Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reality of Fiction: Novelist George Rabasa

Photo: Keri Pickett
George Rabasa is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb (Unbridled Books); he is also the author of a short story collection (Glass Houses: Stories) and three other novels (Floating Kingdom, The Cleansing, The Wonder Singer). Glass Houses received The Writer’s Voice Capricorn Award for Excellence in Fiction and the Minnesota Book Award for Short Stories. His novel, Floating Kingdom received the Minnesota Book Award for Fiction. Another novel, The Cleansing, was named a Book Sense Notable. His short fiction has appeared in various literary magazines, such as Story Quarterly, Glimmer Train, The MacGuffin, South Carolina Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry, American Literary Review, and in several anthologies. George Rabasa was born in Maine, lived many years in Mexico City, and now resides and writes in Minnesota. George came to us when we issued our Call for Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, and he sent us the wonderful (sensitive, touching, humorous) duo of stories (with truly memorable characters) that appear in that volume.
The Escape Artist
Among our expectations of good fiction is the implicit promise that it will cut the bonds that tie us to life’s conventions. I’m not referring to the relief that stories can offer from the numbing commute, the office, the news of the day. The escape that fine fiction promises is of a more revolutionary nature, delivering freedom from the conventional thinking and automatic responses that cloud our sense of our greater-than-human condition. In this way, the writer is a literary Houdini that shakes off his own chains and in the process frees his readers so that together they can enjoy a ride into parallel and unsuspected universes of mind, heart and soul. The fiction that does this is not buried treasure. It’s the work of a million writers throughout the ages whose works are free in libraries, or for a reasonable price at a favorite bookstore.

Liar Liar Brain on Fire
I was eight or so when I started inventing stories. I told them to neighborhood children who promptly repeated them to their parents and to their teachers.  My tall tales got around: The Hansens down the street keep their children in cages. Miss Norris, the sixth grade teacher, was once in prison for bank robbery. Señora Larios likes to sunbathe in the nude with her gardener. Having got wind of these stories, my parents decided I was a problem liar, not a budding artist.
I was regularly sent to apologize and confess my untruths to the victims of my fantasies. The idea was to shame me out my compulsive lying disorder, technically, and more evocatively, known as pseudologia fantastica.
The stories kept on coming, whether I told them to others or kept them to myself. My mind bubbled over with overheard voices and remembered faces. I imagined the secret lives of family friends. Chance encounters with bus drivers, clerks, school staff all gave rise to visions of mayhem and adventure.

Unlocking the Writer
I was not a good student in high school. I was too busy reading for fun – Spillane, Salgari, Steinbeck, Hemingway – to crack textbooks. And I was a master at spinning assignments, from history to biology, into fanciful narratives of inspired bullshit, good enough for a laugh and a C-.
I went to Clemson University and soon gravitated from an engineering major to the cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking, easy-loving crew that edited the Chronicle literary magazine. My first short story was about a homeless man panhandling the fashionable denizens of the upper West Side of New York. Then I wrote one about a bullfighter. I had never begged or fought bulls, yet I was not writing about these exotics; I was living them. I heard their voices and smelled their fear and humiliation. The stories were published in the magazine and I knew I had found my calling; I could make up stuff and be recognized for it.
More than that, fiction helped me reconcile the imagined world with the world I lived; the story fixes a moment so that it can be relived by anyone opening the page. Piggy will always lose his glasses in Lord of the Flies. Fiction’s concrete world is no less tangible than the moving flow of reality. And the voices I heard were as alive as any outside my head.
I had a slow apprenticeship. My first stories came slow and hard, to the point that I thought I was not really going to be the writer I had hoped to become. I was unhappy trying to write and I was unhappy failing at it. The muse had deserted me. But I kept reading, this time moving on to the Latin American boom – García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Cortázar. Then, Nabokov, Woolf, Conrad, Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Whitman. I read above my head: Don Quijote, Under the Volcano, Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment. I realized that I would never be more than a midget next to these giants, but I felt I had an obligation to honor the small gift of the imagination with which I had been blessed. I would have preferred to be a rock musician, a movie star, Mother Teresa. I accepted I was a one-trick pony and became a writer of fiction.

Process, what process?
I like to think that somewhere a writer has discovered a systematic approach to the composition of a novel – a step by step approach from ruminating to note-taking to drafting and revising. The result would be the seamless web of a novel with all the harmony and grandeur of a cathedral. No angst, no uncertainty, no fear. I haven’t met such a person. For most of us the process of writing is disordered, with much hesitation, exploration, improvisation. In the end, however, I generally feel by the time a piece is published that I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. If I have illuminated some of the mystery of being human through stories and characters that grip and engage and move the reader, then the winding road has proven to be as direct as a bullet. I believe in the power of story to satisfy a basic human need. To fulfill this promise, I rely on basic technique – vivid characterization, a strong sense of place, the telling detail, the pursuit of a timeless sort of truth. I don’t have pet themes; my fiction carries my core beliefs without an explicit agenda.
In the process I have plumbed depths of compassion and understanding that I didn’t know I had. In my villains, I find that their evil is part of the human condition, and therefore integral to my own humanity.
I learn about myself through writers who tell stories in ways that I might never attempt. In the process I’m reminded that one can do anything in a novel, to escape strictures of logic and form and plunge into the unknown. This takes artistic courage. I recently read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, a marvelously compelling shape-shifting narrative with mythic resonance. Before that, Bolaño’s 2666 with its hypnotic patterns of violence and uncertainty. And, some years ago, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. How do they do it?
I have also discovered new works and kindred spirits through my publisher Unbridled Books: Mark Estrin’s Insect Dreams, Peter Geye’s Safe from the Sea, Frederick Reuss’s A Geography of Secrets.
Good writing pushes me to write. To this end, I have a gentle work schedule that slowly but slowly has allowed me to produce four novels (and a couple of unpublished ones) plus a bunch of short stories in a collection and in magazines. I have a studio a couple of blocks from my home and I spend weekdays writing for about four hours divided in morning and afternoon. Some time is also spent reading, researching and indulging in various forms of idleness with the help of the internet.

Punching in at the Fiction Factory
As a reader I’m interested in the work habits and writing spaces of writers. When one of my readers asked about these things, I thought of a recent, typical morning:
I’m late, I’m late! It’s 9:13 and the brain is humming but the author is not writing. Not a good situation for the novel that has been in progress for several months. Still, I just can’t dive in. Like a good athlete I need a little warm-up – might strain a brain cell or two otherwise. So, I check e-mail (nothing much), calendar (nothing much), news headlines (way too much).
 I take a look around the Fiction Factory, and I’m energized by the red walls (“cayenne,” says the paint can), the Mexican rug with the Huichol designs depicting the symbols for eagle, corn, flowers, peyote. Packed bookshelves hold a lifetime of reading, and learning. This is where my masters live – García Márquez, Updike, Lowry, Borges, Nabokov, Cervantes – it’s a long list. There are pictures on the walls, some created by friends. On the i-pod player, Perla Batalla sings Leonard Cohen.
Before I know it, I’m staring at the screen, cursor blinking, words waiting to be arranged and rearranged. Commas achieve the importance of subatomic particles; take one out or put one in and the order of the universe has been altered. The new novel is about fifty pages long so far, and all I think about for the next hour or so is a sentence, a paragraph, a scene. I take one step at a time, without thinking too much about the finish line. Then I move on to the next sentence. And so on…
Finally, it’s lunch time! Work at the Fiction Factory specifies a decent time for lunch and reading and nap, followed by a couple of hours of the afternoon shift. Then, it’s time for meditation, exercise, wine, dinner, chocolate. Ah, a happy routine! While I’ve been told I should get a life, I can’t think of a better one.
Thirty-five years after publishing my early stories in college, my first book, Glass Houses: Stories came out to a few good reviews. Since then I’ve continued to listen to the voices in my head. I know myself to be my characters just as Flaubert did. When asked where Madame Bovary came from he answered, “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”
I’ve published novels about an immigrant smuggler (Floating Kingdom, Coffee House Press) and a torturing physician (The Cleansing, The Permanent Press). More recently, I wrote in the first-person voice of a legendary opera diva in The Wonder Singer (Unbridled Books).
My latest novel Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb (Spring 2011 from Unbridled Books) is a story of young love gone mad. Told in the voice of adolescent Adam Webb, he narrates his obsession and eventual tragic unfolding with Francine Haggard, aka “Miss Entropia.” More about my work can be found at and at
Copyright©2011 by George Rabasa
Photo Copyright©2011 by Keri Pickett