by Stella M. Chávez
“Barefoot Dogs Stories,” recognized as a Kirkus Reviews Best Book and a San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book, both of 2015, and a winner of the Jesse H. Jones Award for 2015, is the debut collection of linked short stories from Antonio Ruiz-Camacho. Ruiz-Camacho is a native of Toluca, Mexico. He spent nearly two decades working as a journalist in Mexico, Europe, and the U.S. He was a 2009 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and a 2014 Dobie Paisano Fellow in Fiction (sponsored by the University of Texas and Texas Institute of Letters). Ruiz-Camacho received his MFA from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “Barefoot Dogs” has been translated in Spanish and is now out in paperback.
I spoke to Antonio by phone in June. I had met him at the Texas Book Festival in Austin last fall after attending a discussion he moderated with author Luis Alberto Urrea, whom I’d previously met at a writer’s conference. After their talk, I walked with the two authors to the book-signing tent. I picked Urrea’s brain about writing and told him a little bit about what I was working on. I was also curious to learn more about Antonio’s book and his journey as a writer.
I’m inspired by authors. I’m especially interested in the work of journalists and Latino authors whose stories encourage me to continue exploring my family’s roots and thinking of ways to turn that research into a collection of stories.
Family is the central theme in these linked “Barefoot Dog Stories” in which the patriarch of a wealthy Mexican family is kidnapped. Through the perspectives of his family members, housekeeper, and mistress, we learn the impact of his disappearance and extent of the toll—how their lives have changed and how they’re coping. Their journeys take us from Mexico to Spain to the U.S.
[The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]
Kidnappings in Mexico and the effects of the drug trade are something we hear about a lot. How did the idea to write about this come about? What was the motivation?
I didn’t intend to write a collection of stories about this topic in the first place. I wrote most of the stories when I was in an MFA [program] at UT-Austin. My intention when I entered the program was to write a novel, but I didn’t really know what the novel would be about. And then when I had to start taking workshops, bringing short stories was better than bringing novel excerpts.
So I just start writing stories as they came to my mind and when I had the first three—the first one in the book, the last one in the book, and one in the middle called “Deers”—I realized that the characters were related, that they belonged to the same family, and that this patriarch was missing because of a disappearance.
I also realized it would be interesting to explore how this event had affected other members of the family.
Talk about the class distinctions. In the beginning, you have the 19-year-old granddaughter and friends preparing for their trip to Italy, learning Italian, interning in museums, and mingling with people who “don’t live in the same neighborhoods as us.” And you have the perspectives of the maid Susy who works at McDonalds and the mistress Silvia and her son. Can you talk about why you wanted to show those differences?
The source of all problems in Mexico is income inequality and the huge gap of opportunity between the haves and have-nots. And you can see all those class distinctions and dynamics represented in one single family.
I’ve worked as a journalist for 20 years now. I started my career in Mexico. Those were the kinds of stories that I would write time and time again, about social differences and inequalities and poverty and natural disasters, and I would have to travel to all kinds of really devastated or isolated places in Mexico and then I would come back home.
I grew up in an upper middle class family household and it would be really hard for me to believe that I was living in the same country where these places existed and where these tragedies were taking place, so I think it’s something that I’m carrying with me and that is keeping me to my fiction work.
Your stories stem from a horrific event, but you manage to inject humor. In the story “Deers,” for example, Susana, or “Susy girl” as she’s called, shows up for work at McDonalds and learns a bear is stuck inside. The conversation between her and her co-worker Conchita is pretty funny at times. Is it difficult to take a serious topic and write it in a way that conveys that seriousness but also captures the lighter moments? How do strike that balance?
To make people laugh is actually harder than to make people cry. And when you have a topic as serious and as somber as this one, well I think what you want to do is to bring some balance to the story so it’s not one awfully depressing that the reader will want to put down the book and forget about after [a few] pages.
Of all the things that people have said about the book, what I appreciate the most is when people say that they laughed. It’s a really serious book.
How have these stories been received here and in Mexico and other Latin-American countries? Is there a difference in terms of the reaction or response to the stories?
In Mexico, this is a domestic issue and people are painfully aware of the reality behind the book. Here in the States, the readers relate more to the relationships among the different characters in terms of family and power. But In Mexico, this is almost a personal issue for many families. The reception has been really positive.
The book that deals with that topic in Mexico usually is about the narcos or the fight between drug cartels and the army, or the drug cartels and the police and the corruption among law enforcements, and it’s mostly about working class members of this group.
But how these events affect people in their everyday lives is something that (at least this is what I’ve been told) they haven’t seen in other books. So this is like a different perspective, and it’s something that is what I actually wanted to do. I didn’t want to concentrate on the violence itself but rather on the consequences of that violence in everyday life, the emotional consequences.
As a Latino writer, do you feel a responsibility and pressure to write about your community in a certain way?
The way I work in fiction is pretty similar to the way I work in journalism. I feel that the characters come to me and are like my sources. They tell me the story and my job is just to report on that story.
I think my job is to write as objectively as possible and as thoroughly as possible. What I’m aiming for when I write fiction is that the reader feel something after reading these stories, the characters elicit some sort of emotion from the reader.
What kind of emotion? I don’t really care. I don’t mind if you end up hating the character or really disliking them or actually loving them or feeling related to them as long as you feel something after reading the stories, I think I did my job.
You started out as a journalist and now you’re writing fiction. Do you find that the training and experience you received as a journalist has helped you in writing fiction? If so, how?
In this case, the sources are living in my head as opposed to outside where I can call and request an interview or read to gather more information. But it definitely has helped me tremendously, my background in journalism.
You know that in journalism when a deadline comes, whatever you have, it’s what you’ve got. And if you worked long and hard on your precious story, and on deadline, and you need to edit it to half of what it is now, you have to. You cannot cling to your work for too long.
And even the way you observe the world as a reporter, you’re analyzing everything and observing and paying attention to details because you need all that information to write a compelling account.
Can you talk a little bit about your next project?
I’m working on a novel and, actually, the protagonist is a reporter who worked for a newspaper in Mexico City. The story takes place in the late 90s and this reporter is trying to find out two truths: one, whether there’s a new radical, potential terrorist group in the north of the country and two, whether his late wife, who was also a photographer for the same newspaper and who just passed away, was having an affair with another reporter.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
To add a little bit to my answer to your first question, I wrote these stories [while] in the MFA [program] at UT Austin in 2010 and 2012 and I was already working here as a journalist when this wave of violence reached its peak in Mexico. I couldn’t write about it as a journalist because I was here. I was working on something else and it haunted me what was going on in Mexico that I couldn’t even be there to write about it as a reporter. The only way I think that I found to do so was by writing fiction.
After nearly 13 years as a reporter for daily newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, Stella M. Chávez now reports for KERA, the NPR affiliate in Dallas, Texas. She covers education and contributes to major news issues such as the Ebola spread in Dallas, the migration of unaccompanied minors to Texas, and the recent shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers. In 2014, Stella wrote and produced the eight-part series Generation One on the impact of immigration on schools in North Texas. Her essay, “Growing up with Silvia,” about her mentally ill sister, is published in the literary journal Ten Spurs.
Stella has won several state and national awards, including the 2007 Livingston Award for Young Journalists in National Reporting for her award-winning entry “Yolanda’s Crossing,” a seven-part series she co-authored that reconstructs the 5,000-mile journey of a young Mexican sexual-abuse victim from a small Oaxacan village to Dallas. You can find her personal essays on caregiving in her blog, “My Parents’ Keeper.”