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An Interview with Rene S. Perez II

1 Oct
Rene S. Perez II won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award for his story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Rene S. Perez II won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award for his story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Rene S. Perez II is the author the story collection, Along These Highways, which won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and the 2013 NACCS Tejas Award for Fiction. His newest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns. Perez was born in Kingsville, Texas, and raised in Corpus Christi. He received an MFA from Texas State University and currently teaches high school in Austin.

To read an exercise about backstory inspired by Seeing Off the Johns, click here.

In this interview, Perez discusses why teens want realistic stories, even if those stories are sad; the formatting challenges of italics in POV shifts, and what happens when the novel you’re writing suddenly disappears from your computer.

Michael Noll

This book is ferociously sad—and not in a gratuitous way, I might add. There’s a kind of firm reality to it that I recognize from my own childhood and hometown, and so I was able to connect with these characters very easily. And yet—whew, that opening is a tear-jerker. Did this make it a difficult novel to pitch and sell? Young Adult novels aren’t strangers to sad topics (John Green, The Fault in Our Stars), but this feels somehow different, if only because it’s a more realistic novel than that one, less of a romantic comedy (even though it has a romance). I’m curious if anyone (publishers, readers, writers) pushed back against the opening.

Rene S. Perez II

I never considered that I was writing a YA book. I think the very fact that I stumbled upon one by virtue of the age of my protagonist while not trying to write one can be both a big help and potentially a detriment. When I finished the first draft of the novel, I thought that I could get at least considered/read by presses and agents. I queried four agents. Three replied back, likely due to the “success” of my first book. Each of those who responded all said the same thing: It’s too sad. They wanted me to highlight the romance, and one even asked, if it were possible, focus less on the deaths at the center of the story.

When I found my eventual publisher, they got what I was going for and were all in. What they did want to change, initially, is the ending. I was hesitant to do so and mentioned that in my first conversation with my editor. When she read through again, she saw why the novel has to end how it does. It’s basically stayed the same, story-wise.

So, in those regards, sure, there was some pushback. I do think, however, that since this is being marketed as a YA book, the fact that I never initially set out to write a YA book but to write a realistic novel about the weight of a tragedy on a town, it will resonate more clearly with young readers. I really do think young readers want to be taken seriously. They want to engage in discourse on the big questions. They appreciate knowing the kiddie gloves have been taken off.

Michael Noll

The POV shifts are fascinating. In the first, we have so much empathy for the Johns and their families. Then we’re introduced to Chon, and we begin to see the Johns, especially John Mejia, in a less empathetic way. We begin to dislike him, just as Chon does. But then this feeling gets complicated by more shifts. This seems like a difficult thing to pull off, to successfully get the reader to reconsider an attitude toward a character. How did you approach this challenge?

Rene S. Perez II

The shifts are from close third-person focus on Chon, our protagonist, to an omniscient third-person narration that zoom out wide to show the tragedy’s effect on the town. With that, we get to see how Chon’s initially low opinion of Mejia is counter to the town’s adulation of him. But as the novel goes on, we see the town shifting—forgetting or divesting from the promise Mejia, and both Johns, had. We see Chon recognize it, and the curve of his feelings toward the Johns, Mejia in particular, and the curve of the town’s feelings intersect. Shifting from Chon to the town, zooming in and out, helped to show Chon change, and it changes the reader too.

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called "a searing, mature novel."

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called “a searing, mature novel.”

Michael Noll

Still on the subject of POV, how much planning did you do? When you began the novel, did you have a sense for which characters would receive their own POV and where those chapters would appear in the novel? Or was this something you discovered while writing the book?

Rene S. Perez II

As far as planning goes, I knew from the first time I filled the blank page that I would move from the town to Chon and back out. In fact, the original manuscript of Seeing Off the Johns had the town sections in italic typeface. I decided before word one that there would be italic sections and regular sections. Having allowed myself that, within the italic sections, I was able to really stretch out and get comfortable within the omniscience. I am able to jump ahead and back in time. I am able to tell biographical details of people in town or histories of places. I really gave myself license to push that as far as I needed, because I knew that the visual cue of the italics would let the reader know toe expect those shifts.

When Lee Byrd, my editor at Cinco Puntos, gave me her first notes, she did away with the italics. Just like that. It was a lot to get used to for me after having written in so specific a way. But now that I read it without the italics, it makes for a more interesting read. It certainly makes it seem like I was being more daring formally than I really was.

Michael Noll

You’re a high school teacher, and an English teacher to boot, and so I know you’re putting in a lot of hours on planning and grading. Where do you find the time to write? What’s your strategy?

Rene S. Perez II

I wish I would tell you that I have some solid work ethic that I organize my life into being able to write every day. Hell, I can’t even motivate myself to write every day. What I do is make sure to always have access to notes. In various forms ranging from texting myself to notes on my phone to e-mailing myself to always having my notebooks handy, I am always ready to put down ideas for characters or stories or plot points of larger works. Then, as that becomes more fruitful, I pick times when I can sit and either transcribe paragraphs or sentences I’ve handwritten into a larger work or get started on a story.

That’s how I work. I always allow ideas to at least start. I always have a couple stories and, as has been the case for the last 5 years, a novel in progress. That way I can always turn from one project to another. I tell myself I work best on something when I’m stealing time from something else. If I always have something I’m itching to work on, when I am done with school work and the baby’s bathed and in bed, or on weekends when my wife is stepping up so I can sequester myself in one of my writing holes, quality writing happens.

Michael Noll

A few years ago, I heard you say that you’d just lost a novel through a computer failure. Was this novel? What happened? Did you rewrite the entire thing?

Rene S. Perez II

Ah, the lost novel! I started writing Seeing Off the Johns while waiting for the first book to happen. When I finished SotJ, the collection, Along These Highways, was out. I showed SotJ to an editor who gave very thoughtful feedback. She said something was missing. I could feel it too. Now, while waiting to hear back on SotJ, around 2011, I had started to write another novel. It was cool and noir-ish and rolling along quite well. I was almost done with a first draft when I lost it. At that point I knew I only had two options: I could either set about to rewrite the lost novel or I could fix SotJ. I chose to write a play instead. When I finished that, push came to shove. I tore SotJ apart. I felt like a mechanic in a hollowed out car needing to find a faulty plug and put the damn thing back together. I figured it out (in the first draft, I was satisfied with the novel being 3-dimensional because of the POV shifts, but I’d neglected to make Chon fully rounded) and fixed it, and now the Johns is almost out.

A postscript on the lost novel: I’m still chipping away at the rewriting in notes and on the manuscript, but I’ve also started a new novel. We’ll see which happens first.

September 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Jump Out of Scene into Backstory

29 Sep
Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called "a searing, mature novel."

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene S. Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called “a searing, mature novel.”

Some famous writer or another once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. This is all well and good until you try it. You find yourself wondering, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life?

This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the JohnsIt will be published on November 3, which means you can take off work to buy it and tell your boss that you were voting.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene with two couples meeting for dinner. Their sons are long-time friends and have just left home together to attend the University of Texas and play together on the baseball team:

He held out a glass of bourbon to Andres while Angie poured a couple of margaritas in stemware waiting on the table. They raised their glasses, the four of them, and looked at each other as though they’d all just rolled out of bed after an afternoon of intimacy.

“To our boys,” Angie said.

The novel uses this moment as an opportunity to give a brief history of the relationship between the Mejias and Robisons, a history that begins this way: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” We learn that the Robisons are older. They’re white and the Mejias are Hispanic. They’re upper class, and the Mejias are working class. The history of the relationship, then, is, to some extent, the history of how the couples dealt with these differences.

The passage tells that history from the Mejias’ point of view and begins with a description with the meals that the Mejias prepare for guests:

The Mejias rarely strayed from their standard foods—fideo and meat, tacos and chalupas, easy ricotta-free lasagna, beef and, more rarely, chicken enchiladas.

Then, the novel sets up the difference between the Mejias’ food and the Robisons’ food:

The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.

And what is that difference?

That first meal together, the Robisons served blackened catfish, which Julie thought was too fancy for her taste.

But what makes the passage interesting is the next line:

Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.

This is how a novel or story uses a snapshot to suggest a life. Seeing Off the Johns starts with a dinner and uses it as touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between the two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s reveal a life with a scene, using Seeing Off the Johns by Rene Perez II as a model:

  1. Choose a scene that contains a recurring moment. Perez builds his scene around a dinner, something that occurs every day and is shared by these couples on a regular basis. There are many potential, daily moments like this, and there are also other less mundane ones: recurring arguments, recurring obstacles, recurring bad habits or giving-in to vices. Even first-time moments (sex, drugs, murder) are often part of longer arcs: “the character walked this street every day until…” or “she’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” So, first, figure out which scene you’ll use as the jumping-off point for the backstory.
  2. Jump from scene to backstory. You can make the jump by reversing the order of the lines used to introduce the scene. “She’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” becomes “On every other night at the bar…” This is essentially what Perez does: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” The line could have read, “Every other time they’d met for dinner, they’d gotten on this well.” What he adds is the word despite, which is a great way to add tension. It adds a charge to the mundane: “She’d been coming to the same bar for years and never been hit on despite…” Give the line a try by combining the usual with the word despite.
  3. Build a narrative upon that despiteThe word inherently suggests story. Why didn’t guys hit on the woman? Why did the Mejias and Robisons get along? The answer almost certainty involves a revealing detail about human nature (She was six-foot-five and intimidating to the sort of men that drank at the bar) or a character’s decision (Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.) Note that word accepted. They could have refused to accepted the difference in wealth, but they didn’t. They decided to get along. What you get, then, is a narrative that goes something like this: ___ has been happening for a long time despite ___, and the only reason this scene is happening now is because _____.

The goal is to craft piece of backstory that jumps out of a scene and illuminates the lives behind the scene.

Good luck.

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.

Using Dialogue to Create Conflict

14 May
Rene S. Perez in The Acentos Review

“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.

If you close your eyes and listen to people—your family or friends—you’ll discover that they don’t all talk the same. They use different diction, different cliches, and sentences of different lengths. Yet in fiction, we too often write dialogue as if everyone talks the same.

Not Rene S. Pérez II. In his story, “Lost Days,” he creates characters with distinctive speaking styles, and those style become the center of the conflict. The story is a great example of how character, when fully realized, can drive plot. “Lost Days” is included in Pérez’s collection, Along These Highways, and was first published in The Acentos Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Let’s take a look at a key paragraph from “Lost Days.” In it, you’ll see how Bobby talks differently than his mother and father and how the story comments on this style. Both are important in using character to create plot.

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”

Bobby’s diction (disparage, connotes) and phrasing (which is such that) suggest not only that he is smart but that he’s trying to be smart, that he feels a need to prove his intelligence. His speaking pattern has a whiff of desperation, and so it’s no surprise that he ends up calling his hometown stupid and dull. In life, people generally say what they feel. It’s hard to maintain a true shellac over our inner selves. In fiction, you can use this tendency to create plot by having characters say what they think (in their unique voices) to the people most vulnerable to those opinions. Perez has established in one paragraph an entire family dynamic and conflict.

Perez turns this conflict into a narrative arc by focusing Bobby’s desperation on a single point: Starbucks. At first, he says, “I mean, this town doesn’t even have a Starbucks.” But later in the story, as his mom drives away from the town’s first Starbucks, he’ll say, “Starbucks is the Wal-Mart of coffee shops. I bet the opening was in the news and everything.”

In some ways, this is a story about that old saw, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” All it takes to make the story work is a few words from one character and a cup of coffee.

The Writing Exercise

This exercise is really more of a writing habit. The first part you may have heard before, but the second will likely be new to you.

  1. Begin writing down snippets of dialogue. The speakers can be anyone: people in line at the grocery store, customers at a coffee shop, drinkers at a bar, your kids or spouse or parents, your friends. Try to write down a few sentences verbatim. Don’t worry about capturing an entire conversation. The back-and-forth may sound amazing, but on paper, it will almost always last too long and wander from its point. It’s more important to capture the essence of how the person speaks.
  2. Try to impersonate those people. Say aloud what you have written as they said it. Imagine that you’re an actor on stage. You may find that in order to fully capture the voice, you must delete or add words or change their order. Remember: Dialogue needs to sound lifelike, not be lifelike. Once you’ve captured the person’s voice, write down the dialogue as you speak it. Add attributions (she said) or descriptions (she wiped her nose) to help provide the rhythm of the voice.

Have fun.

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