Jennifer Lyne, author of Catch Rider, and Domingo Martinez, author of The Boy Kings of Texas, both grew up feeling as if they had their feet firmly planted in two worlds. Lyne struggled to find identity in her social class—attending an upscale all-girls school during the week and shooting rifles on the weekends. Martinez fought with cultural identity—railing against the label of ‘emerging Chicano writer.’ As they interviewed each other, the authors shared how they came to peace with their duality before delving into topics such as why YA novels shouldn’t be considered adult’s guilty pleasure and the finer points of how to properly wrestle a greased pig.
Jennifer Lyne: What does it feel like to be an “emerging Chicano writer?”
Domingo Martinez: Ugh. I was just hit with an image of a large, Diego Rivera-type illustration of a peasant woman carrying a sack of some kind of grain, in the middle of childbirth. And it’s me, looking like a russet potato, struggling to get back in. Thank you. I rebelled and spat and railed against the label when I was first starting to publish, but after a few months of watching a firm audience emerging in Texas, mostly of Latino readers and book-buyers, I was more of the “… tell them I still have a molcajete in my kitchen! And I know all the words to ‘La Cucaracha!'” school of thought. You grow up quickly in this business if you’re going to survive, and you learn to use every available asset to sell your damned book.
And my book was very difficult to market, initially, because it’s not simply about race identification in modern America or identity politics or border issues: certainly, it has aspects of that, in telling the larger narrative, but it’s not simply that. People couldn’t frame that idea, at first, and so selling it as a “Chicano” studies story was the first, and easiest thing to do, which gave the book a fighting chance to linger, and eventually make a critical impression, even if it went against my initial sensibilities to be pigeon-holed as a “qualified” author. (“Oh, he’s Mexican, and he doesn’t know it; how cute!”)
I remember swanning and strutting in my girlfriend’s kitchen, making proclamation after proclamation about sitting at the same bar as the old white guys, demanding to swim in that same water as an equal. When I’d look over at Sarah, she’d have this look of amused sadness, telegraphing how much of an idiot she thought I was being. It was this look of pity for my obvious discomfort of self, while also encouraging me to go on because she was having so much fun watching me swagger with empty bravado. Inside a year, I was embracing the shit out of my Latino / Texan identity and dropping unaccented Spanish words in any conversation possible, and I reverted to cursing naturally in Spanish, which has always felt more sincere. And I finally understood why she was looking at me like that, the whole time.
What about you, in writing your fiction story that took place in a very real, and very shared setting? Were you able to use some previously undiscovered or reluctant strength to craft such a sense of place? Did people in your past recognize themselves in your “creative non-fiction” revisiting of home?
JL: In my case, it’s a class issue. People ask if I’m the backwoods mountain kid in the story, or the snotty horse girl, and of course I’m neither, and a little of both. My family is middle class, and I spent a lot of time in both worlds. I love being around mountain people who live down in the hollow. I shot rifles and almost won the “greased pig” contest at the Amelia County Fair when I was seven, and I went on a squirrel hunt when I was six. At one point, I was ranked 17th in the country by the NRA for match target shooting. But I also grew up in a WASPy enclave in Richmond where Tom Wolfe was raised, and I went to an all-girls’ school for eleven years. But we really couldn’t afford any of it – we’d just gotten used to it.
I spent two years after college working in a barn in Hot Springs, Virginia and wrote the story based on that experience. Mountain people are the best storytellers I’ve ever met, and it’s my love of their language that started and inspired the story. I based the character of Wayne on two horse traders, both of whom had days of hard drinking in their past, but neither drinks now. So I fabricated all the drinking details, and I had to explain that to them. Ultimately I think what is truth and what is fiction is my business, and something I don’t need to share with anyone, as long as I don’t ruin our friendship. All of the other characters are composites.
Our books seem different, but there’s something so familiar in your story. Waking up in a strange place, loving most the people you are there with, but wanting out. Feeling like you don’t belong. You might have written the ultimate YA novel. Do you think that this sense of alienation and discomfort is a universal human condition, or is it dependent on your upbringing, circumstances, or age?
DM: That’s new; I don’t think my book has ever been described as “Young Adult.” Certainly “Adult Themed,” but not for anyone under 21. In fact, I told my nieces they couldn’t read it until they’re at least 25 years old. And my mother still hasn’t read it, but mostly because I warned her off of it. I think it’s too difficult for her, in particular. And I’ve tried using that for my “social media rule” — asking yourself “Would you want your mother to read this?” before you post anything on Facebook or Twitter. Thing is, I’ve said some really awful things to my mother in my past, and I made it a point to shock and awe her when I was a kid, so I don’t think that rule really helps me. Maybe someone else’s mom … but then, that’s an entirely different discipline.
Getting back to what’s important: did you really participate in a “greased pig” wrestling contest? I’m really impressed by that. I mean, I know my way around rifles and pistols growing up in Brownsville, Texas, but we were far from any sort of paperwork association with a nationally registered, right wing group. In fact, how I got my first “samurai sword” was, I stole a .25 calibre pistol from underneath my grandmother’s mattress and I traded it for a blunted “katana” replica, but then I ground an edge down on it using the machining tools in the truck yard, and I very nearly cut off the top of my index finger while sharpening it. So that was cool. I mean, you were all “corporate-sponsored red-state NRA teen babe,” and I was a teenaged Mexican ninja.
I smell a rom-com here. I’ll start crowd-sourcing the funding.
Anyhow, to answer your question: I think that anyone with an artistic inclination is born with that feeling of “other,” of dislocation. I think it’s vital if you’re going to be able to tell a story, that you have to live in the margins and watch from the outside. Otherwise, you’d never get a proper point of view, if you’re stuck in the downstream current.
But I think you’re describing almost exactly the circumstances I experienced, but just in different pantones — you had one foot placed firmly in one lifestyle, and the other set just as solidly in the other, and you vacillated between the two depending on your immediate needs, yes? With what was needed at the time? You were the upscale Southern girl one moment, the sharp-shooting “What’s your favorite part of the skirl?” next?
I had the same thing, except mine was a bit more delineated, with two different languages and models of the appropriate. Yours was based on class while mine was based on culture. For example, my white side didn’t take the drunken vatos behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken and stab them with a screwdriver for whistling at my sisters, like my uncles did.
You did that in Spanish, not in English.
The thing is, as far away as I’ve run from that — the stabbing vatos and avoiding cops — I’ve actually circled back and settled much of that in myself so that I’m at peace with my duplicity; this book allowed a level of integration I was never prepared for. I thank Sarah for that, actually: she made it clear from the start that it was necessary, and that it was going to happen whether I fought it or allowed it. So it’s now a part of me, as a whole. Which makes me wonder: How much squirrel are you able to shoot now, in New York? Tell your boys about your murderin’ NRA past? How you fought as Johnny Reb, when your plantation needed you?
Have you integrated the two selves, is what I’m asking? If there’s a parallel in our stories, then that’s it, isn’t it? Because that’s the scab your question was picking, I think. My other question is, how’d you get a hold of that damned slippery pig? I’m thinking the hooves, right? Then flipping it on it’s back? Then putting your elbow in it’s squealing neck? Maybe I’ve been watching too much MMA.
JL: Where to start. Your book is a Young Adult novel for ages 25 and over. YA is really not just for teenagers, it’s for the regressing adult, which is pretty much everyone. Also, I admire your high standards and restraint on social media, especially since you made a bestiality joke on my Facebook page.
They let a bunch of kids loose in a pen with a greased piglet, and the person who caught it got to keep it. My mother looked on from the stands in horror as I picked up the writhing piglet and held it….and then it slipped out and ran off. My mother is the source of a lot of this class schizophrenia that I have. She’s on one hand an aesthetic snob (we only ate with silver, went to private schools, I had a horse and she collected orchids). But on the other hand, she dreamed all her life about being a hillbilly in Allegheny County. We heated with wood stove and trudged through the snow to get firewood – at the bottom of our hill in a tony West End Richmond neighborhood. She drove an old green VW camper, whose engine labored up the hill loudly in comparison to our neighbors’ BMWs. So she’s the one who entered me in the greased pig contest and made sure I knew how to shoot a Winchester rifle, yet sent me to a private school. No wonder I was confused. It’s all her fault! (How much time we spend, blaming our mothers.)
About the squirrels – I never killed anything. I was six, and my job one time was to follow along and hold the dead squirrels by the tail. But I was a pretty good shot, and I did match targets through the NRA for about seven years. My sister and I want to start a rifle club in the Hudson Valley where you’re only allowed to use those single shot Winchesters. So far, our first volunteer is a lady Episcopal priest. But I am pro gun-control, because the American tradition of riflery and self-protection has nothing to do with owning an automatic weapon. If you’re a half decent shot, you don’t need an assault rifle. These kids obsessed with guns just need another outlet – martial arts? Jousting? Felting?
Have I integrated the two selves? No. But let’s talk briefly about my Southern roots. Southerners have a natural rebelliousness and distrust of authority that is both childish and self-protective. I think it’s more insightful not to look at it in a political way; these mountain towns and industrial towns in Virginia used to be solid blue.
In Sophie’s Choice William Styron compares Southerners and Poles, writing that the presence of race in both places has created “the same instant cruelty and compassion, bigotry and understanding, enmity and fellowship, exploitation and sacrifice, searing hatred and hopeless love.” If you want to know schizophrenia, or even two-sidedness – visit the south. You and I are both from the South, which illustrates my point.
DM: For the record, I loved that Viszla, but hunting dogs aren’t known for their fidelity. I thought I could change him. He had me at “Woof.” And if my mother read that, she’d shake her head slowly and say, “Aye, June.” Because that’s what she calls me: June. With an “aye,” before it, because there’s usually a sort of pang she’s addressing, when she’s addressing me.
I haven’t been an easy child. Which brings me back to your theory around YA being for the regressing adult — I agree entirely. There was a time when I was sheepish and weird about admitting that I was so deeply moved and interested in books and stories aimed at the YA audience, but not so much any more. Back when I was in my mid 20s, I was suffering from a serious broken heart (the “Karis” event I chronicle in Boy Kings) and a friend of mine named Akasha, who was a Wiccan Witch, recommended I read the Harriet the Spy series. It was about the level of cognition I was capable of absorbing at the time, as I was fairly unfunctional. There was that, and a few others, and I remember going through them at a fantastic pace, feeling like there was some great big mystical secret just about to be revealed, something that would make it all make sense…and it never came. But that wasn’t the point. I avoided my grief for the time.
Anyhow, I address this in my next book as well, though by way of a BBC show for 16 year olds called Skins. Disregard both the American versions and any season after the first bunch of kids, but those first two seasons kept me company through a terribly dark period of my life, and I’m eternally grateful. It might be that my idea of myself is fixed at about age 17, so it surprises me when I catch a glimpse of myself and see a scary, shaven-headed 40 year old ogre looking back at me, who loves Harry Potter. (There’s a huge Harry Potter thing in my next book, too.)
I think that period of adolescence and burgeoning self-awareness is so incredibly complicated and intricate that it can be quite easy to get stuck there, or go back there, and find fantastically rich material for art, and universal human signals. It’s one of the reasons I’m terrified about becoming a father because I just can’t comprehend that level of responsibility for another human being, and I’m letting the window shut slowly from indecision. Though I might be like the Indiana Jones of fathers, and just squeak under as the stone wall shuts forever. Or is that Norman Mailer? Either one.
JL: Or Tony Randall. Anyway – and I’m not directing this at you – but I get annoyed when adults apologize for reading Young Adult novels, like they were caught reading a Star magazine in the doctor’s office. I hear it all the time. “I never read this stuff, it’s just that I’m waiting for the latest Pynchon novel to arrive in the mail…” First of all, it’s bullshit – people read exactly what they want to read. No one is forcing their eyes back and forth. They aren’t slumming it; they live in that slum. But another point, which is inconsistent with that one but whatever, is that a “young adult novel” is often just a “novel” that is written so teenagers can read it. When I first wrote Catch Rider, it had a meth lab in it, and a morbidly obese sheriff who was going to make the abusive boyfriend disappear down an abandoned well on his property, left to rot for eternity. I took that out, along with a lot of “f*ck”s, because I wanted the book to be accessible for 14 year olds. I really wanted kids to be able to read the book, but I didn’t write it only for them.
I don’t look down on teenagers at all or consider them less evolved – they’re our true, raw, unsocialized selves, not in any way inferior to adults. So writing for them is like going right to the core, the source, where all of the anxiety and terror and lust are swirling around, before anyone has gotten to them and told them how to operate in the world, before they are comfortable with who they are. It’s a privilege, for me, to have that audience. And they’re tough. If they don’t like your book, they’ll just write a review online that says “This sucks. I hate the protagonist.” I have two reactions to that, one (my adolescent self) says “well then Goddamit you wouldn’t like me either!” The other reaction is from my adult self, which is “Fair enough. Thanks for reading.” But being able to lessen the torture of being a teenager for anyone is an honor.
As for parenthood, I’ll tell you, a friend of mine and her husband adopted a newborn last year with very little notice. We went to visit their hotel room (they were stuck far away from home waiting for the adoption to be completed), and the 3-day-old baby was in a little bassinet on a cabinet in their Extended Stay America suite. When the mother and I went on a supply run, she turned to me and said, “I can’t believe they let us leave the hospital with the baby. Jennifer, do they know me?” I wheezed so hard with laughter that I almost couldn’t drive. You know how they say an essential part of faith in God is doubt? An essential part of parenting is abject terror. Just like writing.
DM: Maybe if I don’t believe in children, they’ll believe in me. Or at least buy my books. I’m kidding, of course, and I know that if anyone really stopped and catalogued the reasons why they should or shouldn’t have a child, or attempt a career as an author, the negatives entirely outweigh the positives. So it’s a leap of faith, either way.
And I entirely agree with your assessment of reading something under the guise of a “guilty pleasure.” If you enjoy it, by all means: have at it. I mentioned it only because recently, I was able to answer an incredibly esoteric trivia question about the Harry Potter universe when I was hanging out with 22 year old art school kids — kids who grew up reading HP — and I felt a bit creepy, as a 40 year old man. I wasn’t able to explain that, for a very long time, I’d listen to the audiobooks read by Jim Dale as a way to fall asleep, and so I knew every book backward and forward. (Now I listen to H.P. Lovecraft: how’s that for range?) Though, admittedly, was hitting on one of the 22 year olds that particular evening. So it’s a secondary response, emanating from shame, but not because of the writing, or the art, because I’ve turned into my father. So I suppose that closes the “children” circuit. *defeated sigh.*
JL: I don’t know what’s more frightening – the idea that we’re all different or that we’re all the same. It’s supposed to be a fundamental part of the human condition that we all feel that strong sense of “other.” So, is it an illusion – if everyone is walking around feeling that they don’t fit in – that we’re alone and alienated? I think that human emotions are all exactly the same, person to person, meaning, your feelings of joy or agony or fear growing up were identical to mine, even though the context and triggers were different. I think it was Uta Hagen who taught that humans cycle through several major emotions that are indistinguishable from person to person. It’s the causes of these feelings that vary, and that’s why it’s fun to read stories about people who appear to be nothing like you. We all love to sit back and watch totally different circumstances provoke the same profound discomfort in others. It’s hilarious, actually, in the truest sense of the word.
Domingo Martinez is currently living in Seattle, Wa and working on a follow up memoir called Drunken Compass, due out in spring. Jennifer H. Lyne is living in New York City and working on her second novel.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.