Ep. 230 How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee — The Stacks Book Club (Ingrid Rojas Contreras) – Transcript

Author Ingrid Rojas Contreras joins us again to talk about our book club selection How to Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Our discussion of this essay collection covers the artists’ relationship to critical reviews, and how much day jobs and everyday life inform art. We also ask, how important is truth to fiction, and what constitutes a life well-lived?

Be sure to listen all the way to end of the episode to find out what our September book club pick will be!


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Traci Thomas 0:09
Welcome to The Stacks a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and it is the stacks book club day. We are joined again by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, the author of The Man Who Could Move Clouds and you can catch Ingrid’s first appearance on the show back on our August 3 episode. Ingrid is here to talk about our book club pick which is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, a collection of essays by Alexander Chee. It’s Chee’s own meditation on creating art, life, politics, and how all of that intersects with his identities as a gay Korean American artist and activist through the collection. Ingrid and I talk about the relationship between the reader and the writer. We talked about what it means to live a life well lived and how she cleverly can make just about anything about writing. Oh, and make sure you listen through the end of the episode to find out what our book club pick for September will be. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. If you love the show and want more of it head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks back, you’ll get BONUS episodes of the show like our most recent one with author Tia Williams, you’ll get access to our lively discord community discounts on merch and of course, you’ll get to be part of the Stacks monthly virtual book club. If those perks sound exciting to you, or you just really want to show your love for this little black woman run indie book podcast, head to patreon.com/the stacks to join a quick thank you to our newest members of the Stax pack. Maria Andrea Belmont and Maya. Well, Belle, thank you both so much. And thank you, as always to the incredible wonderful, extremely lovely stacks back. And now it’s time for my book club chat with Ingrid Rojas Contreras on Alexander Chee’s collection of essays, how to write an autobiographical novel.

Alright, everyone, it is the Stacks book club day, I am joined again by the wonderful, talented, creative, exciting, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is the author of the man who could move clouds. Ingrid, welcome back to the stacks.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 2:11
Hi, so wonderful to see you twice in a row.

Traci Thomas 2:15
I know it’s a dream. So today’s book club day, we’re talking about how to write an autobiographical novel by Alexander Chee, it’s a collection of essays, I always forget to do this. So I’m trying to make a really good point of telling people what the books about, it’s a collection of essays about Alexander Chee’s life and also about creating art and in his case, writing, so it’s sort of a guide to writing your own novel, if you will, but also just like approaching writing, and then also essays about his experiences from studying abroad in Mexico to planting a Rose Garden in New York City, to being an activist during, you know, the AIDS crisis in San Francisco. So it’s sort of a lot of different things. That’s always my least favorite part of the episode. Okay. And then this is where we really get started. Just kind of briefly, will you tell me what you thought of this book?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 3:11
Yeah, it’s, I think that one of just hearing you describe it was making me look back and think about what I really loved about this collection of essays. And it is that sometimes, you know, like, you read that essay about Alex Qi, planting the Rose Garden, and you really kind of get into the roses, and how is this garden going to look and then eventually, at some point, halfway through the essay, you start to realize that it is also about it’s an essay about making a life, which can also be like an essay about, you know, like, how do you how do you make space in the world? How do you want to be in the world? Like, what does that look like? And creative practice. So I feel like all of these essays are about finding yourself and they’re about, you know, how do you create your life and that part of creativity that is also art making flourishes throughout the the collection. And I just really love this book for that reason, because it just talks about life and creativity and just how the two can’t be separated. So it’s yeah, it’s just something that I just kind of just really wowed me about this book. What about you? What did you think?

Traci Thomas 4:33
Okay, this is sort of a disclaimer, everybody. I am not a writer. I am shockingly not interested in writing. I’m not interested in the art process making as much as I’m interested in the art. So for me, this book was really hit or miss depending on the essay. Now, I want to say this very clearly. Alexander chi is a fucking In a phenomenal writer, yeah, because I was reading these essays sitting there being like, I really don’t care about this at all. And yet here, I am still deeply invested in how you’re going to tell the story or how you’re going to write. So for me, like, there were definitely essays that I really loved and connected to. But those were the ones that were more based on his experiences and his life and less like instructive about writing less about like, the decision to go to Iowa’s Writers Workshop, like, I just I don’t, it doesn’t mean anything to me, you know? Yeah. So it was a difficult read, because while I liked the writing, and I liked a lot of the essays, some of them I was like, I’m so bored here, because this is just not a thing that I’m curious about. And I’m, I’ll be really excited to hear what people listening to the show think. Because I know so many people are writers, or are interested in the actual writing process in a way that I know this is gonna sound weird. I’m just not even Yeah, so much about the process.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 6:01
Yeah, I get that. And I think that was this book. It’s trying to imagine what talking to about writing could look like and that it’s not a full, like, this is how you create a novel or you know, like, talk about talking about craft in that way. But it is still kind of a craft book. And instead it’s talking about creative process and life. Yeah. So I wonder if those parts of the book that you were kind of like losing interest in? Probably I think those are geared for the for the writer craft side? Who is like reading and and who is wondering, how does it all happen? And what does it look like? And what are what are, you know, what, what is the life like?

Traci Thomas 6:51
Yeah, how many times have you read this book?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 6:53
Probably three times, I would say-

Traci Thomas 6:57
And when you read it for the first time, had you published any books yet?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 7:03
Yes. I had published I had published my novel, by the time that I that I read it. Yeah. And I think the first time that I read it, there’s like a chapter that’s called how to write an autobiographical novel. No way. It’s the later one. But it’s like the list of-

Traci Thomas 7:20
Oh, 100 things about writing a novel.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 7:24
Yeah. And that one, just like, really, yeah, how to write an autobiographical novel. And then it just, it lists all it’s like on page 244. And it just lists all kinds of things about what it means when when you’re writing a novel, and you’re borrowing from life. And there was this line that just like really hit me. And it’s just like the end of that part ready, ready to see as much of your life as you let them more than what they already have taken. One last surprise hidden behind the rest, write fiction about your life and pay with your life, at least three times. Here is the X. I just like really felt that and just coming from having written a novel that was autobiographical, and how much how strange it is that you borrow from life, and then you end up you know, and it’s fiction, but you actually end up putting so much truth in the in the novel. I just, I felt like, yeah, that part, just like, really, I remember reading that and just like sitting there for a while taking that in.

Traci Thomas 8:30
That’s something I really want to talk about is writing fiction about your life, taking things from your life. And then the thing that was really interesting to me, it was in the other one, the autobiography of my novel, which was a little bit earlier. And he talks about, you know, this whole process, and at the end, he talks about this prisoner who like has written to him, because his autobiographical novel, is Edinburgh, and it’s about, you know, a young person who has is molested, and it’s like, kind of like layers on layers. But it’s the person who wrote him as a prisoner who was jailed for being for having molested a child. And Alex says, you know, they took something from the novel that was different than what I had intended. And so I’m really curious about that for you and a person who’s also written this like sort of autobiographical novel, what’s it like when someone takes from your book, not what you had hoped or intended they would take?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 9:35
I think that for me, like the the comments that I that I received for it, where it feels like it’s not what I intended, or when people told me that they’ve that they’ve learned so much about Colombia, as if it as if the novel was kind of like a history book, or as if it was right right there to kind of like, educate them. And I and you know, and I think that’s, it doesn’t bother For me that someone you know, because of course, that would happen that you write a book and then different people are just going to get different things from it. But it is very different than what I wanted the reader to, to walk away from, or to sorry to walk away with from reading the novel. And I, you know, I wrote it trying to understand, you know, what is what is like this very complicated relationship that you can have with someone in a country that’s been, you know, at war for decades. And what happens when that violence kind of creeps in and gets closer and then poisons that relationship, and then what happens to those two people, and that’s what I was trying to, to study and look at and to really explore with the novel and it was, you know, something that because you know, that novel is also out of whack graphical for me, and it involves a kidnap and an attempted kidnap, kidnapping, that, it just, it was just like, really hard for me to go there. Right. And so then you have this whole personal experience alone in your room where you’re like doing this hard thing. And then you publish. And then someone says, I read, I learned so much about the history, you know, it’s just like, not quite, not quite what you were like, Okay.

Traci Thomas 11:28
Write that. Okay. So, in the one that you mentioned, how to write an autobiography, autobiographical novel, The first line is, you only tell the truth. That’s the first sentence of that essay. And, you know, as a person who certainly loves art in all, in most different forms, and you know, like, thinks about art and likes to talk about art and critique art and all these things. I was really struck by that sentence, because I kept thinking like, what does that even mean? In art? What is telling the truth even mean, an art like, isn’t part of art, that you’re allowed not to tell the truth? Or that you’re supposed to not tell the truth or that even in nonfiction like that, there’s some rendering of the world through the artists viewpoint. And I just thought that really struck me. And then I started thinking, like, can I tell when a book is not being truthful? Not that the facts are untrue, but like that, it’s not actually true to the, to the author and like, and I wonder, like, how, how do you even like, for me, not that I’m like an artist, but for this show. There are definitely interviews on the show, or episodes of this show, where I know that I was faking the funk, where like, I wasn’t being truthful, or like I wasn’t really locked in, in the way that I feel is truth. Ish truth like, and so I don’t always know that I’m doing it until I listened back or like, I don’t always know. But I think about writers and you have an editor and you have this other person who’s telling you what they’re getting from it. Is it hard to tap into the truthy part? Is it hard to like, stop lying to yourself? Like how does that work?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 13:18
It is yeah, I think it is really hard. Alex G in this book, I think the first essay talks a lot about seeing yourself.

Traci Thomas 13:31
The one about being in Mexico, and Mexico.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 13:32
And it’s I think curse. Yeah, the curse. And it’s, I think an essay at some point. He’s where he says, I was a boy who was who was trying to lose himself and other people as a way to see himself. So I think that kind of that kind of self awareness, both to really understand, you know, what, how you’re living your life, and what those the hidden part of what you’re doing. I think that’s the really hard part to do. But I do think that whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, that as a writer, you absolutely need to have that kind of self awareness. And when it how do you get it? How do you get it? I think that it’s I think that you don’t look away, you know, so like, the parts when you if you’ve caught in those kind of uncomfortable moments where you’re like, Oh, I’m catching myself being vain in this moment. We tend to just kind of shut it down and just like not look any further you kind of tried to forget about it. And you’re and you do and I feel in your brain what we want to do is to say anyway, and then you move on. So I think I mean, I think this is just good, good training to to be a person in the world where and for writer So I think it’s so crucial because it allows you to write the truth, to just linger in those moments actually. So like to know your own discomfort as you’re going through the world and you notice something about yourself. And to not look away, and maybe, you know, maybe in that moment we look away, but later when we’re able to, to really look at that moment and really kind of think about it. Yeah. And I with with fiction, the part about the truth is so interesting, because then Alex, she talks about how he, you know, I think he’s he’s referencing at some point, he’s in a in a book club or book meeting, and someone asks him, why if this is autobiographical, why didn’t you write it as memoir? Right? He’s very confused by that question. And he later says, I, I write fiction, because it’s the things that I can’t say in my life. Right. And so he’s also I think he was also talking about Lorrie Moore and how she was talking about the comfort of the mask. And I think fiction can be that it’s, it’s a type of writing, that allows you to put on a mask or allows you to make space for the things that you can’t say, in your actual life. And so you need this other way of talking about it, and then you can tell the truth. So it’s, it is kind of like truth via a mask. But yeah, oftentimes, it’s like the only way that you can, that you can tell it or that you’re comfortable telling it.

Traci Thomas 16:41
Right. It’s like the Halloween ification of writing. You know, it’s like people who like love Halloween because they get to like put on a costume and like act frickin crazy because they can’t do it in their life. Yeah, then you get to like, tap into like, whatever, you know, instincts or primal feelings or whatever it is on Halloween. Yeah, just why hate Halloween. I’m like, get a grip. go to therapy.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 17:04
What is serious? Did you ever have a favorite favorite costume that you had?

Traci Thomas 17:08
Gosh, no, I really I like to dress up for Halloween, like twice in the last my favorite costume. So I have I have two year old twins. And for their first Halloween. I dressed them up as the two Pope’s like, when there was two bucks and so that was really, really iconic. Got a lot of laughs so that’s a really that was a good one. But I haven’t dressed up in 10 years probably. Yeah, it’s not into it. I always tell people I think part of it is I went to theater school. So I grew up dressing I was an actress. I was a dancer. We always wear costumes. So for me, it’s just like a chore. Yeah. As a kid though, I loved I was a how I was a hula dancer like three times really into it. Pre cultural appropriation days when I didn’t know that like now I’d get in trouble. I was like seven and my dad would make me wear because I’m from Oakland. It’s cold. And Halloween made me wear a white turtleneck underneath my like coconut bra. All the pictures are really good. Do you have a favorite Halloween costume?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 18:09
Um, I think the last one that I did was say, I dress this AOC and I wanted it to be like the Republican nightmare. That’s what I was going for.

Traci Thomas 18:25
That’s you’ve probably looked a lot like how you did?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 18:29
It was very easy to like, transition into her look.

Traci Thomas 18:33
Yeah, yeah, that’s a good one. I’ve always wanted to be Lisa turtle from Saved by the Bell. That’s one that I always say I’m gonna do and I never do and make my husband be screech because he’s a white boy. I don’t know. One one year maybe. Anyways, whoa, really got off topic. I love it here. Okay, I want to stay on this topic of like the reader and the writer because I feel like that was like what was most interesting to me. Yeah. And obviously, you’re a writer. One of the things that, like I talked about a lot is the review, like the review of the of the book of the art, and how I think that the review is not for the author. It’s like the least for the author of all people. And I’m wondering, like, what I want to know if you read reviews, first of all, and I want to know, like how you negotiate that feedback when your work is in the world because it might be valuable in some ways, but also like there’s not a lot you can do about it. It’s published, it’s done. So I’m sort of wondering about your relationship to reviews.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 19:36
Um, I do read reviews. I used to write reviews a lot. I was the book columnist for KQED, which is a local and NPR place. And one of the things as I started to write reviews is that I just I really like the reviews that are completely personal. And don’t try to pretend that it’s an objective. You know, this is like my objective opinion of this book, and I’m gonna pretend I’m gonna write it. Like, it’s the truth, what I’m writing is the truth. And I really loved writing reviews that were kind of like half essay half reviews. So they were about like, this is what’s happening in my life. And this is what I, when I read, when I read that line, I was in the train, and this is what happened. And I and so I think that feels more honest to me, too, because the way that you you know, wherever you are in your life, and whatever is happening around you, as you’re reading something affects how you’re reading that book. Right? So yeah, so I think, through that experience of just writing reviews for many years, that I can read a review and not take it personally. Right, can read a review, and just yeah, just take it as like, oh, yeah, this is this one person’s opinion of this. And I think that what I also agree with you that it’s not for me that it’s not that this is not a thing, that’s for me, but it’s more a conversation that maybe I’m I can listen in on if I want to about what is being said. And as you read more and more reviews, you start to get this sense of like, oh, this is kind of the conversation that is arising. And I think if there’s like multiple, if there’s multiple reviews that are saying like this is a problem, then I think maybe that’s something to look at. And then otherwise, you might just get a lot of reviews that are like, I didn’t like this. And then someone else might say like, I love this part. And so then so then that tells you that the book has a very specific audience, and that the book is not for everyone. And books are not for everyone. If, if if like a single book was made to be read by I don’t even know what that would be. It would just be like a blank book.

Traci Thomas 22:04
It’d be like the alphabet or something. Like not even. Yeah. Interesting. were you when you reviewed for them? Was it anonymous?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 22:13
No, I Yeah. It’s I put my name on it and everything.

Traci Thomas 22:18
Did you ever feel stressed out about having to write or like writing something about negative things about a book?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 22:24
If if I felt too negative about a book, I just wouldn’t write a review. And I yeah, I was just often thinking about how much of you know when when a book is published, how much of a miracle that feels like, because it’s so hard from, you know, conception until it’s published? And then everything else is just so difficult about that, that I didn’t feel like I? Yeah, if if I just was not into a book, that I just, I just wouldn’t review it. And it would have to be that the book was doing something politically questionable that I would, that I would write a review about it, then just because I felt like, then it’s something that needs to be said. Right, right. It doesn’t have to do with me just not liking the book.

Traci Thomas 23:17
Right? Yeah. When you hear back from people at book events, or a review or whatever, and they like, how important is it to you that the reader gets what you’re trying to do? Because like, I think a lot about like reading in school, and like it’d be like, Oh, we’re reading, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then the teacher would be like, the author’s clearly like do to do to do to do like some theme and every time you see a bedsheet it means rebirth or whatever, something crazy. And you spend a whole semester like digging into these like little nuggets. In doing this podcast, I have found out that a lot of authors that that is like made up the like a lot of those things are not the author’s like doing it on purpose. It’s like an accident that people read it to. And then some of it is on purpose, but like how important is it to you that like we see what you’re doing that we understand, like the theme or like the little nuggets and stuff or or is that for you?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 24:19
I think I think it’s fun. It’s really fun when somebody notices I’ve, I think when when my novel came out, one of the things that I hadn’t talked about yet in public was my process and that I was doing an internal transliteration in order to write write the language so that it felt like on the inside internally, it was Spanish and then on the outside it was English. So I was trying to use like, Spanish grammatical structure. I was trying to kind of like push the grammar of English so But it kind of sounded like Spanish you would only know this if you if you spoke both language as well. Right, right. Right. And yeah, so I was going about tour and then there was this one woman who, who told me like, pulled me aside and told me like, okay, when I was reading the book, it was like, these are thought in Spanish, but you’re like translating them and writing them into English. And I was just like, so overjoyed that she had noticed this, and I was that night, it was like the best thing that happened that month. I was like, Oh, my God, like someone got this thing? I don’t I don’t think that I need anybody, you know, everyone to notice. But it felt like very good when this one person noticed that.

Traci Thomas 25:48
He liked that. Okay. Okay, wait, I want to go back to the book because I like going deep dive on all these things that came like a lot of this stuff came up for me as I was reading it, though, it’s not like expressly in the book. But I just was like, what the book made me think about was how much like thinking Alexandra chi does about writing. And like, how intense he is about his intentions for his work. And like his, his and some of it is I’m like thinking, is he thinking this before he’s writing? Or is he realizing this is what he’s done after he’s written the thing, which to me, I work more the second way, like, I’ll do something, and then I’ll be like, Oh, I did this. That was because you know, but all of that is, is really interesting to me. And so a lot of questions came up. But there’s also all these other essays, which I’m now realizing hearing you talk about, they’re like about other things that have to do with writing. But like, I didn’t really pick up on that I’m like, these are just really good story. But my favorite one, my favorite essay was after Peter, the one about his friend, and like, one time lover, who passed away from AIDS. And your book does this. There are a few books or writers who do this. But when a writer can capture a loved one, especially someone who’s passed away, I think that that is truly my favorite genre of writing. Like when they can capture the essence of this person and explain to us while they’re why they’re important without being like Peter was like this, and was so important to me, right? Your grandfather, who you didn’t spend time much time with on this earth is such a huge character in your book. And like, we fall in love with him because you love him. And like, that’s the same thing with Peters like I, I just I was so taken by that essay. From the beginning, I just was like, I love Peter. And I, I miss Peter. And like, I don’t know that for me, that was like the big the big like essay that really made me be like, holy shit, Alexander Chee is a master of like writing, I love that essay.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 28:04
And I feel like it’s a it’s a very beautiful essay in it, the way that it’s layered to me is is so wonderful, because it’s it is about this relationship to this to a person who was like a once lover, a friend who is dying, and is not kind of sharing that with with people. And then it’s also I think, you know, the what also the, the essay is kind of thinking about memory, and, you know, sharing, sharing life with someone. And I don’t know if it’s in that essay, or in other essays, but the idea of writing as a way to, you know, have something have a little bit of immortality so that it can kind of be like saved and passed on. You Yeah. And I think the first time that we see Peter, it’s also like a, just a really beautiful, very kind of stunning description of someone.

Traci Thomas 29:04
Yeah. And the idea of like, how it’s like sort of about legacy, right? Like, how does, how to summon them on and what this like what came to me when reading this one, towards the end was like, There’s no way that Peter could have known what he meant to Alexander chi, especially like, all these years after his death, that he would be this figure in this book about writing and craft and art. And like, I wonder if like, Alexandria chi made a big enough impression on Peter that he would have ever even imagined that this thing was possible and I just, it like makes me sad and really happy and like it just like, you know that feeling of like when you have a lot of feelings and like coming up behind your eyes and like in your chest. It gives me that feeling of like, overcome this by who we each like ought to be and how like how the small figures in our life can become very important to us or how we become important to other people or like how one person’s path that crosses yours can become like some sort of a muse, or there’s just like so much in this one. And then there’s also like the politics in this one that I really loved and like, and like seeing it, obviously, in this time of COVID, and now monkeypox, and like, seeing what they were going through, and how they were dealing with loss and like how we are and aren’t dealing with loss now. And like, I this one just was like, so, so full. And then this is like a little anecdote, but we have a family friend who’s like an older white guy who watches Bill Maher, which it tells you exactly who that person is. And we were talking about, I don’t remember what and he was saying how he was watching some, some gay man on Bill Maher talk about how, you know, the trans activists are hurting gay people, because they want all people to say the right pronouns, and they’re really pushy, and they’re mean, and they’re aggressive. And that he said that, you know, the gay rights movement was always about being funny. And we were always like, down for a laugh and a good time. And when this person told me this, I obviously was like, That’s so fucking ahistorical. This is bullshit. It’s homophobic, I hate it, or it’s transphobic I hate it, whatever. And then, later that week, I read this essay, and it was like a reminder that a, there was so much rage as there is in all of these movements, but also, that’s good. Like that. That’s the right response. And like being funny, or whatever this guy was saying, is not real. And it’s not. It’s so a historical made me so mad. But just I loved reading about this moment, because I was like, I knew when I heard that, that it was wrong, but then reading this one and 1989 the other essay, I was like, this shit is like, the fact that people are allowed to forget all of this and pretend like it was just like, gay people were funny. And they were in musicals. No, gay people were dying and devastated. And in a rage as they should be. And it wasn’t just gay men, you know, like, yeah, the gay rights movement wasn’t just gay men, it was trans people. It was like, I don’t know, the whole thing made me so mad. And this essay just felt so like validating in a lot of ways. So I just I love Peter. Yeah.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 32:38
I loved reading too. Just all about the the protesting and all the actions that were being taken alongside with, you know, like, the having lovers and like dressing up and going out girl. And girl. Yeah. Because I think you really, as a reader, you you, it really feels like you can step into what that time was like, and as you’re saying, like, you can really feel the rage. And I just I found myself admiring the actions that they were taking. And I think this was when was it through act up that the political actions were being taken. And there’s,

Traci Thomas 33:23
some of it was, and then some of it was like other groups, because they’re, like, we can’t do that. And they were like, Okay, we’ll just make this other group called smacked up, and we’ll do it.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 33:34
Yeah, but that one, were they were they in San Francisco, like, they printed the first page of what would like a mock up of the Chronicle. And then instead, they’re saying, like, how many people have died in the AIDS crisis, and they were there, but they were kind of like, I think he describes the image just like it was it was made to look like it was a net, you know, disaster happening, and they paid for the to open like the newspaper box, and then, you know, put that front page sheet over the actual newspaper, and then put it back. And I just, I loved reading about that moment, so much, and all of the other actions, the political actions that were being taken, because that I think that it just really allows you to see like, all that we’re not doing yet. Ya know, like all that, yeah. Or just gives you that imagination of, you know, we have injustices, and we have also the power to, to dream up, like how we’re going to, what are we going to do and what does that look like? And you know, and so, it’s just it’s so wonderful to me that you’re that this is a collection of essays that is, is it’s about writing and art making, but it’s it’s so much more you know, about life and

Traci Thomas 34:55
I think, I think ultimately, right, that’s the point of the essay collection, is that If you can do all the writing stuff, and you can, you know, take a class and you can get a master’s, and you can do all these things, but if you don’t live a life that’s full of people and things, and you aren’t able to see the world, and like, like, for example, the rose essay, I did not care for that one, it was a little a little too in the weeds. Love that one. Oh, my God, no, I was not into it. But, but I respect that essay, because he really took a garden and wrote like 50 pages about it, and like, could see all these pieces, right. And like, that is fodder for his work, right? Like, because I think so many people think to be an artist, you have to be focused only on the art. And this book shows that like, there is no Alexander Qi without the work that he did in activism, or being in the bookstore or going to Mexico on this exchange visit, right? That that all of that is the you know, to carry on the roads metaphor, all of that is the soil from which the essays grow. And I just think like, I mean, I don’t know I’m sure this has always been true in all times when people were creating, but it feels to me so much right now that people are so full, like sub specialized and focused on the work that they do that they don’t realize, like that you have to also go live, you also have to like experience to really understand if you want to create if you want to make things like you can’t just sit at the computer. Yeah, that’s not actually the job. The job is to live and interpret and then and then create the thing. Yeah, so. So like, the essays that I didn’t care for as much like about his life, I still was really, like, intrigued by them, because I was like, Oh, you’re you’re doing things here with these roses, but I don’t care about roses.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 37:02
Yeah. Can I tell you what I love about that one essay? Yes, of course. I think that this is an essay where you, I when I, when I first read it, I didn’t, I wasn’t super interested in roses as well. And now anytime that I see a rose, I can’t but like help have a think of this essay and Alex G. What I love about this essays just that, you know, it’s it’s building a garden and a time of flight in a time of his life where Alex G feels a little bit lost. And it’s kind of like trying to route down. And it’s just kind of like a creation of, of space and trying to kind of like claim space. And then there’s the thing about looking at the word rosary and how it initially meant, like a rose garden, and now we It means prayer. And to me, there’s, there’s a way in which we’re talking about roses, but we’re just talking about writing, and how, when you you know, like, whatever, when you do like a practice, like writing where it involves so much energy, and it involves so much internal work that is invisible, if you know, so feel like it’s that kind of repetitive prayer like activity that you’re doing. And one of the things that I loved after like, reaching the end of the essay, was like the how it ends. He you know, he has to like move away from that apartment building and like, leave the roses behind. And he just kind of like feels very bad about like leaving them and he has this he’s like moves across the city. And he says like I can, I can feel them still. The SAP pulsing in their veins pushing their way to the sky. Does the creature like relax and walked away from the garden was me I was not their gardener, they were mine. And I just I love this idea of you some of the things that you do on your life, you think that you’re the act of DOER of those things, when actually those things are attending after you. And I find that it’s the same way when you’re when you’re writing a book at times, it feels like you’re just creating this, this book and you’re creating this material. Yeah, you feel like you’re creating something and then that there’s a way in which the book ends up changing who you are. So in a way like the book ends up kind of changing you. So it’s just like I just I love the way that the Rose Garden thinking about roses and then thinking about like how you want to how what are ways in which you can kind of make your life and make it kind of a beautiful place for you to be there. I just feel like that essay does all of it just like thinks about how to how to how to build space how to like tend to your imagination, how to like lose yourself in an obsession. then, and then how to like, allow that to change you. It’s just also so beautiful. I love that we just we like have such different.

Traci Thomas 40:10
Yeah, totally. I think that’s what’s cool about this book is like, even if you’re like me are not a writer, like there’s different ways to enter this book like different I feel like different essays are going to speak to you. It’s I also think the reason I asked her how many times you’ve read it as like, like different essays probably speak to each time in a different way, because they’re, like, so vast, and, you know, I was also really struck by Well, actually, let’s take a quick break. Okay, we’re back. I’ll tell you now, I was really struck by how many jobs he’d had, yes, has had, because I always joke that I’m a person with no career but with have had many jobs. And I sort of like say that in a self deprecating way. But I was like, how Tinder cheese like a serious person. And look at all the jobs, he’s hot. And like, he still is a serious person. So that’s wonderful for him and for me as inspiration. But it was like he was a caterer a waiter. He was, you know, he’s a teacher. He’s a writer. He was like doing I just like a million things. I just thought it was so. So fantastic. Did you have do you have? Is the rosary one your favorite? Or do you have a different one? That’s your

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 41:27
I also really love I mean, I love this girl. And the querent which is the taro.

Traci Thomas 41:33
Oh my God, that’s the other one. I hate it.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 41:34
That’s the other one you hated?

Traci Thomas 41:36
Yeah, I hated that one.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 41:37
I think maybe for that-

Traci Thomas 41:39
To be honest, I don’t think I finished it.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 41:41
Yeah, I think for that one, maybe you have to be into Tarot. Because otherwise, like that, you know, he’s just describing cards. And you’re like, I don’t know what this means. But for me, oh, I know exactly what this means. And I yeah, I have like, entry into that one.

Traci Thomas 41:56
So that one’s not about anything bigger. It’s just about Tarot. I was hoping you would explain.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 42:05
I think I tried this where he says, well, so that one is about I think it’s about wanting to know the future, and how that can kind of come from a place of fear. But how wanting to know the future is its own obstacle, like it, it means that you actually start to tamper with your future by by being kind of like actively trying to predict it. And, yeah, I think it’s also like a little bit about writing in the way that when when you write fiction, sometimes you’re writing into a life that you didn’t live, or like, what could have happened, sometimes it’s like, it starts with what happened, and then it goes into what could have happened. And it’s a little bit of, it does feel like a little bit of fortune telling where you’re trying to see someone’s life and trying to understand everything about them. Yeah, so I really kind of like see a connection between when you’re when you’re trying to give someone a reading, and you don’t know anything about their lives, but you have these cards, and then you you try to tell them a story from what you see in front of you. And I think that’s very similar has a very similar energy to like, when you sit down to write and you are trying to think of a character and you’re trying to imagine what what it is in their lives that is turmoil or like what what are the new things that are coming in? And what are the things that are leaving them? So yeah, so I think it’s I think all of the essays are about writing but it’s just you know, in the in the background there about Yeah,

yeah, well, it’s not Yeah, some of them and then some of them are it’s definitely in the foreground. Yeah. In the essay the writing life where he talks about his like fancy teacher in college whose class he goes to and she gets all the things I loved this idea of where you route she says, you know, put all your deaths and your accidents up front where possible. I just love where possible. I don’t know I’m such a rule follower. And I’m not aware possible person. I’m a very like, it needs to happen here. But where possible, just feel so great. I don’t lie. But yeah, and always follow the guidelines. Yeah. Are you are you a rule following person?

No, I am not. And I am also when I teach I also, you know, add things like this may or may not apply to you or to what you’re writing.

Traci Thomas 44:44
Are you into your horoscope into my horoscope?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 44:46
I used to be- are you?

Traci Thomas 44:50
I don’t know. I’m just curious what sign you are.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 44:54
I I’m a Virgo, son,

Traci Thomas 44:59
but not rule follow-y.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 45:00
This is Gemini, Gemini rising.

Awareness, an Aries moon. So I feel like yeah, those two are just like not

Traci Thomas 45:10
Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. But

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 45:14
I think you know, the, it’s just that when you have rules, I just don’t think that it applies to all kinds of cultures of storytelling. So like, I think that if you come from another culture, that probably you’re breaking a lot of the rules which are made for one for another culture. So I just think it’s just hard. It’s, you know, like, though you can’t write the book that is for everyone. You can’t have rules that will apply to everything. It’s just like, not not possible, right?

Traci Thomas 45:46
Did you find, like you were saying how you were, you know, playing with language in ways in your novel. And we talked last time about sort of the structure of your book and kind of staying true to this Colombian cultural storytelling? Do you find that people were asking you to conform your work into an American palate? That’s very air quotes, see, like, Did you run up against this thing of like, No, I’m doing I’m trying to do this. This is the way I’m trying to tell the story. It comes from, like my Columbian experience, culture, upbringing, everything, and people are being like, but in America, we do this, like, did you have to deal with that at all?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 46:32
I had to deal with that. I think when I was a student,

Traci Thomas 46:36
did you get an MFA?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 46:38
i Yeah, I got an MFA. And I went to Columbia College in Chicago. And I think that in in when I would bring a class story to workshop, and it would be set in Colombia, I the feedback that I would get on a story, it was like, What is this food that you mentioned? Or like, What is the weather in the thing? Or like in this place? Or like, I don’t know where this is, when you say or this is. And so I think that just that just very quickly kind of taught me? How writing is actually very political? And how, when you have a reader who is outside from the culture, and is kind of like insisting for you to bring the story to them, or to like, translate it and make it specifically for them, how that’s something that happens a lot. And it is a political decision to say, No, you come to the story, right? Like, you did the I mean, it keeps the center where it is, and you like the reader needs to come to it. But I think over time, I just I learned that if you just describe the work in that way. And you just say that at the beginning, whether it’s in in the classroom, or whether it’s you’re like, you know, trying to play something with a magazine, or you’re trying to like, haven’t you know, get an agent or talk to an editor about possibly doing something that if you say that at the beginning, that it’s it tends to not be an issue, because then people just so you’re telling someone like, this is how you’re supposed to read it. And this is the political kind of stance that this work is taking. Yeah, and then I feel that after that people are excited about it. Like, it’s almost like giving someone a key, like, Oh, this is so it’s not going to be what I’m used to, it’s going to be something else. And I think most people are very, do want to, to, to have a different experience reading.

Traci Thomas 48:41
Well, and I feel like for me, like I don’t I, I would rather have a different experience reading than read something that feels like a circle stuffed into a triangle. You know what I mean? Like, I like I just rather read a circle and just say it’s a circle. I’m capable of engaging with all sorts of shapes, you know, like, but when you try to jam it in there, then it feels like like, I hate in books, or it’s like, you know, we went to we had like cornbread and then like, cornbread is an African American. grown from corn on the plantation. And, yeah, I’m just like, I don’t need all that. I have Google like, thank you. Yeah, this thing. Oh my gosh, wait, one of the things in this book that was like mind blowing, was when I think it’s in the autobiography of my novel, where Alexandre talks about being his agent or his editor being like, you could be the first Korean American novelist and then he’s like, then Chiang Rai Li, like, wrote his book. So then I was the first gay one in 1995. And I was like, Yeah, wow. Yeah. Like it’s just not it doesn’t feel like it’s that long.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 49:55
Like this is our Yeah, like our All of the all of the books that were that we’re having that are diverse and that are doing all of those things are, you know, not very. Yeah, it wasn’t that long ago.

Traci Thomas 50:12
Yeah. Like that there wasn’t an Alexander chi for Alexander chi is just like a wild thought to me. You know, like, I don’t know, I just, I know it. Like, we get reminders constantly, especially like with the Oscars, or like the Emmys like first blank to be nominated and blank. But to think about it, like, it’s just really, it’s like, very jarring. It also made me think about like, white people who write, like having so much less anxiety about their work or like, having, or about anything that they create, or write or make, because like, there’s so much more room to fail, because there isn’t that pressure of like, representing an entire. Yeah, people Yeah, and what you’re talking about, like not having to, like give a pre claimer to your work by being like, this is going to be different than what you’ve experienced person with a small mind. Just all of that is just like so. I mean, it’s frustrating. It is also like illuminating about where we are now that we’re not so far away from that.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 51:24
Yeah. And I think I mean, I think this is what allows some writers to say that their work isn’t political. Right, you know, just because you. I mean, all of that means is that you just don’t have political consciousness.

Traci Thomas 51:39
Like, you’re not seeing no relationship to history. Yeah. You’re not saying to how you’re fitting into the politics of, of storytelling, or you are seeing it, but you don’t want to admit that. Yeah, it makes you a bad guy.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 51:51
Yeah. Yeah. And if and, yeah, it is, I think it is, for writers of color, any, you know, minority writer that you do have to think about it, and you do have to make that part of the conversation. But I don’t know, I really look forward to the day when we don’t have to have you know, flags anymore about work that is deviating from the traditional thing, and that we can be in this excitement of her different styles, and not need someone to be a tour guide, you know, of their experience, or, or the world that they’re writing about.

Traci Thomas 52:36
Right. And also, like, part of me also feels like, we do need tour guides always because, like, we’ve lived different lives and had different experiences. But that that can be like right now, to me, it feels like when when an author of color, like a black author writes, and I can tell that it’s like written for a white audience, that that, like, makes me burn on the inside. It makes me very upset. And I’m, I’m hopeful that one day, if a black author chooses to write for a white audience that that’s okay, too. You know, like that they should like that they could be allowed to do that. And that I could find that work valuable and not find that work dehumanizing, but like where we are right now? It feels because it’s so political. Yeah, it feels like that choice to write for white people is like, somehow a choice to like, turn your back on me, you know. And so I hope that like, you know, to your point, we don’t we don’t need tour guides. And if we have them it’s like a creative choice. And not a like industry choice or something that’s forced on them to like sell books. Yeah.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 53:40
Make more Palace attic or Yeah, yeah. So that readers can connect to

Traci Thomas 53:47
yeah, all the stupid things. And it’s like, I don’t know. It’s like, whenever I read those kinds of books, I am instantly like, Oh, they’re writing for white people. Like you can just you feel it that? Yes. Yeah. That truth and lying in the writing that we’re talking about earlier. Like, that’s that feeling to me? Where I’m just like, This is bullshit. So we all know it. Yeah. Yeah. And then of course those books are like Reese book club pics and all the things they make me rage on the inside. Yeah. Okay, we’re running out of time. I feel like we almost touched on every single one. We missed a few but we’ll just Sorry everyone, we’re just gonna miss a few. Okay, so we usually end here, which is what did you think? What do you think of the cover and the title?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 54:32
I think that this is a beautiful cover. Oh yeah, we have the same one.

Traci Thomas 54:35
Yeah, we have this I think there’s only the one I think of at the heart. I think it’s didn’t come out in hardcover. I think it was only paperback. I don’t know. It’s read it has a picture of a young Alexander cheese Yes, looking at the camera and sort of saying like, I dare you to fuck with me maybe or also sort of saying like, I’m a sad boy or like you saying nothing and everything and saying so much.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 54:58
Yeah, yeah. And then then you open it. And there are all of these photos that are, you know, from like a strip at a photo booth. It looks like and I just I love. It’s just like such a good. I love this design. And you Yeah, you flip to the back. And also like the, the FOP in the back also has more. And I just really love that as a sign. I just, I felt like it was so striking.

Traci Thomas 55:29
Yeah. I love seeing the young Alexander chi, like the person that we hear about, you know, like, yeah, seeing this young man. In the stories,

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 55:43
yeah. There’s, there’s something so intimate about being in the photo booths. Yeah, I was alone. And all of them. Yeah, you know, that you have, like, however, like many five seconds to like, do something else. And for your next book, I always love them. I think that there’s such a great portrait of a person, like, what are all those decisions of five seconds? Like what you will do next? I feel like do they say so much.

Traci Thomas 56:09
That’s so true. And then the title is just one of the titles of one of the essays. And I think it’s a great, it’s, it’s a, it’s a good title for what this is.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 56:20
Yeah, it tells you it tells you that it’s going to be a book about writing, and that it’s a little bit of a how to,

Traci Thomas 56:28
and that there’s autobiography and that there’s autobiographic Yeah, yeah. So I think it’s, I think it’s a pretty spot on package for me, like, you know, the red is the red is good. Like a red book always catches your eye. You know, it’s a very well done like, sleek, little moment. So I love that. Was there anything else? We did not talk about that you feel like we absolutely can’t leave here without talking about?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 56:53
I think I mean, maybe just Can I read a little bit of the ending? I love the ending so much. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 56:58
So I feel like we have to talk about the last essay for a second. Yeah, go.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 57:03
Speak to your dad, right for your dad, tell them the story. What are you doing with this life, let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder, or more modest, or louder, or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in listen and then write. And When war comes and make no mistake, and it’s already here, be sure you write for the living to the ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there? I tell myself, I can’t imagine a story that can set them free. These people who hate me that I am writing precisely because one did that for me. Yeah, and I just I love that, you know, as a as a parting kind of gift and thoughts. And I know that we were talking about this in our last chat together about thinking of yourself as part of a larger context and how that means looking to the past and then looking present and then to the future as well. Yeah, I just love that line. So much. Are those lines together? Yeah.

Traci Thomas 58:07
And like, again, this, like we’re talking about last time, this responsibility to the dead. You know, in this in this essay, he talks he talks about, you know, what, what stories would you write for the dying? And if you were dying, what stories would you want to be told or tell? And I just think like, again, I mean, all of this sort of circles back right? Like that it is political, that it is a choice that that your life is meaningful. And it’s your responsibility to tell the stories and be responsible to these people that you’ve known and loved and all of this stuff. Like, I think this last essay, again, was one of my favorites, because it really tied in everything and like really made sense of what His purpose, His reason for writing and being here.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 58:57
And yeah, I think it also kind of, you know, clarifies like when we read what that is about, like when we really kind of engaged with the story, why that feels so urgent, and why that feels so important. And that kind of act that you have as a reader to, to read something and be very moved by it and then try to find the next person and say, like, you must read this. And I think it is it’s kind of like born from that urgency of being aware that our time is so limited and that stories can breathe some of space into that time. And just like really make us better and just change us in ways that are surprising. And then we just like want to share that with everyone.

Traci Thomas 59:41
Yeah, my personal life mission is pressing really good books into people’s feelings and like the right book into the right person’s hand until like an unlock something you know, yeah. Okay, this was great. Oh my gosh, thank you for doing this with me. I liked the book more now after about And I liked the book. I just it’s not a book for me. I think what it was like I love I can respect it. I can understand it like I can go with it, but it doesn’t like tap into my core being and the way that I think if you’re a writer, it probably feel like

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 1:00:14
it taps into all of the parts.

Traci Thomas 1:00:16
yeah, exactly. Ingrid, thank you so much for being here.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras 1:00:20
Oh, thank you so much. I loved having all of these conversations with you. This was so lovely.

Traci Thomas 1:00:26
Same, same, same. And everybody else. Oh, everybody else listened to the end of the episode to find out next month book club pick, and we will see you in the stacks.

All right, everyone. That does it for us this week. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Ingrid Rojas Contreras for returning to the show. And now I can officially announce our book club pick for the month of September. It is the trees by Percival Everett. It’s a literary thriller that explores the legacy of lynching in the United States. I could not be more excited. If you listen to next week’s episode, you’ll find out who our guests will be for the September 28 discussion of the trees. If you love the show and want inside access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stats or you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening to Apple podcasts, be sure to leave a rating and a review. For more from the stocks follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram and at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas

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