Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Christopher Gonzalez’s fiction piece, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat
Sommer: You have such an enviable command of pacing. At no point does the story get stuck. You have managed to find a perfect balance between narration and dialogue; backstory and present story. Do you have any strategies when considering the pacing of a story? Do you read your drafts out loud?
Chris: I worry a lot about pacing, particularly with a story like this where I’m holding two characters hostage in a diner booth. There needs to be momentum, but how? If action can’t move the narrative forward then it has to be voice and emotional beats, it has to be the spiral of thoughts writhing inside the narrator’s anxiety. This is where reading drafts out loud becomes essential. I need to know if a story will sing, that I’ve clicked into its rhythm. I can listen for the bloat; sometimes this helps with figuring out if a story stops too soon or goes past its rightful end.
Also, what a command of language! I love the poetry of this line: “To get full and loose in the mouth and house the booze sloshing in my stomach [. . .],” and the attention to details overall (“I lick the white sauce from my wrist [. . .]”). When a story first comes to you, what comes first, the language/images or the plot/storyline? How do you find inspiration? And how would you coach new writers in finding it?
When starting a new draft, I ask, What’s the situation? That’s not the same as what is the story? I can figure that out later. My earlier drafts look like skeletons of sitcom episodes, offering up a premise that falls flat without the right character and plot attached. For this story, the situation is synonymous with the title. I’ve said it, friends have said it, and I wanted to explore the weight of it. The images and language followed, stemming from and reinforcing the character: would this character notice a couple arguing outside the diner and a waiter sadly counting his tips in the back of the restaurant, or is he too consumed by his physical fullness and trying to make it through the meal? What might be interesting to you, the writer, is not always necessary to tell the story.
As for inspiration—I don’t want to tell new writers to “write what you know” so I’d ask them to do something more specific, which is, write from fear, from insecurity; write what makes you angry, or, sure, what makes you happy. Interrogate these emotions and what elicits them. You don’t have to excavate trauma from your life and throw it onto a page (unless you want and need to!), but there is potential in what might feel mundane to your everyday life. My stories come out of intense anxieties I feel about my body, sex, loneliness, friendship dynamics, and vulnerability. There is nothing remarkable about these topics on their own, but that just makes it a fun challenge to write through them.
What do you do when you get stuck while writing a story?
I go for a walk or take a long shower. I might listen to the same song on loop for an hour. Basically, I try to get into a meditative state. Pre-pandemic, I would go to the movies and allow myself two hours of escape. I’ll also read or engage in art that differs from my own (which is to say I’ll listen to musical cast recordings). If I get frustrated enough and can’t work out the kink, I’ll set the story aside. If am able to revisit that draft two days, three months, a year or even two after leaving it for dead in my Google Drive, I’ll take that as a sign that it was something worth finishing.
I don’t know about you, but sheltering in place has unleashed in me food cravings. All of a sudden, I simply must have those crispy Hong Kong noodles from that fantastic noodle place, with maybe a side of those wontons they’re so famous for. And, oh, I could really go for Indian at . . ., etc. If you could fashion one meal at this time, what would it be?
Sommer, you’re speaking my language! I miss my favorite spots around New York City. But just one meal? Fuck. I want a feast. I’m grabbing an 8-count order of pierogi from Veselka and the guava-and-cheese empanada from Empanada City, this Puerto Rican-Dominican family-owned spot in my neighborhood. Definitely picking up a slice of chocolate cake from Casellula in Midtown. I’ve only had it once but I’ve never been the same (I mean, they pour local cream over the cake!). I’ll finish things off with a heaping helping of Halal Guys’ chicken over rice, then wash it all down with a cup of coffee from Washington Square Diner. Nothing exceptional or exciting about the coffee, but I miss diners, I miss their comfort.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection? What keeps you going?
It may sound wrong, but rejections are good. They can be a guidepost toward finding the right home for a story or realizing it needs more work. They can save you from yourself. When I was starting out, regular rejections stung. Now they’re routine enough that when one really gets me down, it’s because my heart was in it on another level—I was making myself vulnerable to an opportunity I might have previously held back on. With these rejections, I’ll sit in my sadness for a night, have a drink. Then get back to it the next day. Because nothing is greater than the thrill I experience while writing and tweaking and tinkering with a piece I love. I’d say, focus on that feeling. Focus on why you love doing this. You’ll get there.
Thank you for doing this with me, and congratulations!
Thank you for such thoughtful questions!