Behind the Words: Joshua Peralta

Posted by on Oct 5, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Joshua Peralta

Oakland-based Joshua Peralta is celebrating the publication of his first book 3rd & Orange this past month. “First Days,” the opening chapter, appeared in issue 6 of Spry.

Originally from Southern California, he has lived in the Bay Area since 2013. He teaches English and moonlights as a remote dispatcher and factotum for a small towing and transportation company in Orange County.

His work has been published in a variety of genres in a variety of places. When he’s not writing, he likes to cook, drink good beer, spend time with friends and family, travel, and walk in the Oakland hills and regional parks. This interview was conducted via e-mail over lots of coffee. 

The piece “The First Days” is from 3rd & Orange, yes? Can you talk about the book and its publication?

“First Days” is the opening chapter of my first book, 3rd & Orange, which was just released. The book is a belated coming-of-age story about a young man who moves to a new town. Like so many young people, he is idealistic and searching for independence and a place where he can grow into the person he imagines himself to be. A big part of this imagined identity has to do with writing, becoming a writer. Along the way, his search is complicated by the inevitable magnetism of human relationships, friendships and romances whose rise and fall make him feel like he’s flying or drowning—or help keep him afloat. Ultimately, the character’s choices lead him to where he ends up—having gained a measure of the experience he sought, and coming to terms with the pain and regret and other indelible impressions life leaves us with. It’s a typical enough story, and not without humor.

Can you talk about the form of your book?

Well, depending on the day, I’m calling it a novel or novella. But it’s not exactly a novel in the traditional sense. Like a novel, it has a coherent narrative that unfolds over distinct chapters. It also has length. But its themes and dramatic arc develop through a combination of prose and poetry. The book can be read as novels are typically read, front to back. But it could also be read in reverse, beginning with the last long prose section and ending with “First Days.” I think it would also sustain a reading limited to just the poems or only the prose. That may sound strange, but I’m confident the book’s composition and the interplay between its prose and poetry will make clear sense to anyone who opens the book.

Why did you decide to combine poetry and prose?

At its core, 3rd & Orange is a book of poems. As a collection, they tell a story. But the story extends beyond the poems—beyond their beginning and their ending—and I knew that limiting its telling to poetry would limit my potential audience. So I felt compelled to balance the poems with prose. It’s pretty simple: I want people to read the book and share it with others. It’s a rare reader who turns to poetry these days, and it’s an even rarer one who can stomach an entire book of poems. I think I understand why. So much poetry these days feels overburdened, choked by obscurities and smug elitism. So much can feel stale or politically charged to score with a particular and often very narrow audience. There’s a lot of off-putting stuff out there. And it doesn’t help that, by its nature, poetry’s compression of language and typical disregard for narrative structures demand a greater degree of attention from readers than, say, a typical short story or novel. I imagine most people find that whatever potential enjoyment or insight poetry may provide simply isn’t worth the effort. For these and other reasons most readers prefer prose narratives. I know I do. And yet I retain a profound love for poetry. It has its own special magic. 

In 3rd & Orange, I have tried my best to create a book that strikes a balance between these two modes of expression, poetry and prose. My hope is that it will sustain reading as an integral whole. I wanted to create something intelligible, even welcoming, that would carry readers forward while also encouraging them to linger a while. I think I’ve achieved this. My hope is that anyone who picks up the book will find it worth their timeAnd that any pleasure it affords will have to do with the text’s hybrid nature.

When I read “First Days” I was immediately struck by the way you subtly work in the generations of people before these characters through objects—the “Little Dancer” replica given by a father who left, the waffle iron that had belonged to the narrator’s mother. The details do a lot of work and ground the reader into a world that existed before they appear in the apartment. Was that intentional? 

Yes. I wanted to hint at each character’s prior, separate existence, specifically their parental relationships. An unobtrusive way to do this was to mention objects or keepsakes belonging to each. But I had to resist being sidetracked by the temptation to include more, since more can quickly become too much. As I worked on the story, I’m sure I pared away objects so that what remained would feel more poignant, and less like an inventory of possessions, which might be tedious.  

Anyway, these couple items remain to hint at the hidden stories bound up in the objects so many of us schlep from place to place. When people enter into a new life together, the deepening of their relationship entails the sharing of all sorts of things, one of which is the origin stories that make their personal belongings so uniquely special and significant.

The repetition of “I remember” in “First Days” feels almost hypnotic and steeps the reader in nostalgia. Was that structure in place when you set out to write this section? Does it continue in the novel?

The words “I remember” were there from the first sentence, and their repetition was the device that enabled me to finish this story. I realize nostalgia is a bit of a bad word these days, and I get it. Often people are suspicious of nostalgia, and for good reasons. But however critical one might be of it, the pain and longing for home, especially a former home, is as valid a human feeling as any other. Many of my favorite writers have employed nostalgia to produce works of great beauty. Two names that come immediately to mind are Vladimir Nabokov and Ann Beattie, without whose influence I would never have written this story.

Nostalgia is the dominant mood in “First Days,” and it continues through much of 3rd & Orange. But I’d like to think in both, though especially in the book, it’s a healthy sort of nostalgia, one that is self-aware and mindful of the dangers associated with over-indulgence.

How do you feel about writing short? Writing long?

The short answer is that I like to write both. Both come with their challenges. The long answer can be found in the pages of 3rd & Orange. 

A medium-length answer is that most of my ideas or feelings or experiences, when they suggest themselves to be written at all, seem to suggest I write them at some general length (short and medium, mostly) in some specific genre (poetry or short story or essay, mostly). It’s impossible to say clearly how this works, and of course I obey only the tiniest fraction of these impulse suggestions. Rarely do I do any of them justice. When I do, I often notice I’ve misjudged their final length. But I’m almost never wrong about the genre. But once in a while I’m wrong about both. For instance, I had no clue what final form or length 3rd & Orange would take, neither the book nor its namesake first poem. I worked everything out as I went.

I should note that my current full-length biographical project started as a failed short article. That grew to a failed long article. The article kept metastasizing to accommodate an ever-expanding vision for everything I had to say. Then I devoted an 80-page master’s thesis to it. (In fact, the opportunity to focus on this project was my main motivation for entering a grad program.) But the project still wasn’t finished. Its tone was off and my vision felt squinched by deadlines and a desire to please professors. 

At the moment I’m three or four chapters into a complete rewrite, which has been difficult, but good and necessary. I’m much happier with the material and I feel I’m finally doing my ideas justice. I’ve got a long road ahead, and I move slow, but I have no choice but to move forward. The book must be finished. It will be finished! That I could ever have compressed it into a single article strikes me now as laughably preposterous. And yet my original idea—at the time I first conceived it—seemed totally doable in a couple thousand words. Ha! 

Writing can be fun and fulfilling. But more often it’s a pain in the ass, so it’s just nice to get it over quickly when I can. Mostly I can’t. 

I can relate. Where do you get inspiration from?  

The easy answer is everywhere. From the taste of a pint of beer, a conversation with a stranger, from overhearing others’ conversations. From a walk in the hills or down the block. From the books and music and films and art I love. From friends, from my mother and father, from my brother. From students, from the news, from traveling. From the people I love, from the breeze and the sunlight and beauty. 

I know you like to travel and recently spent a few months in Mexico. How does travel affect your work? 

Travel puts me in contact with new situations, new places, new people and makes me think outside English. It provides a lot of novel experiences and removes me from my comfort zone by putting distance between me and my normal routine. That can be refreshing and challenging. Mexico is particularly special to me and it shows up often in my writing. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in and thinking and learning about Mexico. I can’t articulate the depth or breadth of my feelings properly here, but anyone who reads 3rd & Orange will pick up on a Mexican connection, so to speak.

What’s your writing routine like? How has it been affected/has it been affected during the pandemic? 

Routine. Ha. I’ve been trying to cultivate one of those for a long time.

As I’ve gotten older and busier I’ve had to get more serious about it. When I was younger, I remember so many writers I read and admired—from Stephen King to Nabokov—spoke about the importance of establishing a writing routine. Committing to a specific amount of time at one’s desk, at a set time each day. And I knew intuitively this was what I needed, that a routine would be best. And though I agree that routines can be very helpful, even beautiful, I have never been able to stick to one, at least not a daily or a weekly one. But I’m improving. And I don’t think I’ve ever been so serious in my approach to routine as I’ve been during these years of the pandemic.

In that time, I drafted and finished the manuscript for 3rd & Orange, and wrote several chapters of the long biographical project I mentioned above (which was interrupted and put on hiatus because of the closure of research facilities and libraries). But both projects had been brewing so long that I really was quite grateful for the disruption to the more distracting routine of workaday life. Had there been no pandemic I might still be kicking both projects down the line, telling myself I’ll get back to them someday.

Thankfully, I and most everyone around me has remained healthy, but there was a period early on where I was confronting my feelings about mortality—feelings compounded by the fact that I am not growing younger—and I had to admit to myself what I already knew—that one of my biggest ambitions in life was to write a book. It’s a pretty silly ambition given all the possible ambitions and things one might do with one’s life. But it’s my ambition. And I am the only one who will be accountable in the end for all that I’ve done or left undone. I already knew this to be the case, but the pandemic, and maybe a fortuitously timed reading of Stoner by John Williams, helped reinforce the idea.

What’s your current/next project?

The biographical project I mentioned above. It’s a new biographical portrait of the Depression-era writer John Fante. The book will be part bio, part literary and local history, and even contain an aspect of autobiography. I have high hopes for it. It will be one for the ages. A boon to anyone on the path of becoming a writer or artist, despite their age or background. Wish me luck! 

Anna Mantzaris

Anna Mantzaris lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in publications including Ambit, The Cortland Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New World Writing, and Sonora Review.