Robert Lopez – Good People
Good People (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016) is a collection of short stories about…well, not exactly about good people. But not bad people, either. This darkly humorous collection explores the spectrum of unsavory actions that everyday—even decent—people fall into. Robert Lopez’s style skims along the edge of what literary readers may associate with short fiction, but he adds a flair distinctly his own that acknowledges this familiarity before skipping into new territory, evoking the recognizable even as it’s explored in unusual and unfamiliar ways.
This approach is readily apparent in the first story in the collection, “Family of Man on Isle of Wight,” a six-page, stream-of-consciousness narrative that’s one unbroken sentence. The titular story, too, runs on the ideas of relationships, what strengthens or weakens them, juxtaposing the romantic with the platonic, but it is told from the point of view of two passengers in a car, friends and co-workers, one who is single and one who is not, each trying to feign sympathy for the other while feeling secret superiority. Lopez uses a close point of view to maximum effect, drawing the reader into each character’s mindset; despite the sense of complicity this imparts, the dark humor and discomfort of these stories provides just as much enlightenment.
MOLLY K.B. HUNT: For the first story in Good People, “Family of Man on Isle of Wight,” you took an especially interesting approach—the tone and tempo reflect the narrator’s frantic stream of thoughts, and the six-page story is one unbroken sentence. Can you describe the process behind this story—did you set out planning to write something in this way, or was it more spontaneous?
ROBERT LOPEZ: I never set out to do anything on the page, but rather let the language dictate the particular form. In this case, it became clear that this voice and narrative had a breathless quality to it. I believe this is the only one sentence story in the collection and it’s as if the voice can’t afford to pause due to a certain desperation to get it all out. The story seemed to work so there was no need to monkey around with it.
MH: In a 2011 Bookslut interview, you mentioned, with regard to your writing process, that you “always start with a single line so [you] have no idea what will happen after that.” Do you still find that to be true in your writing? What other writing habits have you formed?
RL: Indeed, that is still how I go about the business of writing and/or how it goes about it with me. I don’t have any other habits, I don’t think. When I’m working I work regularly and every day. I reread each sentence about a million times, for the most part. But when I’m not working there are no habits to speak of. There are periods of time where the work happens and then it’s as if I’ve emptied myself and need time to fill the tank up again. This can take quite some time.
MH: Over half of these stories appeared previously in literary journals. What kind of revisions did you make between those publications and this one? Were any of the stories significantly altered? If so, how?
RL: Actually, all but one of the stories appeared somewhere else before the collection was put together. I don’t have a memory of revising any of the stories between their publication in a particular magazine or journal and the assemblage of the book. Now that I think of it, that’s a lie. “Guiding Eyes…” was revised so that it would better fit in with the other stories. A lot of the sentences remained as is, but more were added to fill out the narrative and the narrator’s character.
MH: Some of your stories are flash-fiction short, such as “Now I Am Doubled Over”—another favorite of mine, alongside another short short story, “Anytime, Sweet”—which is about one and half paperback pages. How do you decide or know when a story is done? Is it when you’ve taken “time to fill up the tank again,” or do those types of breaks only come after you know a story is complete?
RL: For me there’s always been an intuitive sense when a story is done. This is why some stories are a page and others fifteen pages. It’s probably true that some of this is arbitrary. I’m sure you can turn the two page shorts into longer stories and vice-versa. I think if you look at a piece of writing and can get a sense of movement, a sense that something has happened, then the story is finished. The tank, for the most part, doesn’t play a part in this. It’s only after a lot of work has happened, pages and pages, many stories, that the tank feels empty. Then it’s time to pull of the highway, put the car in the driveway and cover it up until it’s needed again.
MH: Which story in this collection are you most proud of, and why?
RL: I couldn’t single out any story like that. That said, I like “Family of Man on Isle of Wight” because of the form. “Guiding Eyes for the Blind Dog Training School” because it was first drafted in 1996 and was the first story I ever did that was any good. There are others, too.
MH: How has teaching fiction writing informed your own writing—and vice versa?
RL: Teaching as much as I do has had an impact on the writing. I suppose I’m better now than I used to be, say, 20 years ago, at recognizing what might be missing from a story. Perhaps this would’ve happened anyway, but since I read dozens of student manuscripts every semester it has sharpened my diagnostic skills. And, of course, the classroom discussions, for the most part, have helped shape what I’m looking for on the page and how one might go about achieving that sort of effect.
MH: You say “Guiding Eyes…” was added to in order to better fit in with the rest of the collection, and also that its first draft dates back to 1996. Do other stories in this collection have as much history? What was the original nucleus you formed the collection around that helped you pick stories to include: the titular “Good People”—one of my favorites in the collection—a general concept, something else?
RL: “Essentials” was written around the same time as “Guiding Eyes”, but the rest of the stories were all written in the last few years. I can’t say that there was an original nucleus for this book, per se. That said, putting a collection together is similar to writing sentences and paragraphs. You see what fits together, what stories inform each other, are of a piece, but have enough variety to maintain interest and keep the reader on his or her toes. It seemed a good many of the stories had narrators or characters that were concerned with “goodness” or what it means to be a good person. I had no designs on doing such a thing, it just turned out that way.
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Robert Lopez is the author of two short story collections, Good People and Asunder, and two novels, Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River. Among other places, his fiction has appeared in the American Reader, BOMB, Brooklyn Rail, Hobart, Indiana Review, Literarian, Nerve, New York Tyrant, Vice, and the Norton anthology Sudden Fiction Latino. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches fiction writing at The New School, Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College. Author photo by Nola Lopez.
Molly K.B. Hunt is a grad student in Portland State’s book publishing program and acquisitions co-manager for Ooligan Press.