Interview: Robert Lopez
Robert Lopez’s fiction delves deep into those devastating moments which bring into question how it is we survive this strange, oftentimes volatile, experiment we call life. His characters are real people with real problems, many of them confused as they struggle to overcome their fears and obsessions. This humanity coupled with Lopez’s sharp wit and minimalistic style resonates, leaving readers not only illuminated, but also changed by challenging them to take an introspective look at their own lives through a similar lens.
Lopez’s mastery of language and concision has been compared to that of Raymond Carver and Samuel Beckett. His distinctive voice and cadence is undeniable. In a book review for The Rumpus, J. A. Tyler praises Lopez’s story collection Asunder, saying:
Lopez is a sentence crafter, belligerently curt but marvelously poetic, a writer who uses nicely balanced repetition with a unique and refined minimalism. His debut short story collection, Asunder, does nothing but solidify these characteristics, firmly establishing Lopez as a contemporary writer to look up to.
Other publications include three novels, Part of the World, Kamby Bolongo Mean River, and All Back Full, as well as another story collection, Good People. A new book, A Better Class of People, will be published by Dzanc Books in March 2022. In addition, Lopez’s flash fiction pieces have appeared in various literary journals including Atticus Review, New Flash Fiction Review, Hobart, and The Collagist.
CRAFT is pleased Robert Lopez accepted our invitation to guest judge our 2021 Flash Fiction Contest. He and CRAFT editor in chief, Kristin Tenor, had the opportunity to correspond with one another via email.
Kristin Tenor: As mentioned in the introduction, in addition to flash fiction pieces, your publications include three novels, two story collections, and an upcoming novel told in stories. Where does story begin for you? At what point in your process do you know the format that will make a story or character feel most at home?
Robert Lopez: I always start with the language, an opening sentence. After that first sentence, a second sentence comes together, and then a third and so forth. Before long, some human mess is unfolding and a narrator with a particular psychology has emerged. Of the three novels only the first one was a novel from the start. I knew from the opening sentence that Part of the World was something other than a short story. There was a different scope. Kamby and All Back Full started as story and play, respectively. So, everything happens very early on, except when it doesn’t.
KT: Peter Markus interviewed you in 2016 for the Los Angeles Review of Books. In that interview you said, “Urgency is everything to me, and if the language is urgent, then I’ll follow it wherever it may lead.” Would you say language transcends character or plot when approaching something as compressed and immediate as flash fiction?
RL: For me, language transcends character and plot all the time. But with flash fiction and poetry the stakes are higher, the need for dangerous and distinctive language is greater.
KT: At what point do you feel repetition and lyricism cross over into the realm of prose poetry?
RL: I almost always refrain from making distinctions. Oftentimes there’s no difference at all between flash fiction and prose poetry, and that’s how it should be. We only make up these arbitrary categories for filing and shelving purposes.
KT: “Family of Man on Isle of Wight,” the opening piece in your story collection Good People, is formatted as one continuous, breathless sentence. Did this narrative naturally coalesce or did the structure emerge through revision? What benefits or challenges did you discover while structuring the story in this way?
RL: This story came together upon its initial composition. The breathlessness was apparent from the start, and I let it continue until it stopped. I seem to work in two forms with some slight variation. One is the uninterrupted paragraph that goes on for at least a page or two and sometimes dozens of pages. I like the suffocating feeling this evokes, and when it’s an uninterrupted sentence the breathlessness and forward momentum is enjoyable to cultivate. The other is a fragmented/fractured form with a lot of white space. Both forms do something exciting and distinctive. Transitions from one sentence to the next or one paragraph to the next are the greatest challenges. How and when to make hard left turns or monkey with time or what have you is always an issue. Regardless, the narrative voice always points the way, along with the subject matter.
KT: Your story collection Asunder includes a novella-in-shorts entitled “The Trees Underground,” which is narrated by a character who finds himself responsible for two visually impaired residents in an assisted living facility in exchange for money and food. Although true to the narrator’s characterization, some of the language he uses, and descriptions viewed through his perspective, risk being viewed as insensitive and ableist. How difficult is it to strike a balance when rendering such deeply flawed, complex characters?
RL: Asunder was published in 2010 and the novella was put together sometime in the preceding ten years at various points. From what I can recall, the narrator is limited himself and it would seem incredible for him to practice political correctness. Once you sacrifice authenticity just so you won’t bother anyone, playing it safe, well it’s the death knell of art. Writing is all about risk and every writer has to determine what risks they are willing to undertake. Writing is also a performance and I have no problem distinguishing between the performance and the performer. I think there’s a difference between an organic presentation of a character and deliberate provocation or blatant bigotry. I don’t think the narrator for “The Trees Underground” is offensive at all. I’m not much of a rule follower and I don’t mind if someone thinks the character or author is insensitive or misreads a text or makes assumptions about the author. That said, there are certain lines I won’t cross, but others I’m fine with crossing.
KT: Several of your characters find themselves at a breaking point, many consumed by fear or obsession. How has writing about them changed your own perspective about how one navigates these tenuous moments?
RL: I’m afraid writing about these things—fear and obsession—hasn’t helped me in real life. I’m very different from these characters, which is more than half the fun of occupying these mindsets for short periods of time. However, I also have obsessions and fears, too, of course.
KT: Many of your short stories and flash fiction pieces are narrated in the first person. What role has point of view played when trying to build an intimate, resonant connection with your reader?
RL: I tend to find first person urgent and intimate. Too often I get a “Once upon a time” feeling when reading third person, like I’m being told a bedtime story by a loving parent. This isn’t always the case, of course. But most of the time the language that comes to me comes to me in a first person voice. I try not to argue.
KT: Congratulations on your newest novel, A Better Class of People, being slated for release next year. Could you please share with us a little bit about the novel’s premise and what you hope will resonate with your readers?
RL: I never start with a premise, so I never think in those terms. I also don’t think about what might resonate with readers. I’m trying to entertain myself and I trust there are a few other demented people out there who might likewise be entertained. There’s a character that seems confused and is having a hard time and I hope readers will feel something and laugh and be horrified and recognize themselves and their loved ones and enemies and want to go out and live or shut up and die after reading the book. This is why I don’t work in sales. Here’s what Michelle Dotter, the publisher and editor of Dzanc Books came up with:
In an uncanny, distorted version of New York City, a man rides the subway through the chaos of an ordinary commute. He may have a gun in his pocket. He may be looking for someone—a woman named Esperanza. Between stops, we shuttle back and forth through time and see a man who stands in traffic, the same man seizing and shuddering on a sidewalk, an institution where the man is housed with other undesirables, a neighborhood where all the residents have forgotten their names. Over everything looms the specter of a nameless menace, a pervasive sense that something—more than just a ride—is coming to an end. With Robert Lopez’s signature innovation, A Better Class of People delivers a network of stories interconnected and careening like subway tunnels through the realities of modern America: immigration, gun violence, police brutality, sexual harassment, climate change, and the point of fracture at which we find ourselves, where reality and perception are indistinguishable.
KT: Which flash fiction writers and stories have captured your interest recently?
RL: The usual suspects for me—Peter Markus, Kim Chinquee, Kathy Fish, etc. I’m hoping to find some new ones in the contest.
KT: What in particular will you be searching for when judging CRAFT’s flash fiction contest?
RL: I always look for artistry and urgency.
KT: It’s been wonderful to be in conversation with you, Robert. Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your insights with our readers. As we conclude, I wonder if you might leave us with a bit of writing or revising advice you’ve received in the past that has stayed with you.
RL: Listen to your own page. Always.
ROBERT LOPEZ is the author of three novels, Part of the World, Kamby Bolongo Mean River—named one of twenty-five important books of the decade by HTML Giant, All Back Full and two story collections, Asunder and Good People. A new book, A Better Class Of People, will be published by Dzanc Books in March 2022. He teaches at Pratt Institute and Stony Brook University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
KRISTIN TENOR currently serves as the editor in chief of CRAFT. Her short fiction and flash fiction appear or are forthcoming in various literary journals including The Midwest Review, Bending Genres, Milk Candy Review, Emerge Literary Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, among others. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart Prize, as well as longlisted for Wigleaf’s 2021 Top 50. She and her husband call Wisconsin home.