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Structurally, the 214-page collection is a story cycle, but I typically think of story cycles as either literally cyclic, each story turning into the next, or as a tangle of myriad interconnections between all the stories. This collection of nine stories is more a cycle-of-cycles: each three-story set is intimately connected, but all three sets also overlap thematically or geographically or narratively. So I’ve been calling the book a “braided collection.”
Other stories I wrote in college dorm rooms or during graduate workshops, both also in Texas. A couple I wrote at my writing desk in our flat in Abu Dhabi when I lived overseas, and a couple others I wrote in my armchair in the tiny living room of our tiny apartment in Portland, Oregon. The first story in the book I wrote in the book in my study at the back of our first house in Portland, and the most recent story I wrote in my current study in our home in Tacoma, Washington.
I do, however, usually write to music. Sometimes I just choose a random playlist for mood or listen to music from the same decade as my story. Often, though, I’ll construct elaborate soundtracks of thematically and tonally appropriately songs arranged to follow character development or plot. A lot of my fiction is even informed by or inspired by music. For the stories in this book, I sometimes simply listened for mood, but for the most border-oriented stories, I listened to a lot of Mexican music, from traditional ballads to ranchera music (whence the title comes) to Tejano. And for some of the more contemporary Texas stories, I put on Texas musicians from Toadies and Slobberbone to Robert Earl Keen and Townes Van Zandt.
But that makes for poor small-talk, so instead I like to tell people about the 150-year-old pothead giant tortoise in the book, or the matriarchal lineage of witches who heal some men and curse others, or the guy who falls in love with a kitchen knife. My publisher, who is better at this than I am, describes the book as “a mesmerizing collection of short stories set in Mexico and Texas woven together with themes of violence, mysticism and failures in the pursuit of love.”
That kind of conflict can make for compelling story, but I decided I wanted to write something like a genuine kind of love. So I gave Val a wife and named her Gwen, a play on Guinevere, from which we get the name Jennifer, which is my own amazing wife’s name. Val is his own man and Gwen is a very different sort of woman than my wife, but the love Val holds for Gwen is very much based on my relationship with my wife. Those quiet moments in the dark, the need for a reassuring touch, the supportive conversations at the dinner table -- these are all drawn from life. And they’re some of my favorite passages I’ve ever written.
023 03 06 2019