The Town Crier
Oscar Casares dips back into Brownsville for his new novel, 'Amigoland'
Sitting down with Austin author Oscar Casares at a local coffeehouse, I begin by asking about his upbringing in the Texas border town of Brownsville – a town that the majority of characters in his stories and new novel also call home. "It was only after I left that I started looking back and realizing it was great," Casares says. "There were so many things that were .... Are those handcuffs over there?" The train of thought momentarily broken, I admit to myself the question is not terribly engaging, but over the course of the interview, it becomes obvious that Casares has been honing his listening and observing skills from youth. That keen eye and well-tuned ear lend his short stories and new novel, called Amigoland, a sense of realism and fly-on-the-wall insight that ring remarkably true. The handcuffs turned out to be small engine parts placed just so, but it was nevertheless easy to imagine him assembling another story in his head and filing it away for future consideration.
The rest of the questions are answered without incident. More than that, they are answered with a completeness that makes it clear Casares wants to do more than just put an A to the Q. He wants to engage and entertain the listener. And so he does.
Have Experiences, Will Travel
Growing up in the southernmost town in Texas leaves its mark on a writer, and Casares' marks are plain to see. The title of his 2003 collection of short stories is, fittingly enough, Brownsville: Stories. One easily assumes that the town endeared itself to a young Casares, but that's far from the truth. Apart from the usual gripes of small-town living – including the isolating sense that everything is happening everywhere else –Brownsville screened movies months behind the rest of the country, a crushing blow for any kid. "I kept thinking, 'I'm going to get out of here; it's so boring,'" admits Casares.
"And it was only after I left that I started looking back, and it was great," he concludes. Only after graduating from the University of Texas in 1987 and moving to Minneapolis did the art of storytelling become less a comfort and more a necessity. That's how the story of Casares' storytelling begins:
"I was going to work in advertising, and it was sort of the market to be in. This was the late Eighties. I got up there, and everyone else had that idea, only five years earlier, and they had a lot more experience. So I ended up having all these odd jobs. I worked in a movie theatre, at a canoe store, and just found work where I could and did very little advertising work. But I was so incredibly homesick that I would end up with the guys I worked with afterward at a bar, and I'd start telling these stories about Brownsville. And I'd tell one story and then a second, and I'd say, 'I better shut up,' and they'd say, 'No no no, I'll buy more beer.' It was my way of holding on to what I only then realized I had lost."
From Your Mouth to Kids' Ears
How did a twentysomething Casares end up with such a battery of tales to dispense in order to both entertain listeners and cure chronic homesickness?
The story of the stories continues:
"I had two uncles who were just incredible storytellers. They'd come over to the house, and they'd just hold court. ... They would show up, the TV would go off, and I would come inside the house and just soak it up every time, even if I'd heard the story five or 10 times. When I eventually moved back to Texas, which was a couple years after Minneapolis, that narrative continued. I kept telling those stories."
Not to say Casares wasn't putting some bar-worthy stories under his belt himself, but it was the uncles' style of oration as much as the tales themselves that stayed with Casares as he prepared to move from the spoken to the written word.
The allure of the written word began with a night of drinking. What better setting for our story's plot to really kick into gear:
"Years went by, and I was at a coffee shop here in Austin, and I had been out with friends the night before at some bar telling a story. And I thought, 'What the hell, let me see if I can write down what I just told them.' I started scribbling it down on a sheet of paper, and I got down to the bottom and wrote a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth page, and I got hooked. So I said, 'Let me write another one.' And these were all stories that were either my stories or my uncles' stories, but they were stories that I knew beginning, middle, and end, so I didn't have to figure out the story part of it. I just had to figure out how to tell it on paper. So I wrote I don't know how many stories, and four or five months later I quit my job."
In an effort to "figure out how to tell it on paper," Casares began taking writing classes at Austin Community College and sitting in on the same University of Texas literature classes that he had coasted through so many years before. Add the stories written during that period to the ones written during his tenure to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the material started to take shape: That shape looked a lot like the Brownsville city limits.
The collection of short stories isn't a primer to border-town living, nor is it a Winesburg, Ohio-esque statement on the perils of small-town life. Casares wanted it to feel familiar to Brownsville residents, and, for the rest of the world, the author describes his goals this way: "I'm going to bring you home with me, drop you in there, and let you listen to what's going on."
Following Brownsville's publication, Casares made his triumphant return to his hometown as "the guy who wrote that book." Casares is certainly realistic about the impact his book had on the town ("There was initially a bit of excitement about it, but after that it just kinda fizzled out"), but he also remembers people finding details to appreciate in the collection that they hadn't noticed about their own town until seeing it on the printed page. The local university and high schools are also inserting Casares' stories into their literature syllabi. Better that than The Great Gatsby, which feels relevant to roughly no young people.
Translating the Unwritten
Going from an informal oral tradition to the written word wasn't a walk in the park. Telling a story in person has the benefit of instant feedback, be it a yawn or a rapt stare. Not to mention the use of hand gestures is completely lost on the page. But years of telling a story and noting when a person got a beer or looked around impatiently has a way of editing a story for you. Casares explains further, saying: "I think that was the most critical thing that I brought over from the storytelling part. That there was someone in front of me; I was in someone's living room, even if it was on the page. If I got to some point that just wasn't that interesting, I'd really have to ask myself, 'Why is this here?'"
Casares also wrestled with how to handle the numerous conversations his characters spoke in Spanish. To avoid awkwardly switching back and forth between languages, Casares' stories are almost solely in English. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the languages, he opted to translate conversations that were originally Spanish – and in one instance an entire story that was originally written in Spanish – in an almost word-for-word manner instead of adapting the language completely for the sake of an English-speaking audience. The example Casares uses is his literal translation of "como gente de dinero" to "like people of money" instead of the more Anglicized "rich people." The effect is a better English-language approximation of the cadence and rhythm of Spanish without coming across as overly formal.
The Lesson Learned
Casares' first novel, Amigoland (to be published Aug. 10 by Little, Brown and Co.), centers around two aging brothers and their dispute over the validity of their grandfather's tale of his trip to America. And now comes the story of the story within the story:
"It actually started as one of the stories I heard from my uncles. ... 'Did I ever tell you how we got to Texas? How we got to the United States?' And then they'd start weaving this story about what turned out to be my great-great-great-grandfather living in northern Mexico, being 7 years old, and attending this festival and being kidnapped by Indians and brought to the United States. And I was like, 'Wow, what a story.' The other thing that was going on while my uncles would tell this story is my dad would be in the room shaking his head like: 'You're not going to believe that, are you? Don't believe a damn word your uncle says.' ... I grew up with this family legend and also this doubt hanging over it as to whether it was real. That was really where the story started in, wanting to recount that and to some degree get to the bottom of it – at least for me. At the same time, I didn't want to write this saga about a little boy growing up and getting kidnapped. As time went on I was more intrigued by the idea of this dispute. That was really the seed of the story."
Amigoland went from 600 pages down to the final 360 as storylines were trimmed and honed. Tripping Casares up was the parallel between the older brother character, who spends the first half of the book in the titular nursing home of Amigoland, and Casares' father, who had a stroke and found himself in similar circumstances during the writing process. "That was probably the toughest challenge, to be able to look at what was happening to my own father sort of objectively and not get sucked into it," Casares recalls.
"The manuscript was in its most final stages when my father passed away in October '07, so we put everything on hold until February or March of 2008. I went back and looked at [Amigoland] again, but it was too close. Ask me in five years, and there will probably be stuff that I'll say, 'Damn, I missed out on that.'"
A nod, then, to stories still to come.
Amigoland goes on sale Aug. 10. Oscar Casares will read on Thursday, Aug. 13, 7pm, at BookPeople.