An Interview with Aaron Michael Morales

By Nick Moroni


Somewhere in Tucson there are people drowning, and not solely in the seasonal but sporadic flash floods that have been known to rush through this city.  Some are victims of circumstance. People who, regardless of potentiality, exist in such calamitous environments that transcendence is improbable. Others are chemically imbalanced and prone to vile and brutal acts, unfathomable to many. There are those whose brutish acts are second nature, as any semblance of conscience has perished to a continual cycle of violence – something that eventually becomes the norm. Moreover, there are also those that have managed to stay afloat for some time.  Humble, good, and hardworking people. They are not entirely immune to the elements, though. Together they comprise the unforgiving, blighted areas of Tucson, a city in the arid Sonora desert – a place brutal and uncompromising itself at times.

In Drowning Tucson Aaron Michael Morales delivers no holds barred accounts of their stories. Gang members, bigots, prostitutes, crooked cops, broken mothers, a pedophile, a closeted homosexual, a gay runaway teen, a fraudulent preacher – these are but a few of the characters that inhabit Drowning Tucson. Each of their stories is tainted by some, often drastic, misfortune and/or act of malice.  Be it the bright and promising young Felipe Nuñez, who falls victim to the perils of gang life; or, Marísol Delgado (alias “Rainbow”), who, abandoned at fifteen, is left to fend for herself, and eventually turns to prostitution on Tucson’s seedy “Miracle Mile.” Despite the omnipresent horror in many of these anecdotes, Morales manages in several cases to imply that at some point the lives and psyches of many of these characters were either sound, or at the very least, tolerable.  In addition, he is able to portray even the darkest of characters with shreds of decency and humanity at times. This makes it difficult to judge these individuals. By offering a portal into their lives and psyches, Morales offers a glimpse of what drives certain characters to commit such ghastly acts (e.g. murder, rape, suicide).  Once that barrier is broken it is easier to humanize some of these individuals.  Many are “drowning.”

Aaron Michael Morales was born in Tucson and lived there through much of his adolescence.  He currently resides in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he teaches writing and literature at Indiana State University and he is working on his second novel, Eat Your Children. Morales’s story El Camino appeared in the first issue ofMAKE.

Nick Moroni: In a statement that describes different elements ofDrowning Tucson, you address the existence of a “debate” with regards to the validity of calling the book a novel.  You claim that Drowning Tucsonis one, and cite the definition of a novel—“A ‘fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by actions, speech and thoughts of the characters.’”—as affirmation. I would agree with you; however, I cannot help but feel like the book walks a very thin line between existing as a collection of short stories—albeit intertwined—and a novel.  The ubiquitous six degrees of separation has a cohesive quality. Do you think that this is part of the reason that it is permissible to call the book a novel? Or, is there a gray area between a novel and a short story where this book exists?

Aaron Michael Morales: I’m not sure whether or not “permissible” would be the word to use. After all, there is no shortage of novels billed as such that take the same approach that I do with Drowning Tucson. Some are a little more linear, and some even less linear than mine. The way I see it (as did my publisher), there are many things that bind the ten chapters of my novel together: The Nuñez family; the city of Tucson; the particular neighborhood in the middle of the city where the vast majority of the book is set; the way the characters’ lives are entwined by circumstance, even the way the decisions of some characters impact the lives of others; the poverty and the cultural background so many of the characters share. I could go on. But suffice it to say that anyone interested in this particular approach to a novel (and these are sometimes called novels, sometimes a novel-in-stories, sometimes novular stories, and sometimes they aren’t labeled novels or stories) might find it surprising that this is a tradition in writing that goes back many years. Some of the most famous and amazingly crafted books written in this manner are Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Irvine Welsh’sTrainspotting, Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Leslie Marmon Silko’sAlmanac of the Dead, Laura Hendrie’s Stygo, Stewart O’Nan’s Everyday People, as well as Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives. On a related note, I’m quite pleased to find that this narrative approach has even taken hold in Hollywood storytelling, as evidenced by the recent emergence of films that I feel masterfully employ the non-linear technique I use in Drowning Tucson: City of God,Pulp FictionTrafficCrash, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s absolutely brilliant trilogy comprised of the films Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, and the heartbreakingly beautiful film Magnolia. Still, for those who prefer a more linear approach, there are hundreds of thousands of novels to choose from that utilize a more traditional method of storytelling. I’ll leave the quibbling about the definition of a novel and this overall debate to others. But just so you know, my second novel, Eat Your Children, is more linear. Painfully linear, in fact. Still, I might return to this approach again in the future. It’s actually a pretty liberating experience writing something this way.

While on the topic of the ways Drowning Tucson might upend readers’ expectations of what a novel is, another non-traditional element to the book is that it features six Tables of Contents—For the Purist, For the Skeptic, For the Quixotic, For the Zealot, For the Downtrodden, For the Deconstructionist—which is my own particular take on a technique famously employed by Julio Cortázar in his National Book Award-winning novel, Hopscotch. There are a couple other writers who have toyed with this notion as well, but my version is designed to appeal to readers on a personal or intellectual level. In other words, if a reader chooses to pause and ponder the correct approach to the novel for her, based upon her personality or worldview, she might decide to read it as a zealot rather than in the “correct” chronological order that is laid out in the Table of Contents “For the Purist.”

In short, there are several elements of my novel that might give a reader pause, but I think it’s possible to read the book and watch a larger narrative emerge, to even feel some sort of emotional and personal response, despite the fact that some people might be more pleased if it were classified as something other than a novel. Readers are free to label it whatever they like. As long as something is taken away from the novel, I will be pleased as the author. I’d like to think that’s what all writers want from their readership.

NM: You have penned some very lasting character portrayals. The mental images conjured are both disturbing and difficult to elude. Readers encounter gang members, prostitutes, a child molester, and a runaway gay teen, to name a few.  Moreover, each character either encounters or is involved in something so brutal and so inhumane, that it’s difficult to even fathom the likelihood of such phenomena at times.  You stated that the book “seeks to speak for those who have no voice—to accurately represent the lives of people whose economic and cultural background impedes their ability to elevate themselves in status, class or position.”  Although the work is fiction, are some of the brutal events that you describe in the book as omnipresent in the Tucson neighborhoods and areas of Arizona that you write about?  If not, aren’t the stories exaggerated? And, doesn’t this mean the muted people have been misrepresented?

AMM: Again, I’m not sure if “muted” is the word to use. Who’s muted? This book is a work of fiction inhabited by people who don’t actually exist. Still, the stories I’m telling are quite real. Let me give you an example. I’ve had several critics complain about the brutal violence throughout the novel. Fine. It is violent. It needs to be for the story I’m telling. But it is not exaggerated. How is the beatdown of Sammy (a gay teen who is killed for being gay) any different than the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming? Does everyone in Wyoming kill gay boys and string them up on fences? No. I don’t think anyone in Wyoming, or from any other state, felt that the murder of Matthew Shepard misrepresented the other law-abiding citizens of that state. Likewise in the case of the men down in Texas who dragged a black man behind their pickup truck, tearing the poor guy’s body to shreds in the process. Or the cops who sodomized an immigrant in NYC with a toilet plunger. Or the man down in Georgia who owned a crematorium but never cremated the bodies. He stuffed them in a warehouse and had sex with their decaying corpses. Then 9/11 happened and his story was understandably buried beneath the much more devastating story of the Twin Towers. Or what about the high school girl in California who was gang raped for nearly an hour while scores of student—her peers, boys and girls—stood by and watched? Some even participated. Some of the sick bastards even took pictures and filmed it with their cell phones. There were kids laughing and mocking her as this little girl—I think she was fifteen—got raped over and over and over again outside a school dance. On school property.

My point is that humans can be despicable, horrific creatures. But are all humans? No. Of course not. So, to answer your question, I have not misrepresented anyone. I have merely taken a people who most certainly exist—some of whom are poor, violent, misogynistic, bigoted, or even corrupt—and I have placed them into very real circumstances. I have placed them into a world that I know very intimately, and then I let them do what they did. I didn’t censor their actions. Does that mean that if you go to Tucson and walk around Reid Park you’ll get ass raped behind the bandshell? Probably not. Especially because they’ve built a police station in the park—a ridiculously ominous and foreboding structure, like something right out ofRobocop. But are there gangs in Tucson? Yes. Is it overrun with Vietnam vets sleeping in its parks and arroyos? Indeed. Does the world’s oldest profession still get practiced on Miracle Mile? I hate to say it, but yes. And are you likely to encounter some revival preying on downtrodden people in a poor neighborhood? That’s virtually a guarantee.

I wish these stories were exaggerated. I wish I were misrepresenting humanity in general. Look, do I wish we lived in a world where mothers didn’t drown their children and an off-duty male cop in Chicago didn’t beat the shit out of a female bartender for refusing to serve him drinks? Yes. But that’s not our world. Are there good people in Tucson? Absolutely. Are there bad people? You bet. Do I portray both? Most certainly. Do I have any regrets or misgivings about that? Not at all.

I understand that the disturbing characters in Drowning Tucson probably draw more attention than the “normal” ones, but there are plenty of normal people who inhabit the book’s pages. There are housewives and working class people. There are business owners and teens who actually go to school and dads who don’t hurt their children. There are people who aren’t in gangs and pay their taxes. There are homeowners and budding entrepreneurs. But I’m not interested in them. After all, they’re not drowning. They’re not in a sink-or-swim situation, as most of my “disturbing” characters often are.

NM: Despite the viciousness throughout the book, you still manage to convey shreds of purity and humanity in even the most despicable characters at times.  Can you elaborate on this?

AAM: I’ve always been obsessed with what people often refer to as the gritty underbelly of society. Not because I’m a bad person, but because I fail to understand how brutal and vicious humans can be to one another. How repulsive we can be when no one is looking or when we don’t think about the consequences. This bothers me in ways you cannot begin to understand because I cannot even really articulate these thoughts as I wish I could. Nevertheless, I’ll say that what I realized is that even the most deplorable humans are still human. Even they have hopes, desires, goals, and disappointments. They’re someone’s son or daughter. So I decided that I would inhabit these characters’ lives. I decided to try to understand how a person with free will, how a person who is made up of the same elements as you and me, can turn into a monster. The difficult part was not judging them. I had to let them do what they were going to do, and document it.

Here’s what I found myself thinking as I wrote, for example, the chapter titled “Ice Cream.” I thought, well, as a father it’s easy to know how I would respond to a person who inflicted physical or sexual abuse on my daughter. I’d kill him. Plain and simple. So that part of the story was easy to write, and I think that’s a part that just about anyone would be able to understand. What’s not easy to understand is Octavio’s perspective. It was painful, truly painful for me—again, as a father—to put myself into the mind of a child molester. I had to think like one. I had to think, just what makes a person do these things? It was a dark time when I wrote some of these characters. Octavio haunted me for a long time. But I think I was true to him. I let him do his thing. I let his motivations speak for themselves. And the result is what you have asked about. That even the most despicable characters have “pure and human” sides to them. It’s because they are human.

And so, every single horrible human in my novel isn’t judged by me. On the contrary, I’ll leave the judging to the reader. If a reader finds the actions to be reprehensible, then by all means pass judgment. Me? I think that all books are better when the author stays out of the business of passing judgment. I am judging these actions by virtue of writing about them in such an unrelenting manner, but I’m not poking around in there with my pencil saying, “See? Isn’t it bad how these guys beat the shit out of this gay kid just ‘cause he’s gay? Isn’t that just awful?” I just let every character do what they will do. And, believe it or not, some of them make pretty good decisions.

I want to return to the quote of mine you pulled about representing those who cannot represent themselves. I am not a representative of anyone or any group of people. I have characters in this novel that are Latino, but I am not speaking on behalf of Latinos in general. How could I do that? That’s like trying to speak on behalf of all women, or all ten-year-old soccer players. What I am trying to do is shed some light on the things that we, as an American population, prefer to look away from when confronted by it: the terrible actions of people who are desperate and in need. We like to push them into a corner, stuff them behind a pile of boxes in the basement and never think about them again. Then we donate a hundred bucks to NPR and feel we’ve done our part. Or we canvass for Obama and shake our heads at some idiot driving around with a huge Confederate flag flapping in the breeze on its pole in the back of his pickup truck. But here’s what I want people to understand. I want them to understand that it’s much, much easier to say, “Oh, well she could just leave her husband if he’s abusing her. There’s help for that. Just call the cops, go to a shelter, and leave.” But it’s never that easy. The desperate, the helpless, well they do things that don’t make sense to those who are not desperate or helpless. The solutions are simple when you’re outside the situation. So I want to show what might just lead a mother to drown her child. I want to show why someone’s older brothers might take his life when they are the very men who should protect him from harm. That’s what I’m doing here. I’m not saying all Latinos are poor and desperate. I’m not saying we are all violent. Take off the Spanish names and place other last names on the characters and you still have humans in dire circumstances. And a cornered, trapped person with limited options will not react in a manner consistent with logic and rationality. But I love all of these characters. I got to know them very well and feel like they’re almost my own family and neighbors. They are a part of me now. That’s a scary thought.

NM:  The Nuñez family—the familial unit around which many of the book’s sections are centered or related to—epitomizes the negative consequences that can befall people that are submerged in blighted circumstances.  The fate of Felipe Nuñez, a bright, capable young man with limited resources, is a primary example.  When I think about how special Felipe is in comparison to many of the other characters, I can’t help but feel a sense of hopelessness.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter how intelligent or capable an individual is, if the circumstances are too unfavorable it’s impossible, and I think you successfully illustrate this harsh reality several times throughout the book. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well, I think you nailed it. Some people’s circumstances are just hopeless. What I’m trying to capture here is something that is all too real. My entire life I’ve been surrounded by impoverished people. People on the fringes. People who are at rock bottom. Even on the rare occasions when I lived in a “nice” neighborhood, I am approached by and drawn to desperate and broken people. I’ve seen unfathomable acts—things that are so ruthless that I cannot exorcise them from my mind. Here’s an example: once I overheard a guy—and he might have been drunk, as if that matters—screaming at the top of his lungs at his pregnant wife. He told her he was going to kick the baby out of her. And then he did just that. Kicked the shit out of her stomach in broad daylight until some random guys in the neighborhood managed to intervene. I don’t know whether or not she lost her baby. I’m assuming she did. I was five or six at the time.

Now, the reason I bring this up is because that woman is doomed. It doesn’t matter whether or not she eventually left the man. What matters is that she will forever carry the burden and the guilt of not having been able to defend her baby growing inside her. Of course, it wasn’t her fault. There’s nothing she could have done to warrant the ass kicking that was doled out to her. But I suspect that’s not how she sees it. I know this because I volunteered at a battered women’s shelter some time ago. And I saw, time and time again, beaten women and their children come to the shelter, terrified, hopeless, brutalized. And guess what? Ninety-nine percent of the time they went back to their abusers. It’s unbelievable. The psychology at work there is powerful. It’s overwhelming and all encompassing. To say that their circumstances are unfavorable would be a gross understatement. But, to illustrate exactly your point, think about the children of these abusive relationships. Think about how utterly fucked they are. How their idea of relationships, of masculinity and femininity, are distorted from such a young age. How does a person recover from that? How does a kid grow up without internalizing something from witnessing his mother beaten constantly? So yes, a person’s circumstances can sometimes be so daunting that they are just doomed. And, unfortunately, in real life there is no shortage of examples I could cite to show the power of repression and abuse.

Likewise—and this is something I witnessed both in Arizona and Chicago—there is an unbelievable power behind the “code” of the streets. By this I mean that everyone who subscribes to the notion of “street life” or the like becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you—or the people who hold influence in your life—think that to go to school is to try to “be white,” then exactly what options do you have? When your role models are drug dealers, thugs, and men who use flagrant displays of machismo to carve out a reputation for themselves, what are your options? Well, to an outsider, it would seem simple. Go to school. Get a job. Keep to yourself. Ignore the taunts, the jeers, the bullying of the other kids. It’s not that simple. Felipe is sort of an everyman when it comes to this idea. Think of the kid who got beaten to death on the Southside of Chicago last year. His crime? Nothing. He was a good student, and presumably he had a chance to rise above his circumstances. But the power of the street code, the power of peer pressure and violence is a force to be reckoned with. It should not be scoffed at or taken lightly.

I am constantly trying to grapple with this notion of people’s circumstances—some self-inflicted and some beyond their power—dictating their lives’ options. Think about it. If you’re born into poverty, and I mean abject poverty like that illustrated in my novel (or worse), you can most certainly rise above this. But, man, is it an impossible, long, uphill climb with countless obstacles along the way. In fact, I return to this idea in my second novel, Eat Your Children, which deals with the children of meth addicts. Because I’m obsessed with this idea. I see it every day where I live in Indiana. I’ve come home from a bar at three in the morning before, and some little kid—two or three years old—comes rolling up to me on his Big Wheel asking me questions and trying to make friends with me while his parents are geeked out on the front porch two blocks down. How screwed is that kid? What chance does he have when the very people who are supposed to be protecting him are up the block smoking meth while their son—who, I might add, was only wearing a raggedy ass diaper when it was probably forty degrees out—is riding his toy around the neighborhood, talking to strangers?

There have been tons of movies and television shows and news exposés about meth users and what meth does to the body. There have been several books, the most famous of which was Beautiful Boy. But these all deal with the meth users themselves. With adults. They never mention the children. And let me tell you, the children of meth heads are absolutely fucked. There’s a place in Terre Haute, Indiana, where I currently live and teach, that is basically a detention facility for underage kids. And the kids there are complete disasters. There’s a seven-year-old serial rapist. It’s true. And how does a kid become a serial rapist at such a young age? It’s unprintable. There are kids in there who have committed nearly every horrible crime imaginable. Nobody’s telling their stories. So I’m in the process of doing just that. It’s a heartbreaking book. Utterly heartbreaking. It breaks my heart to write it. And it breaks my heart to think that, yes, my book will be fiction, but just up the road a couple miles there are children whose lives are exactly as bad as my portrayals, and often even worse. These kids are doomed. And someone needs to force us to look at them. We need to witness it.

NM: Lastly, I’d like to talk about your connection to Tucson and to the desert.  You grew up in Tucson; however, you haven’t lived there for some time—exactly how long I’m not certain. Are the stories in Drowning Tucson the byproduct of anything of your life in Tucson? You describe the nature of the desert as brutal. Is it nothing more than a symbol for many of the characters, or does it mean something else to you, as well?

I was born in Tucson and raised there through most of my teen years. I left years ago. But I go back frequently. It’s a different place now. Not that it’s safer, necessarily, or that it’s any worse. It just is what it is. It’s Tucson. A strange, violent, almost mythical city with a long, bloody history. It has elements of the Old West lingering in the air, coupled with the history of Native American genocide, as well as the omnipresent conflict between Mexicans/Mexican-Americans and the Anglos who live out there. Case in point: the new law just passed by the idiot governor of Arizona. Under the auspices of justice, police have just been given the green light—no, more like a mandate—to racially profile people. It’s ridiculous. There is a palpable tension in the air when you go there. All of these things I just mentioned are swirling in the air above the city. I had a conversation with Leslie Marmon Silko about this phenomenon because I wanted to know if it was just me and my over-active imagination. She agreed with my impression. She told me that there are forces there that are simply not to be trifled with. So all of that factors into the novel.

Then there’s my personal history. Hardly any the events that I mention in the novel actually happened to me. But I guess I feel a definite kinship with Felipe. I feel as though he and I had to face similar problems, but I obviously had a better outcome. Still, for every one of me, there are twenty more Felipes trapped in the “hood.” I think that there are very personal things from my past in the book, but they’ve been fictionalized. I tell my students this all the time. If you’re going to write something based on reality, understand that it’s your obligation as a fiction writer to make it more interesting. To make it more important. To make it matter. So, did I know gangsters? Yeah. My brother has spent his entire life trying to beat that shit, and I hate to say it but he’s only been out of prison a total of four years since he’s been thirteen. Now he’s almost forty, and he’s in prison again. Gangs, crimes, drugs, violence, machismo—all of that’s a part of my history. I can’t shake it. But part of the reason for writing Drowning Tucson was so that I could finally try to come to terms with all of that.

The desert is brutal. There are cactus and scorpions and rattlesnakes and temperatures that regularly run into the 110-120 range. But then, at night, the desert becomes bitterly cold. If you get trapped a few miles from civilization and you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re a dead man. There’s a wonderful scene inBabel that captures this. When Amelia is walking in the desert, trying to find any sign of life. She’s parched. She’s dehydrated and dusty. Her clothes are torn and she’s hallucinating and she’s likely to die. And to think just a few hours earlier she was having the time of her life at her son’s wedding in Mexico. It’s a powerful place, the desert. A dangerous place. A violent place. The plants are violent. The animals can paralyze or kill you. Read about it in Luis Alberto Urrea’s beautiful nonfiction book called The Devil’s Highway. But, understand that the desert has its beauty too. The mountains and the cactus and the weird creatures that manage to survive out there. It’s amazing, really. But it is also eerie. I cannot remember the amount of times I’ve heard of bodies being found out there, just a few miles beyond the city limits. Pretty commonplace. And what’s even more weird is seeing the way the desert cannot be eradicated from the city proper. It is everywhere. Patches of desert here and there. It’s encroaching on the city of Tucson. It’s slowly but surely chipping away. It’s patient. It will take a long time but the desert is going to win the battle against humanity.

The whole idea of drowning is pretty self-explanatory. And yet, on a literal level, people drown in the desert all the time. I can’t remember how many times I saw on television as a kid someone on the news trapped on top of their car amid a flowing river that wasn’t there a moment before, or just being washed away out into the desert by a flashflood. We all knew better. We knew that during monsoon season the sky sometimes just opens up and unleashes a torrential downpour. And then, it’s over. The desert sucks the water up. It looks like nothing happened. This is the central metaphor of the novel. These horrific, nearly unimaginable things occur right beneath people’s noses, and they just think, “what a shame,” and go about their day. As if nothing happened. And life goes on.

Nick Moroni lives and works in Chicago as a freelance journalist and his writing and photography has appeared in the Chicago Reader, The Wedneday Journal, Austin Weekly, Forest Park Review, The Riverside-Brookfield Landmark andThresholds. He is in graduate school at DePaul University pursuing an MA in Journalism. Nick particularly enjoys Hunter S. Thompson’s writing, Robert Frank’s photographs, jazz clubs, most cheese, ales, traveling, and the atypical. He received recegnotion from the Illinois College Press Association for his work in theDePaulia covering the 2016 Olympic city candidacy rally in Chicago. He was awarded first place for News Story and In-Depth Reporting, and third place for News Photograph in the Association’s 2009 recognition ceremony.

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