Lysley Tenorio, Merrill Writer-in-Residence, details the Filipino-American experience
Lysley Tenorio attributes his writing career to a by-chance, fulfill-an-English-requirement course he took as a senior at the University of California Berkeley. Called "History of the Short Story," it was taught by renowned novelist and short story writer Bharati Mukherjee — and, frankly, Tenorio had no idea who she was.
But after reading Mukherjee's "The Middleman and Other Stories," which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, Tenorio was hugely inspired and shifted career aims to accomodate his late-breaking interest in short fiction and the process of writing itself.
Now 47, Tenorio teaches creative writing at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Cal. He's well qualified: His own debut short story collection, "Monstress," published in 2012, was named a book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. His work has appeared in such publications as including the The Atlantic, Zoetrope and Ploughshares, and he's the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, A Whiting Award and a Stegner Fellowship.
This summer, Tenorio's debut novel, "The Son of Good Fortune," will be published. And his latest accomplishment? He's the current Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington. At 5 p.m. Saturday in the Stonington Library, Tenorio will read from "The Son of Good Fortune" and "Monstress."
It should be a vastly entertaining event. Tenorio, born to Filipino parents who emigrated to the U.S. when he was a few months old, writes with passion and wry insight. "Monstress," for example, includes stories about a delusional D-horror director from Manila who drags his reluctant leading lady to Hollywood for one last-gasp attempt at fame; an old Filipino loyalist and his nephew who hatch a plan to humiliate the Beatles after they visit the country and insult Imelda Marcus; and a bullied teen who ponders revenge by appropriating the persona of a superhero...
In "The Son of Good Fortune," protagonist and Filipino immigrant Excel wants merely to fit into the American teenage landscape. But he and his girlfriend, Sab, either through their own personalities and interests or because they're arbitrarily sentenced to the outer moons of culture — and because Excel's mother Maxima, a masterful online scam artist, decides to share a dangerous secret — take off for a forgotten California desert town population by hippies, sundry weirdos, and folorn IT wizards.
Tenorio's stories and characters hopscotch between heartbreak and hilarity, confidently striding across the wild stylistic terrains of Donald Barthelme, Jorge Amado, Ray Bradbury and Junot Díaz — as refracted through his own exposure to the experiences of immigrants, misfits, eccentrics and generations of families simply trying to make it in a new world.
Traveling by train from Stonington Borough to New York City for a literary event Tuesday, Tenorio took a few moments to answer questions by email.
Q: You're known primarily for your short fiction and the collection "Monstress," but your first novel, "The Son of Good Fortune," comes out in July. Was there any particular determinant in your decision to try a novel? I wondered if you just came up with these two really compelling lead characters, Excel and Maxima, and kept going to see where they would lead you.
A: I became a writer because I wanted to write short stories, but I eventually wanted to take on the challenge of a novel. Finding Excel and Maxima was really the result of figuring out who could occupy the expansive dramatic space of the longer form.
Q: "The Son of Good Fortune" comes out at a time of significant possible change in the publishing business. There has been, for a few years now, an increased awareness of and focus on marginalized voices, POC, LGBTQIA and other under-represented writers and folks within the industry. But the writing and selling a manuscript probably means you were working on "The Son" as all this was starting to percolate. Were you actively or peripherally aware of these developments while you writing and did it make any difference?
A: As someone who falls under all the aforementioned categories, I'm always aware of how voices are heard/not heard in the literary culture. Important as that subject is, it doesn't really influence my writing; when I'm working, I'm working.
Q: You had considerable success with "Monstress." Did you know early on you wanted to be a writer and did it seem to come naturally?
A: I didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. Late in college, I took some creative writing classes, and when I started losing sleep over them — from stress, from fear that my work wasn't good enough, from the possibility that it could be better — I realized writing was the only thing I really cared about. From there, it became an integral part of my life.
Q: Have you had much time to explore Stonington Borough or establish a routine yet? Any standout restaurants or scenery?
A: I just really enjoy walking around the borough. I like looking into the shops, grabbing breakfast at Noah's. I like looking at the houses — the architecture, the colors of the doors. And I love the water, of course.
Q: I'm always curious about someone entering a writing residency. The implication is that of course it's going to be great! You're typically going someplace reasonably exotic with a storied literary history, so how could you not be inspired and productive? But some Merrill writers have felt James's otherworldly presence and were sorta hyper-aware of his whole Ouija Board tendencies. Have you been productive so far and have you had any spectral help or relied on the Ouija to point you down the right path if/when you reach a narrative crossroads?
A: Having just finished a novel, I'm trying to figure out the next book — I'm torn between a few ideas. Being at the Merrill House has been the perfect opportunity to read, take notes, and just stare out the window as I try to understand what I should write next and why. Unfortunately, I've had no spectral intervention yet, but I've still got some time.
Q: Be honest: You played with the Ouija, right?
A: Not yet. Hoping to work up the nerve. And courage.
Q: Were you particularly familiar with Merrill's work, and did you feel obligated to read at least a chunk of "The Changing Light at Sandover"?
A: I've read bits of "Sandover," especially where he describes the apartment. It's fun to take in the space, and to consider it in Merrill's words and details. And Merrill has some poems that I love. "Another April" and "The Broken Bowl" are favorites.
Q: Any other thoughts or information you want to convey?
A: Only that I feel extremely lucky to be a James Merrill Fellow, and to live for a month in a lovely town with such welcoming and generous people.
If you go
Who: Merrill Writer-in-Residence Lysley Tenorio
What: Reads, discusses, and signs his work
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Stonington Library, 20 High St., Stonington
How much: Free
For more information: jamesmerrillhouse.org, lysleytenorio.com