Alex Perez is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have appeared in Subtropics, Guernica, and Esquire. He lives in Miami, where he recently completed a novel.
In this interview, Perez discusses writing about class and race, listening to characters, puzzling out how to integrate backstory, and his pick for the next Nobel Prize.
(To read Perez’s story “Eggs” and an exercise creating the world of the story, click here.)
In student stories, dialogue tends to be focused on plot (what is going to happen, who is going to do what). As a result, the characters can sometimes seem lifeless, like props being shuffled around as the story dictates. What I immediately noticed about “Eggs” is that the boys have something to talk about. Even when they’re a few blocks away from the house that they’re about to vandalize, they’re not talking exclusively about their plan. Instead they’re talking about basketball goals with glass backboards and thinking about how the houses look like castles. The narrator thinks that he’ll never live in a house with such big staircases. Even at the story’s climax, he’s thinking about class differences–which is fascinating and tells us so much about him and his world. Was the story always about class in this way? Or did you have to write a few drafts and let the boys have some random conversations and observations before you figured out what their concerns were?
The story was always about class, but it took me a couple of drafts to figure out what it was really about: the realization that class exists. The concern, of course, was that a socioeconomic “theme” would be too on the nose, or too writerly, which is why it was important that the two main characters be teenagers. They were never going to have a nuanced chat about economic theory or politics. It was simple: “Look, a glass blackboard. I want a glass blackboard. I can’t have a glass blackboard.” They were awed and angered—like most young men—so the dialogue, as well as the rest of the story, is dictated by that point of view. Basically, remove yourself as much as possible. Become your characters.
The opening of the story makes clear that race/ethnicity will play a big role. The first section ends this way:
“So get ready to egg the hell out of him.”
“And the white lady?”
“The white lady too.”
But, for the most part, whiteness and Cuban-ness don’t really get talked about. Instead, they get wrapped up in discussions of class. By the end, it’s almost impossible to separate the two. Near the end, just before the boys start throwing eggs, the narrator thinks about his father this way:
He was in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen, and he’d become a certifiable bitch. I didn’t know why, but as I looked around the house, at the massive staircase and the leather couches, for one second, gave him the benefit of the doubt. Right then, I knew that I’d never make it to such a house. I wasn’t good enough for Harvard, and I certainly wasn’t about to massage feet for women who weren’t my wife.
This is a pretty powerful thought. It’s all about class and the narrator’s sense of his own worth and what he’s willing to do for money. It’s also, indirectly, about race/ethnicity. I’m curious how you developed this idea in the drafts. Was it a challenge to find the right way to approach tensions of race/ethnicity?
Initially, race was going to play a big factor. Surely, I was thinking about writing a story that connects class and race and makes some grand statement. Thankfully, once the boys enter the neighborhood and notice the backboards and everything else, the story really hones in on what it wants to be. Once again, this is about point of view. The writer wanted to hammer together themes of race and class—searching for the proper balance or ratio—but the narrator was focused on glass backboards. I was smart enough to go along and allow the story to move in the direction it wanted to move in. I’ve learned the hard way that too much thinking—especially while writing—can destroy a story. Don’t question the choices a character makes. They know better. If it was up to me, I would’ve probably shoehorned more “race” into the story, but the characters were obsessed with “stuff” they didn’t have, which says everything that needs to be said about race and class and America, etc. They knew the proper ratio all along.
The story takes place over a short period of time (the amount of time required to drive to a house and egg it). But the story does flash back to other moments in the boys’ lives (discovering their father’s affair, the day their father leaves home). Did the story always have that narrow frame? Or did earlier drafts try to span more time within the plot? In other words, did the story always begin with the boys in the car, on their way to the house, or did it begin earlier?
I read a lot of stories that sputter along and take a few scenes to get going, so I always try to start a story with as much immediacy as possible. In “Eggs,” it seemed logical then to open with the boys in the car, the plan already in motion. We’re right there with them, listening in, wondering why they want to egg their father and this mysterious white lady. I also wanted the reader to feel like an accomplice, so trapping everyone in a car was the only way to go. The problem, as always, was what to do about the backstory. You can have chunks of backstory in a novel—such is the form—but short stories are all about forward progression. It was even trickier in “Eggs,” because the boys are in a car—literally moving forward—and I didn’t want the momentum deadened by the backstory. So the question was: to backstory or not to backstory? In the end, I realized that some history was indeed needed, so I had to write a couple of “background” scenes and somehow intersperse them into the narrative. Always a bastard, that backstory.
In the spirit of the recent Novel Prize announcement, if you were able to give out an award for lifetime achievement in literature, who would you give it to? Which writer has most shaped both your conception of yourself as a writer and also your sense of what a good story/novel looks like?
Philip Roth. Nobody does the combination of comedy and pathos better than Roth. I read Goodbye, Columbus, and that was it for me. His stories are fearless. He’s like Dylan in that they’re going to do whatever they want, and you either come along, or you don’t. That seems like the way to do it.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.