Thomas Mira y Lopez is the UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan Visiting Writer for 2017-2018 and teaches in the English department. He will be reading from his new book, “The Book of Resting Places,” Tuesday, Nov. 14 at Flyleaf Books at 7 p.m.
Staff writer Emma Strickland spoke with Mira y Lopez about his book, death, burial and nonfiction writing.
The Daily Tar Heel: Can you tell me a bit about what your book is about?
Thomas Mira y Lopez: It’s called “The Book of Resting Places," so the conceit for it is that each essay explores, in some way, a different place where you would put the dead. And sometimes that’s the physical dead — the physical bodies, or the memory of the dead. How would you memorialize them in these different locations? And the impetus for writing the book was that my father died when I was in college back in 2006. Years afterwards, we cremated him, but we never did anything with the ashes. So I started thinking about how I'm remembering my dad, but how am I also losing the memory of him? How are those memories changing? What can I hold onto? What am I losing sight of? And that got me starting to think about (how) everyone else has lost people. How do they go about trying to fix a memory of the dead? That’s the general conceit. The resting places themselves range from a cemetery to catacombs to a cryonic center — where you freeze bodies, and the hope is that they’ll be able to restore them to life, sort of like a resting place where the dead aren’t supposed to be dead. So I started to explore those places both in my personal life and then out in the world as well.
DTH: How does it feel to finish a book? How long did it take you?
TMyL: I want to say I started this in 2012 when I started graduate school. The essays were actually done by 2016, so that felt good to send it out. And then sending it out and not knowing what would happen with it felt really bad and then it felt really good again to have it picked up and be published. The book's coming out (today). It’s sort of this weird feeling of wanting to be both over it and kind of mourning it being done and putting it away and also being entirely sick of it as well. You go through a range of emotions. I’m excited for it to be out, but I’m excited to keep working as well.
DTH: Do you have a favorite story from your book?
TMyL: I tend to reread it and then hate everything. But I think the first essay in it was sort of a way of verbalizing a thought process and a grief process that I hadn’t been able to verbalize before, and allowed me to play with my own voice on the page. It allowed me to take a step back from myself and look at the person I was, then when my dad was sick, and look at that person honestly and unsparingly, and then also try to tie that into wider questions. That really started getting the book into motion, so I guess I owe it to that as well. As far as favorites, it sort of changes week by week.
DTH: I think it’s tough for an artist in any form when you feel like that work of art can never be finished.
TMyL: At a certain point you have to say “Enough, I’ve read through this now for the thousandth time.” It’s hard to see it objectively at a certain point. It’s also like writing where you don’t want to be too close to an event, at least in my own experience, to write about it. Also, something I’m interested in with this book is you get the feeling that when you start writing about memories you’re actually killing that memory, or changing or distorting that memory. As much as this book was a way to keep the memory of my dad or explore the memory of my dad, I realize in the same time I was writing it, I was actually changing or finalizing that memory in some way.
DTH: How do you feel about writing about a dark/grim subject matter?
TMyL: I always sort of liked cemeteries, like walking around them. There’s sort of a death positivity movement of sorts in the U.S. and kind of worldwide as well, and what’s interesting is that at first I didn’t want to look at the thought of what happens to our bodies after death or where do we put them — that felt taboo. I realized at a certain point in writing this that my aversion to wanting to look at that was actually costing me more. I think realizing this is just something that’s normal and happens to everyone, but we don’t often have the language to know how to deal with it or deal with our own grief. It felt really good to move past that and free it up.
DTH: On a lighter note, what makes you really happy?
TMyL: I love teaching. I love especially this semester — this is my first semester here. What’s always fun about creative nonfiction or essays is sharing essays and narratives I love with students who then catch a spark and then start doing that in their own writing. That’s really cool. It’s a joy. And I like the New York Mets, but they don’t make me happy.
DTH: What do you like about writing nonfiction? Do you prefer it over fiction?
TMyL: What I like about it is that I think it allows you a persona or a voice, because when you’re writing something down, the “you” in your consciousness is never directly on the page. There’s always some sort of translation or some sort of persona going on there. What I like about nonfiction and the essay in particular is that it allows you to take subjects and unexpected subjects and put them in juxtaposition with one another. And seeing what questions arise from that or what sort of unexpected results happen. At least for this book, the strategy was to take a deeply personal narrative and then compare it to the bacteria that are eating away Roman catacombs or to compare it to an astronomical phenomenon. It’s an opportunity to make connection and juxtaposition, and I’m sure that exists in fiction and absolutely in poetry. There’s also something really enticing about taking something incredibly dull and then trying to make that into something.
DTH: How do you think that our society memorializes the dead?
TMyL: One of the things I learned doing this is that we like the monumental, the big statue, the memorial or our name on a big building. I think when we choose a resting place for someone or we choose a way to memorialize them, we’re not really doing that for the dead — they don’t care, they don’t have any voice in the matter. We’re really doing that memorialization for the living and because we want to either say something about ourselves or believe a certain thing about ourselves or we want to believe a certain thing about the dead — that they’ll never ever fade. It’s so we’ll feel better about ourselves or our own situation.
I should also say this is the book of resting places but is also a book as a resting place, too. Because how do we eulogize someone or create elegies for them? We write about them or we make them into a physical object. So part of the goal of this book, too, is looking at how we preserve memories or preserve bodies through physical space, and one of those is actually like a book itself. So I wanted to have that double possibility. That’s part of what makes it so interesting.
DTH: Do you believe in ghosts?
TMyL: I’ve never seen a ghost. I think I said once, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I want to see a ghost,” and whoever I said that to was like, “That’s never going to work. You can’t both disbelieve, but then also want to see one anyway.” I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m willing to be surprised.
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