Fernando A. Flores’s first novel, Tears of the Trufflepig, may be a unique take on the U.S.-Mexico border region, but he is still an old-school writer in at least one sense: he does not own a computer. Flores, 36, has decorated a wall of his Austin home office with an array of pages from manuscripts he’s typed up the old-fashioned way, with typos and excised lines crossed out with inky X’s. Below the display of papers is where the magic happens: a simple wooden desk, adorned with a lamp, which plugs into a power strip, and an Olivetti Underwood Lettera 32 typewriter, which does not.
Flores completed the first draft of Tears of the Trufflepig, which will be published May 14 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, on the Olivetti (the same style used by fellow border chronicler Cormac McCarthy) during a feverish three-month spurt starting in October 2014. “I never knew what I was going to do from one day to another,” he says of the process. “I literally forced myself to write it. I paced in a circle, right here, listening to a song over and over, until I sat down and finally wrote, for whatever amount of time, every day, for three months. Can you believe that? I can’t even believe it myself!”
He maintains the same tone of simultaneous humility and amazement as the conversation turns from his writing process to his varied fascinations to his personal history. Tall, with a slight Tejano accent, Flores has an expansive mind. He swivels in his chair and points his toes in excitement as he flits from the surreal narratives of Franz Kafka to the acting styles of James Cagney to the structure of The Thousand and One Nights. While he enjoys the typewriter as a creative medium, his lack of a computer isn’t entirely a lifestyle choice: his last one broke down four years ago, and he’s never held much cash in reserve.
Flores was born in Reynosa, Mexico, and raised in Alton, Texas, near McAllen, from age five onward. After a youth spent watching four or five movies a day and going to punk and heavy metal shows, Flores gave himself an education in world literature, despite dropping out of the University of Texas–Pan American (now Rio Grande Valley), by taking a job as an audiovisual technician at the school and hiding out in the library while on the clock. “Nobody kept track of what I was doing, so I’d go to the library, and I’d read for three hours,” Flores says. “Then I’d go make sure everybody saw me again. I was able to keep that up for, like, a year.”
Since moving to Austin nearly fourteen years ago, Flores has worked as a barista and in retail, including his current gig at Malvern Books, a bookstore near the University of Texas at Austin that specializes in work from independent publishers. In 2014 he released his first book, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1, in an initial run of two hundred copies; an expanded version of the short story collection was reissued last year by Austin’s Host Publications. He credits his ability to complete Tears of the Trufflepig to a $10,000 writing prize he won later in 2014 from the San Antonio–based Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation, which allowed him to work part-time for a few months and write every day.
The result of that effort feels every bit as headlong and inventive as the writing process that Flores describes. The novel is set in a futuristic alternate-reality Rio Grande Valley where two border walls have been built and a third is underway. All drugs have been legalized, so Mexican cartels now traffic in shrunken heads and cloned animals. American elites pay the cartels millions of dollars for meals featuring cloned extinct species where magical, human-engineered animals are the centerpieces, including the platypus-like Trufflepig, a creature from Native American folklore—more precisely, Flores’s fictional version of Native American folklore. The novel follows protagonist Esteban Bellacosa on a quest into this heart of darkness to free his brother from the clutches of one of the head-shrinking cartels.
The cockeyed reality is not just invention for invention’s sake. It permits Flores the opportunity to capture half-real, half-intuitive, entirely original impressions of a contemporary border region as a place where, increasingly, nature is walled in, authority is tied to spectacular cruelty, and both corruption and everyday resistance to it flourish. Flores, who considers himself a South Texas writer despite his years in Austin, is obsessed with capturing the flavor of his home region, especially through a nonrealist approach.
“I thought about this book as a reflection through the looking glass, seeing the world of South Texas through this haunted mirror,” Flores says. “There are a lot of things about the landscape that are real, but there are also all these haunting things about it that you can see only through the looking glass, that come alive only in it.”
Flores speaks of imagining Bellacosa as something of a South Texan relative of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, that great fictional inventor of alternate realities. But Flores’s most obvious literary influence is Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean-born novelist whom many consider the greatest Spanish-language writer of the past fifty years. When he read Bolaño’s masterpiece, 2666, which is partially set in an invented border town similar to Ciudad Juárez, in 2009, it was a foundational event in Flores’s development as a writer.
“I read that book, and I was just like, ‘This is the book I’ve been waiting for somebody from South Texas to write,’ ” Flores says. “If somebody from South Texas had written 2666, I would have never written anything again. I really had to reevaluate my existence, because I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is the best border novel of all time, and somebody not from the border wrote it!’ ”
Bolaño’s novel made Flores think about creating more imaginative border stories, and he transitioned from the muted realism of his earlier writing toward a more fantastical approach. He likens the experience of reading 2666 to trying psychedelic drugs for the first time—a reaction he hopes readers have to his own writing. “I want people to trip out off of this,” he says. “To me, narrative is the drug.”
Flores sees psychedelia as a fitting palette to capture the liminal space of South Texas and believes that inventing his own reality is a way to stay true to the pre-Columbian narrative traditions of the Americas. “The oldest stories ever told in this land, I bet you, were fantastic, crazy stories,” he says. “I bet you they had crazy imagery, crazy personifications of the elements. I bet you anything the oldest stories in this land were just out there.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “South Texas, Through the Looking Glass.” Subscribe today.