Interview with Thomas Ray Garcia

Today Remolinos brings you a Throwback Thursday interview with co-winner of the riverSedge 2016 Prose Prize for his short story “Seventh Man.”

riverSedge: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and some of the experiences that have helped to shape you into the writer/artist you are today.

Thomas Ray Garcia: I was born in McAllen and raised in Pharr by my Mexican single-mother. I grew up without books in the house and seldom read until I was 18. In middle school, I wanted to be a filmmaker until my friends got tired of my constant projects. Feeling frustrated by the need to rely on other people’s time and commitment, I focused on the one aspect of film-making that I could take into my own hands: writing.

My writing aspirations began when I was 13. My English teacher forced us to read before class, so I hurriedly went to the bookshelf and picked up a tattered copy of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. There was no particular reason; it just stood out because it was so old. Reading it gave me goosebumps.  It was smart, but not patronizing. Exhilarating, but not at the expense of its literary values. It changed my perspective on what writing and storytelling could do.

Although I wanted to be a writer like Jack London, I didn’t write often. I liked the title of “writer” without working for it. I also didn’t read much, except for the occasional homework assignment. It wasn’t until I graduated high school, escaping a socially torturous senior year, that I felt like remedying myself by writing anything and everything, unlocking my mind, and awakening my creative potential.

Essentially, I learned how to write and read at Princeton University. College required me to read 2 books a week and write several academic papers a semester. I was a poor, first-generation college student, thousands of miles from my borderlands, and I found my voice through displacement.

A notable moment from my undergraduate career happened in spring 2014, when Jeffrey Eugenides read one of my earliest short stories in his creative writing class. It was deemed an “allegorical fantasy story.” He waited until the last 10 minutes to discuss it. Then he said, “Fantasy is the scourge of fiction writing,” and went on a muttering rant about how the characters’ names were too weird. There was no actual criticism on the page or in his rant. After class, I dropped out of the creative writing track. Since then, I’ve stopped writing stories that I think people want to read. A lot of students in my classes wanted to be literary, but I just wanted to write stories that stirred me. I couldn’t do that in a structured, systematic program.

And who says fantasy can’t be literary? I consider myself a fantasy writer because growing up near the U.S.-Mexico border and leaving the borderlands for college has made it difficult to ascertain what is reality and fantasy. Surely, my novel Soulburn should be considered fantasy since it takes place in an alternate world, but certain readers may also feel the same way while reading my Rio Grande Valley stories. I know I feel that way sometimes.

riverSedge: How or where did you hear about riverSedge? What did you find interesting about our journal and what compelled you to send your work our way?

Thomas Ray Garcia: I had just written “Seventh Man,” and I was eager to enter the literary journal scene. I found Entropy‘s list of literary journals after a quick internet search, and riverSedge stood out to me because of its affiliation with the Rio Grande Valley. I had no idea that UT-RGV produced a literary journal. I submitted prose and poetry after learning how closely my work aligned with what seemed like riverSedge‘s central themes: finding meaning in border life, exploring cultural boundaries, encouraging experimental forms.

riverSedge: As you can tell, we love backstories, so we just gotta ask: What’s your writing process like overall, and what inspired you to compose your winning story/essay/poem/art piece?

Thomas Ray Garcia: “Seventh Man” was inspired by two true stories. The first story involved my cross country team sneaking into the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge at dawn and running into a bobcat, which followed them until they split up. The second story occurred in 2015 when my friends and I explored the Refuge and found clothes, food, and prescription bottles scattered near the Rio Grande River. The two stories merged as a “what if?” scenario.

The story was already outlined in my mind when I began to have an irritating urge to write it. Schoolwork forced me to prolong the writing process day after day until the agitation consumed me. One Friday evening, I dropped all my other responsibilities and wrote the story in under 2 hours in a mad, spontaneous style. It was the first time I had done this, and it took an incredible amount of mental energy. I don’t remember stopping for more than a few seconds at a time. It was the most euphoric writing session I’d ever experienced, which I find appropriate given the story’s focus on long distance running and freedom.

My writing process up to this point involved meticulous editing after writing a single page. That’s why it’s taken more than four years to get Soulburn down on paper. But writing “Seventh Man” opened me up. After editing the story, I realized my sentences flowed in ways I never achieved before. I was also able to express raw emotions that weren’t contrived for the sake of the plot, but actually felt like they were transmitted from my brain to my fingers to the screen in a flurry of energy that prioritized sincerity over arbitrary literary parameters.

riverSedge: Finally, what are you working on now? What other exciting projects will you be working on in the future?

Thomas Ray Garcia: I enjoy working on multiple projects at once. It allows me to revitalize my creative energy and then expend it on projects I find most compelling at the time. Inevitably, each of my projects bleed into one another, which helps enhance my scope and subject matter. That’s what the borderlands are about, anyway.

I recently mailed out manuscripts for a children’s picture book about public speaking, entitled Speechless, that I co-authored with a close friend and mentor back in Princeton. I’m also revising a poetry book about a day in the life of a border-crosser visiting the Rio Grande Valley, which will be sent to multiple poetry prize contests this fall. I write new poems occasionally, but I’ve been spending more time with experimental prose. I intend to write one RGV short story, in the vain of “Seventh Man,” every month so I can select around 13 for a collection this coming year.

My biggest project involves editing my fantasy novel, Soulburn, which I’ve been hesitant to send out until I’m satisfied with its various prose styles. It centers on a dysfunctional father-son relationship and its psychological and political implications. It has contemporary sensibilities. It has people of color and women. It has anarchy and conformity. It has daemones and draft laws. It has spirit.

In the future, I’d like to write Soulburn‘s two sequels and three prequels. Eventually, there will be several collections of short stories and poems about the borderlands. I also want to write about my Princeton experience (The Wrong Side of Paradise) and a grand epic about my grandfather, El Alazan.

Thomas Ray Garcia is a novelist and poet from Pharr, Texas. At Princeton University, he received the Ward Mathis Short Story Prize for his U.S.-Mexico borderland fiction. He has published short stories and poetry in The New Engagement, riverSedge, BorderSenses, and The Acentos Review. He is currently pursuing an English PhD at UCLA and writing every day.

You can order the 2016 issue of riverSedge, in which Garcia’s short story appears, here.


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