Where He Goes, His Barrio Goes: An Interview with Author Gabino Iglesias
There's a lot to be angry about, these days, and Gabino Iglesias writes a lot about rage.
In August of 2018, a friend retweeted something that moved me such that I printed it out and taped it above my desk.
"Much love to every writer out there who's going to work early tomorrow morning instead of heading to a cabin or a hotel to finish a novel. We will write at night. We will write during lunch and on the weekends. We will get it done.
Stay strong, fellow hustlers."
As a mother of three children who works full-time, finding time to write is like, well, squeezing water from a stone. I wake up before dawn to write for two hours, then carve minutes out of my day to edit, type, revise, and submit my work to journals. I had never been, in my almost 20-year writing career, to a writing retreat, because time and family responsibilities prohibited it.
Other writers felt the same, apparently. That encouraging message was retweeted almost 9,000 times and liked by almost 14,000 people.
Its author is Gabino Iglesias, whom I started following on Twitter. I learned he was a book reviewer and a journalist, as well as a fiction writer, based in Austin, Texas. His earlier horror/crime novels include Gutmouth and Zero Saints, and his reviews and articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, NPR, and The Rumpus.
I ordered his latest book, Coyote Songs, a novel told from multiple perspectives, all of which take place at la frontera, the southern border. In one of the plot threads, a man who moves children across the border believes that the Virgin Mary is assisting and guiding him; in another, a pregnant woman realizes that she is carrying an angry demon. Throughout, Iglesias blends English with Spanish, alludes to magic, syncretism, and ghosts and spirits. Throughout, you encounter beauty juxtaposed with brutality.
The San Antonio Current said, "This is the kind of novel that crushes ignorance and forces people to open their eyes." Roxane Gay praised Iglesias' writing as "textured" and "intriguing".
While reading the story of Alma, one of his protagonists, I emailed Iglesias to share how impressed and moved I was by his depiction of the voice of a woman of color in the United States, a woman who lives in a perpetual defense mode against racism and sexism. Recently, Iglesias shared his thoughts with me about the political climate in the United States, his early influences, Twitter, and why writing is "the best gig in the world."
Darraj: You started writing creatively while growing up in Puerto Rico, then continued when you were a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, where you completed a PhD in journalism. What compelled you to write creatively? And which writers did you admire when you first started?
Iglesias: I was always a reader. At some point, that stopped feeling like it was enough. I wanted to make people feel the things I felt while reading. I wanted to tell my own stories.
I guess I was about 12. I wrote stuff for school whenever I had a chance. My literary diet during my early teens mostly consisted of horror and adventure. Stephen King, Poe, Lovecraft, Bentley Little, and Richard Laymon were staples. I loved Jules Verne and Miguel de Cervantes. I also liked weird stuff. I read books about giant squids, Bigfoot, coelacanths, and all those Zecharia Sitchin books.
Then, a bit later, crime stepped in and took as much space as all that. I was hooked on Lovecraft for a while. Same with Laymon. Then I discovered Bukowski and thought "Wait... we're allowed to do this?"
You essentially invented a new genre of fiction: barrio noir. It's been described as groundbreaking, an innovative hybrid genre. David Tromblay said, "This is Barrio Noir, and Barrio Noir is Gabino Iglesias." So tell us: How would you define it?
I dislike genre as a list of categories, but it's something we need to use to navigate writing. My writing was always weird, so I was happy to call it bizarro for a while. Then I realized it had two huge influences, crime/noir and horror fiction.
However, as I worked on finding my voice, I started feeling more comfortable with Otherness, bilingualism, multiculturalism, magic, syncretism, poverty, migration, and how all of them had an impact of me and thus, my work. When I decided that all my work would strive to bring all those together, I knew that calling it noir or horror wouldn't be enough. It was also too dark to just settle for magical realism.
I thought about it for a long time. Just before I sent Zero Saints to the publisher back in 2014, I decided that barrio noir was the perfect name for it. My barrio goes with me wherever I go, and my writing is no different.
Coyote Songs is your second novel, but it's more like a linked short story collection. You've called this form a mosaic novel. How do you go about constructing this type of storyline? When did you start writing like this?
I had too many characters in mind when I started thinking about Coyote Songs. There were too many stories I wanted to tell. Trying to weave them all together seemed like something I didn't have the chops for just yet, so I opted for a structure that would allow them to connect all the stories while giving each one its own narrative arc. It was the first time I tried it and I liked how it turned out.
The next novel is back to a standard structure, so I don't know if I'll write another mosaic...
You have a large number of Twitter followers, which include many fellow writers. Your Twitter presence is like a swift kick in the guts, a reminder to keep writing and never feel sorry for yourself.
Just recently, you tweeted: "Write when you're sad and when you're happy. Write for you and for your readers for those who came before you and for those who can't write and for those who will come after you. Write your truth and your past and your future and your now. Write your anger and your hope. Write."
What motivates you to tweet such encouragement? What are you trying to contribute to the writing community?
I do?! Writing is the best gig in the world. It's also hard as hell. It's a gig where the win/loss ratio is ridiculously tilted toward the latter. There is editing and rejection, bad reviews and days with zero new words.
That said, it's also magical. It's the only way we can tell our truths and keep the demons at bay. Writing is how we remember, how we share, how we connect, how we entertain, how we protest, how we provide escapism. I could tweet about how having three jobs means I have almost no time to write or how this gig is full of awful publishers or how this is one incredibly lonely endeavor, but writers already know that.
I wanna push them to stop complaining and get to writing. That's what we do. Go write.
The United States feels more politically polarized than ever. One of the most charged issues is the treatment of migrants at the southern border. Congressional representatives have traveled to detainment centers and hearings have been held to report on and investigate conditions.
Your characters in Coyote Songs exist on either side of that border. You blend English with Spanish to capture the way people speak, the rhythm of their language. You depict their fears in the form of monsters, both human and non-human. In addition to telling a good story, are you trying to deliver a political message?
Hell yeah. I want to entertain. I want to give folks monsters and ghosts and drugs and guns and extreme violence. But I also want to look at others and know what's what. I want them to know they're reading a novel by a dude for whom English is not his first language and whose parents and grandparents never spoke a word of it. I want folks to understand colonialism and racism. I want them to be aware of the ways storytelling can shine a light on current events.
I know getting political is not a great way to sell books, but I don't care. I'm here to talk about the things I want to talk about. If someone doesn't like it, there's a billion other books out there just for them.
You're published by an indie press, Broken River Books. You Tweet and write columns and essays frequently about "the hustle" -- marketing and championing one's own work. What are the advantages of being with an indie press, based on your experience? What is a typical day/week/month like when you are hustling?
I think some of the most exciting, interesting, meaningful books currently being published are coming from indie presses. Indies take bigger risks. They give writers a bit more freedom. I also think we break away from the "rules" of cover design and give readers some of the best covers out there.
The hustle is always the same and always changing. I teach high school to pay the bills. Then I go home and teach at SNHU's online MFA program. Then there's the articles and editing and answering emails and working on the next novel and reading books so I can keep wiring book reviews and...you get the picture.
People think it's hard. It's not. The only thing I do differently from most other folks is that I get up at 4am to make the day feel a little longer. Oh, and I have to find time in the middle of all that to have fun, hit the gym, enjoy some tacos, watch a good documentary, and Tweet/plug the book/destroy racists.
You write a lot about rage, about drowning in one's own anger. What pisses off Gabino Iglesias?
Um... almost all the things? Just kidding. You know, except it's true. Racism. Sexism. Misogyny. Homophobia. Willful ignorance. Gentrification. Dishonesty. Gun nuts. Religious nonsense. The Orange Buffoon. How awfully underpaid teachers are. Our shitty healthcare system. The misrepresentation and underrepresentation of women, LGBTQ folks, Native Americans, Appalachians, and every kind of black and brown writer out there. Hell, the same goes for all art forms.
I spent a large part of my life angry. Now I do things about my anger and I feel less angry after. I'm gonna keep doing that.