LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Rene, you were born in Kingsville and raised in Corpus Christi. How did those places inform your writing?
RENE S. PEREZ II: South Texas is very important to my writing. Both my growing up there and the history of the region inform my stories. The authentic truths of the region, of Mexican American political and practical history there, are all over my writing. I only really write three places: Greenton (a fictional stand-in for Hebbronville, Texas), Corpus Christi, and Austin. The Greenton stories are my small-town stories. They’re about a tightly knit community of Mexican Americans who work the kinds of jobs available in rural southwest Texas. My Corpus stories are more to do with my inner-city upbringing, peopled by the kinds of people I grew up with and the things I saw as a youth in that city. The Austin stories are about all of what that city’s cosmopolitan weirdness means and doesn’t mean to the people who live there.
That said, even the Austin stories are informed by my south Texas upbringing, because it is this symbolic foreign land that characters look to as an inscrutable, uninhabitable place. I mean, Seeing Off the Johns is essentially a story about characters feeling the need to run away to this mythical place up north, to Austin.
I read that one of your stories in Along these Highways was written when you were a freshman in college. Did you know that you always wanted to be a writer? Did you come from a family of storytellers? Did your family encourage your writing?
I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. I mean, I always wrote, but I didn’t think “being a writer” was really accessible to me. I would write in notebooks—poems and character sketches and the like—but it really never occurred to me that I could be a writer when I grew up. I focused on my smaller bits of writing, because I would lose focus after a page or two, as far as writing in notebooks went. I decided that, whenever I got a computer on which I could type and save longer pieces, I’d try my hand at stories. The first draft of “One Last Drive North” from Along These Highways was one of the first stories I wrote when I got a computer with the scholarship money left after paying for my classes, room, and board my freshman year.
As far as storytelling goes, I really do feel like my family, particularly my father and uncles who would share jokes and stories of hometown characters from back in Hebbronville, his hometown, over beers during barbecues, taught me the value very early on of telling a good story, of pausing for effect or emphasizing punch lines. He and my mother have always been very supportive of my sisters and me. When I realized I wanted to be a writer, it wasn’t without hesitance that they gave their full-hearted support of my plan. They just made sure I knew, which of course I did after watching them work hard all their lives, that I had to work to support myself and whatever family I would come to have while pursuing my artist’s life.
Along These Highways has the recurring theme of getting in the car and its effects on us. It reminds me of Larry McMurtry’s themes. Seeing Off the Johns is evocative of The Last Picture Show. As a reader, your work reminds me of this great Texas writer. What writers have inspired you?
I was particularly inspired by Sandra Cisneros, Tomas Rivera, and Oscar Casares (whose first collection came out when I was first delving into reading as a potential writer) at the beginning, mainly because reading their books showed me that people like me, who wrote characters from places like where I’m from and who have lived lives like mine could be writers.
I’ve particularly enjoyed the way Denis Johnson and Michael Chabon write their prose. I admire it very much, but I can’t really say it’s inspired me in any way other than as writing that I really enjoy as a reader.
As far as my writing goes, I can only really say I’ve been inspired by Gabriel García Marquez and Toni Morrison. This isn’t to say that I write like them, or even that I try to. But after finishing an MFA program that mainly focused on short stories, one that particularly held up Carver as what good writing was supposed to look like, I really looked at these writers as people who really let the words flow, who make music and magic of their syntax. They really let me push the boundaries of my own sentences and opened my prose up.
For our readers not familiar with Along These Highways and Seeing Off the Johns, will you describe them in your words?
Along These Highways is a collection of short stories that sheds a light on lives of a varied cross-section of Texans from Metropolitan (Austin), inner-city (Corpus Christi), and rural (“Greenton”) locales. These are naturalistic stories of people whose stories aren’t often told.
Seeing Off the Johns is a novel, set in aforementioned Greenton, that has to do with the kind of spectacle a small town can make of talented youngsters and what happens when that talent leaves town.
You set your novel in 1998. What attracted you to that era?
The main thing that attracted me to this era is the fact that the events by which I was inspired to write all took place in this time. My sister was just entering high school when two young men named “John” died in a car ride out of town. It wasn’t just that that’s when the “real” basis for the story happened.
I was thirteen going on fourteen in 1998. This was a time when I first started paying attention to popular culture. I graduated a year early, less than five years later. By the time (in the late aughts) I was old enough to understand what I thought about being a teenager, I had already run away from home and adolescence (I graduated early and was a freshman at UT at seventeen). The last truly idealistic view I had of teen years was when I was a pre-teen, looking at my oldest sister, feeling like my own emotions should be respected like she wanted her own to be.
A cool bit of circumstance that made my narrative even truer to the time, after the fact, ended up being that the car accident that I initially imagined having happened in 1998 was made more verisimilitudinous by the fact that, at the time, there was a rash of rollovers by utility SUVs with a certain brand of tires. The very real fact of this later made the in-story truth of the narrative crash more real.
How would you describe your path to publishing? Was there a memorable turning point?
I have a couple of publishing turning points. The first story I had published in a major magazine was “Last Primer.” The wonderful Nelly Rosario was my workshop teacher. In the first week of workshop, she invited anyone to submit. I did. When she read it, she let me know a friend of hers was an editor looking for stories. He ended up being the editor at Callaloo. That story ended up published in their thirtieth anniversary issue, with Ernest Gaines on the cover.
As far as my first book went, Dagoberto Gilb was an early mentor of mine. He was my thesis advisor at Texas State. He ended up being my thesis advisor after he left the full-time employ of that institution. This means he didn’t need to care as much as he did about my manuscript. That said, he cared. He pointed me in the direction of an acquiring editor at the University of Arizona press. The rest is history.
What is your creative process like? How do you juggle writing and “the day job?”
I always write. If I could get money to do it at all times and forever, I’d take it. The thing is, I can’t. The other thing is, I teach. I love teaching. I tell my [school] kids, often, “All I want to do is write and teach. I write books and get paid good money to hang out with y’all, so I’m winning.” When they realize I’m in a room with them, trying to teach them to write and argue on paper, because I want to, they buy into my teaching.
You have an MFA. What advice would you give to aspiring writers about pursuing this advanced degree?
I would tell them to treat the program like art school. If you’re serious about writing, you’re there to learn the craft. Don’t concern yourself with the politics and bureaucracies of academia. Now, I had a good friend tell me that some people do MFA programs to learn to be writers, but more people do them to learn that they’re not writers. If you’re one of these people, play the game. Get the piece of paper and go teach English or something, but be realistic.
The literary culture in Texas is changing, and many Latino authors are finding audiences. Who are some of the Texas Latino writers you enjoy?
As far as Tejanos, I have to say Oscar Casares, who was a teacher of mine. Sandra Cisneros, even though Chicago claims her, she was Tejana long enough that I will claim her too. Rolando Hinojosa is huge. The biggest, I’d have to say, is Dagoberto Gilb. His short fiction and novels are always great. He is a man who knows the craft so well he can throw out rules when he needs to and really make transcendent art.
What’s next for Rene Perez II?
I am currently working on a couple of novels. One is a Corpus novel. It’s a bit noir. I actually lost a big chunk of it a few years back, which led me to starting on other projects in the time it took me to build up the spirit it took to get back into that manuscript.
The other one is an Austin novel. It’s kind of a meditation on the sad state of Peter Pan young adults (twenty- to thirty-year-olds, not YA young adults). I am putting more time and energy into that one.
I also have a play that I’ve written. I’m slowly sharing it out with people in the drama world, but I don’t know how to go about producing a play. It would take someone wanting to do that for it to happen. Between now and whenever (if) that happens, I have my novels, and short stories to work on.
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Praise for Perez's Seeing Off the Johns
"An atmospheric, refreshing read that will resonate with readers from towns both small and large." —Kirkus Reviews
“Seeing Off the Johns is an absolutely absorbing and deftly crafted novel that clearly establishes author Rene Perez as a master of the YA Fiction genre. Very highly recommended for both school and community library YA Fiction collections.” —Midwest Book Review
"This is a searing, mature novel, not just because sexual scenes (which are among the most complex and thoughtful moments in the book) are included, but in the way it handles the innumerable challenges associated with grief and love. With strains of Mexican-American heritage, this is also a fine diverse read." —Cat Acree, BookPage
"Though the context of [Rene] Perez’s first novel is Mexican American, Chon’s longings are universal, ones every reader can identify with … the novel achieves its goal of bringing two appealing teens and their relationship to vivid life." —Michael Cart, Booklist Online
“This authentic story of loss is powerful and one that many readers will not forget.” —School Library Journal
“Seeing Off the Johns is briskly and evenly paced. The deceptively simple plot allows the young people to take center stage and everyone who grew up in a small Texas town will recognize these personalities. They are allowed to stretch, to contract, and to mature, and it’s a pleasure to be along for the ride as Chon finds out how brave his heart really is.” —Lone Star Literary Life Review