"I’ve driven up and down this huge state for a decade, and its soul is now part of my work"
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Iglesias, your newest novel is Coyote Songs (Broken River Books), published in October of 2018, which is described as “ghosts and old gods guide the hands of those caught up in a violent struggle to save the soul of the American southwest.” Please tell us about your new book, your inspiration for writing it, and the current state of the soul of the American Southwest.
Gabino Iglesias: I dealt with borders, physical, geographical, and metaphysical, in my previous novel, Zero Saints. However, there was still a lot I wanted to say. The migrant experience cannot be told in its entirety, but a novel with one main character only begins to scratch the surface. Plus, there were a plethora of things I wanted to say about colonization, art, and vengeance. I also wanted to write more classic horror. I wanted slithering creatures and blood, body horror, and psychological terror. It all came together in a series of vignettes in my head, so I knew the structure of Coyote Songs before I started writing it.
As for the current state of the soul of the American Southwest, it’s still the weird, wonderful, beautiful, messed up, diverse, racist, magical, dangerous mess it’s always been. Now politics have made it worse, more divided, but that will change. Everything changes down here, and everything stays the same.
LSLL: Coyote Songs is also described as a “mosaic horror/crime novel.” The preceding book, your break-out novel, Zero Saints, also blends crime, particularly noir, and the paranormal. When you began writing, did you consciously set out to combine two distinct genres, or did your style evolve organically? What do crime and horror have in common, and where do they diverge? Or do they?
GI: I found my voice with Zero Saints. I created barrio noir to have a term to use when people asked about the mix of genres in my work. I know what barrio noir requires, and I make sure that each novel has plenty of it, which is to say I make sure I write about the things I like to write using the best elements of the genres I love. Crime and horror make us feel things. At their core, horror and crime can be the same thing: good people caught in awful situations. They diverge in some fun stuff like guns and drugs versus strange sounds in the attic and monsters or old gods from beyond our solar system. They dance together incredibly well. Things like darkness and fear make them superb partners.
LSLL: You are a book review editor for PANK Magazine, where you are the fiction judge for their book contest. What do you look for in a review that you want to publish? What’s your advice for today’s literary critics, both new and established? What attributes would win the fiction contest?
GI: I don’t care about a synopsis because I can go to Amazon and get that. What I want in a book review is a conversation between the text and the reviewer, an exploration of what was said in words and the places beyond. I also like a discussion of where the book fits in the world, what it does and what it is within the context of contemporary literature.
Established critics know what they’re doing, so here’s some advice for new critics: Pitch books you think you’ll love; never write a review angry; judge a book based on what it is and not based on what you wanted it to be; and remember to ignore the current popularity of anti-intellectualism and dig in to give readers a smart, engaging, deep analysis of every book you review.
For those writing something for the contest, remember two things: There are no rules, except you should remember the importance of storytelling, and one of the main goals of fiction should be to make readers feel something.
LSLL: You are also a (prolific) columnist for LitReactor. Many of your columns address writers and how they can sell more books, from tips for giving an entertaining reading to building a platform on forums such as Twitter and Instagram (#bookstagram). How has marketing and publicity changed since you began writing? What are the most common misconceptions newly published authors hold about publishing and marketing, and what inspires you to address this particular topic?
GI: I know it sounds weird, but we now have the chance of creating a platform for free. Indie writers still have no money, but now we have a plethora of platforms and each other, so getting a few eyes on your work is not as hard as it used to be.
The most common misconception I see in my MFA students is the idea that you have to build a readership once you have a book to sell. That’s wrong. You should have a huge audience ready and waiting for you words before your book comes out. Your platform should be about communication and connection, not just selling books. Be a member of the literary community first, and then be someone with a book. The biggest misconception is that there are two roads: Big Five publishing through an agent or self-publishing. Again, wrong. There is a multiplicity of roads, and writers should work hard at trying to identify which one works best for them.
I talk about these things because I suddenly realized I had a platform that was halfway decent, and great venues such as LitReactor were giving me an opportunity to do so. I end up writing a lot of columns based on things I wish I’d read about when I started getting published.
LSLL: You recently wrapped up the process of choosing works to include in a new anthology you are editing called Both Sides: An Anthology of Border Noir, to be published by Polis Books in 2020. Please tell us about this project. How did this process differ from your book review editor gig at PANK, and what did you learn from it?
GI: This was a dream project, and it went from a dream to a tweet and from a tweet to serious talks with Jason Pinter at Polis within forty-eight hours. I had already done an anthology for CLASH Books about stories inspired by the Notorious B.I.G. This was different and the submissions were ridiculously good. Selecting a story is kind of like choosing a book to publish a review: If it’s amazing and makes me feel something, it’s on.
I’m excited about what Polis is doing with Agora, their new imprint. I think editor Chantelle Aimée Osman has superb taste and knows what she’s doing. John Vercher’s Three Fifths is proof of this. The book isn’t out yet and the buzz it’s generating is crazy. I’m happy this anthology is in such great, capable hands.
LSLL: You frequently speak out on the lack of diversity and underrepresented voices in publishing. Why is this so difficult to fix? What is the answer, in your opinion, and where do agents fit in possible solutions?
GI: I could write a four-hundred-page book about this, and then publish a revised, expanded edition a year later. I’ll tell you about just two reasons this is hard to fix that bother me a lot. The first is that there are a lot of racists out there, some of them in positions of power in publishing. Too many folks from the same demographic are at the top. They are great at perpetuating the status quo. They see nothing wrong with the way things are right now, so they do everything in their power to keep it that way.
The second thing I keep seeing is folks freaking out when you mention diversity because they think it means people of color and LGBTQIA authors and Appalachian and Native American authors pushing everyone out of publishing. That’s the opposite of diversity and inclusion. What we want is a place for everyone at the table. We want what we have and then something different. If you freak out about the idea of trans authors in the NYT best-sellers list, then you’re part of the problem. If you get angry when bilingual fiction gets good attention, then you’re part of the problem.
Solution? Keep fighting. I’ve said this before: We can transition into a more diverse publishing landscape, or we can enter the new era via a lot of bloodshed. There’s a lot of us out here willing to fight this battle, and we’re an angry legion.
LSLL: Since this is Lone Star Lit, please address Texas in your work. In particular, does Texas exert an influence as physical setting as well as mindset, and how does living here influence you? Which Texas writers would you recommend to someone trying to get a handle on the place and the current state of our collective soul?
GI: The South is a state of mind and a place. The border is state of mind and a place. My last two novels are set in Texas. The next one is also set in Texas. Austin. Houston. San Antonio. Dallas. These are all places I’ve visited, explored, written about. I’ve driven up and down this huge state for a decade, and its soul is now part of my work just like the Caribbean is (I’m working on a novel set in Puerto Rico now. In fact, I’m in Puerto Rico conducting interviews and exploring the effects of hurricane Maria for that book as I write this).
Anyone interested in Texas should be reading Brian Allen Carr, David Bowles, Edward Vidaurre, Molly Ivins, Joe Lansdale, Stephen Graham Jones (even if he lives in Colorado), Fernando A. Flores. That’s a good bunch to start with.
LSLL: Speaking of soul, religion figures significantly in your work, the paranormal inseparable from the prosaic every day. You’ve written that you grew up in the Caribbean “where people pray to gods and saints that hide older deities, and where Christianity, Catholicism, and Santería are regularly practiced along with Voodoo, Palo, Mesa Blanca, and many other religions. This syncretism is in my DNA.” Do you find similarities in Texas, in the many Our Ladies and the curandera, etc.? Is this something you give a lot of deliberate thought to, or is it also inseparable from your upbringing and your personal conception of the universe?
GI: A little bit. I can buy candles at my local grocery stores. I can find a curandera within ten or fifteen miles. There is deeply rooted devotion in places like Austin and San Antonio. Mexicans have a lot to do with that. In my work, I don’t even think about it. It comes out of me and into my narratives naturally. When you grow up immersed in syncretism, you can leave, but it never leaves you.
LSLL: Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next?
GI: A novel about a shattered father who turns to crime. It has tunnels, the devil, the ghost of a young girl who can’t communicate effectively, and some crocodiles eating people.
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
GI: Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Mary Miller’s Biloxi. Brian Allen Carr’s Opioid, Indiana. Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise. William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘N’ Roll by Casey Rae. I think Miller’s is the only one already out, but they are all superb.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, editor, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Coyote Songs, Zero Saints, and Gutmouth. He is the book reviews editor at PANK Magazine, the TV/film editor at Entropy Magazine, and a columnist for LitReactor and CLASH Media. His nonfiction has appeared in places like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the LA Times, El Nuevo Día, and other venues. His fiction has been published in Red Fez, Flash Fiction Offensive, Drunk Monkeys, Bizarro Central, Paragraph Line, Divergent Magazine, Cease, Cows, and many other outlets. His reviews are published in NPR, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Criminal Element, The Rumpus, Heavy Feather Review, Atticus Review, Entropy, HorrorTalk, Necessary Fiction, Crimespree, and other print and online venues. He teaches at Southern New Hampshire University's MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.