Interview + Audio + "5 Choices" Essay
Ursula Villarreal-Moura is the author of Math for the Self-Crippling (2022). Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Tin House, Catapult, Prairie Schooner, Story, Midnight Breakfast, and Bennington Review, among others. Her writing has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize as well as for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and one of her stories was listed as distinguished in Best American Short Stories 2015.
Photo by Levi Travieso
INTERVIEW WITH URSULA VILLARREAL-MOURA
Questions by Evan Mallon
Evan: Congratulations on your manuscript of flash fiction Math for the Self-Crippling getting selected by Zinzi Clemmons for publication with Gold Line Press. Why flash? What does the form offer you feel others don’t?
Ursula: Of all the forms, I find flash to be the most exciting. You have much less time to make a lasting impression, so the magic has to be potent.
I find it takes real skill to link shorter pieces together to create a narrative with consequence. One of my aims with the collection was to welcome surprise while crafting a cohesive, compelling book.
Evan: I’ve only read the self-titled story Math for the Self-Crippling. When you see it, it almost looks like a poem. Does form play a role throughout the entire manuscript?
Ursula: My Microsoft Word software had a bug when I drafted that story. Neither my partner nor I were able to control the indentations or shape of that piece. In retrospect, that’s the shape the work wanted to be. It sabotaged my computer to make it so.
Many talented writers accomplish amazing feats with form. Form interests me, but the collection doesn’t experiment much with it, with the exception of the titular story.
Evan: The excerpt from your memoir-in-progress that appeared online at Midnight Breakfast is astounding. You’ve written about your family before, like your essay “Of Spanish and My Grandmother” and the excerpt you are reading for us here. Did you start the full memoir knowing it was going to be a memoir? Or did it start as something else and bloom?
Ursula: I had no idea I was going to end up writing a memoir. The first piece I wrote that ended up in the memoir was a love story. A magazine I respected but that had previously rejected my work approached me about writing a romantic story. It was a dream come true, so I accepted. The only problem was that I had to write outside of my wheelhouse. I ended up writing about the day my parents met and how they were separated by the Vietnam War. The piece was published in 2014. After that, I played around with more stories my father shared with me about his time in Vietnam. The Tin House piece was published in 2017. The bulk of the memoir—almost 300 pages—was written in 2020, so it definitely bloomed.
Evan: I’m curious about the writing process of the memoir in relation to your fiction. How has the memoir been different? Both in the writing and then in sharing something so personal with the world during a time when we must be physically distant.
Ursula: Writing a memoir has been so much harder than anything I’ve ever written. I say this as someone who has a forthcoming flash collection and has completed but not yet sold 1) a linked short story collection, 2) a novel, and 3) a completely drafted memoir. Fiction is easier because it’s all a product of one’s imagination. The writer makes the rules.
I’ve done a lot of in-depth research for this memoir. I’ve had to read about the draft, slang used during the war, Agent Orange, computers used at the time, African-American and Latinx war history and casualty numbers, music and hairstyles popular at that time. And that’s been easy compared to parsing out the politics of the war, learning about ARVN and the like.
It honestly hasn’t been hard sharing the memoir. I’m grateful whenever people take the time to read my writing.
Evan: Your Instagram is full of photos of what you’re reading at any given moment. I’ve noticed (and am thankful for) a lot of recommendations of graphic work even though that is not your medium. How has being such an avid reader of the graphic form influenced your work?
Ursula: The weird thing is that until recently I always assumed everyone read hundreds of graphic novels like me. I’ve been reading graphic novels for twenty years or so. The form is so compulsive and addictive. Graphic novels are usually chock-full of page-turning zest.
Early on, graphic novels clued me into paying attention to whose story was being told. Next I started asking whether the character deserved the focus. That’s why The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is one of my favorite graphic series. Alison Bechdel highlights the mundane but extraordinary lives of lesbians navigating jobs, romantic commitments, parenthood, community work, and art. I love when a marginalized character or group is given the spotlight. That’s how we learn about people other than ourselves or people in other parts of the world.
My work highlights people we don’t often see in books. My grandfather José is the first character the reader meets in my memoir. I don’t hide the fact that he was illiterate his whole life. Many people think every story has been told. Certainly, stories are being repeated, but that doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted all original stories.
Evan: For all of us struggling to find space for our words during the pandemic, how have you sustained your writing this past year?
Ursula: I understand it’s been unduly difficult for many writers, especially those juggling full-time childcare, jobs, and writing. I have to say I’ve been somewhat fortunate when it comes to my art. My writing practice actually grew stronger in the pandemic. Every day, starting on March 17, I carved out between 25 minutes to 1 hour for my writing. Those minutes were mine, untouched by my day job, or my household responsibilities. In quarantine, I drafted 275 pages of a memoir. I also wrote an essay that’s forthcoming in Story. To be honest, I don’t really consider that to be an impressive output. My pace is slow but steady.
I’ve learned there are rarely perfect writing conditions, so I write almost every single day for as little as 25 minutes. Eventually all those little pockets of time add up, as do the pages.
Evan: Finally, for the Revolute garden, if you could describe yourself as a flower, tree, fruit, plant, what would it be and why?
Ursula: I’m a fig. I’m obsessed with fragrances, so I’d be delighted to smell as lush as a fig.
Interviewer Evan Mallon is Lead Fiction Editor at Revolute and a MFA candidate at Randolph College’s Low Residency Program.
AUDIO: URSULA VILLARREAL-MOURA
Two Scenarios Involving Manuel G. Villarreal, 1969-1970
By Ursula Villarreal-Moura
The most memorable lecture from my first undergraduate creative writing class was on the conscious and subconscious choices a writer makes. It was a fascinating talk because I’d never considered subconscious choices, and at the time I wasn’t even sure what the professor meant. During the lecture, he gave examples from his own writing of imagery, rhyming action, and other style choices that flowed from his fingertips but that weren’t decisions over which he labored. Only in retrospect was he able to appreciate the internal but unspoken logic of those choices.
In examining own work, I sometimes am struck by my own conscious and subconscious choices. It would be a fallacy for me to state that all the choices I made in my piece “Two Scenarios Involving Manuel G. Villarreal, 1969-1970” were fully intentional.
Ever since that undergraduate lecture, I’ve thought of artists as people creating on different planes of consciousness. This understanding has spurred me to read about the brain to learn how creatives solve artistic problems. At the end of the day, any great work—a song, a sculpture, a film—is the result of thousands of decisions but also nothing short of magic.
- Flash. While “Two Scenarios Involving Manuel G. Villarreal, 1969-1970” is a memoir excerpt, it did not originate as such. In fact, it started as a stand-alone work of creative nonfiction. Its form was the first conscious choice I made when I began to envision it.
In 2016 when I started this piece, I was waking up at 5 am every morning to write before heading to my full-time job. Most mornings, I was chipping away at a novel, but sometimes I would try my hand at flash. I knew I couldn’t afford to develop this work into a large project without interrupting the momentum of my novel. So, I decided to create a brief but vivid snapshot of my father’s life during the Vietnam War.
At the time, I considered this more as an exercise in style. Flash allows writers to drop a reader into a time or place in an immediate way. In terms of form, it was the perfect choice for what I hoped to create.
- Juxtaposition. My subconscious mind made some clever choices in terms of juxtapositions. Once the work was published, I realized that one scenario depicts harm, a bombing, while the other illustrates more of an oasis alternative, a vacation. In the first scenario, my father imagines losing his friend Marco. He visualizes the man combusting, while in the second scenario he’s spending time with his buddy Gerald. It could be argued that eating with Gerald is a type of bodily restoration, a counteract to death.
There are quite a few opposites at play in the work—pain vs. pleasure; war vs. peace; emptiness vs. fullness; death vs. life. I’d like to think one of the piece’s strengths is the balancing of these opposing forces.
- Present tense. Even though these are historical accounts of my father’s life, I decided to write the work in present tense. I honestly don’t know if that was a conscious choice, or a 6 am impulse that I was too limp to fight.
For as long as I can recall, my father has always been obsessed with history while I have been meh about it. My aloofness used to frustrate my father, who always wanted me to watch documentaries and war movies with him. As a youth, I considered wars mildly interesting but mostly just old events from the past.
Choosing to write this work in present tense now strikes me as a tacit compromise I made with my father. It was a way to honor his story but with my own sensibility. Many writers argue that the present tense feels more immediate, and in terms of this piece, I agree. The only way I could bring this story to life for me as a creator was to have it feel urgent. I had to believe, on some level, that these scenarios were happening in a present-day world where my father was still only twenty-one. To have written this piece in the past tense would have muffled my interest in the story that morning.
I’ve since outgrown that mindset of present vs. past tense, but I am happy I found a way to bring the scenarios to life in the only way I could.
- Writing about countries I’ve never visited. Everyone has heard the advice “Write what you know.” For years, I did just that. Most of my work was set in cities, states, or countries where I’d lived or vacationed. But then one morning, I found myself wanting to write these scenarios set in Vietnam and Japan, both countries I had never been to before. To be honest, I was quite nervous about writing either or both places completely wrong. Another consideration was that I was setting these scenarios fifty years into the past.
There’s something really spiritual about writing before dawn, though. At that hour, I find my defenses are lowered, and perhaps as a result I’m braver on the page. I recall reminding myself to have fun that morning. Once I was able to frame the work as play, I focused on the immediate surroundings of the characters instead of aiming to capture the entire history or ecosystem of each country. Of course, I also interviewed my father when revising the work because accuracy matters.
- Sensations. The piece opens with the gnaw of a toothache and ends with satisfied stomachs. In other words, I bookended the work with bodily sensations. The body fascinates me, and during wars bodies are particularly vulnerable.
The choice to focus on sensations was definitely a conscious one. It struck me as necessary to open with the toothache. But it also likely subverts expectations in that the pain my father felt wasn’t related to the war; it was a battle within his own body.
It made sense to me that these men targeted in Vietnam deserved warmth and satiety elsewhere. I also realized that once Gerald and my father were satisfied, on some level the reader might be, too.