Lysley Tenorio’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic,Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares, Manoa, and The Best New American Voices and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. A winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he has received fellowships from the University of Wisconsin, Phillips Exeter Academy, Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in the Philippines, he currently lives in San Francisco and is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Warren Buchanan: Your book Monstress was recently reviewed in The New York Times — was there a moment in your career where you stopped and thought, ‘I’ve made it.’? Or do you think as a writer you’re bound to never feel that way?
Lysley Tenorio: I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have never stopped and thought, “I’ve made it.” The closest I’ve ever come to thinking that was something like, “My first book is out in the world. Hm. Now, how am I supposed to write the second?” Speaking for myself, I don’t think I could ever feel like I’ve reached some definitive pinnacle of success, though I’d like to think that one day, I can say, “I’m finished,” and be happy with that.
(That said, I was feeling pretty fancy watching cable TV while wearing a Four Seasons bathrobe at the five star Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, where my publisher very generously put me up at the start of my book tour. That certainly gave me the illusion that I’d made it, for three nights at least.)
Alex Webb: When you were a kid did you think you wanted to grow up and write stories about yo-yo assassins? Or did your passion for writing manifest itself later in your life?
LT: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a comic book artist, then a child star (the Filipino Gary Coleman, maybe? Or, if aiming lower, Emmanuel Lewis?), then a journalist, and then, for a good long while, I had no idea. The notion of writing stories about yo-yo assassins didn’t come to me until my early twenties, when I realized that I cared more about writing fiction than just about anything else, and whether I was good at it or not was beside the point– I just wanted to write.
AW: Monstress is a collection of short stories. What’s in store for the next piece? Will it also be a collection? A novel? Do you prefer not to say?
I’m working on a novel.
WB: Faulkner had the Mint Julep, Hemingway had the Mojito. What is your drink of choice when you finish a project? Any special rituals?
LT: As I’m working, Dewar’s on the rocks is mighty fine, especially if there’s a fireplace in the room and it’s snowing outside. When I actually do finish a project, a gin martini, very dry and very, very cold, is a good way to celebrate.
WB: Many authors are asked what other writers inspired them to get into writing but are there any authors that inspired you not to be like them?
LT: I feel like this is a trick question. Is it a trick question?
WB: Are television and the internet ruining books/reading? Can they all peacefully coexist? Are you optimist or pessimistic — do you think the written word will always find a home?
LT: I’m no oracle, but I believe they can always co-exist, but only with the understanding that tastes and preferences will always change, which will then determine the kind of audience one might reach. If you’re a writer, it’s best not to think about that. And if you’re a good writer and a hard worker, you’ll have readers, whether they come to the page or the screen.
AW: What song or album have you heard recently that moved you, made you pause?
LT: I’m embarrassed to say that I rarely listen to music anymore. I tend to prefer NPR or silence. But recently I listened to a Frank Black album, one that has a song called, “Don’t Cry That Way.” The softly-weathered lilt of Black’s voice against a fairly simple melody is a lovely and moving meld, and maybe the way a good short story ought to read.
WB: What aspect of your writing work ethic would you like to change the most?
LT: My writing work ethic.
AW: Any comic books or graphic novels you’d recommend?
LT: Yup. “Kingdom Come” by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. A re-imagining of DC superheroes, set a generation into the future, where the super-powered old clash with the super-powered young, while the bad guys lurk in the background waiting to strike. It’s epic, Biblical, moving, and the artwork is stunning.
WB: Any final thoughts/sage advice you wish to impart unto aspiring writers?
-If you want to be a writer, you need to love sentences. Not words. Sentences.
-Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting. All it means is that it happened.
-Think carefully about a writer’s advice before you decide to take it.