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Nonfiction

Interview: Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is an Austin-based writer who seemed to pop up on a lot of readers’ radar over the last year. His “mosaic novel” Coyote Songs, which chronicles the lives of immigrants, families, and artists living and moving along the border, has earned him rave reviews, a Bram Stoker Award nomination for Fiction Collection, and a reputation as a breakout Latinx horror author. Coyote Songs is Iglesias’ fourth novel (following the bizarro book Gutmouth, the underwater horror novel Hungry Darkness, and the acclaimed Zero Saints, which is the first work to explore what he calls “barrio noir”); he’s also a prolific author of reviews, essays, and short fiction, and works in several different genres.

Your first book was a bizarro novella called Gutmouth, and you also wrote some short pieces in the bizarro realm. What first attracted you to bizarro fiction?

I started reading bizarro in 2007. I was also reading a lot of crime, horror, and literary fiction at the time, but nothing was as free as bizarro. What attracted me the most was the freedom to ignore all the rules. Bizarro is a genre that obeys nothing and no one, and creating narratives with no rules is a very liberating, exciting exercise.

After Gutmouth, your next stand-alone book was a work of straight horror fiction (involving a team of divers and a fisherman encountering a monstrous cephalopod) called Hungry Darkness. How did that come about, and did it feel like shifting gears after writing bizarro for a few years?

I was also writing horror and crime while writing bizarro, but it was mostly the bizarro stuff that was getting published. I started working on Zero Saints before starting to work on Hungry Darkness. Zero Saints was heavy. I was emotional, political. It took a lot of my time and effort. I was finding my voice and writing in Spanglish for the first time, trying new things and allowing culture, experiences, language, and the syncretism that surrounded me growing up to seep into my world. From time to time, I would need a break from it to refocus, so I’d write a short story. One day I decided to write a creature feature as a palate cleanser. I wanted to do something extremely fun and pulpy, bloody and fast. Hungry Darkness was the result of that itch. It was short and was published quickly after getting picked up by Severed Press. It’s now out of print, but maybe one day I’ll revise it and bring that little monster back to life as part of something bigger . . .

Reviews for Hungry Darkness compared you to Peter Benchley and Joe Lansdale. When you get comparisons like that, is it flattering, or does it add to your stress load the next time you sit down to write?

I pay attention to those for a few minutes and then move on. Being mentioned alongside Lansdale is an honor, but no one can compare to him. The man is a national treasure. It’s good for the ego to get a comparison like that from time to time, but I ignore it because I already put enough pressure on myself to make the next one better. I feel like every writer has to do that. Never rehash a story. Never be the same writer you were when you wrote the previous book. Strive to be better. Work hard at getting better. That’s a lot of pressure. If I added “Try to be the next Lansdale” to that, I’d be doing everyone a disservice. We already have a Lansdale, a master of every genre he touches. I don’t want to be the next Lansdale, I want to be the first Gabino Iglesias.

Stylistically, Hungry Darkness and the barrio noir books seem light years apart: Hungry Darkness is fast and spare in its language, whereas the later stories are more poetic, using both English and Spanish to describe the world of la frontera. Do you see that as a natural evolution?

Barrio noir was the coming together of everything I wanted to do with my fiction. Horror, crime, supernatural stuff, and weirdness wrapped up in multiculturalism, syncretism, and bilingualism. I wrote Zero Saints knowing that it’d be hard to get a press to touch it. It was too weird, too political, too full of Spanglish and Spanish. Accepting that gave me the freedom to do exactly what I wanted. Inventing barrio noir also meant that I was the one saying what could fit in the narrative. It was horror, but also crime, so I could grab the elements I liked the most from those genres and mix them together into something weird. It does feel like an evolution now. I hope I evolve with every book.

Would you say your 2015 novel Zero Saints was the first time you explored the idea of “barrio noir,” and what exactly does that term mean to you?

I’d explored different elements of it before, but the first time I decided to bring it all together was with Zero Saints. I decided to use Spanish without italics. No language is an Other language; it’s your inability to read or speak it that makes it “alien.” I decided I didn’t care if the book was too full of horror for the crime fans or it had too many crime fiction elements for readers of classic horror. The hardest part was explaining it all to myself in a way that allowed me to explain it to others, that gave me the courage to write “a barrio noir” under the title when submitting it instead of writing “a novel.” Now I’m good at summarizing it. Barrio noir is any writing that walks between languages, borders, and cultures. It’s writing from the barrio, from your hood, from your trailer park. It’s fiction that’s full of truth. It’s writing that occupies a plethora of interstitial spaces and isn’t afraid to engage with all religions and superstitions as well as to bring in supernatural elements.

You’ve lived in Austin, Texas, for some time. How much has that city influenced your work?

A lot. The first thing it did was amplify my experiences in the Caribbean. There were no beheaded chickens left in front of doors here. No limpias. No botanicas in every corner. Distance acted like a magnifying glass for everything that surrounded me in the barrio growing up, in the dirty streets of San Juan as a teenager and beyond. The second thing it did was throw me in the middle of the frontera struggles. I worked with undocumented workers. I met DREAMers. I inhabited a borrowed culture that forced me to realize my status as a second-class citizen from a colony that can’t vote for the president was still, in some ways, more desirable than being undocumented. I taught ESL to adults at night for a year. Their stories about crossing the border and money and drugs and coyotes and violence will stay with me forever. I wouldn’t have been in touch with that if I hadn’t moved to Austin.

Coyote Songs opens with Pedrito, a young boy who is curious, smart, fascinated by his father, and proves to be very determined. How much of your childhood went into him?

I realized there was a bit of me in him when I put a book in his hands. I was always curious. Books gave me answers. After that, his story is, thankfully, very different from mine. Oh, and I’m the son of a migrant, so I guess that adds something, but I used that with Alma. Being the migrant son of a migrant makes you wonder about the migrating gene . . .

In approaching the “mosaic novel” structure of Coyote Songs, how did you decide on the order of the individual pieces? Did the order change as you worked through the book?

I needed to start with a bang. I needed blood quickly. I needed pain. Those were my hooks. At one point, I talked to writer and editor Cameron Pierce about writing a novel that started with a kid and his father fishing. Pierce, who was the head honcho at the now defunct Lazy Fascist Press, also edited a nonfiction anthology of fishing stories. I was working on my piece for that book while working on Coyote Songs, so the fishing things were at the forefront of my mind. That and conversations with author David Joy about alligator gar. That’s why I made David the author of the book Pedrito holds in that first chapter.

In Coyote Songs, the story of Jaime, a young man who has just been released from prison and is having difficulty living with his mother and her abusive boyfriend, is spread out over several chapters, but it first appeared as a single short story, “Faster Than Weeping Angels,” in the anthology Blood and Gasoline: High-Octane, High-Velocity Action. Tell us a little about how a single short story became several pieces of your “mosaic novel”—how did you decide to break it up? Did you consider rewriting any of it, or did you fit any of the other stories in Coyote Songs around it?

Like a lot of my fiction, there are elements of that story that are pulled from real life, from people I met and hung out with in the past. Jaime was first a very violent flash fiction piece. It grew a bit, and I had an opportunity to have it in that awesome anthology edited by Mario Acevedo. Then it grew even more to become part of Coyote Songs. Luckily I didn’t have to rewrite anything, because every time I worked on that story, I always did so knowing it would end up being part of the original project it was meant for, the mosaic novel. The breaking up was harder. Ultimately I went with breaks that worked for me as a reader, breaks that made me want to keep reading to know what came next. Hopefully it works for everyone else!

Some of the characters in Coyote SongsPedrito, Alma—have names, while others—The Mother, The Coyote—are known by their titles, suggesting that they are more iconic. How did you decide on the characters that would be nameless and yet archetypal?

Alma is soul. Pedrito is a classic name used in many jokes about a little kid at school. The Bruja was a powerful bruja who morphs into an angry ghost, so titling her chapters that way struck me as better. However, she has a name: Inmaculada. It means immaculate. You know, like the Virgin Mary that enters the story later. As for The Coyote, I wanted him to be a force, a man on a holy mission. I wanted him to inhabit his role to the point that it became his whole identity. It made more sense to not give him a name. If their role overpowered everything else, I went with no name. The Mother, for example, becomes her own context. I think some readers will pick up on that. I can hope, right?

I love the use of politics in Coyote Songs, and I love that you’re unafraid to name names. I often encounter speculative fiction writers who think that using politics in their fiction renders it automatically “preachy.” How would you respond to those writers?

If you’re going to do the writing thing, leave fear at home. The only fear in your career should be the one you make your readers feel. I’ve heard that getting political can hurt your sales, but I don’t care. I’ve also been told using Spanglish and characters from other countries and backgrounds can hurt sales. Again, I don’t care. I care about telling my stories in the most authentic way possible. I care about entertaining and making readers feel things. I care about getting a bit better with every book and not allowing my desire for sales and success to affect my moral compass. Plus, I don’t have to write for everyone. Those who try my work and hate it have a million other writers to check out. There are some things you can’t control as a writer, but your politics is something you control. Use them fearlessly. Or don’t. That decision is up to each writer, but they all need to know that not taking a political stance is also a political move.

My favorite character in Coyote Songs is Alma, a Puerto Rican performance artist trying to use her art to make sense of her world. I think one of the things I liked so much about the Alma stories is that they shouldn’t even work as stories—they don’t have a traditional beginning-middle-end structure, her character isn’t revealed through plot, but through her art—and yet these stories are deeply moving. How did you first envision Alma, and did you deliberately set out to give her stories such a different form?

I thought about having a female writer in there, but quickly realized a performance artist would be a better character. Her actions would say more. And she could also write a bit because many performance artists and painters dabble in writing. I wanted her to embody a different kind of strength than that of The Mother and Inmaculada. She’s tired. She’s angry. She’s constantly hustling and creating. She becomes possessed. Her narrative had to be different, but I couldn’t pull off a performance on the page, so I went with a different structure for her.

Coyote Songs has just been nominated for the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award (for Fiction Collection). How would you answer someone who asks you what kind of horror it is?

A Stoker! Can you believe it?! Haha. I’m still processing it. Anyway, back to your question: it’s timely horror that wants to show you the monstrousness behind some everyday truths. Oh, and there are actual monsters in there. And a lot of blood . . .

You have reviews all over the internet! How much has your work as a reviewer informed your fiction?

I think every writer is inspired by every piece of superb writing we read. That said, I’ve learned to switch hats. I review for crime sites and horror sites and for places like NPR. I review literary fiction and thrillers and poetry and bizarro. I switch hats and focus on the author I’m reading at the moment so I can talk about the book I read. I wouldn’t be able to do that consistently if I kept thinking about my own work while I read. It’s weird, but it works for me.

You’re now editing a book of border stories. Are you finding that you enjoy working as an editor?

I recently edited a book of crime and horror stories inspired by the music of Biggie Smalls for CLASH Books and loved the experience. The border noir anthology is something I’d been thinking about for a while. Someone tweeted about me being perfect for it, so I decided to make it happen. I was lucky that Polis Books jumped on it. I love picking stories and helping to make them a bit better. I love working with great editors. It’s a different experience, and hopefully the start of many more.

Can you imagine that twenty years from now, you might look back at yourself and see that you were at the head of a new wave of Latinx speculative fiction writers?

I don’t know if I’m at the head or running with the herd, but I’m happy to see more books by Latinx writers out there, getting attention and accolades. I just received a Bram Stoker Award nomination! I love seeing diversity on the ballot. We’re moving in the right direction. I will do everything in my power to keep it going. Horror is for everyone and written by everyone. I’m happy to be part of all of it.

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.