Tag Archives: The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

An Interview with Manuel Gonzales

14 Apr
Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called “rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places” and also “thoughtful and well considered.”

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.

Michael Noll

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!?

Manuel Gonzales

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Manuel Gonzales

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Manuel Gonzales

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Manuel Gonzales

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.

April 2016

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

How to Build Character within Action Scenes

12 Apr
Manuel Gonzales' novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

Manuel Gonzales’ novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that something builds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!. You can read first pages of the book here

How the Novel Works

Action scenes can be some of the most difficult moments to write because the action draws the eye. Once someone is fighting or running or whatever, it’s hard to look away. But that is exactly what action sequences need. They must offer more than choreographed motion. Watch how Gonzales avoid that trap in this early scene from the novel. In it, the leader of one group has just given the sign to begin an attack on the headquarters of another group:

Finally she gave that signal and the fucking mercs were off, pouring out of their vans like mechanized roaches, and then they were gone, and Colleen, jog-walking right behind the mercs as they charged into the offices of the Morrison World Travel Concern, patted Rose on her ass and gave her a peck on the cheek and told her, “Nice work, kid,” and then waved casually over her shoulder and called out, “See you on the other side,” as she ran to catch up with the grunts, leaving Rose standing on the sidewalk feeling like she felt that one summer she agreed to help out with the pre-K kids at church camp, how relieved she’d felt every fucking day when it was recess and all those little shits had run screaming and hitting and shoving out of the multipurpose room and into the play yard and all she’d wanted to do was sit down and revel in the peace and quiet for one goddamn minute.

The passage begins with a series of actions but ends with the memory of a pre-K kids church camp. It’s a significant jump. What makes it work? The less-polished version of this jump, which most of us have written, is this: action action action, which made her think about that time… It’s the same thing that Gonzales has written, with one big exception: it includes the phrase “which made her think.” Other versions of this include “which reminded her” and “which transported her” and “which made her feel.”  The difference between these and what Gonzales writes is that his version is faster (“feeling like she felt that one summer…”) and doesn’t necessarily imply that the character herself is stopping in the middle of a battle to think, “Oh, this is just like that one time at church camp.”

We tend to value realism, but in action scenes, verisimilitude can get in the way. If a writer tries too hard to recreate action as it’s experienced by a character, the result isn’t automatically good prose. Would this character think about church camp in this moment? Maybe not. But she has a feeling, and the writer is pausing to tell us, the readers, what that feeling is—a feeling that the character perhaps understands without thinking about it.

Gonzales steps out of the immediate action with another strategy as well. This passage comes shortly after the first one:

Rose dropped twenty or thirty feet and then caught hold of the rope, threw her feet against the aluminum of the vent shaft, leaving deep boot marks in it, almost breaking the shaft off its column. She should have been wearing gloves. She hated wearing gloves, though, hated the way they constricted her hands, the way she couldn’t grip things as well as she liked…

Again, the passage starts with action and then moves out of it into a short meditation on gloves. Is the character actually thinking about gloves in this moment? Sort of, as you’ll see when you continue reading the scene. But she’s not thinking, “I hate gloves, the way they constrict my hands.” Why would she? She understands this hatred and doesn’t need to state it explicitly, even to herself. The moment is meant for the readers alone, an attempt to reveal something about the character based on what she’s doing at that moment: hanging on a rope without gloves.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create space to build character within an action sequence, using The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales as a model:

  1. Choose an action sequence. It can be anything from attacking a building to preparing dinner. Your characters are doing something.
  2. Write the basic action as a list. Gonzales actually puts his action in the first example into a single sentence. Try doing the same thing. You can always add more detail later. Get the essential parts of the movement: where it takes place, who is involved, and which objects are used.
  3. Step away from the action (Method 1). Make a comparison. Gonzales does it with the word feeling. The way his character feels in the midst of this action is like the way she felt in this other, very different moment. To do this, you can drop the word feeling into almost any point in the list of actions, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread, feeling like she felt that one…. Or, don’t use feeling at all. The action itself, not the way it feels but the actual movement, can be similar to something else, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread the way masons apply mortar to bricks. 
  4. Move into the comparison. Gonzales moves his character out of the attack and into church camp. In my examples, the character could move into whatever spreading peanut butter feels like or into her past as a bricklayer. You’ve opened the door into someplace other than the present moment; now walk through it.
  5. Step away from the action (Method 2). Select one of the objects you mentioned in the list of actions. Comment on it. Gonzales does this through absence: no gloves. Then he tells the reader something about the character’s relationship to that object (or its absence). Try doing the same thing. Make a statement about your character’s relationship to an object in the scene. Then, as with the previous method, step through the door you’ve opened. What else is connected to that object or the character’s experience of it?
  6. Return to the action. Once you’ve shown or told us what you wanted to show or tell, walk back through the door and into the present moment. The action resumes.

The goal is to create simultaneity in action scenes by adding other moments, times, and experiences to the present moment of action.

Good luck.

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