Lysley Tenorio has published stories in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Manoa, Best New American Voices, and The Pushcart Prize. A former Stegner fellow, he has been awarded fellowships from the University of Wisconsin, San Jose State, The Macdowell Colony, and Yaddo. He teaches at Saint Mary’s College in Morago.
[Grist]: I notice there is often a pop culture element to your stories. It tends to serve as a hook to get the reader interested and then develops thematic resonance as the story continues. So I’m curious about how you see the relationship between pop culture and literary fiction, both in your work specifically and in a larger sense.
[Tenorio]: I grew up a pop culture freak (first publication: a letter of complaint to Entertainment Weekly), and I don’t think it’s uncommon for a person growing up in an immigrant household to have such a strong connection to TV, films, music, comic books. When you’re new to the country, you’re drawn to anything that makes the culture immediate and accessible, with no initiation required. For better or worse, The Price is Right, Carpenters records, and fast food restaurants were integral to my family’s Americanization. So it’s almost instinctive for me to write about pop culture. The challenge is to figure out the right notes to hit when writing about it—to be playful instead of mocking, to show affection rather than reverence. In ‘Monstress,’ I mean to play up the whimsy of a B-movie in the making, while at the same time showing how it’s life or death for its Filipino creators, who are trying to find their place in America. My job as the writer is to render both emotional extremes convincingly, for the reader to find meaning in their juxtaposition.
I’m also conscious of the political implications of the pop culture elements in my stories, and in this respect, Salman Rushdie’s stories in ‘East, West,’ were definitely an influence. He does a terrific job of showing how contemporary India has taken some cues from Western pop culture in terms of re-creating its own national identity. But story and character are his main priorities; they’re mine, too.
[Grist]: I understand you’re moving from having completed a collection of short stories into writing a novel. Could you discuss the difference in writing these two forms? I’m particularly interested in differences between specific technical elements, like, say, the role of detail in each.
[Tenorio]: I wish I were far enough into this novel to answer that question with some degree of authority. I can say, however, that as I write, I’m becoming more conscious of this idea that a reader really “lives” with a novel. I like to think of the novel as tagging along with the reader as he moves through his days, that there’s almost a courtship between them, figuring out how they best relate. This is helping me pace the novel in a way that’s quite different from the short story. In that form, I’m thinking of the reader experiencing the narrative in a single sitting for just a few hours, which means that, during the writing process, I’m juggling all the various components of the story all at once, figuring out how they work with and against each other. Daunting as the novel might be, I’m breathing a little more easily than I normally would. For now.
[Grist]: From the fairly straightforward building of momentum in “Superassassin” to the more elaborate but equally seamless flashbacks in “Save the I-Hotel,” your work is very impressively structured. So I’m guessing that structure is something you put a lot of thought into. At what point in the writing process does structure become a conscious consideration? How does it interact with the more primordial elements of how the story emerges in your imagination?
[Tenorio]: For me, structure comes after I figure out what a story is about. In “Save the I-Hotel” I knew that the present time moment of a single night had to be measured against events spanning an entire lifetime—the challenge was to develop and reveal a character through the back-and-forth between present and past, to find the points at which the two timelines would converge and echo one another. Given this structure, I had to be careful to not use the past as a way of “diagnosing” the protagonist, to infuse both timelines with the same amount of drama and suspense.
A story like “Superassassin,” which is told in the first person present, needed a linear structure. The past comes only as quick flashbacks or memories, and those moments are meant to serve the present-time tension. That’s a story that relies on amplification. The character begins in an emotionally bad place which grows worse, scene by scene. I only need a single timeline for that, and therefore a simple, linear structure.
That said, the structures of my stories are fairly traditional, so I’m envious of writers who are truly experimenting structure and form.
[Grist]: Though you often use first person and utilize quite varied points of view from one story to the next, there seems a certain consistency of voice in your work nevertheless. I wonder if you could characterize what that voice is and how you see it functioning.
[Tenorio]: My narrators, as well as their circumstances, are pretty different from each other—a young woman falling in love in a leper colony, a kid obsessed with comic books, a man coping with his transsexual brother’s sudden death. But because my stories deal with the idea of clashing and melding cultures (America and the Philippines), my characters are trying to figure out where they belong, negotiating where they want to be vs. where they’re supposed to be. So they’re constantly keeping themselves in check, staying a step or two outside their immediate situations in the hopes of not drowning in them. Because of this, I’d say that the voice of my work (which is tough to think about, much less characterize) has a certain distance to it, one that tends to record/report/observe events as they happen, as a way of assessing them, so that the characters can figure out where, within all the chaos, they fit in.
[Grist]: What is the hardest part of writing a short story for you?
[Grist]: Comedy plays an interesting role in your stories. It isn’t the sort of thing that makes me open up and let out a huge guffaw, but there’s often this smirking absurdity that accompanies me throughout an entire story and has a lot to do with why I want to keep reading. How do you see the role of comedy in your work?
[Tenorio]: Huge guffaw or accompanying smirk—I’ll take either one because comedy is really hard for me. Obviously, you don’t want to look like you’re working for the laugh, but it’s important to recognize when comedy is not only beneficial for a story, but essential. In my story, ‘Help,’ for example, the narrative builds to a climactic scene in which a group of young men try to beat up the Beatles at Manila International Airport. It’s a pretty weird scenario, with an inherent madcap spirit that would be—I think—wrong to ignore. That scene should be played—to a certain degree—for laughs. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that whoever is planning such an attack has serious intentions, so the comedy of the moment needs to be tempered by that.
My story, ‘Superassassin,’ works in reverse: we start with an oddball character whose obsession with the Green Lantern makes him a little funny, but his circumstances make him a truly dark figure: he’s bullied at school, his mother’s a drunk, and he spends an unhealthy amount of the day indulging revenge fantasies. So a scene where he rigs a can of spray deoderant into a makeshift flame thrower might seem funny at first, until we realize real harm has been done. I remember reading that scene at Phillips Exeter Academy—the kids laughed pretty hard at the start of the scene, then turned silent by the end.
For me, comedy isn’t about lightening a situation. I’m more concerned with the way it textures and complicates a story, the way it reveals different sides of the truth.