Valeria Luiselli is something of the gamine manic pixie dream girl of the literary world–aesthetically at least. When it comes to her prose, though, there is so much more beneath the surface of her marketable look. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, published by Coffee House Press (who also put out the English translation of her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, and essay collection, Sidewalks), offers an altogether unprecedented approach to novel writing in that its creation actually unfolded through a collaborative process.
In conversation with Coffee House editor and publisher Chris Fischbach at McNally Jackson on September 15th, Luiselli discussed the rich and, at times, painstaking technique of working with the factory workers of Grupo Jumex, a juice company whose profits help fund the nearby Galería Jumex, which commissioned Luiselli to write a fiction piece for an art exhibit being held there. This request evolved into Luiselli bargaining to serialize her work (blogs weren’t an option for her, according to her preference), which soon led to her aural back and forth correspondence with the workers.
Although she initially assumed that most of the workers would be men and therefore made her lead character, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez a.k.a. Highway, a man in order for it to feel more authoritative and “closer” to them, it turned out that by the time she realized many of them were actually women, Highway had already been born and it would have felt wrong to go back to imagining him as a female. And so, the procedure of sending her pages to the factory workers continued, prompting Luiselli to work at a rapid pace so that she could eagerly await their audio file commentary.
Through their critiques, Luiselli developed Highway’s arrogance and semi-delusional self-perception, which is elucidated in most every sentence of his first person narration, as with the opening line, “I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man.” Auctioneering is, indeed, an integral aspect of the novel, with Highway’s mentor, Master Oklahoma (naturally a sage Japanese man), teaching him the four types: hyperbolic, parabolic, circular and elliptical.” Highway later adds his own form, allegorical. It is, however, a sequence at a fledgling church involving Highway performing a hyperbolic auction that is his most memorable style of auctioneering, with a tooth from Virginia Woolf, among others, being offered for sale. Teeth play heavily into the neurosis of an artist, after all, and, as a point of reference, Woolf’s therapist believed that extracting her teeth would help alleviate her depression.
Luiselli’s thorough research into every aspect of the auctioneer field (she even filled out a few applications for auctioneer school–yes, that’s a thing–to better understand the vernacular and landscape) is evident in the way that Highway drips off the page as a living, breathing real person. His pompousness and assuredness (primarily due to the former quality) is what makes him one of the most memorable characters to arise in literature of late. And this isn’t all just due to Luiselli’s masterfulness as a writer, but because of the many people in the trenches there to help her verify certain speculations. A case in point: after virtually exploring the area just outside of Mexico City where the art gallery resides, Luiselli wanted to confirm for the purposes of her novel that, as according to Google Maps, there was, in fact, a building with the moniker “Neurotics Anonymous” on it. Thanks to her trusty sources, it has been confirmed this is very true.
Elsewhere, the intensive fact checking that went on once Luiselli submitted her manuscript ended up becoming something of a novel in and of itself (Fischback and Luiselli stated at the reading that they would like to add it as a sort of appendix to subsequent editions of the book). What this all boils down to is that novel writing is not necessarily the solitary endeavor it has been touted to be for all these centuries. Undoubtedly, as Luiselli’s method has proved, the art can be elevated to an even higher level when collaboration is involved.