Unshakable: An Interview with Derek Palacio
Art credit: Grace LawrieDerek Palacio is determined and capable — the type of person who has about twenty projects going at any given time, and can juggle them all while sipping coffee and answering questions with a warm smile on his face. At the time of this interview, in late-August 2013, he had just returned from the inaugural workshop of the Mojave School — a creative writing nonprofit in Pahrump, Nevada he founded with his then-fiancé (now wife), Claire Vaye Watkins — and would soon begin his fall semester teaching at Bucknell University, where he’s a full-time professor. In the meantime, he’s finishing his first novel. And after our conversation, he told me, he would be getting fitted for his wedding suit. In the midst of all of that, Derek still found time to meet me in a coffee shop over an hour from his home in Lewisberg, PA to discuss his beautiful novella, How to Shake the Other Man, which Nouvella published in May 2013.
Written in confident, gripping prose, How to Shake the Other Man tells the story of three Cuban-American men in New York, tied to each other by love, brotherhood, and honor. There’s Marcel, a charismatic coffee cart entrepreneur; his brother Oscar, a reserved boxing coach; and young restless Javier, who first becomes Marcel’s lover and then Oscar’s newest boxing prospect. When Marcel is murdered on the street near one of his coffee carts, Javier and Oscar must reckon with the soul-shaking loss and establish a new relationship, and new ways of living, in his absence. Palacio’s expertly crafted plot draws you in by the end of the first page, and his tenderly rendered characters break your heart by the end of the last.
LIZ WYCKOFF: I loved this novella so much. I was thinking of phrases that I wanted to use to describe it and one that came to mind is that it really “packs an emotional punch.” That’s the worst pun ever. Still, it’s amazing how boxing works as a metaphor throughout the book. Do you have any experience boxing yourself? Where did that material come from?
DEREK PALACIO: This is like the 39th incantation of a story I wrote in undergrad — a terrible story about a boxer. Then when I was in grad school, my friend and I took a boxing course together, just for kicks and giggles, just to do something on Friday mornings to wake up. That’s my only experience with boxing, but it was just enough to make it seem a little more real. I think that helped me avoid some of the clichés.
LW: So, you then decided to go back and keep working on that story — did you think it was terrible at the time?
DP: I don’t know if I thought it was terrible, but that’s what happens when you write something and then look at it ten years later — you’re a totally different writer at that point. It was one of those quiet, single-character stories where the character never talks or meets anybody and nothing happens in the end. So, after I did some boxing and started thinking about coming back to the story, I thought, How can I populate this? You know, a boxing match is only interesting because there are other people in the ring.
LW: Well, we’re all glad you kept working on this story. And Nouvella’s done such a nice job with the book — the French flaps and this lovely little size! What was the process of working with Nouvella like?
DP: They were amazing. They’re so great. Not only are they just smart editors, this thing I thought was pretty good, or good enough, they just made it a crap-load better. The section on Javier’s background got much fuller and clearer in the editing process. All of that stuff about his background and how that’s affecting him now wasn’t there before.
LW: Really, they asked you to add?
DP: Yeah, and that was great. Always the fear with the editing process is that it’s going to be a trimming down, and it was great to have them be like, Why don’t you try experimenting with this and see what else can be uncovered here? They just do such a nice job of clarifying what they’re seeing in the work and what they like about it and making sure that’s lining up with what you want to come out in the piece. So, they’re great communicators and then, the production of the book, as you can see, is something that could very easily be just pages stapled together. I think that’s one of their most wonderful tenants: making the book an artifact.
LW: I’m curious about the form. I guess this started as a shorter story, but was the novella a form that made sense to you as you were working toward it?
DP: With How to Shake the Other Man, I didn’t know I was writing a novella. But I’m sort of a long writer anyway — my shorter stories tend to be about 24 or 25 pages. I’m not as good with the microscopic. I tend to work better with larger plotlines and bigger time periods.
LW: And now that you’re writing a novel, how does that feel?
DP: It’s funny, when I sat down to start writing this novel, I thought I was writing a novella. So, everything I write at this point is one degree greater than I originally thought it would be. And the fact that it was sort of an accident, I think, made it a lot easier. I was never consciously worried, like, Oh, this is a novel. What does that mean? What does it have to look like? It was more like, This is a story that never ends! I’ll just keep going and call it something when it’s done.
LW: Your author bio in the novella says you are “completing a novel” — I think I would be way too superstitious to even have that printed! But you must have been far enough along that you felt confident.
DP: Well, I think it’s like when you’re running a marathon and the first thing you do is tell a bunch of people, so that you have to do it or you’ll look like a total liar. Now it’s in print, so I have to finish it. And whether or not I get it published is irrelevant — at least I can tell people that I’ve finished it.
LW: The characters in the novella have traces to a past in Cuba. I know that’s a theme you’re working with in the novel, too. And in your short stories. What’s your connection to Cuba and where did your interest in it come from?
DP: My dad’s from Cuba and he came over in 1956. I’ve been telling people 1955, but I talked to him the other day and realized I’ve been telling a lie — he came over when he was five in 1956. His family was sort of the upper-middle class in Cuba, so they saw what was going to happen when the revolutionary tides were rolling in. They knew they had to get out, so they all came to Miami. But he doesn’t really remember that much. That’s probably why I’m so fascinated with Cuba — I think if I’d grown up with him being like, Oh Cuba was like this, blah blah blah, I probably would have been like, OK, I get it. You’re Cuban, leave me alone about it.
LW: Haha. Instead it’s more mysterious?
DP: Right, yeah. Also, it’s odd to think that my dad is Cuban and he’s part of this Cuban contingency in America that came and made a second Cuba in Miami, but he doesn’t really know anything about it himself. So, when he talks about it, it’s all these strange fragments of memories he has, these weird kid memories, like, I remember a man on a horse. So I talked to him, and I started doing some reading about Cuba. I read Before Night Falls, the memoir by Reinaldo Arenas, which was just the best memoir I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful, private, personal, public. Mostly it just showed me how interesting the place really is. That, I think, combined with my dad’s mysterious background was enough for me to want to start writing about Cuba.
LW: Are you doing more research for the novel?
DP: The novel involves some stuff about Cuban tobacco being grown in Connecticut, and one of the things I read was this awesome, really weird book, called Cuban Counterpoint. It’s written by this Cuban historian about the history of tobacco and sugar, the two main agricultural products of Cuba, and the different cultures that grew up around them. Sugar is mass-produced using a lot of manual labor, and tobacco is grown in small batches and has more of an artisanal feel. So it’s about what those two cultures meant for Cuba, and how they shaped society. I love reading stuff like that. Then I can extrapolate into my own writing and it feels a little more freeing.
I’m not nearly as good at finding interesting facts and working them into the story. I like much more to take an idea and see how it can be dramatized. Like, with my story “Sugarcane,” I read about sugarcane in the 70s and 80s when the entire economy relied on selling sugar to the Russians. The military would cordon off all the roads to ship the yields, because people would steal it and sell it on the black market just to get by. But it was so important to keep the economy afloat that they had military escorts for these sugarcane stalks. From that comes a story, like, What if someone did get illegal black market sugar, what would they do with it? How would it change their life? How attached would they be?
LW: How does the writing process work for you?
DP: I’d say I’ve had to get a lot more comfortable over the years writing out a lengthy, maybe verbose, overwrought first draft and then doing a second draft that’s even thicker and fuller. I like to let things fully bloom before I start trimming them down, which is really satiating because you can write 2,000 words in a day, and maybe it’s mostly crap, but …
LW: But you made all that progress!
DP: Exactly! It looks like progress on the page, right? I tend to do the big plot movements, which I sort of have to anchor in first, and in the second, third, and fourth drafts, I dig more into the character. My first drafts are all characters who seem interesting to me and they’re doing things I can’t really explain, that maybe don’t make sense on the page, but then afterwards I go back and ask Why did that character feel that way? Why did he do that? Why did he punch this guy in the face? Or why did he break up with this person?
My fiancé Claire Watkins, she’s like a miner. She will dig in the earth and chip away until she gets the tiny little diamond that’s like ten words in a day. And they’re beautiful! I just look at her and I’m like, Don’t you ever change that sentence. It’s amazing. But I can’t work that way. In order to keep myself interested, I think I just need big things to happen. You know, I need to kill a main character immediately. And then it’s definitely more fun for me to ask why after the fact.
LW: What would you say about living with another writer, someone who’s also taking the writing life very seriously? Is that difficult at times?
DP: You know, it’s really hard for me to imagine a life with someone who doesn’t understand that world. She and I are so invested in it. I mean, it’s terrible on the bad days because if we both have a bad day at the same time and we’re in different rooms, a cloud starts to form over the apartment. But then it’s nice to be able to look at each other and say, Oh, she’s having a bad day or He’s having a bad day. It’ll be OK. Also, I don’t know if this is true for her, but certainly when you’re living in the same household as Claire Watkins, you’re writing next to someone who just won a crap-load of prizes and who’s doing exceptionally well. You’re sort of like, I better up my game a little bit more! And as I was saying, we have different focuses in our writing and that’s nice, too. For me, she makes the language of my work — the cohesiveness, the tautness of it — much sharper when she reads something and points stuff out.
LW: We were talking about how you two just returned from your first creative writing workshop for teens in rural Nevada. Can you tell us a little bit about the Mojave School and how the first session went?
DP: Sure! Claire and I have now both taught at Sewanee, the University of the South, in Tennessee, which has a young writers conference every summer. It’s a two-week experience for a bunch of high school students to come in and do creative writing — it’s a lot of fun and they very much enjoy it. But it’s also a prestigious school in the south, so it costs a fair amount of money. We’d also heard of Dave Egger’s 826 and those are all located in urban areas, which makes sense because they can reach a lot of people. But Claire comes from a rural background and knows that resources hardly ever make it out into those rural territories because the populations are so small. So we were talking about how somebody should do this in a rural area and we were like, Well, I guess we’re two writers who can probably do that. So, Claire and I started getting contacts. Claire called her old high school, got in contact with the community center in her town in rural Nevada, and talked to people about coming in for a week and setting up a very casual writing center for any interested students. Last year, our marketing was terrible. We tried to just send out fliers and we had nobody sign up.
LW: Yeah, that does seem like it would be one of the challenges.
DP: Definitely, just getting the word out. So, this past spring, Claire went and visited her old school, contacted all of her teachers, went to all of the history and English classes, and made a pitch. And it was great. We had 25 students sign up, about 20 actually showed up, and 16 stayed throughout the week. I mean, our goal was basically to start on Monday and make it to Friday. So, the fact that we had 16 kids was great. And they were just the right 16 kids — they wanted to be there, they were really excited, they were all avid readers who love to write and be creative.
I mean, these are high school kids voluntarily coming in from 9 AM to 12 PM and sitting down and chatting with you about literature. I was really impressed and amazed. The kind of students who come to Sewanee are really wonderful, but I think they’re also a little more forward-thinking about college and wanting to do stuff to help that process, which is great. But if you asked the students at the Mojave School, Why are you here?, they’d say, Well, I just like to sit down and write sometimes. There’s nothing that compares to teaching just for the sake of learning a new thing. There are no grades at the Mojave School, it’s all just: How do we get a little bit better at this? How do we talk about it? How do we experience new things? The freedom that allows you is… it’s wonderful. I really enjoyed it as much as the students did. So, I think it’s a raging success.
Liz Wyckoff’s short fiction has been published in Quarterly West, Annalemma, and The Collagist, among other journals, and her book reviews and author interviews can be found online at The Rumpus, Electric Lit, and Tin House. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she works in marketing and publicity for Barrelhouse and A Strange Object.