A Conversation with Ursula Villarreal-Moura

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

I first encountered Ursula Villarreal-Moura’s work when I read her story “Mucci” in the Bennington Review. This piece exemplifies what Villarreal-Moura does so well in her new story collection: painting the nuanced and sometimes ambivalent relationships between loved ones. The way there are secret languages and rituals among them. Many of the stories in Math for the Self-Crippling read somewhere between prose poems and flash fiction. Villarreal-Moura concocts such memorable images with inventive word choice in phrases like, “your llama expression of ease,” “reduced to a bruise of solitude,” and “[w]e murmur complaints, but the vistas romance our retinas.” She strikes me as a writer’s writer. Her stories are compact and full of life. I left this collection wanting to fine-tune my own writing, to bring the same care into the way I construct sentences.

TriQuarterly: I love the linear age progression of the protagonists in these stories and the presence of recurring characters. Can you tell me how you landed on this structure for the book? Did you begin writing Math for the Self-Crippling with this in mind or did it take shape during the writing process?

Ursula Villarreal-Moura: The writing of the book definitely wasn’t sequential. I wrote the stories as they came to me and added and subtracted pieces until months before the book went to print. It was important to me that the flashes be in conversation with each other, so I played around with voice quite a bit. The flashes are told in first, second, and third person, which complicates the linear narrative in a fun way.

TQ: Are there other mediums of art that inform your writing?

UVM: More than anything I would love to answer music and smelling candles here, but that would be a lie! I’d even like to fib and say that horror movies inform my writing because I watch a lot of those on Friday nights. But the truth is that I am totally obsessed with books, physical books. I read everything on paper and internalize books and their structure and that informs my writing.

TQ: In “Origin, 1983” one line that stuck out to me was the following: “Part of being a child was deciding which stories were based in fact and which were simply tales.” I see themes of learning to differentiate between the lies and truths adults tell throughout the early stories in this collection. It made me think about how discovering the difference between the two is a marker of growing up (the most cliché example that comes to mind is learning that Santa Claus isn’t real). But it makes me think about how those discoveries continue through adulthood and become more difficult to parse. Do you look at writing as a means of discovering truth?

UVM: I consider writing an exercise in imagination more than in truth. That said, my goal is for all my fiction to read like the truth. Everyone assumes my fiction is autobiographical. That probably has to do with my being a woman. People always assume women are writing about their lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell people that Math for the Self-Crippling isn’t my autobiography. Readers have asked me if I can turn off radios with my mind. I’m only slightly ruffled by these questions because in a sense I have succeeded in having my fiction read like the truth.

TQ: What’s the process of creating a new story like for you? What comes to you first as the seed of the story? And what’s your drafting/editing process like?

UVM: Usually I find a few sentences are being dictated in my head and I have no sane choice but to write them down. Perhaps other writers or artists can relate.

I am a notoriously slow writer. It can take me years to finish a short story. My standards for a finished story are high. It has to pull on heartstrings or be funny, or both, and I have to feel the sentences are strong. The process involves sitting down and sharpening the language until it's doing the intended job.

TQ: Related, I’ve noticed that some writers seem to relish the first draft, and others love revision. What part of writing generates the most joy for you? I feel like we don’t talk enough about where writers find fun in the process.

UVM: I have fun both in the initial drafting and sometimes in the revision stages. Honestly, I love any time I’m surprised by my own idea or turn of phrase. I become like a cat chasing its tail. Whenever something interesting appears in my writing, I wonder “Where did that come from?” or the cat version would be “Whose tail is this?” I’m always relieved that my brain still generates exciting concepts for me to play with on the page.

TQ: One thing we have in common is our love of graphic narratives, and I’ve learned about some great graphic novelists by seeing what you’re reading on social media. I was wondering if you could share what draws you to this form and if you have any recommendations for great graphic novels or graphic memoirs that you’ve read recently?

UVM: I’ve been reading graphic novels since I was a teenager or so. I find them to be the most compelling books on the planet. Nearly every graphic novel, even a mediocre one, is a page-turner. The same can’t be said for other genres.

My favorite YA graphic novels are the Heartstopper series. I’ve been reading the books for years. They are so romantic and fun. In terms of humor, I highly recommend Adrian Tomine’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist. It’s hands-down one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

TQ: “Effigies of Ourselves” is one of my favorite stories, which conveys a relatable interaction between a couple where their pursuit of intimacy is derailed by mundane distractions, leading to resentment. The details are so vivid, they paint the picture of a whole afternoon with this couple. Yet you do so over the course of just two pages. How did you cultivate such precision and restraint in your writing? I can imagine another writer turning a similar story into a ten-page piece, yet you’ve distilled it here so deftly. Do your stories tend to come out this way, or do you cut a large amount during the revision and editing stages of writing?

UVM: That story came out intact in my drafting. Maybe I didn’t even revise that one. To be honest, I haven’t written a successful flash fiction story in years. I rotate through genres, so in the last years I’ve worked primarily on nonfiction–essays and a memoir manuscript. I’ve also spent months working on my forthcoming novel. It’s a tad peculiar to be discussing flash when I haven’t swum in that pool in many years.

TQ: Can you share a bit about your forthcoming novel Like Happiness?

UVM: Like Happiness traces the eleven-year relationship between a famed Puerto Rican writer and a Mexican American young woman who writes him a fan letter. It’s a novel about celebrity, self-actualization, Latinx culture, power, societal mirrors, and sexuality. It hasn’t even been published and already people are asking me if it’s autobiography. The answer is no. It’s a product of my imagination.

I’ve been working on my novel for about eleven or twelve years. In 2019 I signed with an agent who was initially very enthusiastic about it. I did some rewrites then we went out on submission in late 2019 with no luck. She had me rewrite it and we went out for our second round of submissions in April 2020, right smack in lockdown. No one wanted my book, so I started working on a memoir. My agent had no interest in my memoir, so we parted ways. In 2021, I signed with my current agent and she immediately responded to Like Happiness. She had some excellent editing suggestions, which I followed, and we sold the book at auction in 2022. It’s been a long journey.

TQ: What are you working on now?

UVM: I’m working on Like Happiness revisions with my editor at Celadon. This week, though, I’m on a writing break, which means I’m reading a ton. Last night, I finished Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen, which I really enjoyed. Now I’m reading The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela, which I’m loving. Up next on my to-read list are Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford, New to Liberty by DeMisty Bellinger, and Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Also, I can’t wait for the new Silvia Moreno-Garcia novel coming out this summer–The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.

When my writing break ends, I’m excited to revise my memoir that focuses on life with my father, an unwitting Vietnam War veteran. Excerpts of that manuscript have been published throughout the years in different journals, such as Midnight Breakfast and Split Lip Magazine, but it’s time to finish that book. It’s definitely calling me.