In his office, between teaching and working on his new book, Professor Lysley Tenorio of the Saint Mary's College MFA Program took the time to chat with Indrani Sengupta ’12 about his debut collection, Monstress, which has received glowing reviews, and about writing in general.
Monstress had received widespread critical acclaim. Have you been surprised by its success?
Just the idea of putting a book out into the world is a trip. You write and you write, and you revise and you revise, and you hope it'll get out there, but the chances are never so great. So yeah, it's all a surprise.
When did you know you were a writer?
After grad school, I was willing to move anywhere I could find support in a writing community, places I never imagined I would live. I was making these moves without knowing anybody in these places. It hit me that nothing mattered more to me – in terms of work, anyway – than writing.
What the most important thing that you’re trying to convey in your writing?
One of the things I really hope people get when they read my work is a sense of empathy. That's one of the great things about fiction. It's the opportunity, whether you're writing it or reading it, to step into someone else's life or experience. I hope that [readers] connect with these individuals who are in these strange situations, people who do things that might be considered illegal or immoral, cruel or selfish. I hope that a reader can, if not necessarily agree with those things – which I don't expect – at least try to understand why [the characters] do some of the things that they do.
Who are your literary influences? Did they figure into the writing of Monstress?
Bharati Mukherjee...Salman Rushdie...I really like Kazuo Ishiguro, Steven Millhauser...Chang rae-Lee and Tobias Wolff, who were my teachers. I'm not sure how conscious I was of these influence as I was writing. I think I'm more influenced by the strangeness of real life or history. A lot of the stories in my book, which are kind of weird by premise, are based on actual events or facts. I have a story called "Help" about a bunch of guys who try to beat up the Beatles before they board their plane at Manila International Airport. That's based on a real incident. I have a story called "The View from Culion" about two lepers who fall in love in a leper colony, and that leper colony really does exist. So I'm more inspired by situations that might seem unbelievable or ludicrous that actually happened, and the challenge of trying to take that and make it emotionally substantial and emotionally real.
"Monstress," the title story in Tenorio's collection, follows Checkers Rosario, a Filipino filmmaker of low-budget horror movies with names like Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen and Two-Headed Bride of Two-Headed Dracula, and his girlfriend, Reva Gogo, who dreams of fame, but out of loyalty to Checkers has settled for the far less glamorous "monstress" role in each his films, as the two move to America to try and revive their careers.
What inspired you to focus on lowbrow horror films in "Monstress"?
I was on a website devoted to bad B movies, and some critics voted [for] this one movie – I think it's called The Horror of the Blood Monsters, and it's the worst movie of all time. It turns out that that movie was literally just the splicing of a Filipino caveman movie and an American sci-fi movie. They just cut and pasted it together, and I thought, “Who are the mad geniuses behind this? How can I figure out a story in here? How can I figure out what characters would find themselves in this situation?”
Were you trying to tell a story about the loss of a relationship, the sacrifice of one beloved thing for another, or did that just happen? What was your starting point?
Some people have read that story ["Monstress"] and they actually say it's a love story, and I didn't know it was going to be a love story. When I look at it now, I can see that. I think that's the fun of writing these stories. They may start out with a more thematic inspiration. I'm drawn to things that sort of bring Filipino culture and American culture and cause them to collide. That's the thematic, abstract stuff that you can't force on a reader. They'll interpret what they'll interpret.
What are you working on now?
A novel. It's new territory for me, it's exciting but also daunting. There's something that feels a little easier about writing a novel. I'm not worried about each individual scene, paragraph, sentence carrying multiple meanings so I can fit everything into a small amount of space. Obviously I'm going to have those concerns as I go into future drafts of this novel, but right now, I don't have to think about those things. It's nice. It's liberating.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Number one: be careful with advice. When you ask for advice, really think about the advice you're being given, because not all advice is applicable to everybody.
If possible, investigate another vocation while you're writing. It's hard to live solely on your writing. Very few people can do it. So if you can write and also be a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, a plumber, a chef, I strongly encourage any young writer to look into those other things. Because they may also make the writing better.
Try as much as you can, if you're writing fiction, to step outside your experience, knowing that you'll always go back to your own, because ultimately everything you write is intellectually or emotionally autobiographical. So you can write about people trying to colonize the moon, and ultimately that will somehow still be autobiographical. Emotionally, if not factually.
Read reviews of Monstress: