The first story I started working on from the collection was “Deers.” The second was the title story “Barefoot Dogs.” Right after “Barefoot Dogs,” I started working on “It Will Be Awesome.” When I was working on that one, I realized that the characters of all three stories were connected – that the kidnapped father in Barefoot Dogs was the IWBA’s protagonist’s grandfather, and that Susy girl, from “Deers,” had worked for them back in Mexico. I decided then that it would be interesting to investigate more about this family, what had happened to them and why. That was how the rest of the characters and their stories came to me.
I’ve always been obsessed by the violence and the social divide in my country, but the most recent wave of drug-related violence, with its kidnappings and its extortions and its massive disappearances, struck when I was already living abroad, and it’s haunted me deeply since. I believe that disappearance has to be one of the hardest ways to lose someone, the hardest thing to endure. How can you cope with that, how do you reach closure if you don’t know what happened to the person you love? People close to me suffered some of these forms of violence (especially kidnappings) since I was a kid, and I think that has made a mark in me as a writer.
When I start working on a story it’s not like I can decide the topic I’m going to write about. I do not like I draft or sketch or plan. It’s all about overcoming the images that haunt me. After the story, or stories, are finished, I recognize the topics or themes that obsess me and have shaped the piece, but it’s never the other way around. I feel helpless about it. I write about what I can, not about what I want.
My stories usually start with a striking image. I begin to see that image in my mind all the time. It haunts me until I sit down and start writing about it. Writing the story means investigating what the image means, who are the characters that are part of it and what happened to them. These characters are like ghosts who visit me, making themselves present in these images. They seem to ask me to write about them so that they can liberate themselves from their own burden. That’s how the stories come to me.
There are examples of the images from the stories, as I remember them:
For “Deers,” I first saw this image of a bear inside a McDonald’s I drove by on my way to work every day. I saw him sitting on the floor at the back of the restaurant, eating all these buns desperately, feeling very sad and disoriented.
For “Barefoot Dogs,” I saw the first box that arrives in the story. The moment I saw the box, I knew what was in it, but I didn’t know anything else.
The image for “Origami Prunes” came to me one Saturday morning in the summer of 2011, while I was doing my laundry at a fancy brand-new laundromat on Northwest Austin—our own washer machine had broken. While I was there, I imagined this wealthy, sophisticated, middle-aged Mexican woman in a white dress, loading one of those big industrial washer machines with difficulty. She seemed so sad and out of place, unable to get this whole laundromat thing right.
May I take a moment and confess “Origami Prunes” is my favorite of all eight stories in the collection? It was the hardest of all to finish, it really made me suffer, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. But I also love the fact that so many things happen in that story, and I love that every time I have to reread it makes me cry—I think it’s such a sad story, one of those very few that made me furious at the fact that there’s nothing I can do to change the protagonists’ fate.
For “Better Latitude,” I saw the image of a tree house being lifted by a crane, as if it were going to be transplanted to another place. For “I Clench My Hands,” I saw this poor dead mouse in a trap, and a few fellow mice trying to get him out of there, as if the image had been taken out of Bolaño’s short story the Rat Detective.
For “Okie” the image that I saw was this kid having lunch with his family; he’s sitting at the top of the table, then he stands, and starts throwing up, and he just can’t stop. His whole family is at the table, and the housemaid is there, and they are just looking at him in horror and awe. The image eventually didn’t make it to the final version of the story, but it was the prompt.
For “Her Odor First,” I saw the interior of this big mansion in the wealthy Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, bursting with storage boxes, so full of boxes in every room that you could hardly go through them. The image was pretty somber and gothic, as if taken out of a film by Guillermo del Toro.
For “It Will Be Awesome,” the image that came to mind was that of the Danish executive described at the beginning of the story, washing her teeth furiously. It was hilarious. That anecdote is actually real. For a few months in 1994, a couple friends from college and I took Italian conversation classes with this Italian polyglot woman, and she told us that anecdote about one of her students (I don’t remember if she was Danish or an executive indeed, that I made up), whom she was teaching English conversation, who just couldn’t get the plural for tooth right, so instead of saying teeth, she’d say ‘teets.’