Alejandro Varela is the author of The People Who Report More Stress (Astra House). His Wit Tea piece “The ABCs of Prose Wit” was previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Mimi Wong, Editor in Chief.
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Mimi Wong: I’m so excited to have the opportunity to check in with you since The Offing first published your piece “The ABCs of Prose Wit” back in 2017. Even though it’s very tongue-in-cheek, I read that work almost as a satirical manifesto in addition to commentary on who is “allowed” to write what. What has been your approach when it comes to using humor in your writing?
Alejandro Varela: My sense of humor is a part of my voice, and it’s typically an undercurrent tone in all of my work. It comes out rather naturally when I’m writing. That said, when my emotions are heightened, it takes on a biting, more sardonic vibe, which is what happened with “The ABCs of Prose Wit.” I’d been rejected from a journal in a rather smarmy way. The editor told me they were looking for another style, something more detached. And then I looked through the journal’s archives and realized he meant a campus magazine-, UCB-, SNL-style, where race or class critiques aren’t central but incidental, where the writer is aloof and observational, where there isn’t real emotion. By that point, my work had been rejected dozens and dozens of times from dozens and dozens of journals, but his words pissed me off. His style pissed me off. His choices pissed me off. When I sat down to write the piece you published, I was angry, and it poured out of me in one sitting.
In my short stories and novels, my humor is subtler. Sometimes it’s in the set-up — a gay man trying to meet someone at the gay bar; sometimes it’s interiority — the gay man wondering how to meet someone; sometimes it’s an old-school joke — the gay man realizing that gay bars, like delis, are meat markets and would benefit from having ticketed systems for ordering drinks; sometimes it’s slapstick — the gay man spills a fifth of his martini while trying to cheers the stranger who bought him the drink; sometimes, it’s the descriptions — the gay bar bartender is wearing a tank top with straps as thin as dental floss, and his mustache is a carwash. Because my work takes on weightier themes, namely the myth of the American Dream and the stress-induced poor health outcomes caused by social hierarchies, I lean into the humor, as a counterweight.
MW: It’s such an honor that The Offing could play even a small part in your writing journey. What was the path from sharing your essays and stories with publications to writing your debut novel The Town of Babylon and new short story collection The People Who Report More Stress?
AV: I have long-admired the mission of The Offing, and the honor was all mine. I remember you reaching out to me about selecting the piece, along with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who was the Editor in Chief at the time. I was thrilled because I knew no one else would publish it. It’s the sort of critique of power that makes most mastheads uncomfortable. Thank you!
I was primarily a short story writer in those days. I had accumulated about 25 stories and published a few, but my agent couldn’t get anyone to buy the collection. Editors insisted I write a novel. A few thought I could combine the stories into a novel. I resisted until it seemed I might never sell a book. The Town of Babylon was based on a story idea based on public health research. I wrote it very quickly and didn’t know if I’d created something worthy. But I sold it along with the collection to Astra House. They wanted to go out with the novel first, which frightened me because the stories felt polished, but the novel was in its first draft. The “success” of Babylon somehow made me anxious about the stories. I wasn’t concerned with having a follow-up hit — Babylon was hardly a hit. But I suddenly remembered the dozens of rejections from all those years earlier, and I feared those editors were right. I’m no longer afraid. I think the collection holds its own. Early feedback suggests people prefer the stories to the novel. Ha. The irony of course is that I’ve slowed down on the short story front, and I’m full-speed ahead on writing novels. Maybe I should change course.
MW: There are many overlapping themes between the novel and the collection — from meditations on monogamy and love, to the open secrets not talked about in families. How did you know which stories belonged in the novel and which felt more self-contained? Or is it a completely different process to write each one? Do you view the two books as companions?
AV: I write about class jumping because it mirrors my own life. It’s a very disorienting and dynamic experience to begin life on one rung of the socioeconomic hierarchy and end up on another. For a writer (or creator of any kind), it’s a goldmine of ideas. Because of this, I see my writing output as part of a continuing arc. If The Town of Babylon is about the troubles of returning to where you started, The People Who Report More Stress is about not being at ease where you land. Each of these books stands alone, but together, along with the novels and story collections to come, they tell a bigger story about adaptation and awakening in the United States. In brief, a retelling of the American experience from the margins to the center.
As for what belongs where, I try not to repeat myself too much, even if the themes do. I can’t quite explain how one thing ends up a story and one a novel, but it’s never an ambiguous process for me. The idea for The Town of Babylon wasn’t short-story material because it was sprawling from the start. Conversely, none of my stories were ever something I wanted to tackle as novels. The choice has to do with scope. If the idea has clear paths for expansion, I’d be hard pressed (or daunted) to tackle it as a short. That said, “Carlitos in Charge” has novel potential, and I have considered writing its sequel in longform.
MW: As a writer, you offer so much empathy to your characters, even the villains. Sometimes the characters who do bad things are the most heartbreaking and pitiable. How do you go about portraying these characters who are perhaps less admirable? How do you want them to be read?
AV: This is probably where my public health training (and my upbringing) comes to the fore. I see most actions, behaviors, and beliefs as consequences of experiences. Therefore, to draw a character without consideration for their history feels like an incomplete rendering. In public health, knowing the why helps to determine what sort of intervention one needs. Similarly, in fiction, I’ve found that a character drawn without empathy isn’t fully drawn. It’s not about excusing misdeeds or atrocities; it’s about giving context and having the reader come to their own conclusion. But yes, I am, in my way, trying to push an empathy agenda. Ha. Credit, in this regard, to Toni Morrison, who did this with her characters, rather famously in The Bluest Eye, a book that influenced the writing of Babylon. That Morrison was able to find humanity and draw sympathy for Cholly after what he did to his daughter, Pecola, is a feat. As a reader, I found myself disdaining and fearing Cholly while understanding the role his past played in defining his actions.
MW: Author Angie Cruz once said (and I’m paraphrasing her much more eloquent words) that the beauty of writing realism is it’s a genre that permits readers to recognize themselves or their family members. Is that something that’s important to you? What is it that appeals to you when it comes to depicting the realities of everyday life?
AV: First and foremost, Angie Cruz is a rad-ass, generous human, who I am happy to know.
As for recognition in realism… I hadn’t expected how much my writing would resonate with people; readers tell me they see themselves in my work. That’s a gratifying thing to have happen. Sometimes, I write to communicate one thing — the importance of community — and another thing happens: people feel validated. It might, however, be a surprise that only happens the first time because I now realize how much my voice and my stories represent (in some ways) the experiences of others. Frankly, it emboldens me to be even more honest, not only in what I say but how I say it. So much of the form I’ve stuck to is because I’ve been afraid to allow my voice to come out in the way it wants to. I’m not much of a gambler — the occasional Power Ball ticket — but I’m betting that if I cut loose even more on the page, my writing will be stronger, as will its connection to the reader. Here’s hoping. On the other hand, I just completed an epistolary novel about polyamory and heartbreak. I might lose my audience altogether! Jkjkjkjkjk.
MW: When drawing upon your own life or the lives of people close to you for inspiration, do you have any rules about whose stories you can borrow? Anything off limits? (I suppose this brings us full circle to my initial question.)
AV: I borrow the shapes of my life, i.e., the shape of my mother, the shape of my father, the shape of my best friend from high school, the shape of my local bodega owner, etc., but I fill those shapes with a mix of people, ideas, and quirks. The process is different for a high school best friend who I haven’t seen in 25 years than for a mother who I talk to every morning. Each has its own challenges. In either case, I make it a point to borrow lightly from real people. For starters, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I also want to avoid writing nonfiction while I’m writing fiction. If I get too close to the experience of someone I know, it changes how free I feel to write, which doesn’t mean that one deserves care and the other doesn’t. I’m always saddled with a sense of responsibility when I’m creating human characters. I’m not interested in upholding tropes or denying anyone self-determination; society does that all on its own. I’m trying to write toward a more liberatory experience.