It's All Stumbling Through the Dark: A Conversation with Robert Lopez

Interview by Jason Teal

Robert Lopez has told readers he wanted to be a writer before he did much reading. It’s that gutsy style that permeates his visionary stories—and spills into his novels Part of the World (Calamari Archive, 2007) and Kamby Bolongo Mean River (Dzanc Books, 2009). Kirkus has called his latest effort, Good People, “[d]epressing, inventive, and marvelous,” giving it a starred review, while the Los Angeles Times remarked on his “ability to give the reader whiplash with his unconventional and bewitching stories.” The author of five books, including Good People, a collection with Bellevue Literary Press, and a forthcoming novel, All Back Full (Dzanc Books), I was able to talk to Lopez via email and learn more about what makes up his craft, his interests, and how he eventually sold the collection. His answers are both illuminating and surprising, much like the myriad voices that populate his work. 

Jason Teal: Your first two books, Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River, are novels. Asunder, published in 2010, is the first story collection. How did the return to story-writing for Good People feel? How did the collection begin for you?

Robert Lopez: I don't think of it as a return, actually. While Kamby was published before Asunder, the collection, it was the collection that was first acquired by Dzanc and probably seventy-five per cent of that book was finished before Kamby was even started. And a few of the stories in Good People were written long before Part of the World was published. So, I guess the answer to this question is stories keep happening irrespective of anything else. I've always enjoyed stories more than novels, particularly as a reader. The stakes are usually higher, the sense of danger and menace. The sort of urgency that lends itself to stories. There had better be urgency in novels, too, of course, but it's a different ballgame.

I never try to write for a collection. At some point there are enough stories for a book and it's a matter of figuring out which ones belong together. There is one story in Good People that was first drafted in 1996. There's another one or two in there from that same period, more or less. Those stories didn't make it into the first collection, obviously. And there are stories that didn't make it into Good People that will find their way into the next collection. If there is a next collection.

JT: My curiosity really peaked with “How to Direct a Major Motion Picture,” the last story in Good People, written with Sam Ligon. The story employs an imperative second person, yet this point of view stands in contrast to the first-person landscapes drawn elsewhere in the collection. Can you talk about how the story was written?

RL: "How to Direct a Major Motion Picture" began as all the stories did, with a single line. "Give the actor something to do" was a sentence I had for a long time. There were other sentences behind it, a couple three pages worth. Then it stalled on me, as a story, and I put it away. Anywhere from two to five years later, maybe more, I got solicited by Puerto Del Sol and in the solicitation they'd mentioned a forthcoming film issue. I remembered that opening and the stalled story and thought it a good excuse to go back into the story and see if I could finish it. I worked on the piece and did what I thought was just that, finish it. Because it was a second person imperative piece I was a little bit skittish, so I sent it to my great friend, Sam Ligon, for his take. He wrote back with an apology, explaining that he loved the voice so much that he wound up writing two more pages for it. Of course, I was appalled. I cursed him to his face and behind his back. Actually, I didn't do any of that. I'd loved what Sam had written so I kept almost all of his new lines, tweaked it here and there and sent more back to him. He did likewise, then I did, then it was finished. Another good friend and literary sleuth, Matt Bell, wrote an extraordinary essay about this story and successfully determined which lines were Lopez and which were Ligon. He was spot on.

JT: There's something innately funny about that sentence, and others that make up the collection. For example, "Essentials" opens on a regular problem storytellers face: "There were too many people when it happened so I've decided to cut some of them." The story then cascades into a list that narrows down the participants in terms of how closely or impossibly they are responsible for the situation. In another story, "Anytime, Sweet": "The sign said I should be aware, but I never pay attention to signs, am never wary of anything." Do you consciously write humor into your stories?

RL: I'm never conscious about humor and I never try to be funny, I don't think. But the work I've always most responded to as a reader, the work I most enjoy, is funny, so it's probably no surprise that the fiction works out the same way.

JT: What does an original Robert Lopez sentence accomplish, besides surface contributions to story? You mentioned "cultivating uniqueness" in another interview, referencing student lectures. Can you expand on this allusion? Why are sentences an important utility for your fiction, over, say, linear, actionable plot?

RL: I think cultivating uniqueness on the page has to do with syntax and diction, ultimately. I want to read sentences that surprise me in some way. I want to see a word I wasn't expecting, a phrasing that feels off somehow, but is still musical. I want the goings on to be familiar yet weird, in an organic way. I'm not into anything that feels like it's trying too hard to do something, and that includes any sort of willful cultivation of weirdness.

I never think in terms of story, I've never had an idea for a story. I suppose I'm myopic this way. I can only deal with the sentence I'm currently assembling. I suppose this is true of my own work. When I'm reading student manuscripts I often talk about some narrative element that seems missing in a story and that almost always includes stuff that might pass as narrative theory. I've never read any theory, but I might've picked some up along the way by accident. We talk about triangulation in a lot of my classes, along with fucking things up, making the stories more complicated. This is good advice on both a language and emotional level.

After Asunder, I did try to find and/or push stories further. I still love flash fiction or the short-short or whatever anyone wants to call it and it's still probably my favorite form. But I did want to make a conscious effort to try and come up with some longer stories. I think it's important for writers to stretch if they're interested in that sort of thing. Not everyone does, of course, and that's fine. But to me it's necessary. 

It's funny, but I don't think I ever learn anything about this book endeavor. This is the second collection and a third is very close to finished. When I say finished I mean that there seems to be enough stories that seem that they can go together to make a book. But it's all stumbling through the dark, making it up as you go. And it always seems like some kind of happy accident, to borrow from Bob Ross, when it comes together. I wish there was some carry-over from book to book. The same holds true for the novels. Perhaps writing sentences or individual stories can get practiced, can get to a place where you feel like you've learned something from having done it so often. But, for me, I never learn anything practical about the assemblage of a book and if I do, I forget it by the time it comes to try it again.

JT: Tell us about the new novel.

RL: All Back Full was written around the same time as some of the stories. All Back Full is a novel in three acts, that started as a three act play. The play took years to write but eventually it came together. I'd thought about turning it into a novel for a while, but couldn't figure out how it should work. Eventually, the way it should work presented itself and then it came together pretty quickly after that.

JT: What does fiction offer that other forms don't?

RL: I suppose there is freedom in writing fiction. You can write poetry, you can write a play, you can become something that you're not, you can play different roles, wear different hats. I often liken fiction writing to acting. We get to do things on the page that we wouldn't do in real life. Perhaps it's this versatility that makes this endeavor as appealing as it is, to some people. 

JT: You're a musician, too.

RL: I'm in The Unnamable, an acoustic duo with a close friend and a great writer, David Hollander, who happens to be a tremendous guitar player. We don't get to play as often as either of us would like, but we've put together some good songs over the years and we're hopeful that we can get to play them before we all go dead. I've always responded to different kinds of music, particularly slow, sad songs that sound pretty and have good lyrics. The way a sentence sounds is always of the utmost importance. The words have to spill out of the mouth properly and it has to sound like music. There are certain songs, good songs, that I can't sing, because the words don't spill out of my mouth.

JT: Why Good People? Were there other titles?

RL: Seems as if a good many titles are pre-ordained, for me. I had the story "Good People" and knew it would be part of the collection. And it turns out the words "good people or person" kept coming up in the stories. So, no other title was considered for the book.

JT: Can people ever be infallibly good? I'm thinking of Vonnegut's position as a humanist.

RL: I think there might be some people somewhere who are infallibly good, maybe, but probably not. But, at the same time, I never think of people as good or not good. Even the most awful people, like mass murderers, if they are the most awful, and they probably are. Even still, I never think about people on any sort of moral continuum like that. People are people. They are sometimes good, sometimes not. There is so much I don't understand about the world and the people in it. And I suppose this notion of what's good and how a lot of people pass moral judgment over what's good and what isn't ... it's baffling to me.


Jason Teal is a Founding Editor of Heavy Feather Review and is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American ReviewQuarter After EightEleven ElevenEntropy, and Big Other, among other places. Former Managing Editor of Mid-American Review, he is an associate editor for Passages North and lives in Marquette, Michigan.