August 3rd, 2009 / 9:18 am
Author Spotlight

Interview with Liza Monroy

liza2Liza Monroy’s debut novel, Mexican High, came out last  summer (2008) from Speigel & Grau and the paperback was released a few months ago. The novel’s protagonist is Mila, a high school senior who moves to Mexico City when her mother gets a job in the embassy. There’s already a lot of dramatic potential in a high schooler’s life, and adding in the class tensions, rampant drug use and oppulent wealth of the expensive prep school where Mila lands just makes the drama of adolescence that much more high stakes. It’s a wonder there aren’t a lot more novels set in high school. I interviewed Liza over email…
CL: You’ve said in an interview that the years you lived in Mexico City stuck with you and inspired you to write Mexican High. What do you think it is about a place or a city that often wrenches a story out of a writer?

LM: I am enormously influenced by place. As an only child with a single mom who moved around all the time, I got to spend a lot of time alone growing up in foreign countries and on weekends and holidays all Mom wanted to do was travel, so that was a huge thing for me, taking in places. High school in Mexico City was the subject I wanted to write about first; ever since I graduated and moved back to the States, I knew that if I succeeded in writing a novel, my first would be “the Mexico City high school project.”  It was just such a unique world: bodyguards and drivers waiting outside the school for certain kids, the extreme nature of the city–altitude, pollution, beauty, chaos, history, freedom…the warmth of the culture, the gap between social classes, political assassinations that hit close to home, the chance that something could happen to my mother with the kinds of cases she had to work on…it was overall such an intense experience I couldn’t not write about it.

In this case it was place, this city, that sprung the novel.  In my new project place is important, too, but not as important. It’s more about someone’s ability to stay in a place. It’s a story of friendship and family, and has more to do with the absurdity of certain laws regarding marriage and immigration.  So the new work is primarily character-driven, but there’s still that international component and cultural commentary that I think will always be important to my writing – I’ve got some ideas for the characters’ adventures in Turkey, Italy, and Los Angeles and the book is still in its formative stages.
CL: The  novel paints a not completely flattering picture of Mexico City’s children of teenager international diplomats, and I know you went to a High School similar to the one in the novel. How offended and/or amused were your former classmates?

LM: I’ve had reactions running the gamut from complete love to total hatred and offense! I meant nothing to be a literal depiction, which is why I went with fiction in the first place rather than a memoir of those years.  It’s funny because if everything were a flattering portrait and the characters didn’t have flaws and lapses in judgment, there would be no conflict and no way could it be about teenagers at all.  My intent was never to portray the world or characters in a negative light–Mila is far from perfect herself–but rather for Mila to function as a sponge absorbing this world, with all the excitement and danger that goes along with it.  The characters are composites of parts of myself and imagination, as well as exaggerated traits of people I’d known here and there, but no character is an exact replica of anyone I knew.  When Mila leaves Mexico she says she’s going “from one simulacrum of my life to another” – which I intended as a wink to the Mexico City in the book being a manipulated, fictional version of an actual place, the way Mila feels her life is a series of fictions as dictated by her mother’s moves–that she herself can never feel quite real or complete because she lacks roots, pieces of identity, and a place to genuinely feel at home.

The most interesting reaction I got was from a former classmate who thought he was being depicted in the book as a minor character.  He sent a long self-published critique he’d written of the novel, and was forwarding it around the alumni community of the high school we attended, which is loosely the model for the school in the book but again, by no means an exact depiction, not at all.  He was angry and offended, I thought unnecessarily, because I didn’t remember him, much less write him into the novel. And yet, I appreciated how much time he’d taken to close-read, analyze, and critique it, plus conduct research about my other writing.  When someone is so enraged, it actually can make you feel you’ve had some impact, for some reason even more so than when a response is flattering–I suppose because flattery can be false, but anger guarantees honesty, and I believe writers are always after strong reactions.
CL: A professor once told me that while you’re writing a first book, the most important thing to do is to find the system (the literary form or work habit) that will allow you to write the thing. I know you were really busy with freelance writing gigs while you were writing Mexican High. Did you use any system that gave you the space you to write?

LM: It was a little bit crazy and I’m not sure that I could ever repeat the process by which I wrote Mexican High again.  I wrote the book in very long bursts, often 20 or 25 pages in a sitting.  I felt like I’d been storing up so long to write it I felt a sense of urgency, and I was also trying to see if I could write a novel.  At that point it was about seeing how much I could develop, and simply passing the 100, 200, 300-page mark was new to me and completely exciting.  I imposed rules–looking back, they were ridiculous rules–where I’d do silly things like drink a large iced coffee and not allow a bathroom break until I hit my 20-page quota for that day.  Needless to say, I did a whole lot of rewriting, slowly and more humanely.

As for balancing my freelance work with the novel, it came pretty naturally–I’d devote however long it took to a freelance writing job to get it done well, and while waiting for edits go back to the novel.  I definitely had to have everything else off my plate before I could totally dive in, so some days and weeks I wouldn’t touch the book at all.  Then the feverish bursts to get to the same point I would have had I wrote consistently, but fewer pages a day.

CL: Oi! I can’t imagine going weeks without working on a big project. It might evaporate when I’m not looking. I know you’re teaching and taking classes at Columbia during the school year but how are you enjoying a summer of lessened commitments? Do you feel that it’s easier to write when it’s your only obligation or when you’re under a certain amount of constraint?

LM:  I’m torn on that question, actually.  I tend to think, “as soon as I get everything else off my plate–teaching, freelance gigs, taking workshops–then I will have unencumbered time to write and be as productive as I was during the composition of Mexican High.” It has never once worked out that way.  This summer, for example, I thought once the semester ended I would be in the same cafe every morning, executing my routine, and finishing a certain memoir.  What happened instead was I realized the memoir was one long character study for a second novel, and began outlining the novel.  Then I took on a freelance assignment, profiling Jonathan Lethem for Poets & Writers, so I went up to Maine to do that.  Then I took a vacation in Canada.  Now I’m writing the profile and also in the early stages of a deal to write a series of YA books as a collaboration, so I’m learning that lesson of “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”  I think constraint is good.  I also hope that one day writing will be my only obligation.

CL: Craft question: Are you a plot-it-all-out first writer or write-yourself-into-the-plot kind of writer?

I had plot-points I wanted to hit in Mexican High, certain memories or moments I wanted to include, things that were particular to Mexico City at that time or that really happened, like the scene where the protagonists bribe a policeman in the park at 3am, and Mila’s realizations about class and power in the society she’s thrust into.

I left a lot open-ended and up to chance.  Mila’s search for her Mexican politician father was a subplot that’s completely an invention, and I had no idea at the outset if or how she was going to find him.  Even what I find to be the strangest coincidence in the book—a breakthrough in the mystery which happens because of a pair of earrings—was a coincidental moment in the writing. It just came out that way.  Not planning too much beforehand allowed me to have a lot of fun and spontaneity in Mexican High, but for my new novel I’m deep into an outlining stage.  It’s interesting to feel the beginnings of how different books require variations in approach.

CL: Your next book is a memoir though, about a story that I absolutely love. Can you give us your schpeil on that?

LM:  Surprise! The memoir and the novel are one.

The story entails a straight Jewish-Italian-American girl who marries her gay Middle Eastern, Muslim best friend, Emir, to  keep him in the country.  Her mother is a high-ranking INS/DHS (Immigration & Naturalization which folded into “Homeland Security” post-9/11) official whose job is to bust fake marriages, yet in her wilder days married an Italian so she could bring him to the States.  Emir’s father is a deeply religious, exorbitantly wealthy businessman who had a close relative murdered after finding out he was gay, and Emir’s mother knows he’s gay and is desperate for him not to be exposed.

There’s going to be a lot about what defines love, marriage, and family, and it will be an international romp with ticking clocks and many twists and turns.

I decided on novel instead of memoir because over the past couple of years I learned how much I love freedom, and I would want readers to read my books without scrutinizing what I might have exaggerated or if I am not being self-deprecatingly funny in tone. I’d rather they seek truth in my novel than fakeness in my memoir, or better yet, just get absorbed by the story. A character in a novel can go anywhere.  And now that it’s third-person, I can go inside Emir’s head, too, without causing the reader to question how I could know what he’s thinking.  For the first time in a long time I am refreshed and ecstatic about writing this. I knew I could never give the story up, I had to pursue it, but the right form just turned out not to be in the nearer realm of past vs. present tense, or short chapters vs. long, or chronological vs. looping through time.  It was something entirely other than I initially thought.

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  1. Liza Monroy » Blog Archive » new interview, HTMLgiant

      […] Catherine Lacey recently interviewed me for literary blog HTMLgiant. We talked about approaches to writing a first novel, why fiction trumped memoir, and what happens when people think your novel’s characters are them. I divulged what happened to my second book, and another no-longer-secret thing related to my last post. Check it out here. […]