An Interview with Rene S. Perez II

16 May
Rene S. Perez II

“Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II first appeared in The Acentos Review and is included in his debut collection, Along These Highways, which won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Prize and was published as part of the Camino del Sol series by the University of Arizona Press.

The stories in “Along These Highways,” the debut collection from Rene S. Perez II, might best be described by that famous quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Like many writers, Perez sets his stories in the place of his youth. What makes Perez unusual, however, is that those places are Corpus Christi, Kingsville, and South Texas, a part of the country rarely seen in literature. That is why the writer Dagoberto Gilb praises the book by writing, “Rene Perez’s collection is much more than a fine first book by an enormously gifted young writer, it is one marking trail for an ignored culture to find its way to the nation’s center.”

In this interview, Perez discusses writing flawed characters, the challenge of writing about a place where you haven’t lived in years, and the importance of small presses to Latino writers.

Michael Noll

The story is about a woman whose son, Bobby, treats her as if she’s intellectually inferior . As I read, I found myself both disliking Bobby but also understanding his actions. How did you approach the balancing act of creating character who is at once unlikable but also understandable?

Rene S. Perez II

This is something I try to do with my fiction, to create characters who, despite however flawed (arrogant, violent, ‘crazy’) they are, are justified. While it may not be apparent in the prose I write, one of my greatest influences, perhaps one of the only writers I can directly cite as being an influence, is Toni Morrison. What she does in all of her texts, starting with The Bluest Eye and Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, is create lives as contexts for her characters’ later flaws and sins. She does this with acts of infidelity, murder, infanticide, and planned terrorism, to name a few throughout her books. In each instance, she provides causal underpinnings for her characters’ actions.

My goal is never really to write crazy or depressed or, as in Bobby’s case, intellectually condescending characters, but when a plot unfolds, if the events are anything outside of the mundane, there has to be some reason for a character to have set them in motion, and in trying to create a believable reality, there has to be a believable causal chain leading characters to act as they do. That’s, really, how I approached Bobby, even with the stakes being as, seemingly, small as they are.

Michael Noll

Starbucks is central to the story. Bobby’s shifting attitudes can be traced by his reaction to the absence or presence of Starbucks. It’s a really succinct, efficient way to show a character’s development over time. Was this an intentional move on your part? Or did you discover it through revision?

Rene S. Perez II

I set out to write the story of the mother. Of course it’s about her relationship with her son, but I wanted her to be on the upswing from a dark time. I also specifically wanted this to be a story very much informed by being set in Corpus Christi. I last lived there over 10 years ago, so my Corpus stories are really of that time.

Rene Perez

To learn more about the geography of South Texas, check out this great interview with Rene S. Perez II that appeared in Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors.

Should anyone from Corpus read it and cry foul over the fact that there’s been a Starbucks (now two), not counting the stand in the Barnes and Noble, in town for over ten years, I would point out that this story is about a time when there wasn’t. I bring that up because it was a natural before-and-after time marker. There would naturally have been a time when this particular character (Bobby), at 16 or 17, likely smoking friend-bought Clove cigarettes, would have complained about the absence of a Starbucks in town. That same kid leaving for Stanford and ending up seeking out a PhD in Lubbock, now smoking rightly attained American Spirits, can be expected to have come to be above the idea of Starbucks. In seeking to have something small resulting in something very big, the idea of Bobby came to me. The Starbucks angle came naturally from that.

Michael Noll

The story is, in terms of plot, very simple: A woman walks into Starbucks, sits for a while, orders coffee, and drives away. Altogether, the events take about an hour. Yet the story is much vaster than that hour, encompassing entire lives and histories. How did you maintain the immediate story arc—woman goes into Starbucks—while at the same time developing the larger histories of the characters?

Rene S. Perez II

This story is all about the histories of the characters. A thing that I do, outside of any writing exercise, is observe people and assume a context for them. I can guess that this is something all people do to some extent, but I lose myself in it sometimes. If I am at the movies and I see someone sitting and watching alone, I guess at a set of circumstances that has put that person there alone. For some reason my imagination always takes it to a place that makes me feel crassly presumptuous—I mean, I go to movies alone all the time for reasons completely unrelated to loneliness and freakish anti-social tendencies (mostly), but I always paint sad pictures of these lives that don’t give any credit to the people actually eating a small popcorn and enjoying a matinee feature.

In setting out to write this story, I let my mind run in that familiar direction. I had a lady taking a day off. Why? How often does she do this? How has her life changed in the time since she first started taking her days? This is her first time in a coffee shop. What has happened in her life that has brought her to this new place? What brings any person into a Starbucks who isn’t a coffee person? We know what would have put Bobby there, but what would have put her there? That’s what the story is about—those things that have brought her to this hour. So it was naturally going to be a small story. I think big truths about characters can be best examined in small stories. Instead of exploring what a character would do when encountering life’s plot turns, I think a small story–woman walks into a Starbucks, gets a coffee, leaves–allows for exploring who a character is when no one else is watching. I didn’t plan it this way, but I think that’s why the story takes place during her private me-time.

Michael Noll

The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction was recently announced, and the winner was Benjamin Alire Sáenz. His selection was noteworthy because he is the first Latino to win the award, but he’s been nominated for other awards, so it’s not like he’s been pulled from obscurity. What I found surprising is that he’s published by Cinco Puntos, a small press in El Paso that publishes books primarily about the borderlands and the people who live there. Your book was also released by a small press and your stories have appeared in journals focusing on Texas/Latino/Southwest writers. Is it the case that Latino writers are struggling to break into the big, national presses? Or are small presses with thematic listings (regional, cultural, ethnic) simply doing a better job of discovering and promoting Latino writers? 

Rene S. Perez II

I can’t speak to big presses, breaking into them, struggling to do so. I know of the great work small presses are doing to discover and promote Latino writers. It is a great service to Latino literature. There are stories to be told—truths and lives worth documenting and representing. These small presses are doing pretty heavy lifting as far as Chicano Literature goes, because it’s pretty easy to look around and see that the big presses aren’t publishing too many Chicanos. There are many theories as to why these big presses are skewing toward Dominican and Cuban other such Latino books to publish. Most obviously, they are more traditionally present on the East Coast. I have to believe that with all of the migration of new-comers from Mexico all over the country, there will be new generations of Chicanos born and raised here, with their own stories to tell of their Mexican American existences as I have tried to do with my Texan upbringing. The aforementioned growing demographic that will soon be too big to ignore will only add to families like mine who have been here for generations, living and working for the same American dream, shaded the exact same red white and blue as anyone else’s, no part immigrant to speak of. Until the tide turns and this group that already makes up something like 60% of all American Latinos becomes more evident to those who make the big decisions for the big presses, I am glad to know that there are these small presses doing big work. Already they are reaping big rewards.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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