| Don’t Write Alone
Interviews A Conversation with ‘Best Debut Short Stories 2021’ Author Alberto Reyes Morgan
“Every story has a shape, you just have to figure out what it is and then let it be that shape, man.”
Best Debut Short Stories 2021: The PEN America Dau Prize is the fifth edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll feature Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, and Beth Piatote. Submissions for the 2022 awards are open now .
Alberto Reyes Morgan hails from the Mexicali–Imperial Valley border region. His writings and translations have appeared in Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy; Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives; Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America; Michigan Quarterly Review; Texas Public Radio’s Book Public ; and other venues. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, he has taught in Ethiopia and Spain.
“Salt” was originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review. Find a brief excerpt below:
Just before she left forever to Sonora, my amá said she’d given me the tit when I was a little boy for longer than I needed. Not to have me stronger or healthier, but as a way to keep another pregnancy away. My apá believed in raising as many escuincles as God handed down for his two-bedroom apartment. And that last time we were all still a family, while I stared at the cracked plastic of my amá’s packed bag, she also open-handed me across the face on account of the dirt that I’d brought inside. It had followed me from beneath the highway overpass. That tawny soil had caked my green backpack and the navy blue pants of my middle school uniform. Her slap never took, because I kept going beneath the overpass well into my high school years.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
I had nothing going—translating and editing had dried up. It was wintertime in Detroit, and I would spend the night watching the field of snow that stretched out past my shared house towards the railroad tracks. Nobody ever told me snow glows in the moonlight. During the day I’d watch soccer games downstairs on a 70-inch TV. Then, in a match with an impressive Andrea Pirlo through ball, I thought, why don’t I write a soccer story.
What was your writing process like for this story?
The writer Vanessa Hua told me something that I will butcher, but it was about triangles. A triangle relationship allows you to play with the tension. Bend it one way, turn two against one, and create interesting human chords. A triangle began to emerge in this piece, and as I worked on it over the years, it was all about moving the three points of that figure to best serve the story. Every story has a shape, you just have to figure out what it is and then let it be that shape, man—a guy at Jack in the Box said as much to me while I drank coffee and wrote late in the night.
The Salton Sea in Southern California is the backdrop for much of the story. What made you decide on this setting?
I grew up in the desert and there were so many stories surrounding the Salton Sea, I figured there was room for one more. My uncle would tell me how the Cartel disappeared people into those saline waters and that’s why it smelled so bad. There was also this guy, El Cacas, who just kind of wandered all over the shore of the Salton Sea, sunburnt and whacked-out, and slept in a series of abandoned trailers. He actually lived off the fish. They say he’d catch them right outta the water with his bare hands. He considered himself some kind of guardian.
The scene in which Chava and Fermín kiss for the first and only time is incredibly brief, putting more focus on the tension leading up to the moment and the violence that follows, when both boys are attacked by a mutual friend, Luis. How did you decide on the pacing of the story, and did you always know it was going to be Luis who would out them?
It took me over a year to understand the pacing for the build-up, kiss, beating, and fallout. I thought about that Vandermark 5 album, ‘“The Color of Memory.” That’s the prism that colors everything—memory. So, it was more about understanding the point in the future that these events were being recalled in order to see what coloring they would take. For Chava, the kiss itself is a fleeting thing, something ephemeral he can’t hold. However, the waves of passion that lead to it are still with him, the beatdown is still with him. And about Luis’ role—no, this came from rewriting. Originally there was another character that I completely deleted. After that edit, I had a fuller sense of who the Luis character was and he came alive.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
Huge. I was able to get a friend out of prison with the prize money. It opened my eyes to the power of the writing game.
What is the best or worse writing advice you’ve received, and why?
When I was dipping my toes into the writing game I had this piece about a kid climbing a tree to grab something his friend threw up there. The tree starts bleeding, then drowns the world in its blood, including the friend. I had this line, “bright horrific beauty,” in it. When I showed the story to the writer Peter Orner, he just said, his eyes looking down at my piece of paper, “What’s ‘bright horrific beauty?’” I remember feeling embarrassed because, yeah, what the fuck did that even mean? He told me to beware of adjectives.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Every year, I make sure to buy the Best Debut Short Stories anthology and read the fantastic writers within its pages (wink, wink). Well don’t write in the part where I winked at you, otherwise . . . Are you writing this down? I don’t—