People First, Characters First: Talking with Manuel Muñoz

Kristin Seabolt

SB: Why did you chose to give us the one Teresa chapter?

MM: That was the first chapter of the book for a long time. I did five drafts. I think until about version three or version four, and then I bumped it, and figured out another way to come across the novel. One of the reasons I bumped it is that even though people will probably see very easy parallels between the characters of Psycho and the characters here, all they are is parallels. They’re not exact copies. And I kew that if I started the book that way, that I’m inviting that comparison to make Teresa the Janet Leigh character - which she sort of is, but she’s not, at the same time. She does a lot of the same things that Marian Crane does in that movie, but I’m also tapping into Marian Crane being very aware of the fact that she’s being watched. That’s what happens with Teresa, she realizes that everyone in town is gossiping about her. So that’s how I approached it.

And also, I don’t want to say it’s a trick, but I noticed that some of the most powerful moments from recent books that I had read were when novels or even stories sometimes already told me what happened. They almost summarize it for me in the beginning, so that when the story or novel shifts in time and you start to narrate toward the moment you already know about, a new thing happens that I’ve never been aware of as a reader. It’s dread. Oh my god here it comes. That, for me as a reader, is pleasure. I already know what’s going to happen and I don’t need the surprise anymore. Now I get the emotion behind it. Oh god she made the wrong decision. Don’t get in the truck. You get in the truck, it’s over. She could have pursued Cheno, but she didn’t. We already know that.

SB: It adds this really lovely melancholy to even the nice moments, when you know this is happening, this is building up to the end, in a really lovely way. You have a way with melancholy.

MM: Thank you.

SB: And I hope that’s a compliment to you. I love feeling melancholy with a book.

MM: Me, too.

SB: I think there’s definitely a magic and a glamour about the cinema in the book, but with the way Teresa’s death is portrayed, and also in the Director chapter, it almost seems like there’s also a statement about how far cinema has gone, and maybe it’s gone too far. We can’t really feel a person’s death, see it, and mourn it anymore. I’m wondering, is here a bit of a slap on the hand to cinema in the book?

MM: In my opinion, yeah. I don’t get current slasher films, at all. To me it’s bordering on pornographic. Like the Saw films. I just absolutely don’t understand. I have friends who are great fans of that as a genre, but to me, you don’t even have to write a script, just come up with a way to mutilate a body. It makes me feel like I’m a Puritan. I start to feel like this must have been what people of a certain age in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s have always felt about whatever they’re seeing in a new form. But it just got me thinking about how we have photoshopped violence, as opposed to stylized violence. There was a moment in the Director chapter where he does a little catalogue of movie deaths from the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It is curious to me that we hardly ever see a glamorous death anymore. Like the Jane Fonda one from They Shoot Horses Don’t They. Have you seen that movie?

SB: I haven’t.

MM: I mean I just gave away the ending, but those kinds of movies always end that way anyway. But it’s a strange way to die on screen. She’s killed, and she’s on a pier. It’s dark and you can see just a little bit of light. And as soon as her moment of death comes, the film slows so you can see her reaction as she’s brought down. But there’s an immediate cut and it’s Jane Fonda again but she’s in a field and she just collapses. And you could never get away with that now. Or maybe you could but you’d have a whole bunch of people in the audience saying, What was that? To me they’re trying to make the vision poetry. I don’t see it anymore. Which is why I like those old movies.

Part of it is also codes . You couldn’t show it so how do you suggest it? It’s also brought us closer to this moment when the Director finally did. It was like, Wow somebody did it. And we ended up paying the price for it because as soon as he did it, it was like, What else can we do? And the art gets lost after a while. Now I always pay attention to deaths in current movies and it’s always the same.

SB: I like that you show us the 1972 film that the Director has just shown at Cannes, and you describe the death in the beginning and then how towards the end of the film there’s another death, and this time the Director just backs away from it. Up until that point I was totally the modern reader. When is he going to show us this death of Teresa? And I think at that moment I understood that we weren’t going to see it in all its details. I think you, in the last chapter, showed us the scene in a chopped cut, like the Psycho murder scene. It’s moving between Candy and Teresa, back and forth, instead of just an outright death scene. With the Director’s chapter, are you kind of explaining that? Is that the chapter that decodes the reason for not showing the death scene?

MM: Yeah. There’s a reason for me putting in that moment of Frenzy. I don’t know if you’ve scene Frenzy or not, but it’s a strange film. If you have an hour and a half to kill, you should see it. It’s a terrible film. You’ll see the problem right away. When he strangles that woman, it’s garish. There’s a strangulation and with his close-ups, you literally see her tongue hanging out. You get a shot of her with a necktie around her neck. It’s gross. When he gives that moment later in the film - it really was a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival. He showed it at a competition and I was doing research and reading an account of it, and in the middle of the film - as the French are known to do when there’s a great moment - they just stood up and applauded.

That’s what it was - there’s the answer. We already know what’s going to happen. What’s the point of showing it? So the camera just backs down. And it’s a gorgeous shot. Because it’s a track. You realize, Oh this is cinema. This is the tracking shot. This is something we don’t often get to see, it’s a treat in itself.

Not to feel like I’m trying to do the same thing, but to me it’s a point of view issue. I think any sharp reader, and I’m hoping a really sharp writer, is going to say, Of course he cant show it. Showing what happened requires a point of view. Which means you have to pick somebody to show it from and with either one of those two characters, you’re going to have problems. That’s why Candy is imaging it. To me it makes perfect sense, but then it’s also maybe too clever by a notch.

SB: Not at all. I think it’s really different and it’s a joy to read something so different. I was surprised to read in an interview that you said in your MFA program you focused on long fiction (vs. short fiction), and also surprised to see that you said you had some failed attempts. I’m wondering what the writing process difference was between the long fiction that you wrote in the MFA program that led you to go to short stories versus this long fiction, which is published and fantastic. Was there a difference in your writing styles or your writing process that led you back to long fiction?

MM: Are you scared in your workshops?

SB: Yes.

MM: I knew you would say yes, because I was. I think most people are. I know the difference with me though was that even though I had a great MFA experience and I had a fantastic mentor, I always let my fear get in the way. So when I started workshopping the novel and it wasn’t going well, I just listened to the advice that said, Well you’re not going to know until you finish the draft. You’ve got to keep going. And it was hard because I was thinking linearly, You just go A to L, then from L to P. And you just keep going, and there’s no excitement in that. But you have to learn how to do that before you can find the voice of the story you’re telling. I didn’t know that. By the time workshop was over, I had this really messy manuscript and I just said, I don’t have to workshop now. Just write a story. Just try it, and forget story, just go for voice. And the first story I wrote was “Campo” in Zigzagger and I just took my time. I remember the first paragraph was a description of the town - “Just at the base of the foothills, the town levels a space for itself...” I could hear myself.

SB: And that just came to you?

MM: I could hear myself thinking. I wanted to zero in and just take my time. Because I didn’t have to show it to anybody. And then I sent it out and Glimmer Train took it. So I thought, I should have been doing this all along. I thought I was brilliant. So I started writing a bunch of stuff and sending them out and, of course that’s when the rejections came. But by then it was too late. By then I was so addicted to, Oh the story could be like this or like that. All I had to do was pick the frame and the scope and that was hugely liberating. It felt really good. Because even though I was reading other people’s pieces in workshop I didn’t really understand what a story was until I did it myself.

SB: I wonder what you think about the idea that What You See In The Dark is sort of like a story cycle in that, to me every chapter has this really lovely wrapping up of thought at the end of it, so that I feel like I could hand a friend a chapter and they would get full pleasure, even just out of a chapter of it. But then of course it is also a novel and completely together. Do you see it as that at all? Did you write the chapters as stories?

MM: Not quite, but I did want to have chapters feel like they had a finish to them. Like you said, something has been wrapped, compressed. For two reasons. One, I knew immediately, almost by the fifth chapter, I realized I didn’t know the order and I would be playing with time. So in order to be able to shift things around, I had to be sure there weren’t a lot of connected tissues between any chapters. So I kind of closed them all.

I look at the Director chapter and that to me is the closest to a story because it’s a contained moment. He’s on a plane and the plane is about to take off and he’s thinking and then he opens his eyes for a moment and the stewardess looks at him and that’s it. The rest of them, sometimes it’s a summary mode. Like when I read chapter one it feels like the opening sell - this is what the novel is going to sound like, even though it doesn’t sound like that. So they have their functions. But in my mind they didn’t quite operate as stories.

But I was trying to learn something from reading novels at the same time. What constitutes a chapter? And that answer was always different with every book I picked up. Because sometimes there were very arbitrary closures. Maybe some time has shifted or it’s switched to another character, but threads were left open. But I want things closed. 
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