Burn the First Reel: An Interview with Fernando A. Flores
In September of 2014, the beloved café JP’s Java—a stone’s throw from the University of Texas’s main campus in Austin, Texas—permanently closed. Fernando A. Flores worked there at the time. He is the author of three books: Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Tears of the Trufflepig, and most recently Valleyesque. At the time of JP’s closing, Flores was an unpublished writer and a newly out-of-work barista. Born in Reynosa, Mexico, Flores grew up in South Texas, and after dropping out of college, found himself in the service industry, working as a dishwasher and living in various apartments in Austin’s East Side. In his off- hours, Flores read for at least three hours a day. He wrote feverishly. And when he was on the clock at JP’s, he often found himself serving the creative writing graduate students of UT-Austin’s two MFA programs, The Michener Center for Writers and The New Writers Project. I was among these MFA students, and, like many of my classmates, had heard that the man behind the counter, Fernando A. Flores, was writing some of the smartest, strangest, edgiest fiction in the city, and doing it when the rest of us were off the clock, after he’d spent hours caffeinating us. This border, between the academic and nonacademic writing worlds, was one of the many borders Flores and I discussed in an hour-long phone call about his newest book, Valleyesque, a collection of fourteen short stories set in and around the Rio Grande Valley.
Fernando A. Flores was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexica, and grew up in South Texas. He is the author of the collection Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas and the novel Tears of the Trufflepig, which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
“You know when you watch a movie and there's a crumbling bridge and somebody's running, trying to make it to the other side?” Flores told me, describing the mad dash of writing that allowed him to slow down when he got to Valleyesque. “And when a character makes it to the other side, they are like, I can't believe it, the bridge is gone. Yeah, I feel that way all the time, that I made it past the crumbling bridge, miraculously.”
While running across that crumbling bridge, Flores wrote two books; his first collection, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, is a gritty, punk rock, kaleidoscopic look into the borderlands music scene, in the Valley he grew up in. His second book, the novel, Tears of the Trufflepig, is a blitzing dystopic thriller starring Esteban Bellacosa, a savvy border-dweller, who gets swept up in a seedy underground world where extinct animals are resurrected for black market trade. Over the course of our call, Flores and I discussed borders, his years as an amateur musician and cinephile, and how he shifted his approach for writing Valleyesque, which delivers a portal-like vision of the Rio Grande Valley, blending past, present, artists, gangs, miracles, catastrophes, and even famous figures like Frédéric Chopin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and many more characters under the weight of unseeable power dynamics, all struggling to pay rent.
Nick Almeida: So much of your work blends cultures, temporalities, histories, and languages, which is perhaps one reason why many descriptions of your work use words like psychedelic, surreal, or uncanny. There’s a sense of accrual in this collection, as if the Valley is where images come to collect. Considering Valleyesque is the third book in your Rio Grande Valley trilogy, there’s a sense that the border is defined by its own unendingness. Why a trilogy shape? And what led you back to stories for the third book?
Fernando A. Flores: I don't think that I ever pursued writing an unofficial South Texas or Rio Grande border trilogy. I realized in the middle of putting it together that Valleyesque was the most deliberate of my books. The way it was arranged was different. With my first book, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, I was more concerned with finally publishing and having a book out in the world. In the process of submitting [the stories in the collection] to literary magazines, I could see that individually they were kind of strange, but collectively they had power. Some kind of energy and force. I could also, sadly, see why they were always being rejected. With Bullshit Artists, none of those stories were ever published anywhere, except towards the end when it was almost out, and one of the stories came out in American Short Fiction.
Bullshit Artists had a different set of concerns compared to Tears of the Trufflepig, where I wanted to have a novel that was unique and unlike anything in border literature. By the time I was putting together Valleyesque, I already had two books out. I kind of stood back for the first time without having to work a job so hard and was able to think about what I was going to do next, how to tell the remaining stories of the Valley I had left in a way that was my own. I was able to slow down and think about the book from the perspective of a reader.
For Valleyesque, I really spent time with the order of the stories. I got a sheet of paper and put it in my typewriter and typed out the title of every story, like a table of contents, every time I rearranged them, just to see how they looked together. Originally, the first story in the collection was going to be “The Science Fair Protest,” but it didn’t feel right to me. I had “Queso,” this crazy, strange story that has this unusual language that exists in its own micro universe. I was like, okay, I'm gonna put this story in the very beginning and get this insanity out of the way. I thought of the order of the stories like a music record. For example, I think all three of Jimi Hendrix's studio albums start with a few minutes or so of just noise, or fake radio program sounds. And then the second track is the first actual song on the record. Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers does the same thing. It starts with a minute or so of drone-y music. So I toyed around with that idea. What if the second story in the collection is the first real story? I asked myself. And the first story is an introduction, like this weird setup of what will happen throughout the rest of the collection.
NA: One persistent quality of your characters is that many of them are at the mercy of large power structures. Another quality is that many of them are musically creative. Music is a force in a lot of your work, but especially in this collection. In “Nocturne from a World Concave,” Frédéric Chopin is in Ciudad Juárez, and in “The Oswald Variations,” Lee Harvey Oswald is the front man for a band called Sarcophagus. Both are financially dire. What led you to these two qualities—musical creativity and oppressive power structures—for your characters?
FF: I have zero musical talent. I haven't touched an instrument in a long, long time, but there was a concentrated period of time around ten years ago, between 2010 and 2012, when I was in a band. We never played for anybody, but we played every Wednesday night at the Sahara Lounge from eleven to midnight, for five or six months. Nobody would ever go, nobody but Topaz, who was the bartender at the time. We were an instrumental band and we played songs that were over one hundred years old, music from the Ottoman Empire, Turkish music, Klezmer music. And I'm not a musician at all. But the guitar player really wanted me to be in the band. He kind of insisted that I do it, and he brought his bass over to my apartment to teach me these songs every Sunday. It took me a long time. I had to learn more than thirty songs. But because I didn't know anything about music, I had to map each song out, in a very primitive and kind of dumb way, almost like a topographic map, so by the end of it, I’d have all these weird maps around my apartment, and I became interested in trying to write a story based on these structures because, to me, they looked like story structures.
For the Chopin story, I had written the first page and I didn't know what it meant or what I was going to do with it. But I had these maps. After some time, I was listening to Chopin’s Nocturnes a lot, so I decided to write the story in the structure of a Chopin Nocturne. I modeled the story on “Nocturne in A Sharp,” and I had to think about it and listen to the song for a long time. Eventually I was able to find the rhythm of the story, and it just unraveled itself.
As for power, I’m not so sure. Most of these characters are struggling to pay their rent and bills. It’s just the kind of world I’ve always been in. I'm not in an academic world. I dropped out of college my freshman year, and I really didn't know anything about MFA until, like, ten years ago. Throughout my twenties, I was never conscious of writers who were publishing in my time. I thought literature was a thing that existed in the past. I never had money to buy hardcover books anyway, so I’d get my books from Half Price Books or wherever I could afford them. Usually, the kinds of writers I’d read were writers whose books you don’t want to pay full price for—canonical, dead writers. I was just trying to educate myself at the time, which was very important to me.
NA: It makes sense to think of literature as something that happened in the past, especially when figures from across history seem to reappear at the border in your stories. Are Valleyesque’s autodidactic characters from that same world you’re describing?
FF: I never do these things on purpose. I read Frank Capra's autobiography when I was a teenager, and it made an impression on me because he mentioned how early in his life he was just walking around, looking for a job. He never made movies, never thought about movies, but he saw a sign outside. It said Directors Wanted, or whatever, so he walked in. This was probably the 1930s. And the guy inside was like, Hey, are you a director? Capra said, Sure, yeah, I'm a director, and this guy put him to work making the reels that would play before the big movies. Frank Capra ended up making these hits. Eventually he confessed to the guy, You know when you hired me I wasn't really a filmmaker. And the guy was like, I know, but you had the energy to do it.
It's artistic anecdotes like these that influence me on a conceptual level. I often think about how Capra made one of his big movies, Lost Horizon. In early screenings, the audience would fidget and walk out twenty minutes into the movie. Capra was horrified. Reshoots would cost too much money. So, he got that first reel after the intro credits—about twenty minutes of film—and took it out of the movie. When they rescreened it, everybody was riveted from the opening scene. Afterward, Capra burned that first reel, and nobody ever saw that footage again. He ended up winning an Oscar, for Best Picture, or whatever the hell. I think about that anecdote also, in the sense of a story. If your stories are putting people to sleep twenty minutes in, don't be afraid to burn the first reel.
NA: Which echoes what you were describing with the sequencing of stories in Valleyesque, moving a more realist story in “The Science Fair Protest” back, and beginning with “Queso,” the Hendrix-style noise.
FF: Yes, definitely. At some point I realized that my trilogy of the border, of South Texas, is about legends from the Rio Grande Valley. Death to the Bullshit Artists deals with these musical underground heroes that go unsung. Trufflepig is concerned with dreams, mythology, and death. Valleyesque deals with these epic figures like Chopin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and local figures like Johnny Canales, inspired much by Plutarch’s Lives or works like Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, but strictly around the border.
One of my biggest influences is the cinematographer Robby Müller. There’s an anecdote that I think about often for its relationship to storytelling. He and Jim Jarmusch were scouting locations for one of their first movies together. Robby would always set out to find the most Hollywood-looking external locations, the most visually stunning spots, that conjure classic Hollywood or big David Lean type movies. When they’d find one of these breathtaking, well-known locations, Robby Müller would set up his camera to shoot in the opposite direction. Because, if you've already seen this big expensive shot in a movie, what's over here, on the opposite side that’s usually ignored? I feel like that was my approach somewhat with Valleyesque, to get the reader to the biggest, most obvious location, and then be, like, but what's over here?
Nick Almeida is a writer from New Hope, Pennsylvania. His chapbook of stories, Masterplans, is available now, from The Master’s Review. He is a PhD candidate in English Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston.