Manuel Muñoz on Writing Through Uncertainty
Jane Ciabattari Talks to the Author of The Consequences
Manuel Muñoz’s third story collection solidifies his position as a master of the short story. The Consequences offers insights not just into relationships in families, neighborhoods, and communities, but among strangers who meet on a bus and come together to share the struggles of 21st-century immigrant life. He describes pleasure and pain, loss and its aftermath, in ringing language and with sharp images, all with a fluid current of subtext that makes us feel what his characters are experiencing.
Our conversation reached across several time zones, and many layers of story. Just as we were wrapping up, fellow short story wizard George Saunders announced that as a special treat as The Consequences launches this month, he invited Muñoz and his Graywolf editor, Ethan Nosowsky, to discuss the first story in the collection, “Anyone Can Do It,” and to answer questions for Saunders’ Story Club substack. Check that out here. Saunders, whose own third collection, Liberation Day, also launches this month, begins with his own reaction to the story: “This story stuns me every time I read it. The sentences are beautiful but quiet; the tension slowly builds; it elicits every drop of sympathy I have in me; it surprises me every time. It feels deeply true and seems to possess real wisdom in it, about people and how they behave and dream and why they do the things they do.”
Jane Ciabattari: How have you fared during the past few years of tumult and uncertainty?
Manuel Muñoz: I have been very fortunate with friends and family. Some close to me became ill and it was tough waiting out to hear news about them. I live alone so I’m very accustomed to silence, but I felt deeply for my loved ones who did not know how to be by themselves—it isn’t easy even in normal times.
JC: When did you begin writing the stories in this collection? At what point did you see them coalescing?
MM: I started slowly right after my novel came out in 2011. I’m a university professor, so the pressure is always on to publish. But I don’t like to rush work. I was having a lot of difficulty seeing a book ahead of me, so I let the stories come one by one and didn’t consciously think of them as a whole. An editor at Edizioni Black Coffee, which translates Freeman’s Journal in Italian, read my story “Susto” and took great interest in the forthcoming collection. “What forthcoming collection?” I asked, but it was great kick in the pants. I had been having so much trouble and it was heartening to get a reaction like that. I only had about five stories at that point, but I began rereading them as I sketched out ideas for the next drafts—that’s how the book began to take shape.
JC: How did the title emerge?
MM: So many people wonder why I avoid describing important story events. I do it because the deeper story, in my eyes, is always in the after. Coping, dealing, processing, regretting—all of those are methods of retelling or reliving a story, but they’re also infused with how we tell it all again. Something new gets added when we remember and there’s something about that word that signals regret or a desire to do it over in a new way. That’s especially poignant to me because my characters often don’t have many options to begin with.
JC: How did you decide on the structure of the collection? For instance, you open with the story mentioned above, “Anyone Can Do It.” It begins on “a Friday when the men didn’t come home from the fields,” likely rounded up by the green immigration vans prowling the Valley on payday. Delfina, her husband and young son have only been in the neighborhood for a month from Texas, and her “immediate concern” is money. A neighbor, Lis, covets her car, suggests an orchard picking job where they use Delfina’s car and split the wages. Lis reminds Delfina of her sister, who always tries to talk her into things she doesn’t want to do. Still, she agrees. The consequences are severe. What inspired this story? What makes it your opener?
MM: Doubt and hesitation played outsized roles in my writing these past few years. I really struggled and maybe paid too much attention to how little had been changing for writers in my community. I had also left my publisher and was facing the prospect of starting over. I allowed so many of those questions to be the first ones I asked until I realized that they were not only perpetual but unanswerable. The solution was in my work—each of us has a solution in our work, our creativity.
So I went back to absolute basics, sketching out ideas and asking who, why, what. When the first line of this story came, I knew it was the key. Simple, but complex: every word mattered so much and raised so many questions that I didn’t even have to use a strong verb. The very plainness of that sentence told me something about all of these stories—how much can be held by something small and overlooked.
JC: Your second story, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA,” introduces us to a group of women who go by bus from Fresno to Los Angeles with money in hand to retrieve their men, who have been rounded up on payday (the farmer who turns them in doesn’t pay them for their labor) and taken by van to Tijuana, “where the van doors open to let all of the men out so they can start all over again.” Your narrator is headed to reunite with Timoteo. American born (in Texas), she has been through this routine before. She takes Natalia, the innocent young woman who sits next to her on the bus, under her wing, and helps her maneuver the tense journey. It’s a story about kindness, and about love, “as simple as it gets.” And it’s also a nuanced look at the exploitation that has become routine. What’s the inspiration for this story?
MM: One of the ways that I overcame my doubt was by going back to stories that I knew I wouldn’t ever put under scrutiny: the ones that my parents had long told me about their youth. That’s not to say that I don’t have questions about them, but I realized that I was very protective of those stories when I tried to attach “writerly” questions to them, especially about plausibility and credibility. My mother once told me about the plan that my parents agreed upon if he was deported: she’d go down to a particular park in LA and wait for him to return and, if he didn’t show up, she’d go down a little further to San Diego and wait there.
All of this without a cell phone or money or credit cards. It’s still incredible to me, but she tells the story with a certain pride about doing something so impossible and having faith that my father would make it back. She has many stories like this, but they are often so full of strange images and impossibilities that they split into multiple fictions—one story can’t contain them, even though it’s real! I appreciate that my parents have been more forthcoming as I’ve gotten older and also that they realize that their stories are, in fact, important memories.
JC: Your title story, “The Consequences” and “What Kind of Fool Am I” are in conversation, sharing back story and characters. Teodoro Contreras, is known as Teddy to his lover Mark, who tells of bringing the teenage Teddy him home to Fresno after meeting him at a party in Los Angeles, and as Teo to his older sister Bea. Bea, from Mathis, Texas, narrates the story of their family (their mother tells her, “Miya… the Bible says you have to be your brother’s keeper”). Each story comes to a revelatory conclusion for its narrator. Chronologically, the title story, which anchors the book in its center, comes after Bea’s story, yet you place her story at the end of the book. I’m curious about the process by which these stories evolved and how you decided where to place them in the collection.
MM: Bea was the last major character to arrive and, by that time, I had hit a stride. I would reread the previous stories and think about anyone being mentioned and Bea’s initial appearance was brief. I’ll let the reader discover just how brief, but by then, the connections had become denser and longer. I didn’t allow any barriers while I was drafting, not even length, and the more I thought about Teo’s journey, the more I saw how I could make the stories talk to each other. It’s a sad conversation, to be sure, but a necessary one—when the ending came, with all of its revelations, I knew it had to close the book.
JC: You’ve been compared to Steinbeck, for your realistic writing about working people of California’s Central Valley. You’ve also been compared to Juan Rulfo, the father of magical realism who ushered in the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s and 1970s; Rulfo wrote in a surreal way of working people in Comala and the landowner who shaped their lives in his 1955 novel Pedro Páramo. Do you see these two authors as influences? What other authors would you say had an influence on your work?
MM: The “two-for-a-penny” candy scene in The Grapes of Wrath is one of my favorites in all of literature. This is the chapter in which the Joads stop by a roadside diner and the kids eye a row of candy that the family can’t afford. The waitress lies about the cost so that the kids can have something. It was one of my earliest memories of being profoundly moved by an experience close to how I grew up—the mystery of adults who can sense the needs of children without ever demeaning or humiliating them.
Sandra Cisneros brought up Juan Rulfo in a generous blurb and she may be sensing from the stories that so many of them involve women and mothers that a father side is sure to come. I’m not surprised that she intuited this; we both share a deep love and respect for Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, and the title character is the most perceptive of observers.
JC: You received your MFA from Cornell, and you are currently head of the MFA program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. How do you see the value of MFA programs for developing a literary career? For developing an original voice? For becoming part of a literary community? How is it possible to find or create another road to literary community without an MFA?
MM: I don’t think emerging writers need to be convinced of the value of community; the students who arrive at our program come with such energy and curiosity and their work flourishes in experimentation and boundary-breaking. Being around each other promotes that. I don’t understand those who label MFA programs as cookie cutters—if my students all sounded like each other, my job would be much easier! But they’re all individual and distinctive and require an attention all their own.
The problem has been that higher education values creativity and community less and less. There is a lot of talk about supporting the arts, but that’s not panning out in real, tangible ways. A lot of public universities especially showed their hands during the budget crises of the pandemic, including my institution. I’m hoping that there is one silver lining of the pandemic though—the rise of online readings and embracing new ways to hear and observe and be a part of literature. I think it also reinforced our love of being together in our appreciation of books, though. I can see why early-career writers will continue seeing MFA programs as necessary spaces. But there are so many ways to connect and share online that it isn’t the only space anymore.
JC: You are a master of the short story, honored with three O. Henry awards, beginning in 2009. The Consequences includes two O. Henry award winning stories (“The Reason Is Because” and “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”) and a story included in Best American Short Stories 2019 and The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story (“Anyone Can Do It”). How have these honors affected your work?
MM: Dagoberto Gilb commented to me (about my story “Tell Him About Brother John”) that it was the first time that a Chicano author had been in the O. Henry. I found that surprising—I was sure that he had appeared or that Luis Alberto Urrea or Sandra Cisneros had, but no. It’s humbling and I wish it for stories like Carribean Fragoza’s “Vicious Ladies” or Fernando A. Flores’s “The 29th of April”—really dazzling stories that contribute so much to how we might think of new visions and tellings.
I’ve been deeply appreciative of these honors and very proud of them because they became introductions to new readers who probably wouldn’t have approached my work otherwise. The Penguin selection was especially moving because it allows me and others to think of the story in the continuum of US writing—that’s really important for me, for where I come from.
I don’t know if I’d call myself a master of the story, though. That’s Edward P. Jones.
The Consequences by Manuel Muñoz is available from Graywolf Press.