Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fred Arroyo Finds Stories in the Land

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Fred Arroyo, author of Western Avenue (University of Arizona Press), tells of his path to becoming a writer and what inspires him.

What made you want to become a writer?
 In our house we had two or three books—a bible, a picture-book history of Puerto Rico, and a history of the Civil War, volume 7 in some colorful historical set you initially bought at a grocery store. Reading did not seem that important in my family, nor education, and maybe that was because making a living was most necessary. I was a poor student (my father only had a third grade education, had been working since forever, and I never thought of much else for myself). I do remember reading some Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn), The Red Bad of Courage, a biography of Wild Bill Hickok, Catcher in the Rye, and several times a book by Laura Ingles Wilder, either Little House in the Big Woods or The Long Winter. One winter we lived in an apartment next to rail lines, right next to a viaduct over the tracks. My back bedroom was not heated, and one night all the lights were off after I had finished reading a chapter of Wilder, and I tiptoed to the window and scratched off a circle in the light sheen of frost and ice covering the window: Outside the back yard seemed like a cold sea of silver from the moon pooled in the snow. I remembered Laura doing and seeing something similar in the big woods.

I'm not sure what made me want to become a writer—I had no inclination for that kind of want. At twenty-two I was working a 12 hour swing-shift in a factory, living in the top dormer apartment of a big house, with a card table set up near the pot-bellied stove and a window. It was night. Rain was falling. I had read The Sun Also Rises. I liked the smells and sounds, the images, and the physical sensations and details—there was something material in the words (regardless of the setting and storyline) that reminded me of the people in my life who worked, and of the work I had been doing. On Fridays I would wake up about 4:00 AM and drive to northern Michigan, where I would drive along the lakes, follow country roads in the woods, and walk in the town where Hemingway's family had a summer home. I stood on the steps of a library where it was noted he once gave a talk. I must have been searching for something.

Back in that room, looking out the window, the rain was falling. Memories and stories I had heard appeared, and I was overtaken by a kind of visual and musical process that looped inside of me, something I felt and now see as pre-verbal and yet very close to a form or story shape. I started writing brief paragraphs in a college ruled notebook that night. I didn't claim writing with any intention, nor did I see myself as a writer. I was only writing.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in the memories that are sources of what I wrote a moment ago. Writing is still exciting, inspiring, and it makes me confront my real losses and imaginary gains.

My greatest inspiration is probably the land. I'm convinced stories are in the land, they exist within a place, and part of what I must do is listen closely to them. The lived, storied earth is more central to me than an idea or an aesthetic aspiration, as are the people who live and work the land. For some reason certain characters and peoples continue to turn to me, speak to me, and I try to tell their stories. In my fiction, I write of peoples rooted in a physical world—workers living, dreaming, and struggling in their place, even if they are often forced to migrate or question their place because of larger social pressures, or say the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These are peoples I admire greatly, even though I know they are often overlooked, and when they are recognized they are more than likely seen as not belonging, or failures. Their stories inspire me to move toward new emotional borders or regions, where fiction has the power to eliminate borders and entangle us in the drama of the human heart.

I don't feel obliged or responsible in these matters. The land itself has stories that inspire the telling of them.
What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
The short story form is still a territory of unlimited literary possibilities. At the same time, I've been suggesting that stories arise all the time from the most “unliterary” of places. I learn a lot from all kinds of writers for my teaching of the short story. For myself as a writer, too much of what I do exists unconsciously, mysteriously, and naturally. I feel I've learned greatly from Edgar Allen Poe, Flannery O'Connor, James Joyce, Jorge Louis Borges, and Joyce Carol Oates. That is, the short story's sources and inspirations, how modern a form it is, and how it is still in the midst of discovering itself, while recognizing its ancient antecedents. Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod amaze me all the time with what they can do with the short story. Ha Jin too, and the young master Manuel Muñoz. Daniel Chacón's stories are composed with spectacular humor, imagination, and storytelling. I'm learning as much as I can from Brad Watson and Chris Offutt—I keep returning to their short stories. Russell Banks, Gina Berriault, Raymond Carver, Patricia Henley, Richard Ford, and Larry Brown are, I guess, writers who may seem obvious, but I keep them close and return to them often. Just that yearning to tell a story, to look at the situation straight on, and the vision to distill a series of events into a story where a character discovers the glimpse of change, reckoning, or redemption speaks to me strongly. Although I could name a dozen new writers who are doing wonderful things, and who I teach, I recently found myself enthralled once again in reading Chris Offutt's Out of the Woods, and from this experience I can't help but strive to become a better a writer, and, hopefully, a more necessary storyteller.