Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born in Toluca, Mexico, and has occupied every imaginable position in a newsroom, working for publications in Mexico, Europe and the U.S. He’s also taught creative writing to bilingual second graders, sold Mexican handcrafts at a flea market in Spain, and played Santa Claus at a French school in Silicon Valley. He’s been honored as a Journalism Knight Fellow at Stanford University and a Dobie Paisano Fellow by the Graduate School at UT and The Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared widely, including in The New York Times. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs will be published by Scribner on March 10.
To read an excerpt from his story “Madrid” and an exercise on writing moments of high emotion, click here.
In this interview, Ruiz-Camacho discusses beginning stories with a strong lede and haunting images and introducing unexpected twists in dialogue.
The opening of “Madrid” ends with an almost Dan Brown-esque cliffhanger: “There are no curtains or blinds on the windows to keep the buzz away because we don’t worry about privacy and security here. We don’t have to care about that anymore.” It not only made me want to find out what was going on, it also set up a sense of dread well before the first grisly detail of the kidnapping arrives. Did you always begin the story in this way?
Yes, I wanted to open with an intense sense of the kind of traumatic experience the protagonist was going through, even though you could say it’s a rather slow opening in terms of movement or action.
I always like to start with a striking image, or at least a lede strong enough to hook the reader in–an opening so intriguing and complex that the reader feels she has no option but to keep reading. I have worked as a journalist for more than 18 years. In journalism, if you don’t grab your reader’s attention from the very beginning you’re doomed. I think that my journalistic background has helped me to develop the skills needed to write effective openings. The trick is to reveal enough about the story to lure the reader in without giving away too much of it, just a sense of what’s at stake, the kind the journey you’re proposing. That can be achieved through small but deliberately concrete details–the lack of curtains, the vague mention of the lack of need of security.
The father’s kidnapping is juxtaposed with the birth of the narrator’s son, and this juxtaposition makes a lot of sense (death and life), but then you introduce the dog and its wounded paw, which fits in terms of the sense of being wounded. But, it also complicates the imagery, making it difficult to think in the fairly simple terms of birth and death. I’m curious if the dog was always in the story–or if the baby was always in it. I imagine it could be tempting to start out with a simpler story and then gradually make it more complex.
I think both of them were in the story since the very beginning. I don’t plan ahead the topics in my stories or even the personalities or circumstances of the characters that populate them. Usually it all starts with a character showing up in my mind in the form of a haunting image. In the case of “Madrid,” it was the image of the first box that appears in the story. The moment I saw it I knew exactly what it contained, but that was it. Writing the story then became an investigation around that image, trying to find out who was the recipient of that box, what had happened to him. As I kept working on the story I realized that he was the son of a man who had disappeared, that he’d just had his first son, and that his dog was sick. It all came together at once. I would like to say that I get to make decisions about the characters in my stories, but that’s not the case. They show up as they are, and keep haunting me until I put their story on paper. The most I can do is to highlight one aspect of their personality over others less relevant to the story in order to build a compelling narrative. What you leave out in a story is many times more important than what you keep in.
The story ends with a kind of ghostly appearance and involves some pretty weighty dialogue. This scene could have been unbearably sentimental, a kind of literary Touched by an Angel, but it’s not that at all. What was your approach to this scene, especially the dialogue? Did you struggle to keep it from being overwhelmed by the significance of the moment, the way last lines between characters (and real people) are often overwhelmed with the realization that the end has come?
That section of the story was actually one of the easiest to write. These two characters had a very clear idea of what they wanted to communicate through that exchange since the beginning. What I personally like about it is that both characters remain honest and true to their feelings throughout, regardless of the significance of the moment. They stay fragile and funny and cynical and confused, and neither one of them tries to “make sense” of this encounter, or to purposely deliver any message to the reader–their transformation as characters, if you will, emerges from their acceptance of the moment as it comes. My work there was to make sure that I didn’t interfere with the relationship between them or try to force the ending of the story or the direction of this final exchange to a perfect closure.
My personal opinion is that dialogue works best when we let characters express what they really want, and then work with that material, trying to incorporate it organically into the story, instead of forcing them to say what we think would be “better” to advance the story. Also, if I may add, having unexpected twists in dialogue exchanges is always useful to enhance their impact. This is a pretty dramatic, emotionally charged, scene, and yet there are some really funny or just downright absurd lines in it. I think that’s what, hopefully, makes it work.
You recently published an essay in The New York Times about taking your kids to Mexico for the first time. You grew up there, and so you saw in their experience of the country the same wonder and bafflement that you saw on your early trips to the United States. It’s a sweet essay about universal experience. And yet, many of the readers’ comments were blistering, accusing the piece of bigotry against Mexicans, of all things, and also of simplistic assumptions about Americans—which other commenters complicated by spouting racist garbage. The reaction to the essay seemed to sum up a kind of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem for Mexican, Mexican-American, and Hispanic writers in the United States. As a writer, do you just have to ignore all of that? Is that even possible? How do you approach your work in what seems like such a charged, toxic environment?
First I’d like to say that I don’t perceive the environment in which I write as especially charged or toxic, just the opposite. The encouragement, support, and opportunities my work and I have received over the last few years have been just incredible. Also, maybe because of my journalistic background, or maybe because I’m morbidly curious, I’m one of those rare writers who look forward to reading all kinds of comments from readers–they’re like little pieces of characterization in and of themselves. Commenters reveal so much about themselves in those posts, especially in both the most scathing and the most heartfelt ones, and I find that fascinating.
All of that said, one of the things that you must assume as a writer since the very beginning, regardless of your background, is that your work is public and everyone is free to have and express an opinion about it. Some people will relate to, or even like, your work, and many others won’t. It’s impossible to write something that pleases everybody. That’s why I think the writer should only write for herself. Once a story or an essay is finished, I, of course, hope many people will connect with it, and I love when a reader reaches out to say he or she liked what I wrote, but none of that matters when I’m writing.
At the same time, a negative opinion is, after all, a reaction to your work, emotional, intellectual or otherwise, which is pretty great. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is that readers welcome her work with indifference. As writers, I think we should aim at eliciting intense, memorable reactions on our readers, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. The nature of those reactions is, to a great extent, beyond my control and, therefore, none of my business.