Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the Mexican-Canadian author of the short story collection This Strange Way of Dying and the novel Signal to Noise. She has edited the anthologies She Walks in Shadows, Sword & Mythos, Fungi, Dead North and Fractured. Silvia is also the Publisher of Innsmouth Free Press, a Canadian micro-publishing venture specializing in horror and dark speculative fiction.
Signal to Noise is a novel that revolves around its two main characters – Meche and Sebastian – in Mexico City in chapters that alternate between 1988 and 2009. They are high school misfits in 1989, infatuated with the wrong people, who discover music and how to cast spells using it. They think their newfound powers mean a turnaround in their fortunes, but obviously nothing is that simple. In 2009, Meche returns to Mexico City from Europe for her estranged father’s funeral, and her friendship with Sebastian has fallen apart. This is a heartbreaking story of family, love, loss, music and magic. Music is an integral part of the novel and there are lots of reference to 80’s music, both English and Spanish, sprinkled throughout the novel. This tagline sums it up nicely: “I Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape.”
Thanks to Silvia for taking time to answer some questions.
Signal to Noise was published by Solaris and is available for purchase here.
Silvia’s website can be found here.
I found Signal to Noise in the science fiction section of my local Chapters, how would you classify the book?
The publisher called it a “literary fantasy” because people assume magical realism is a specific kind of rural, old-timey Latin America, urban fantasy somehow suggests people in leather jackets fighting monsters, fantasy might wrongly evoke the idea of a secondary world, and literary could lead to expectations of no magic elements. It has been called all that and also Young Adult, but not really so then others call it Coming of Age.
I think it overlaps categories. Maybe it’s a bizarre bildungsroman, since you could say Meche comes of age both in 1988/89 and 2009 (when she finally confronts her youthful choices and mistakes).
What were your literary influences growing up? Also, congrats on submitting your thesis, can you speak a bit about Lovecraft and his influence on you?
Oh, everything and anything, really. ‘Serious’ Latin American novels along with European classics, American pulp fiction and dime books.
My thesis is called “Magna Mater: Women and Eugenic Thought in the Work of H.P. Lovecraft” and it’s exactly that. I’ve read Lovecraft since I was a teenager and he inspired me to start editing stuff, because I had the great idea I wanted to publish horror anthologies. But I’m kind of done with him right now. Like my advisor said, “Now you can break with your creepy boyfriend” and it does seem like I’ve had a much too personal relationship with a dead man for two decades.
The novel takes place in Mexico City and chapters alternate between 1988/1989 and 2009. What was the writing process like for you? Was it always structured that way? As a writer are you a plotter or pantser (that is, do you plot out the story beforehand or write by the seat of your pants)?
It was always structured that way, yes. I don’t have a lot of time to write, with a full-time job and then I was doing my Master’s, so I plan a lot of stuff ahead. I write on the bus, I practice dialogue in the shower. The general structures are there and some scenes are laid out well ahead of time. But there’s always bits you figure out as you go along. I don’t know everything but I know enough before I begin.
Junot Diaz and Daniel Jose Older have spoken about not italicizing the Spanish in their writing. Signal to Noise is a little different, because the characters are speaking in Spanish but you’re writing the story in English. Things are different in Canada, Spanish is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in the U.S., but what’s your take on the language debate? And do you think of yourself as writing for a mainly Canadian audience or an American one (or maybe a speculative fiction crowd?)?
I believe Junot said you should italicize depending on your audience. Editor Nick Mamatas says his practice is to italicize the first time a word shows up, then you don’t do it again. I have tended to italicize when I’m editing an anthology, but if an author doesn’t want that I’ll let them keep it the way they want it.
Like most things, I think it depends. If you have words like “dime” or “mole,” those are totally different things in English. Let’s eat some mole is going to sound weird. Might be good to italicize it.
One problem I had when I was starting out is that I had exotic fever. I would put so many “foreign” words in my stories and italicize them. Platano, cama, oreja, ventana. I thought it looked cool. But it’s kind of ridiculous when my characters are all Mexicans talking Spanish. It’s like in movies were you have Russians speaking in English with an accent even though they are supposed to be in Moscow and suddenly one of them will say something like “Da!” to remind you they are Russian. It was stupid. Now I tend to write in English everything as much as I can unless the word can’t be translated.
So I’ve gone from my sentences sounding like “Come here chiquita, come an drink your leche” to “Come here little one, come and drink your milk.” That’s a horribly constructed sentence but there is no sense in using “chiquita” and “leche” there. If the characters were Chicanos maybe, because I’ve noticed Americans sometimes sprinkle Spanish with their English. But Mexicans, of course we don’t talk in English and suddenly add a word in Spanish.
I am probably most read in the United States, and I imagine a lot of people who read me are Anglos. They don’t speak Spanish. But as for who I write, I write for my husband, who is Mexican like me. That is an audience of one but that’s who I think about when I write. Does he get it? And, well, yeah, he speaks Spanish.
Music is an integral part to the novel, I tried to listen to each song as it popped up in the book. Is this what you were hoping for and what one song did you hope readers would connect with?
Yeah, I did. It’s a lot easier nowadays to do that, although I know someone who was playing his vinyl records when he was reading it. I think there are different ways to relate to books and you relate to different books, and not all books imply passive consumption, so my hope was readers would be active in a certain way. Maybe some people think that’s a failure of mine, to assume you’d play the music, but that’s a choice I made when I decided to start writing.
A fan of the book put together a playlist of all the songs in which can be found here. My favourite piece of music I discovered through the book is this sublime piece by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez:
Are you taking part in the resurgence of vinyl music? What are you listening to these days?
We have a portable record player and some vinyl, but we don’t have space to store much of anything. Also, I don’t like to collect anything. So no, not really, I guess vinyl never went anywhere for me in a way. When I go to Mexico, my dad’s place is packed with vinyl.
I am critical about many things but not music. I listen to a lot of different things, probably a lot of really old stuff.
You wrote about criticism of your representation of Mexico as not being authentic enough. You mentioned some of those criticisms came from people who had been to “Cancun during spring break.” What do you think is behind those criticisms?
Oh, people love to be experts about everything, even shit they know nothing about. There’s all these Wikipedia and Google experts who want to lecture you about your own country, as if you didn’t grow up there. And people want you to perform in the ways they expect.
My husband, he is very tall, 6’3,” and one time this woman she asked him where he was from, so he said Mexico. She wouldn’t believe him. She kept asking questions, no, where was his family *really* from? A tall Mexican completely mismatched her ideas.
Some people, they were expecting, well, like a friend said, they were expecting that Mexicans never had TVs and radios and records, I suppose. Suddenly they are reading this book and these kids, they are not articulating their expectations.
The Mexicans who read my book, and some of people who are Anglos but who lived in Mexico, they’ve told me they love it. It resonates with their youth. So it’s not like someone from Mexico deems it inauthentic, it’s the outsiders who go “oh, that doesn’t sound like Mexico.”
Have you read John Irving’s latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries? He stated that it started out as a screenplay set in India and when “I failed to get that movie made in India for a variety of reasons, I thought ‘okay, if we can’t get it made in India, where else could this story happen where it would be no less true, in fact, more true.” That place ended up being Oaxaca, Mexico. I love this line from Signal to Noise – “In Mexico City everything returns. The rains and the past and everything in between.” I’ve seen some criticisms of Signal to Noise saying ‘this could take place anywhere,’ but it’s not that simple, is it? Can you speak a bit about how important setting is to your stories?
Well, you could say *any* story could take place anywhere. Shakespeare has been adapted to take place in Japan, I saw a version of “The Taming of the Shrew” in the Wild West. Dangerous Liaisons has been made into movies set in New York in the 1990s, Korea, and Europe in the 1960s. So, could Signal to Noise be translated to, say, Mumbai? Yeah. But that’s not what I wrote.
I made a very specific choice to make Mexico City, which is a huge city, seem small in this novel because from the POV of the characters it is small. When you are a teenager you are centered on yourself, the world becomes very small indeed, it is maybe reduced to a few blocks and a few friends. And even more in the case of Meche. So rather than expansive, we are looking inward. When she returns, we are also looking inward because it is all about the people and the emotions of Meche. She can tell you exactly how many blocks separate her from Sebastian. And that’s the point of the book. He is her prime meridian.
So, I think if you believe it could take place anywhere you are missing one of the points of the novel.
Your next book, Certain Dark Things, is coming later this year. Can you tell us a bit about it and what are you working on now?
It’s a novel that takes place in Mexico City and this time we have narco vampires. Domingo, a street kid and garbage collector, comes in contact with a vampire, Atl, who is on the run. It will be out in October.
I am editing something in the summer, a special issue of Lightspeed Magazine, and I am also doing a project with Lavie Tidhar. This weird magazine thing. And then I have to deliver another novel to my editor at Thomas Dunne, completely different subject matter. So pre-order Certain Dark Things and stay tuned.