In an early draft, there was a London, a Tokyo, a Chicago Regional Office, and they’d all been systematically under attack at different points, but it got too cumbersome. I also hint at headhunters trying to hire people away from the Regional Office to work at their secret super-powered agency. I like the idea of them being out there. I kept going back and forth about how much to dwell on them, because I wanted there to be enough that there’s a nod to a world that includes others, but I didn’t want to spend too much energy or time developing that, because mostly my interest was with Sarah and Rose and their respective highs and lows.
Rumpus: A couple of the interesting decisions in this book that I got excited about involve the idea that normalcy is the enemy. I think that’s something you see a lot in YA, but I also think it resonates so well as an adult reader. There’s a scene where the regular travel office workers realize they’re under attack, and you have this sentence about how they’re too spent to run, and as a reader my immediate reaction is, “Oh, they’re too spent because this is such a traumatic experience and they’re terrified,” but then in the very next sentence you say they’re too spent because of the drone of their day-to-day lives and work and drudgery.
Gonzales: That comes up a lot in the fictions that I play with, but then I usually counter it because people who have extraordinary things happen to them, it doesn’t end very well for them either. There’s a guy whose best friend had a unicorn in one of my stories and that ended horribly for everybody involved. In the novel, Rose wants to leave this small crappy Texas town that she feels trapped in, and when she does, she realizes that what she thought she wanted wasn’t what she wanted at all. I feel like there’s that conflict going on in me all the time and in a lot of people I guess. You want to get out of the drudgery but sometimes you find yourself in extraordinary circumstances and you long for the comfort of what you knew before.
Rumpus: How old do you want your kids to be before you hand them this book?
Gonzales: I don’t know. My daughter’s the older one and she’s a big reader right now. Let’s see, I read The Godfather when I was in tenth grade, but I’d read other stuff that was more adult before that in English class; I just didn’t realize how adult they were. I would think like at least fourteen. We’re going to have both of them at some of the readings. And I asked, “Should I edit out some of the words?” Because Rose, she’s got a mouth on her. My wife said, “No, we’ll just explain to them that there are words that adults use that we usually don’t think that kids should use, and they’re in your father’s book.” But I also don’t know how interested either of them would be in it. I caught my daughter trying to read a story or two from The Miniature Wife. There’s not nearly as much language or even violence in any of those stories. But she takes a crack at them and it’s too high of a concept or she’s just not interested and she goes back to all of the other things she is interested in. I feel like once she’s actually interested in reading it then she’s probably old enough to read it.
Rumpus: I think a lot of people will get kind of the Charlie’s Angels vibe when they start reading this book, but it goes in a much different direction pretty fast. When you’re writing, how do you ride that line between homage and using stuff as reference points versus going overboard and the source material taking over?
Gonzales: When I’m drafting I’m not all that conscious of it, of where the line is. It’s usually when I go back and edit and revise. What I’ve always liked to play around with is, “What would it actually be like if you had this ability or this situation?” On the surface it always seems like it would be awesome or exciting or you would be powerful in a certain way that would make up for all the ways that you didn’t feel powerful. With these tropes and these homages, I always let it go back to character, because I feel like character is king in the kind of things that I’m writing. If it felt like a trope was pushing a character to a direction that a character wouldn’t feel comfortable going either, I push them there and I make sure the discomfort is naked on the page, or I realize that’s the wrong direction for the character and the point at that moment is to subvert the trope and to zig when the trope wanted me to zag.
Rumpus: A lot of the characters are very aware of the tropes that they are living out with this kind of crazy situation, but even though they are aware of it, that doesn’t mean that they avoid the obvious pitfalls, especially with regards to prophecy. There’s a scene where a character is thinking something like, “Why are they sending squad after squad? Don’t they know from the movies that the squad after squad never works?” I think that’s very real. Even if we’re aware of the traps we’re about to encounter in our relationships or in our jobs, that doesn’t mean that we’re smart enough to manage them correctly.
Gonzales: Right. And foreknowledge sometimes allows you to make the completely wrong decision because of your own knowledge of what’s going on, which is that whole Greek self-fulfilling prophecy thing. They’re in a world that’s only slightly off-center from this world, where Die Hard and Maximillian from The Black Hole and Rutger Hauer exist. It feels like that’s a trope in and of itself, right? Where people are referencing stuff, even though they’re part of a pop culture thing. They do it on The Simpsons all the time with Comic Book Guy.
Rumpus: It’s a good time to be having the conversation given the success of Deadpool. So, like Saunders and Bender’s stories, these crazy situations mirror day-to-day conflicts. That’s kind of why they’re such powerful narratives. For you, do you start with the conceit and this relationship to the day-to-day emerges, or are they hand-in-hand and come together?
Gonzales: There’s a writer, who just passed away two years ago, Alistair MacLeod. One of the things he said that stuck with me and I tell all of my students is that writers write their worries even if they’re not aware of what their worries are at the time of their writing. They can look back and see, “Oh, I wrote this story because at this time, this was happening, and it wasn’t a conscious agenda-driven thing, but that’s how it came out.” I wrote a story about a guy being stuck on a plane for twenty years and that idea came while I was taking a lot of business flights in a very short amount of time, and I thought to myself that it seemed like it’d been on a plane and forever, and then I was like, “Oh, what if I were on a plane forever?” and so I just wrote that and in writing I had the guy circling Dallas, all this circling and not ever going anywhere-feeling to it and then looking back at the story. Looking back at when I wrote it, it was shortly after we moved from New York, I had just gotten a job at a university in a field that I had no idea about or interest in. My writing community was all virtual and felt very distant. I was having trouble connecting with my agent and felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. But I wasn’t thinking, “I’m not going anywhere right now; I’m going to write a story about a guy who’s also not going anywhere even though he’s in a position where he should be going places.”
The same with another story, “Escape from the Mall.” It’s about these characters trapped in this big institutionalized building surrounded by monsters and I wrote that story literally in my tenth grade English classroom when I was teaching for a small town Texas high school. But I was like, “Oh, I wrote a story about a person trapped in a room in a large building surrounded by monsters while I was trapped, surrounded by basically monsters.” I mean, that’s what high schoolers are. Sometimes they can be very good monsters, but tenth grade boys, they were killing me. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote it, I was thinking I was going to play around with the zombie-in-a-mall trope.
Rumpus: You capture a lot of the high school-ness well among the assassins. There’s a reference to Mean Girls that works well, but there’s also this moment where Rose sees a girl and thinks she’s “arch-nemesis material.”
Gonzales: I can’t speak for everyone else, but when I first enter a place where I don’t really know the people, it’s easy to try to peg them into movie or narrative archetypes as shorthand. But they’re always wrong, which is also why I wanted her to feel like that girl is going to be an arch-nemesis turns out to be super sweet. That comes from high school movies, right? I just recently rewatched 10 Things I Hate About You, which stands up quite well I will say, and Heath Ledger, even for that little rinky-dink role is super engaging and charming on the screen. You can’t not look at him when he’s on the screen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character shows up at that high school and is shown around by the mathlete nerd guy who’s trying to win his way into the popular crowd, and he says, “This table is where the jocks are, and that table’s where the drama people are,” and you can tell the director and the writer are really playing it up. That’s such an old trope now it feels like, but people are still affected by that, they carry that with them.
Rumpus: What’s the connection between Mr. Niles and your Twitter handle [@hrniles]?
Gonzales: That name, Niles, has come with me since I moved to New York and started graduate school. I worked briefly as a temp for a guy whose name was Richard Niles, and he was the most fascinating, weirdest guy I’ve ever met, and I just liked his name. But I also thought that it should have another name with it, so in the collection there’s a couple of Henry Richard Niles. In this book there’s a Henry and there’s a Mr. Niles. For Twitter, it was that Manuel or any variation of my name is already taken because it’s like the most popular name worldwide, and so I put Niles. And that’s what it’s been since.