On Thursday, February 2 at Books Inc in Castro Valley, fiction writer, Lysley Tenorio launched his new collection of short stories, Monstress by Ecco Press. Many of the tales were featured previously in The Atlantic, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and Manoa, some of them had been included in Best New American Voices and received a Pushcart nomination.
The Castro bookshop was standing room only, filled with Tenorio aficionados and, deservedly so, all eager to celebrate an inspiring and talented writer.
After thanking the crowd for their support and giving a shout out to the neighborhood as an old haunt, Tenorio read from the title story, a tale inspired by a long-standing cult of Filipino horror films. Following the B movie director Checkers Rosario of the company Checkers Rosario Film and his leading lady lover, Reva Gogo, the two are called from Manila to Hollywood to reignite the freak-show glamor of Checkers and Reva’s celluloid glory.
Like many of his stories, Tenorio’s genius lies in the alchemy of heartbroken characters dealing with tragedies that should elicit tears but often, at the most unexpected and exciting moments, make readers laugh out loud. Tenorio is a master ay twisting our emotions and turning narratives on its head. Here’s a taste:
But I was used to this lack of marvelousness, because Checkers worked this way too, attempting magic from junk: wet toilet tissue shaped like fangs was good enough for a wolf-man or vampire, and our ghosts were just bedsheets. For the Squid Children, Checkers found a box of fireman’s rubber boots, glued homemade tentacles (segments of rubber hose affixed with suction cups) on them, then made his tiny nephews and nieces wear them on their heads. “On film,” Checkers used to say, “everything looks real.”
The magic of this piece is the layering of narrative frames; its filmic focus allows readers to see the characters through different lenses and affords multiple angles to come at the story. The plot seems to be a facsimile of Checkers and Reva’s typical horror stories, or perhaps it’s vice versa. What is simulated and what is real gets contorted in a hall of mirrors twisting what is already grotesque until it comes out wrenching readers’ hearts.
After the reading, Tenorio followed up with a Q&A, and the first inquiry asked was about the changes made since “Monstress” was first published in The Atlantic. Tenorio had to speed up the pace of the story, which was a concern since the magazine publication already had the story cut by a third, so another cut for book publication could mean that there would be too much surface action and little depth. Still, Tenorio found a way, explaining that this isn’t a tale in which every word needs to be savored and read slowly. The new incarnation is the right pace, he feels.
Describing the origin of ‘The View from Culion,” about two lepers who fall in love, Tenorio recounts a job he landed after graduate school with a tech company called Worldwide Web Inc. People would phone asking if they were the official internet, he joked, but, at the time, he’d read a story of leper colony in Japan, in the newspaper, where one of the members had wished for a quick life, which was the saddest most heartbreaking thought. When Tenorio told friends he’d written a story about two lovers in a leper colony, they’d joke and laugh thinking it was supposed to be funny, but it wasn’t, not really. He researched old books and catalogs, finding out that there was a colony also in the Philippines run by an American couple.
Asked about his process for story-telling, Tenorio describes how he relies on plot. Most writers, he says, started with a sentence, a word, an image, or form, but he often begins with a situation. Maybe because he taught composition. So, for example, he started with a leper colony and then determines five to six events that lead from A to Z, after which, he must then figure out who occupies the story. Who fits in psychologically, emotionally, and thematically? Character makes plot, and plot makes character. The nice thing about having plot drawn out is that if you have a sequence of events “you have no excuse not to finish the draft,” he tells his grad students, but “you have to get yourself there, and plot is a matter of destination.”
In regards to the story “Monstress” Tenorio wanted to find a way to make the ridiculous seem beautiful and this drive really defined many of the characters and their stories for the entire collection hence the title.
One of the last inquiries was about how he came up with such canny names as Felix Starro and Reva Gogo. Tenorio confessed that many of his monikers are derived from comic books, particularly The Justice League. For example there’s a character named Alex Orbito, which lent to Felix. Tenorio takes inspiration where he can find it, and, thankfully for his readers, spins gold.
To get your fix on Tenorio brilliance, check out his interview with The Paris Review where Aria Beth Sloss talks story and journeys.
When asked for advice, I’ve heard writers say, more than a few times, “Just write the truth.” It’s such a terse and blunt response, and I can’t help but feel that the person asking is supposed to gasp in wonder at this answer, as if the secrets of the universe have been suddenly revealed. But I never really know what writers mean by this, so I’m glad to give it a shot. I think truth, in fiction, is the achievement of believability in the context of a specific fictional reality. Truth starts with world-building, creating not just a physical environment, but an emotional, psychological, tonal, formal, and linguistic space in which characters act against and react to other forces. And the believability of how these characters act determines truth.
With Tenorio’s book launch up and running, check out his schedule and save space in your calendar to meet a virtuoso.