The Sweetest Debut: Derek Palacio on “The Mortifications” and Paul Rudd Fanfiction

Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a regular column in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors, working with presses of all sizes, and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Immigration narratives are a great, if not the great pillar of American literature — and sadly, more timely than ever. Derek Palacio’s The Mortifications is a new addition to the genre, a family story centered on the Mariel Boatlift, a mass emigration from Cuba in 1980. We talked to him about the “ordeal” of reading Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Paul Rudd fanfiction, and where and when he loves to write.

author

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book? 

The Mortifications is about the psychological and bodily toll of longing for one’s home. During the Mariel Boatlift crisis, the Encarnación family fractures: Soledad and her children, Ulises & Isabel, emigrate to America and Connecticut, leaving husband, father, zealot and counter-revolutionary Uxbal behind in Cuba. Soledad and the children experience a number of physical and emotional transformation in New England before Isabel—a religious wunderkind—returns to Cuba to seek out their forgotten father. Soledad and Ulises follow her back to the island to the confront their past and their lost loved one.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

A Cuban family that breaks apart but must reunite in the end.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

It took me four years to get the novel from rough draft to book deal. When I first started writing The Mortifications, I thought I was working on a novella, but getting the Encarnacións back to Cuba became more and more complicated, and the first draft ended up being 200 pages long. That’s when I realized I was working on a novel.

A canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I’ve had to read it twice, once in high school and once in college. Both readings were a long and painful ordeal.

A book you’ve read more than two times.

Bolaño’s 2666

A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas.

Your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Currently Broad City or Westworld.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Frankenweenie with my kiddo.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind? 

Sometimes I listen to Christian Tetzlaff when I’m revising, but I mostly like to work in silence.

Who is your fashion icon?

Al Borland.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or a silent library?

The buzzing coffee shop is great when all I want to do is read. Otherwise, the silent library, preferably a desk buried somewhere in the stacks.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

I’m lucky to write on my grandfather’s old roll top desk.

Are you more of a morning writing or late-night writing type?

Morning. If I could get up without waking my kid, I would write before the sun came up.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Something in between. Right now, I get about 300 words a day, but they seem to be better words than before. I should say, though, that every draft is messy, small or large.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be? 

Paul Rudd.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

Paul Rudd spent the morning trapped in front of his bathroom mirror, admiring the unbearable cuteness of his squidgy face. “Okey dokey,” he said.