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A Conversation About Music, Memory, and the Topographies of Writing

Mesha Maren in Conversation with Fernando Flores

In November of 2019, just months before COVID hit, I met Mesha Maren in person at the Miami Book Festival, in what would turn out to be my last in-person event for a while. Both of us had debut novels out that year, and a few months prior to that meeting Mesha had interviewed me for the Chicago Review of Books. Having a debut novel when you aren’t friends with many writers or people in publishing can be daunting and lonely if you’re on tour, so I was delighted when Mesha reached out to meet up. While having dinner, I learned that Mesha had written a novel that took place on the border, and I don’t recall whether I shared that I was finishing what would become my story collection Valleyesque.

Months later, under lockdown, I was lucky enough to read Mesha’s novel Perpetual West ahead of publication, and it helped me to maintain a routine when my reading had otherwise been thrown into chaos. The border in Perpetual West took me back nearly twenty years, to the bygone days my dark-skinned father would simply tell the officer at the checkpoint, “US citizen,” and he would pass, without presenting a bit of identification. Just as distant as those days felt, the reality when I’d met Mesha in Miami also seemed like something of another world. Now that the books we were finishing then are out in the world, and our events being mostly virtual, it was good to share this conversation with Mesha about the topographies that come together to create our work.

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Fernando Flores: Your novels have drastically different settings: rural West Virginia, and the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border, and your attention to detail in both is so photographic and vivid, that when I first read Perpetual West I was constantly reminded of border imagery from my childhood that I’d forgotten. I’m wondering if there was any overlap between starting Perpetual West and finishing Sugar Run. And, if so, was it easier having two projects with different geographies? I am also wondering how important geography is to your storytelling, because it seems to me you could easily write a story that takes place anywhere.

Mesha Maren: I love this question. I think that setting is the single most important thing to me about writing. I was a very awkward kid. I didn’t have very many friends. Every day at school I would count down the hours until I could jump off the school bus and run into the pine woods where my day would finally, truly begin, with the trees and the moss and the squirrels and the blue jays.

All my writing begins with place and with obsession.

I remember reading this quote from Josip Novakovich where he said that his writing is not autobiographical, it is topographical. That feels very true for me. I feel very complimented by your statement that I could write a story that takes place anywhere but I don’t know if I agree. I think that in order to write a story it has to take place in a setting that I have fallen in love with. Geographical obsession is key to my writing.

When I was first drafting Sugar Run, I was living in Iowa City and it was the middle of a midwestern winter. I fantasized about southern West Virginia summers and that drove my writing. When I was drafting Perpetual West, I was in a cabin in West Virginia and I was obsessively remembering the time I spent in El Paso and Juárez.

About a year into the drafting process with Perpetual West, I went back to the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border. I hadn’t been there for 12 years. I took a bunch of photos and talked to people and walked around but what was most useful to me were the audio recordings I made of random shit- the wind in the palm trees, the traffic on the freeway, the pigeons on the windowsill. I went back to my cabin in West Virginia and played these recordings over and over and over again and that is what helped me the most.

I wonder if I will ever write a book that is set somewhere that I have never fallen in love with. I kind of doubt it. All my writing begins with place and with obsession. When I went to the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border region for the first time I had just turned 21 years old and I was following a woman that I was in love with. I thought that southern Texas/northern Mexico would be completely and utterly foreign to me.

Up until that point I had mostly only lived in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and North Carolina. And it was very different in certain ways but it also felt extremely familiar, the way that Juárenses love their home so deeply despite the difficulties. It reminded me of my home in West Virginia, the way that outsiders act like it is only a place to get away from, only a place to leave behind. Both West Virginia and the Chihuahua/Texas border are places of extreme extraction- mineral extraction and labor extraction. It reminded me how loving a place that is hard to love can make you love it with an extra ferocity. I think that ferocity is key to my writing.

Music is the best route into the topography of memory.

I want to ask you about setting too. All of your fiction that I have read has taken place in Texas, a lot of it in the Rio Grande Valley or something that is akin to it, but it also takes place within subcultures, specifically often punk subcultures. The incredible thing about your writing though is that it pushes up against the boundaries of what we call “real”—Tears of the Trufflepig takes place in a future that looks and feels and smells like the world we live in now but amplified and skewed sideways just a bit. There are echoes of familiar objects (televisions, border walls) but they are “defamiliarized” in incredible ways.

Last year I had you Zoom in to my class and talk about “world building” and my students were fascinated and impressed by your ability to create a world that is only a few steps removed from our “real” world but that manages to augment and magnify certain aspects of our “reality” in very powerful ways. Can you talk about setting and defamiliarization?

FF: Definitely. It’s fascinating to learn this about your writing process and perspective, because, yes, most of my writing takes place in South Texas. I feel like I’ve spent my life as a writer trying to write my way out of this region. I was born in Reynosa, a border city in Mexico, but lived in South Texas from the ages of five to 23, and since then have lived in Austin. I’m wondering if I feel the same way as you—if I have to be completely in love with a region or place to write about it.

In my early 20s I was a scavenger to read everything that had been written by Mexican American, Chicanx, or border writers, and I found that most of it was written in a very stark, realist manner. I wanted to be able to break away from this literary style as much as possible. Back then I’d use the term “the most unpublishable thing possible.” I’d literally say, “I’m going to write the most unpublishable thing out there, that I’ve never seen anyone do.” I’m not saying I accomplished this, but that was my mentality when I was drafting my first two published books.

So I wanted to do outlandish things in Trufflepig, but also maintain a balance, to ground the reader—and, honestly, myself! I don’t consider myself a writer of speculative fiction, so the balance was necessary for me, writing it, as well. Reading that quote by Novakovich, I have to relate to it as well, but it’s never how I thought about or approached it.

In Perpetual West, I was delighted in particular with the arty border punks, they just come alive, and you truly get a sense of life at the border during that time. I know punk rock was an influence, and I’m wondering if music is also topographical to you, if on top of these recorded sounds you kept, if particular music also had the ability to take you to this time and place? And, also, if this was the case for Sugar Run as well, where particular music just took you there?

Music was a big part of how I ended up structuring Perpetual West too, music and film.

MM: Yes! I love this idea. I do think that music is the best route into the topography of memory. A song can take me back to a particular mental state like nothing else can, especially when that mental state is love or rage. When I lived in El Paso and Juárez I had just turned 21 and I was full of both love and rage. I had moved there because I was following a woman who I was in love with who was participating in a study abroad program in Juárez. At first I was just there because I wanted to be close to her but after a little while, I found this amazing community of activists and organizers.

I lived in a communal house with members of La Mujer Obrera, a worker-run collective established by former garment workers who lost their jobs after NAFTA went through. I worked in the offices at La Mujer Obrera and waitressed in the cafe that they ran. While I was busy in El Paso, the woman that I loved was falling in love with someone else. I was crossing the border almost daily in order to spend time with her but she was distracted—more interested in this punk collective in Juárez and the new friends she had made there.

She was particularly interested in one new friend—a young aspiring professional wrestler. I hung out with the wrestler and his collective of punk activists a lot and it was through them that I learned about femicidios and the horrific ways that the USA was funneling guns into Mexico, while also building walls to keep out immigrants who had been robbed of their livelihoods by NAFTA.

When the woman I loved left me for the wrestler, it broke me open in a brand-new way. I was deeply depressed and feeling raw—unsure of what I was doing in El Paso anymore, unsure of everything. I remember wanting this period of my life to be over already, but at the same time, I wanted it to never end or maybe more so I wanted to capture it somehow before it did end. I wanted to capture how all of this new political awareness was wrapped up in bittersweet love and drunk nights and heavy mornings of new consciousness, the way that everything felt so personal and so enormously beyond me all at once. Extreme emotions are so difficult to capture and express.

Barthes said “when we write of love we confront a spot where language is both too much and too little. We know that we can’t get anywhere, love is too large. We write anyway.” I think that the same can be said for rage, especially the kind of rage generated by a new political consciousness. Music is sometimes better than writing at getting at this “spot.” Still, to this day, if I listen to Los Crudos’ “Nada Cambia” or Elektroduendes “Salgo a La Calle,” I am instantly transported back to the “spot” of love and rage that existed in me in 2004.

The challenge that I had in writing Perpetual West was trying to overcome the obstacle that Barthes defines and express the love/rage. Sometimes I really wish I were a musician instead of a writer. But I most certainly am not. And so I took my own emotions and translated them into fictional characters. At the punk collective in Juárez, there was always music playing—either recorded or live—and the bands from that time really helped me to access the topography of those memories.

I made a little playlist on Spotify (I know, I know, I shouldn’t use Spotify) that includes Los Crudos, Orchid, Leatherface, Limpwrist , Elektroduendes, Juan Gabriel, Mago de Oz, Masacre 68 and a bunch of cumbias and norteñas. Also, at some of the readings that I’ve been doing lately I’ve been playing this Los Crudos seven inch to start the event off because I think that it has the power to take the audience directly to that love/rage “spot.”

Music plays a role in a lot of your writing too, not just music but bands and the formation of bands, especially punk bands. What is your relationship to music and fiction writing? Do you play music? Should we form a band like Stephen King’s The Rock Bottom Remainders?

FF: That sounds amazing. I wish I had even a little bit of musical talent. I used to be in a three-piece instrumental band for a couple of years in my late 20s called the Austin Texas Music Band. I played bass, and the guitarist came up with the name, in order to make us impossible to find on the internet. We’d have a regular gig every Wednesday at the Sahara Lounge, this bar out in east Austin, from 11pm to midnight, and nobody ever came to watch us play.

We’d play to an empty bar, pretty much every time, and I have to say I had a great time pretending I had any musical talent. The drummer and the guitar player were phenomenal musicians, and other bass players gave me great advice. The best advice a bass player ever told me was to just remember that nobody is paying attention to what the hell you’re doing–if I fucked up or anything it would maybe sound a little weird for a moment, but nobody really cares.

Anyway, how I learned any of the songs was that Chris, our genius guitar player, would come over to my apartment at the time and he’d help me map out every song. We’d only play instrumental Scottish or Greek or klezmer songs that were over a hundred years old, so as he taught me every song I had to draw out the intro, middle, breakdown, and ending of the song, like in a timeline–almost like reading music, but in my own, kinda primitive way.

And after Chris would leave, and we’d be done practicing, I’d have these visual maps of the structures of these old songs lying around, with unusual time signatures that were very difficult for a non-musician like me to play. My storytelling was beginning to change at that time as well, and these little maps of these old songs helped me learn to visualize my stories in this way, even to visualize a paragraph, or a scene in this timeline kind of way.

In Valleyesque, there’s a story where Frédéric Chopin is living in Ciudad Juárez, and the structure of that story, from beginning to end, is based off one of Chopin’s nocturnes, Nocturne No. 10, in A-Flat Major, Op. 32-2. It was actually my first attempt at trying anything like this, and this was the short story I wrote just before writing Tears of the Trufflepig. I attempted something similar with Trufflepig, but found this mapping out more difficult to visualize in the format of a novel than a short story.

Your novels are structured very differently, and I’m wondering if you have an approach also for the topography of your story structure. Do you have to know the story you want to tell first, before discovering the structure? Have you ever noticed the structure of something, whether a song, book, or movie, and said, I’d like to write something that does something like that? I know for me it changes, and there are happy accidents when sometimes ideas converge.

MM: The Austin Texas Music Band at the Sahara Lounge, that’s epic! I wish I could have come to see you all play! I also love the idea of song maps. I don’t know how to read music either but I’ve always been fascinated by it, the language of it and the mnemonic devices like Every Good Boy Does Fine. Music was a big part of how I ended up structuring Perpetual West too, music and film.

The first time that I seriously thought about story structure was after watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. I became obsessed with that film and with all of his “death trilogy” films. I was so compelled by the way that González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga fit the different pieces of the stories together, the way that we get that crazy scene with the bloody dog and Octavio driving and we get it out of context in the opening but then we circle back around to it, and the ways in which certain visual cues like the billboard of Valeria that comes up again and again.

I was really inspired by the idea of splicing different stories together to make a larger whole. I knew I wanted to do something like that in my own writing but I had to wait for the right characters. I first saw Amores Perros when I was a junior in high scool but I knew even then that I wanted to try a structure like that. When I actually got into piecing the various parts of Perpetual West together though, it was music that helped me the most.

Somewhere in my early years of teaching creative writing I had this idea of talking with my students about story structure in terms of a mixtape. Of course people don’t really make mixtapes anymore, they make playlists, which are similar but they don’t have the same constraints as far as number of songs you can fit in and “sides” of a tape. Anyhow, it ended up being helpful for me to think about the Alex, Mateo, Elana chapters of Perpetual West like a mixtape or DJ set.

When I was 22, I briefly DJed at this bar in Asheville, North Carolina. My now husband, Matt, who was just a friend/crush at the time, was DJing at a bar called the Joli Rouge and at a party he mentioned that he wished he had someone to split the set with him. I volunteered because I wanted an excuse to hang out with him and because the bar gave us free beer. Then I panicked. I grew up on top of a mountain in West Virginia where we had no T.V. and no internet. My musical repertoire was very limited.

Luckily my roommate at the time was a professional DJ and he helped me compile music and then Matt helped me to see that DJing is all about finding and following emotions, making segues that push the people listening in the direction that you want them to go without accidentally dropping them along the way. You are setting a mood, yes, but you are also telling a story. And you have to constantly calibrate, you want a great transition but you can’t go too far in any particular direction or you’ll hit a dead end. If each song just keeps getting darker and darker then you’ve left yourself with nowhere to go, so it’s about balance.

I think that novel structure, especially multi-point-of-view novel structure, is very similar. In the end, with Perpetual West, I took what I learned from González Iñárritu and Arriaga as far as visual cues and blended that with a mixtape/DJ emotional transition method. I have never tried to structure fiction around the shape of a song though. I love that you did that with a nocturne! That’s what I want to try next!

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Fernando Flores’ Valleyesque and Mesha Maren’s Perpetual West are now available.






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