Pete Hsu’s new, experimental fiction chapbook, THERE IS A MAN, bends reality at the intersection of satire, family drama and ’80s alternative rock. An excerpt, plus a Q&A with the author and PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow Chinyere Nwodim on writing, reading and the value of unconventional choices.
THERE IS A MAN
There is a man. He is driving a full-size luxury sedan on the I-15. He attempts to pass me. I speed up. His car is faster than mine. I gun it, but he pulls ahead of me and cuts me off. I could have pushed my car to keep up, but I chicken out because I’m afraid of either damaging my engine or getting a ticket. This thought upsets me. I’m not a chicken, and I want to prove it.
I follow him to his exit. At the off-ramp, I draw my gun and begin shooting at the man.
He has a gun. He returns fire.
A bullet hits me in the shoulder.
It’s painful, but I survive, and I learn a valuable lesson: In a world where everyone has a gun, you can’t expect to shoot at anyone without being shot in return.
I sit down to eat my dinner, which consists of three chili cheese dogs and a large order of chili cheese fries. I am very hungry and have a vague concern that I will still be hungry even after I eat it all.
My sister takes one of the fries from the basket. She has not asked permission. She’s been doing stuff like this since we were kids. She’s greedy and selfish, and should not be allowed to get away with it.
I draw my gun and shoot at her. I miss, but I tell her it’s a warning shot. She runs to her bedroom and returns with her gun. She asks me to put my gun down. I carefully weigh my options and decide that it’s better if I put my gun down, and I do.
We then share the food. It turns out that there is more than enough for the both of us. Once I’m full, I’m no longer angry. We have a good laugh about the whole thing.
In a moment of seriousness, I make a toast.
I say: Thank God you had a gun. Otherwise I might not have a sister anymore.
She hugs me, and I cry tears of joy.
When she sees that I’m crying, she starts crying too.
My husband and I are fighting. We aren’t sure what exactly we’re fighting about, but we are furious in the way that couples with a long history can be. In a general sense, he is resentful that I don’t seem to find him sexually attractive anymore. I’m annoyed that I’ve dutifully gone along with his questionable financial decisions, which have now caused moderate cash flow problems.
At the pinnacle of our fight, we both grab our guns. We are about to shoot each other when our young daughter comes into the room with her small caliber target pistol. We both know that her gun is unlikely to kill either of us, and that we can easily overtake her with our guns (not to mention our superior tactical skills), but the sight of her pointing her gun at us makes us swell with pride. We hug her and kiss her all over her face and tell her that we love her and that she is our hero and a patriot.
We then return our guns to their cases, but our daughter keeps hers trained on us, ever vigilant, ever true.
I’m at home, cleaning my gun. I unintentionally fire a bullet. The bullet goes through my hand, through my dad’s television set, through the wall, through my neighbor’s wall and into their house. In that house a baby is nursing in her mother’s arms. As the bullet makes its way to the baby, the baby draws her gun and fires twice at my bullet.
One of the baby’s bullets hits my bullet and knocks it off its path.
Her other bullet travels through the wall and back into my house, striking my other hand. I look at my hands, which now have matching bullet holes in them.
I think that this must have religious significance.
I tell my dad to call the Vatican. He calls an ambulance instead.
There Is a Man:
Q&A Between Pete Hsu and Chinyere Nwodim
Chinyere Nwodim: You were born and raised in L.A. Can talk about your process for writing about historic (and sometimes infamous) landmarks in your work and what that means to you?
Pete Hsu: I do consider myself a lifelong Angeleno, and Los Angeles is the only place that I’ve ever consciously considered my home. But I was actually born in Taiwan. Then I lived in Virginia and Seattle briefly before settling in L.A. with my mom. All this happened when I was still a toddler. So, my early years were spent in these lush, humid places. Then, the rest of my life, in Los Angeles, which is basically a converted desert. I think of these contrasting environments and my relationship to them as an allegory of alienation. My emotional home being somewhere green and lush, while my rational mind calls a dry and gray place home. A version of this split is probably common to human experience, especially in the U.S., and especially among immigrants, migrants and refugees. It’s a lingering question of, “Where am I from?”
But this doesn’t really answer your question!
As for L.A. as a setting in my writing, my default setting is always Southern California. I visualize my literary worlds as a hot, dry and infinitely diverse urban sprawl. People and events are connected by freeways, traversed by cars, and distance is measured in minutes instead of miles. The first vignette in THERE IS A MAN is a road rage incident on a freeway, a quintessential L.A. experience. The setting of the second story, “The Lovecats,” is a downtown rooftop bar. A lot of times the specific locations are renamed or left unnamed, but the imagery is almost always Los Angeles based.
CN: I’ve read a lot of your work and sometimes the title of your pieces evolve. Can you talk about your process for coming up with a title?
PH: Naming a story is the fun part, for me. I think of naming stories as the logical end point of editing: paring the story down to just a phrase or even just one word. For the stories in THERE IS A MAN, “Asleep for Days” is a phrase from the Cure song “Just Like Heaven.” I don’t remember how it occurred to me, but once it did, I loved it. The title just fits. The story is about a Second-Amendment utopia, a kind of gun-lover’s “heaven.” Its structure is 11 “days.”
The second story in THERE IS A MAN was originally titled “From The Roof of The Henry Vaughn Hotel.” I like that title. It’s straightforward. I retitled it “The Lovecats” for the chapbook for a couple reasons. First, I liked the connection to the first story (“Lovecats” is another Cure song). Second, there’s an unnamed song in the story, and I thought it’d be neat if that song was “Lovecats” and it was named in the story’s title. So, in case anyone is wondering what song Madeline was singing, it was “Lovecats.”
CN: Your characters make very interesting choices. Do you ever feel any pressure to make them more conventional?
PH: I do get push back sometimes. I get notes about how some choices need to be explained or set up in order to be believable. And those kinds of notes are helpful.
I do, in general, look for unexpected choices for my characters. Like in “Mission Concept,” the third story in THERE IS A MAN, the protagonist returns from a business trip but decides to stay in a motel for a couple days before going home to his family. It’s an unconventional choice, but the idea came from the ambivalence that the character feels about his life. That choice highlights his ambivalence without having to state his ambivalence outright.
In some cases, like in “Asleep for Days,” the characters’ choices are clearly absurd. Of course, we don’t expect someone to shoot their sister for stealing chili-cheese fries. But yet, many of those vignettes were originally taken from a list of real-life news events of shootings in America. People get shot in our country for all kinds of reasons. Unconventional things do happen in real life. But there’s the adage that—just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean it’s believable in fiction. So, a lot of times, I’ll try to tone down the unconventionality of a character’s choices. But in this story, I went the opposite direction. The characters make increasingly absurd choices. As with “Mission Concept,” this hopefully highlights something without having to spell it out, in this case, how any absolute ideology is incompatible with actual human life.
CN: Your first full-length collection of short stories—IF I WERE THE OCEAN, I’D CARRY YOU HOME—is due out in October. How do you decide a group of short stories belongs together?
PH: This was a long process. I had a bunch of stories and, at first, I just threw them all into one file and called it a book. I read it through, and I could tell right away it was not working. It was disjointed, had no flow, and was sometimes jarring or even confusing. And so, I started playing with the order of stories, thinking about which stories fit next to each other. Someone—I can’t recall who—once said it’s like putting together a mixtape, and that’s what I think about a lot. I wanted the stories as a collection to have a cumulative impact on the reader. This meant stories were cut from the collection because they didn’t fit thematically or stylistically. It also meant stories were rewritten, changing POV or moving them from past-tense to present-tense. In the end, I settled on putting the stories in chronological order, based on the age of each story’s protagonist.
CN: What are you reading now?
PH: I’ve been reading story collections recently, rereading A.M. Homes’ THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW. Just started Mary-Beth Hughes’ THE OCEAN HOUSE. The story collection I’m obsessed with right now is BURNING GIRLS by Veronica Schanoes, which is a collection of fairy-tale retellings through a feminist, Jewish, punk-rock lens. It’s especially interesting to me because Schanoes often works with a permeable fourth wall. The stories can address the reader directly, moving from fairy tales to historical figures to Schanoes’ personal history to public service announcements. She often acknowledges the limits of storytelling in the middle of her stories. All of this is done in brilliant and engaging prose. Highly recommend!
Pete Hsu is a first-generation Taiwanese-American writer in Los Angeles. He is the author of the upcoming short-story collection, IF I WERE THE OCEAN, I’D CARRY YOU HOME (Red Hen Press, 2022), and chapbook THERE IS A MAN (Tolsun Books, 2021). His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, F(r)iction Magazine, The Margins and other outlets. An Angels Flight • literary west Advisory Board member, Hsu was a PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and PEN in the Community Writer in Residence.
Chinyere Nwodim was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and has an MFA from the University of Southern California. Her work has been published in Your Impossible Voice and her unique perspective has been recognized by fellowships from PEN America Emerging Voices, USC Annenberg and the U.S. Fulbright Program. Chinyere currently lives in Los Angeles and is working on a collection of short stories.