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Interview: Aaron Michael Morales

An excerpt from Aaron Michael Morales' novel, Drowning Tucson, appears in the May issue of The Collagist. He was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, and is a graduate of Purdue University's MFA program. He has taught Creative Writing, Latin American Literature, Multi-Cultural Literature, Contemporary Literature, and Rhetoric and Composition at a number of colleges. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana State University, where he teaches Creative Writing and Contemporary Literature. Morales has also written a chapbook of short fiction, From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert. He is currently working on his second novel, Eat Your Children.

Can you talk about the inspiration for "Drowning Tucson"? What was on your mind while you were writing this novel?

In truth, this novel was “inspired”—if I should say that—by the overwhelming amount of sadness I have witnessed in my life. It started very young. As a three- or four-year-old child I was acutely aware of the suffering of others. I would internalize others’ sadness, their tragedies and traumas—emotional and physical—until I would become despondent, melancholy, the works. Even though I was poor, I would feel the humility—that painful slap—the other poor kids felt for getting free lunch or wearing the same hand-me-downs day after day. I didn’t bother to feel sorry for myself because I was too caught up in feeling bad for them. Or, after school, if I saw some kid get the shit beat out of him, I felt every punch and kick as though it were me lying in the alley getting pummeled by a gang of boys.

My mother never really understood why I was always walking around with a downtrodden look on my face, but it wasn’t even that so many awful things happened to me, as much as it was that I felt like a sponge for emotional devastation. Some of it was my witnessing actual tragic events—unbelievable violence, racism, misogyny, you name it—and some was my young mind speculating about the sadness of others. I would invent the trauma a person was suffering if I didn’t know the real reason they were in a state of emotional distress. Here’s an example. When I was a teenager I remember sitting in a Denny’s having a cup of coffee and smoking cigarettes, and across the aisle from me was a teenage boy and his father. They sat opposite one another, eating their meal in awkward silence. And I just knew that this kid was a product of a divorce and that his father had him for the weekend and didn’t know how, or have any desire, to cook for his son, so he took him to Denny’s where they sat looking at anything but each other. The boy had long head-banger bangs that he hid behind, and his dad was dressed like a blue-collar guy. They had nothing in common. They had grown apart. They were forced into a fake father-son scenario and neither knew what to do and it was devastating both of them. They didn’t say one word the entire time they were there. Now, of course, I have no idea whether or not what I thought was occurring between the two of them was actually true, but, in my sponge-like mind, I just felt sadness for both of them and the situation I imagined them to be in. It broke my heart to see them sitting there like that, so distant.

So, I guess you could say that I’ve been carrying all this sadness around with me for all these years. There have been the tragedies I’ve suffered, and the ones suffered by my friends, family, loved ones. And then there are all the other tragedies I seem to encounter wherever I look. I catalogue them. I look at any newspaper or TV screen or magazine and my eye is immediately drawn to the worst tragedy. The 9-year-old boy set on fire for refusing to share his bike. The seven-year-old serial rapist who is incarcerated at a children’s group home in the town where I live. The fifteen-year-old girl gang raped outside her prom last year. It’s everywhere. So I had plenty of emotion and experience from which to draw this book and its stories and characters.

My novel has occasionally been critiqued as being so over-the-top that it is nearly unbelievable, but I disagree. I think my writing is a lot more tame than the real events we hear about on the news every single day, the things that happen to very real people. And certainly it is much more tame than what it must have felt like for the victims of violence who suffered some sort of devastation. For those who think I am just trying to shock people, all I can say is that I did not spend five years of my life writing this book just to get a gasp of horror or a shudder of repulsion out of my readers. That would be quite a pathetic use of five years. But if it repulses readers, I suppose that’s a good thing. It means the reader has more humanity than the characters committing these awful acts in my novel.

I’m also obsessed with humanity’s proclivity toward violence and our mistreatment of one another. I seek to understand it, and that’s why I wrote this novel. I wanted to illustrate the power of poverty and circumstance. It’s easy, as an outsider, to see solutions to problems caused by poverty and violence. But it’s another thing entirely to be in such situations, to feel so hopeless and powerless. I’m really just trying to capture all of that.

This is a very powerful piece of writing, one whose capacity to haunt comes, in my opinion, in part from the linking of chance and pain. The lives of these characters are altered irreversibly in a matter of seconds, by burns inflicted so suddenly and unexpectedly but which linger for the rest of their lives. Could you speak a little about this theme of sudden loss and change, and how it plays out throughout the novel?

I love that you said “burns” because I think that absolutely nails how it feels to be in such hopeless circumstances. In a world of poverty and violence, your entire life can be thrown into a state of upheaval in a matter of moments. One bad decision, one wrong turn, finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all of a sudden your life as you know it ends. Sometimes it literally ends, and other times your life course is altered so dramatically that you never return from this point.

I explore this theme of sudden loss and change because I think that it’s important to understand—or at least try to understand—what might lead a mother to commit suicide and take her child with her. Or what might drive an otherwise normal man to become a pedophile. There has to be a reason. There are so many atrocities committed by humans on a daily basis that we have become numb to it. But I often find myself wondering why. Because I know there’s a reason, even if I can’t understand it or agree with it, it makes sense to the person at the time, so I believe I can make sense of it through my fiction. Maybe readers will think it’s melodramatic that a man hiding his homosexuality could resort to the violence Manny does in my novel, but it’s a matter of putting oneself into Manny’s shoes. He’s got a family. A wife and two sons. He’s a pillar of the community in virtually every aspect of his life. He’s a captain in the Air Force. By all accounts, he’s the model man. And yet he’s tortured, utterly haunted by the truth that he is sexually attracted to men. He carries this burden within himself until it becomes unbearable, uncontrollable, and he cracks. This might seem melodramatic, but imagine being him. When he realizes the truth about himself, and he sees the life he’s set up for himself, it is as though his life is over. I know many middle-aged men who led lives that were lies. They married and had kids and held down good jobs. They played the role of straight man to a tee. And yet, at some point they decided enough was enough and they decided to come out and be true to themselves. Some people handle this dramatic life change just fine, and others find themselves in a downward spiral of despair. I think it is melodramatic from the outside, but that’s the way most emotional turmoil appears to those of us who aren’t suffering.

This theme, this sudden upending of lives, plays out throughout the entirety of Drowning Tucson, again and again, in myriad ways, to illustrate how people’s lives are so fragile. How life itself is so fragile. How we take normalcy and safety for granted when our safety and normalcy go unthreatened day in and day out.

I read an interview that you did over at Largehearted Boy earlier in the month, and I’m really intrigued by something you said in one of your answers. You were describing Tucson, and your reasoning for setting the novel there: “… there is a strange, and sometimes ominous, mythological magic (for lack of a better phrase) that lingers in the air—one part Old West, one part Native American, and one part Mexican American. There are forces here that are not to be trifled with.” Working only with this excerpt, these forces seem to be ones of destruction, their victims everyday people who become vulnerable at their moments of forgetfulness or impulse. How do these forces participate in Drowning Tucson—both inside the story and outside it, in its telling?

I think I purposely set the book there for two reasons. The first is that the desert is a beautiful and calming place. It truly is. From afar. Sometimes from within. But it’s also a horrifically violent and destructive place. The plants and the animals are deadly. The weather is deadly. It is inhospitable. But it also mirrors a lot of the action of the novel. After all, despite what people might think, Drowning Tucson is not just a book packed front-to-back with violence and tragedy. There are many beautiful moments. There are acts of kindness and love. Take the character Rainbow. Yes, she’s a prostitute, doomed from a very young age because she was abandoned by her mother. And yet, she is protected, guarded, and brought up by a Native American Vietnam vet who sees that she needs someone to care for her. He is kind to her, expecting nothing in return. He is selfless. He is a good man. And he sees good in her. It might be easy to overlook these moments, but there are many within the novel. Felipe, the character in the novel’s first chapter, is a very kind, intelligent, hopeful young man who simply cannot control his destiny because it’s been outlined for him from before his birth. I wanted to show how sometimes beautiful things can be destroyed. Nature, a young mind, a budding relationship. All of these things are so beautiful and delicate.

The force of violence is indisputably powerful. Anyone who has suffered the infliction of violence at the hands of another person is forever marred by the experience. It’s so easy to look away from violence, or to shake our heads when we hear about some atrocity or another, but then we forget. We move on to other things in our lives keeping us busy. Not so for the victim. She is forever scared of the dark, or sounds in the night. What to me is a house creaking and groaning and settling in at night is to her a potential intruder. Can you imagine that sort of ongoing horror?

Like you pointed out, a lot of my characters become vulnerable when they forget the forces that threaten their lives and their safety. This is when people are most often harmed. When we let our guard down. When we become too cocky or confident. It’s one of the reasons why 9/11 was such a traumatic experience. Not just because of the obvious horrors of that day, the unfathomable act that unfolded on live television all over the world, but also because we—as a nation—had become so complacent and confident and cocky that we simply could not conceive of something like that happening to us, here, in America, the one country in the world no one would ever dare to attack. But we were attacked. We were vulnerable because we didn’t see ourselves as vulnerable. And now look how our nation’s psyche has fared. We are paranoid. We are enraged. We mistrust our neighbors. People with brown skin. People with unpronounceable Middle Eastern names give us pause. Flying is now a burden to be suffered, rather than a pleasure.

So, while there are many people who are good in the world, and while there are people who live their entire lives without every suffering or falling victim to another’s cruelty, there are still so many who live with the tragic outcome of impulse or forgetfulness.

You’re currently working on your second novel, Eat Your Children. What are your goals with this novel, and how do they differ from those you had for Drowning Tucson or your earlier chapbook of short fiction, From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert?

There are a few ways Eat Your Children will differ from my earlier work. For one, it is much more linear. It mostly follows one protagonist—Davey Powers from the “Easter Sunday” chapter of Drowning Tucson—as he becomes steeped in the culture of meth addiction. The reason I chose to continue his story is because we only get a snapshot of him in my first novel, and I think he’s a very complicated character. He internalizes the violence inflicted upon him by his father, and then he enters a world of drug addiction that varies dramatically from just about every other type of drug addiction.

I’ve done extensive research for Eat Your Children, and it’s been heartbreaking and disturbing. There is something sinister about the drug and the way it changes people. It turns them into sexual deviants. It turns them into zombies. It ages the body dramatically. It makes people violent. And the level of sexual deviance is actually much, much more intense than people might think. So it will be different because rather than being steeped in a world of inner-city poverty, featuring a lot of Latino characters, it will be situated in a much different—though equally horrific—place. It is set in the Midwest, and it follows Davey through his teen years into adulthood, as he plummets further and further into this world.

I came upon this idea when I started teaching out here in Indiana. The meth problem is severe. It’s almost passé because of how frequently the news features meth lab busts and people from all walks of life ruining their lives. People here want to dismiss them all as “white trash,” but then we hear of a City Councilman being busted for dealing meth, or a schoolteacher cooking in her basement. To be truthful, there is already a lot of work out there about meth—TV shows like Breaking Bad, movies like Spun, books like Beautiful Boy—but the way my book will vary from all these other works is that it will primarily feature the children of meth heads. After all, most people are well aware of the effects of meth on drug users. What is never spoken about, what I’ve never seen featured in any news magazine or TV show—beyond a cursory glimpse—is the way it affects the lives of the children of these drug users. It is so sad, so overwhelming to see the profound difference between the way a “normal” child is raised versus the way a child of a meth head is raised. If you can even call it being raised. Without getting too involved in the plot, I’ll just say that the book will feature a lot of children, but it is no way an adolescent novel. It’s devastating. It’s painful to write. But it’s necessary. I’ll be so happy when I’m finished with it because it has been a harrowing experience being involved with this project. Nevertheless, I feel an urge, a palpable pull to write about this topic, so I’m proud of having done it. It will probably disturb and offend a lot of people, to whom I would say, “at least it’s fiction.” Because the truth is that the true story of meth kids is far worse than what I’m depicting in my novel. I do want it to get published, after all.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m writing a textbook, but that’s boring so I won’t talk about it. I have a third novel I’ve started, tentatively titled Latrinalia, which is a folklorist’s term for graffiti found in bathrooms. The idea is that I’m going to use bathroom graffiti found in bars, truck stops, parks, restaurants, and other locations all over the country to take the pulse of our nation. If I’m ever going to write any sort of “Great American Novel,” (do authors still aspire to that goal anymore?) then this book would be it. I love the idea of latrinalia and how we speak the ugly truth in the so-called privacy of our public restroom space. Yes, there is always the usual crude and adolescent sexual stuff to be found in bathrooms, but there is also a surprising amount of political observations and opinions. The debates that occur on bathroom walls are fantastic, juvenile though they may be at times. It’s going to be a monstrously overwhelming project, but I’ve already begun collect gems from bathrooms on my book tour this summer. It’s going to be a pleasure to write. It will probably differ dramatically from my first two novels. But that’s a good thing. I’d hate to get stuck in a rut or become a one-trick-literary-pony.

I also have been writing a book of poetry, but I don’t know if I’ll ever really try to submit the book anywhere. Who knows. It’s just a hobby of mine. But I’m so particular about what I consider to be good poetry that it’s paralyzed me in terms of having the confidence to submit mine to a publisher. Time will tell.

What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I just finished rereading Varalam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, which is a beautifully brutal collection of short stories set in the notorious Gulag work camps. The things described in that book, and the manner in which Shalamov manages to avoid didacticism, are simply astounding. If you haven’t read it, I cannot recommend it enough. I also just finished reading Dog on the Cross by Aaron Gwyn, which is a completely badass book as well.  I’m looking forward to reading Brett Easton Ellis’s newest novel, Imperial Bedrooms. But, I’m most excited to read a book that was just released last year called The Trial of Robert Mugabe by Chielo Zona Eze. He and I were enrolled in Purdue’s MFA program at the same time, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his first publication. I loved his work in grad school, so I can only imagine how much better it’s gotten since then. This is a great time to be alive as a reader and as a writer. There are just so many good writers out there. I can’t find enough time to devour it all. But I’ll keep trying.

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Reader Comments (2)

Nice interview, but I don't think Mr. Morales really means any of what he says. He pretends to be anti-racism and misogyny, but those two themes seem to be his favorite way of getting back at this world he claims depresses him so much. Nice try, but you're not fooling anyone with your over-the-top attempt at dramatic writing.

June 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa

Do you know him personally or something? I read this interview twice, and I've read his novel (which I think is phenomenal but certainly not for everyone), and I fail to see where you can deduce that Morales--personally--is a woman-hating bigot. You mean you're judging him by the content of his work? So Nabokov secretly wanted to have sex with little girls? And Mark Twain hated black people because his characters were racist? Steven King is secretly a mass-murderer? Where is your logic coming from?

If you hated the book, just say it, but I don't get why you think you can know anything about this author based on his interview and his fiction. You just make yourself look like a buffoon.

September 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFred

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