“Many stories from real life, when told exactly as they happened, lie flat on the page because most of them lack inherent narrative force – nothing happens after they finish; nobody undergoes an inner journey as a result. It’s the writer’s work to put together a series of seemingly inconsequential moments in order to tell a compelling story.”
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born and raised in Toluca, Mexico. A former Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University, a Dobie Paisano fellow in fiction by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters, and a Walter E. Dakin fellow in fiction at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, he earned his MFA from The New Writers Project at UT Austin. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Texas Monthly, The Millions, and elsewhere. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs won the Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Book of Fiction and was named a Best Book of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, Texas Observer and PRI’s The World. It was published in Spanish translation by the author, and is forthcoming in Dutch. Antonio lives in Austin, Texas, with his family, where he’s currently at work on a novel.
Antonio is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Twisting Facts into Stories: Reality in Fiction and Nonfiction” on Saturday, September 3 at St. Edward’s University. The goal of the course is to take facts, details, and anecdotes and learn how to turn them into fully-realized stories. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Your class is on learning to turn the details of reality that exist all around us (current events, personal memories and family anecdotes, and weird news) into stories. This sounds easy, right? But, of course, as anyone who’s sat in front of a blank sheet of paper or computer screen knows, it’s not. Are there particular kinds of pieces of reality that you’ve found to be especially useful for inspiring stories?
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho: There are two kinds of materials I find particularly intriguing: striking, haunting images and obscure emotional journeys—i.e. a mammoth sinkhole appears overnight in one of Mexico City’s most populated and problematic neighborhoods; a seemingly happy young woman is accused of drowning her own fiancé on a boat trip on the Hudson. Both make me wonder instantly what happened afterwards or right before – who was devoured by the sinkhole, what led a merry couple to such a dark twist in their lives. It’s the emotional core of these pieces of material, which looks hidden from me at first, that draws me to them.
Scribe: You’re going to use your own short story, “Barefoot Dogs,” as a class text. It’s not an autobiographical story, but it’s clearly inspired by too-common events in Mexico. Did you use “real” details in the story? Or did you work from a general idea of a kidnapping and develop it entirely with your imagination?
ARC: The reason I use this story is precisely to explain how a writer can use bits of information from real life as vehicles to deliver emotions other than those originally attached to them in real life. Many readers, after reading that story, think that my own father was actually kidnapped or that he disappeared—but none of that actually happened. The “real-lifeness” of that story lies elsewhere, and that’s exactly what we are going to discuss in class.
Scribe: A lot of writers probably have this experience: they hear something on the news or a neighbor’s story and think, “I’m going to write a story about that.” Or, they remember some detail from their own lives and think, “I’ll write an essay.” But then that story or essay loses steam after a few paragraphs. What is required to turn a detail into a narrative?
ARC: You need to connect those striking moments or interesting events to a larger narrative. That news or neighbor’s story are just vehicles to tell an emotionally more complex story. Many stories from real life, when told exactly as they happened, lie flat on the page because most of them lack inherent narrative force – nothing happens after they finish; nobody undergoes an inner journey as a result. It’s the writer’s work to put together a series of seemingly inconsequential moments in order to tell a compelling story.
Scribe: You’re working on a novel now. Does the process stay the same as you move to a longer form?
ARC: The breath of a novel as a whole is different – it’s a much longer journey – but overall I think the process of writing one – a concatenation of narrative peaks and valleys – is for the most part the same, at least in my experience.
Scribe: You just returned from ten days at the renowned Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, where you were surrounded by enormously talented people. When you talk writing in a place like Bread Loaf, do you get the sense that most people share a common set of approaches to writing and narrative? Or does your own approach begin to seem idiosyncratic and particular to you?
ARC: The discussions we have around writing in craft classes and workshop are driven by a common language, but it’s fascinating to see how each writer approaches the page in very unique ways. That’s what makes writing so wonderful and challenging all at once – for all the encouragement we give one another as writers, for all the advice and tools we can share, at the end of the day writing is a solitary battle. It’s you against the page and nothing, no one else.
Click here to register for Antonio’s class.
Click here for our current class schedule.