Our fiction editor, Robin Lauzon Parker, recently spoke with Hubert Vigilla, author of Issue #6’s “The Goddamned Caped Canaveral.” Here’s what he had to say about finding inspiration, making his own enthusiasm come through on the page, and how he came to write about a motorcycle daredevil.
What inspired you to write this story?
Something got into my head about rival motorcycle daredevils trying to one-up each other. Originally it was going to be a rocket-assisted motorcycle jump over some insane distance, loosely inspired by the “JATO Rocket Car” urban legend. I got hung up on the math of staging an actual rocket-assisted motorcycle jump but couldn’t make the numbers work. Eventually I found out about Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon rocket stunt, and the story (and the name “The Caped Canaveral”) came together from there.
What do you hope people take away from this story?
That we risk a lot when we do things to express ourselves, and yet there’s an odd satisfaction in doing these acts of expression even if we fail, or if we lose people and things we care about in the process. That satisfaction is fleeting but sometimes makes everything worth it. Sometimes.
This piece is so vivid and colorful. Would you say that is true of your fiction, in general, or unique to this piece?
Yeah, I think it’s true for my stories in general. I gravitate toward odd conceits and big ideas and ornate constructions, and I try to make that enthusiasm come through in the language and the strangeness of the details.
The original draft of this story was written almost six-and-a-half years ago, so it’s changed as I’ve gotten older and reworked it. The first version was pretty colorful since it was mostly about the spectacle of the stunt, but it became more garish in spots with revisions and additions, and also more textured and reflective in others.
What are you working on now?
There are a couple short stories in various stages of completion. There’s also a novel about a museum I false-started a while ago that I’m jotting notes for. I’m also working on a musical set in the New York punk/post-punk scene of the late-70s because I’m still foolish enough to attempt something like that. I like having multiple projects going at once since they can play off each other in unexpected ways.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
I got this advice from Gordon Haber in a writing workshop before attending grad school: “Don’t be afraid to let it suck.” It’s a similar sentiment to Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in Bird by Bird. There’s no shame in those initial drafts sucking, and you have to put your ego aside and accept that awful initial draft. Just get it out of your system so there’s something to work with.
Can you describe your writing process for us?
Usually I’ll become obsessed with some idea or some character, maybe an image or a scene, or even just a line of dialogue or a phrase. I’ll start doing research about the thing that’s obsessing me, and that will lead me to some other aspects of this obsession, and I’ll usually write notes by hand about the story or the obsession or the things connected to the obsession. Then I’ll begin writing the story on my laptop and treat the whole thing as an act of creative problem-solving to get from one scene to the next. This is all part of a process of finding out what’s at the heart of this initial obsession and discovering why I care so much about what I’m writing about.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I was about five years old, and my mom wrote it down for me. (There was a brief time as a kid where I’d tell her a story and she’d write it down.) It was about a farmer whose cornfields were being eaten by crows because his scarecrows weren’t effective anymore. The farmer built giant robots to scare the crows away. The end. It was maybe ten sentences, and I’m pretty sure the robots were like a cross between a backhoe and Voltron.
What author most inspires you? Who do you go back to again and again?
Definitely Italo Calvino. There’s such beauty and imagination in his work, and even when the writing takes intellectual or melancholy turns, you can sense the playfulness of the ideas and the fun he must have had while he was writing. Calvino’s non-fiction is a joy to read as well because of the way the inner workings of his mind seem to be on display as he goes from one observation to the next, like some sort of unfolding act of discovery.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum. I flipped through it so much as a kid. It’s essentially Grover walking through a categorized list of different stuff in the world, with each room oddly curated and cleverly illustrated. In retrospect, the whole thing reads as if Sesame Street and Borges collaborated on a picture book.