The first time I interviewed Victor was in the fall of 2014. His debut novel, OK, was about to be published by poet Spencer Madsen’s Sorry House press. I’d read a galley, and I loved it — this trippy diary of an American self who transfigures from “half 2Pac half Kurt Cobain” to “half 50 Cent half J. D. Salinger” to hundreds of other concoctions over the course of 335 pages. That book never came out. As Vazquez stories it, his wife, Saba Moeel, didn’t like the first version. So he decided to “write the whole thing from scratch again” — to which she replied, “You don’t have to do that.” Two years later, a new OK was born.
OK redux is slimmer, with less hookups and drugs, more family spirit, and a stabler self. This time the narrator is a “professional mugician by the name of KOOL MAN” who, after converting to Islam on page two, becomes and stays “Muhammad X.”
In mid-November 2016, I hosted a reading with Vazquez, Ayesha Siddiqi, Melissa Broder, Mira Gonzalez, and Saba Moeel at the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It was the second event of my new lit series Hard To Read, and the first launch for OK. The next morning, Vazquez and I met in the yellow hotel diner to discuss his novel and other stuff.
FIONA DUNCAN: What are some of the differences between the two editions of OK?
VICTOR VAZQUEZ: I think, with the first, the writing style was a little more desperate, because I was trying to get through a hundred chapters. I knew I wanted it to be a hundred chapters because I was pairing it with this album, a hundred-song mixtape, but I didn’t do that as consciously the first time. The second time, I really went track by track, and tried to make some connection.
One difference I noticed between the two books is that the second is more spiritual.
Yeah, that’s there in the first, but it’s definitely more central.
Do you feel the spirit shift is a zeitgeist thing? That’s something I’m experiencing in my life — and being deep into astrology, I’d say it’s Saturn in Sagittarius, everyone’s on a spirit trip …
Actually, since writing the first book, I got a job as a horoscopist for PAPER magazine via Spencer [Madsen]’s friend Gabby Bess. She’d read the book and was, like, I wonder if this dude would wanna do horoscopes. I’d already been a casual kinda horoscop-er. I liked it as a writing prompt, setting things around some specific temporal, seasonal, you know, ideas of the natural environment in relation to the stars — it gives everything that larger scope. I think doing that job changed the writing a bit. But also my wife Saba, she is a scholar of that type of stuff — putting the time in for meditation, all that stuff. The book is kinda about the beginning of our whole relationship, and having the kid, and obviously having the kid gets you more — you start thinking about the big-picture things.
Last night Spencer said that he hadn’t read your book.
Oh yeah. He didn’t finish the first one. He’s read some of this one.
How do you feel about having an editor … Is this what you want?
This is what I want. It would’ve been cool if he’d read it, but I’m not tripping if he hasn’t. I don’t finish a lot of books. Basically, Spencer hit me up to do a blurb for Mira [Gonzalez]’s book that he put out, then after I did that, he was, like, do you wanna do a thing? And I did a thing. After that, he was, like, any other writing you wanna publish … and I was, like, I kinda wanna do a novel, but I don’t want anyone to edit it, and he was, like, perfect.
Why didn’t you want anyone to edit it?
At that time, I wanted to write that first book, which is very no-rules. I liked typos.
One big theme that OK brought up for me that I wanted to talk about is reconciling injustice as we perceive it in this realm with a spiritual belief of, like, everything is as it should be, or everything is love. I have more social justice or consensus-reality-focused friends who would reject, or eye-roll at, experiences of the divine that I indulge or find solace in.
Basically, it’s kinda like, with concepts of the spiritual, and the ambiguity of art and literature, or philosophical meanderings and navel gazing — it’s in part a reaction to what is fucked about this system that relies on a sort of pseudo-rationalism to justify concepts of labor and capital and property and all these things that end up entrapping us in this-or-that rat race or chasing this amount of money. So-called rational belief systems are partly what is fucking us up and what is making bad things occur in the world. There’s still some sense of ethics that has to transcend intellectualism or rationality, that’s closer to an emotional truth about human beings. It can be reconciled. It’s not even two different things opposing each other — it’s multiple, overlapping, and often — it’s hard to explain — it’s like a network of conflicting ideas.
“Money is nothing.” You say that in here.
I think that’s another one of those self-help mantras, like if you stressed about money, it’s helpful to consider that it’s nothing. People get this weird idea of nihilism — like it can’t be this positive way of destructing toxic ideas. Money is essentially a toxic idea. Or it’s one that demands imposing itself on the physical world. It’s an idea that directly affects the physical world around us. It can make us comfortable and, more often, not comfortable. If money didn’t exist, nobody would be mad that they didn’t have any. So it’s money’s very existence that makes its absence a problem, furl meh?
Even people who have money suffer for its conceits. Fear and guilt — it’s a tight package.
Of course, they’re suffering. Afflicting too. It’s a whole system that we are forced to become complicit in and that should be constantly rethought and challenged — and one way of doing that is to assert in no uncertain terms that it’s straight up nothing. Nothing challenges a thought more than being, like, does this thing exist? And then people have to make the case for money, or not, and that type of thinking helps challenge this uber-pseudo-rational thing that does so much harm.
Here are two quotes I underlined that feel connected: “All those years of meditation paid off.” And: “Joy is neither a privilege nor a right, it’s an organic eventuality.” What’s your meditation practice?
I don’t even really full-on meditate in any traditional sense — like, I’ma sit down right now and burn a little incense and light a candle and chant — sometimes. But everything can be meditative. Falling asleep is a form of meditation. You do it every day. Every time you find yourself zoning out, if you just learn to realize how important those moments are and embrace them and use them more to your benefit — that’s essentially meditating.
Do the people in your world read novels? I’ve been hanging out with a lot of younger kids, like meeting all these 19- to 21-year-olds, and they don’t read books. They tell me they don’t have the patience to sit and read a book, which is something I associate with a meditative practice in that it takes a certain discipline and a letting go of expectations.
Reading is one of the highest forms of meditation. Reading is a super crucial meditation. When I wrote that first book, I think the voice of raw desperation in it was me remembering how to read and write, because I’d spent years — I think I had gone maybe two or three years without reading a full book all the way through. ’Cause of Twitter and also touring. You know, drinking and drugs and partying, the lifestyle I was living, I wasn’t reading articles, even — headlines mostly. Twitter — the 140-character thing really changed people’s attention spans. Everything’s sped-up, accele-whatever-whatever. Maybe in this day and age, reading long-form stuff doesn’t give you as many skills as you need to deal with the quickness, and so it’s easy to rule it out, but when you find the time and make the time, it’s going to be enriching and rewarding. I still don’t read a shit ton. I read a lot growing up, but that’s cause we didn’t have the internet till I was 12.
What was a favorite book when you were a kid? Did you reread anything?
I reread Haruki Murakami, Hermann Hesse, and some Gabriel García Márquez. For my eighth or ninth birthday, one of my mom’s friends gave me Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Another early one was Catcher in the Rye, which, of course, now everybody hates. I still like it. It’s not the strongest one by far, but it introduced me to Salinger, who is still one of my favorites. In high school, I definitely got a little more radical with the reading list. Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison.
People don’t talk about Ralph Ellison enough. Invisible Man is such a beautiful book — also very musical, like your writing.
He was a jazz man. There’s a collection of his music writings called Living With Music that’s hella good.
Onomatopoeia. The sounds of the street —
Yeah, his style is really impeccable, unparalleled, you can tell he’s a musician.
Are there other examples of writers who are musicians?
It’s funny — I’m going to have the unpopular opinion of being a Bob Dylan fan. [Laughs.]
I like Bob Dylan. I grew up on Bob Dylan.
My mom liked Bob Dylan and my dad was like, eh, not so much. I like Bob Dylan. Whatever. Tarantula and his chronicles, they’re some of my favorite books.
How old are you now?
33. I just turned 33 today.
Oh really? It’s your birthday? That’s so nice. What?! You should’ve said something.
Nah, nah, I really don’t like that kinda stuff.
Scorpio. Cool. 33 — when I hit 33, I’ll be really happy that I made it that far.
Yeah, man. Do it. Apparently in heaven everybody is 33 years old. That’s what I just heard — my dude Aaron told me today.
Fiona Duncan is an LA-based Can-American writer and artist and the coordinating host of Hard To Read, a monthly lit series based out of the Standard hotels.