A Conversation with the novelist Salvador Plascencia

Salvador Plascencia met with me in July at my home to talk about our favorite writers and the loss of myth in our post-everything world. He has an easy-going Southern California neo-Latino vibe quite unexpected from the author of The People of Paper, his dazzling first novel of hyperfiction. TPoP ’s vivid chorus of characters—a heartbroken man who creatively sears his skin to relieve his pain; a brilliant origami surgeon who creates paper women of desire; a tattooed gang-banger named Froggy who leads a war against the planet-god Saturn—inhabit pages designed with clever die-cuts, gang graffiti, text-obscuring black boxes, and Mexican lotería cards. As we talked, I could see the bright green eyes behind Plascencia’s glasses; they give away the intelligent imagination that created that miraculous world.

Toward the end of TPoP, Plascencia writes that Merced de Papel, the surgeon’s supreme creation, dies in a car accident on a rainy street in Los Angeles. While her soul takes the form of an origami swan, her paper body dissolves into pulpy shreds that flow down the street “into the anonymity of gutters.” Plascencia’s plural textuality is symbolized by the watery dissolution of a character, because buried deep in TPoP ’s intricate signification is the fact of life’s sheer transience. As we read along, we know we are witnessing the conscious creation of a novel, yet we allow ourselves to be pulled into the ruse because the ruse is so beautiful, so true, and so fleeting.

After I turned the tape recorder off, Plascencia and I talked for a bit about being Latino in a world that seems to become more Latino by the day, and about the toxic effect of immigration politics, and then, as he got up to leave, Plascencia said, “Sometimes I wonder if all I’ll ever have in me is this one book.” I replied, “It’ll be hard to top, but then we’re always trying to outdo our own best work, aren’t we?” He gave me an enigmatic smile, we exchanged goodbyes, and then he was off into the summer evening of another smoggy Los Angeles day.

Max Benavidez Sal, I’d like to see how you respond to this quote from Jean Genet, something he wrote after he had visited the studio of Alberto Giacometti: “Beauty has no other origin than a wound, unique, different for each person, hidden or visible, that everyone keeps in himself, that he preserves and to which he withdraws when he wants to leave the world for a temporary but profound solitude.” I found a lot of sadness in your book and wonder if you agree that beauty originates in a wound.

Salvador Plascencia But the way Genet puts it, the wound is not only the genesis of but also the fuel for creation. The injury, the cut, must be sustained. To heal is to risk losing the ability to be an artist. In that configuration, art is ultimately masochistic, because it prevents closure; the mending of tissues is suspended and the pain extended. But I guess there are thousands of varieties of wounds, and not all of them expose bone and organs. The sadness of failed romantic love cuts one way. All these abrasions, regardless of their depth, provoke introspection because we are forced to come to terms with our frailty and mortality.

MB One of the characters in your novel, Federico de la Fe, alleviates his deep sadness by burning himself. You write of the “singed flesh” and the smell of phosphorous. The pain of fire cures his sadness, at least momentarily. Reading that reminded me of the trend of young girls cutting themselves. Cutters. Nine Inch Nails did a song about it. It’s interesting and strange that emotional pain, at least for some people, can be relieved by inflicting physical pain on oneself. As you wrote in your book, whether it’s the pain of the burning fire, or your character Federico putting his hands into hot embers, even scalding his tongue with boiling tea, all these bring temporary relief. Of course, we can visualize that pain; we might even recoil from it.

SP Unseen emotional pain takes on a physical manifestation that we can access in terms of the corporeal. Through the effects of de la Fe branding himself with a hot tool, his heartbreak becomes visible, quantifiable, and explainable through our medical and forensic language. Try describing the anxiety and emotions a young girl feels. It’s much easier to talk about the lacerations of razor blades on the epidermis.

MB In some way we relate to one another through an awareness of our mutual wounds. Perhaps we express them differently, but the memory of them, the longing for a time before trauma, for innocence, is always there. Beyond the book’s words, it’s in the very design—you have a drawing of a food pyramid that implies sadness is nutritious. As we read the novel, the pain sometimes seems almost exquisite, even alluring. We can all relate to the poignancy of the characters’ wounds.

SP As much as we are trained to be nostalgic for the Edenic time—that time before trauma, as you put it—we know that a life of leisure, where all we do is roam around naming animals and pulling Eve onto the grass without the potential of her betraying us, and the jaguars ambushing us, is a life that is ultimately empty. We cull meaning from loss and the near misses. No one really wants to live in Eden; we would die from the absurdity and boredom of a life suspended in exposition where there is no potential for injury.

Trauma is not only a narrative necessity, it’s what keeps us from being naive prancing brutes in a garden. But also, on a more practical level, happiness is much more elusive when you try to translate it into art. Try writing The Sweet Hereafter without a bus accident, or The Virgin Suicides without suicides.

As far as the physical appearance of the book goes: “design” is often taken to mean something that happens after the writing. And, without a doubt, the people at McSweeney’s are great designers in that sense, but the graphic and layout elements within the narrative are not just decorative. The columns, the blackouts, serve an integral narrative function. You can’t lay out The People of Paper in a standard format. It doesn’t work. Harcourt, who is doing the paperback, had to use a larger trim size to make the book work. That was really exciting, that the physical object of the book had to stretch to accommodate the story.

What I find extremely interesting is the apprehension toward typography and design by many critics. You hear people say, sarcastically, Call me old-fashioned but I like my novels with words. The irony is, if you’re familiar with print culture and history, a book consisting of pure prose on a single column is a fairly recent development that has more to do with the standardization of printing presses and lazy publishers than literary tradition. There are limits to what prose can do, and sometimes it’s not a metaphor or lyricism that you need. Sometimes what the page needs is a darkened square. Lawrence Sterne taught us this in the mid-1700s.

MB Let’s talk about influential authors. One of my own influences is [José] Saramago, the Portuguese author.

SP Blindness is on my “to read” list.

MB Saramago convinces you that, all of a sudden, people in this one country are going blind. They can’t see. It was the perfect book, so believable and so absurd. I read it shortly after 9/11, when it seemed like our country had gone blind in some sense. As you were saying, you need to have a physical manifestation. Saramago is an incredibly refined writer who is doing that, metaphorically.

SP But it’s not a metaphor. It’s literal, right?

MB True. It’s as literal as it gets, but as I read it I also saw it as a metaphor for the blindness that we’re living through here. An American president sent troops into a country that didn’t attack us. Why? Is it because people want to deny the truth, not see what is really going on? At one point in Blindness, they round up all those who have been infected with what the government calls the “white evil,” because the blind people see whiteness and nothing else. The blind are put into an empty mental hospital where no one can “see” them. They are hidden from sight, like a Guantánamo Bay for the blind. They were literally blind, but also, they were blind to what was happening around them. It worked on both levels. Saramago is one of my most influential authors. Who’s influenced you?

SP The master, in my mind, has always been Márquez. I was obsessed; I read One Hundred Years of Solitude for three years.

SP I didn’t understand why anybody would write after One Hundred Years. It was this weird moment, like when you discover the Beatles. What’s the point of any music after this? It took me a long time to get past that. I thought it was the perfect book. It was really incapacitating because I didn’t understand why it was so beautiful, so sad, so heartbreaking, and epic. I didn’t know what to do or read beyond that. Once I got over that book, I read Vonnegut, David Markson, and George Saunders, and then things started to come together in these hybrid ways—I mean, basically my book was an answer to the question: How can I put all the authors I love together? It couldn’t just be Márquez. If I could be a hundredth of Márquez, I’d be fine, but I couldn’t just do an English version of Márquez. That didn’t seem like movement; it just seemed like paying tribute.

MB Writing can be a grueling process. There are writers who sometimes take years, even decades to write a book. The classic is J. D. Salinger. And others produce them like rabbits, like Joyce Carol Oates. What about you? What’s that process like?

SP The way I see it, it’s like mining for groundwater. Sometimes you’re lucky and, on first dig, you hit the underground stream and the flow pours out and you get a novel out of it. But other times you’re just digging hole after hole and you’re not finding anything—just heaps of dry dirt. Part of the work is putting sentences together, but once engaged in the search, I think, my subconscious is also doing its own work and digging for a story. I was really fortunate with The People of Paper because I hit the underground reserve and it just poured out. Maybe it’s a first novel phenomenon and the water is closer to the surface because the land has yet to be tapped. It was five years where I knew every day what I was doing and where I was going. Not necessarily the plot, but I would wake up every day and write and make some progress.

Now, with the second book, it seems like I’m digging holes and I’m not hitting water yet. I hit some water, but it’s only enough for a short story, then it dries out. Someone like Joyce Carol Oates or T. C. Boyle must have the surveyors working overtime excavating for those reservoirs. I really think it’s a matter of luck and how hard you dig.

MB I remember when I was finishing a book on Gronk, an artist who lives and works here in LA. At one point in writing the book, to finally really get it all down, I had to go out to the desert. The weather was like it is today—a hundred degrees and humid—but in three days I was able to put out 15,000 words! I don’t know how it happened. It just came. There had been a lot of preparation, of course. And I remember that I was perspiring so much that the sweat on my fingertips erased the letters on the keyboard. It was this rush! I like your idea about digging and groundwater, that sometimes all you hit is hard rock. And other times even in the middle of a desert in early summer you hit the flowing underground stream.

SP Why do you think you hit it? What happened? Was it the environment?

MB There was an incredible sandstorm, like something out of The English Patient, for the whole three days. I believe—and it’s in your book—that there are other energies in the desert. There was the wind with its sounds and rhythms. The heat was so thick it had a texture you could feel pressing on your skin, and there was the tricky desert light that changes so dramatically throughout the day. It was as though these forces of nature became inspired collaborators and I tapped into their power. Dante used to recite psalms from memory until he could write. Then he would start and out would flow something big like The Divine Comedy, of all things. What a great concept to go with Virgil to Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. The psalms helped take him there.

SP How much of it is labor, doing it every day, and just putting in the hours? It’s a very workman-like way of looking at art. It’s also some sort of fortune and an alignment of the stars. You don’t get to create every day; it doesn’t happen every day. Somehow you make the conditions. Maybe all you need is a sandstorm. When I wrote The People of Paper, the material just came.

MB Over five years, though.

SP Right, but it was a matter of refining. The material came. What I’m finding out now is that it doesn’t always come that easily. It might be an absence of sadness; maybe I’m too happy. Does that mean I have to sacrifice my mental health and happiness for art? I let the wounds heal and I’m unwilling to pick at stitches and scabs. If indeed the wound is the source of creation, I’d rather stop writing or be a hack than to be perpetually wounded or reopen my old wounds just to produce some text.

MB That’s a really good question. It’s this classic image of the artist. I see a lot of artists as they progress in their careers become more disciplined. I always look at it from a dancer’s perspective: you have to have your training. Your literary training was in English, and you know Spanish from the home. You’re writing in English. There’s a discipline there, right?

SP It’s a discipline, but I think the first book was inspired. Now maybe it is a matter of having to work long hours. I’ve always written in these fevers—I get three days of writing, then I won’t write for three more months. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t depend on a fever coming because what if it doesn’t come? I have to go to work and be disciplined.

MB I really admire you for taking on the world of fiction. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction and a lot about art. Now I want to move toward the world of fiction again, creating my own world, so to speak. The world of your book starts off in Mexico, and then it comes to a place here in what’s called “greater” Los Angeles—the city of El Monte. Did you grow up there?

SP Yeah, I grew up in El Monte, but, like in all immigrant communities, everybody has some of the old country in their backyards.

MB A very fascinating place. It’s where my dad goes in late summer to get chile. He’s from New Mexico and they bring in New Mexico chile. But, in addition to an actual location, El Monte, you also have the planet Saturn as a character. Where did that come from?

SP I have no idea. People ask where this and that came from, and sometimes I can find an origin. I can say the mechanical turtle came about because my grandparents were from a town called La Tortuga. But there were no turtles in the town, so why is it called “the Turtle”? I made up mechanical turtles for La Tortuga. But with Saturn, I think it was at a sentence level. Somebody was looking down at this man, and I didn’t like the sound of Mars; I didn’t like the sound of Venus. Plus, Saturn is, image-wise, the prettiest of planets.

MB It’s a cool planet.

SP So it has to do with the image of Saturn and maybe the way it sounds. It happens to coincide with the Roman mythology of Saturn as a creator who eats his children. Those metaphors line up. Saturn is the creator of the characters in The People of Paper and he’s trying to destroy them. So, while that stuff seems coincidental, halfway through the novel you pick up these possible allusions and you play on them. Initially, I had no idea what Saturn represented. Maybe my subconscious knew what it was doing.

MB On one level the book reflects my own experience of having grown up here in Southern California, in a place, Montebello, very much like El Monte. I know these starved cities with their lovely names. At the other level, you move into this place of myth. You’re saying it’s something that just came to you. Yet through the process of creating this narrative, you became a mythographer. You have wrapped what some call the “tattered cloth” of ancient myth around us, the readers. And, with Saturn, you give us back the optical ability to gaze at the galaxy, at the heavens again, and see myths up there, not just floating satellites. You’re one of the first artists in the United States with a Latino background who’s been able to combine the great secrets of myth with the naked street. You write about gangs. You write about the El Monte Flores gang, which ironically—ironic because it’s a chologang—translates as “the flowers of the mountain,” and you bring in Saturn, this distant animated god-planet. And you make it work, but then you, at some point, become Saturn. What’s that all about?

SP I read [Luis] Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca, memoirs of gang life and testimonies about immigration life. I find them compelling because I’m Latino, and I see that. But I also read Vonnegut and Barthelme. It was a matter of how to combine these two things: my life experience and literature. A lot of it was naïveté. I didn’t want to write a straight gangster novel. I have no interest in that, but I grew up with this aesthetic of cholo culture. There’s an iconic resonance in the tattoos, gang tags, and the other homeboy rituals. I wanted to combine that with the bizarre and tender sense of humor of writers like Barthelme and Vonnegut. It was a synthesis of those two things: what I took as my reading pleasure and what I saw as beauty in the books I read, but also what I grew up around.

MB I love the graphics in your book, and the tag of the gang: EMF. I grew up with a lot of graffiti. Some people hate it, but I’ve always thought that some of it is beautiful. If you drive around Los Angeles on the freeways, you see it as Latino hieroglyphics. The graffiti that’s along the L.A. River on the concrete walls, or those old Olympic murals that have now become graffitied. Artists like Willie Herrón and Gronk used to do murals where the gangs hung out. They’d integrate the gang graffiti into the mural and the mix became this beautiful collaboration; the artists painting by day and the gangs tagging the art by night. The artists loved it. That was their environment. A piece of graffiti says, “Hey, we’re here! We’re everywhere, and we have no other way to tell you that we’re here.” You took that and expressed yourself in one of the highest forms of expression possible, literature, yet it’s related to this other form of expression that’s on the street. Froggy, an EMF gang member, is turned into a commandante. I mean, this is a guy who’s barely making it, and yet you make him a military leader in the war against Saturn, against the mythic creator.

SP I play on the stereotypical conception of gangsters, of Chicano youth—or Latinos in general—being in gangs, but in this book it’s sort of a parody. I’m using the common media representations, but I take them to an absurd level, maybe confirming the stereotype, but also making it mythic. I was consciously reenacting what a Chicano is thought to be. I also wanted to challenge our conception of the Chicano-Latino novel. I made The People of Paper mythic so people wouldn’t look at these characters as they’re usually perceived, as gangbangers—

MB They’re usually looked at as exotica. I see these photographs by people who aren’t from the culture, the culture vultures that glamorize gang figures out of their own fantasies. There’s the classic image of the guys who’ve been in prison and who come back with all the tattoos, and there are the cultural tourists who take the photographs you see in national magazines and, you’re right, that’s another myth. That’s part of the American idea of who Latinos are. They’re in prison, they’re gang members, et cetera. How many times have you seen the image of the tattooed ex-inmate holding a giant gun? You have turned that on its head. You’ve done that by creating a connection, interestingly, that’s intergalactic.

SP I’m not absolved from playing with that exoticism. I still play with it. I know people are going to gravitate toward the gangster and perceive him in a certain way. I use it. I always have a weird moral struggle with it because I was reeling in the reader through that gang violence, the “jumpings,” this barrio life. I wanted to complicate it somehow, to make it more parody and operate more, as you said, in an intergalactic way. At one level it operates in an extremely regional locale: El Monte, California. But then it telescopes into outer space and we are dealing with the planet Saturn. I’m saying that their lives, the gangbangers and the people who live in El Monte, exist beyond stereotypes, beyond the mundane. They are caught in an incredible, even mysterious struggle of cosmic life and death, just like Márquez’s magician Melquiades. It isn’t just the streets; it’s a bigger story than that.

MB There’s been this categorization that has marginalized the people you’re writing about. You’ve taken us into their lives.

SP Yes, but at the same time, they’re fighting absurd quests. They’re fighting planets in the sky, they’re chasing women made of paper, and trying to destroy turtles made from sprockets. It’s life, but it’s not something people can identify as journalistic realism.

MB You really touched on what it means to be an artist with your creation of the origami surgeon. Where did that concept come from, that combination of the delicate origami of Japan with the medical neurosurgeon? It’s like the writer is the origami surgeon.

SP Right, the origami surgeon makes people from paper just as a novelist creates. But really it came out of a narrative necessity. I wasn’t explicitly thinking about the metaphor at the time. You have Pinocchio, you need a carpenter. I had a woman of paper, I needed an origami surgeon. I needed to have a father, and what is more natural than origami? I couldn’t make an Asian origami master because it takes place in Mexico. So I had to have a Mexican surgeon who did origami.

MB I like your use of the curandero, folk healers and psychics who sometimes rise to the level of shaman. My great-grandmother was from Durango, Mexico. She lived in Chavez Ravine here in LA and she was a fortune-teller and a healer; that’s how she made her money, by reading tarot cards and prescribing herbal cures for people. It was an amazing life.

SP In the Tortuga, where my grandma’s from, the curanderos are always under suspicion. At one point they accused my grandma of being a curandera. She was kind of an outcast from the neighborhood, from the ranch. The irony is that she’s not a curandera. Their proof was that her cows gave a lot more milk than their cows, so they assumed that she had witchcrafted the whole town. At the same time, those same people would go away to seek advice from curanderos in far-off towns. That’s where I got that from; people were equally suspicious and intrigued by curanderos. Also, curanderos practice outside Catholicism. The Vatican doesn’t want them. But at the same time they play with Catholic iconography and ritual. It’s fascinating that they’re in the religion but somehow still outcasts from it.

MB It’s true. You mention the Vatican and talk about Vatican-certified practices.

SP I was raised Catholic, but in the outskirts of Guadalajara on the ranch. The practice wasn’t always the most compliant. We had a priest who would come by every month, and he would absolve everyone without doing confession because he didn’t have time for 200 confessions. Instead everybody got in one room and he’d say, “Okay, you are all blessed, absolved.” I don’t know if the Vatican would have approved that, but that’s what we had. Then he’d move on to the next town and absolve another 300. It was pragmatism.

MB An aura of Catholicism hovers over the novel. It’s interesting that you were raised Catholic, but on the outskirts of the religion. There is a lot of ritualism in your book.

SP It’s beautiful when you go to church, look at the saints, but it’s also a religion of repression. Repressing desire, essentially criminalizing your thoughts. Not just your deeds, but also the guilt associated with desire. It’s a beautiful religion of ritual, of statues, of churches, but they also give you a fear of yourself, of thinking things, of seeing things you aren’t supposed to.

MB The men who come to see the lovely woman made of paper, Merced de Papel, lick her vagina with its layers of folded paper. Not only do they have ink stains on their lips and tongues, but they also have paper cuts from licking her paper clitoris and her layers of origami. The Catholic Church would not sanction this book.

SP In Catholicism, even to think of that desire means that you’re already violating the laws of pure thoughts. Even your thoughts are impure. That’s part of the challenge: how do you stop yourself from thinking things you’re not supposed to? The characters can’t think things, because Saturn will discover them. In Catholicism you can’t think these things even if you’re not acting on them. But how do you stop yourself from thinking of love, of desire, of whatever it is?

MB You either go into a tortoise shell or you wrap your house in lead so Saturn can’t perceive your thoughts.

SP Or you stare at a cup of water and keep saying, “Water, water, water, water, water,” and repress everything.

MB We live in an age of repression, yet oddly our society seems so out of control in so many strange ways. It’s a total contradiction.

SP In a way it’s repression, but at the same time you have this naked man at the center, bleeding. This exoticism of his body, but then you can’t think impure—

MB You can’t think of sexuality, the ultimate heresy. What’s your next book about?

SP I think it’s about two undiscovered oceans. That’s all I know.

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