Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, released earlier this year by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, boasts what Booklist called “a killer premise: the making of Psycho set against [a] real-life murder.”
The victim of that killing is Teresa Garza, a young shoe store salesgirl who has caught the attention of Bakersfield, California’s townspeople in a number of ways: the day laborers who whistle at her, including the shy Cheno, who slowly begins to court her; Dan, the handsome bartender who offers her a real start on her dreams of a singing career and wins her heart in the process; and the audiences at her initial performances, including an unnamed co-worker at the shoe store, burning slowly with jealousy over Teresa’s accomplishments and affairs.
That co-worker and rival is the first of three women whose perspectives dominate this story. The second is Arlene, a waitress at the local diner, owner of a small motel, and mother to Dan, simmering with her own worries and frustrations. The third is the Actress, come to town for a small scene in her upcoming feature, pondering her role, her career, her future.
The film that shadows this book is never mentioned by name and neither are the primary players in that filmmaking, referred to instead as the Director and the Actress. But several of Psycho’s more famous and more provocative scenes get plenty of attention, and elements of the film are mirrored frequently in the parallel story: the mother who owns a motel, the son she wants to protect, the potentially shameful series of relationships, that murder itself.
While What You See in the Dark is Muñoz’s debut novel, he is also the author of two short story collections, Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. He’ll be appearing at this year’s Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, on Friday afternoon, September 23. In advance of that visit, he indulged a few questions here about his new book.
Where did the idea originate for What You See in the Dark — for placing these two stories together?
Because I write exclusively about California’s Central Valley, I feel the pressure to make my fiction relevant to the American literary landscape. The pressure I feel has its root in being labeled a “regionalist.” I kept thinking of ways in which the “outside” world visits people in the place I come from and the answer was simple: movies. Movies (and television) are the way that many people get stories into their lives—it’s easier than the kind of attention required for books to work the same power.
I could have picked any film moment that demonstrated some sort of social shift, like Sidney Poitier slapping the town’s head honcho in In the Heat of the Night. I chose Psycho because careful viewers will pick up the visual clues about the film’s geography: it’s set in the Central Valley, but the film refuses to name it. And that’s the aim and mission of my writing life: to show that place does matter and that stories do happen in places like that. I was just lucky that the film has such a storied history in American cinema.