For her first collection of short stories, Maria, Maria And Other Stories (hardcover, Kindle), writer Marytza K. Rubio not only reworked some of her favorites, making them extra special, but she also included some parts for you to color. But while she makes this collection sound rather magical in the following email interview about it, you might want to hold off calling any of these stories “magical realism.”
To start, is there a theme to Maria, Maria?
Yes, I think so. Revenge, nature as an equalizing force, animal allies, resurrections. I think these are all parts of the larger theme of conjuring and harnessing power from unlikely places, both externally and within ourselves. I didn’t start out with a theme, but I did discover a pattern in the stories as I spent more time putting the collection together.
When that happened, what was it about this theme that made you want to run with it, as opposed to backing away from it?
All my stories contain at least one of the following: eggs, felines, the moon, the sea. I didn’t notice this until the revision process, but those elements are an accurate inventory of what has been dominating my imagination since I was a kid. It makes sense that my first book would contain all those elements of lived experiences and curiosity. I couldn’t back away from that or force myself to go another direction because putting this manuscript together was its own ritual, an act of creative exorcism. All those images and sensations caught a ride in my fiction as a way out of my head, and the path is now clear for something new.
Did the stories have to fit any other parameters? Like, are they all of a certain length, were they newly written for this book…?
The stories needed to be good. In the editing process, I killed a couple of sections of the title story and two other stories that were connected to “Tunnels.” I couldn’t get them to work in a way that felt satisfying or in harmony with the rest of the stories.
I wrote the first story in the collection, “Brujería For Beginners,” about ten years ago, and was really glad that I had an opportunity to sharpen it before including it in this collection. It sets the tone for the reader: they can expect darkness, humor, and dead men throughout the collection. The newest story I wrote is “Carlos Across Space And Time.” It went through a massive overhaul to get it to a point that felt good enough to include it in the collection. The key to unlocking that story was watching quantum physics documentaries explaining the multiverse and Rick & Morty marathons.
What genres do the stories in Maria, Maria represent?
Adult coloring books. Slipstream, fantasy, a bit of horror. I understand why it is being called “magic realism” but don’t totally agree. I think that term is easy to place on writers of Latin American descent as a shortcut for saying what it is not rather than what it is. Like, this is not a book that follows the rules of the world as most of us know it. These are not stories that are “real,” they feature magical foods and kindly abuelas that surf on invisible waves of generational grief. I wonder if, as Latinx speculative fiction writers, our work can only be seen if it is given a familiar touch point like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, or Frida Kahlo. I wonder if the nuanced systems of magic and careful world-building that a writer develops can get swallowed up by that term.
To be clear, my book definitely has magic in it. It isn’t magical like glitter sticks or winged men. It is real magic, the kind that we all can tap into if we train ourselves to trust the unseen and not be afraid of our shadows.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, you think had particular big influence on either specific stories in Maria, Maria or on this collection as a whole?
I love and repeatedly return to the short story “The Buddhist” by Dorthe Nors. It’s a story of a man unraveling and justifying his increasingly disturbed behavior. The pacing and detached, almost anthropological, narrative voice create a consistent atmosphere of dark humor throughout the story. It helped me experience how humor can be embedded in a story as opposed to being a “funny” story, or one with bursts of comic relief. I read The Master And Margarita right around the time I was on the first or second draft of these stories — I named the black cat rescue group in “Brujería for Beginners” after Behemoth — and it contains everything I need to feel right with the world. I went to Catholic school as a kid and work at a performing arts center, so Bulgakov’s parallel Biblical story, amazing theater scene, literary drama, and Satan all feel restorative when I’m distracted or depleted.
Sjon’s The Blue Fox, The Book Of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano, Salvador Plascencia’s The People Of Paper, Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, and Tears Of The Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores are all books that empowered me to trust my intuition and write what and how I wanted.
Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo remain two of my biggest influences. What I learned from them is that it feels good to be surprised. When you spend a lot of time listening to music, you can flip through the stations and no matter what’s on, you predict how the sound will rise and fall, whether it’s a pop song or tuning in to the classical music station or even a jingle. It’s the same when I listen to songs in Spanish, there is usually a familiarity that can be comforting and catchy, but not surprising. That can happen in writing, too. As a reader, when I can predict the emotional breaks in a story, or anticipate a character’s lines or smell an overripe archetype, I lose interest. The Stone Door by Leonora Carrington and Margaret Carson’s translation of Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams, And Other Writings remind me to retain warmth and coherence when writing wild and wily.
How about non-literary influences; are any of the stories in Maria, Maria influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? You mentioned Rick & Morty earlier, and, on your website [https://www.marytzakrubio.com] you wrote, “New stories, new soundtrack: Björk, FKA Twigs, Arca, Tirzah, Jai Paul, ABBA.“
Oops, typo! The last time I intentionally listened to ABBA was in the 8th grade when I was coerced into performing “Waterloo” at our school’s talent show. I’m a fan of ABRA these days.
But yes, music is a fuel. I listened to a lot of Young Fathers and Massive Attack while writing Maria, Maria. Dengue Dengue Dengue and Helado Negro were also on repeat. A story’s playlist is a fast track into the world I am building and gives me a pathway into the emotional lives of my characters. Once a story goes from ideas and images to a Spotify playlist with an indecipherable name, I’m committed.
I also watched the Brazilian film Bacarau after writing the novella “Maria, Maria” and felt there was a kinship between my story and the movie.
Tarot cards, specifically the ones designed by Pamela Colman Smith, have had an impact on the way I approach storytelling. Each time you shuffle the deck, there are infinite possibilities of what can be revealed. Like with the alphabet, the cards are a controlled set of variables that can be arranged in an infinite number of ways to conceal or reveal potential stories of our lives. It’s all so powerful and unpredictable. Like, this response might’ve been different if ABRA hadn’t first been ABBA because I felt nostalgic thinking about that talent show and am now listening to ABBA Gold and wanting to feather my hair.
Okay, now I don’t feel so bad. Anyway, Hollywood loves turning short stories into films. Do you think any of the stories in Maria, Maria could work as a movie?
ALL OF THEM. (Manifesting, manifesting.) I think “Burial” would be fantastic on the big screen. I’d love to hear the tiger’s roar thunder in the theater. I’d want to see what a talented team could do with the range of settings in “Maria, Maria” since the characters travel across a prehistoric lagoon, reptile infested-swamps, a shattered neon city next to a Southern California jungle, and the deepest parts of the ocean. The relationship in “Tijuca” could be unpacked and explored in a very lovely way. It is guaranteed to win all the awards for Most Tender Decapitation.
And do you have any ideas who you’d want to star in those movies?
I’d want to cast talented Latinx actors who haven’t given up in an industry that consistently undervalues and underestimates them. I don’t know who they are but I wish them strength to keep going so they get a chance to appear in strange and delightful roles. And if we could find a role for Nic Cage, I’d be happy. Maybe he can play the tiger.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Maria, Maria?
Yes! Please color in the pages. “Art Show” and “Paint By Numbers” and the blank pages in the back of the book are for you and your favorite set of colored pencils.
Finally, if someone enjoys Maria, Maria, what short story collection of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
The Decapitated Chicken And Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga. It is beautiful and grotesque. Full of wild creatures, untamable nature, and madness.