A Conversation with Juan Carlos Reyes—WSR Contributing Fiction Editor
Water~Stone Review is a collaborative project of students, faculty, and staff at Hamline University Creative Writing Programs. In addition to working with our faculty, and to fulfill a larger initiative of providing a place for new/emerging and underrepresented voices at Water~Stone Review, we now have rotating contributing editor
This is a wonderful opportunity for our graduate student assistant editors to collaborate with renown writers in order to expand our reach and further innovation. Past Contributing Editors include Sun Yung Shin, Keith Lesmeister, Sean Hill, Carolyn Holbrook, Mona Power, Kao Kalia Yang, and Ed Bok Lee.
In this post we introduce Vol. 27 Contributing Fiction Editor, Juan Carlos Reyes.
Welcome! We’re thrilled to have you as our contributing fiction editor for Volume 27. When crafting fiction, what’s your key to finding the arc of a story? Do you craft plot or characters first, or do they develop as you write?
I wonder sometimes how answering this question might best inform young writers, particularly because so much of my process has always been to get going and try discerning what the character seems to want as the lines and paragraphs unfold, as I acclimate to the narrator’s voice.
I usually start with a premise, something like the opening situation, the character at the center of it, and what their most urgent relationships are. By urgent, I don’t mean that something needs to happen or that the character needs to go about doing something. Instead, I’m most interested in who a character feels themselves at odds with, who they’re mourning or who they’ve lost, and what they imagine will seal some rupture or help them relive some memory. Every decision they make to imperfectly claw at something leads the fiction from page to page.
What I imagine by “decisions” includes the choice, for example, of the language (word choice, syntax, etc.) with which to evoke a memory, who to be in touch with, how to move their body or speak their mind, and why they’re trying to determine what matters about the next thing they get into. This, eventually, becomes my plot, that series of choices that incrementally has more at stake and becomes more intense as we approach some end.
In this sequence, I often like to work numerically, in increments of three or four or five. When I first started writing, I didn’t consciously set out to work with pattern generally speaking, but I realized in the early going that pattern-making helps me track the momentum of a character’s life, at least the brief glimpse we have of them in the fiction I write. I don’t always set up this kind of rhythm, but when I do, it’s largely because I’m still working to understand who I have in my hands, the kind of person and the kinds of motivations they carry. Sometimes I revise to omit these explicit structures. Sometimes I revise to enhance their significance. But I find that in the drafting process, at least, they’re so helpful for me to understand how the choices they make are building towards something.
You are the executive editor of Big Fiction Magazine and an associate professor at Seattle University. What is a skill that fiction writers should work to develop?
Storytelling, in the broadest sense. We might enjoy the fiction we make, even the kinds of stories we find ourselves returning to when we write. But the story behind the story, the imagined narrative behind the fiction we write, is so very important, and it’s a skill we can learn to cultivate: not just an elaboration of why we write, but a considerable consideration of why/how we wrote to complete some particular piece.
I don’t think it’s enough to simply say that our process is mysterious, that we’re not sure how our characters emerged or where they got to. I think it’s important to acknowledge, almost like artistic therapy, what creative, personal, and social lineage (the fullness of experience) might have brought us to a story, its drafting and revision, the choices we made along the way and how completed it. Note here that I’ve emphasized “might have” because in this mining of ourselves, we really can only arrive to a set of possibilities that could have influenced or driven us into and through the creation of a text. We’ll never completely know, and that’s part of the real mystery of our process, how we discover what we do and how we choose to hold it, examine it, interrogate it, and draw correlations from it. This is the practice, I think, that can be most helpful to fiction writers. It keeps us in the practice of the form, and it’s an important skill to bring to the community, to share what we do beyond the texts we produce and to remind ourselves that investment in the form can be a full-body experience.
When reading fiction, what draws you in and holds you until the end? What do you feel creates the basis of stories you return to?
I’m finishing up right now Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which feels like such a proper model upon which to base my answer. In the book, two narrators weave time and space together: a teenager who wrote a journal about herself and her grandmother’s legacy, and a writer who comes upon the teenager’s journal after it traveled the Pacific Ocean in a lockbox after the 2011 earthquake. The teenager has the prescience to direct her journal at some initially disembodied “you,” and it’s this imagined conversation between this girl and the writer that carries the box. Increasingly, for the writer in British Columbia who found the lockbox and journal and is insistent to not only try understand every word but try to find this girl and return the journal, this becomes more than just a reading and translation exercise. She’s invested in this girl’s story, and her life, for which she’s already become resentful for reasons that become clear as she narrates her life on this remote Canadian island of mainland, is also fodder for examination, interrogation, and correlation. And so the books that hold my attention feel like this, a single narrative or interwoven stories that unfold according to a narrator’s whims, in turns impatiently and patiently, in turns afraid and fearless, very much reflecting a mimesis of the real sounds and psychologies we imagine must be true around us, if we only spend some extended time with them to hear them out.
You’re working on a novel that focuses on the superhero genre. Can you talk more about that? What other projects are you working on?
I just revised the final draft of my first full-length book, Three Alarm Fire, due out with Hinton Publishing in fall 2024. The fiction collection comes together as a set of stories that explore our experience into and through violence in the U.S. We begin with a triptych that examines this notion of a bystander and, really, how we wrench ourselves from that and into walking beside one another. To begin with, three male-identifying perspectives, at three very different stages of life, are forced to confront the pain and trauma of women in their lives who’ve endured sexual violence, and from there the collection groups its stories and corresponding perspectives by the kinds of encounters they have: with the digital world, with downright horror, with love, with creative work. The collection culminates with a re-issue of my novella, A Summer’s Lynching, revised and built to more clearly fit into this collection. It was my publisher’s insistence to include the novella, feeling that it didn’t get the readership it could have six years ago, and I’m thankful to them for insisting.
The novel I will now venture into is that superhero story you mention, whose first chapter is a featured story in this collection. The title of the novel, also the title of the story included in Three Alarm Fire, is Tomorrow Everyone Lives. The novel will be about a migrant boy detained by ICE, who is then experimented upon by rogue doctors during a pandemic as they test different versions of a vaccine. The cocktail of chemicals in his body turns the boy into this freak with superhuman powers, and part of his transformation is very much a test of what vengeance means, what healing means. The book, I hope, will also be an interrogation of our decade-plus long fascination with comic book superheroes on the big screen, especially their willingness, eagerness, even, to be state actors, to test their mettle with big and sexy things, and their general lack of interest to address the injustices at the margins of the geo-political power they’re always caught up in. The book will very much test the Kilmonger theory of what role a superhuman should have, but Tomorrow Everyone Lives will, I believe, see that idea into grace and maturity, from something like anger into something like humility with necessity, even if, contrary to the title, not everyone survives to see it through.
Juan Carlos Reyes has published the novella A Summer’s Lynching and the fiction chapbook Elements of a Bystander. He has received fellowships from the PEN America, Jack Straw Cultural Center, the Alabama Prison Arts & Education Project, and the WA State Artist Trust. His forthcoming full-length collection, Three Alarm Fire (Hinton Publishing), will release Fall 2024.