Pop Culture and Narrative: What The Beatles and Comic Books Taught Lysley Tenorio

By Tom Kelly

Lysley Tenorio is the author of Monstress (2012). His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: AII-Story, Ploughshares, Manoa, The Chicago Tribune, and The Best New American Voices andPushcart Prize anthologies. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he has received a Whiting Writer’s Award and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California and lives in San Francisco.

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Lysley Tenorio first came to my attention in the fall of 2012, while perusing for a read by an unfamiliar author. I picked up a copy ofMonstress and subsequently tore through the collection. Roughly one year later, as a matter of coincidence, I found out that I was to escort Lysley during ODU’s literary festival, where he was a guest reader. About an hour before his reading of the story “Superassassin,” I interviewed him on various craft aspects of fiction, the challenges he faces as a writer and teacher, and best writing practices.

Tom Kelly: So, I guess, the first question I’d like to ask is: Why do you write?

Lysley Tenorio: For me, writing is—it sounds strange—need based. What I mean by that is I need to write, because if I don’t write I feel like something’s wrong. Of course, I enjoy writing. But it’s work. So sitting at the keyboard and the computer for several hours a day isn’t necessarily a barrel of monkeys. Nevertheless, if I don’t do it, I feel like I’m not doing something I’m supposed to do. But it’s more than that. Obviously, I enjoy it. I love the fact that part of my work is creative in nature. I consider writing my job. I mean, I teach. That’s my job. But writing is also my job. I feel good knowing when I’m writing that I’m working, not just merely engaged in a hobby or in a passion—not that there’s anything wrong with those things—but I feel like I’m engaged in work. And when you’re working and you’ve done good work at the end of the day, it feels wonderful.

TK: Is there still some anxiety when you look at a blank page? And if so, how do you remedy that?

LT: Well, there’s definitely anxiety when I get to the page sometimes. I wish I were better at dealing with it. My inclination is sometimes just to get up out of the seat and wait around a while. The best thing to do though is to write through it, knowing that what you write is going to change—knowing that the perfect word or sentence might not be the perfect word or sentence the next day. You have to write through it. That’s the only way to deal with it in any meaningful way.

TK: So do you buy into the whole writer’s block thing?

LT: The times that I’ve had writer’s block, I think it had more to do with my occupation with other things going on in my life or a level of discomfort or unease about what I’m already writing. So it’s not as though there’s nothing present. It’s that there are other things getting in the way. But I always understood writer’s block as, “My head is completely blank and there’s nothing to write about.” That’s hard to imagine. Certainly I’ve had difficulty writing. But the idea of this barrier, this block—I don’t know.

TK: When did you start writing exactly? Or was there a definitive time?

LT: I started writing late in college. I went to a very big school. And even if you wanted to get into an introductory creative writing class, you had to submit a writing sample. And I thought, “Well, I don’t know how to write, so I’ll never get in anyway.” Then senior year rolled around and I decided, “Why not give it a shot.” Then I got in. I soon realized that it was the only class I was losing sleep over. I would hand something in and I would be really nervous about it the next day; even though, for the most part, it was pretty easy to get an A. You just did the work and participated. But the fact that I was stressed about it and constantly worried over what people thought of the work, and what professors thought of the work, made me realize that I really cared about this thing. So I think it was then that I realized that this was an integral part of my life.

TK: You write about some pretty bizarre things, like characters wanting to fight The Beatles, and the Green Lantern. What inspires you to write things like that?

LT: I’m most inspired by these weird intersections, or these weird collisions between the Philippines and America. Like, for example, in my collection there’s a story called “Help,” the one you’re referencing. That’s a story about these guys who—When The Beatles played in Manila in ’66, they said something lewd about Imelda Marcos who was the First Lady over there at the time. These Marcos loyalists decided because of it, “Okay, we’re going to beat these guys up for revenge.” That’s actually a true story. If you rent The Beatles documentary, they talk about getting jumped at the airport. And I thought, “What is this weird collision of western pop culture and Filipino politics circa 1966? What does it mean?”

What I like about having this intersection—I feel like I’ve come across this situation. I mean, there’s a plot right there. I can do something with it. And so having that kind of trajectory of events makes me feel like, “Okay, if I know what happens at the beginning and I know what happens at the end, now all I have to do is create the world in-between and create the characters to inhabit this space.” And that’s the challenging part, but it’s also the fun part.

I have a story about the making of a really bad horror movie. And that’s based on a really bad horror movie that’s comprised of a really shitty American sci-fi flick and a bad Filipino horror movie. Someone spliced the two together and called it a movie. And I thought, “Who are the geniuses behind this? I’ve got to try to write a story about this.” I’m inspired by these weird situations where two people or two cultures which probably shouldn’t be coming together do come together. And I especially like it when they seem too strange to be true, but are true. I also like the challenge of trying to bring emotional and psychological depth to what might, on the surface, be completely ridiculous. If I can go for hijinks and campy humor on one page, but also try to—you know—gut someone’s heart out on the next—I like those big shifts.

TK: Are you working on another collection of stories right now or…a novel?

LT: Right now I’m working on a novel.

TK: Is it going to be in the same vain as the stories in Monstress or is it going to be something maybe a little bit different? Are you still going to be looking at Eastern and Western cultural intersections and how they kind of collide?

LT: Yeah. I think that’ll be present. Tonally it’s similar to Monstress in that there’s a lot of weirdness and ridiculousness going on, but beneath that is something maybe tragic, or maybe even dangerous or sinister.

TK: So, bizarre but at the same time very grave?

LT: Yeah, because you know my collection has stories about the Green Lantern, these con-men faith healers, and monster movies. So it sounds kind of ridiculous. But people have told me that it’s actually a very dark book in a lot of ways. So I think that’s my inclination. I’m drawn to the whimsical but I stick around for the darkness.

TK: That’s what I tended to gather from reading your collection. There were more than a few where I really enjoyed how that was working. Earlier in the day, when we were talking about plot and characters, you told me that in “Help” the plot came first, then the characters followed. Do you think that’s normally the case with your stories?

LT: More often than not, for me, plot comes first. And the reason that plot comes first is because I’m drawn to the idea of situation. I’m drawn to this idea of weird events that build upon one another. And if I can find a situation from real life or from the news or a history book, where those situations are built in, it feels like half the work is done. For me, the hardest part about writing fiction is character—building a character who’s persuasive and sympathetic, but also complex. Any reader I’m lucky enough to have, I don’t expect them to want to have dinner with the people I’m writing about. But I want them to at least be sympathetic to the characters, ultimately. But, yeah, plot comes first for me usually, not always. There’s a story called “Superassasin” in that collection where character came first.

TK: Has there ever been a time, while you were writing a story, when you were surprised by what the character ended up doing? Have you ever ended up surprising yourself?

LT: Definitely. I remember when I was writing “Superassasin,” you know about the kid who’s obsessed with the Green Lantern, I had some dead space. I didn’t know what to do with him next. There was a time when he was walking down the street. And he comes across a tropical fish store that had been bombed or gutted or set fire to. And he walks in among the ruins and finds the bodies of these dead tropical fish on the ground. Then he just starts collecting them. He puts them in a zip-lock. We learn that he puts them in the freezer and late at night when he can’t sleep he likes to take them out and look at them. I didn’t plan that. I was just like, “What do I do with this kid now?” And the stuff came out really fluidly. I didn’t know if I would keep it. But afterwards I thought, “This feels right.” I don’t know if this necessarily advances the plot, but it helps build his character and it helps build the mood and tone of the piece. So it stuck. I wish I had more accidents like that.

TK: I hear fiction authors talk about that sort of thing from time to time. Speaking of, what writers do you think influenced you the most?

LT: I would say the writers who have influenced me the most are Bharati Mukherjee who was my first writing teacher. Chang-Rae Lee was a big deal to me. Comic books—I don’t read them now, but I grew up reading comic books. I remember in ’85 there was a mini-series that DC Comics put out called “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” where they basically did this twelve month series to revamp or reboot the DC Universe, which they seem to do every year now. In that mini-series, they killed off Supergirl; they killed off The Flash; they killed off Wonder Woman. Of course, they all came back in some kind of incarnation later. But you know, when you’re reading this at the time, you’re thinking, “Fuck. I’ve been reading these characters all my life and now they’re dead.” I remember thinking, “You can’t do this.” But they did. I think that’s one of the pleasures and pains of writing fiction. You can do these things that are extreme and may seem cruel. But if there’s an emotional and a dramatic justification for them and if it’s the right thing to do, then you do it. I don’t know how cognizant of that idea I was, when I read the comic at the time. But looking back now, I think that that punch in the gut, that “Oh my god,” followed by “Well, yeah, of course,” that was something that came to me then. It made me think that in a story, in a narrative, nothing is sacred really. You go for it, if you need to go for it.

TK: What aspect of craft in fiction do you think you struggle with the most? Maybe dialogue, setting, or is it something that just varies from story to story?

LT: Consistently—I don’t know if I have problems with it necessarily—I don’t enjoy writing dialogue at all. I think if I had my way all of my characters would be telepathic and they wouldn’t have to speak to each other. You’d just have actions and gestures which are much more fun to write. Character is really hard for me. I think that’s why it takes me so long to write a story, because I really need to understand who these characters are and they tend to be quite elusive.

TK: Has there ever been a time when you finished up a story and you were sad, I guess, because of the departure from that character?
LT: Sure. I don’t mean to sound overly sentimental or sound precious about my own writing. But I can think of a story or two where, once it was finished and I had to let it go, I think I was sad. Most of my stories are told in the first-person. There have been characters where I felt like I could’ve gone on writing in their points of view. It felt easy and it felt fluid. But what was more important was, if they were done, then they were done. I had to let it go. Otherwise, it would probably get self-indulgent.

TK: What are your relationships like with editors? Have they played an integral part in your writing or do you submit your stuff to the editor once you think it’s done?

LT: I don’t know if they’ve been integral to my writing process. I’ve never talked to an editor and walked away with advice that I apply every time I write. And I’m not sure if that’s an editor’s job. The ideal editor is really looking at your work piece-by-piece. For me, it’s been story-by-story, then the collection as a whole. And I loved that process. I’m not one who is so married to what I create that it can’t be touched. If someone who is well-read and intelligent and thoughtful and open is willing to take their time to give me advice on ways they think I can make a piece better, I’m more than happy to listen. For the most part, I do tend to listen.

TK: Is there any advice you would give to young writers, specifically young people writing fiction?

LT: Yes. I’m always afraid this sounds kind of cruel, but I always tell them anyway: Just because it happened, doesn’t mean it’s interesting. There is no fact or event in and of itself that is inherently of human interest. I don’t care if it’s about a really raging party on campus or if it’s about a mass suicide on a little known island. Obviously the people involved in those things have strong feelings about them. But if you’re trying to present that stuff as fiction, the mere transcription or the mere retelling of those things will not make those events any more interesting. They only become interesting once you’ve chosen the right words, the right characters, and you’ve strategically rendered those events through emotionally and psychologically complex scenes. That’s when it becomes interesting. Your job as a writer is to make something interesting. I’m not saying that all fiction writers base things on real life. But I tend to come across a lot of students who write about their lives and things that have happened to them or things that they’ve heard about. And that’s a great place to start. But a lot of times, they’re trying to put those things on the page the same way they would relay them anecdotally. And you can’t do that. Your job as a writer is to render it in a far more interesting way than you would simply tell it. I always cringe when I say it, but I have to tell my students.

TK: Would you say that’s probably the most common pitfall that you encounter with younger writers? The one I always ran into, when I took fiction workshops, was killing off the protagonist at the end by suicide as an attempt to sort of make people sympathetic for an otherwise static character.

LT: I actually created a “no list” for my undergrad creative writing classes. They aren’t allowed to kill off their characters. They aren’t allowed to write about situations that happened on campus. They are absolutely forbidden to write about anything that takes place at a college party. And I tell them: This isn’t censorship. I’m just encouraging you to step outside of what is familiar. It’s like, “This is fiction. Have fun. Get out of your life.” Not that you have to, but if you can do it, give it a shot.