Manuel Gonzales is the author of the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! and the acclaimed story collection The Miniature Wife, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. A graduate of the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and The Believer. Gonzales lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.
To read an exercise on building character within action scenes based on Gonzales’ new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, click here.
In this interview, Gonzales discusses moving from stories to a novel, writing novel sections out of order, and moving through time within a narrative.
This novel contains so much of what you did in The Miniature Wife. There’s the wry, corporate in-house documentary tone that was in “Farewell, Africa,” the genre sensibility of stories like “All of Me” and “Wolf,” and the sense of tense waiting that was in “Pilot, Copilot, Writer.” This is one of the concerns that story writers have–how will my voice and style translate to the length and form of the novel? How did you approach that jump? Did you always know the sort of novel that you wanted to write? Or were there abandoned projects and starts before settling on The Regional Office Is Under Attack!?
I didn’t always know the kind of novel I wanted to write next. The stories—they came out over ten or eleven years, and for a long stretch the stories, as a book, had been abandoned and I was working on two different novels, neither of which came to light, for good reason. And to be honest, the in-house documentary tone didn’t arrive in this novel till the very end of rewriting it. What happened was I had an image in my head of a man trying to grab a woman out of a detention center—La Femme Nikita-style—to turn her into a trained assassin of sorts, and she stomps his foot and makes a break for it—but when I wrote that, I didn’t know what was going to happen, where this was headed. For a long time, the early drafts contained long-ish, self-contained sections that, in hindsight, read very much like their own short stories, and I think that’s what got me through early drafts—I wrote it as if it were nothing more than longish short stories that followed the same action but contained their own mini-arcs.
The novel starts with the weirdness of the place and world—a description of the Regional Office. Then, we briefly meet Rose as she is preparing to attack the Office. And then we’re given some backstory about her, and that backstory seems to have a different voice than the previous two chapters: it’s still funny and sharp, but it also wouldn’t be out of place in a completely realistic novel. Is this simply the voice that arrived on the page when you wrote her character? Or were you consciously trying to ground the novel’s fantastic world with a recognizable voice?
That backstory might have a slightly different feel, especially early on, because it was written early in the process and part of the writing was exploration—who is Rose, what does she sound like, how does she move—and the moment of her waiting to start the attack was written at the end, after I decided the whole book needed an overhaul, a new kind of beginning. And by that time I had a clearer idea of Rose, of her sense of humor, of her bravado propped up by her foul mouth and disaffected youth. What’s nice, too, though, is that in that section of attack, she’s older and has a different sense of her self, even. She’s been through the recruitment and training and has more bravado because of it—even if most of it’s false bravado—and by happy accident, I feel the narrative tones match the different kinds of Rose in those different points in her life.
In all of your work, I’ve admired how you’re able to create space within moments of action for—I don’t even know what to call it, not action, maybe, instead, moments for the character to talk about something else. You have one of those moments near the beginning of the novel. Rose is repelling down a ventilation shaft, and she’s not wearing gloves, which makes her think about the man who tells her to wear gloves, which makes her think about her job and the mission in general, and then she’s wondering about things and only barely paying attention to the task at hand—or, we’re barely paying attention to it as readers. Passages like this make me wonder if you ever find yourself writing, “This happened and this and this and this” and unable to break out of the immediate present and let a character think? Or is this simply some of the magic you’ve got as a writer?
I don’t know that I would call it some of the magic I’ve got as a writer—or that I have magic as a writer—but more that this is how I see action happening. I find myself easily distracted ALL THE TIME doing any number of simple or complicated tasks, and it drives my family totally bonkers because in getting distracted I forget the task I’m in and move to something else. In fact, I’ve been answering this question for the past twenty minutes, not these questions, this ONE question—and so it seems only natural to me, right?, that you find yourself in a situation where you’re supposed to be laser-focused but not everyone is good at laser-focus, and your mind wanders to the things it worries or cares about—a guy, a girl, that really pretty cardinal on the fence outside your kitchen window, whatever. And you have to bring yourself back to the task at hand, or the external world itself brings you back against your will.
You’re able to get a lot of pages out of a relatively short period of time. So, for example, you’re able to get 50 pages or so out of the initial attack on the Regional Office. Another writer might have covered much more ground and time in that number of pages. What was your approach to the timeframe of the novel?
My original thought was to focus mostly just on the day of the attack, just that one day, and toy with the peripheral characters—though of course by default the ones I singled out as peripheral became central—but I wanted to slow down the time of the action mainly because that’s how time works, in my mind, anyway. Things happen really fast and then not at all, and then really fast again, but also I wanted to offer full storylines of characters. I wanted to play around with cutting away from the action to give the reader something different, to delay the gratification but also to create a rounder world, richer characters. But then inevitably, too, cutting away from one moment of action usually meant cutting away to another moment of action. And then I realized I couldn’t tell the whole story of what I wanted to tell—what happened to these people after the attack—unless I also jumped forward in time, and jumping forward meant I could also jump backward, and then time went all topsy-turvy, jingly-jangly, and I decided the topsy-turvy jingly-jangly approach was the best approach for me.