Manuel Gonzales has a Labyrinth of a Brain
A selfie of Manuel Gonzales, first published in the Oxford American.
Manuel Gonzales joined the Literature faculty at Bennington this fall after teaching at the University of Kentucky, where he was an Associate Professor of English and helped launch the school’s MFA program. He is a fiction writer and a screenwriter and is the author of two books so far: the story collection The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, and the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack. The writer Kelly Link, a recent MacArthur “genius” Fellow, writes that “Manuel Gonzales clearly has a labyrinth of a brain … Sign me up as a member of his fanclub, please.” A few weeks ago Manuel read excerpts from his stories in Franklin Living Room, and I was impressed with his quirky style and with the way he talked about the construction of his sentences.
He is currently teaching two courses at Bennington: Reading and Writing Short Stories: the Technology of Heartbreak, and Screenwriting: Scene and Structure. I’m actually taking his screenwriting class, and it's the largest class I’ve ever taken at Bennington (about 40 students). It didn’t feel like the usual intimate class at first, but Manuel is incredibly funny—especially when he shares his writing inspirations and his life experiences—and we often break into small groups to share our work. His lectures are filled with useful information about screenplays and their machinery, and I love all of the scripts that we're reading and the different writing styles that we’re learning about. I honestly think Bennington should offer more lecture style classes after taking screenwriting with Manuel.
After his reading in Franklin, Manuel answered these questions for Literary Bennington over email.
Literary Bennington: Who are the top three writers who have had the greatest influence on you and in what way?
Manuel Gonzales: Kate Atkinson, because she's a wicked good storyteller and she's funny and droll and an excellent weaver of plots and also isn't afraid to take risks structurally -- her novel Life After Life follows a woman who keeps dying and starting her life over again and moving forward a little farther each time she starts over. Deborah Eisenberg, because she's a quiet writer but she captures emotion on the page better than so many other writers and in such simple and efficient ways. She's who I go to when I worry that my own work is too rooted in its strange concept or ideas and not rooted enough in character emotion. Ben Marcus because he was one of my first workshop instructors and while I love his work, I felt his influence even stronger in the classroom, in how he looked at other people's stories, how he was able to read so widely and understand so deeply almost every way you could approach telling a story.
LB: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
MG: Be patient, cause, man, it's going to be a while for this whole writing career thing to take off, but also? Be patient because you'll find that being published? While it's awesome, sure, to be published? What you'll find out is that being published isn't nearly as cool as the writing and editing and revising and creating and building and the screwing around with language is.
LB: If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
MG: I'd like to think that I'd be something super cool like a detective or a spy or a forensics specialist or something like that, but I don't know that I'd be that good at that sort of job or that I'd be as cool as I'd imagine myself being. I could also work in kitchens -- I love working in kitchens.
LB: What do you hope will be the main takeaway for students taking your screenwriting class?
MG: Well, really, I hope they'll come away knowing how to write a screenplay, or at least an idea of how to approach it, but also, beyond that, I hope they come away understanding how every type of writing has its specific rules and criteria and structures and that if you have a good and compelling story to tell and know how to make it work within those criteria and structures, you'll be able to make your story relevant in any field, even if you decide screenwriting isn't your thing.
LB: Do you prefer writing fiction or screenplays?
MG: I don't have a general preference. I like writing them both because they each work a different kind of writing muscle. Screenplays, for me, work the plot and scene and dialogue muscles and visualizing each moment before or as I'm writing and rewriting it, whereas stories work the descriptive language muscles, those muscles used for interiority and language and structure. I love being able to think of a story I want to tell and then think of all the different ways I have in which to tell it, to experiment with those, to play. And really there's play involved in both, but the play feels different from one to the other.
LB: Where does your inspiration come from?
MG: I have no idea. I guess I often take things I think or that people say and carry them to literal extremes and then once I'm in that extreme, I try to build a narrative, a real world out of the extreme concept or situation I've just thought of, and I go from there.
LB: What is your favorite childhood book?
MG: I loved reading Dragon's Blood by Jane Yolen, which is a strange amalgamation of fantasy and science fiction -- this boy who's an indentured servant on a desert planet working for a dragon ranch risks his life to steal a dragon egg and sneaks it into the dunes to a small oasis where he waits for it to hatch so he can raise it and train it to fight and win enough money to buy himself out of servitude. I don't know many people who know or read it anymore but it was the book I read that opened me up to reading more and more.
For more on Manuel’s work, here is an interview with poet Ada Limón from Oxford American.