We Have Housecats When We Once Had Sabertooths:
An Interview With Salvador Plascencia
Salvador Plascencia is the author of The People of Paper, published by McSweeney’s in 2005. Born in Guadalajara, he now lives in Los Angeles.
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Interviewer:The People of Paper has a unique form—the chapters identified by the three bars, with three vertical columns on each page; the chapters identified by the three dots, divided into horizontal sections; then the chapters identified by one dot, devoted to the perspective of a single character or subject. How did that structure evolve?
Plascencia: At one point I knew the complete evolutionary history of The People of Paper, and I’m sure if I was to dig up the boxes of drafts, I could trace the novel back to its amoeba form. I was a meticulous cataloger of my own ephemera; I was afraid of losing a sentence, wouldn’t throw away even the crustiest scraps.
After some years of struggling on the novel, I stopped understanding writing as a syntactical arrangement of spacers and letters and I started looking at a paragraph as a unit of time. A double-spaced page was a week of my life, a tricky fragment two days, an exiled and then repatriated adjective fifty minutes. I needed a contraption that would hold all these stranded moments. For whatever reason, the standard formatted novel kept breaking on me. Out of my frustration with the single-column I went looking for other ways. I found Cris Mazza, John Edgar Wideman, even a chapter of Denise Chavez—writers who had reengineered the page for their own purposes. Somehow this led me to Lawrence Sterne, to early books, and to the realization that the way we understand the book is only a domesticated version of the wild, feral, origins of the book. We have housecats, when we once had sabertooths.
As for the story itself, it began when I was five years old when I saw a tribe of nuns walking through mud. I just made the nuns into monks.
Interviewer: Was this when you were still living in Mexico? Or was this in El Monte?
Plascencia: It was in La Tortuga, the ranch where my mother was born.
Interviewer: At what point did your family move to California? Was your experience of immigrating anything like Little Merced’s?
Plascencia: There was a back-and-forth—I’m not really sure when we stuck to California permanently. I know we settled in El Monte when I was in the third grade, but there was a bit of bouncing around before. There are some bits in my biography that line up with Little Merced’s story, but they’re small similarities. We happen to share the same lunchbox, but that’s about it.
Interviewer: Do you identify as a Latino writer?
Plascencia: To be honest, I’m not really sure what that means. Professionally—albeit a meagerly profitable enterprise—I’m a writer. But I’m not a professional Mexican; that’s Ruben Navarrette’s gig. I’m a Latino. I’m a writer. I identify as both, but not when “Latino” is serving as a modifier.
Interviewer: How did you end up publishing your novel with McSweeney’s? Do you think other publishers would have been receptive to printing such an experimental novel? Pages with holes punched out, and so on?
Plascencia: I ended up at McSweeney’s because every publisher I submitted to—big, small, independent, university—turned it down.
Eli Horowitz, the managing editor at McSweeney’s, picked up a chapter for the quarterly, and eight months later asked me if I wanted them to do the book. Horowitz is tremendous. The best reader I have ever met. I was extremely lucky I ended up with him. He never touches your sentences. Instead, he points you toward possibilities of the line and where you can take it.
But the diecut was actually his idea. In the manuscript there was some overlap between the Baby Nostradamus, Little Merced, and that moment of erasure. The diecut seemed like the most reasonable solution. As far as the wider publishing culture goes, no, the majors won’t invest the four cents it costs to punch a hole into a page. I know Safran Foer wanted diecuts in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Houghton Mifflin wouldn’t do it.
But, beyond the limitations of cutting windows into books, big publishers are printing Danielewski novels, Safran Foer, The Raw Shark Texts, and Mark Haddon. So I don’t think my novel wasn’t picked up because it had funny columns.
This might seem like I’m contradicting what I said earlier—I’m not—but what was a major going to do with an experimental Mexican-American writer? The reality is that—aside from the Cisneros and Dagoberto Gilb, writers who reinforce parochial views of Latinidad—there are very few of us on the majors. Name them. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Alex Espinoza, Joe Loya, and my fellow El Montian Michael Jaime-Becerra. But Joe and Michael were under Rayo, some HarperCollins specialty imprint aimed exclusively at Latinos. The Houghton Mifflin’s and HarperCollins don’t see us as marketable to the general public. There is Luis Rodriguez—a writer that heavily informed me—but even he is pushed as some sort of exotic criminal.
True, eventually The People of Paper ended up at Harcourt as a paperback. But even then, it didn’t receive the same amount of muscle and push that similar paperbacks received. The problem is, even if you don’t think of yourself as a “Latino writer,” there are a lot of other people who get stuck on your last name.
But there are obvious advantages, too. Sometimes, for no good reason aside from the fact that I was born south of the Rio Grande, my name gets tangled up with the greats: Bolaño, Borges, García Márquez. I’m never going to complain when that happens.
Interviewer: Your El Monte seems different from the El Monte that has appeared in other books, such as James Ellroy’s.
Plascencia: There are only three El Monte books I’m aware of, so there’s not really a deep reservoir of literary El Monte. As you note, there’s Ellroy’s My Dark Places, a memoir attempting to track his mother’s killers. Or, more accurately, a book that tries to understand his mother’s death as a way of reflecting on his own youth. If your mother is killed in El Monte and dumped on a field, I can’t imagine you would have many warm things to say about the neighborhood. Ellroy’s El Monte is obviously filtered through a brutal trauma and an anger that warps the town into a “smoggy void” with lots of “evil-looking pachucos.” But the other two El Monte books have a very different perspective. Jaime-Becerra’s Every Night is Ladies’ Night , though wistful, is respectful. A beautiful and tender collection about my El Monte. And, well, The People of Paper is essentially a love letter to Monte.
In the wider cultural imagination of Los Angeles, El Monte exists as a place where you go buy your Toyotas, as a one-line allusion in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, as helicopter footage of El Monte police officers kicking a surrendered and spread-eagle EMF gangster in the head and then high-fiving. El Monte was also once Hollywood’s barnyard: Mr. Ed was born there and the MGM Lion was housed in Gay’s Lion Farm.
The El Monte that ends up in my fiction obviously plays on these myths and perceptions. But, ultimately, I try to represent a community that is struggling with very ordinary problems: trying to make sense of what it means to have faith and be in love.
Interviewer: What are you working on now?
Plascencia: I’m working on a book that keeps breaking on me. Right now I’m trying to figure it out if I can rescue it or if it just has to be abandoned. I’m not sure how it compares to The People of Paper. It’s not a sequel, but I will always be interestedin El Monte and Los Angeles. So there will be some familiar geography.
At the formal level, I’ve become obsessed with two novels that in many ways have been holding me back, maybe ruining me: Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 and B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates. Both works are essentially novels in boxes, unbound pieces of paper with a happenstance order. Saporta is much more wild and reckless than Johnson. Johnson uses pagination, gathers some pages together into pamphlets, and tells you where to begin his novel and where to end. As a reading experience, I like the Johnson better, but the conceit of Composition No. 1 is what initially excited me.
The Saporta, at least in English, has been out of print for decades. But it’s going to be reissued by Visual Edition. In the meantime, you have to pay $100 and hope the set is complete.
Anyhow, I want to write my own shuffled roman. At the very least, I want to conceive and work on a piece that has a multitude of entries and exits and see what happens to chronology, plot, and our sense of sequential order. I’m starting to think this is a failed project, but I’m going to give it one more year before I surrender it.
Interviewer: In The People of Paper you seemed interested in experimenting with non-traditional languages: the mechanical tortoise has a passage written entirely in binary, and in a certain sense Baby Nostradamus uses silence as a language, represented visually by a giant black rectangle.
Plascencia: I see those two instances you mention—the darkness, the zeros and ones—as idiosyncratic to the individual characters. The mechanical tortoises communicate and operate in an accessible code; we don’t understand their logic, so I tried to represent their language as seemingly simple but ultimately inaccessible. On the other hand, the Baby Nostradamus is a prolific mind but masquerades as a retarded baby.
The way I understand the page (and most people for that matter), white space is silence and any inscription equals sound. Yet when I see the black rectangle in Tristram Shandy, I read a quiet sadness—death. I became really interested in this inversion.
Still, this seemed counterintuitive, and I wasn’t satisfied with the Baby Nostradamus signifying silence. As the novel progressed, I tried to turn the darkness from a limp muteness into an active form of resistance.
Plascencia: There have been some complaints at Q&As. A few emails, people saying that it’s nonsense.
Understandably, the tortoise binary flusters human decompilers. It’s a very mammal-centric view of the universe to expect mechanical amphibian language to conform to our computers.
Interviewer: I’ve read on a few different blogs that there’s been some controversy over the relationship between your book and Shane Jones’ Light Boxes. This probably isn’t the place to catalog the similarities—anyone interested in that could simply google “Shane Jones People of Paper”—but could you talk a bit about that?
Plascencia: I’m not sure where to start, but I’ll preempt this by saying that a lot of it is petty—a playground tiff by adults. I’ll be the first to admit that the level of discourse has at times resembled the type of smack you would hear in a junior high cafeteria. And I’m not beyond slumping to it here. There’s an anger about the situation that messes with my composure and the basic manners and courtesy that my parents taught me.
But this is also a serious question about originality, the problems of influence, and what it means to be a writer.
The short of it is this: Light Boxes—originally published by an independent press and soon to be reissued by Penguin—freeloads of and piggybacks on of the work of The People of Paper and does so without any formal acknowledgement. And, in many ways, unless you want to buy some hackneyed and anachronistic surrealist defense, it’s a novella dependent on The People of Paper to make any real sense.
I should note that in the forthcoming Penguin edition, Shane Jones (on page 83) has replaced Walt Disney’s name with mine. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to interpret this as a concession, his idea of an easy fix, or a taunt. Incidentally, the new Penguin edition also fails to reproduce a floating box of darkness, which seemed to be alluding to the Baby Nostradamus’ thought blocking abilities we were talking about earlier.
Regardless, despite the many similarities in plot, images, and action—as Penguin Group’s lawyer has let me know—there are at least sixteen legal precedents why Light Boxes does not infringe on my rights.
Anyhow, it’s a weird fight to be engaged in, especially since two years ago Shane Jones wrote me a really nice email telling me how much he enjoyed The People of Paper, how he worked at a bookstore and was putting up displays for the book and recommending it to everybody.
Interviewer: Neal Bowers wrote a book called Words for the Taking about his hunt for someone who had published a number of Bowers’ poems under the name David Sumner. Michael Martone then later performed an experiment in which he donated, not stole, poetry from Bowers—Martone wrote a number of original poems and then published them under Neal Bowers’ name.
Which would you find more uncomfortable? Someone stealing from your oeuvre, or contributing to it?
Plascencia: Really, Martone did that? I was just reading Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List. You’re saying Martone forcefully donated to Bowers?
So my options are between chasing down a robber or a doppelgänger? Well, I’m far more intrigued by an Operation Shylock than a smash-and-grab.
Interviewer: Martone has done a number of experiments with that sort of thing. During college he and his friends enrolled a fake student named John Smith. They then took turns attending his classes, each of them alternately “becoming” John Smith. John Smith now has his own address—he even gets alumni mail.
Martone also wrote a fictional travel guide to Indiana, most of which was originally published as nonfiction. And then of course there’s Michael Martone, the collection of fictional contributors notes, which is all about challenging just who or what exactly “Michael Martone” really is. I know this probably isn’t what you’d want to hear, but I think Martone might end up defending Jones in this case. Martone once explained to me that his experiment with Neal Bowers was about pointing out that “the author is not static, that even Neal Bowers, whoever ‘he’ is, is already a kind of collaboration and creation. Neal Bowers never stole a word from someone’s poem? We’ve all had that experience of writing something and you really like it and then a couple months later you realize, my God, this is something I read when I was a kid—it seemed like me, but in fact it was absorbed from this other thing, digested, and naturalized.”
Plascencia: But in the course of talking about the malleability of the writer and the elusiveness of originality, we’ve mentioned “Martone” at least a dozen times. If I take a highlighter I can turn the page neon with his name. We’ve attributed and pointed back to him. Why are you bothering to quote him? Why not let Matt Baker become the new author of these ideas?
Also, from what you’ve explained, Martone came forward and owned up to his charitable contributions to Bowers. Martone didn’t remain anonymous and uncredited. I appreciate these exercises as jumping off points to talk about the wider implications, as controlled experiments to push a theoretical universe that is fun to talk about. But when Kathy Acker calls herself a plagiarizer, she’s already invalidating her claim, because a plagiarizer by her nature cannot be transparent—she must hide her deed. If not, she’s not really a plagiarist. Acker performed a polemic for its performance sake, as a crafted act. I don’t know enough about the Martone, but I get the sense that he’s doing the same thing. He is authoring the act of a supposed authorlessness.
And, sure, I’ve thought of Smiths songs as my own stories. And I’ve been eyeing Chavela Vargas’s aphorism for years. She says stuff like, “I love with the liver, heart has nothing to do with it.” Do you think I don’t want that sentence as my own? I do, I covet it. It makes me sad that it’s not mine. But my desire, my connection to it, does not entitle me to have it. If I was to use it, my responsibility is to then tip my hat to her, to be respectful of the inspiration. Not just take it and excuse it under some bullshit ethic. When Morrissey takes from Shelag Delaney, he makes sure to then put her on the sleeve of Girlfriend in a Coma. I realize I’m falling into a silly L.A. stereotype that all Mexicans listen to Morrissey. But as it turns out, we all do.
Interviewer: But then there are the times the hat doesn’t get tipped. The Matrix borrowed ideas and techniques and visual imagery from countless (and lesser-known) sources: in film, Ghost in the Shell and Akira; in television, Doctor Who and Star Trek;in prose, Valis and Neuromancer; in comics, The Airtight Garage and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles; and so on. Ghost in the Shell gets a tip of the hat, but that’s the only one I’ve noticed the film give. Grant Morrison was particularly cranky about all of it.
But then of course now a number of other filmmakers and artists and writers have in turn borrowed from The Matrix.
What’s the solution? How will you protect your stories in the future? Can you?
Plascencia: I used to be into Haywire, a short-lived DC series before Grant Morrison’s time there, I think. But in my head it’s a Morrison title. So that says something about the confusion of authorship.
Anyhow, I always assumed Morrison was in on The Matrix, because if you take a still of the movie, it looks like one of his panels. If he wasn’t part of it and wasn’t somehow acknowledged or paid, I don’t blame him from being cranky.
But how do lowly comic book writers fight against the cultural cachet of Keanu Reeves and the millions of dollars of Warner Bros.? They’re going to get obliterated. There’s no question. There are colonizing forces that will eat up voices and overtake them.
But I’m not particularly interested in locking up stories and protecting their parts. Culture is composed of quotations and appropriation, agreed. Yes, originality is a myth, because we are dependent on an inheritance of language and ideas. I buy all that—to an extent. And I’m not advocating we nail down all our thought bubbles and stamp every joke with a copyright “c”. Again, what I’m objecting to in Jones are not isolated moments but to an accumulation of similarities and his coyness about where he pulled from.
Carlos Markovich’s film Who the Hell Is Juliette? is a work that deeply impacted and formed what ultimately became The People of Paper. For three years I lived in Márquez’s Macondo—my copy of One Hundred Years lost its spine and cover and I bound it with rings so it would never end. I went through two cassettes of The Queen Is Dead and a CD before I was able to loop it into a hard drive. If I can pick three of the defining works that enabled The People of Paper to exist, those are it. Actually, I need four slots, because Baldwin’s Another Country is what motivated me most in the long homestretch.
What I’m getting at are a couple of things: 1. I do not deny or hide my influences. You don’t have to corner me and make me cough up names. I’ll tell you willingly. I’ll even draw you a map of where I pried off a piece of Samuel Delany so you can go see what I did. 2. If you comb through The People of Paper, yes, you will find parts plucked from other places. But you will not find that I pillaged any one source.
Interviewer: Umberto Eco has said, “Writing doesn’t mean necessarily putting words on a sheet of paper. You can write a chapter while walking or eating.” Is your writing process anything like that?
Plascencia: I wish. I might get an image or a string of two words while I’m out on a run. But that’s it. I’m a slow, slow, writer. I have to work things out on paper. I draw lots of charts, try out words, sketch maps. Lots of the work isn’t even verbal, but it’s mostly worked out on paper.
Interviewer: Did you draw the artwork in The People of Paper—the cards, the weather map, the food pyramid, and so on?
Plascencia: The cards are Lotería, Mexican Bingo, something everybody plays at some point. You place a bean on each square as your images come popping up. The Devil and Death are taken from the Lotería boards.
The rest of the artwork is drawn by Sarah Tillman. She’s primarily a printmaker, but I make her slum down to Sharpies and illustrate for me. I can’t even draw a happy face, so it’s something I definitely need help with. Anytime you see an illustration in my work, it’s a good bet it was drawn by Tillman. She has a really interesting story, but she gets annoyed that the second thing I say about her is that she’s a Make-a-Wish-Foundation kid, a two-time cancer survivor who used her Make-a-Wish on a trip to Vancouver to hang out with special agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder.
Interviewer: How about your own childhood? What first got you interested in storytelling?
Plascencia: I’m not really sure. When I’m asked this, I say that I was surrounded by gregarious uncles and aunts who told all these infectious tall and short tales. Which is true, but I also have very quiet uncles and their stories are the kind that can’t be told while standing around drinking beer, because if they get started, they’ll put us on the ground in sobs. But sometimes parts of these hidden narratives leak out. My mother has only a second grade education—I didn’t know this until recently. And she probably doesn’t want me running around telling the world. But that’s the problem of being a writer: you’re ultimately exploiting someone’s story.
That’s one theory I have about how all this got started. I also made a really bad trade in the fifth grade, which I still regret, that made me realize how much I enjoyed reading and following stories. I traded a stack of Uncanny X-Men for a Thunder Tank, Lion-O, and the twins—Wily-Kit and Wily-Katt. Two days later, I really missed my stack.
Interviewer: What are the Plascencia family legends?
Plascencia: There’s one where my grandfather “plays Indian” for a year to elude Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback. But every time he tells that one he changes the state and job he was doing.
But most of them aren’t legends—they’re true. In a generation, my family went from being sharecroppers in Mexico to my dad eating at Red Lobster on Father’s Day. There’s a tremendous amount of movement in that arc.
Interviewer: What else were you reading when you were younger? Did you get into any storytelling mediums aside from comics—film, television, videogames, drama?
Plascencia: I always gravitated to short series because I could own the whole story—The Fantastic 4vs.X-Men, andsome strange retelling of King Midas set in New York (I forget its name). On television: Voltron, Inspector Gadget, Tranzor Z, Jem and the Holograms. When the big Whittier earthquake happened, I was sitting on the carpet watching Jem.
Later on, Saved by the Bell made a huge impression on me. Zach Morris stops time and talks directly into the audience. That was the first time I understood metafiction. I didn’t have a name for it, but I knew something was going on.
There’s also a ton of Spanish-language shows and movies that I watched all the time: Chespirito, Burbujas, Condorito. Lots of Cantiflas movies. Chaplin called him “the greatest comedian of our universe” or something like that. Does that mean Chaplin knew Spanish? So much of Cantiflas is puns and malapropisms; I’m not sure how it would translate. Then again, there is a violent slapstick to him as well.
Videogame-wise, unfortunately, I ended up with the Sega Master System instead of a Nintendo, so I missed out on a lot of great stuff. But I often think of the Mario Brothers’ universe.
Interviewer: What drew you to Syracuse’s MFA program? You’ve called George Saunders a mentor—was he a draw?
Plascencia: I was twenty-one when I applied—I don’t really remember what the logic was. I wanted somewhere cheap to write and pay rent in. Syracuse’s program took care of my tuition, and on top of that gave me what I thought was a fortune to live on.
George Saunders was phenomenal. Yes, he’s hilarious and tremendous on the page. But he’s also a fantastic model of what a writer should be: down to earth, a family man, and generous in ways that are almost superhuman. I had always thought of writers as these self-absorbed degenerates going after sentences. But George is a genius and a normal guy.
Interviewer: Then you went on to the PhD program at the University of Southern California. How was that in comparison to Syracuse?
Plascencia: I’m really glad I ended up there because I got to hang out with Aimee Bender. She’s my West Coast George Saunders. But let’s just say I wasn’t PhD material. I dropped out or got pushed out—hard to say. They made you take these timed essay tests and I always thought I aced them. But two months later, they would have these sit-downs with me and say things like, “Some people in the grading committee didn’t think you read Jane Eyre or Invisible Man,and you definitely didn’t read your Fielding. Also, we’re concerned about your syntax and diction.” It was pretty humiliating. It would have been one thing if I was trying to pull a fast one and got caught, but I had read all the books and still failed. I mean, Invisible Man is one of my all-time favorite books, and I couldn’t even convince them I had read Ellison. I was doomed. So it wasn’t like Syracuse at all, but it was in LA. At that point, I just wanted to be home, even if it meant reading Derrida.
Interviewer: What have you been doing since?
Plascencia: Right now I’m just trying to assess what it is that I have. There are tons of fragments, images, and wayward characters in different notebooks and loose pages, and I’m looking for a structure that will make sense. Hopefully, all this will become book number two. Otherwise, I’m just playing soccer, teaching some workshops, and, like twelve percent of Californians, looking for a steady job.
But LA is a weird place. Someone will call out of the blue and ask if I want to advise on a dystopian robot movie they’re working on. “Do these androids speak the kind of Spanish a future labor-bot should?” Sometimes I don’t even understand what they’re asking.
Interviewer: Well, you do have some expertise, after all of your work with the mechanical tortoises.
What’s your experience been writing short stories compared to writing a novel? Annie Proulx has said, “The short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter.”
Plascencia: I’ve done some framework, lots of sheetrock, but have no idea what Proulx is saying. I’m not a short story writer. I’m actually pretty ashamed of the few pieces that I’ve let out. I need lots of space for meaning to compound and build. I simply don’t have the efficiency to set things down and resolve them in ten thousand words. As a reader I’m pretty good at figuring how a story works: how it hooks me, how it ups the energy, how it dovetails from funny to melancholy. But when I sit down to try my own I feel like I’ve been dumped in a cockpit and asked to fly a ship I’ve only seen flying above me. I usually just end up crashing my short stories into the ground. I look for soft dirt but they’re still a wreck.
Interviewer: Could you talk more about what you were saying earlier, about contemporary housecat novels versus the sabertooths we used to have? In what ways is the contemporary novel limited?
Plascencia: I was speaking more to bibliographic concerns, the material and design aspects of books, not necessarily a literary quality. But I do think that the way we materially see the novel has a profound effect on the way we construct narrative. If we understand the novel as a single column of prose spread over five hundred pages—so one block of text per page—the stories and paragraphs we write are in a very real sense just conforming to this arbitrary guide. From a production and design perspective, it makes sense to streamline—eliminate multiple columns, push out the woodcuts, standardize the fonts and sizes. You can move the novel from site to site much easier this way: a near automated process from hardback to pocket paperback to e-book.
Somewhere along the evolutionary line of the novel, we opted for faster flips of the page over a more varied typography. We opted for velocity.
Interviewer: Has it cost us anything? This streamlined format?
Plascencia: The dominance of the “standard formatted book” makes it appear as if this is the organic, natural form of the novel. The assumption is that the way you compose a novel is by the exclusive use of prose, and design is a thing which is outside of writing.
I think the underlining belief is that writing operates as a “printed voice,” as John Barth says. That there is an inherent envy in print for the oral. The book is seen as a receptacle of a trapped orality just waiting to be let out. Holden Caulfield in a box. Chief Bromden in Tupperware. For Salinger and Kesey, this model of a transcribed voice just waiting to float off the page works in miraculous ways. Yes, someone is talking to me, I’m seduced. But I guess I’m interested in the reverse: in a writing that sticks to the page and brings the reader closer to the pulp that they are holding. Novels where the paper is the site of the novel, not just some container.
This interview originally appeared in Nashville Review in 2010