‘Against realism’: Fernando Flores on craft, cult books and lost stories

MARFA — Last Friday, the Austin-based literary sensation Fernando Flores — known for his wildly inventive and completely singular fiction trilogy Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Tears of the Trufflepig, and Valleyesque — gave a provocative reading as part of Marfa’s annual Agave Festival. 

Flores brought a piece of the Rio Grande Valley to the Big Bend — though not any depiction or reflection of the Valley anyone else could dream up. Agave Festival organizer Tim Johnson said that Flores was recommended by Raquel Gutiérrez, another uncategorizable thinker, essayist and critic who engages the borderlands in her work. 

Johnson was happy that Flores’ work could engage a Far West Texas audience beyond the page. “[Flores] is just an extraordinary writer — his work speaks to our present reality,” Johnson said. “I feel like his work really resonates with the poetics of this place.” 

Below is a conversation with Flores, which has been edited for length and clarity.


What are some of your impressions of the Big Bend borderlands? What are some of the ways in which this place is similar to or different from where you grew up? 

On my mother’s side, we have family in Miguel Alemán, which is a town across Roma, in the western part of the Rio Grande Valley. Driving through some of these half-paved streets brought back a lot of intense memories or impressions from visiting there in my childhood. Though, of course, it’s much flatter down there.

It’s great that Marfa is not easy to get to, that the closest airport is three hours away. It should be difficult to access! I hope it stays that way forever.

Your first three books are set in the RGV –– do you feel any pressure to write in a certain way or participate in certain discourse as a capital-B Border Writer? Has that changed at all since your first book was published in 2018?

I never feel pressured to write any kind of way at all. If I did, I’m not sure I’d write the type of stories that I gravitate to. These three books, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Tears of the Trufflepig, and Valleyesque, actually comprise my unofficial RGV, or Border trilogy. I worked on these three manuscripts almost simultaneously from 2009, until they came out. 

It took me a long time to get published — I was never going to be a “5 Under 35,” that became very clear to me. But once my first book was picked up the others followed pretty quickly — I got super lucky this way. People tend to refer to my books as cult books, and me as a cult author, and I guess I kind of embrace that.

I read an interview where you described the borderlands and Texas more generally as“psychedelic” –– a word a lot of people use to describe your work. Can you expand on that a little bit and speak to what that word means to you? 

I think I use it, in a way, as a talisman against the dominating realist tradition of literature that people think of when they think of Texas, or the borderlands. When we think of this land, we have to ask ourselves what the oldest stories that have existed on this land are. What and where are these stories? 

The tradition of realism is primarily a Western tradition that killed off all the oral storytelling, and the people that knew these stories. But I bet if you were to really think about the oldest kind of stories that have existed here, I bet they are — for a lack of a better word — psychedelic! With personifications of the wind, and time, the elements, animals, seasons, and things we can’t even fathom now, because these oral stories are all gone. Like all those books in the library of Alexandria, and an even bigger loss, in my opinion. So, this is what I try to accomplish with my own work, to try to connect with the storytelling traditions of this land that colonization killed off, and I never take it for granted.

Your reading this weekend was co-sponsored by the Chinati Foundation –– are there any Chinati artists (or visual artists in general) you feel influence your work? 

I was greatly moved by the schoolhouse installation by Ilya Kabakov, by the landscape, the history. 

There’s a documentary by Werner Herzog where he walks across the Sahara Desert with his cinematographer, and they film mirages. I remember somebody asked Herzog what he thought mirages are, and he said that he believes mirages are reflecting something happening somewhere in the world at that moment. That somehow any scene playing out in the world could appear in the desert. 

The art at the Chinati Foundation made me feel I was experiencing something similar to this, and it’s something I’m still currently processing.