MORE THAN 50 YEARS have passed since the publication of John Rechy’s then-shocking novel, City of Night. Though savaged by many reviewers of the time who did not bother to disguise their homophobia, the novel about a young “hustler” nonetheless went on to become an international best seller that is read — and studied — to this day.
Though the shock of that first novel has long cooled off as our culture has evolved, Rechy’s success as a writer has not. He is the author of 17 books, including the acclaimed novels, Rushes, The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez, and The Coming of the Night. When he was only 18 years old, Rechy wrote his first novel titled Pablo!, which will be published in March by Arte Público Press. Rechy has also been recognized by the literary establishment with several lifetime achievement awards, including from PEN Center USA, the University of California at Riverside, the William Whitehead Foundation, and the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature.
Rechy’s most recent book, After the Blue Hour, is set in 1960 and — though labeled a novel — is narrated by a 24-year-old writer named John Rechy. Rechy decides to flee life in Los Angeles by accepting an invitation to a private island owned by Paul, a wealthy admirer of his fiction. Once on the island, Rechy encounters the sadistic sexual games played by Paul and his mistress, Sonya. Thrown into the mix is Paul’s ex-wife and precocious teenage son. It is suspenseful storytelling that puts the flesh-and-blood John Rechy at odds with his fictional doppelgänger in exquisitely clever and revealing ways. Rechy made time to answer a few questions for LARB about his most recent novel, which will be rereleased in paperback in February.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: Your latest novel, After the Blue Hour, is subtitled “A True Fiction.” Its main character is a young writer named John Rechy who espouses strong opinions regarding the intersection between truth and fiction. Why did you decide to confront this literary conundrum head-on?
JOHN RECHY: Autobiographers are liars, no matter how great; so are biographers, equally so. The autobiographer declares: “This is true, I lived it, it is exactly as I remember it.” But memory is vastly unreliable. It creates its own narrative, constantly revising, even replacing. What is remembered today will be altered tomorrow by one more day’s recollections. The biographer claims: “This is someone else’s life, and I know all about it.” But who can know another’s life? The fiction writer is truthful: “This is lie, an invention. I’m going to try to convince you that it’s true.”
“True Fiction” melds elements of both autobiography and fiction and does so on the page. After a purportedly autobiographical passage — always told in the first person for borrowed authenticity — doubt may and often does occur: “Do I remember that correctly?” Even: “Did this really happen? Is it imagined?” Revise that passage, leaving it virtually the same, but altered, say, by additional information, or deletion, or by a single important detail. Meaning changes. The question occurs: which of the two (or more) versions is believable? Truthful ambiguity, a constant in life and recollection, remains, beguiling. (An aside: In asserting a “fiction,” the writer may integrate what was not admitted — secrets — revealed now but not claimed.)
With that theory in place, how did you proceed to shape the novel?
To emphasize the process in those seeming contradictions, I borrowed from other forms of artifice/art. From films: Adapting Eisenstein’s montage effect by juxtaposing contrasting prose styles; a close-up effect by employing narrowing language, using details not seen from a distance, which allows only outlines, silhouettes. By borrowing Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: Sequence affects meaning. From comic books: By using inventive typography, as for dramatic highlights. From music: By semantic dissonance — “a cold warmth,” “bright darkness,” “screaming silence.”
I absorb into my writing from what I learned in mathematics: the mystery of X, plotted on a graph, not unlike revelatory intersections in a developing narrative.
Considering a mimetic approach to time, I alternate tenses, assuming a level field, without demarcation. Past tense slides into the present, leaps into the future, falls back, forward: “I saw her. She is walking across the street. I will regret what I will call out: ‘Don’t run!’”
The result in “True Fiction” must yield its own careful structure. It must all fall into place, not unlike fitting the jagged pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to create a full landscape.
Another major theme in your novel is the concept of evil and how some people embrace it while others attempt to run from it. Did you map out each character’s relationship to evil before you started writing the novel, or did you allow the characters to react and develop as you wrote?
In my writing workshops, I often say: In life, be kind; in your narrative explorations, be ruthless — be ruthless with your characters. Corner them, challenge them, don’t let them squirm away, demand to know why they did what they did. If you find evil — or goodness, or ambiguity — in a character, allow that and investigate it fully. Let your characters be.
Daniel A. Olivas’s most recent books are The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is a frequent contributor to LARB.