Stained with Autobiography: Talking with Christopher Gonzalez

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Christopher Gonzalez was one of the first literary editors I worked with, and his kind manner and thoughtful guidance immediately put me at ease and invited me to view my work through a wider lens. Before that, I’d been intimidated by his writing, which I knew to be both fearless and vulnerable, the type of prose that leaves you actually breathless when you finish. I hadn’t expected his generosity of spirit, though. I hadn’t expected modesty, despite his remarkable publishing and editing history.

Gonzalez’s work can be found in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Nation, Split Lip, and elsewhere. His fiction has been selected for the Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction anthologies, as well as the Wigleaf Top 50. He is the fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a 2021 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Fiction for the New York Foundation of the Arts.

I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat is Gonzalez’s debut short story collection, out from Santa Fe Writers Project, and it’s as fearless and vulnerable you’d expect, an exploration of sexuality and culture and friendship and food. It’s also generous, modest, a slice of who Gonzalez is served up in fiction.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Chris about the craft and intensity of flash, autobiographical fingerprints in fiction, and the role of community in his development as a writer.

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The Rumpus: You’re well known for your literary flash fiction. Beyond that broad category, how would you describe the stories you write? What category would they fit in, if you could label them as a group? What other writers, contemporary or otherwise, would you put in that category with you?

Christopher Gonzalez: I wouldn’t even know how to begin to categorize my own work. I write earnestly and sentimentally, I suppose, for better or worse, and strive to be funny, though it’s impossible to know whether that lands with readers when I want it to. I know we talk about how humor and sadness go together, but when I write I fear that maybe these tones are in great opposition to one another, an odd couple on the page, and I fail to make them work in any kind of healthy, happy marriage. When it’s done really well, you feel the emotional punch followed by a gut-splitting laugh, or vice versa.

When I think about writers who do it well, I think of Raven Leilani, Danny Caine, Bryan Washington, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Alejandro Varela. They’re all writers who I think balance humor and the heavy emotional shit really well, on an aspirational level. Which isn’t to say any of these writers are even alike in how they incorporate humor and heart into their work, just that it’s there. They all make me laugh or smile and make my heart flip, but for different reasons, and I think that’s what my stories attempt to do. So, maybe it’s not so much that they’re in a category with me; rather, they’re in the VIP room of my favorite club with bottle service and all the best fried finger foods and maybe the playlist is switching back and forth between Olivia Rodrigo and Robyn and Lil Nas X and I just want to make it past the stanchion ropes to join in on the fun.

Rumpus: How does your writing process change when writing flash versus longer short stories? And you’re working on a novel now, right?  How does that compare to short stories?

Gonzalez: I’m “working” on a novel the same way everyone is, which is to say, I’m talking about working on it more than actually writing it. Woof, it’s a long road. Writing longer short fiction is still new to me and something I want to do more of. I think the biggest difference is how I envision the emotional windup. For flash, I always have this image in my head of, like, a twister. You start with the wide-mouthed opening and the story swirls down, down, down, to this intense, emotional point—I love bringing readers to that point and not a second past it, if I can. Call it literary edging, I guess. With longer short stories, I don’t envision the same twister. There’s time to slow down and live in the world a little longer, which is more true in a novel. But I’ll be honest, when it comes to writing longer, I feel a little lost and out of my element. Maybe flash fiction has ruined me. But! I think that’s even more of a reason to push ahead with writing longer fiction. My ideas lately are not geared toward flash, I think. I have bigger questions I want to ask and fuller lives to flesh out on the page. I still have no clue what I’m doing, but that fear is rather exciting.

Rumpus: Were there any stories you’ve written/published that you decided not to include in the collection? Why?

Gonzalez: Absolutely. I’m honestly surprised I didn’t cut more stories from the collection. I really wanted this to feel like a whole, cohesive project and not a bundle of stories I had already published. What did I want to say with this group of stories? The length of the book didn’t matter so much to me. This could have been maybe 150 to 200 pages, but it would have felt like a mess. Weighed down by all the excess. I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat is about longing and desire, and almost every story plays out over the course over a long-ass night when I think everyone feels their most raw. It’s really a reflection of my twenties, honestly, all the times I held myself back or allowed myself to be consumed by jealousy or sadness. I’m not afraid to admit that the emotional landscape of the book is stained with my autobiography.

When thinking about what to cut, I had to ask myself, does this story serve the project? At one point I thought about cutting “Little Moves” because it’s centered on siblings and not friends, but the central anxiety in that story, of finally being in a place to be out and open about one’s sexuality after years of suppressing it, felt like a necessary angle to include. When I wrote that story, I wasn’t yet out to my own family. I may be a simp for Oscar Isaac and a complete thirst bucket online, but I didn’t arrive at that point without checking over my shoulder or existing in what felt like the dampest shadows. With a story like that, my vision for what the collection could be started to shift. And again, sometimes a story I had previously published just didn’t fit into that vision, so it had to go.

Rumpus: “Emotional landscape of the book is stained with my autobiography”! Please dive in to this! What is fiction versus creative nonfiction versus autofiction versus… stained with my autobiography?

Gonzalez: Loneliness is a strong undercurrent of this book, as is regret. In tandem, these feelings have steered most of my life. No, there isn’t a single story in the collection that lines up completely with my memory or lived experience, but there is that stain, my emotional fingerprint on all of the pages. I was working through sadness and longing and anxiety and bouts of uncertainty while writing these stories, and it’s all there. You know, I read Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit at such a pivotal moment in my writing process. Her intentional blurring of memoir and fiction and the spaces in between really spoke to me and gave me a fresh perspective on how to approach the final stories. Because I don’t think any genre is so clean-cut. I think there’s room to borrow and fabricate and craft a set of experiences to highlight a certain kind of emotion without being so faithful to the hard facts of reality, whatever that is. I don’t want to say that all fiction is autofiction, full stop—I’m especially wary of how this term gets applied to marginalized writers—but for me, it kind of is. What I mean is, I can’t imagine writing stories that don’t exist parallel to the world I’ve grown to know and love and hate. Maybe that will change one day.

Rumpus: I often find myself pushed into writing about food and bodies and identity in political and social ways, even when I just want to tell a story without that (so-called) higher purpose. How do the political and social justice work themselves into your very personal, narrative storytelling? How do you respond when readers put their own political and/or social expectations on you and your writing?

Gonzalez: I suppose it’s impossible to disentangle writing about food and bodies and identity from a political tether. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I guess my approach is to be honest about who my characters are, especially in all the ways they kind of suck. Average people are walking pendulums, swinging between moments of virtue and vice. No one character should be a martyr. Sometimes, while writing, I may come to the page with a bit of a revenge fantasy, vowing to write a story with a narrator (my stand-in) who overcomes his haters and thrives. That may be fun to write, but it will probably result in a weak story. I have to find the gray areas. I want them to be messy. I don’t think that messiness means you can’t achieve some higher purpose with the writing. Maybe it’s even key. Ultimately, I want to write stories about people who are trying and failing to do their best because of themselves, if that makes sense.

As for readers, they are going to react to our work however they’re going to react. We can try to anticipate that reaction, sure, but it’s a losing battle. Neither reader nor writer exists in an apolitical world. We both bring our entire lives to the page each time we read or write. If I’m failing to achieve some kind of specific political commentary with my stories, or if my characters don’t fit into some rigid construct of queer Puerto Rican men, that’s fine. I’m not every Puerto Rican.

Rumpus: Back to flash versus longer short stories and beyond—what do you think shifts in the craft of the writing? Does habit play a role? What advice would you give to writers who are looking to expand those moments of flash into longer stories? Conversely, many writers struggle to write short! How should a writer new to flash approach that claustrophobic concept of writing in a confined space?

Gonzalez: It’s funny, I came to flash from writing terrible longer stories. These longer stories were bloated and uneven and just lacking any sense of completion. I would see the open calls for submissions, though, asking for stories under a thousand words, so I started cutting away all the excess and finding the main vein of these stories. That would be my advice to writers who go long—start hacking away and see what happens. It doesn’t work every time, but it’s a helpful exercise for all fiction, I think, whether we’re talking about flash or novels. For flash writers looking to expand their work into longer stories, I think flash is a perfect vehicle for stitching together longer narratives. There are novels and novellas in flash, and I think you can create a longer story by writing beat by beat. That’s how I attacked my story “Juan, Actually.” The sections switch between scenes in the Lyft and scenes from the party. But I needed the whole story to move forward and sustain the emotional intensity I’ve come to really appreciate about a good flash—the humor, melancholy, anger, or whatever emotion hits like a bullet. So it’s not so much about writing flash after flash until you have a longer story, but I think one can use their tools for writing flash to enter and exit a scene, to start building a puzzle.

Rumpus: What was the hardest story to write in this collection? Why?

Gonzalez: “Better Than All That,” without a doubt. The obvious reason, I guess, is that it’s the longest story in the collection, coming in at around 6,400 words. I started it well before I took to flash fiction, so going back into it at times after really leaning into flash was difficult. I must have tried to make it flash at some point before abandoning that idea altogether. What’s funny is, the ending image of Justin standing on the back porch naked was always in my head as the only possible ending. That kind of fixed point doesn’t help when drafting, or at least it doesn’t for me, because I think while drafting I became too focused on this narrow hallway leading me from point A to point B. I like to leave room for more exploration when writing something new, but I was so set on the story ending this way. It was the first time I encountered the idea of having to “earn” an ending. And when I started writing the story Justin was way too self-righteous and judgmental as a narrator; I had to figure out how to go deeper so that when he judges his friends there’s an element of insecurity there about his own past actions that he’s not willing to confront, and so his outward judgement is really about himself. You know, this is really a story about going back home and slipping back into the person you used to be and finding that you weren’t as great as you believed you were. Justin confronting his own internalized homophobia means he has to accept he might have enacted harm against others. He wasn’t just a victim. Getting that right wasn’t easy.

Rumpus: What authors have made a lasting impression on your work, both in terms of subject matter and craft?

Gonzalez: The three writers who always come to mind are Justin Torres, Jenny Offill, and Diego Zúñiga. I read We the Animals the summer I was twenty-one and really trying to figure shit out about my sexuality. His book was maybe my first look at Puerto Rican identity in tandem with queerness on the page, but what it really gave me was a master class in voice and point of view, and the brief, intense chapters that laid the groundwork for when I started writing flash.

In that same vein, Offill and Zúñiga both made me curious about compression and concision and how to build momentum on the page. How do you stack these descriptions and fleeting observations into something that pushes forward? When I read those books, I didn’t know what flash fiction was or that it had this whole cult following online. It just made me really curious about how to create effective, immersive storytelling while keeping the prose as clean and close to the bone as possible. I think Zúñiga also wrote about living in a young, fat body in a way I had never seen before in fiction—a portrayal that was grounded and human and not at all interested in leaning heavily on clichéd descriptions.

These are all things that have stuck with me over the years, that piqued my writerly interests and maybe gave me permission to write about the obsessions and clutter in my brain. Like, Oh shit, I don’t have to have Big Things to say about these very mundane aspects of my life but that doesn’t mean my words are worthless.

Rumpus: What was the first short story you read that made you want to write your own?

Gonzalez: I wish I had a better answer, because this author was revealed to be a monster—so I’ll just leave it at that. This isn’t what you asked, but the last several years I’ve been trying to grapple with what it means that my personal canon was filled (not exclusively) with books from male writers of color who turned out to be abusers. So, my questions have shifted away from How do I become a writer like X? to more How do I contribute to a literary landscape that uplifts, supports, and is safe for other marginalized writers?

Rumpus: As someone who edits for literary journals, has a collection out with an indie press, and is now agented and writing a novel, what are your thoughts about the role of literary community in a writer’s life and how gatekeeping, via editors/agents/publishers of all types, impacts that literary landscape you mentioned?

Gonzalez: I guess it sounds cheesy, but finding and nourishing a community has really shaped me as a writer and kept me going even when I wanted to give up or thought none of this would lead anywhere. I should say “community” is a pretty broad term and maybe that looks different for every person. Sharing one another’s work on Twitter is a nice entry point to finding your readers, but community to me goes beyond an echo chamber of adoration. It’s about finding people whom I want to hold space with, who challenge me—whether through their own writing and musings, or just how they are in the world—to be and do better. Who can hold me accountable and whom I can hold accountable, out of love and respect? I am complacent in so many areas of my life: work, dating, existing. But with writing, I have ambitions and personal goals. We all do. And I’m not speaking strictly about prizes and recognitions, which of course, yes, those can be validating and reaffirming and door-opening, though we should always question how these are their own forms of gatekeeping. I’m talking about art, about the work, about wanting to write stories that excite me. I don’t believe I will ever survive off the fruits of this labor; I figure I’ll always be trapped in a nine-to-five grind, so at least I can control what I put on the page. A community, in short, has helped me find this confidence.

Being an editor is of course its own form of gatekeeping. Finding an agent, a publisher, who makes it into a journal, whose work is given a platform, whose isn’t—these are the matters at hand. I try to create opportunity to uplift other queer writers of color wherever possible. I can always do better and do more. Some days I wish to blow the whole model up and start from scratch, and other days I find myself navigating the same terrain that’s always existed, that’s served as a path for white writers and an obstacle course for writers like me. Thinking about that last point, really, used to scare the shit out of me. I couldn’t imagine having a book, let alone all the love that surrounds me in this community. Perhaps community is the antithesis of gatekeeping. By design these limited slots and awards and book deals and fellowships can put us in competition with one another. If I see an opportunity, I try to share it with other writer friends who also might have a shot. Not to be all, if one of us wins, we all win—I don’t know if I agree with that fully. But if I’m going for it and you’re going for it, we’ll be each other’s shoulder, we’ll be each other’s heart. Because after the money is spent or the book is sold or if it flops or whatever, that’s what matters most to me.

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Photograph of Christopher Gonzalez by Christopher Gonzalez.


Hannah Grieco is a writer and advocate in Arlington, VA. She is the CNF editor for JMWW, the fiction editor for Porcupine Literary, and the founder and organizer of the monthly reading series Readings on the Pike. Find her online at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter at @writesloud. More from this author →