Archive for September, 2011


Interview: Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark

September 5, 2011

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?

Novelist Manuel Muñoz (Photo by Stuart Bernstein)

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.

Read the rest of this entry ?


Review: Matthew Dunn’s Spycatcher

September 3, 2011

Former MI6 agent Matthew Dunn‘s debut spy thriller, Spycatcher, gets off to a rough start both in its style (clumsy dialogue, laden with exposition) and its substance (some cartoonish strokes about main character Will Cochrane). But the balance of the novel is notably stronger, and Dunn promises better things to come as the series continues. Here’s a quick glimpse at the novel’s plot from my review in the Washington Post:

When Spycatcher opens, messages intercepted by the National Security Agency reveal an imminent assault against Western interests. A joint endeavor between the CIA and MI6 pits British agent Will Cochrane against the plan’s mastermind, the shadowy Megiddo, a top-ranked officer in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Cochrane sets out to lure Megiddo into the open or else be captured himself and likely tortured — whatever it takes to get closer to his prey. Cat-and-mouse games ensue, with no certainty as to who’s playing whom. Cochrane’s chief asset is a Paris-based journalist who was Megiddo’s lover during the Bosnian War. Cochrane is also joined by a quartet of American operatives whose collective résumé includes stints with the Navy SEALs, the Green Berets and Delta Force — providing the jaws of a ferocious mousetrap.

Read my full review here. — Art Taylor


New Fiction: “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” at PANK

September 1, 2011

I’m very pleased to have a new story, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” included in the online journal PANK‘s just-released Crime Issue. Chris Offutt may be the headlining name here, but some really fine folks are featured overall: Kyle Minor (a noir poem!), Anthony Neil Smith (with an excerpt from the work-in-progress The Baddest Ass), Keith Rawson, (whose story has some seriously unexpected twists), Aaron Morales (whose contribution, like mine, also structures itself on cooking), Frank Bill, and Eric Shonkwiler. Special thanks to the issue’s guest editor Brad Green and to PANK‘s co-editor Roxane Gay for including me. In his introduction to the issue, Green offers an overview of the works gathered here:

In these stories, you’ll find no midnight epiphanies in a parking lot about a relationship gone sour. Instead, you’ll encounter revenge, rape, murder gone wrong, power-positioning between rival gangs, sorry-ass selfish acts committed without regard for others and occasionally, like a flower finding its color in a parched landscape, compassion and hope. Of course, this is noir, so you know that flower won’t last.

Shifting metaphors: My own story, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” hopefully adds a delicious bit of its own yummy noir goodness into that mix. But perhaps needless to say, despite the story’s recipe structure and that word “delicious” in the previous sentence, don’t make this one at home. — Art Taylor

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