The smell of fajita sizzling on a grill and sauteed onions fills my nose as I step into La Calle, a Mexican eatery near the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD). Immediately, all the staff in the kitchen–which is open in the Subway and Chipotle-style–recognize my companion, debut novelist Daniel Peña. They smile and laugh and utter ¡tacos chilangos! I had suggested the place but, apparently, Daniel is a regular and beloved customer.
Daniel and I had met in person a few months earlier at Brazos Bookstore during a reading by an obscure and eccentric local author. Attendance was modest, so we gravitated towards one another and hit it off. We had been trying to grab a bite to eat for some time, but our schedules never coincided. Now that Daniel was leaving in a few days for a guest professorship in Germany, it was either now or much, much later.
I devour a torta and glug down horchata while Daniel talks generally about Bang!, his debut novel from Arte Público Press. He’s wearing clear, nearly transparent prescription glasses that seem to be the rage with professors these days. He also has on a pair of blue jeans, a black hoodie, and underneath wears a Pumas (Liga MX soccer club) t-shirt.
I interrupt to tell him I just finished reading an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) of Bang! the night before and had given it a solid rating and brief review on GoodReads. His eyes grow wide and he pauses before smirking. He admits that he enjoys Twitter, but feels uneasy about GoodReads—he’s been advised to never read your own reviews. At his MFA program at Cornell a few years ago, a professor had advised: “against wasting valuable writing time on social media.” Now, he reflects, it seems “you have to be on social media.” A few award-winning authors, he recalls, from as recently as five years ago seem to be forgotten because they lack an online presence.
Our conversation hopscotches around and is a true dialogue. I never get the impression Daniel has any canned, pre-planned answers. He speaks frankly and with sincerity, sometimes pausing before answering a question but often not. He admits that he is feeling a lot of nervous energy with the pending move to Germany. He had not slept at all the night before and had had to down an energy drink to keep moving. Plus all this debut author stuff.
I ask Daniel how long it took him to write and finish Bang! The novel is roughly 260 pages, so I expect to hear around 2-3 years. Instead, he says the novel took him seven years to complete. I’m puzzled and he senses this before I can open my mouth. He explains that his teaching and writing come from the same reserves of energy, so lecturing at Cornell and elsewhere has traded off with writing.
He tries to write daily, often a page per day, but, for Bang!, he took so long because he wrote many different, complete drafts of the novel. An earlier iteration focused primarily on Cuautehmoc before the book branches into an ensemble with alternating plot lines. I mention I had read his short stories, and he laughs, saying that in the beginning, the novel was basically him “cannibalizing” the ingredients from Flying Mexicans, published in the Kenyon Review, and blooming the novel from there. The Pushcart Prize-winning Safe Home, which centers on Cuauhtemoc, came many years later and ultimately made it into the final draft. He wanted to tell a story about a family that was separated and trying to find one another amidst the ruins of Northern Mexico.
I myself have spent time in Ciudad Juárez and South Texas, so I tell him that, for me, he seemed to get details of life on the border very right. He admits that the city in the novel, San Miguel, is loosely based on Ciudad Juárez, but could be “any town in Mexico that’s been hollowed out by the violence.” His goal was to show a metro area destroyed, but it’s not clear exactly by whom. The cartels? The military? The militias? All of the above?
Daniel received a Fulbright prize to go to Mexico and do research for his novel. He was and is immensely grateful to the Universidad Nacional y Autónoma de México (UNAM) for throwing wide open its doors and giving him an office. He fondly recalls an informal meeting of students, not a proper class in the strict academic sense, where he taught Mexican-American books.
I remark that I loved the scenes in Bang! where aviation took center stage. Daniel explains that he worried about using too much pilot and plane jargon, and also felt he struggled at times to capture the countervailing feelings of adrenaline and serenity in flight. The scenes were written, he remarks, from his own experience as a pilot. He humblebrags that he was not a star pilot by any measure, but generally could keep any plane going despite mechanical glitches and other common snafus.
Near the end of his undergraduate degree at Texas A&M, he even interviewed with a Mexican airline to possibly work as a pilot. However, the airline soon faced financial problems due to alleged embezzlement amidst the U.S. economy entering a recession. Thus, he went all-in with fiction. He applied and was accepted into the Cornell M.F.A. program at what he felt was perhaps the too young age of 22. He glumly remarks that he can’t fly as often as he wants “because it’s really expensive.”
Daniel stands up and asks if we can go outside for a walk as we chat. I look at my cell phone and realize we’ve been talking for well over an hour. We meander about near Main Street and Daniel admits he’s not taking a break after Bang! to refresh the creative juices; he is already hard at work on two novels. One is about an immigrant to Mexico City from Syria who builds a shrine of death trinkets. It sounds fascinating, and Daniel is clearly excited by the project.
We walk near the UHD campus, and he recognizes a fellow UH employee who works in the school’s press office. A Student Organization is marching nearby with a sign, and the press officer grabs the Univision camera-man; he suggests Univision get some sound bites from “award-winning, debut novelist” Daniel Peña. Daniel smirks at the description, and seems a bit annoyed, but agrees to do some quick takes.
I take this as my exit cue; I thank Daniel for the torta – he insisted on paying – and his time. We resolve to grab a beer when he’s back in town in January. The University in Germany wanted him for several months but he likes his job at UHD and did not want to be away from his wife, whom he met in high school, for such a long time.
I stroll back down Main Street towards downtown. It’s a lovely Fall day – cloudless & sunny, but the air’s coldness has a bite to it – and I’m hoping Daniel’s next novel won’t take more than seven years to be written and published.
Daniel Peña is a Pushcart Prize winning writer and Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. Formerly, he was based out of the UNAM in Mexico City where he worked as a writer, blogger, book reviewer and journalist. He is a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar and a graduate of Cornell University. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review Online, Callaloo, and Huizache among other venues. He’s currently a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Ploughshares blog and his novel, BANG, is forthcoming from Arte Publico Press. He lives in beautiful Houston, Texas.
Elliott Turner is a graduate of Emory University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in VICE, Fusion, The Guardian, SplitLip Mag, and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Night of the Virgin, is available from RBM Press.