Tag Archives: Subtropics

An Interview with Alex Perez

31 Oct
Alex Perez

Alex Perez’s story “Eggs” appeared in Subtropics, the literary magazine of the University of Florida.

Alex Perez is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have appeared in SubtropicsGuernica, 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.)

Michael Noll

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?

Alex Perez

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Alex Perez

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Alex Perez

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Alex Perez

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.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create the World of the Story

29 Oct
Alex Perez's story "Eggs" was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

Alex Perez’s story “Eggs” was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

The writer Ron Carlson says that every story has two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Another way of saying this is that the characters involved have concerns and obsessions that existed before the story came into their lives.

Alex Perez has created this fictional world beautifully in his story “Eggs.” It was published in Subtropics, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

It’s not actually enough to create a world for the story to enter. That world must lean on the story, shaping it so that the story isn’t generic but specific to that place. Perez does this by giving his narrator an attitude about certain aspects of his world: poverty and ethnicity.

Notice how the narrator immediately compares his mom to the woman his father is sleeping with:

“My mother, always working in the kitchen, never wore anything that called attention to her. This woman, this white lady, must have dipped her entire wardrobe in glaze or something.”

This class difference gets picked up in every section of the story. Even when the the narrator’s father moves out and the narrator and his brother drive to his new house to egg it, they’re thinking not just about their plan but the class distinctions that inform it:

It’s a testament to the craziness of a city like Miami, how all the hoods, rich and poor, are connected by the highway, but people only get off where they’re supposed to. But here we were, on the side of town all the immigrants wanted to get to. Ten minutes from our place, and this was the first time Ricky had seen driveways littered with the finest in German engineering.

“All the backboards are made of glass. Like the NBA,” he said.

“You haven’t played basketball until you bounce it off the glass,” I said.

One problem that many beginning writers have is a tendency to write only about plot. In their stories, once the plot gets rolling, nothing else appears on the page. But good stories move in and out of plot. They advance it for a while and then step out for a few moments to talk about something else. Such moments allow readers to catch their breath, to absorb what is happening. Giving the characters in a story something to talk about besides the immediate plot also allows the story to gain meaning. It allows the story to have a paragraph like this one in which the narrator peers through the windows of his father’s mistress’ house and sees him rubbing her feet:

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, I 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. Maybe all those other women had been preparation for this moment, for the day that he’d finally make it to a house that justified his exodus all those years ago. I didn’t know, probably would never know, but I had to tell myself a story.

That passage that isn’t possible if the story doesn’t create its world and its characters’ attitude toward that world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a world and a character’s attitude toward that world, using “Eggs” as a model:

  • Describe two characters from the viewpoint of a third character. When Perez compares his mother to his father’s mistress, he notices the difference in their clothes, and it bothers him. You’re looking for those kind of distinctions that bother the third character. So, you may want to describe characters who are not equally close to the third character: a family member and a stranger, a close friend and an acquaintance, a spouse and a co-worker. We tend to associate ourselves with people from “our world” and who have similar attitudes toward that world—and we often judge harshly the people from other worlds. Here are some ideas for distinctions you can make: class, ethnicity, geography, education, intelligence, athletic ability, attractiveness, sexuality, or even just likability.
  • Put your third character into the world that isn’t his/her own. When Perez’s characters egg their father’s mistress’s house, they leave one neighborhood and enter another. Because class distinctions weigh so heavily on them, everything they see is seen through that prism: the basketball backboards, the bases on the baseball fields. What details does your third character notice as he/she enters the world that isn’t his own? The key is to find a plot mechanism that will force your character into a world to which he/she doesn’t belong.
  • Filter everything through the difference between the worlds. We judge others most harshly—or become most conscious of distinctions between us and others—when we’re upset. So, as you write the story and approach the dramatic high points, find ways to return to the distinctions you’ve created. In Perez’s story, the narrator looks into his father’s new house, aware of how much bigger and fancier it is than his own. But his feelings toward those differences have changed. Very often, the reversal in plot or the epiphany will be accompanied by a similar reversal or change in the way a character views the world you’ve created.

Good luck and have fun.

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