Blake Sanz’s The Boundaries of Their Dwelling (October 15, 2021; University of Iowa Press) won the 2021 Iowa Short Fiction Award, selected by Booker Prize finalist Brandon Taylor. He has recently published fiction in Joyland, Electric Literature, Ecotone, Puerto del Sol, American Short Fiction, and Hypertext. He teaches writing at the University of Denver. You can visit him online at blakesanz.com, and you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In this post, Blake discusses the 20-year process of writing his new short story collection, The Boundaries of Their Dwelling, what he hopes people get out of the reading experience, and more!
Name: Blake Sanz
Book title: The Boundaries of Their Dwelling
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Release date: October 15, 2021
Genre/category: Literary Fiction
Elevator pitch: Troubled characters from the U.S. South and Mexico struggle to find a place that feels like home. Written by an author with family ties to Louisiana and Veracruz, these stories, in the words of Brandon Taylor, “pivot on acute moments as the hilarious gives way to the painful, the painful to the beautiful, and the beautiful to the truth.”
What prompted you to write this book?
Life is hard. So is writing a book. Put the two together and you have a hell of a fight on your hands.
I wrote this book one short story at a time, never understanding what it would all add up to until very near the end of the process. For each story, what prompted me to write was different. However, across all the stories, I can say that there was some singular idea that grabbed ahold of me and wouldn’t let go. So many of the stories emerged out of the life experiences of my family—both my Mexican family and my Louisiana family—and when I’d land on a certain fictional premise that felt like a window onto exploring the truth behind my family’s exploits and lives, I just felt obligated to keep going until I had something that felt as close to “true” as I could get it.
A Melissa Bank character from A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing once proclaimed that art should aspire to be beautiful and sad and funny and true, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with these stories. I don’t always succeed, but it’s important to me to have kept that goal in mind. So I guess that, once I’d landed on the various premises of the stories, what prompted me to keep going was trying to get each of them as close to reaching that goal as possible.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
In a literal way, the book took 20 years to write. I wrote the earliest story in 2001, “The Baller Ganked the Rock,” with no idea what the larger idea was for any book. I finished editing the most recent story, “Cazones, 2016,” in June of 2021.
In a more conceptual way, the book took three years. I first thought of the idea of compiling stories together in 2016, and by 2019 I had a clear sense of a larger unifying theme, and I’d culled and curated from a longer selection of stories, down to the 16 that appear in this book. I shopped the manuscript then for two years before Brandon Taylor selected it for the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
So many twists and turns, yes! If I’d have been writing just to get published, I would’ve given up a long time ago. Thankfully, the content of this book mattered a lot to me, and so I felt a drive to make it as good and as true as it could be, regardless of how many people rejected the writing over the years.
In the end, you can’t ever really be surprised by rejection. That’s the standard for all writers nearly all of the time. So the biggest surprise was that Brandon Taylor selected it. It would be ridiculous to expect something like that, and yet, here it is, having happened to me.
The other big surprise was to see how much work goes into the making of a physical book, beyond just the writing of the words. I got some input into the cover—which is an absolute stunner, in my opinion—and I can only guess how much grunt work the designer, Derek Thornton, put into it. I know for a fact he had to put up with a host of minor suggestions from me to arrive at something that felt just right to me.
Beyond that, there’s an army of editors and copyeditors and acquisitions people and publicists and salespeople at the press and rights managers and booksellers across the country who do such dedicated, behind-the-scenes work on an author’s behalf. As a person putting words on a page for 20 years, I was blissfully unaware of all of that. So, I guess the larger surprise is just seeing how many people exist and are willing and eager to help make an author’s dreams come true.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
You start to write a story (say, a story about a family going through decades of floods), and then something happens (say, another giant Louisiana hurricane that’s somehow different in its impact from the prior ones), and then you realize you need to alter your story to reflect the new truths you see have emerged.
There was also the surprise of having really dedicated editors at literary magazines. In a couple of cases, stories in these collections benefitted greatly from the keen eye of a careful editor. Beth Staples—now the editor-in-chief at Shenandoah and formerly a fiction editor at Ecotone where the first story in this collection appeared—worked wonders to make that story sing in a way I didn’t even realize it was meant to. Rus Bradburd, a former D-I basketball coach and editor at Puerto del Sol, had invaluable edits to a basketball story that appears in the book, one that first appeared in his journal. I could say the same for Adam Soto, an editor at American Short Fiction (buy his new novel, This Weightless World, out now from Astra House!), who worked wonders on the final story in the collection, in which a homeless, dying Mexican father gives his American son the gift of an inside story on the Cuban revolution.
I could never have predicted that there are so many smart people who are genuinely dedicated to this craft of ours. That they exist, and that they have consistently given me such careful attention and thought, gives me great delight and hope in the current literary scene, dire as it can sometimes seem to all of us.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
On one basic level, I hope that readers get an accurate and artful take on what one version is of living and being a person from Louisiana or Mexico who’s trying to make a life in a place that feels unsettled and often painful and not always exactly comfortable.
But beyond that, I hope the book also speaks to people with no connections to those regions. Like most writers, I strive in my stories to make something that any reader can connect to, regardless of whether their experience lines up geographically or culturally with my characters. It would be my greatest joy to learn that these stories spoke not only to people from Louisiana or Veracruz or the Distrito Federal, but also to people from very different backgrounds and places and experiences.
I’ve heard it said that, while many writers imagine that the goal of their writing is to get readers to better understand who the writer is, the actual goal should be to get readers to see themselves more clearly through a writer’s stories. And ultimately, that’s what I hope for: that my readers feel like they see themselves reflected in the lives of my characters.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
When you’re writing in a room alone with no one waiting to see your work—no agent, no publisher, no publicist, no editor—it’s hard to feel like it’s worth it to continue. Like, who cares? It’s reasonable to ask that question. And my advice isn’t as simple as to say, “Hang on! Good news is coming!” Maybe it is. Maybe not. Or maybe it is, but not for a really long time (like 20 years).
But that almost doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you feel like the thing you’re writing about really needs to be written, and whether you’re the only one who can tell those stories. If the answer to both of those questions is yes, and if you have the fortitude to keep on with it in the face of an absurd amount of rejection, then I would absolutely say, with great confidence: “Hang on! Good news is coming!” Because, for those for whom writing is that important, I do think that some sort of meaningful validation eventually comes.