GUEST INTERVIEW BY DANIEL OLIVAS
Last year, The Elegant Variation published my review of Salvador Plascencia’s debut novel, The People of Paper (McSweeney’s). I called it “a wonderfully strange, hallucinogenic and hypertextual blending of fiction and autobiography.” But I was not alone in singing the novel’s praises. The El Paso Times proclaimed that Plascencia’s “fantastic world…is like inhabiting a poem that tantalizes with its brilliant imagery and imaginative leaps.” “New and unexpected” said the Los Angeles Times. Plascencia’s novel landed on several “best books” lists for 2005.
If you haven’t read it yet, Harvest Books has just released the paperback edition of The People of Paper at a very reasonable price of $14. So now there’s no excuse.
Most reviewers encountered difficulty trying to explain exactly what this novel is about. Plascencia’s characters include Merced, a woman made of paper. There’s also a mechanic who makes robot tortoises, flower pickers, gang members, monks, Napoleon Bonaparte, a curandero, among others. Plascencia himself makes an appearance and plays a pivotal role in the narrative. As for the plot, Plascencia’s world lives by different rules. And the book’s layout is unusual with columns of text vying for attention as but one visual motif. No doubt, it will change your view of what a novel can look like.
Plascencia kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his novel in conjunction with the paperback release.
DANIEL OLIVAS: The layout and visuals of your novel are so different from more traditional novels. How did you develop the "look" and were there any examples of unusual novels that influenced you?
SALVADOR PLASCENCIA: I don't really see The People of Paper as a deviation from tradition. If anything, I see it as a throwback to the spirit of early books and to the playfulness that existed before industrialized printing presses. If you look at early books they are very varied in their typography and design. It's a shame that technology has actually limited and uniformed our conception of the book instead of expanding the possibilities. But if I have to claim direct literary influences, like Paul Collins once noted, "All odd books can be blamed on Tristram Shandy." And of course there was Vonnegut and Kathy Acker.
OLIVAS: Your book readings are also very different from the typical readings. You employ others to read portions of your book and you also start the reading with what can be called a hilarious monologue that employs a mixture of fact and fiction. How did you develop such presentations?
PLASCENCIA: I'm actually a horrible reader. Even if I practice I mumble and mispronounce every other word and I get really nervous. I didn't want to torture the nice people that showed up to the readings with my incoherence, so I had to develop some sort of misdirection to get away from the fact that I can't really read in public.
OLIVAS: When your novel came out, you made a comment that caused a bit of controversy within the Chicano writing world. In a Los Angeles Times interview, you responded to a question regarding your decision to publish with McSweeney’s and not a Latino imprint. You answered: "The Latino imprints never called when it was going around. McSweeney's called. But I'm very happy because now the book doesn't get reviewed as a 'Latino imprint' book, but as a book. As a writer, I align myself with aesthetics, not ethnicity. Why is Jonathan Safran Foer not published by a Jewish American press? Should John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison be published only by black presses? There is something comforting in the fact that these ethnic collectives exist, but they can also have a ghettoizing effect."
PLASCENCIA: Maybe I'm insensitive to the old school Chicanismo, but I don't see anything particularly inciting about what I said. I just don't have the desire to forefront my ethnicity over my writing. Identity politics bore me, especially when its infighting within the group. A lot of it becomes about people sitting around a table arguing about who is more Chicano and who is a sellout. But who are these arbitrators that get to set the standards of what is Latino or not? It's fair game to critique my book on a aesthetic level, or to call it unreadable, but when it gets knocked for not being Chicano enough or for not fulfilling my ethnic obligation to my group and roots it's a retrograde argument that, to be honest, I'm not really interested in. And it's only minority writers that have to put up with this, and that was my whole point.
OLIVAS: Who are your literary influences?
PLASCENCIA: Obviously Márquez. And then there is: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, David Markson, Angela Carter, I remember some and forget others depending on the day. Borges, Morrison, George Saunders, Jiri Grusa, Kafka, Winterson...
OLIVAS: I listen to jazz when I write (Miles, Monk, Puente, etc.). Did you listen to music when you wrote your novel? If so, did the music influence your fiction?
PLASCENCIA: I didn't have a particular sound track. Whatever was on the radio. A lot of KCRW that I piped in all the way from Santa Monica to Syracuse, New York. I would also listen to what my roommate played on his stereo. He has much better taste in music than I will ever have.
OLIVAS: What are you working on now? Another novel? Short stories?
PLASCENCIA: I think I'm stuck writing novels for better or worse. I'm too scattered to be able to make one of those tight little machines they call short stories. I'm putting words and sentences together that will hopefully be book number two someday, but I don't have a concrete concept or hook for the second novel. But I had no firm conception about The People of Paper either until the final months of working on it.
OLIVAS: Why did you write a novel instead of memoir?
PLASCENCIA: Why would I write a memoir? When I was writing The People of Paper I was a twenty-something kid who came from kind and generous parents, I never fought in a war, and I had nothing but the support and love from my friends and family. What business would I have with the memoir? I'm much more interested in the works of the imagination than in my mundane reality.
OLIVAS: What has been the reaction of your family members, friends, ex-girlfriends to your writing?
PLASCENCIA: They all do a really good job of not telling me and I try my best to keep all the copies of my book underneath my bed.
OLIVAS: Do you teach writing? If so, any observations about teaching?
PLASCENCIA: Right now I'm still a student but I'm looking around some classrooms that I might like.
Daniel Olivas is the author of four books including Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press). He is the editor of Latinos in Lotus Land: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, forthcoming from Bilingual Press in 2007, and which includes a chapter from The People of Paper. His first full-length novel, The Book of Want: A Novel in Commandments, is currently making the rounds. Olivas shares duties at La Bloga, a blog dedicated to Chicano/Latino literature.