The Rumpus Book Club chats with Christopher Gonzalez about his debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat (Santa Fe Writers Project, December 2021), his love for writing second-person perspective, how he chose to order the stories within the collection, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming authors include Gabrielle Civil, Eva Jurczyk, Suzanne Roberts, Laura Stanfill, Yuvi Zalkow, Morgan Talty, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Alysia Sawchyn.
Alysia Sawchyn: Hi, everyone! Welcome to this month’s book club chat. We’re talking with Christopher Gonzalez about his perfectly titled debut collection, I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat.
Christopher Gonzalez: Hello! So happy to be here, Alysia!
Alysia Sawchyn: Thanks for joining us! I was reading your Rumpus interview with Hannah Greico earlier this week, and I thought to myself, This is going to be a fabulous chat. So, just know my expectations are extremely high!
Christopher Gonzalez: Haha, NO pressure. 🙂
Alysia Sawchyn: When I opened your book, I literally squealed at the epigraphs. Can you talk a little bit about how both of those writers/artists frame this collection for you? For context (though all of you, of course, read the book already), the epigraphs are by Robyn and Helen Rosner.
Christopher Gonzalez: Oh god, I could gush forever, probably. But to start with Robyn, the song I quote, “Dancing on My Own,” captures so much of the angst and yearning the characters in I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat, and I, feel. And the loneliness.
I think of it as a tragic queer anthem, in a way, because there is so much loneliness in being in the closet, and feeling like you can’t be open with your own desires. It felt like such a natural fit for the collection. Also, I just love that song and listening to it brings me back to nightclubs and dance parties, which are spaces some of the characters occupy in the stories.
Alysia Sawchyn: I have spent… many nights dancing to that song at a goth club in Tampa, FL. Shouting WHOOOOOOAAAAAAAAA in people’s faces.
Christopher Gonzalez: Lol, YES. I love that Robyn kinda transcends subculture? Goth, pop, punk, queer clubs—idk, I think everyone loves Robyn.
With Helen Rosner’s iconic chicken-tender piece, I just felt that she writes about a food item that can be seen as “low tier,” or very common, in a way that speaks to me and my deep love of all kinds of food. I hope that thread runs through the book. Also, that image of chicken tenders being perfect and not asking anything of anyone. We should be so lucky to find that in the people we hold dearly, you know?
Alysia Sawchyn: I have heard of some Fancy Writers pooh-poohing “food writers” and I just… like what is wrong with people. Helen Rosner is one of my celebrity crushes.
Oh sorry: huge caveat—it’s like a gay/goth club? Idk how to explain it.
Christopher Gonzalez: You have EXCELLENT TASTE. Also, I didn’t meant to present those as like separate spaces, more like huge overlaps.
But, yeah, I have so much respect for food writers. Food is history is culture is the heart is the home, etc. We can learn so much about humanity from food.
Alysia Sawchyn: Oh yes, for sure!
I think one of the threads that stood out to me in your collection is that “low tier.” Like, these narrators are coming from spaces of not belonging. That entire first story—”Packed White Spaces”—just… the cringe. So much cringe! The moment where the narrator takes off/is separated from his hoodie and the description of his shirt underneath!
Ann Beman: Hi, Christopher! I loved your collection, not only because it was luscious food writing, but because it did what the best food writing does. It spoke to the heart.
Christopher Gonzalez: (Gah, thank you, Ann!)
Alysia Sawchyn: Yes! Absolutely to the heart. I like to use the word “ostensibly” a lot—the short story is ostensibly about a laundry party but really it’s about **rips out heart and hurls it at Alyssa/reader**.
Can you talk about your choice of capitalization in that story?
Christopher Gonzalez: I think you really got what I was trying to do with talking about class in that story! The narrator’s pocked shirt and hoodie compared to the sleek, white minimalism of his peers. I made the decision early on in writing to highlight the disparity by adding capitalization to certain words, either concepts of wealth or actual objects that signify what the narrator cannot imagine owning himself. Like a Washer-Dryer, or an Oak Bookcase. It was also a way of staying really close to the narrator’s interior monologue since that’s kind of the guiding force of the story.
Ann Beman: Can we talk about the audio version? Those narrators. Did you have any say in who read the audiobook?
Christopher Gonzalez: Oh, Ann! For the audiobook, I didn’t get to hand-select the narrators, but I did get to offer suggestions. I had a say in having multiple narrators, and I wanted them all to be Latinx, if not specifically Puerto Rican. And if they were queer, that was a huge plus. It was important to me that those be the voices readers got to listen to.
I had the option of reading the audiobook myself, but I wanted to bring in other voices. I’ve lived with these stories for so long and have read many of them either at in-person readings or virtual events, and thought it was time to bring in some freshness. Selfishly, I wanted to hear someone else’s interpretation.
Alysia Sawchyn: That’s very cool. How many readers did you end up with total? And did you pick which reader read which piece (or like, XYZ all should be read by the same person)?
Christopher Gonzalez: There are three readers total: Christian Barillas, Tony Chiroldes, and Anthony Medina. Dreamscape, the audio publisher, had a huge role in assigning which stories were read by whom. I just trusted the process.
Ann Beman: There’s so much going on in barely two pages in the story “Ordering Fries at Happy Hour.” I had to read it twice to realize it’s a single sentence. Can you talk about what draws you to flash? And how do you choose what form best serves a story?
Christopher Gonzalez: I think in all of my fiction writing, I’m really motivated by energy and voice. What does anxiety feel like on the page, or rage, or sadness? How does that translate to the movement of a piece? I think you can really explore this in flash, because there’s already the constraint of length.
With “Ordering Fries at Happy Hour” I knew it was essentially a rant-as-story, and it made sense to me that it would flow out in a single, longwinded, sentence. A friend in my writing group pointed out that it also kind of captures the feeling of consuming fry after fry without pause. While that wasn’t something I thought about while writing, I love that it’s there in the text.
With a story like, “Here’s the Situation,” isolating the moments of the story made sense to me (after several failed attempts at writing a pretty traditional story) because I thought the character was basically reflecting on all these memories, and to me, memory never flows in chronological order, its path stems from emotion, from whim, and I wanted that to come through as well.
Alysia Sawchyn: (I was going to make dinner after this but now i’m ordering fries.)
Christopher Gonzalez: As we all should!!
Alysia Sawchyn: 1. a) do you have a favorite narrator or story in I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat?
Christopher Gonzalez: Oh god, how do I choose? They’re all my babies! Lol.
Alysia Sawchyn: Okay so b)
Christopher Gonzalez: I think it changes. I come back to “Enough for Two to Share” a lot—that second-person PoV is near to my heart.
Alysia Sawchyn: ooooooooo
Christopher Gonzalez: But then I also have so much love for Justin’s voice and thought process in “Better Than All That.”
Alysia Sawchyn: Okay, that was another one where I was like, “NO, BUDDY, NO DON’T DO IT.” I really love how merciless you are with your characters.
Second-person is so hard for me as a writer to pull off—can you talk a little about your process with that, especially since it really changes the energy and voice?
Christopher Gonzalez: I could probably talk about second-person perspective all night, haha. It’s interesting, because I think so many writers have this hardcore stance that second person must be EARNED, as if that’s not kinda true of everything we write. But for me, second-person is such a great vibe. When I want to use it, I think about why it would make sense for the character on the other side of that “you.” In “Enough for Two to Share,” the “you” is basically the second person in M’s story. He’s pulled into the narrative and becomes this secondary figure. I think it’s also a great voice for writing a story that is about something recurring, something that feels ritualistic, in a way. In this case it was basically about hooking up. How you’re a part of someone else’s narrative for the evening. You can part ways without ever fully learning about that person. We don’t get many details about M (I mean, we learn quite a bit), but we get so much about the narrator. I’m sure if I wanted to, I could write a second-person story that’s the inverse (I don’t want to, lol).
Alysia Sawchyn: (I am going to make my students do that the next time I teach fiction and I am going to blame you.)
Christopher Gonzalez: I’ve also used it to kind of pull the reader into an experience that, to me, isn’t often talked about. So, it has that ability, too. I know some readers will say that they don’t like second-person because they find it kind of alienating or don’t like being told what to do. But, oh well.
Ann Beman: Speaking of could-haves, is there a food you identify with or love—or hate—that didn’t make this collection? One that you need to revisit?
Christopher Gonzalez: That’s such an interesting question, Ann. Honestly, not enough Taco Bell, I guess.
Alysia Sawchyn: There is a Taco Bell lit mag I think? Hang on…
Christopher Gonzalez: There is!
Ann Beman: There is indeed!
Alysia Sawchyn: Here it is: Taco Bell Quarterly!
Christopher Gonzalez: Also, Ann, I think I avoided writing about traditional Puerto Rican foods that I love (there is a mention of the holiday drink coquito), but that wasn’t intentional. It just didn’t feel like many of these characters would actually cook for themselves because they live in a city and mostly go out or order in.
Alysia Sawchyn: Another second-person story—that is one of my favorites from this collection—is the “What You Missed While I Was Watching Your Cat”—the ending was just GUTTING. I’d love to know more about that “driving energy” or the “driving emotion” as it relates to this piece.
Christopher Gonzalez: I felt a little unhinged writing that story in the best way, haha. I was challenging myself to continuously raise the stakes, or at least try to, and to write a narrative that had momentum built on these tiny moments. (I was kind of inspired by Carmen Maria Machado’s “Inventory,” for the structure). And the guiding question really was, What if someone acted on their intrusive thoughts?
Alysia Sawchyn: Oh, that’s another fabulous prompt there! Also yes, I definitely see the connection to “Inventory.” (Which, in a different way, reminded me of “Lust” by Susan Minot, which is kind of a weird game of literary telephone.)
Christopher Gonzalez: Oh wow, I haven’t read “Lust” since college! Will need to revisit!
Alysia Sawchyn: (Mostly the “inventory of sex partners” premise.)
Christopher Gonzalez: Or even, like, the really abstract version, Lydia Davis’s “Television.” Not the sex partners, though, lol.
Alysia Sawchyn: Oh I have not read that! Will absolutely be looking it up after this. Going to trademark this Literary Telephone thing lmao.
One more thing before the Final Question: the ordering of this collection! I think it’s fabulous for a number of reasons, but I would love to know about your process for that. In other words: please teach me.
Christopher Gonzalez: So, my wonderful editor Monica Prince had a hand in the final sequencing of the book. What I turned in didn’t fully work (“That Version of You” was originally the opening story! And “Packed White Spaces” was second!). But other than some reshuffling in the first half and a little in the back half, something I knew was that “Ordering Fries” was dead center, and “Juan, Actually” was going to be the end.
We talked about breaking out some of the stories so that, like, two first-person narratives weren’t side-by-side, etc. To make sure each one felt and read as individual narrators. But really, my inspiration for sequencing, comes from listening to musicals and albums. Adele’s 30? It’s fucking incredible! For so many reasons, haha, but the sequence of those songs? God, she nailed it. Everything building up to “To Be Loved” and then following with “Love Is a Game” as open epilogue? Perfect.
Alysia Sawchyn: Yes! Love to take inspiration from other genres.
Christopher Gonzalez: Yes, same!
It helped to think about the stories as a song cycle and less of a book, and so I was really operating from what is the overall emotional arc. Characters are constantly frustrated with their station, and some of them choose to act and others are consumed by the stagnancy. My hope is that by the end of the book, you start to see characters breaking out of their shell.
Alysia Sawchyn: We are getting close to the end, so it’s time for the classic Last Question, which is: what are you reading and loving right now?
Christopher Gonzalez: I recently read and LOVED Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City (translated excellently by Anton Hur). Just a phenomenal queer novel about dating and sex and heartache and pretty much everything. And there are some good bits about food, which speaks to me. It balances humor and heavy emotions REALLY WELL, so it’s fun to read but definitely had me by the throat, emotionally.
Alysia Sawchyn: Going to add it to my pile!
Ann Beman: Thank you, Christopher and Alysia for letting me both lurk and participate. I’ll be looking for your work from now on!
Alysia Sawchyn: Thanks so much for coming to talk with us today, Christopher! And thank you, Ann!
Christopher Gonzalez: Thank you, Ann and Alysia, and The Rumpus, for hosting this! So much love to you all for everything you do.
Alysia Sawchyn: I am delighted to have gotten a chance to read this book and talk about it, and I wish you all a very wonderful evening!
Photograph of Christopher Gonzalez by Ashley Pecorelli.