Interview: Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark

Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, released earlier this year by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, boasts what Booklist called “a killer premise: the making of Psycho set against [a] real-life murder.”

The victim of that killing is Teresa Garza, a young shoe store salesgirl who has caught the attention of Bakersfield, California’s townspeople in a number of ways: the day laborers who whistle at her, including the shy Cheno, who slowly begins to court her; Dan, the handsome bartender who offers her a real start on her dreams of a singing career and wins her heart in the process; and the audiences at her initial performances, including an unnamed co-worker at the shoe store, burning slowly with jealousy over Teresa’s accomplishments and affairs.

That co-worker and rival is the first of three women whose perspectives dominate this story. The second is Arlene, a waitress at the local diner, owner of a small motel, and mother to Dan, simmering with her own worries and frustrations. The third is the Actress, come to town for a small scene in her upcoming feature, pondering her role, her career, her future.

The film that shadows this book is never mentioned by name and neither are the primary players in that filmmaking, referred to instead as the Director and the Actress. But several of Psycho’s more famous and more provocative scenes get plenty of attention, and elements of the film are mirrored frequently in the parallel story: the mother who owns a motel, the son she wants to protect, the potentially shameful series of relationships, that murder itself.

While What You See in the Dark is Muñoz’s debut novel, he is also the author of two short story collections, Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. He’ll be appearing at this year’s Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, on Friday afternoon, September 23. In advance of that visit, he indulged a few questions here about his new book.

Where did the idea originate for What You See in the Dark — for placing these two stories together?

Novelist Manuel Muñoz (Photo by Stuart Bernstein)

Because I write exclusively about California’s Central Valley, I feel the pressure to make my fiction relevant to the American literary landscape. The pressure I feel has its root in being labeled a “regionalist.” I kept thinking of ways in which the “outside” world visits people in the place I come from and the answer was simple: movies. Movies (and television) are the way that many people get stories into their lives—it’s easier than the kind of attention required for books to work the same power.

I could have picked any film moment that demonstrated some sort of social shift, like Sidney Poitier slapping the town’s head honcho in In the Heat of the Night. I chose Psycho because careful viewers will pick up the visual clues about the film’s geography: it’s set in the Central Valley, but the film refuses to name it. And that’s the aim and mission of my writing life: to show that place does matter and that stories do happen in places like that. I was just lucky that the film has such a storied history in American cinema.

The novel doesn’t try to retell the events of Psycho from some new perspective; Norman Bates does not appear as a character here. And yet a mother-son relationship is central to your story; that mother owns a motel; there’s a young woman who steals something; there’s a brutal killing. Was there an active effort here to deconstruct one text in the process of constructing your own novel?

Absolutely. I do not see Psycho as a horror film at all. It is a character study, a melodrama invested in granting its female protagonist a perplexing set of competing desires. She ponders, makes decisions, acts out, etc. She’s so unlike many of the characters we see in a typical horror film, melodrama, or 1950’s “women’s picture,” which makes her murder all the more shocking.

In your question, you broke the film down into basics: a mother-son relationship, a contemplated crime, etc. We’ve seen all of those things before and the world of art keeps returning to them—for good reason. So do Chicano/a writers, and yet a barrier continues to exist about the accessibility and “universality” of such work. That was the lesson I took from watching Psycho over and over: the greater world might never see someone like me as the center of a story, yet it keeps insisting I consume the stories it gives me. With the world of art telling me I don’t belong anywhere near the center of it, I have become so intrigued by how and why people tell, invent, and imagine stories about themselves.

Film and television both play important roles in your characters’ lives, defining their hopes, challenging their visions of themselves. Teresa models her own singing on what she’s seen on televisions through the store window. Arlene rejects what she sees on the movie screen. The Actress reflects on her upcoming film role and the process of acting. The Director considers his career amidst changes in the art of moviemaking and reflects on his directorial choices — and it’s clear from your writing about filmmaking, that’s you’re pretty savvy about it all yourself. And yet, your own style doesn’t seem particularly cinematic, since large sections of the novel inhabit interior spaces rather than exterior action. Long intro, short question: How has film influenced you as a writer, in terms of the style and substance of your work?

My answer to the previous question shows you why I was so invested in allowing my characters ways to look and see. They define themselves by the world around them, as we all do. For some of the characters, daydreaming and imagination become all the more powerful as tools to face the world. Bakersfield is a place where not much happens, so it’s natural that the world of daydreaming, wishing, and hoping becomes so essential to survival.

I disagree with you a little bit on “cinematic,” though your question clearly shows that you mean it in a different way. I’ve seen that term come up various times in reviews of all three of my books. Maybe what they mean is that I take great effort to visually define the landscape of the Central Valley, to give my characters a place in which to act out their lives. I like to use paragraphs as ways to mimic camera moments (like pans, slow zooms, close-ups, and cross-cuts). If you mean “cinematic” as an equation to exterior action only, then you’re correct, but that’s exactly why I write books. Films have a terrible time giving us access to the interior lives of most characters. As viewers, we have to rely on plot, dialogue, and sometimes even voiceover or titles as signals that a character shift has occurred.

When authors allow you deep access to their characters’ minds and hearts, their books are much more shattering at demonstrating those shifts to us. I think film has taught me how to pay attention to those moments because silence in films is so infrequent. One of my favorite film moments is a scene in Woody Allen’s Interiors, after Geraldine Page has run dramatically out of a church. The next moment is quiet: she’s crossing a room in her nightgown, drinking from a glass, and you can tell she’s thinking. For someone like me, that’s a wonderful moment of inspiration. What is she thinking? I start to study her face, her hand, the speed of her pacing, etc. All of those details together, in a written passage, can be marvelous groundwork for character, and a reader gets the privilege of making some very private discoveries. In a film, it goes by in a flash because silence never lasts for long on the screen.

One of the advance reviews noted that you had “upended the conventional crime novel.” Are you a reader of mysteries and thrillers? And how conscious were you of the conventions of suspense fiction — and of breaking what others might perceive as the rules of genre writing?

I worked as a production editor at a commercial publishing house for many years and was often assigned thrillers, suspense novels, and mysteries, so I’m well aware of the conventions and the plot mechanics of a genre piece. That said, I never set out to write a crime novel. I wouldn’t even argue that my novel is crime fiction or suspense. The package suggested this and I think the novel’s reception exposed, once again, the difficulty that both sides in the genre vs. literary fiction debate have in understanding the other. Some online reviewers that were attracted to the book because of the crime premise seemed genuinely confused about the novel’s mystery, which I found very surprising, since, as in Psycho, the first chapter just about spells out the circumstances of the young woman’s murder.

My novel’s main thematic concern is less the solving of a crime and more the examination of the rapidly changing makeup of an American city and the people who live there, how national moods and attitudes eventually manage to penetrate even small places and change otherwise rigid landscapes, including personal ones.

Furthermore, the depictions of violence in both genre fiction and film have always bothered me. I wonder about our appetite for “seeing” the dead body, with so little concern for the life behind it. That’s another reason why the first part of Psycho thrills me so much—the film treats Marion Crane as if she’s a real person, a real woman, and that allows her death to create an absence in the rest of the film. I treated the character of Teresa in my novel in the same way.

If anything, the rules I broke had more to do with borrowing some tricks from cinema. Take this shot, from 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer:

This moment, in which Elizabeth Taylor’s character narrates what happens to her cousin Sebastian, is enthralling to me. We “see” the action as she tells it, yet the camera can’t bear to break away from Taylor’s face, beautiful even in anguish. I love how this moment exposes why we go see movies. We want story, but we want spectacle, too—and we’ll take it both ways if we have to!—so the screen stays split. Isn’t that odd and wonderful?

When readers ask why I wrote the first and last chapter in second person, you have an answer in Suddenly, Last Summer: the moment lead me to think about how people sometimes have a great need to tell a story, sometimes when they didn’t even have the experience themselves. That’s what happens to one of the characters in the novel. Her imaginative life is so powerful that she insists a story into life in order to quell a lot of her own inner turmoil. (Maybe she’s representing my life more than I know…)

Readers who love films (and reviewers like Charles Taylor at may more readily recognize why I made certain narrative decisions, and know implicitly that the novel is more concerned with how a story like this takes on a life of its own in a town like Bakersfield once a dead body is discovered.

Finally, this is your first novel, but you’ve already had two short story collections published. How did the short story serve a training ground or apprenticeship for writing a novel? Or did you find the processes completely different?

It may be the other way around. Working on the novel solidified my love of the short story and the care that must be taken around language. I think I discovered that most readers approach novels for plot (and sometimes only plot). I want a novel to offer many things to me, in the same way that stories do. Stories ask you to work out everything in the narrative toolbox. It makes writing (and reading) more fun.

What was so interesting to me about the process of drafting short stories was how little people intruded into them. When I gave drafts to friends or to people I knew, there was an implicit trust that I knew what I was doing, that my voice had its own particular sound, a target it was aiming for. I don’t know why the writing of the novel never made me feel that way. Everyone had an opinion. It’s the plot issue: it’s the first thing any reader can latch on to, the key to how the novel should be read. I just don’t think it’s the only knife in the drawer.

— Interviewed by Art Taylor