The Heartland Flatline: Jakob Guanzon Interviewed by Mina Hamedi

On writing a novel about work, debt, health care, and incarceration that resists American lore.


Henry and his son, Junior, have been living out of a pickup truck for the last six months. Henry is barely a year out of prison and down to his last pocketful of cash but today is Junior’s birthday and tomorrow, Henry has a job interview. There’s a chance things might change for this unlucky pair, after all. In a brilliant structural set-up, Guanzon organizes Abundance (Graywolf Press) by the amount of money in Henry’s pocket and in doing so, reveals the inequities and anxieties around the particularly American brand of work, debt, health care, and incarceration that plagues so much of the country. 

Guanzon and I met in graduate school. He sent me an early draft of Abundance a few years ago which I read, wrapt, during work hours. More recently, I read the final draft in a perfect trance; awed by the extent Guanzon’s dedication, meticulousness, and fervor for the craft itself, shine through his prose. I am grateful we were able to have this conversation in person, in the midst of a global pandemic that has separated us from so many of the people and places we love.

—Mina Hamedi

Mina HamediYou have, in a way, forced us to pay attention to how a story evolves and to play an active role in how we read it. What came first, the story or the structure?

Jakob Guanzon The structure itself and how the story’s content is going to inform its architecture.

MH Is that something you notice when you read?

JG Absolutely. I’m delighted when writers put a lot of thought into what structural constraints are best going to serve a story. So I was mindful of this when I first had the idea of organizing a story around a protagonist’s budget. I was broke in grad school, on food stamps, and crunching pennies. I remember walking to the fruit guy ten blocks south because he sold five bananas for $1 instead of just four for $1 like the guy just around the corner. The amount in my bank account was constantly hovering over my head. But mine was not an interesting story by any means. Who wants to read another story about a grad student?

All you have to do is take a look around you, and these are the stories that actually matter. They matter not only because they are far more ubiquitous but also in part because they are not getting told. It felt more natural to set this story in a landscape I was familiar with, and populated by the landscapers and contractors I worked with back in high school and undergrad in Minnesota. A lot of those guys had lived lives that teetered on the precipice of homelessness. That middle-American border between suburban and rural. Those were the fringes I felt familiar with so it made sense for me to set Henry’s story in that territory. This familiarity compressed beneath the overarching dollar-cent structure felt rife with potential. That external pressure (that is not necessarily in the text itself, with the exception of the chapter titles) factors into every single little decision when the protagonist, Henry, has to live this way.

MH This is also a book about people coming to America, a place where all these challenges exist. Can you tell me more about your depiction of immigrant life in the book? One of my favorite lines was, “The father. The original motherfucker.”

JG The first-generation American story is familiar to me as the son of two immigrants. My parents were practically children when they showed up here, and clueless. The US sat between their own respective countries—the Philippines and Sweden—so, geographically, it made sense. They were penniless but found out that you don’t need a lot of money to have fun at that age, or at any age. Play doesn’t come with a price tag, unless you live in Manhattan it seems.

MH You write, “A self-medicating, self-sorry brat with a dead mother and an asshole immigrant father. Cue the violins. On with the pity parade.”

JG As the child of an immigrant, any problem you have, by and large, once you take a step back, is absolutely trivial compared to the struggles your father or mother had endured at your age. Any complaint that you try to launch gets invalidated, and I’d argue rightfully so. It is a good way of checking one’s own privilege and sense of context. There were a lot of questions that I found myself asking at a younger age compared to my peers back in suburban Minnesota. The kids who whined about not having a pool took their grievances in earnest. Meanwhile, I used to get excited about my garden hose. Starting as children, we’re socialized to “measure up.” I was listening to an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain on the psychology of inequality, which discussed how we generally tend to measure ourselves up against those on a higher social rung, but rarely ever consider those below us, regardless of our own social class.

MH Papa leaves a note in Henry’s new truck and on it he reads, “Three words much more unexpected and devastating than I love you.” How does love play out in the stories of children of immigrants? Do you feel that sometimes pride overshadows love?

JG I definitely see it in Filipino culture, and I’m sure you see it in Turkish culture. It is a common sentiment in places where parents aren’t expected to be so lovey-dovey. Despite how harsh it can seem compared to American parenting norms, it is not for lack of love that immigrant parents expect a lot of you and work you to the bone. Love is a given. Regardless of the severity of discipline, the disregard of minor accomplishments, or the withholding of treats or affection, there is still an implied, constant, known-by-all type of love. The pride, though, you have to earn. And in Abundance, Henry has to earn everything.

MH Circling back, you said the structure came first. And you took a lot of it from what you saw growing up. Is this how you envisioned it from the beginning?

JG I first conceived it as a short story. The original conceit was to do little fragments during a 24-hour day. When I saw the potential for a novel and decided to run with it, the 24-hour plot line developed on the page organically, and at a rapid pace. There was a specific beat in my mind that I was working towards as my ending. Then I thought it would be interesting for a back story to unfold as a parallel arc that would alternate between scenes from the 24-hour story. Through the process of writing the backstory scenes, things would come up and complicate pre-existing ideas. Tracking all these newer beats and images and going back to make retroactive edits to seam them together coherently, was a total mindfuck. It was so much fun. It is something that has worked into my approach with this new and more ambitious novel I’m working on, much to my own detriment. Keeping yourself motivated as a writer means working on shit you really love. Forget about the reader while you’re in the generative phase. Make it a puzzle for yourself. It was definitely a puzzle for me.

MH I really enjoyed the way you shift into dialogue without really using quotation marks or other signifiers. Did that develop as you wrote?

JG I’m a huge fan of the free-indirect style. You have so many more opportunities for odd modulations and transitions that would be impossible from a first-person perspective. Sometimes characters lose presence in the midst of a scene of direct dialogue, so it is a technique that can kind of borrow from the cadence of thought and inform how the character participates in a conversation, with or without speaking. This form can create these really unique tensions between the immediacy of quoted direct dialogue and the sort of ephemeral plane of cognitive narrative passages. It is a fun middle ground to play around in. 

MH The pacing works because any reader, including myself, will find themselves glossing over some parts of a novel just to get that next beat. By “beat” of course we not only mean a plot point but narrative callbacks or thematic punchlines in the form of an image, a lapse in character, a change in syntax. There are moments when Henry seems to be spiraling in a way, and you have those longer blocks of streams of consciousness. Were those as planned as the beats? 

JGI like experimenting with different modes, stream of consciousness included, but this one can really impede the velocity of a story. A recurring tic I include is “Yeah, no,” and using that empty language can snap the reader out of a flow. When I’m reading something that artfully breaks the flow I’m in, it keeps me on my toes. One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever gotten was the reminder that you are your first reader, so you’ve got to entertain yourself. Especially if you’re a nobody like me and it’s your first book. It’s not like anyone will be knocking on my door for the next draft, so it was on me to write a story that I—as its first reader—couldn’t put down. 

​Photo of Jakob Guanzon by Iqra Shahbaz.​

Photo of Jakob Guanzon by Iqra Shahbaz.

MH That’s why Papa has his “ah,” at the ends of sentences or Michelle has “like.” Were those mannerisms or tics, as you say, developed as the story unraveled? Are you the kind of writer who has the characters mapped out before you even get them on the page?

JG My start as the embodiment of a specific quality or notion, but then I flesh them out to make them as realistic as possible within their fictive realm.

MH When you plan out the beats, what does that look like for you? The specific one I’m thinking of is Lucius at the factory.

JG The Lucius thread is a good example of a character who’d been originally conceived as a singular notion. Given that Henry’s story in Abundance serves as a repudiation of the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and “land of opportunity” ideology throughout American lore, I thought implementing, then later subverting the “Magical Negro” trope could reinforce and complicate certain thematic elements. With Lucius’s first few appearances, I wanted to provoke the reader with such a flagrant cliche, rile them into worrying whether I might sink even lower from having a Black stock character coach my protagonist and later break out singing, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Ultimately, Lucius’s fate defies the reader’s expectations, and subverts broader cultural assumptions that, to me, seem far more nefarious.

Speaking about the beats, when I’m drafting new scenes (which is confined to weekends since I have a 9-to-5 like anyone else) to make the most of that time, I compile a list of beats that I want to hit. I know this or that should happen, but once unexpected scenes start unraveling onto the page things get tricky. My editor must have thought I was insane when I showed up at his office with the Walmart scene, all thirty pages printed out and color-coded.

MH Yup, you did that with my essay once!

JG Yeah! So we worked out a strategy to sequence the delivery of certain beats, how to best weave specific images, ruminations, and the physical choreography with key narrative flashbacks. My editor Steve really helped hone that chaos into a passage that I am pretty damn proud of.

MH Your color coding reminded me of how tangible your writing is, especially in terms of color. Your first line, “Its-a-girl pink,” the gold fries, Henry and Papa’s, “pigments hard to place but sure enough, dark,” an entire lexicon of your own. Tell me about how you tap into that?

JG Personally, I tend to experience emotions on a very corporeal level as opposed to sitting down and consciously mulling things over. The tactile awareness operates at the forefront of my experience, so naturally it makes its way into my writing. Hopefully this stylistic tendency reads authentically, and not too overwritten, which I know my writing has been guilty of. Every time I revisit an older piece of mine, this book included, I’m like, “Goddamn it, Jakob, just tone it back a little,” but at the same time, that was how I felt then, so all I can do is reign it in next time. I keep learning.

MH That is definitely how I feel about nonfiction. This is what I felt at a specific point in time, it doesn’t mean I will feel it or think it forever. It is interesting that you feel the same way about your fiction.

JG Of course, like what you were saying, in that moment, it is important to let those aberrant emotions peek through. Like that “asshole immigrant father” line. That is not the description of the Papa character by any means, but it does capture how Henry as a petulant sixteen-year-old was thinking of his old man in that moment. Those emotional anomalies are important to tap into.

MH You’re making a very good case for anyone who says writing is a struggle and is so hard. Maybe it doesn’t have to be. Can it be fun?

JG I never got that. Writing? What a privilege, a luxury, to be able to dedicate my free time to this craft. I am the luckiest son of a bitch alive as far as I’m concerned, now that I finally have the time and space to write. It was not an option for a long time. And if I don’t feel like writing, I’ll do something else. But I’ve yet to encounter a weekend when I don’t want to write, and I won’t be mad if it doesn’t come.

MH My favorite part about writing is the research. How far do you think research can actually go in writing about something we haven’t experienced firsthand?

JG Aside from the experience of Henry’s homelessness, there is a lot in the story that I’ve personally encountered. Not necessarily firsthand experiences but a lot of familiar territory and milieu I grew up alongside. The most substantial research I did was to enhance my understanding on the logistics of plea bargains, incarceration, and probation. Horrific, shameful stuff, and crucial to achieving a sense of authenticity, which a story so grim yet appallingly commonplace in this country seems to demand.

I keep using the word texture but I think it is an important way of conceiving a character’s surroundings. If you can tap into the textures of their immediate surroundings, I don’t think you have as much of a risk of feeling like you are telling a story you cannot access. If you are writing, stretching for a way of life or experience that is foreign to yours, and you can’t really take a moment to think of who you are with this character, that is when research comes in or you have to ask yourself, if it really is your story to write.

MH Midway through the novel you write, “Whether by shovel or spreadsheet, everybody had to dig.” Are we all just digging until we die?

JG Digging. It’s what life is in a capitalist structure. Your life is work, and what is work? Digging. Going lower and lower.

MH The character of Papa is reduced to the sum of what he made in his lifetime. What is a person’s legacy?

JG The people who will remember us. Our time is by the hour, our productivity by output; every action we do is reduced to a metric. The sum of an entire human being’s life… there are vast calculations that go into crunching out a figure down to the penny of what a human being’s life is worth. That is something I really felt was important as the title of that chapter. The sum of Henry’s dead father: $8,722.04. It is excruciating to think of things this way but inevitable.

MH What about art?

JG Art is the antidote. Art is antithetical to that way of quantifying everything. It defies that order to an almost inconsequential degree, but I am okay with that. That is where you find the little respite of being human. Where you get to play. Small sparks of folly. 

Abundance is available for purchase here.

Mina Hamedi grew up in Istanbul, Turkey and is of Turkish/Iranian descent. She works at the literary agency, Janklow & Nesbit Associates, where she is building her own list focusing on literary fiction and experimental non-fiction. She is writing a collection about her grandfather, the family company he founded seventy-five years ago, and the nature of legacies.