Writer Manuel Muñoz grew up in Dinuba, California. Beginning in fourth grade he worked alongside his family in the fields, harvesting grapes. He was a good student, and according to his website, he applied to Harvard “for no other reason than I knew the name.” After he graduated from Harvard, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Cornell and worked in the publishing industry in New York. He wrote and published two acclaimed story collections, 2003’s Zigzagger and 2007’s The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. Since 2008, Muñoz has taught in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Muñoz’s honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a NEA Fellowship, and an O. Henry Award. Muñoz’s dazzling new novel What You See In The Dark reimagines the filming of Psycho in the sleepy town of Bakersfield, California. Muñoz sets the filming of that classic movie against the moving fictional story of the murder of Teresa, a young Mexican-American woman, by her white lover. I recently interviewed Muñoz via email about the inspiration for What You See In The Dark, his love of books that “honor the sentence,” how a small town that seems to have nothing “actually has everything,” and Tucson’s literary scene.
New West: What first inspired What You See in the Dark?
Manuel Muñoz: I had many inspirations for this novel, but one I haven’t spoken about much is a dream I had. I’m not a believer in dreams as anything metaphysically significant; it’s just the brain’s way of clearing out the day’s debris. But one night, I had a dream of walking into an empty room and a woman was sitting on a bed, smoothing out the beautiful baby-blue cowboy skirt she was wearing. When I woke, I tried to recall where I might have seen that image—a TV commercial or a flash of something while flipping channels—but I came up empty. But the image stuck, so I wrote it down. It soon became a simple question. Who is she?
NW: Can you describe your writing process? How was writing a novel different than writing short stories?
MM: Most of the books I enjoy privilege mood, tone, language, and nuance over plot. Plot rarely excites me, except when it’s so airtight that its inventiveness is its own reward. I get much more excited by books which honor the sentence, and that’s what I try to do. Short stories have always given me to room to keep plot small. It’s much harder to do so in a novel—plot has to be at least one of the mechanisms for momentum. The revision process is much harder because one small change ripples through a much greater structure. That’s why I find short-story collections much more enjoyable to both read and write: if a style, a character, a time frame, or an event really isn’t grabbing my attention, something else can change.
NW: What research did you do for this novel?
MM: I watched a lot of Hitchcock’s films, less for the plot than for the camerawork. I watched how he dictated a scene, how he observed it, and this helped tremendously in giving my novel the right balance of interiority and cinematic feel. In researching Bakersfield, I’m lucky that I come from a place where change happens quite slowly. Many of the buildings in Central Valley downtowns are still very much like they were in years past, so it was easy to step into one, hear the creaky wood floors, and summon myself into the TG&Y of my 1970s childhood. Even then, it was already an outmoded store, trying its best to hang on.
NW: What did you discover about Bakersfield in 1959? You said in one interview that Bakersfield was a music industry hub then—I’d never heard of that. Did you look at photographs or read histories?
MM: I knew that Bakersfield held its hometown hero, Buck Owens, in high esteem, but it was only in reading about its music scene in the 1950s and ’60s that I found out just how big it was. Given how close Bakersfield is to the stardom of Los Angeles, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Newspapers were quite helpful, as were archival entertainment magazines from the era, in capturing the “look” of the environment. For the social attitudes of the era, I simply asked questions of people who had long lived in the Valley. While it was clear that people had different views of the Valley depending on their ethnicity and/or social class, nearly all of the older people I talked to shared a certain conservative attitude—an idea of acting “properly,” so to speak—and that this shared sense of propriety, by their view, disappeared during that time.
NW: Parts of the book are written in the third-person perspectives of Teresa, Arlene, The Actress, and The Director, and parts of the book are narrated in second person, a perspective that seems to stand in for the views of the town as a whole, but also for Candy, Teresa’s jealous coworker at the shoe store, in particular. How did you come up with the voice of the town for these sections and why did you decide to use second person for them, instead of, say the first-person plural “we”?
MM: I think readers are sometimes too quick to dismiss the second-person as a set of instructions, as if using the “you” might not serve a purpose specific to a novel’s structure. In my novel, I think the “you” fit in perfectly as a foil to Psycho’s strange narrative device of having Marion Crane imagine the discovery of her crime. We see a shot of her driving the getaway car, but hear the discovery as a voiceover. It’s impossible for her to know this is happening, but her face registers a reaction as if she were listening!
That’s what got me to thinking about how we narrate moments in our heads. I ask friends whether they use “I” or “you” when they talk to themselves (“I better hurry up” or “You can’t forget to buy milk”). Either way sounds crazy, but I like how demanding that “you” can suddenly become. That’s why it felt perfect for the character of Candy. The “you” is really a voice of self-contemplation, a private, jealous voice that not even the first-person “I” can really accomplish.
NW: Were you influenced by the structure of Hitchcock’s Psycho in the way you structured your novel? I’m thinking especially of the way he never shows the actual murder of Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh)—he shows the moments surrounding it, so the audience remembers having seen it.
MM: Actually, no. The more I studied the film, the less I liked it. It’s an outstanding moral mystery, but once the shower scene is over, it becomes a chase story. I admire the crafting of the shower scene as much as anyone, but I also see the film as a deliberate refusal of character. The shock, to me, wasn’t that a woman was murdered in the shower, but that the character of Marion Crane was killed. I’m not entirely convinced that Hitchcock was entirely invested in Marion Crane as a woman, as a living person. It’s a strangely neutral scene in some ways, as evidenced by the shot of that shower head, peering down as the scene goes on. I tried my best to reject that idea in my novel, to insist to readers that knowing why a murder happens does nothing to change the fact that a brutal event has occurred, that a life has been taken violently.
NW: I admired the subtlety with which you depicted relations between Latinos and whites in Bakersfield in 1959. Although it’s never stated, you sense that part of the reason the town appears to disapprove of the relationship between Teresa and Dan Watson is because she is Mexican-American and he is white. The town accepts the role of the Mexican men who wait outside at dawn for jobs in the fields, but when they cross out of their accepted place, there are consequences, as there were for Teresa’s former Mexican suitor, who was deported. Did you consciously decide that you would address race in a peripheral way in this book, or did it just turn out that way in the telling of the story?
MM: I absolutely did aim for subtlety. Such tensions have nearly always come from small moments in my books. Part of this is a reaction to how narrowly some readers conceive of Chicano literature, that it’s a body of work in which characters exist first and foremost in their ethnic or racial identities rather than in the invented lives I could grant them. Most readers are smarter than that. We can intuit those tensions quite easily in real life—all of us silently judge—so I saw no reason to be explicit on the page.
NW: The character based on Alfred Hitchcock, know as The Director, thinks, “Small towns are filled with people who notice every little detail.” You grew up in a fairly small town (Dinuba, Calif.). Do you credit growing up there with your attention to detail?
MM: I was lucky to grow up there. It taught me how to watch and listen. In another interview, I stated that the Valley is a place of observers, a place where neighbors watch neighbors. Because change comes so slowly, the thirst for change is rewarded only by one’s patience. You have to keep looking, you have to keep watching, like staring at a pot of water until, soon enough, it all starts to boil. I learned very quickly that a place that seems to have nothing actually has everything, if you just look carefully.
NW: Your three books have been set in California’s Central Valley. Do you think you will continue to set work there?
MM: I really do hope so. In terms of immediate market appeal, I know that it isn’t the sexiest of places and that I run the risk of being deemed a regional writer. But the Valley is so historically important to Chicano/a literature that I feel I must continue to represent it with as many facets as possible. The best way to defeat a notion that one’s writing is “regional” is to keep demonstrating that any manner of story can take place there. Do so successfully, and you’re suddenly an American writer, no questions asked.
NW: Your two story collections had many characters whose biographical details matched your own. In What You See in the Dark the characters appear to be very different from you—three women (two of them white), and one white British man. Was it more challenging to write from such different perspectives? Or was it liberating?
MM: I found it very liberating, if only for the simple reason that I could get the autobiographical monkey off my back. I liked the challenge of showing that I had my own set of compulsions that might not be the subject matter of any other Chicano/a writer, which satisfies me greatly. As much as I want to identify with this literature, I also want my individual aims and ambitions to be considered and debated. If that happens, I hope it can lead to an investigation of my earlier books with an eye to theme, moral dilemmas, and style rather than the easier match-up of biography and place.
NW: You used to work in publishing in New York, and now you teach creative writing at the University of Arizona. Are either of those jobs better for facilitating your own writing? How do you balance the obligations of your job with your own creative work?
MM: Working in publishing was much easier because the work ended at five o’clock! Good teaching requires a lot of commitment to students and I find it very hard to refuse a student’s story, no matter how many drafts I’ve read. I just finished my third year of teaching and have found it very difficult to balance my own work against it. But I’m starting a fourth book, so I will have to adjust quickly if I want the work to move a little faster.
NW: What is Tucson’s literary community like?
MM: For the students, I think it’s wonderful. They have active participation in their graduate reading series at a downtown location called Casa Libre, which offers community workshops. Our Poetry Center is justifiably famous and one of the most beautiful places to hear a reader. Our Tucson Book Festival has already grown to be one of the biggest in the country: I’m really proud of the University of Arizona’s commitment to serving the public with this event.
NW: What are you working on next?
MM: I have some stories brewing and a novel is taking shape via notes, but it’s too early to tell. I’m still exhausted from What You See in the Dark!