I wrote my first short story only a few months ago. It concerns the truth of someone I know. It was told to my mother in confidence, but she decided to spill it to me anyway as most innocent mothers do. I wasn’t shocked by the truth when I first heard it, but it has stayed with me and assumed its own shape and form in my mind over the past few years. It is strange to say this, but I can almost feel it constantly shifting and being punctured in my mind and body in ways that have perhaps made that truth mine now. When I decided it was time to write it down and give it some form, I realized I couldn’t do it through poetry. It had to be done through prose; I had to write a short story. It needed a different body. But I felt odd being nearly paralyzed by the idea of writing something down as a poem. I had never written a short story. Where should I begin? How? How do I get my mind to think in sentences without line breaks? How much should I meditate on language and isolate words? How do I write with a poet’s mind? I never thought there was something I couldn’t say through poetry, but this instance felt different as though the real challenge was not the story itself, but the way to tell it. And so I finished writing the short story and wrote one after the next, and soon enough, I realized I had embarked on a novel. I haven’t written any poetry since and decided sometime in April that I wanted to attend a fiction workshop in the summer.
I came across the Yale Writers’ Workshop and spent a week with other writers on the beautiful Yale campus trying to find ways to write and revise our stories. There, I was struck by something that Sergio Troncoso, one of the faculty members, said at the faculty reading. He pointed out that it’s the challenges related to craft that he wants to explore in his writing now, as opposed to challenging themes or subjects alone. I thought he had spoken to what I’d recently experienced: the truth of the story didn’t challenge me as much as the idea of writing in a short story form did. So I decided to get in touch with Sergio and talk to him more about this idea.
We decided to meet one afternoon at a French-style cafe on the Upper West Side. I like going to a different neighborhood than mine, or meeting people in theirs. Each neighborhood carries a different personhood and conversations in different areas, too, perhaps are imbued with the identity of that place. I composed myself before meeting Sergio. I always feel like I am entering a different world, a different dimension when I exit the subway and it takes a while for me to reorient myself. Sergio was waiting for a couple of minutes. We decided to sit inside because we thought it would be too noisy outside. We ordered coffee and our conversation, of course, began with talking about New York. If I could have it my way, every conversation of mine would begin with the city.
Sergio thought I look acclimated to New York. “For better or for worse,” he added. And he went on to tell me how he misses Texas, where he was born and raised in the city of El Paso. He misses connecting with people the most. “They can be rude and rough in New York,” he said. But he went on to add that the diversity of the city is unmatched, that one can meet fascinating people from various backgrounds doing all kinds of creative, interesting stuff. And then we got down to it. Sergio asked me to shoot my questions and I told him, then, that I was interested in talking to him about the idea of being challenged by some aspect of craft. He immediately said that he knew how to tell a good story, but that he wants to feel constantly challenged as a writer. He wants to do something difficult or something he wants to learn more about. I liked that approach. Sergio was stepping into the territory I like asking writers the most about: What do you not know about writing yet? What continues to scare or challenge you about writing?
And Sergio’s new novel, Nobody’s Pilgrims, is what he had in mind as his “adventure novel.” It’s his attempt at something new, something he hasn’t done before. He wanted to write something suspenseful, but also something about immigration, poverty and the working class. His other books, such as A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son (Lee and Low, 2019) and From This Wicked Patch of Dust (University of Arizona Press, 2011) deal with similar themes, albeit in different ways. Nobody’s Pilgrims, however, is interestingly described as “a cross between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and No Country for Old Men.” Sergio wanted to write about people who don’t belong, and his novel follows three runaway teenagers— Turi, Molly and Arnulfo— racing across the country in a stolen truck. “One of the things writers are supposed to do,” he said, “is entertain readers.” He laughed and added, as if suddenly conscious of what he had said, “I know it sounds ‘sucky,’ but it is true.”
But one of Troncoso’s main challenges related to craft in Nobody’s Pilgrims was to write short, fast-paced chapters and a novel in which all the protagonists are teenagers. The book, unlike his other works, was not what he calls “pre-arranged.” His other novels were laid out and he mostly stuck to the maps he had drawn. He said, “I wouldn’t call it an outline. It was more like a map of a lot of paragraphs… and I sort of followed it with a few adjustments.” But with Nobody’s Pilgrims, he only knew where to start and where to go, but he wanted to allow a chance of discovery.
I went on to ask him at that point, whether he ever conceptualized his book a YA novel even though it is adult fiction. His publisher, Lee and Low, after all, mostly publishes children’s books although they have started to make forays into the adult fiction and nonfiction markets. Troncoso stated that the presence of three teenage protagonists doesn’t necessarily make it a young adult fiction. I agreed with Sergio and he asked for my opinion as a reader. I told him how I was reminded of reading Salman Rushdie’s books, Luka and the Fire of Life and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I read those titles only a few years ago as an undergraduate, and my experience of reading them was not from the perspective of children’s literature or YA fiction. The same, I believe, is the case for Elena Ferrante’s books, I told Sergio. Her latest fiction, The Lying Life of Adults, is told from the perspective of a teenager and although the narrator of her Neapolitan novel, Lenù narrates her childhood and adolescence in retrospect maintaining a touch of her childhood and adolescent voice, they are not books for children or teenagers alone.
But what also interested me about Sergio’s new novel was his attempt to explore the psychology of teenage characters in the present and insert his own self into them. In his new novel, he goes through just a few weeks in their life as opposed to a long stretch of time. One of his characters, Arnulfo, is like a version of himself, he said. And Molly is the kind of character Sergio knew while he was teaching in Independence, Missouri. Most Mollys, he said, were from white, working-class families who are “poor, blonde and blue-eyed,” but who perhaps saw Sergio as an elite, Ivy-league educated man— he graduated from Harvard before receiving two degrees in international relations and philosophy from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar. And Turi, on the other hand, is as an orphan who doesn’t have a family to fall back on and is trying to escape the border from a bad family. “The more you educate yourself and spend time away from your family or origin, the more you can’t explain to them where you are and what you’re doing. And I have felt that acutely.” The reason Sergio started to write was because he felt he couldn’t talk to anybody, not about the works of Plato and Aristotle, or about what he had managed to do with his life.
But Sergio maintains that growing up in poverty never really leaves one and there’s always an imposter’s voice inside him that speaks at times. “I’ve always felt a sense of fear. Maybe I haven’t done enough, maybe I don’t understand enough. Maybe Yale and Harvard made a mistake.” And it is these apprehensions that he tries to write into his characters. Sergio started learning the craft on the fly. He learnt it on his own, he says, and he admits that it’s a lonelier path to take, but the payoff, he thinks, is that it has made his voice all the more unique.
But Sergio is always working on something new. He was working on research for another historical novel set in Juárez about a young, seventeen-year old woman who led a protest during the Mexican revolution, but has largely disappeared from history. Based on his research, he has reason to believe that she was probably killed but the more he dug into her life, he realized he would have to create her end to make her life meaningful. He wrote a little bit about her in his linked short story collection, but he said the fervor is gone now, he said. “The Yale Writers’ Workshop and a few other things,” he said, “interrupted it.” He did a lot of research, but he’s just not so sure of continuing with it. Sergio often advises his students to write something that really excites them, even if they don’t know everything about it. “If you’re not excited, you should put it aside and do something else,” Sergio declared, ” and that’s the other thing about craft. You should enjoy it.” Sergio is very serious about writing but he emphasizes on having fun with it, not a purposeless kind of fun, not a fun that isn’t ambitious. But the kind of fun that makes you feel more engaged with the task at hand. Craft is time-consuming and any lack of energy, Sergio believes, is reason enough to drop it and switch to something else.
He said to me, “You are your best experience. You dig deep into yourselves, you see many different selves and many different versions of people in you. I always see myself as an experiment, a vehicle.” And Sergio is always experimenting with versions of himself. But as he were talking, I was interested in his idea of discovery— it is something I think of as a translator. You’re not just translating words from one language to another, you’re also aiming to translate their discovery and suprises and how you replicate your discoveries as a reader, that delicious suspenseful feeling before the discovery, is crucial to your task.
But Sergio cared about it being a conversation, and asked me a few questions about my own writing project and obsession with Ferrante. I told him how the novel I am working on is an auto-fiction and before I could pick his brain about inserting oneself into one’s story, Sergio immediately acknowledged that creating a fiction of yourself and putting yourself in a story is also about “putting yourself through a lot.” When he was writing Nobody’s Pilgrims, it was a departure from From This Wicked Patch of Dust, which was about a loving, poor family who could get to the United States primarily because of the love that existed among them in the midst of their poverty. But Nobody’s Pilgrims is different and focuses more on the idea of violence haunting innocence. It was born out of focusing on the reversal of some ideals, out of Troncoso’s own inability to speak to everyone. I was certain many writers can connect to that— so many of us write when we fail to speak. It sounds ironic, but it’s true.
“I feel like a turtle. My home is on my back, it’s wherever I am,” he said. Sergio is accustomed now to working by himself, to the loneliness of a writer’s life that only occasionally crosses paths with others. But he is a firm believer in the freedom that loneliness affords, the one to follow one’s mind and delve deeper into oneself that emerges within its sad but liberating confines. One of Troncoso’s early stories, he recounted, was about a twenty-year old man, Victor, who goes out with a Mexican woman he met in El Paso who is a decade older to him. That relationship made his character wonder about whether he’s Mexican or American. The very first scenes describe them in a moment of passion and Troncoso’s father, upon reading the story, said, “Sergio, what are you doing? Are you writing pornography?” We laughed and Sergio talked briefly about not censoring oneself, or not writing because of the fear of people around us. There’s often a pull to write the “right characters,” he said, but Sergio tries to resist linear or perfectly moral characters, not the “right” kind of immigrants or women for instance.
“A deep freedom of consciousness,” Sergio says, “is what writing is about.” “Damn even yourself,” he says and advises writers not to fall for their own proclivities, judgements and tendencies. He wants to ask the toughest questions of himself, as much as he asks them of others around them and that’s why he loves writing. He said, “Let me be blunt. I don’t even think I know myself.” It’s a huge admission to come from a writer, and it is difficult to do what Sergio wants writers to do: to turn the lens onto our own selves as we do towards others. In many ways, my first short story felt like a test of my ethics, I told him. I wrote that story because I was uncomfortable harboring the truth. It wasn’t a lens turned towards that person’s secret, but a lens turned towards my own self. Should I tell the story that belongs to someone else and how? How do I capture the ways in which their truth is as difficult for me to harbor as it is for them? How do I write a secret and still keep it?
But I asked Sergio about teaching writing which is, in my eyes, a difficult terrain that forces one to test one’s ethics and morality. And, of course, since I know him through the Yale Writers’ Workshop Sergio laughed and asked me to talk to his students. He calls himself a “tough” teacher. He pushes them a lot, he gives them exercises each day. He has his students doing exercises three weeks before the start of the workshop. “I believe if you work hard, you should enjoy yourself.” He wants to help his students realize their vision instead of forcing his own on them. His workshop, he says, operates like a group effort in service of writing before anything else.
And I wondered if he had other advice for writers. “You should be reading three books a week as a writer,” he said. “That’s normal pace for a writer, and frankly, you should be reading a lot more than that.” I think of the beautiful Urdu word, riyaaz. For writers, one of the most important forms of riyaaz is reading, and to make it less solitary, one should perhaps espouse Sergio’s definition of teaching: an effort to create a community. He tries to run the kind of workshop he wish he could have been part of. At Yale, he mentions how he meets students over breakfast and dinner and talks shop. His workshop outside the workshop too, and while it exists for the sake of creating beautiful work and working on each individual’s weak spots, he is also equally motivated to helping his students get a contract, get published in the best literary journals and prepare a serious piece of work to be shared with the world, .
When I asked him if there’s anything else he’s working on, or what’s going on in general in his reading and writing life, he revealed to me that he works a lot with his dreams and frequently dreams about his characters. At the moment, he’s thinking of a short story based on this one character who appeared in his dream, but he also wants to work on some essays. An editor, he told me, has requested a sequel to Nobody’s Pilgrims and around the time we met, he was reading Gogol’s Dead Souls and Chekhov’s short stories as a way of “replenishing” himself while “getting lost.” He loves writing by some Russian and German writers, and feels very connected to them and the time they lived in. He thinks of American literature as something “flimsy.” He thinks of George Saunders, for instance, as a great writer, but very few American writers, he believes, can stand the test of time. He mentioned Elena Ferrante as a truly great writer (which obviously brought a smile to my face) and he struck a nerve when he mentioned how he had to leave everything he learnt about academic writing behind as a creative writer. The mechanics of the two are rather different and it requires one to switch one’s brain, he mentioned.
Finally, towards the end of our conversation, he said “writers don’t talk about money, but they should.” Despite growing up poor, Troncoso told me he is adept at managing money. And writers, according to him, should learn how to manage money in ways that helps them build a life in which they can write and explore freely. “Writing a story needs a great deal of meandering until one gets it right,” he said, and money is an entity through which one can afford that luxury so the writing doesn’t suffer. In the last recorded sentence of our conversation, Troncoso said, “You don’t have to be lonely.” It is a reassuring thing to hear from another writer, particularly when, as Michele Filgate writers, writers are the loneliest artists of all. As we got up to leave, I told Sergio I could walk down a few blocks with him to the 79th Street subway station. People, I saw suddenly with Sergio’s words still on my mind, were everywhere. There were people coming out or walking into the subway, going into the stores that lined the streets. Nobody was truly alone, nobody had to be.
SERGIO TRONCOSO is the author of eight books: Nobody’s Pilgrims, A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, The Nature of Truth and From This Wicked Patch of Dust; and as editor, Nepantla Familias: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature on Families in between Worlds and Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence.
Troncoso teaches fiction and nonfiction at the Yale Writers’ Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut. A past president of the Texas Institute of Letters, he has also served as a judge for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the New Letters Literary Awards in the Essay category. His recent work has appeared in the Texas Highways, Houston Chronicle, CNN Opinion, New Letters, Yale Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Texas Monthly Magazine.