Two Sides to His Story
Manuel Gonzales leads the nonprofit Austin Bat Cave into uncharted territory while readying for a rapid literary ascent of his own
Austin Bat Cave President S. Kirk Walsh is beaming in a green blouse with big polka dots late on a Monday afternoon at Quack's. Things are busy, and a bright, warm equilibrium exists between the interior and exterior. The light is pristine. Two girls just out of school, Christmas break a hair's breadth away, stand on the sidewalk off of Duval and press their foreheads against the storefront window, making funny faces. It's as if they can sense that Walsh is an ally, a kindred spirit. She waves hello, shrugs, and turns back to the small table. A steaming mug, several books, a map, a set of keys, and a red View-Master are laid out in front of her.
With weather a nonfactor and good vibes going around, the conditions would seem ideal for an expedition. Walsh and her team are setting off on a journey to something called the Center of the Earth Visitors Center, but they won't get there until early spring. And they won't get there at all without a leader. Somebody who can navigate the crust and the layers and the core.
Luckily, she has found just the man for the job.
Manuel Gonzales first made his name in pastry. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1996, he joined his friend Barry Margeson as co-owner of the late Clarksville Pie Company. Gonzales had come to Austin from Plano, where his parents, Juan and Juanita, settled after growing up in the same small West Texas town of Stamford.
Juan, a bright kid with an identity crisis, had never fit in there. When he hung out with the Mexicanos, the whites wanted to fight him; when he was with the whites, the Mexicanos wanted to. He once failed a typing course on purpose because he was tired of suffering the stigma of getting straight A's. Juanita, one of 11 children, dropped out of high school to study cosmetology while working in factories and cleaning houses. Her family would also migrate to California and Colorado to farm cotton, avocados, and strawberries.
By the time Gonzales was a year old, his father had served in the Air Force, worked for the military as a translator of Japanese and Russian, and graduated from UT-Arlington with a journalism degree. Offered reporting beat in Bee Cave, he instead took a job with the IRS out of concern for his young family's financial security.
"That's something that he and my mom both really impressed on both my sister and me: They're giving us opportunities to figure out what we want to do and what we would be good at that would also be financially fulfilling, in addition to being emotionally and mentally fulfilling," Gonzales remembers. "Every time I wonder how it's going to go, I always think back to that."
The "it" he refers to is his writing, or, more specifically, his writing career, which in some sense is inaugurated Jan. 10 with Riverhead's publication of his first book, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. Piling up comparisons to such debuts as George Saunders' CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Donald Barthelme's Come Back, Dr. Caligari, the collection is a triumph of the form, a series of lucid dreams induced by what Wells Tower calls a "Borgesian inventiveness" in describing his former classmate's work, and what I would say is more of a warped Chekhovian charm, at once grim and exhilarating.
In the opening "Pilot, Copilot, Writer," the narrator is held hostage on an airborne plane for decades. The audacious title story finds a scientist at war with his wife, each character perpetrating acts that would be unthinkable had their author not thought them up. Two of the best stories run back-to-back late in the collection: "The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe," as intriguing as the first pages of House of Leaves, finds a graduate student tracking down a pair of anthropologists who have fabricated an entire race, and "One-Horned & Wild-Eyed" is a dark and funny fable. Gonzales' command of genre and his defiance of convention ripple throughout. There are zombie stories, werewolf stories, robot stories, and stories whose outcomes are so chilling they burn. Five "Meritorious Lives" are scattered across the collection, eerie interludes that feel like the funeral director replaced the organ with a theremin.
"Manuel's stories have a crispness that I love," says Mark Binelli, author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and 2012's acclaimed Detroit City Is the Place to Be. "They're so clean, and every word is so carefully chosen, and the sentences fit together like puzzle pieces, like they came out of a box that way. ... The only contemporary writer who comes to mind whose prose works the same way is Coetzee. And then, with Manuel, that lapidary precision is put in service to such insane imaginative powers. He's truly a unique voice."
"It's me just having a figurative idea that I decide to make literal," Gonzales tells me one night over beers at the Nomad. "The game I like to play is, What If That Actually Did Exist? How Would It Play Out? Usually not very well, and rarely because of the thing itself. More because of the characters. ... Why is everybody bereft in my stories? I think that's more interesting in terms of writing a story. Either the situation needs to promise some happiness and the characters need to be unable to grab hold of it, or the situation needs to be devastatingly bad. Like in 'Farewell, Africa,' continents are sinking into the sea, and nobody knows why, and there's this really awful party that they're throwing to commemorate that.
"I like to combine those things. When it comes to the characters – a lot of them – most of them are personal faults, and I try to push them as far as I can. Because I feel like there's the opportunity for that in me, and probably in everybody. There are days when we are our worst selves, just as there are days when we are our best selves. But our best selves rarely make for interesting stories. They make for great lives."
In conversation, Gonzales is generous and receptive, albeit with a stop-and-start, throat-clearing delivery. He has leonine eyes. Stout, fidgety, and mischievous, he likes to keep things light and is quick to laugh; questions meant for introspection often bounce off of him and split apart in a hundred different directions. Although he would prefer to discuss the altruistic underpinnings of NBC's The Voice or the gustatory superiority of Uchiko, we are discussing the forecast for his book, because that's what people want to discuss when you have a book coming out soon. And Gonzales, 38, now has a family of his own to consider.
"There's this desire to write all of the time," he says. "And then there are the obligations that I have as a father and a husband. I feel very much down-to-earth about my expectations around the book, that I'll have a certain window to take advantage of whatever it is that comes out of this book beyond the book itself. I want my book to be successful enough that I am given the freedom to write another one, to get another one published. That will give me the means to then write another one after that. I'll be able to have a certain amount of success as a novelist, but a certain amount of success is still not necessarily enough to sustain a whole lot. I feel like I'm lucky. There are plenty of people who write really interesting work who struggle to even get it seen."
He and his wife, Sharon, a former teacher with a background in theatre, live with their two children in Windsor Park, following a head-spinning whirlwind of peregrinations that took the couple to:
Boston, where they crashed at erstwhile Austin pie maven Margeson's Cambridge house "while I figured out what I wanted to do";
New York City, where, after several false starts with law school and English Ph.D. program applications, he figured out that he "wanted to sit down and make up shit for the rest of my life" and earned an MFA at Columbia;
Austin, where Sharon taught for one tour of duty;
Houston, for another;
Dallas, where they lived with Gonzales's parents, "but we had both grown up near Dallas and didn't like it there, so we moved to Paris";
Paris, Texas, where Gonzales, who had been given a key to a friend's bakery, would toil not by the ovens starting at 5am, but in the silence of an empty cafe; and
Back to Austin, where Sharon had been offered a position at a Bastrop school.
"It is now a family joke," says Sharon, who shouldered the family's financial burdens for much of that time as Gonzales worked unsatisfying odd jobs, accrued student loan debt, and wrote. "Manuel and I often wonder if we will ever 'settle.' We really love being in Austin right now, but the wanderlust to go somewhere new is pretty strong. There are always moments of hesitancy and concern about the future, for me. I was born to worry. Manuel never worries."
Walsh says this is one reason why she and the board of the Austin Bat Cave – an innovative nonprofit writing and tutoring center, modeled after Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia, that had seen three executive directors in three years and was struggling to rebrand itself – hired him soon after he returned to town, in August of 2010.
"He's a natural storyteller," says Walsh, an accomplished writer and editor who co-founded ABC and launched its programming in 2007. "His job is crafting the narrative of what Austin Bat Cave is. He has to do that with a lot of different groups: It's for donors; it's for parents. But then he also has to connect with the kids. His passion for the power of reading and writing helps him really understand the mission, and he's capable of articulating that mission to anybody, all while leading the organization. He's really the face of the organization now."
During a recent staff meeting at Bennu Coffee, Gonzales charted out the Austin Bat Cave's 2013 programming schedule with Program Director Sarah Morrison and Volunteer Coordinator Katie Angermeier. It was like a lightning round of official business – one of the most efficient and cordial professional gatherings I have ever witnessed – and the trio covered vast stretches of ground while still finding time for rabbit holes, wisecracking, and nostalgia. They share mutual respect and a true believer's zeal for the organization's aim to empower kids through creative enterprise and expression – an aim that will soon find a permanent home base in a Cesar Chavez storefront that's benefited from the pro bono work of the design collective Legge Lewis Legge and design studio Lewis Carnegie.
It is there, early this spring, where they'll finally reach the Center of the Earth Visitors Center. Like 826 Valencia's Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco, Superhero Supply Co. in Brooklyn, and Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles, the Austin Bat Cave's retail space – featuring hyperstylized maps, interactive educational games, beautiful anthologies of the students' efforts, and spelunking gear full of kitsch and kids-of-any-age friendliness – will serve as a whimsical gateway to the organization's nonacademic enrichment programs.
"The timing of Manuel's book, taken with the new storefront – it's going to be a defining moment for us," Walsh says. "We have a little bit more momentum now, and we're moving on to our next phase in terms of what we're going to be able to do with the new space, raising more money and reaching more children, helping more teachers. We'll be able to develop a robust afterschool program. We have developed a reputation, but the storefront is really going to help. It's concrete: People will see it."
Gonzales says that when Sharon was still teaching, he would always tell the students jokes during visits to her classroom, and the students wouldn't laugh. "They would never get them," he says. "Or me. They would never understand what to do with me."
But when students read his writing, they seemed to get it completely.
"I showed them a highlighted copy up on the screen of 'Escape From the Mall,' and I had the text in different colors," he says. "I told them, 'You know, this is where I started. And you'll see that this is, like, three-quarters of the way into the actual story, and I didn't write the beginning until almost the end.
"I didn't want to leave it up there, because there's some language in there, and also because I was a little self-conscious of forcing my work onto students. But there were a few of them who were mad when I took it down, because they wanted to read the rest of it. So, that made me feel good."
I mention that he sounds like a young person fresh off of his first Austin Bat Cave experience, and he nods. He talks about what a wretched writer he was as a high schooler, how he wouldn't read anything worthwhile, how he had no idea where his life would lead him. And then one morning, he woke up wanting to tell a story, and he hasn't stopped wanting to since.
"Whenever I'm working with kids, I try to express to them that we process just about everything in our lives as a narrative, as some kind of story," Gonzales says. "It's just a matter of what kind of symbols we use to create that story. I think it's really weird that we're able to put black and white symbols on a piece of paper and somehow, if we're lucky, elevate them so that they're not that anymore. You forget for a while that you're actually reading; you get immersed in the story.
"I think I'm really good at helping people figure out where they want to go with their work, getting to the heart of what they're trying to do, and then giving them suggestions on how to get there." He looks me right in the eye. "How to articulate your own story when you're out in the world."
Manuel Gonzales will speak and sign copies of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories at BookPeople on Friday, Jan. 11. See more information about the Austin Bat Cave at www.austinbatcave.org.