On Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho
Our literary director Steph Opitz talks with Austin-based author Antonio Ruiz-Camacho about his debut collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs (Scribner, March 2015). In interlocking stories told from different points of view, the Arteaga family suffers a tragedy in their home-country of Mexico and attempts to reconcile what comes after.
Where did this collection come from? What inspired it?
The drug war that has been going on in Mexico for almost two decades now has left a horrendous trail of death and suffering that has deeply haunted me. An estimated 20,000 people have disappeared; 100,000 have been killed, and approximately a quarter million people have been displaced in Mexico as a result of drug-related violence. Thousands of middle-class and upper-middle-class Mexican families have come to the U.S seeking refuge from kidnapping, extortion and murder. I wanted to talk about all of this, but I didn’t want to focus on the violence itself, but rather on the emotional, personal consequences of that violence on those who’ve had to endure it.
What was the most difficult story/character to write? Why?
There’s a story in the book called “Origami Prunes,” about an affair between a middle-aged Mexican housewife and a fellow Mexican expat who’s two decades younger than her, that takes place at an Austin laundromat. A lot of strange and yet funny things happen in that story in terms of plot and language. My intent was to reflect the sense of isolation, dislocation, grief and despair that these two characters are going through in a way that was not overtly sad or depressing, but rather sensual, provocative and hysterical. That was hard to do.
Your background is as a journalist, was it with this sort of lens that you wrote about the violence and injustices happening in your home country? Or did it come from a different place? Maybe, better put: how to you negotiate truth in fiction?
My journalistic background has, of course, informed my fiction writing. I’ve covered immigration issues for almost two decades, and that has left a mark. But one of the greatest things about writing fiction as a journalist is the freedom to reshape reality, to deform the past, the present, even the future. I think the source of trauma of these characters is deeply rooted in reality, but the way their tragedy is presented in the book is unequivocally fictional.
What was it like writing in your second language?
It was hard at the beginning. I felt I was writing in Spanish using English words, and I even tried to force myself to write like a native speaker at some point. I, of course, failed terribly. Then I realized I’d only develop a style, if any, by embracing precisely the uniqueness of my voice, which comes from my approach to language as a Spanish speaker. It’s still hard to write in English, but now I enjoy the challenge.
Do you feel like short story collections are having a renaissance? This is interlocked stories, but at any point did you think about/where you asked to make this a more conventional novel?
This collective family saga unfolded one story at a time. Only after I had three stories did I realize the characters in all of them were connected, so I decided to investigate more about them. That was how the collection came about. I could not have written a novel because I was just intending to write separate stories–but somehow the characters in them managed to put together the collection.
As for short stories, I think we’re always talking about the renaissance of the story collection, but great story collections have been a staple in American letters for a long time. I recently taught a short story course at UT, and put together a list of absolutely amazing stories for my students to read. From John Cheever to Flannery O’Connor to Sherman Alexie to Oscar Cásares to Anthony Doerr to Jennine Capó Crucet to Elizabeth McCracken, the stories in that list covered every decade from the thirties through present day. Story collections have never gone away, and they’re here to stay.