I was taking a train to work when I lived in the Bay Area. It was a very short, 20-minute ride, so all I had time to read was the local papers. I zeroed in on the police blotter, and I was really fascinated by the tiny stories that each of those entries was telling. I wondered if I could assemble a story like this.
The other thing is having to make it human. I think that what I was striving for in “Officer’s Weep” is, obviously, to make it funny, but it can’t just be funny — it’s got to be human.
I really love how humane all your stories are. How do you do it?
An example that comes to mind is “Somoza’s Dream.” In the research I did on Anastasio Somoza, I came to the conclusion that he was the most uninteresting man. There was nothing there you could engage and dramatize in a way that makes you care about him. What I wanted to do was put other people that you care about moving around him. I would’ve been very uncomfortable trying to make him this vibrant, flawed figure. He’s not. He’s kind of a blank — he’s kind of a jerk!
Then what initially drew you to write about him?
It came from an exercise I did many, many. many years ago at Bread Loaf, wherein Reginald McKnight told us to write a three-page, biographical piece of some sort. I chose to do one on G. Gordon Liddy for some reason, meeting this dictator, and I went back to that, but G. Gordon Liddy disappeared and I started focusing in on Somoza. And also my mom and dad are both from Nicaragua, and I thought it would be interesting to just kind of engage in some piece in the homeland. I’ve never been there and kind of delve into that and see what I can excavate from it in some way.
Where do you see your work fitting in with the current crop of story collections?
I would probably be the last person to ask. If you look at when I wrote the first stories of this book — it’s s taken 15 years. I guess at some point, my philosophy became to keep my head down and do my best work.
When I got here, to the University of Idaho, I got really productive. I started getting stories published and getting attention, one after the other.
When I hooked up with Sarah Burns, my agent, I was very much encouraged by what she was saying about what she could do with a short story collection. Up until that point, the conventional wisdom was, “Where’s your novel? We can’t sell a collection of short stories.” So [only] about five years ago did the idea of having a collection of short stories became real.
What was it like writing these stories without those expectations?
I loved it. Nobody was waiting for what I was going to do next, and that’s really nice. I could just sit down and work on it. I tend to be a slow writer, so I feel very lucky that I can just do my thing.