In one of Michael Jaime-Becerra’s stories, “Lopez Trucking Incorporated,” the sixteen-year-old narrator climbs into the cab of the commercial rig belonging to his grandfather, a man who’s been estranged from his family—and perhaps himself—for years. “The rig smells like old smoke and leather,” the narrator observes. There’s a statue of the Virgin Mary sitting on the dashboard, along with a yellow clay ashtray in the shape of Texas, something his sister made for their Grandpa back in the third grade. “It’s been cracked and glued back together a few times,” he says, and the passenger seat is big and soft, like “a catcher’s mitt,” but the rumble from the rig’s engines are enough to make everything shake: the Virgin, the ashtray, even the fillings in the boy’s teeth.
One gets the feeling that all of Jaime-Becerra’s characters have been cracked and put back together a few times. Family holds them, too, even if it sometimes stalls the launch of their own lives. Setting serves the same purpose, and for Jaime-Becerra’s collection of linked short stories, Every Night is Ladies’ Night (Rayo, 2004), as well as his novel, This Time Tomorrow (Thomas Dunne, 2010), that setting is El Monte, California, a four-by-seven-mile tract of low-lying land east of Los Angeles, bordered by the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers. Once a way-station for nomadic Native American tribes, Spanish missionaries, and soldiers, El Monte is now a predominantly Mexican-American community of small businesses and industrial outlets, bordered by two of LA’s busiest freeways (the 605 and the 10). It is also a continuing beacon for immigrant families seeking to realize their dreams; or, as the chamber of commerce says in its online history, El Monte offers a home for those who want to put down roots while seeking “new opportunities and ideas.”
That can be said not only of Jaime-Becerra’s characters but perhaps of the author himself, who met me at Diana’s restaurant and tortilleria on Durfee Avenue, one of El Monte’s main drags (and the main thoroughfare in many of his stories). Over generous burritos, we talked about all of his works to date—including, most recently, nonfiction for LAtitudes: An Angelenos’ Atlas, and a story in the final issue of Black Clock—as well as his experience as a student, practitioner, and now an associate professor of creative writing (over a decade at UC Riverside). We talked about trying to find that ever-elusive balance between family and artistic fulfillment, and then he took me on a personal tour of the old neighborhood and the familiar places that still catch him, like a big, well-oiled glove, even as they rattle and crack with age and break open to the new.
Sherrye Henry Jr.: You’ve said that when you were young, you wanted to be a cowboy first—and only later, a writer. What changed your mind?
Michael Jaime-Becerra: The first real success I remember having was in fourth grade. I was writing an Indiana Jones knock-off, called Panama Jack. It was terrible, but I had a lot of fun doing it. And then in seventh grade I wrote a book about a skateboard contest in outer space. I was into skateboarding and had a taste for science fiction, and I tried to merge the two. You would get medals in school—and I was really competitive, and wanted one of those medals—but nothing happened that year. Only my English teacher found it imaginative and inventive. I found this out much later (in fact, she came to a reading of Ladies’ Night, and told me she did this without her principal’s permission), but she had forwarded the book to the county fair at the time. I didn’t know about it until I got this letter at the house that the book had placed third, and that was a really transformative moment for me: The book that I had made was in this glass case, with other books from other cities that I hadn’t even heard of, and there was big ribbon around it. And that moment really galvanized me: that moment of publication, of writing something for a public audience. I was writing about what interested me; I drew from the things I was passionate about at that age; I was living in this imaginative world. So it was a convergence of all these things.
The book that I had made was in this glass case, with other books from other cities that I hadn’t even heard of, and there was big ribbon around it. And that moment really galvanized me: that moment of publication, of writing something for a public audience.
I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I knew that I wanted to write.
That moment—I go back to it a lot, for being recognized for a talent that I had, outside of my own environment, by an audience that had nothing to do with me. The county fair is everybody, and it was real validation. That’s a word that’s really important to this discussion. It’s personal validation, but more than that, it’s cultural validation, like we all have a place in the world. As time has gone by, that’s become more my conscious purpose as a writer.
SH: So it’s both aspects of validation, the internal satisfaction of your writing and also its acknowledgment and acceptance by the outside world.
MJB: Yes. My parents lived along the San Gabriel River. Every year the rains would cause the river to overflow, and someone would invariably decide to go inner tubing, and without fail, every year, the county search and rescue would have to fish the person out, and we’d hear the sirens along the bike path and the helicopters overhead. One year my dad had a ladder pressed against the fence, and I saw Stan Chambers, a local newscaster, doing a live remote. That was another really important moment for me, the world coming to where I lived. This idea of this is where I’m from but it has a place in the larger world.
SH: You started in college [UCR] with poetry. Why and when did you switch to fiction?
MJB: I was a terrible fiction writer. I believe I got a B- in my first creative writing class. But I didn’t have a healthy literary diet. I was reading Frank Miller and The Dark Knight comics; and Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero, and I was doing my best to imitate them. And then, I was really struggling. I was the first in my family to go to college. I was the first person I knew to go to college. And things were really chaotic at home. I was working a graveyard shift and then showing up for an 8:30 class in my work clothes. I was having terrible time of it, and I was afraid to ask my advisor for help. I felt like something of an astronaut, launched into orbit. So I thought I’d take the most advanced class I could find, and if I did well, then I deserved to be there. Otherwise I’d keep working at UPS.
So I took this class with the poet Maurya Simon, and I decided to write something that entertained me. That was a huge distinction, because up until then I’d been writing to entertain people, this imaginary perceived audience, by emulating [other writers]. So I wrote this poem about the frustrations of getting my father a beer in the middle of a football game. It was really short—maybe ten lines, called “Los Angeles 34, Denver 17,” something like that. The workshop responded really well. I think they saw a sense of honesty, of honest emotion, and personal investment in the work, and that was the turning point for me. I thought, I’ll just keep doing this. I started to look for more experiences to write about, and to read more poetry, and began a series of poems from memories of my adolescence that eventually became my first book of poetry, The Estrellitas Off Peck Road (Temporary Vandalism, 1997). That was a lot of fun.
SH: When did you make the transition to fiction?
MJB: At UCR, we have a cross-genre requirement. (We still do, and I’m glad we do.) So I decided to try fiction again, and took a class with Susan Straight. That was a happy accident, because here I was, a person interested in writing about where he was from, stories that are rooted in memory, and [she’s] a writer who is one of the best at doing exactly that. I wrote my first stories in her workshop. I started to realize that my poems were scenes with line breaks, and if I stacked enough of these scenes together, I had a story. They were rudimentary, they were teetering, but they were stories.
SH: And that became another turning point for you?
MJB: The last poem I wrote was called “The Water Machine,” about a boy and his mother’s abusive boyfriend. It was this big sprawling poem [that] was really a story, and I felt I needed more space. I wanted a bigger canvas.
SH: What did you bring to fiction from poetry?
MJB: An attention to line; an attention to the rhythm and the shape of the paragraph; a lot of that attention to micro detail that a poet has to have, and even if I didn’t have the skills back then, the understanding that such things existed came from my work in poetry.
A lot of the poets I love are very visible on the page; you are reading a distillation of their vision… Whereas I want my reader to see the characters, and my role as a writer is to be more of a conduit between the two.
SH: Do you still get called to write poetry, even on the side?
MJB: I do and they end up being scenes.
As time has gone by, I want my own presence as a writer to be less visible. A lot of the poets I love are very visible on the page; you are reading a distillation of their vision, and you go into their poetry with that understanding. Whereas I want my reader to see the characters, and my role as a writer is to be more of a conduit between the two. There are writers, like Annie Proulx, who are in the foreground. When you open her book, you’re on her turf, with her language. Michael Chabon, too. But [John] Cheever—even though he’s hilarious, he’s in the background a lot. My role model for the last couple of years has been William Trevor, who allows the characters to be who they want to be and adapts the perspective of the narrator to meet that.
SH: You’ve now written a collection of linked short stories and a novel: How do you decide what form a story will take—or does it tell you?
MJB: The leap from poetry to short stories was based on space, and [so was] the leap to the novel. The last story I wrote for Ladies’ Night was close to seventy pages [“Media Vuelta”]. One of my readers said, you know, I think Michael is just going to keep going. And I realized that I could. Then going through grad school and writing a lot more and reading a lot more, having a healthier literary diet, created a sense of possibility for me. Up until that point, the idea of writing a novel felt like buying a three-story house and filling it with furniture from my studio apartment. It’s too much space; but by then I felt I was ready to move in.
The story [for This Time Tomorrow] came out of a conversation with my barber at the time, who said, “Once you’ve been with someone for a year, you know whether you want to marry them.” That really struck me. At the time, I was dating a woman (now my wife), and she came from a really traditional Mexican household, which meant that you don’t leave until you are married. I came from a version of that household too—so I thought how interesting it would be to write about this: this lack of space.
SH: This part of the world, El Monte, appears in all of your stories. How do you make setting become a character, invested with a body and beating heart?
MJB: You have to find the meaning of the setting to the characters. One of the most valuable comments made to me in workshop—I’ll never forget it—was about a description of a McDonald’s play yard, and [whether] it was important to the story, or just important to me.
That made me think, and realize the process of stepping into the background. I rewrote the description from the point of view of the character who’s sitting in the drive-through window, who’s just had a miscarriage and is seeing the play yard through her experience. There’s another moment, in Ladies’ Night, when Lencho, who has burned hands, is grappling with something—fumbling as if looking for a socket wrench. I use his frame of reference, which is the auto mechanic, to attach itself to the setting which becomes character.
SH: And why is this particular setting, El Monte, so important to you?
MJB: I wanted to take my world to the larger world. During the early 90s, [California] Proposition 187 sparked a lot of anti-immigrant debate and rhetoric, and it was very much part of the cultural conversation at the time. I remember thinking—I’m the son of an immigrant on my father’s side, and I’m second generation on my mother’s side, and a lot of the people I knew growing up were immigrants, and they were productive, hardworking, honest people. My father got up every morning at four a.m. to work as a meat cutter in Altadena. The people who were being railed against were not the people I knew or the experience growing up that I’d had.
At the same time, James Elroy—the iconic crime writer—wrote My Dark Places about his mother’s murder in El Monte, and (understandably) he describes the city really negatively. But that was not my experience, and so I wanted to write the social and cultural context that I came out of. That was another turning point, a moment of convergences that led to Ladies’ Night. That remains a focus: I want to bring this place and its people, their personal goals and struggles and dreams and desires, into other people’s lives.
SH: Two of the stories in Ladies’ Night are from a woman’s point of view, as are two sections in your novel. What are the challenges in writing “the other”? What must any writer do when expressing an experience or consciousness distinct from their own?
MJB: Emotional truth is the goal for me. That applies when I’m writing any character, but most of all when I’m writing one who’s not like me, in terms of race, gender, etc. There was a woman in grad school who was working on a novel from the male perspective, and the men in workshop would say—Oh, no guy would ever do that! He’s too aggressive! So she’d dial it back, and then in the next workshop, she’d hear that the character was too passive.
Emotional truth is the goal for me.
That caused a lot of frustration on her part, because she was going back and forth trying to hit this imagined target and not really satisfying anyone. [I realized] that the character has to be true to him- or herself, and has to be consistent to his or her views. Whatever people want to make of that is up to them. That takes a sense of confidence on the writer’s part. Flannery O’Connor is a role model for this; her characters are often ugly, and she just leaves it up to us to decide what to make of them.
At the same time, a lot of what I was writing about with the character of Joyce [in This Time Tomorrow] came out of my own experiences and emotions: wanting to escape a responsibility to tradition, wanting to escape a sense of loneliness, wanting to invest in another person but not being sure. All of these are very human things, not gender things. And that’s the part of her that I tried to concentrate on, and hoped other people would connect with and see the truth in. All my work in poetry informed this too. The poet Ai writes persona poems, in which she embodies people like Jimmy Hoffa, Elvis, and James Dean. I was fascinated by her ability to adapt these personalities and convince me of their experiences, and I thought, surely I can write from the perspective of other characters. Ultimately, it’s in honoring “the other” that writers create characters who feel tangible, real. Otherwise it can feel exploitative; writers who put the perceived audience first rather than the characters can end up exploiting both.
SH: Growing up, did you feel an “otherness” with aspects of American culture?
MJB: Absolutely. I remember, when I was about eight or ten, my father wanting a nice golf sweater. He didn’t play golf, but he wanted a sweater, so we went to a nice store in Arcadia, and as we were walking around I noticed the salesperson following us. That was the first moment I became conscious of my otherness.
Even more than race—because the El Monte I grew up in was pretty homogenous—was this idea of class, something I became acutely conscious of. I had some friends who wore the same clothes all year, but I got new sneakers once or twice a year. I had jeans, but they were Levi’s. I had a skateboard. I had a bicycle. I had a Commodore 64 computer. I had mixed feelings about these badges. Then, between the eighth grade and high school, I went from public school, where I was among the upper economic tiers, to a private school, where I was among the lower. So my experience of the social order got completely reversed, and the older I get, the more I realize how profoundly that year affected me. That’s why Ana [in This Time Tomorrow] is thirteen, as are some of my other characters. That’s a really profound age, the age when your identity starts to harden, if it hasn’t already, along with your sense of what’s possible in the world.
SH: Will you—or your characters—ever venture from El Monte?
MJB: Many of my characters want to escape. There’s a theory that we all tell the same story over and over again, and that’s the one I tell: Joyce wants to escape responsibility to her father; Gilbert wants to escape the confines of his loneliness; Ana wants to escape the perceived threat of Joyce to her father. One of the books that I want to write, down the line, is set in a mining town in Chihuahua, where my father and his family are from. It’s about a boy who takes up the accordion and eventually ends up playing in a conjunto during the fifties, and taking a road trip west.
SH: So you do have stories in the pipeline? You’re not one of these writers who finishes a book and stares at the blank page and says, “Oh no, what next?”
MJB: I have the next ten years of my life mapped out, creatively speaking. I’m working on another linked collection, inspired by the Nick Adams stories of In Our Time, by Hemingway, about innocence to loss of innocence to the need for recovery. The central character is a guy named Memo, short for Guillermo, and the arc as I imagine it is Memo learning to make bad decisions from his father, and then making bad decisions as a young man, and then Memo seeking redemption at the end.
SH: So now in addition to escape, we get to see the aftermath.
MJB: I’ve also started this novel about a boy named Omar, who wants to run away from home to join a skateboard contest in Long Beach, with hopes of joining the tour and that will lead to endorsements, etc. It starts in El Monte. My hope is that it will end up a couple hundred pages down the river, in Long Beach.
SH: As a former MFA student and now a teacher, you’re aware of the controversy surrounding the degree, from Junot Diaz’ assertion that the programs are still “too white” to the recent article in the Atlantic, which casts doubt on their value to would-be writers at all. What advice would you give to any student considering an MFA degree, its possible risks and rewards?
…writers who put the perceived audience first rather than the characters can end up exploiting both.
MJB: The greatest risk is going to the first place that lets you in. The same way that writers jump at the first agent who suggests an interest in them, thinking that’s the only chance they have. I actually teach a course at UCR for our most promising undergraduates. It’s all about researching graduate programs to understand their philosophy, the work of the faculty who teach there, and then talking to the current students, to get a sense of what the program is like so they can make an informed decision [rather than] applying blindly to the “best” school and then assuming that it will fit them, be productive for their work. That’s not always the case.
Know where you are applying to is the first thing, and then do your best work to apply there. Sometimes people apply too early, or think of the MFA as a place where they will read a lot and hone their skills. That’s implicitly going to happen, but if you don’t have something to take with you going into that program, it’s not going to be a productive experience. If you’re writing short stories, have at least three, four, five of those stories under your belt in some form, before you apply. If you’re writing a novel, have at least 100 pages and be committed. I was in school with people who started a new novel every quarter, it seemed. They’d go through workshop and think—well, the workshop didn’t like that, and then they’d cast it aside. That’s not the way the degree is best served. The degree to me is best served as a finishing point or capstone for the craft of writing. So you have to have some facility with the craft and also some investment in it, something more than, “This is what I think I’ll do.”
SH: What about another criticism of MFA programs, that they all produce writers who all sound alike?
MJB: That argument presumes that all MFA programs are the same, or that all MFA instruction comes with the same rigor and understanding. They’re not. There are good MFA programs, venues for writers to unfurl themselves, and there are places for writers to mold themselves into a niche or image. I’m hoping we have the former. What is it that you want to do? Who is it that you want to be? And how can I use what I know and the skills that I have to help you become that, your fullest form and expression as a writer?
Even when I find myself disagreeing with a student, over what they’ve done on the page, I make my argument on the basis of the art. I can see what you tell me you want to do, and if you modify this or change the POV, cut this scene or expand here, then that’s more the story I think you want to tell.
If one is in a workshop with ten people, and you come out with three people understanding what you’re trying to achieve, that’s still a positive experience. Don’t let others make your story into what they want to see. Those are the people that we have to cast aside. Those who really understand what you’re trying to do and honor your creativity with their commentary: those are the people you listen to.
SH: Let’s talk for a moment about love. For me, as a reader, that’s what drew me into your characters and their stories: love and all its complexities. It’s what they fight for and what gives them hope. Without straying into the morality of fiction (another controversial topic), do you feel a writer has a responsibility to create worlds in which there is still the hope for love, even if—like the spark of wires in the last story of Ladies’ Night—it’s all so tenuous and uncertain?
MJB: I have a hard time with a lot of the fascination with dystopian worlds right now, because I feel that comes from a place of privilege. Things are so good in your existence that you can afford to tear it all down and play around with what’s left? Whereas a lot of the people I grew up with—and am still surrounded by—are working toward a starting place: of putting together a world.
I also feel that it’s easier to write the sad story than the happy one. I feel some readers go into a story expecting that this will be serious and dark, because if it’s not, then there’s not a whole lot of dramatic value to it. It’s harder to tell a story where the character wins—and wins plausibly, to the reader’s satisfaction. It’s easier to see the dark and sad stuff, it’s harder to pull off the spark. It’s harder for me. The original ending of Ladies’ Night found a character taking a dark, sad turn, and I changed it after a conversation with my editor, who asked me what note I wanted readers leaving my world with. So it’s not that you have to end on a happy or light note. My responsibility is to the truth. To create the social, cultural, and financial context of the world that my characters come from, and the truth of it is that sometimes we have good days, sometimes we win. That’s part of our reality too. We need to see it. To have that spark of hope, to keep going. Even in dark stories, that spark can take the form of connection or transcendence.
SH: Is there a topic we haven’t covered—anything you’d like to add to the current conversation on creative writing?
MJB: I’m always happy when I can put a book down and I can remember the person in the book—the character and the story. We live in a culture in which attention is the most prized commodity. It used to be television we [writers] were fighting with. Now it’s all sorts of screens, all the paths to wander on your television and your laptop and your phone. When something stays with me, and makes me excited about the craft and its ability to survive all those competing things, then that’s the beauty of the art. Great literature still has the power to do that. It has a way of moving people. As a writer, you have to give something that will hit the reader hard, and stay with them. It’s the truth that hits the hardest.