Ovid Urns: An Interview with Thomas Mira y Lopez

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THOMAS MIRA Y LOPEZTommy Headshots_04 is the author of The Book of Resting Places (Counterpoint 2017). His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, The American Scholar, and The Kenyon Review Online, among others. He is an editor of Territory, a literary journal about maps, and currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Jon Riccio: In The Book of Resting Places’ first essay, “Memory, Memorial,” we encounter “a 200-year-old cathedral of a tree” where you seek refuge during childhood games of chase. Repeated climbing results in the snapping of a branch essential to escape. Your father’s solution is a two-by-four plank stable enough to be called “oblivion’s antithesis.” How does stability function throughout a text focused on the transition from life into death?

Thomas Mira y Lopez:  My hunch is that when we encounter something unstable, such as a life at its end, our instinct is to find an alternative narrative that offers permanence and keeps things as they are. That’s maybe in part why we have embalming, or headstones made of material that ages and weathers finely but also does not erode. Or why our president asserted not just his genius, but its stability. So that instinct for stability and the difficulty, if not impossibility, in achieving it can offer tension, I hope, in a text that explores that transition. It’d be funny to check if that plank is still there. I doubt it is since the house was sold twenty years ago.

JR: The living amass their plethora of items they can’t take with them. “Possessions become both vocation and evocation,” you tell us when writing about your mother’s hunkered-down living quarters, a New York apartment by any other. It’s as if accumulation grants the accumulator a titch of imperviousness, though you admit “that if I’m there to help her preserve her tomb, I may also be the one who robs it.” At what point do our talismans become our detritus?

TMyL: To answer that, I think I’d need to figure out the question’s inverse, that is at what point does our detritus become our talismans? In some ways, the answer seems the same as the question about stability. That these talismans—or the transformation of trash into talismans—offers us a sense of stability and control. Just a titch though, to borrow your phrase. There’s a woman who lives a floor below my mother who became a hoarder after 9/11. She worked a block from the Twin Towers and since then amassed everything—including every newspaper she came across—so much so that the building had to go into her apartment and clear stuff out. I’m embellishing or misremembering somewhat—I have no idea what the co-op regulations are for entering someone’s private residence—but I’m drawn to that idea of a separate order being created after a chaotic, cruel event. At what point does that order lose its coherence and become perverted?

JR: Tucsonans will prize The Book of Resting Places for its references—Stone, Alameda, and Toole Avenues; Ken the Bug Guy’s Exotic Pet Shop; Metaphysics World; November’s All Souls Procession—and impeccable writing alike. Your essay “Overburden” is equal parts Valentine and viaticum where Tucson is concerned. To what degree is the collection a marker of your time in Arizona?

TMyL: Thank you, that’s kind to say. From a practical perspective as a graduate student, which I don’t have to remind you about, a lot of that writing centers around Tucson because that’s what I had the time and budget to explore. There are subjects there that felt like they could only have existed in that particular part of Arizona—the gem and mineral collections in “The Rock Shop”; the cryonics institute moved to the desert because of the safety the landscape provided—and places that felt like they could be stand-ins for myriad places in the country—such as the defunct cemetery in “Overburden.” I’m one of those people who can’t write about a place until after it’s gone from my life—that might also be the case for me and people as well—and so much of the writing about Tucson felt like it happened after I left.

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JR: “The Path to the Saints” is rich with catacomb epitaphs, a “maze of honeycombs and orthagonals” you explore in Rome as an undergrad studying abroad. My favorite part is the friendship between you and Paolo, the architect with whom you boarded: “when my father died, I found him.” Was there anything Paolo taught you that friends before or since could not?

TMyL: I’m always a sucker for those moments in life or a movie where much is communicated without much being said. I cherish those, whatever that says about my love languages or the types of masculinity I’ve considered viable for myself. Paolo taught me about patience and concern, and how those can thrive within a set of constraints. I mean that in the sense that he wasn’t able to communicate with me as he would with someone who spoke his language. But also in that he made room for me in his life and his home in all these unspoken ways, he accommodated me while I was going through a difficult time and shaped a home and a life to fit this foreign energy. That’s a difficult thing to do; that hospitality is something we all probably could aspire to.

JR: Your book made me appreciate the afterlife of defunct cemeteries as much as it edified me on the works of 18th century Italian cityscaper Giovanni Antonio Canal, aka Canaletto, he who painted “scumbled skies” and “sunlight without the sun.” What are the parallels between the artisan possibilities of Canaletto’s cities and resting places of the dead?

TMyL: I got carried away by Canaletto, by the sense that all these fantasy cities and fantastic views could exist and be mistaken for the real thing (though that real thing is itself a construction, just one more fantasy). Those possible cities felt like an echo of a defunct cemetery and the archaeological strata it digs up since they both point to these alternative versions beneath our feet or around the corner. Those are all realities—those residents are all there and alive, in some sense—except we have limited perspectives, we’re unable most of the time to do what Canaletto did and inhabit an impossible field of vision.

JR: My mancave teams with sheet music, comics, Burger King glasses, and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown series, so the hodgepodge of bizarreries in “The Rock Shop” garnered my attention, the Scandinavian iceman in particular. Spartacus’ knickknacks were the clincher. It’s a pyrite-a-palooza until your online research uncovers the owner’s list of -isms and ultra-conservative leanings, to put it mildly. Was it hard for you to complete the essay, given the turn of tone it takes? Were there any craft insights you drew on once the shift occurred?

TMyL: That’s funny you ask because I think about this quite a lot, how this essay would have changed or reached a different conclusion based on when it was written. I finished it maybe six months before the election, when the notion of our current president still seemed too ridiculous to be true. And so I was more generous than I would have been had I written it immediately after the election. I think if I wrote it now, more than a year out, I would have written it how I originally did. That is, I would hope to meet this man with love even if there was no hope. I would certainly, however, respect someone’s choice to end this with middle fingers blazing. I got a lot of help from other readers on this, especially that this couldn’t end on just a revelation about what this man is like, but that it must pause a beat and consider the response to that revelation.

JR: I sleep better knowing there’s a star, Scorpius RA 17h57m 40S – 37º 33´, renamed for your father, mother, and you—Rafael, Judy, Tommy. We glean this fact in “Parallax,” whose near-final passage “cannot reach the you I truly want to reach,” a you who needs, perhaps, “a starry messenger to crackle through the line and relay these words.” Are writers better caretakers of pronouns than they are stewards of those who’ve passed?

TMyL: I would hope so, in some way, though it also feels as if there’s no difference between passed and pronoun. The move to the “you” came from being assigned Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” in a graduate class (Fenton Johnson’s class; though maybe it goes without saying that if Martin Buber is on a grad syllabus at Arizona, Fenton is teaching it) and learning that the thou or you stood in for something beyond one’s reach, in this case God. I didn’t understand anything else—and am likely even misapplying this—but it was worth it to stow away that trick.

JR: Cryonics begets cryonauts in “The Eternal Comeback” where the latter pay to preserve either their heads or full bodies, should the prospect of revivification bear out. After touring the Arizona-based Alcor cryonics facility you arrive at the question “why not go into death hoping that it might result in life?” What struck me most about this essay was its balance of science and soulfulness. How was this achieved?

TMyL: I have a terribly hard time parsing the scientific so that, if it does come up, I try to translate it, over and over, into a language I can understand (does that change its concepts? quite possibly). What was particularly hard in writing about a custom that is necessarily still based on speculation is parsing the relative viability or level of wishful thinking in each hypothesis. Who really knows? I, for one, sort of hope cryonics bears out, though that also doesn’t change my reservations about the motivations for signing up. As far as those motivations, as with Roger and the Rock Shop, I tried to meet the people involved with generosity and self-reflection about my own wariness.

JR: We served together on the journal Fairy Tale Review where you were a managing editor; I think we were fellow Sonora Review-ers in the days when staff meetings took place at alternating cohorts’ houses. I noted a few of the collection’s mythology references—a Tithonus here, a Philemon there. What role does folklore play in The Book of Resting Places? The supernatural? Are there any myths you came across that get the immortality quandary right?

TMyL: I remember those Sonora Review meetings. They happened at my house actually, at least the second year. We always ended up with some very odd and very cheap cookies bought at Safeway. I looked towards mythology for examples of counterpoints to what I was working on. It was almost as if I were going towards some older and more respected member of the community and asking them for their advice. The stories I referred to had to do with transformation and mutation—at least, I imagine I found or could find most of them in Ovid’s Metamorphoses—and this was helpful, as you pointed out, when trying to determine how stability functions between life and death. I imagine all the myths got the immortality quandary right; that is, they all seem to say living forever is a bad idea.

JR: I had no idea you worked as a wood splitter one summer in Tucson, and here it features in your final essay, “Coda, Codex”—“At times, stripping a round off the blade was like flaying open veins and arteries, the edges of a quartered mesquite just like the marbled fat of flesh”—juxtaposed with the mourning quilt “sewn together from scraps of my father’s old clothes.” The Book of Resting Places’ seamlessness of requiems blankets you (and by extension, the reader) to the extent that, “for a while, I would not be so alone.” Was there a moment when you realized the collection had moved from ten pieces on griefitecture to the connected cathedral it is?

TMyL: There were definitely moments when I had to decide what sort of book it would be. Should I maximalize it and make it a tour of different burial sites, a sort of panoply of urns and graves? I ultimately went with something more pared down, in terms of both form and length. I was more concerned with tracing an emotional content, and seeing how it played out across different registers and times, than in foregrounding any one site. Once I knew the end of the book—and how it would mirror the beginning—things became much easier. There was no real light that came on, just a feeling of peace. As with the characters in some of these essays, there were many alternate forms or paths the book could have taken, but at the time it became what I felt it needed to be.

JON RICCIO is a PhD candidate and composition instructor at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where he serves as an associate editor at Mississippi Review. His work has appeared in Booth, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review, Permafrost, and Waxwing, among others. The poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, he was a past reader for Sonora Review.