After a fourteen-year estrangement, Maria Venegas returns to Mexico from the United States to visit her father, who is living in the old hacienda where both he and she were born. Her new memoir, Bulletproof Vest, is Venegas’ reckoning with her father’s difficult legacy. Here, she answers some questions about books she likes and doesn’t like, and reveals that grasping all the Bible’s miracles as a child can be quite exasperating.
What’s one book you return to over and over again?
The Norton Anthology of Poetry. It’s sort of my morning ritual to sit down with a cup of coffee and open the anthology to a random page, read a poem or two, and then ease into my writing.
What book would you consider an ‘ancestor’ of your own most recent FSG book and why?
I like to think of William Faulkner as my literary godfather. I’ve read just about everything he wrote, and though The Sound and The Fury is one of my all-time favorites, it wasn’t until I read Light in August that I felt as though I had uncovered a structure that might work for Bulletproof Vest. I was particularly struck by the way Faulkner presents very complex and often violent characters, and manages to make the reader feel compassionate toward them.
We first meet Joe Christmas at the sawmill. He’s standing next to a wood-dust pile, wearing a worn-out suit and smoking a cigarette. There’s something rootless and mysterious about him, and as the story unfolds, we see that he’s volatile, dangerous, and often haunted by his past. I felt conflicted, at times I was ambivalent toward him, but I was also invested—I wanted to know what his story was, what was making him tick. Then, about midway through the book, we see him as a child at an orphanage, then coming of age under a brutal religious upbringing in a foster home, and it’s almost impossible to not feel empathy for him.
There was a lot of Joe Christmas that reminded me of my father. When I was a child, I often wondered why we had to end up with a lunatic for a father, but then, years later, when I reconnected with him and he began to share stories about his upbringing, I came to understand why he had lived such a violent and self-destructive life. When I initially started to write about him, I struggled with deciding at which point to reveal what to the reader, and often worried that the reader might not care for him at all. It was quite liberating when I finally stopped worrying about whether or not the reader would like my father—that was out of my control. The only thing I could do was present the details of his life more or less in the way they had come to me, and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
I actually took the opening quote for Bulletproof Vest from Light in August. [Ed.: “It’s no wonder that I had no father and that I had already died one night twenty years before I saw light. And that my only salvation must be to return to the place…where my life had already ceased before it began.”] When I stumbled upon that line about going back to the place where life had already ceased before it began, I had to stop myself from whipping the book across the room—I could not believe that someone had put into words an experience that was so close to my own.
What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
I can’t even believe I’m going to admit this—The Savage Detectives (gasp). I’ve started that book three times and have not been able to get through it. I’m not giving up, though. It’s at the top of my pile of books to read this summer. We’ll see how it goes.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
Patrimony by Philip Roth. The whole time I was reading, I knew that eventually his father was going to die, and so I suppose I thought I’d be prepared for it. But then there’s the scene where his father is at his deathbed, and Roth leans in and whispers in his ear that he’s going to have to let him go, and well, knowing how difficult it is to let a parent go—I totally lost it.
What’s your favorite indie bookstore?
This is a tough one, as there are so many great indie bookstores. Is it fair to say that I love all the independents? They’re like the Little Engine That Could. They’re a modern-day David and Goliath. Despite the internet and the Amazons, independent booksellers are still going strong. They’re like the family-operated farms that have refused to cede to factory farming. I buy my books from independent booksellers for the same reason I buy my food at the farmer’s market (whenever possible)—it’s my one-man protest against the corporate machine. Also, Bulletproof Vest was recently selected by the American Booksellers Association as one of their Indies Introduce picks, which is not only a huge honor, but also makes me feel as though my book has found a new and happy home.
What are you reading now?
I’m currently reading three books simultaneously, which is not something I normally do. I usually like to sink into a book and stay there until the journey is through. But I was reading White Noise, and one of the girls I mentor at Still Waters kept raving about Esperanza Rising, and since I hadn’t gotten around to buying the book, she loaned me her copy, which I started reading right away, as I need to return it to her before classes let out for the summer. Also, my friend’s mother recently published a memoir called Ring Around the Rosary, which is about her life as a nun, leaving the convent, getting married and having two sons, only to later find out that her husband is gay. They divorce and he moves to New York in the early ’80s to finally live a life that’s true to himself. They manage to co-parent from afar, sending the boys back and forth between Chicago and New York, and for a while there it seems that everything is going to work out just fine, until he falls ill, has contracted some mysterious virus for which there is no cure. The book arrived in the mail a few days ago, and once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down, so now I’m about halfway through all three books.
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
The Bible. When I was a child, my mother used to gather us in her bedroom and read us a Bible story each night before bed. They were wild and fascinating stories that often consumed my imagination for days, and I kept coming back to her with all kinds of questions: How exactly did Jonah survive inside the fish’s stomach for 30 days? What did he eat? How did he breathe? When Moses lifted his arms and the sea parted before him, was it like two tall walls of water on either side, so that to walk through the opening would have felt like walking between two giant aquariums where you could see the dolphins and fish swimming around? Was Jesus a Mexican or an American? When he walked across the water, was he barefooted or wearing sandals? How fast did he have to walk in order to keep from sinking? When Lazarus came back from the dead, did he remember who he was? The list went on and on, and my mother did her best to answer all my questions.
I actually saw Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary last year, and it was so good I felt a tinge of jealousy for not having thought of it—how exactly did Mary feel about her son calling attention to himself by turning water into wine, and then by bringing people back from the dead? No way to know for certain, as Mary’s point of view is all but absent from the Bible. In The Testament of Mary, Tóibín imagines the story of Jesus from his mother’s point of view, and it’s wildly imaginative, heartbreaking, and hilarious. It’s easily one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen in years.
What’s one book that ended up different from what you expected, whether for better or for worse?
Charlotte’s Web. The whole time I was afraid for Wilbur. Why did Charlotte have to die? I didn’t see it coming.
MARIA VENEGAS was born in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was four years old. Bulletproof Vest was excerpted in Granta and The Guardian. Venegas’ short stories have appeared in Ploughshares and Huizache. She has taught creative writing at Hunter College and currently works as a mentor at Still Waters in a Storm, a reading and writing sanctuary for children in Brooklyn. She lives in New York City.