The Lysley Tenorio Microinterview
This month on Late Night Debut New York City-based poet Sam Ross and novelist Evan P. Schneider in Portland take on Monstress, Lysley Tenorio ’s acclaimed debut collection of short stories published by Ecco , an imprint of HarperCollins. Evan and Sam read “L’amour, CA,” looking at the various forms identity takes in Tenorio’s stories, as well as ideas about family, the role yearning plays inMonstress, and age and time passing.
Lysley was kind enough to answer our quick Q&A to help get us ready for July’s episode of Late Night Debut.
What is your favorite work of debut poetry or fiction published in 2011 or early 2012?
If it’s okay with Late Night Library, I’m going to pick two books. Like many writers I know, I’ve been waiting for Daniel Orozco’s collection, Orientation, for years; the wait was worth it. What an entertaining, moving, and intelligent collection of stories. As driven as they are by character, they’re simultaneously powered by Orozco’s exploration of human nature. I’m not a huge fan of books that seek to make a statement about our collective character, but this collection manages to do that with subtlety and great wit, while still maintaining the integrity of a wildly entertaining story, with intriguingly strange characters.
Another favorite debut is Two-Headed Nightingale, a collection of poetry by Shara Lessley. She’s won a bunch of awards and fellowships for her work (Stegner, University of Wisconsin, The Nation Discovery Prize), so it’s excellent to finally have her book in the world. The poems are lyrical and sharp, and full of wondrously strange subjects that she manages to make movingly familiar—decaying birds, freaky moths, aerialists, winterbound pioneer women, etc. And at its center is the “Two-Headed Nightingale” itself: Christina and Millie McCoy, conjoined twins born into slavery in the 19th century who, after emancipation, became famous through their affiliation with P.T. Barnum, as well as their gift for music. As unusual as their subjects are, these poems avoid exoticization or a distanced examination; instead, they’re written with tremendous grace and empathy.
Please identify one or two writers who have influenced you, either in general or specifically in writing Monstress.
Bharati Mukherjee’s short story collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is the book that made me want to write fiction. I read it in college, at a point where I had no desires to be much of anything (professionally, artistically, creatively, academically). But that book showed me how a writer can take on voices and perspectives so vastly different from her own, while rendering them intelligently and empathetically. It taught me what I think is the real value and opportunity of fiction—it’s an art that allows both writer and reader to live and imagine a completely different experience and life from his own, and demands that you render it as persuasively, humanly, and surprisingly as possible.
What are a few things you learned or discovered after your collection was published that you wish you had known or anticipated beforehand?
I’m not sure how valuable this is to hear, but I wasn’t prepared for how much time and headspace the first few months after publication would take. Unless you’re extremely skilled at compartmentalizing your life, I found it tough to teach, write, travel, give readings, interviews, etc., all at the same time. If I could do it again, I would’ve lightened my teaching load the semester my book came out (though luckily, my school, Saint Mary’s College, has been very supportive, and colleagues covered my classes while I was away. So here’s a tip for writers who teach: be good to your colleagues!). And if you’re thinking of doing online stuff—web site, Facebook pages, etc.—do that several months before publication; it’s a headache to cram it all in at once.
Fortunately, I had the good folks at Ecco/HarperCollins supporting Monstress—they arranged a bunch of readings, interviews, and perhaps most importantly, got the book reviewed. So they made the process much easier than had I been on my own, and a lot of fun, too.
Listen to the Monstress episode of Late Night Debut.