On the eve of the release of his short story collection The Twelve Burning Wheels, I had a chance to chat with writer, gourmand and strongman Cesar Torres. Read on for Cesar’s views on writing and snout-to-tail-cuisine. You can read my review of Torres’ collection here.
Before we jump into your new book, start off by telling us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Mexico City and I came here when I was 13. Lived in Chicago pretty much since, give or take a couple of years here and there. I went to university here in Chicago at Northwestern and studied journalism as a practical way of writing to earn a living. Since I was 12 I knew I wanted to write fiction but I knew that I needed a career that would actually pay. I went into journalism and spent about 10 years in newspapers; the artistic stuff I’ve done on the side since many years ago. I didn’t get serious about wanting to be published until I was 30 or so. I’m 35 now, so today is a big day.
At what age were you fully immersed in English?
From a very early age. I was very lucky that I grew up with Spanish in the house, of course, but my mom spoke English so my siblings and I would absorb it. As soon as we were of school age we were put in bilingual education in Mexico. By the time I came to the United States, I didn’t have a huge transition in picking up English. We were very, very lucky.
There’s this notion that writers with English as a second language can never write to the level of a native speaker. Writers like Nabokov or Joseph Conrad blow that misconception right out of the water, however.
I wouldn’t say that I had a lot of dificulty with the written word. In terms of writing things that are interesting to me, with language, stems from having access to both languages from a very early age. There are a lot of words since I was a little kid that I remeber being very interesting. Turns of phrase, localized idioms — I love those. Often times I didn’t know what they were. When people talked about the word ‘stuff’, I remember growing up and hearing my cousins from Chicago talking about ‘stuff.’ We don’t have the word ‘stuff’ in Spanish. To me it was fascinating, it sounded great. The description of what the word did was fascinating. I must’ve been 11 when I first heard that word.
Did you have a moment when you knew that ‘yes, I am a writer’?
I did have a moment like that, but it had very little to do with the volume of work I had done. I’ve been writing short stories since I was 12, and throughout highschool and college. I attempted a novel in my twenties, and like a lot of people in their twenties it just sort of died [laughs]. I had gotten more serious about finishing manuscripts around the time I was 30, and spent about 10 years here in Chicago with the non-profit Barrel of Monkeys, as a volunteer, teaching creative writing in the public schools. Through them I was involved in a lot of local theater. In 2006 I auditioned for a play where not only would I perform but also write my own script. I ended up working on this play called Drag with the Neo Futurists, a theater company here in Chicago. When I finished that play, I had this script that I had written. I realized that what I was trying to say with this particular play was just bringing to the forefront a lot of the things I had already said in my short stories. I think that was the first time I thought ‘yes, I am a writer.’ This play brought out something more subconcious that kind of validated the other writing I had been doing. That nailed it for me and I said ‘I need to get more serious about this.’
Let’s talk about the genesis of The Twelve Burning Wheels. You were taking a mental break between two novel manuscripts; how did the idea for the short story collection come to you?
There’s a really great piece on Ira Glass and how much success he had with This American Life. He said one of his greatest breakthroughs was to have a major breakup in his life. I had finished the manuscript for my second novel and I was pretty happy about that. And then during that spring I went through a breakup that was very significant. I used that timeframe to say ‘well, let’s not be idle, let’s not think about this breakup, let’s get some word counts down.’ That was a very easy way for me to focus on my deadlines. Day by day I turned one out and that’s really how the stories came about.
Ending a relationship with a significant other that has served as a sounding board or dedicated reader can be disconcerting.
Absolutely. It can take a long time to get over it. You do have other readers, certainly, but if you’re lucky enough to be in a relationship with a partner who can also be critical of your work… the loss of that is huge. I knew one of the best things to get past that hurdle was to write more. Being able to generate twelve short stories felt like ‘wow, I can do this.’
Some non-writers have a very romanticized notion of how writers work and how ideas come to them. With The Twelve Burning Wheels you had this workman-like ‘bring my lunchbox, sit my ass down and hit that deadline.’ Can you speak to that a little bit?
That element you spoke about writing as workmanship… I know that the older I’m getting the more I’m becoming that way. I always look at my grandpa, who was a union carpenter for decades. He turned out art. But he was definitely working his craft, he didn’t call himself an artist. I treat it like work.
Your twelve stories weren’t thematically linked per se, but was there an unintentional creative linking due to your ‘twelve stories, twelve days’ writing schedule?
That’s a tough question. There was no thematic linking per se in the planning of it. Now that it’s finished, I’m seeing things that repeat. So there are themes, particular words, even references to mythology that keep coming to the surface. The mythological hydra shows up in two different short stories. I’m sure it has some sort of significance, but it’s not up to me to decide what it means. Family, and family relationships between children and parents, comes to the surface a lot. Isolation and loneliness are themes I keep seeing as I re-read.
To go back, I don’t really plan much when I write. I usually have a concept; maybe I know the endpoint of the novel. But with these, I sat down with a notebook and wrote down twelve titles. Some of them are clearly references to titles of music, and the other ones I was just pulling out of thin air. I thought ‘I can write a story called Lemonade… why not?’ [laughs] As I wrote each day I knew what the title was going to be, so in those twenty-four hours I just needed to figure out a way to make a story come out of that title. Thematic links, or thinking of them as a set, I certainly couldn’t foresee that. I see those patterns now that it’s done.
Creatively, it’s like putting a metaphorical gun to your own head.
It speaks a lot to the mental state I was in. [laughs]
What struck me about your book was the breadth of style, which I really enjoyed. It reminded me of Jeffrey Ford — you never quite know what rabbit he’s going to pull out of the hat and your range is very similar. Your stories ranged from classic speculative fiction to off-the-hook absurdity. Then there was this smaller piece, Mantis Love, a story about sexuality. The interesting thing with that story was that your own experiences and sexuality didn’t dictate the story as much as it informed it.
That particular story, those characters aren’t like me. The protagonist just doesn’t really care that he’s gay. It’s just not an issue. I certainly didn’t grow up that way, my experiences were very different. To me, that’s what makes stories very interesting.
The choice of styles, that was a little bit more intentional, for sure. I knew I had a lot of room to play with. I actually ended up with one that’s the most amusing, Machina. It’s not even a story, it’s an imitation of an iTunes screen. I never really had that available to myself, I was pretty conventional on how structured short stories should be. It was a nice way to break out of that.
You’ve mentioned on your blog that your more comfortable in longer form. What kind of adjustments did you have to make craft-wise?
I’m not sure that I accomplished that. I knew that with fewer words the narrative had to be very clear. There wasn’t a lot of room for ornate description. The actual beats of what is happening in the story were more essential, which makes for a pared down kind of narrative. I think it’s a good thing for any writer, to strip things down to the essentials.
You never descended into moral posturing. There’s very much a detached objectivity to your writing, a ‘here are the facts, make of it what you will’ stance. For instance, Tincture, a great story about a love potion. Despite the greeting card platitudes we’re fed, love can come with strings attached, it can be conditional. You presented the facts and let the readers decide for themselves.
That’s J school at work, whatever they taught me at Northwestern those four years, that’s their influence there. And certainly a lot of writers I enjoy that’s something that they do. Tincture, and also Honey, they both are stories about aspects of what might be love. I try not to judge. I like the story to present the characters and narrative on their own.
Your stories have horror sensibilities with elements of fantasy and magic realism. There were no ‘false notes’ and you did an admirable job with the suspension of disbelief angle.
That’s very flattering you would read it that way. I really cut my teeth on horror fiction. The 80s were a time, you and I both know, where horror fiction was vibrant and there was a huge market for it. A lot of it was schlocky too, so it’s not like it was a golden era necessarily. The things over the years that I had a bit of a distaste for were morality tales, or extreme gore or highlighting the ‘monster’ as opposed to the story itself.
How did you become involved with Christopher Fletcher of M-Brane SF, the publisher of your collection?
The magical bridge between us is Matt Staggs, a publicist who works in speculative fiction. He publicizes for Jeff Vandermeer and other writers. I’ve followed Matt from awhile back, he’s hilarious. One morning on my way to work he tweeted at me ‘hey, you should meet M-Brane SF. He’s pretty interesting.’ It was through Matt, he is really great at connecting people.
Music is a big part of your life and writing. I gotta say, as a bass player, ‘Slowly For Those’ in Elephant was an instant turn on.
[laughs] I’ve been so devoted to music magazines and music journalism since high school. I would read Rolling Stone from cover to cover. I loved rock journalism. I loved the legends of bands and the mythology that went with them. I don’t think I would’ve written that story if I didn’t have those mini-deadlines I had lined up. I didn’t think I could write a story like that.
Writers like Jeff Vandemeer have commisioned bands to create ‘soundtracks’ for their books. Is that something you would be interested in doing?
Yes. One of the original plans was to release a MP3 that would be a theme for the whole collection. I never had the time to do it but I may still release it afterwards. Music is a huge part of my life, part of my writing process. Books and music are just as equally essential to me. These new areas of exploring writing with music… they’re not new, really, but we have the technology to bridge that gap. I’m really interested in exploring that.
I’ve mentioned on my twitter account that I’m trying to organize a reading here in Chicago that would combine a musical performance and a literary reading. I’m not a big fan of sitting in a book store. I would prefer people drinking a beer with really loud music and the occasional reading.
You mentioned social networking like Twitter. Some writers struggle with the personal and professional aspects of online personas, but you manage it with humor and poise. I know some artists that I have tremendous respect for where it seems social networking has supplanted the work they’re ostensibly tweeting about. How do you handle social networking?
When I was completing my first manuscript, I had my own blog and was making guest appearances on podcasts. I saw even back then that the marketing push was extremely heavy-handed. There was no longer a middleman; previously, we had publicists or marketing departments. With this, we’re closer. Not truly close, but closer to what the real person is all about. The value is in the writer being natural and transparent about who they are. We know that not every person is pushing for their novel to get purchased. That’s part of what you do. But authors have interests, right? They read a lot of interesting things. Not everyone is this way, but people who are generous, that make connections that build altruism — that takes you really far with these tools. Introducing your following to other experiences, other people of value, that is what I see as working well. I see a lot of people embrace it as a giant bombardment of marketing material. But I see a lot of people that do it really well.
For myself, I haven’t always done it well. I was very tentative in the beginning. And then there was a period where I wasn’t talking about my writing very much and just let my personality spill out. I was tweeting too much, I was starting to lose focus on providing something back to people. And I don’t mean my writing, but helping people out and sharing something interesting.
This segues nicely to e-books. There was this hope that e-publishing would be this democratizing force, a great equalizer. The potential is there but hasn’t been realized yet.
That’s exactly right. There’s great potential there. I want to say first and foremost I love paper books. Unfortunately, not just the e-book itself as an experience, but the mechanisms and the marketplaces in which they exist, is primitive. There’s no focus on providing a good experience for the reader, who should come first and foremost. And it doesn’t serve the writers very well, either. And I’m finding the more that I do this is that you have to be very technically savvy. Any bit of advice that I would be able to give — I can’t give you writing advice, I can’t say that my writing is at the stage where I can give out advice — but do get familiar with the tools and the marketplaces and the pricing and everything that’s involved with that. Because that is the next step. It’s not only moving toward the publisher but to the author, too. If you’re not careful, not only will you lose out on money but your readers will lose out as well.
I know we’re both foodies with a secret pork fetish. I hope your own personal tastes deviate from what you portrayed in your story Victoria.
They do. I’m certainly not going to eat human. I don’t tweet about this enough. When people meet me it comes up a lot and it’s part of my shtick, but it’s really true. I’m a total omnivore. I enjoy eating everything. All the organs of the animal — the eyeballs, the brains are pretty tasty. I’ve traveled to other parts of the world and eaten scorpion, donkey blood, live fish. And they’re tasty. [laughs] I love food.
So you’re a snout-to-tail fan and could hang with chef/writer Tony Bourdain?
If he invited me on one of his trips I’d do backflips. We’d be out there eating sheep brain from a pickle jar and I would love it.
I’ve done the obligatory rattlesnake and rocky mountain oysters. I remember my great-grandmother’s ox tail soup. Going back through the memory banks, I think the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten was cow tongue.
My mom tried to trick me into eating cow tongue when we were growing up. She would tell me it was steak, but I always knew. I really didn’t have a good palate until I was twenty. I could only eat steak and potatoes.
In Japan I had fish liver, which actually wasn’t very good. And natto, a fermented soybean dish that’s everywhere in Japan. I do want to say that’s one of the times I wanted to gag.
Kimchi, hàkarl, buried moose snout in the Alaskan tundra — I don’t do well with fermented stuff.
Kimchi I do like. But the smell of natto? Oh my god. It’s like durian. I’ve never had durian but I’ve smelled it. I’m curious to try it, but not anytime soon. We all have a psychological barrier that we can’t cross.
It’s similar to writing. Your fiction is mucking about in things where most people fear to tread.
You’re so right. One of the things I spotted as a pattern in my stories were consuming, eating. I’m obsessed with it. I even joked with Jonathan Mastro, a good friend of mine who’s a playwright on the east coast, he has these beautiful kids. I remember when they were born, saying ‘Jonathan, you gotta keep your kids away from me, because I’m going to eat them.’ They’re so cute I just want to eat them!
You’ve heard it hear first, folks — he eats babies.
Don’t bring your babies to a book signing.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Cesar.
I appreciate it. I’m glad you liked the stories and I hope everybody else does too.