Breaking the Borders of the Artist: An Interview with Fernando A. Flores

A photo of fiction writer Fernando A. Flores.

In this interview, Fernando A. Flores discusses the impetuses and techniques which crafted his book, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. Conducted by Emily Ellison, a fellow South Texan artist, she and Flores dissect lineage, regional misconceptions and their consequential harms, namelessness, “Unthinkism,” and the charged climate of borderlands which often catalyzes artistic response. As an author concerned with capturing as many stories and voices as possible, Flores expresses that the plight of American Anthology is that it incompletely represents our recent history, rendering many of our unaccredited stories unheard. From punks to politics to yelling “Bullshit!” as the declarative act of being done, Flores believes “we can imagine anything, and if we imagine together? It can happen.”

Fernando A. Flores is the author of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas and the forthcoming novel, Tears of the Trufflepig. Flores’s poetry, fiction, and photography have appeared in many places, including The Texas Observer, Bat City Review, New Border Voices: An Anthology, and a solo photography exhibition at South Texas College. He was the 2014 recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation. Flores now lives in Austin, Texas, where he works as a bookseller.

Ellison: First off, I’m curious about the term “bullshit” in your title. As a reader, I expected these artists to be more concerned with fame than the integrity of art itself. Obviously, the characters of your book defy this idea. So, what’s this “bullshit” about?

Flores: To me, the phrase in South Texas is a very transgressive phrase. I apply it to growing beyond what you yourself are able to create. For me, it determined, when writing the stories, that, instead of writing stories, I was experimenting and performing those stories. So that’s what that phrase meant to me—“You’re putting your old bullshit behind and creating this new thing. You don’t really know what it is, but it’s amassing to something.” It has to do with pushing yourself as an artist. And I feel that that’s what the characters in the collection are doing.

Everything I write I write on a typewriter—I like that rhythmic chaos. I really wanted to write a story like a grassfire, from beginning to end. At the time I started writing these stories, I really didn’t know what they were. I had written four or five before I realized. And at the finish of every one, for some reason, that’s what I yelled out in my room to myself. At the moment I finished, I yelled, “death to the bullshit artists of South Texas!” After three or four, I realized the logical title to this is “Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas.” I couldn’t think of another title.

Ellison: Did you set out with the intention of making a collection, or did that just come?

Flores: When I wrote this, I had a lot of fun because I didn’t care about how anybody would see it. At the time, all my stories were being rejected, so I thought “I’m going to write a story that everybody’s going to reject.” I got really excited about that. All the rejections felt really good, I would laugh when I got them, “hilarious!” And this is what fueled the stories, this is what I mean by “performing” them instead of “writing” them. I would clip them up with little binder clips to have them all hanging in front of me, just hanging. I’d call it “hanging to dry,” letting them hang for months and months before transcribing them. It became a process, just writing stories however they came out. I didn’t care about going back and revising. I think that’s a big pitfall of the computer, especially when you’re trying to write a narrative, that urge to go back; whereas, when I was typing them out on my typewriter and I’d fuck up three-fourths of the way, I just had to keep going forward. So I’d write myself out of situations, trying to figure out “what is she doing?” or “where is he trying to go?” and how I am helping them. It’s almost like I’m helping tell the story, piecing someone’s life together.

Ellison: And that gives them the authority.

Flores: Without my inference, without my different brain. Whenever I’m writing, I have a “different brain.” As a writer, my main goal is to protect that first brain which is the first-draft-brain. And I just have to let this brain get from beginning to end. After that, I can do whatever I want with the page. That’s how I approach my work now.

So, it just happened naturally. I think it had something to do with “fulfilling your Rock and Roll fantasies”—to create your band, to create fake lyrics with fake art. And sure, that’s a great band, but who are these people?

Ellison: What is the reality of it?

Flores: Yes, what is the reality of it. That’s what interested me.

Around this time, I started using the internet, and it sounds kinda dumb to say, but it was the first time I started reading Wikipedia. I was always really fascinated with the way you’re able to condense a whole life. Also around that time, I got an anthology of photographers, every page dedicated to one photographer, with only one photograph to reflect their career. And I was like, “Wow, this person lived for eighty years to end up in this anthology, where one image will come to represent their entire life.” As fleeting as images are, you know what it meant to that photographer, that image that has come to represent them. So, these were influences for this kind of work, as well as One Thousand and One Nights. Stories upon stories.

I’m obsessed with these little stories throughout time—that’s what I’m trying to do here. In this book I tried to put every Valley story that I could, every genre possible in one book. There’s a Western in there, a sci-fi story, an election, a ghost story, an existentialist “my god what does it all mean” story. That was one of my main goals: to layer, to have as many stories as possible.

Ellison: And when trying to capture an area with its people, it seems essential to make it as multi-faceted as possible, because that’s human experience. Often, when we think of The South, we have such a limited idea of what a Texan looks like.

Flores: I agree. One time I got a job working sound for a documentary in California, middle of nowhere. I met this old man who was illiterate, a fisherman his whole life. When I told him that I was from Texas, he said “oh, yeah, donde matan gente,” which means “where they kill people.”

I realized he meant the electric chair, and I don’t even think about the electric chair anymore. But that’s the association.

Ellison: Location seems to be a crucial factor for these artists, since they all share a South Texas region. Is there something essential or unique about South Texas atmosphere that produces these types of artists, or a specific climate that artists to respond to?

Flores: Yeah. I think that border towns, or really any kind of town, have some kind of energy going on. There are so many dynamics going on at the border, it’s not really a place that nourishes a creative community. To be a musician or artist of South Texas is a defiant thing in itself, because you’re not going to get a lot of support from anybody. But, it’s important to be able to harness that border energy; otherwise, chaotic things can happen, especially to young people. I always think, especially when my friends were in bands, of what would happen to these people if they couldn’t sing? Some people go rob banks, do hooligan shit, Clockwork Orange shit—what if you have all this misguided creative energy that you can apply to, and what if these people start a metal band? I think they would be fucking insane people.

Ellison: What is the balance, then, between breaking free from an area that might not be the best for you, and remaining true to a heritage or origin? I’m curious about the dynamics between artist and family, specifically.

Flores: Even when I moved away from South Texas when I was 19, the world was just different. The dynamics of South Texas, and how you survive, is different than any other place. The majority always move back. And possibly, because South Texas is predominately a Mexican-American community that is also very Catholic and family-driven, a lot of my characters have such dynamics peripherally in their lives, but they’re never really addressed.

“The Performances of Liliana Krauze” was a very transformative story for me as a writer. In 2011, I had this dream about Leonora Carrington. After it, I wrote the story’s introduction. About two months later, Carrington died.

These characters came to me out of this experience, and Liliana just unraveled upon the page. Her experience is mostly personal, an inward one, because she’s trying to apply all this creative energy she has that there’s no name for, there’s no genre for, that they don’t really teach you anywhere. It’s hard for people around you to encourage that, especially your parents, your father who is probably conservative or wants you to have a systematic life. It ends with her not finding it, but still pursuing it, which is important.

Ellison: It’s interesting that the presence of an audience nearly “kills” her, which posits the questions: “Is the artist not meant to display themselves? Is Audience the death of the artist and/or their art?”

In contrast to breaking away from family, in the first story of the collection, “The House Band for the Hotel de la Paz,” you depict the characters by their occupation (or, in the band member’s cases, each by a parent’s jobs) rather than giving them names. Names—using one small thing to represent something so vast—can create a container for what that human is. Yet, if someone remains abstract, they retain the potential to be anything, any person. To begin the book with the Removal of Self, then, is an interesting move. Could you talk about that choice?

Flores: I was interested in how, when you’re young, adults always refer to you as so-and-so’s kid. There’s a lot of factors playing there, on a social level. Stories like “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells, or Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” also work along that social level, so I suppose it’s a play on that.

Also, I’m thinking of South Texas literature. It’s fascinating to me how American Literature—fiction—is only about 200 years old or so, and beyond that we don’t know anything about ourselves, really. We are cut off from mythology, and people are so hungry for it. So, thinking about South Texas Literature as being a microcosm of that, 50 years old… who’s been telling all these stories? Applying the “Anthology” idea—the hundreds and hundreds of years without accredited authors—to South Texas, what are our untold stories, unwritten yet existing in this land to this very day?

That first story is almost like a ghost story, having the dynamics of a “haunted house.” And I could never assign a name to them, nothing really has a name. The band doesn’t have a name, the members don’t have names, they’re like ghosts. So it’s like a weird mythology used to tell of these kids who were so amazing, almost like somebody in a bar telling a story where the main characters are anonymous, always.

Ellison: At the end of this story, we come across an old man who seems disinterested and slightly apathetic towards these youth as he watches them. Do you find this representative of a larger social gap between generations?

Flores: To be honest, in this story collection I tried to smuggle in characters from real life. I thought it would be funny to end the story with T. Boone Pickens going to town on that dune buggy. I read an article about him and I thought he was an alright guy, so I just put him into my story. A lot of these characters who exist in real life I insert among the fake characters, because I like these dynamics of creating mythology. And I didn’t name him either—I said what he did, but I also say that he’s an old man of wind energy, which is what Pickens does. [laughs] And I’m like, “what would he think?” It’s something he might do, stop and look—but someone who’s really conservative like that has better shit to do, so he leaves.

I like the idea of him first thinking it’s a creature he sees, these four blue creatures moving from far away—together they look like some kind of organism, which is what this story is also about.

Ellison: And because we are in the internal environment with these artists, zooming out to see how they’re being viewed in this world gives us that larger perspective, how they actually might have been seen in their community.

You wrote a story about “the first punk band.” What is your definition of “punk”? What does it mean to you?

Flores: You know, I don’t know if I have a definition of “punk.” What does it mean to me? I’m able to see it in other dynamics. Do you know Mary MacLane? She wrote “I Await the Devil’s Coming” when she was 19 years old, in the early 1900s. I think that’s totally punk rock. There’s a painting hanging here at the Blanton, David with the head of Goliath. And David looks like a beautiful young boy, like Rimbaud almost, Rimbaud with somebody’s severed head. And I associate that with punk rock. To me, it’s more of a feeling, the expression, more than the literal thing.

Also, I’m fascinated with how this word has changed throughout time. I like that a lot. But what does that word mean now?

Ellison: It seems to have a shifting relationship with whatever is going on at the time.

I’ve heard that it’s now punk to be “straightedge,” because punk hinges on alternative expressions. So, if everyone is liberal and pushing for ways to startle, then the “punk” is the one who returns, brings back the mentality before that.

Flores: Totally, I agree with that. I think that one of the most punk rock records of all time is The Shaggs’ “Philosophy of the World,” recorded in 1969, these three sisters that are just positive and enlightening. 1970s punk rock was all about nihilism and destruction, offering no solution. So, in many ways, that straightedged Shaggs record is the ultimate “punk,” full of positivity—and it sounds insane to hear it.

I’m interested in what those people think punk is, other than being a fashion statement. I always wonder what these people are reading about, what they’re listening to. Are they listening to something different than what I’m listening to, like The Germs or so, or are they still listening to The Germs, or Rancid, or whatever it is?

Ellison: In the story “Bread8,” we come to see music as a political statement. I’ve come to understand that art and politics go hand-in-hand, for each expression is somehow linked to an ideology. Do you think the opposite relation, that politics are music, can be made? Perhaps politics work on us in a similar way to how we are affected by art?

Flores: They both require art, posters and their own propaganda. Shows are often like campaigns, making flyers and going around. It almost comes naturally to these guys. But to me, they’re not really political in the sense of what we think of politics as. I think these guys are political in an imitation kind of way, like how you observe punk musicians do their thing. The Sex Pistols, the Slits—the first time, those bands seem political to you, but it moves as an excuse for a performative element.

That’s why I’m interested in bands, in these characters they create for themselves. To me, it was interesting to explore those dynamics, how these characters can go from not really caring about politics to totally nihilistic to all of a sudden being aware of politics because it affects them and the people around them, and then doing their best, and then absolute crushing defeat, which is what would happen in the Valley—a lot of those things are conveyed in this one moment, a lot of these crooked things that happen. It was my first time writing anything overtly political.

Ellison: And you yourself mirror them, first not very concerned with politics and then aiming at that political scene.

You wrote about this concept called “Unthinkism.” Can you talk about that, and whether there might be a social application of it?

Flores: I was living in a community of two duplexes, and I knew the people around me, and there was this crazy family who was psychically too much. One cold day, the little girl who lived there, maybe ten years old, comes knocking on our door, and she has this cookie fundraiser. My roommate and I thought, “yeah, we’ll help this kid.” And it’s almost the holiday season, we buy this $20 tin, then we forget about this moment. Months and months go by. Then we realize, we never got those cookies. So I see her one day and ask, “hey what happened to those cookies,” and she goes, “ohhhh, I don’t know,” and goes away. A few days later she comes knocking on my door with this little bread from the dollar store.

By this point, this family was wearing on all of us in the community, so I convince us to think they’re already gone—if we start thinking they don’t live there anymore, then it’s going to happen. And everybody agreed with me, which was even more psychotic. Within a few moths, the family moved to South Texas.

I just thought it would be funny to apply that to a grander scale, because it’s something I still try to apply to my everyday life. And I think, if a lot of people do that, things can happen, because we can imagine anything, and if we imagine together? It can happen.

Ellison: Because once we start envisioning that reality, all our behaviors shape toward that. It seems not as an act of ignoring the issue, but an action of powerfully believing that a desired change is already present. An embodied hope.

Flores: And that applies also to that power to envision yourself, as one creature. It’s the most innocuous solution to the problem. You have to imagine the way through the path of least resistance, while also seeing the outcome through.